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• Saturday, September 29th, 2012

Kathryn Stockett was born in Jackson, Mississippi USA in 1969. She was raised by an African American maid called Demetrie McLorn and graduated from the University of Alabama after obtaining a degree in English and Creative Writing.

Aged twenty-four and with her diploma in hand she moved to New York where, for nine years, she worked in magazine publishing and marketing. Presently she lives in Atlanta with her husband and daughter.

The Help, published in 2009, is Kathryn Stockett’s first novel. It took her five years to write and about sixty rejection letters from publishers because of its controversial subject matter. As soon as it was published it became a best seller and was on The New York Times Best Seller List for Fiction for a hundred weeks. It was Amazon’s Best Books of the year 2009 and was long listed for the Orange Prize in 2010. It won the Townsend Prize for Fiction in 2010 and the exclusive Books Boeke Prize in 2009. The Help has been published in thirty five countries, translated into several languages, has sold over five million copies and was released as a film in August 2011.

Kathryn Stockett’s next book will again be located in Mississippi and will also be about women, but this time will be set during the period of the Great Depression.

The story of The Help takes place in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960’s, a crucial period for American Civil Rights. It’s a few months away from Martin Luther King’s memorable “I have a dream” speech that took place in Washington D.C. in 1963 and a few years after the civil rights and freedom movement of the mid-fifties by Rosa Parks. It’s a couple of years away from the abolition of Jim Crow’s end of the 19th century segregation laws against African Americans by president Lyndon B. Johnson in Congress in1964, making racial discrimination illegal.

In The Help, there are three main characters who take turns in the narration: Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter. The novel starts and ends with Aibileen, the oldest and wisest of the three. She is an African American maid in her fifties who, in a maternal loving way, raised seventeen white children in her lifetime along with the cooking and cleaning. Her love and care is often shown in the novel in the way she is raising Mae Mobley, the Leefolt toddler, as a surrogate mother. She is grieving over the loss of her only young son in a work accident, which was blatantly disregarded by his employer and which she was obliged to accept.

Aibileen’s best friend, Minny, is also an African American maid. She is younger than Aibileen, but unlike her, she is derisive, impetuous, indocile and bottles a great deal of anger in herself which makes it hard for her to keep her employments for long. She says to Miss Celia Foote, her present employer and who is labelled by society as “white trash”: “I got knowed for my mouth round town. And I figure that’s what it be, why nobody want to hire me”. Her wrath explodes when she prepares the chocolate custard pie that she bakes and combines with the ingredients her own faeces as a revenge and as a kept promise when she said “eat my shit” to her worst enemy, the loathsome, Miss Hilly Holbrook, who loves the cake and eats two big pieces of it rashly and voraciously, oblivious of what it hides inside. As Minny describes it: “she stuff it in her mouth like she ain’t ever eaten nothing so good…What do you put in here, Minny, that makes it taste so good?”
Minny was delighted to reveal to her what she had added to the ingredients and shocked Miss Hilly and her mother beyond belief.

The twenty-two-year-old Eugenia Phelan or Miss Skeeter is the youngest of the three. She is the daughter of a white family of cotton growers, who, like many southerners, employs black people in their fields and in their household as domestic servants. After graduating, Skeeter returns home to look for a job as a writer. She is emancipated, ambitious and thinks she can change the cruel, unfair, world she grew up in with its racism and injustice, which nobody in her conservative surroundings conveniently seems to notice. She is unruly, defiant and stands firm for her beliefs.

Outraged by the iniquities and unacceptable racism prevailing around her and even among her closest friends, Skeeter secretly decides to encourage the African American maids of her entourage to tell her their stories while in service with white families. To avoid retaliation, she is not going to sign her name as the author of her planned, anti-establishment, daring book and she promises the maids anonymity by using pseudonyms and by calling the city, Niceville. The oppressed, unfairly treated but unyielding maids accept to cooperate with Miss Skeeter.

The risk taken by Skeeter is similar to the one taken by Stockett for her début novel, racial boundaries still being a controversial subject in the south of USA. One simply does not “talk about such uncomfortable things”.

Although Skeeter is very secretive about her planned book, she succeeds in creating enemies around her and among her best friends, especially the self proclaimed leader, Hilly Holbrook, her childhood friend. Hilly is the president of the Junior League in Jackson Mississippi. She is racist, overbearing, arrogant and heartless and couldn’t put up with any person opposing her – people follow her in fear of her acrimony or reprisals.

Skeeter’s maid, Constantine, is presumably included in the novel in loving memory of Demetrie McLorn, the African American maid who worked for the Stockett family for fifty years. The author said in an interview that she started writing her novel in the voices of Demetrie, her black maid who died when Stockett was just sixteen-years-old. She raised her and was closer to her and her siblings than their absentee mother. However, The Help was not dedicated to Demetrie McLorn but to the author’s grandfather Stockett who was “the best story teller of all”, she said.

On the other hand Stockett included Demetrie McLorn in the acknowledgements. The author wrote: “My belated thanks to Demetrie Mclorn, who carried us all out of the hospital wrapped in our baby blankets and spent her life feeding us, picking up after us, loving us and thank God, forgiving us”. She also included her in her postscript: “Too Little, Too Late, Kathryn Stockett, in her own words”.

When the author was asked about her favourite character in the novel she said : “Aibileen is my favourite because she shares the gentleness of Demetrie”.

After failing her first writing attempt and after going through the terrible 9/11 event while living in New York city, Stockett felt homesick and said she wanted “to hear or revisit, those voices from her past”. That is when she decided to write The Help, a novel about her home town with the heavy, outdated dialect which made the story three dimensional for the readers and despite being an easy to read novel, it needed some getting used to for non natives.

The author reveals the gangrene that rots American society, like racism, class prejudices and the survival of the fittest and powerful. The novel is sometimes jocose despite its sadness, in order to ease the overwhelming intensity, but unfortunately it is often repulsively inhuman, poignant and moving. Albeit the tentative optimistic ending of a new era shining on the horizon, there is the success of Miss Skeeter’s book and her moving on to fulfil her dream by accepting a job offer at Harper’s magazine in New York, as a copy editor’s assistant.

There is also Minny, who at last wants to assert her independence by leading a new life away from her brutal and abusive husband.

The same optimism is displayed with Aibileen walking back home in the bright sunshine. She has just been fired by the weak charactered, Miss Elisabeth Leefolt, who receives the order from Miss Hilly Holbrook and carries it out without hesitation, despite the fact that Aibileen has been a good valuable, honest worker to the Leefolt family. The tenacious, Aibileen still holds some hope for the future, thinking that she is not too old after all to start another job as a writer.

All very optimistic and auspicious, but sadly there is still a long way to go in order to abolish the racism and hatred nourished by segregation that still prevails today in many communities of the world.

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Author:
• Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Alaa El Aswany was born in Egypt in 1957, the only child of an ex aristocratic mother and a well known father from Aswan, in Upper Egypt. His father, Abbas, who received the Egyptian state award for literature in 1972, was a lawyer before becoming a novelist.

Alaa Al Aswany studied in a French private school in Cairo, Le Lycée Français du Caire, which was followed by a Cairo University dentistry degree in 1980 and a Masters degree in 1985 from the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he spent 17 years before returning to live in Egypt. Today he still lives in Cairo with his second wife and three children.

Alaa El Aswany is one of the founding members of the political democratic opposition movement, Kefaya (Enough), meaning enough of president Mubarak’s undemocratic, oppressive regime and its corruption. The movement was founded in 2004.

In 2010 El Aswany was named one of the 500 most influential Muslims for arts and culture. He was also nominated for the prestigious 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Chicago, published in 2007.

Born Muslim, El Aswany is a secular and free thinker. He has written many articles for Egyptian newspapers on political issues, social matters and literature.

Alaa El Aswany had his dental clinic in the Yacoubian building, in the centre of Cairo, but departed 15 years before writing his fictitious novel about the building. He still practises dentistry twice a week in his clinic in the Garden City district of Cairo, in order to stay in touch with people and have discussions with them, which, he says, is very important to him and helps in his writing since he treats patients as a professional dentist but writes about them as a novelist.

The Yacoubian building was first published by a small, private publisher in Cairo in 2002, after being rejected three times by the Egyptian Book Organisation, the omnipotent state-run publishers controlled by president Mubarak’s regime, because of its perceived controversial content.

The novel was translated into 27 languages and became a best seller in the Arab world. In 2006 it was made into a film with the biggest budget ever for an Egyptian film and in 2007 was made into a television series.

The Yacoubian building, constructed in 1934 in downtown Cairo by the Armenian millionaire Hagop Yacoubian, was an architectural paragon of its time. Unfortunately, after years of neglect and lack of renovation, the condition of the building declined.

It is early 1990 when the story begins. The author describes the everyday life of the people who live in the building. Whether these tenants are wealthy, nouveau-riche or poor, they all share the same struggle to survive and the suffering and hardship they are enduring at the hands of the current Egyptian regime.

Most of them have in common the same obsession for sex and decadence, just like the deteriorating building they live or work in, the corrupted leader they have and the iniquitous government that governs them. The run-down building is a metaphor for the state of the country.

There is the well-to-do, 65-year old, retired Francophile engineer, Zaki Bey Dessouki, the self confessed, “scientist of women” who belongs to the aristocracy of a bygone era, the good old days which his sister Dawlat feels very dissatisfied and angry to have lost and consequently gone with it her two children who emigrated. She becomes bitter and takes it all out on her only brother.

Then there is the rich, middle aged, homosexual, successful newspaper editor, Hatim Rasheed, who couldn’t control his sexual urges for the young, illiterate, Abd Rabo, an upper Egyptian peasant, and police recruit, who will prove to be fatal for him.

And there’s another character, the ambitious nouveau-riche countryman, the old Hagg Mohamed Azzam, who wants to be part of the Egyptian parliament in order to gain power and prestige, even if he has to pay a huge bribe. He discovers that he has uncontrollable sexual needs that his old wife could no longer satisfy and has to marry a second wife, the young Soad who becomes his victim.

Also not forgetting the dirty old, chain of boutiques owner, the rich, Talal Chanane and his young lady workers and sex sufferers, Fifi and Boussaïna, nor the corrupted Malak, who earns his living not only as a shirtmaker but also in the commerce of currencies, alcohol, contraband and anything that brings in money, including blackmail.

There is also the young, Taha El Shazli, the son of the building’s caretaker. He is a bright student who’s dream is to join the police academy and marry his childhood girlfriend and neighbour, Boussaïna. His dream is shattered when he is refused entrance to the police academy because of his father’s profession. Saddened and dismayed after realising that money and contacts in the right place count for more than good grades and perseverance, he becomes bitter and cynical and consequently loses Boussaïna for good. He enrolls at Cairo university and, through one of the students, joins a militant Islamic group and dies a martyr in an organised assault on a senior prison officer who was behind his torture and humiliation while he was jailed. With nothing to live for, and therefore nothing to lose, he died more out of revenge, deceit and loss of hope in the whole Egyptian system than for his Islamic belief.

A contrasting array of characters from dissimilar backgrounds, each one with a different life-style and morals, but all of them seeking a better life. They all inhabit the same building without ever encountering one another, each living in his own world, preoccupied with his own problems.

The characters and the seedy building, which is undoubtedly the main focus of the story, as the main title implies and which still exists in the centre of Cairo, are well developed and quite realistic.

The novel conveys a bleak picture of a contemporary Egypt that lost its bearings, but the ending gives a shy ray of hope for the future. A very interesting, good novel if it was not for the several explicit sex passages which belittle the novel’s many serious themes.

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