Sunday, December 5, 2010

New York, a city that reads

After my recent show at Surreal Estate, I felt FREE. Like I had nothing but time, and when I've got nothing but time I feel like I can read. I picked up Kathryn Stockett's The Help. I finished it in a week's time, mostly on the train, and my mind has been zooming with thoughts the entire time. As a result, the next few posts will relate to this book.

With all my "new" free time (not actually new time, but rather stress free time) I eagerly packed my hefty hardback into my purse (long live print materials!!) and anytime I had a moment to sit, mostly on the train or bus, I read the novel joining the countless New Yorkers who read. Step on the train any day of the week and you will see the majority of the people on board with a book, magazine, newspaper, iPad, Kindle or smart phone in hand reading. Reading amongst New Yorkers is an incurable epidemic and I for one, love it.

When I was growing up in Baltimore, there was a slogan painted all over town: Baltimore, the city that reads. I always felt that it was more hopeful than true. Not to put down my city, but at least on the basic visible level of who's got a book in hand, New York totally wins. I must admit it feels good to be wrapped up in a book. Last night I couldn't even go to sleep I wanted to know what happened next so bad.

I won't spoil the novel for you (yet) but I will say a little about it. It takes place in the early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. Stockett tells the story of the relationship between upper class white women and their black domestics: maids who take care of their homes and raise their children. It is told alternately in the voices of three women: Aibileen, a 53 year old maid raising her 17th white baby; Minny, her best friend several years her junior with a quick tongue and an abusive husband; and Miss Skeeter, a 23 year old white woman who's a bit of misfit amongst her friends and family yearning for more than marriage, being a part of exclusive clubs, and having her own help.

There are two things that I sincerely appreciate about Stockett's novel. First is the character development. By telling the story from three distinct perspectives, each character in the novel becomes 3D, HD or whatever else you could call it. The reader has the opportunity to understand him or her from the point of view of friends, family, employers, employees, black, white etc. We understand each character more deeply and as a result understand relationships between characters more deeply.

The second is Stockett's honesty. She takes the time at the end of the novel to explain her stake in writing this story, which I wondered the entire time. After all, this is a white woman writing about what it is to be a black woman in the south in the 1960s. Was she even more than a baby then? To answer this though she writes "I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity." I respect her for that. She laments not being "old enough or thoughtful enough" to ask her own family maid how she felt about working for a white family, and that wondering led her to this novel. I appreciate her self awareness and curiosity which manifested this book.

I truly believe that making an effort to understand, to incite research and discussion is the way that we move through issues of race and class that plague our past and present. I was pleased by the insight that her novel gave me about what it might have been like to be a black woman at that time, in that place. It made me thankful that I came into this world when and where I did. It made me think a lot about my own current position in society as a young black woman who has chosen a low income life (much of it service work) to manifest a dream.

I've got more to say about all of this, so keep reading...

Commitment to Class Update: This week I took three days of ballet and on Friday took Nathan Trice's modern class at DNA. I have taken class from him a couple times before, much earlier this year and enjoyed it, but not as much as I enjoyed yesterday's class. His warm up exercises involve the whole body particularly moving through the joints and exploring the range of motion in the back. His movement is also absolutely dependent on a strong core - in other words if I hadn't been to ballet 3x and pilates 2x this week I wouldn't have been able to hang. Lastly, we did the major combo a million times fast which was so much, took so much energy, expression and stamina. It was a really great two hours of sweaty sweaty dancing. :)


Metch said...

Hey Sydnie,

I was happy to see your wall post the other day. It has been a while...

I bet you can't wait for the movie of TH HELP to open...It should be good considering the cast. I have yet to read this book because after a few good reviews, several warm ones and MANY definite no's from friends it no longer seemed interesting. This post has converted me; it's back on the list. I'll share a review of my own with you after I read it.

I hope you are well.


Sydnie said...

Hey Maechi! I am well and I hope you are too!

I didn't even know that they were making a movie of it, but I think it will make a fantastic one. Thanks for the heads up. I never read any of the reviews of the novel. It just seemed like an interesting read to me. I am sure though that people had a lot to say about this white woman taking on the voice of black women. I mean there might also be a believability factor... the fact they actually accomplish what they set out to do despite the extreme high risk factor and not being found out might stretch reality a bit too far when your talking about Jim Crow Mississippi. Regardless, I still found it insightful and worthy of discussion. Let me know your thoughts after you read it. :)

Alyce said...

I read The Help earlier this semester, and it was without a doubt one of the best books I had read in a really long time - I couldn't put it down; I actually finished in in a week, even with classes and reading assignments for school on my plate. (I'm ashamed to admit it, but it was the first fiction novel I have managed to finish since starting law school.) I remember being skeptical about the book for the same reasons you shared when I first started reading it, but frankly, I realize I'm no better qualified to talk about what it was like to be/to have a black maid in Mississippi in the 60s. And I'm 100% certain I had relatives who were maids/nannies in Jackson during that era. Looking beyond her ethnicity, it was just a damn good book, and I've been recommending it left and right.


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