The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig (Translated by Thomas Colchie)
Unfortunately, I have seen none of the movie versions of these books, so I can’t tell you how they compare, but I can tell you if I enjoyed the book!
There was a lot of controversy about this book, and I do understand. I was frustrated that the two black narrators had dialect signals in their narration, including them regularly putting in the word “a” all over the place, while the white narrator never seemed to narrate in a specifically Southern way. I also thought that the author could have explored the relationships between white women and black maids in more depth. Both Albileen and Minny have complicated feelings about their employers, but neither woman out and out hated the people they were currently working for. Nor did they feel that they absolutely had to continue to work for a person they hated. That would have been a more complicated story. Instead they worked for people that they didn't seem to have any feelings for at all. Albileen thought that Elizabeth was a horrible mother, but she didn’t seem to hate her, and although Minny did “ a horrible thing” to Hilly, I never felt her visceral hatred for Hilly other than in that act. Maybe that’s just me.
On the other side of the controversy, I have to say that writing is not politically correct. Writing fiction always involves imagining another way of thinking, which means that imagination can fail. I’ve heard a few people wish that this book had been written by someone else, who could deal with it more honestly and sensitively. Well, there is still time for someone else to write that book, and that’s the great thing about books. You can always write back to contest something you didn’t agree with. Honestly, my main concern with this book is that it is often being read in a self-congratulatory way. We aren’t like that anymore! There is no us and them anymore! But I don't think we can escape that part of ourselves that easily. It’s just that we don’t recognize who the “them” is now, or how we are being cruel to “them”. That takes time and self-reflection and a willingness to understand someone different from you. If The Help made you reflect on your life in that way, then it has value; if it didn’t make you think, well maybe it doesn’t.
One thing I'd like to note is that at first I really couldn't read it. I skimmed it and found that it focused to much on Skeeter for my liking. Later on I returned to it and finished it properly, which is why I can't really say that I really enjoyed it.
Water for Elephants
Jacob Jankowski’s parents die in a horrible car crash, just before he finishes his training to become a vet in the 1930’s. To pay for his training at Princeton University, his parents had gone into debt and mortgaged their home. Now he has nothing, so he runs away with the circus. Even though he hasn’t finished his veterinary training, he’s the closest thing to a vet that the circus can get. In the circus, he meets the beautiful Marlena, who performs with the horses, and her bipolar husband August who manages the animals. There is also the cruel and terrifying Uncle Al, owns the circus, and will get rid of any one who isn’t useful anymore. The story is all told from Jacob’s perspective as a 90 year old man looking back at his life. Of course, Jacob falls in love with Marlena and all the animals in the circus, especially an elephant named Rosie, but neither August nor Uncle Al will let him be truly happy.
I actually really enjoyed this book, even though I was spoiled about the ending before I read it. This book had lots of interesting historical information about circuses in the past, but once again, there wasn’t a lot of depth to it. The romance was light and the cruelty of Uncle Al and August was incredibly intense. One friend mentioned that the main thing she got from it is that growing old really sucks. I still really enjoyed it though.
Kiss of the Spider Woman
This book is a translation from Spanish and was written in the 1970s. The novel mainly consists of the dialogue between two prisoners in Argentina in the 1970s. One, Valentin, is a political prisoner, while the other, Molina, is a gay man who has been imprisoned for corrupting a minor. The reader never finds out more about the exact circumstances of either characters’ imprisonment, but before long it becomes clear that Molina has been asked to find out more about Valentin’s friends and their future plans, in return for his freedom. Most of the novel consists of Molina telling Valentin about the plots of films that he’s seen, as a comfort from the pain that Valentin is regularly in. The two become friends, as Valentin begins to see the importance of beauty in one’s life, while Molina begins to recognize the importance of being politically involved.
It’s an odd novel. It’s mainly dialogue between the two characters, but there is no “he said”. You just have to figure out which character is talking. Most of the dialogue consists of Molina retelling the plot of different films. As well, there are a bunch of odd footnotes that appear though out the novel which all deal with how psychologists (at the time or earlier) understood homosexuality. I usually ended up skipping the footnotes, because their positions on homosexuality were aggravatingly out of date. I did find it interesting that Molina is sort of the hero of this story. His motivations are complicated, and what he’s been imprisoned for makes him suspect. What are his real motivations? There’s not a huge amount going on in the novel, but somehow that seems to make the story all the more complicated.