Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor ★★★

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry3.5 stars

Having just finished The Help for the 2nd time, I was already in a place to appreciate this book, and for the most part, I did appreciate it.

The Help takes place in the early 60's in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early stages of the Civil Rights movement. It's a very personal story about 3 women struggling with who they are, both in general and in the environment in which they live. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry takes place in the 30's just outside of Jackson, MS, and deals with a lot of the same issues...

Roll of Thunder focuses on the Logan family and their land. Paul Edward Logan bought their land in two parts during hard times after the Civil War, and ever since, the man who used to own it has been trying to get it back in an effort to remake the South how it used to be. Things are not pleasant in 1930s Mississippi. There's a definite imbalance of power with white people having almost all of it, and black people having almost none. This story is about the Logans trying to make a change to that imbalance, even though it is a small one. It's also about finding ones identity, and taking pride in it regardless of what others think or say about you.

Mostly, I really enjoyed this book. It was a quick read for me, and it was brutal and thought provoking. But in a way, it fell short of my expectations. It never really moved me in the way I had hoped to be moved, and even the brutality and the shame and the hurt felt by the characters didn't really affect me in the way that I had hoped it would. I love nothing more than to be heartbroken by these kinds of books, to be left kind of empty and hurting... but I didn't feel that with this one.

Perhaps that is due to the fact that this was told in first person by Cassie Logan, who is 9. On the one hand, this worked in the book's favor because it allowed for a sort of innocence and naivete. Cassie doesn't understand the dichotomy of equality in the South. She thinks that the mistreatment and rudeness are due to forgetfulness and a "grownups vs kids" thing, or just a greediness, in the case of some. She blithely underestimates the fact of skin color in the equation. To her, the hate and the meanness aren't due to the fact that she is black and they are white, it's due to the fact that they just want what her family has (the land) and will do anything to get it back. Which is true, partially, but the fact that they are black gives them less legal ground to stand on, and makes the fight that much more dangerous.

But where I felt that the 1st person lacked was in the rest of the story. It worked well for the innocence and the idealism, but I didn't feel that the family or their neighbors or the story was all that well fleshed out. There were times when I read sections and didn't know how we got there. One minute Cassie is thinking that she needs to do something about the girl who was mean to her, and the next we're in the middle of a protracted plan of action, with no bridge getting us from there to here. This is Cassie's story, so I would expect to at least have a hint of her plans, but instead it felt like it lapsed into a different story for a bit there.

I also felt that some of the things that Cassie saw were unrealistic, and there was a kind of inconsistency regarding when the parents tried to shield her and the other kids and when they didn't or forgot that little ears might be listening. And to add to that, at times I felt that Cassie was kind of annoying in her demands and talkbackitude to be able to tell the story, and that kind of grated on my nerves. At 9, she was both intuitive enough to know when she'd get in trouble for something, but stubborn and oblivious enough to ignore the real potential danger of running off at the mouth... So Cassie heard, and thus told us, a lot more than I think she should have been able to realistically.

Finally, I thought that the ending was a bit of a letdown as well. There was no resolution about the land, or about the secondary plots. There's an ending, a realistic one, likely - but it's unsatisfying. Things come to a head, and then it just ends. This is part of a series, and that probably has a large part to play in the way the ending ended, but I just feel that there was a big something missing, and I'm not sure that I was invested enough in the story to continue on with the series.

I will give kudos to Taylor for telling as honest and brutal a story as she did, and for not softening the blows or the cruelty or the hatred for her readers. At least I didn't feel that she did. There was a palpable feeling of fear and anger throughout the story, as well as menace and a cruel calculation and manipulation on behalf of the men who have the power. A surety that they will win because the law is on their side. I thought that this aspect was very well done.

I am not sure if I will continue on with the series. But I am glad that I read this. It was good, and I feel like if I had read it in school or when I was younger, it would have had a huge impact on me. Reading it today, I can appreciate it for what it is, but I feel like it's missing the impact I wanted it to have.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Review: Inés of My Soul by Isabel Allende ★★★★

Inés of My Soul3.5 Stars

This is my second book by Allende, and I can understand why people love her writing so much. She is a beautiful storyteller and her writing is so evocative and lovely and honest without being flowery or overdone. I love that quality in a writer - it's one of my favorite things about Colleen McCullough as well, especially in Tim. That book was my introduction to McCullough and it made a deep impression on me and instantly became one of my favorite books. Crap. Now I want to read it again!

Anyway, I was talking about Allende. The first book I read of hers was The House of the Spirits, and I really enjoyed it a lot more than I thought that I would. You see, I don't really care for magical realism and generally steered clear of it whenever I could. I'm gradually coming to the conclusion that, like anything else, there's good and bad magical realism, and I'd only read astoundingly bad examples of it... or read good examples of it and didn't recognize them as MR. But it took Allende and my friend Jackie recommending her books for me to see it.

Allende's books are beautifully written, and whatever mystical or magical or ethereal otherworldliness there might be is subtle and adds a little "Did you see that?" nudge in the ribs, but doesn't overtake the story, doesn't throw the narrative into confusion like some magical realism books I've read and hated with the fires of a thousand suns. I'm not going to name titles. You know who you are. >_>


So, this was another Jackie choice, and again I really enjoyed it, although I feel that this one lost something in the audio version. I wish that I had read this rather than listening to it. *sigh* Blair Brown did a passable Spanish accent, but quite often it was distracting. It just seemed to lack a fluidity and smoothness that native speakers have. Quite often, she'd hesitate for just a moment before pronouncing a word. It might actually only be a half second, but to me, it was a distraction. This is the kind of story that you need and want to just climb into and live for a while - and every one of those stutters pulled me out of it. I may not pronounce the Spanish correctly in my head, but reading for myself would have been smoother, since I probably wouldn't know it was wrong.

The second reason that I wish I'd have just read the book myself was that there were a whole lot of Spanish names in this one. People names, place names, historical names and Chilean native tribe names, and honestly, it was really hard to keep track of who was who when I had no visual link to the sound of the words being spoken. It didn't help much that, being told as a memoir type story, the narrative was less than linear. Wikipedia helped a lot here, and Google for being a good guesser at what I was misspelling. For instance, I'd type "Atawapa" and it would return "Did you mean Atahualpa?" Yes. Yes I did. THANK YOU GOOGLE! (And before any of you break out the ladder to get on your high horse, it's been a while since World History class, OK?) So anyway, Wikipedia helped a lot to keep the names and places and tribes and so on straight, so that I could enjoy the story and actually know who was being referred to.

I found this story fascinating. I don't really know much about Chilean history, but I feel like I know quite a bit more now. Because I was on Wikipedia and Google so much, I feel like I actually may have learned something.

This was a story about Spanish conquests and it was appropriately brutal. There were massacres and tortures and mutilations and subjugation of the indigenous people. All of that was to be expected. But there was also a softer quality to this story, a kind of empathy and understanding that Ines lent it. She claimed to not understand the 'indians' of Chile, but her description of them, and their customs and ceremonies and beliefs said otherwise. I thought several times while listening to this that she was confusing understanding with agreement. I think she understood them just fine. They wanted to live and be free and content in their lives just as she wanted to live and be free and content in her own. She could have said to the Mapuches "We're not so different, you and I." Too bad she wouldn't have gotten the Austin Powers reference. *sigh*

I really appreciated the religious aspect of the story, both from the Catholic standpoint and the Native standpoint. Allende represented both fairly, I think. Although, it seemed that there was a bit of the mystical on the side of the Christians, at least in Ines's eyes. I love that there was a little bit of that here, but also that it's interpretable. Was it a miracle that broke the rope and saved the man from hanging, or was it simply that the rope was frayed or weak? A comet, or a sign?

One thing I particularly loved regarding the religious aspect of the story was Ines, at 70, talking about how she sometimes forgets and calls God "Ngenechen", which is the Mapuche's name for their god or sometimes prays to the Earth Mother rather than the Virgin. It's such a throwaway reference, an old woman confused and mixing things up, but to me it signifies how similar beliefs can be, and how silly it is to try to force a "right" religion on someone else. What's in a name? Isn't what you believe and how you live and act more important? I think so, and I think that Ines did too. She worked for her people all her life, striving to make sure that they were as well looked after as it was in her power to do. She founded churches and hospitals and helped feed the poor and hungry, and defended the defenseless. She was definitely an awesome, if underappreciated, person.

I enjoyed this one, and might just have to read it for myself one day. I think it is a book that definitely deserves my full attention, and I couldn't give it that with the audio. But regardless, this was very good, and I'd definitely recommend it.

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