Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ernessa T. Carter Speaks on 32 Candles

Ernessa T. Carter, author of my favorite book of 2010, 32 Candles, was in town this past weekend to visit family and promote the paperback version of the book.  My literary twin, @litfangrl, made the trip down from Chicago (and brought me some Garrett's Popcorn) just to meet Ernessa and hear what she had to say.

It's always interesting to hear authors talk about what inspired their characters and Ernessa didn't disappoint.  I taped it as best I could, but you may need to turn your volume up to hear her over the in-store music.

Monday, August 29, 2011

#BookReview: Bricktop - Bricktop with James Haskins

Before Josephine Baker conquered Paris, there was Bricktop.  Born Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith in 1894, the red-headed child of a black father and biracial mother would go on to be called Bricktop first by her fellow entertainers and eventually the world.  While I had read articles with brief mentions of Bricktop before, I was compelled to read her memoir after listening to Bette Midler's version of Miss Otis Regrets and learning that it was written by Cole Porter for Bricktop to perform.

Ethyl Waters version

Bette Midler version

So who was this Bricktop that she could compel one of the most prolific song writers to compose a song especially for her to perform? She's the same woman about whom F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot wrote. As a teenager she began performing in Chicago clubs. Traveling around the country in entertainment troupes, she eventually landed in New York where she was encouraged to go to Paris.

Opening her own club in Paris, specifically Monmartre, Bricktop's became the place to see and be seen in 1920s & 1930s Europe.  Her tales of teaching the Prince of Wales how to do the Charleston or waiting tables with Langston Hughes would almost seem unbelievable if there weren't pictures to back up her story.  At a time when America had little use for its black citizens, Bricktop created a world of her own in a Europe that appreciated her.

Black entertainers living abroad, European royalty, American writers, composers, etc. all found their way to Bricktop's at some point.  With the exception of Josephine Baker, it seemed that everyone that stumbled into her establishment was welcomed.  Per Bricktop's account of their encounters, Josephine was brought to her shortly upon her arrival to France.  Brick was asked to help her adjust to life in Europe by teaching her about the fashions, where to go, with whom to hang, etc.  Brick believed in planning ahead and saving, while Josephine believed in living in the moment and overindulging.  Heads butted and eventually the ladies stopped speaking.

Forced to leave Europe in 1939 due to the war, Bricktop returned to New York to find that the integrated life she had taken for granted in Europe still did not exist in America.  While she had been able to open clubs in France and amass enough money to own her own villa, in New York she was relegated to segregated clubs and working for much less to which she was accustomed.

Turning her sights in a new direction, Bricktop headed for Mexico, where she proceeded to open yet another successful club.  Two years into her stay she was forced to leave the country to apply for a formal work visa.  Her plan was to return to Mexico, but instead found herself back in Europe.  Her first stop was Paris, but upon finding it changed by the war and the racist attitudes the Europeans had learned from American soldiers, Brick set her sites on Rome and enjoyed a successful career there until her retirement.

Returning to America to care for her ailing sister, Brick found herself with a small inheritance when her sister passed.  She used this money to travel freely and found an accepting audience in Los Angeles and this time, New York. Bricktop passed in 1984 in her apartment in New York at the age of 90, having lived a life full enough to satisfy anyone.

"Anywhere I entertain becomes Bricktop's. Running a saloon is the only thing I know and I know it backwards and forwards. As for me, it's nice to be mingling around again. Not working nights began to wear on me." - Bricktop

300 pp
Published August 1999

Originally published April 9, 2010

Friday, August 26, 2011

#BookReview: The Sport of the Gods - Paul Laurence Dunbar

"Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad." - Euripides

Best known for his poetry, Paul Laurence Dunbar also authored four books of short stories, five novels and a play in his brief time on earth. The Sport of the Gods, published in 1902, and made into a silent film in 1921, is the last novel.

It's the story of the Hamiltons, a family of black servants in the post-Civil War South. The patriarch of the family, Berry Hamilton, has served the Oakleys faithfully for thirty years. In addition to raising their children, Joe and Kit, Berry's wife Fannie works as a housekeeper for the Oakleys. At age 18, Joe is an up and coming barber in the white shops, while Kit prepares to become a lady. It's safe to say that the family is the envy of the black community.

The Hamilton household is turned upside down when Berry is accused of stealing a large sum of money from the Oakley house. Though Berry is innocent, it becomes a matter of the word of a white man versus that of a black man. With Berry sentenced to a life in prison, the remaining members of the Hamilton family are put out of the home they've enjoyed on the Oakley estate. Shunned by both the black and white communities, the Hamiltons are forced to leave town.

Making a fresh start in New York, the once highly-esteemed Hamiltons begin their descent into a world that they never would have imagined existed.

What did you like about this book?
I've read poems by Dunbar, so I was familiar with his work in that genre, but this was the first story that I've read by him. The writing is so fresh and contemporary that I had to keep reminding myself that it was published in 1902. I was absolutely blown away by it.

What did you dislike about this book?
It's not necessarily a dislike, but the characters do speak in the dialect of the time. At times, that made it difficult to decipher what they were saying, but it could still be figured out by sounding out in my head or saying the words aloud.

What could the author do to improve this book?
At just 118 pages, it was a really quick read, but I would have been more than satisfied with additional pages. I'm interested to know what happens with the family beyond what was written.

Published 1902

Interested in reading this? It's available for free in electronic format at The Sport of the Gods

Theme: When the World Turns Blue by Joe Sample & Lalah Hathaway

Originally posted June 14, 2010

Monday, August 22, 2011

#BookReview: SONG YET SUNG by James McBride

I did not expect to like to this book.  As a matter of fact, it sat in my "to be read" pile for three weeks before I even picked it up.  Even then, I only did so because it was due back at the library soon.  Out of all of the books in my stack, it's the one I should have picked up first because I absolutely loved it.

With Song Yet Sung James McBride has managed the perfect blend of historical fiction with just a little touch of the paranormal.  In reading it, I'm reminded of Octavia E. Butler's Kindred.  Song Yet Sung follows the lives of slaves and slave catchers along Maryland's eastern shore.  In an area full of abolitionists, free men and oysterman, Amber and Wiley live a peaceful existence with their widowed mistress and her son. The peace on their farm is interrupted the day "the Dreamer" comes into their lives.

Captured by the notorious slave stealer, Patty Cannon, and her gang, the beautiful Liz finds herself locked in the attic with fourteen other slaves.  Injured during her capture, she's nursed back to health by "the woman with no name."  When a turn of events frees the captives, the elderly woman with no name knows that freedom is not in her future.  Instead, she gives to Liz the code that will lead her to freedom. Today, most have heard of the codes that were quilted into blocks during slavery to guide runaways along their journey.  These codes would tell slaves in the area if it was save to move, if someone was on the run, in which direction they should go, etc.  Though she doesn't understand the code, Liz makes note of it and starts her quest to freedom.

Liz dreams of a future that includes yellow, brown and white people standing on a large campground listening to a brown man singing the song yet sung; brown people in moving machines shooting other brown people; and children losing themselves in front of a talking box.  With the help of the mysterious Woolman who lives in the swamp, the blacksmith, an oysterman and Amber, Liz's dreams are realized.

What did you like about this book?
It was so unexpectedly good.  You definitely have to be a thinking person to understand the dreams of which Liz speaks.  The addition of Patty Cannon, a real person, made the story that much more captivating.

What did you dislike about this book?
I was unclear on maybe two or three paragraphs right at the end of the book.  I'm sure re-reading them may bring some clarity.

What could the author do to improve this book?
Nothing.  James McBride seems to hit it out of the ballpark each time.

Published February 2008

Originally posted June 28, 2010

Friday, August 19, 2011

Where Are They Now? The Literary Edition

One of my favorite VH1 shows is Where Are They Now?, a show about musical artists with promising careers who, for some reason or another, fell out of the spotlight. There are quite a few authors whose work I've enjoyed in the past, but at some point, they stopped writing, or at least they stopped getting published. So I've done a little digging to find out, 'where are they now?'

The Mali Anderson mysteries by Grace F. Edwards is one of my favorite series. With the first book, If I Should Die, published in 1997, I was hooked. Through Edwards' writing readers were introduced to former cop, Mali Anderson, her jazz loving father and the nephew she's raising, Alvin. As the characters on The Wire would say, Mali is "real police," even though she's no longer on the job. Four books into the series, it ended in 2000 and in 2003 Edwards wrote a stand alone book called The Viaduct, another thriller, but this time from the point of view of a male Vietnam vet. So where is she now? In addition to teaching fiction at a New York university, she recently served as secretary for the Harlem Writers Guild. She also published a new book earlier this year called The Blind Alley with no fanfare. I had no idea that she was still writing until I started researching her.

With So Good, All of Me and Colored Sugar Water, Venise Berry was one of my favorite authors in the late 90s going into 2001. Though she has authored a few non-fiction works since then, and was scheduled to release new work in 2008, it seems that it never materialized. We can only wish that we'll have a chance read it some day. In the meantime, Berry is an associate professor at the University of Iowa.

Barbara Neely's Blanche series combines detective work and common sense in the form of Blanche White. A domestic worker by day, Blanche keeps her ear to the ground and her eyes open to what's going on around her. Between 1992 and 2000, Neely published four books in the series. Where is Neely now? An award winning activist for women's rights and economic justice, Neely continues to write short stories and hosts a radio interview program Sunday nights in Massachusetts.

I have a lengthy lists of authors that I'll be featuring throughout the rest of the year, but what author's works do you miss? Who has you wondering what happened to their promising career?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Heidi Durrow & Terry McMillan, Live Tonight!

Don't miss tonight's live webcast conversation at 9 p.m. CST with Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and Terry McMillan over at 

Monday, August 15, 2011

#BookReview: Pavilion of Women - Pearl S. Buck

Imagine awakening on your fortieth birthday and deciding that you were through performing for others. Their concerns were no longer yours and from that point on you were going to live the life you always envisioned. That's exactly what Madame Wu, the lead character of Pavilion of Women does. How exciting!

I can't count the number of times I've said, "As soon as the kid leaves home, I'm starting life over." Like Madame Wu, I'll be 40 when that happens. Somehow I don't think my decision will have the same consequences.

As a mother of four, Madame Wu has been responsible for tending to her elderly mother-in-law, her simple husband, arranging quality marriages for her eldest sons and overseeing the House of Wu, one of the oldest and most respected families in China. Realizing that she has never really loved her husband and has given to those around without realizing any of her dreams, she makes the decision to step aside.

Moving from the court she shares with her husband to her deceased father-in-law's court sets about finding a suitable concubine for her husband. There's also the matter of her second son's unhappy marriage to be dealt with, along with finding a proper wife for her third son before he falls for her husband's new wife.

When a handsome, foreign priest enters Madame Wu's world, she's pleasantly surprised to find that he may be the perfect person to show her what she's been missing for the first forty years.

I'm a big fan of This Good Earth by Pearl Buck, but hadn't ventured any further into her catalog. I'm mad at myself for waiting so long to do so. I loved this story. Madame Wu is a walking contradiction, but her intentions are good. If you're looking for something out of the norm, this is the book for you.

Originally posted November 13, 2009

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Movie Which Shall Not Be Named

Seriously, I didn't think it was possible for Twitter and the blogosphere to run a topic into the ground, but they've managed to do it.  I've had to filter :::whispering::: The Help out of my time line because two years after the book came out, people are just getting around to being enraged about it.  Oh sure, there were a few people that expressed their disgust with it back in 2009, but the people that don't read just got around to realizing it existed with the release of the movie.

From what I've read online there seems to be a misconception that The Help portrayed the maids as happy and carefree. Nothing could be further from the truth.  At no point did I ever get the feeling that Aibileen, Minnie or the countless others were happy to be domestics.  They weren't happy about it at the beginning, middle or end or the day.  It was simply a job they did.  Someone else suggested that the book and movie pretends that the women and their employers were friends.  Anyone that read the book or saw the movie would be hard pressed to make that argument.  

Other complaints I've seen were that the dialogue was thick and dated.  It was set in Mississippi in the 1960s, so yes, it was dated for that time period.  If my grandma Bessie Mae from Shuqualak, MS still talked liked that as an older woman in the 80s, I'd have to say it's pretty sure that she, and others like her, were talking like that in the 60s.

On Twitter someone said, "It doesn't portray the Jim Crow south accurately. At all." But then admitted that she hasn't seen it and won't until "It's on HBO or bootleg.  My fear is this movie is getting such buzz, it's going to further whitewash people's ideas about what the South used to be."  If you've seen the movie, if you've read the book, you know that, if anything, this movie will make people cringe at images of the South.  Whites are not portrayed in a positive light and neither are the Jim Crow policies.  Like I said in a previous post, the mirror that is being held up reflects poorly on them, not the women that worked in their households.

I saw the movie Wednesday evening, without Aunt Jean, who said, "it's too late to be ripping & running, catch me after church Sunday."  The theater I frequent has nice leather couches and love seats, so I ended up sitting next to an elderly black woman who told me I could call her Miss Annie.  Side note: While I hadn't had enough sense to grab dinner before the movie and didn't want to wait in the concession line, Miss Annie pulled a nicely made sandwich out of her purse, along with chips, as soon as the lights dimmed.  I kept hoping she'd offer me the other half, but I had to content myself with eating Jolly Ranchers I found at the bottom of my purse.

At any rate, I thought the movie was fairly decent overall.  I understand  that it's difficult to condense such a lengthy book into a 2 1/2 hour movie and still touch on all of the salient points, but I would have lessened the roles of some to increase the roles of others.  That being said, here are the problems I had with the translation from book to film:

  • The book version was set over the course of two to three years, which provided a more believable time line for Skeeter to gain Aibileen's trust.  In the movie it happened within the first 15 minutes. 

  • In the book, Minnie was one of the narrators and her story line was significant.  In the movie, she was relegated to a secondary role and, while parts of her story were told, her diminished role made her less developed than I would have liked to see.

  • The relationship between Skeeter and her mother is more complex and explored in the book, as is her mother's illness.  In the movie, their relationship is more of the typical mother-daughter relationships we see in everyday TV and the mother's illness is glossed over, almost in a joking manner.

  • The book version of Celia Foote is not the movie version. 
I've watched the PhD's of Twitter discuss this film and how the negative portrayal of black women in Hollywood and the inaccurate reflection of the Civil Rights Movement are what really bother them.  They've written lengthy blogs, and promoted them, about what's wrong with the movie they still won't see.  People are picking sides and saying that the side you choose surely says something about you and that they're glad to see people's true colors.  Really?  These are the same people that sit quietly as rappers, singers and others degrade black women in song and video daily, not to mention Twitter trending topics.  They have nothing to say about the images Tyler Perry feeds America about black women in film and on TV, and you can find one of his shows on TV daily and his films on cable weekly.  I don't mind anyone pointing a finger at inaccuracies and portrayals and calling for Hollywood to do better, but do it with all projects that show black women in a less than flattering light and not just because you don't care for the color of the person that wrote the story or adapted the film.

Miss Annie enjoyed the movie.  And noted author Pearl Cleage said on her Facebook page, "I read 'The Help' and enjoyed it.  I thought the writer did a good job of making all the characters fully formed human beings, the good, the bad and the ugly." I can't argue with either of them.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Way Back Wednesday: What Did You Read As A Teen?

The other day there was an article floating around the Internet about what today's readers were reading when they were 13.  Though several people gave titles that suggested they were more mature than the average 13 year old of their time (like Clan of the Cave Bear), others were more down to earth and mentioned the Harry Potter and Sweet Valley High series.  I missed out on the conversation on Twitter so I thought I'd share with you what I read as a teen.

First published in 1982, My Sweet Audrina was the only VC Andrews' standalone book and I loved it.  Unlike anything I'd read before, it was the story of Audrina Adare, a fragile child with an unreliable memory.  There were all kinds of family secrets hidden from her and I just knew there were many more to discover, but since Andrews chose not to write a sequel, readers will never know what they were.

Just as fascinating to me were the Dollanganger children of the Flowers in the Attic series by Andrews.  I started reading the first two books because they were on my mother's shelf and Icouldn't wait for her to purchase the remainder of the set so I could find out what was going on with Chris, Cathy, Cory and Carrie and their demented grandmother.

Rosa Guy was the first author I read that spoke to me as an African American young adult. Set in New York in the late 70s/early 80s, Edith Jackson is the third in a trilogy that includes Ruby and The Friends. Each book in the trilogy could stand alone, so there's no need to read the first two to understand the third.  Though I read all three books, Edith Jackson is the one that really stayed with me.

The oldest of her deceased mother's five children, Edith is determined to keep her sisters together as they shuttle from one foster home to another. Recently settled in Peekskill, she believes she's found a good home for them. But when her sister Bessie starts sitting on their foster uncle's lap a little too long and her sister Minnie begins to spend time with a new friend, that happens to be white, Edith's world is thrown into turmoil.

Long before it became popular in the streets to refer to your girlfriend as wifey, there was Judy Blume's Wifey. As were most girls in the 70s and 80s, I was a huge Judy Blume fan. While most of her books at that time were strictly for the 13 and under crowd, Blume wrote a few that catered to the adult crowd. Did that stop eager teens from reading her adult lit? Heck no! I remember Wifey and Forever being passed around the 7th and 8th grade like the latest issue of Dynamite or Tiger Beat. I picked it up again while at my mother's over the Christmas holiday to see if it still had the wow factor.

Set in the fun-loving 70s, Wifey is the story of Jewish, suburban housewife, Sandy Pressman. Doing what her mother always told her to do, Sandy married a nice Jewish boy. The problem is ten years and two kids later, Sandy is bored. Her husband, Norman, is the king of the quickie; her lovable brats are off to summer camp; and at Norm's insistence, Sandy is being forced to take golf and tennis lessons at "the club." Just when she thinks her summer can't get any worse, she finds herself with a pervert in her backyard and on her phone.

While this book was hot stuff in the 70s, it's pretty tame by today's standards. There's a lot of wife swapping and extramarital affairs going on, with little mention of practicing safe sex or the possible results of not practicing safe sex. Most of what happened in the book was over my head when I read it 20 plus years ago. Reading it now makes me want to ask the main character, why did you settle? Why did you ever marry him? What a difference a few decades make.

So there you have it, a taste of what I read in my formative years.  How about you?  What books did you read as a teen that made enough of an impact for you to still remember them?

Monday, August 8, 2011

#BookReview: You Are Free - Danzy Senna

From the acclaimed author of Caucasia comes a collection of short stories exploring identity based mostly on race, but also class and gender.  Told entirely from the point of view of women, the eight stories are okay, but nothing about them really stood out for me with the exception of the short, Admission.

Admission is a short about an upwardly mobile black couple that applies to an exclusive school for their pre-schooler as part of the mother's research for a film on which she's working.  When their son is accepted, Cassie dreams of enrolling him, believing that it will open doors for him later in life.  Her husband, Duncan, is firmly against it.  Each has their own reason for wanting and/or not wanting Cody to attend.

Beyond Admission, where race truly was a factor, the remaining stories could have been based on women of any race.  And maybe that was the message that Senna was trying to get across.  Though the women in her book may have been separated by class, though not by much, their stories carried universal themes.  We are much more alike than we are different.

What did you like about this book?
It was a very quick read.

What didn't you like about this book?
Everyone I know that has read this has talked about how great it was.  I thought it was just okay.  It was well written, but not necessarily memorable.

What could the author do to improve this book?
Remove the short story The Land of Beulah and extend Admission.

Published May 2011 

Theme: Everyday People by Sly & the Family Stone

Friday, August 5, 2011

#BookReview: Something Old, Something New - Beverly Jenkins

Readers of Bring on the Blessings and A Second Helping will be happy to know that the residents of the fictitious town of Henry Adams, Kansas are back.  In Bring on the Blessings, we learned of this town that had been founded by freed slaves after the Civil War.  When the mayor put the struggling town up for sale on eBay, Bernadine Brown, the ex-wife of a multimillionaire purchased it and began to turn the town around.  With Bernadine's help, town residents were able to foster and adopt needy children from around the country and bring them to a place filled with love and history.

In A Second Helping the residents and kids prepare for the adoption process and readers are treated to a history lesson about an August 1st parade.  If you're as unfamiliar with it as I was when I first read about it, here's some background.   Most of us are familiar with Juneteenth, which is celebrated on June 19 to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Texas, the last state to free their slaves in 1865. August 1st celebrates the abolishment of slavery in the British empire in 1834 and was celebrated throughout towns in the United States up until 1927. To this day it is also celebrated in Barbados, Bermuda, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Anguilla, The Bahamas, Turks & Caicos and the British Virgin Isles.

With Something Old, Something New the town is preparing for the wedding of mayor Trent July and his high school girlfriend, Lily Fontaine and a few of the adopted children are starting to wonder about their birth parents.  As Lily and Trent move forward with wedding plans, they're challenged with assisting their foster kids with making the transition from the new home life they've come to love to being an extended family.  And, as is the case with everything in Henry Adams, Kansas, the whole town is involved.

What did you like about this book?
Beverly Jenkins always has a lesson to teach and in this book, she treats readers to lessons about Seminole and Cherokee traditions.  I always look forward to reading her work because I'm sure to learn something.

What didn't you like about this book?
Very rarely do things not end perfectly in a Beverly Jenkins book.  While I can appreciate a happy ending, it's not realistic to believe that things always work out so well.  It would be more than okay if things didn't turn out as well as expected.

What could the author do to improve this book?
I'd like to see a book that focuses more on Tamar, Trent's grandmother.  There's a lot of history that swirls around her and it would be interesting to maybe see a prequel or something that focuses more on her back story. 

Published June 2011

Theme: We Must Be In Love by Pure Soul

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

#BookReview: Third Girl from the Left - Martha Southgate

There comes a time in every woman's life when she realizes that her mother is human.  I mean, logically, you know that your mother is human, of course.  And to any other observer, it's extremely obvious.  But there's a point, as a daughter, when you realize that she's just as imperfect and capable of making mistakes as anyone else.  Martha Southgate's Third Girl From the Left beautifully exposes the flaws of three generations of women who are anything but perfect.

Raising a family in 1950s Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mildred finds her escape in film.  Weekly matinees at the local theater provide an escape from her role as wife and mother.  As the wife of the town's only black pharmacist, Mildred's place in society means she must abide by a strict set of rules.  A blossoming friendship with the projectionist would be frowned upon if anyone were to find out about it.

Though they often butt heads about other things, one thing Mildred and her daughter, Angela, can agree on is their love of film.  Angela knows she's not the daughter Mildred wants her to be (and the feeling is mutual) and dreams of the day when she can escape her small town living for the bright lights of Hollywood.  Once there she finds that Hollywood is full of small town girls with the same dream.  That doesn't stop her from trying to get her big break.  Along the way, she also finds love in the most unlikely person.

As the daughter and granddaughter of Mildred and Angela, respectively, Tamara has the love of movies in her blood.  Angela wasn't the best mother, but she saw to it that Tamara's basic needs were met.  Her emotional distance has left Tamara struggling to maintain a relationship not only with her, but with her film school boyfriend as well.  When Mildred takes ill, it is Tamara and her camera that build a bridge between Mildred and Angela.

What did you like about this book?
I loved each of the women.  They were all amazing in their own right.  And I LOVED that Southgate set this story in Tulsa and highlighted Black Wall Street and the 1921 riots.  As someone that has visited Tulsa several times, I was familiar with the history, but I was excited to see it used as part of the back story for Mildred.

What didn't you like about this book?
I wish Angela had more of herself to give to Tamara.  Like I said before, she provided basic needs, but I almost felt like Tamara got in the way of the life Angela wanted and she kept her at a distance as punishment for that.

What could the author do to improve this book?
Absolutely nothing!

Published: September 2005

Theme: Wide Open Spaces by The Dixie Chicks

Monday, August 1, 2011

I'll Have A "Help"ing of That

I make it a point to only speak on things about which I am knowledgeable.  You won't see me jump into discussions about nuclear physics, rugby or the Twilight books because I don't know anything about them.  So it's with a little shock that I've watched several blogs discuss a book that they've admittedly never read and a movie that they admittedly will never see, The Help.  How much are some people against it? I've seen whole websites devoted to nothing but reasons why, sight unseen, they hate the book and refuse to see the movie.  Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but how do you make an informed opinion about that which you've not read?

Back in 2009 when this blog was brand spanking new and no one read it except a handful of friends, I wrote a post about how much I enjoyed the book.  In fact, it was my favorite read of 2009.  Those people that have no desire to see the book would probably question how a movie about black servants in white households could be a favorite of any person of color.  I say, easily.  The characters of all of the women, not just the white women, were very well developed.  Where other books by white authors have sometimes failed to humanize black servants, The Help gave them a face and a voice.

Regular readers of this blog know that I don't care for magical Negroes such as those found in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and The Secret Lives of Bees.  In both books, it is black women that save struggling white children.  Ironically, several people that hate The Help without reading it have admitted to loving The Secret Lives of Bees.  Go figure.  I also take exception to books with white saviors.  I'm not a fan of The Blind Side because, while it's nice that the white family takes in the poor boy of color, black women have been raising white children for over 200 years with little to no fanfare, and certainly no Sandra Bullock Academy Award.  (By the way, the promotional items that are being sold on HSN as a tie-in to the movie are done in poor taste and, in my opinion, the studio has gone overboard.)

What I can say as someone that has read The Help is that there are no white saviors and there are no magical Negroes.  (Just to be sure I wasn't delusional, I spoke with a number of other readers of color who also read, and liked, the book and confirmed my thoughts on it.)   Instead there are black women servants, some of whom are treated poorly by their employers.  Through the words of a servant to her employer, which the employer puts down on paper, a mirror is held up for white families throughout the town.  Does the mirror change the way that they treat their servants? In some instances, yes. In others, no.  But it is still a teaching moment. And in my opinion, that is what a good book is.  It serves as a teaching instrument.

The Help has started a dialogue, whether or not it is welcomed, amongst white readers and between white and black readers, particularly women. If we, as a country, can not dialogue about race, then we will continue to see a divide and mistrust of people of other races.  NPR's Michele Norris has a section on her website called The Race Card, which she began as a conversation starter about race.  It was started in response to questions about post-racial America.  You see, a lot of people felt that once Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, racism in America was dead.  And, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  Michele's site proves time and time again though that more and more people want to discuss what race in America means.

Can we truly have this dialogue if we don't want to see, hear or talk about those periods in history that cause us to cringe?  If Dolen Perkins-Valdez's Wench is made into a movie, will it be more palatable because it was written by a woman of color?  And what about this current generation of children that have no sense of this history? This is the same generation that didn't see why it was a big deal that the United States finally elected a black president.  I think that the reason why so many white people are quick to dismiss claims of prejudice and racism by saying "Get over it" is because they are truly ignorant to how far we have not come.  There are those that seem to believe that once slavery was abolished, everyone parted amiably, while ignoring the fact that there are still people walking this earth that couldn't drink out of certain water fountains or attend certain schools.  Those are the people that need a mirror.

Talking to a lot of black authors on Twitter, I know that there is some resentment that a white author was able to write this book, have it received as well as it has been, and then have it turned into a movie.  And let's not forget, it was her debut novel.  There are authors that have toiled at their craft for years and have yet to be truly recognized by the publishing industry, let alone Hollywood.  I can understand and agree with their position 100%.  Black authors don't get the recognition they deserve.  Other than blogging and tweeting about their books, as I do here, I don't know how to change that.  I can only hope that in this post-racial America we're supposed to live in, things will get better and readers of all races will begin to see books by people of color as the norm instead of outside of the norm.

Driving around this weekend I had a conversation with my teen about the book and this post.  When I told her that her 76 year old spitfire Aunt Jean had been "the help" at one point, I could have knocked her over with a feather.  In my teen's world, Aunt Jean has always been the highly educated, sophisticated and well off matriarch of the family.  Until I told her, she didn't realize that Aunt Jean began working straight out of high school, got married at 17 and didn't start college until she was 27.  She went on to get her master's in education and retired as the principal of an elementary school.  In 1952, going to college as the oldest child of 12 wasn't really an option.  Working to help pay the bills was.  And for someone in her position, working as the help was one of the more promising jobs.  Even now in speaking to Aunt Jean, there is no shame in what she did.  It was honest work for honest pay, but it was temporary.  It didn't take away from who she was then and certainly not from who she is now.

So when The Help comes out in a few weeks, Aunt Jean and I are going to see it together.  And I'm dragging the teen, who in her middle class world can't fathom anyone in her family working as a maid, along.  Will I love the movie as much as the book? I don't know, but I won't speak on it until I see it.

Below, Viola Davis, star of The Help speaks on the criticism she has received for her portrayal of Aibileen.