Down and Out in Denver

Blake’s Book Nook, Vol. V

Posted in books by Blake on May 14, 2011

In this edition of the Book Nook, we are going to explore three books that have received insane amounts of hype over the past couple years, much of it undeserved, in my humble opinion.  Let’s call this Blake’s Book Nook: The Overrated Edition.  I generally avoid reading books that everyone else is reading.  Because I’m a snob. Two of these books, however, I read in different book groups and one I read while trapped in a vacation home, having finished the book I had brought with me.  So those are my excuses.

Let’s start with the biggest of them all, a book that has already been made into a movie it was so popular. Eat, Pray, Love is the type of book I never read. Not only because it is insanely popular, which means I will be embarrassed to be seen with it in public, but because it’s about some sort of ill-defined spirituality, which I do not possess and have no desire to investigate. This is the one I read because there was nothing else around. And I have this to say: Elizabeth Gilbert is definitely very funny, and she writes well. She’s particularly good at describing other cultures, like a witty and self-deprecating anthropologist. But I just did not care about any of the life-transforming business and the inward-looking, God-finding, self-loving forgiveness and general warm-feelingness that is, in the end, the point. This is to say that I was highly amused by Italy, bored stiff by India, and generally ready for things to be over by the time we got to Indonesia.

It is not, of course, Elizabeth Gilbert’s fault that her book became such a sensation. And it’s completely understandable how and why that happened: there are lots of unhappy people in this world who want to change their lives. Eat, Pray, Love is like a literary version of a TV before-and-after weight-loss show (and she’s smart enough to realize this, it seems to me). But in the end all that hype may have done her the slightest disservice (not that she minds, I’m sure) because no book could possibly live up to the hype that surrounds this one. In a word: overrated.

Next on our list is The Help, which you have seen in every airplane you have been on in the last year. It’s a big favorite with book clubs and I even voted for it to be read in an impromptu vacation book club that I was a member of, so fascinated was I by all the hype. It’s compelling, no question. I read it quickly and I definitely wanted to find out what would happen. I also liked all the principal characters, whom I thought were reasonably well-crafted. But I have a couple complaints:

The writing is clunky at times. The foreshadowing can be painfully obvious. One is well aware that when some new element is introduced it is there for a reason and is going to factor importantly down the road.

The use of various moments in history — Kennedy’s assassination, Bob Dylan on the radio — never really fit in with the overall narrative and felt remarkably forced.

One character is written entirely in some sort of Southern black dialect. And yet the Southern white characters are not written in dialect. The politics of a white woman writer taking on this voice aside, the inconsistency was jarring. If we’re going back in time to 1960s Mississippi, the white people talked differently too, no?

In terms of the overwhelming popularity of the book, it seems to me that this is a novel that allows white people who haven’t given race much thought to feel good about themselves for being on the right side, that is, the anti-racist, pro-maid side. It also presents race and racism in pretty stark terms: the white ladies in this novel are — with the exception of the protagonist, Skeeter, and another employer, Celia — by and large pretty awful. In other words, there’s not a lot of nuance, and it’s relatively easy for white readers not to feel implicated (“I don’t have a black maid whom I mistreat on a regular basis, so I guess this race issue isn’t about me…”).

I read recently that the author’s brother’s maid, whose name is Ablene Cooper, has filed a lawsuit against Stockett for appropriating her name and image without permission (one of the protagonists is named Aibileen Clark).  As Cooper puts it,”Ain’t too many Ablenes.”  Indeed.

Finally, Just Kids, a book I very much expected to like, but didn’t.  There are some moments of real poignancy here and some very deft turns of phrase, but I was also just bored stiff for most of it. Clearly Smith has led a really interesting life, but she’s just not a great writer. The great bulk of the book was a long series of “Then this happened. Then that happened. Then Robert did this. Then I did that.” And while there is a lot of reflection about art, there is very little on the subject of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, supposedly the purpose of writing the book. How and why did she stick with him — as a lover — through his gay hustling? What did she feel about this? She is by turns squeamish about his homosexuality and also fully accepting of everything he does. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either reaction but I’d like to hear a little more about them.

Bottom line: had this not been Patti Smith writing about Robert Mapplethorpe, and had I not been in a book group where we were discussing the book, I would never have finished it.