Friday, February 25, 2011

Depicting Real People in Fiction: Legal Controversy over The Help

Coincidentally, after I wrote about The Help yesterday, I discovered that NPR and others were talking about the book as well. Ablene Cooper, who works for the author, Kathryn Stockett's brother's family is suing her for representing her likeness in one of the books main characters, Aibileen. Their names are almost identical and they share some distinctive characteristics. Cooper believes that she was misrepresented and portrayed in a negative light, and is seeking compensation. Stockett, however, maintains that her book is a work of fiction. She stated that she did not know Cooper well, and that although she drew certain elements from real life into her books, the characters are not representative of any real-life person.

The NPR show, Tell Me More, conducted an interview with several authors about the issue. The participants in the conversation brought a breadth of experience and perspectives to the debate. Personally, I immediately felt a sense of solidarity with Stockett when I first read about the controversy, probably because I loved the book so much. One of the authors interviewed expressed similar sentiments. Another, however, already had problems with the book (although she agreed it was a great work of literature) and felt that Stockett was clearly in the wrong with regards to the lawsuit. I encourage you to listen to the interview or to read over the transcript as it is an enlightening presentation of different opinion.

And as it turns out, opinion on the law suit issue, the author, and the book itself are largely divided along racial lines. Many black readers do not care for the book, and some seem to be troubled by a white woman's attempt to tell a story from the perspectives of black domestics in the 1960s South. I understand that position, but am almost ashamed to admit that it had not occurred to me until it was pointed out. Everyone I talked to loved the book. But then again, I never sought or found the opinion of a black reader.

I continued to want to defend Stockett until I heard that Cooper specifically requested that she not be depicted in the book. I still do not believe that Stockett intentionally meant to portray Cooper directly in the book, but it seems apparent that Cooper was among those whom Stockett drew on for her character. The similarity in the names seems particularly blatant. But of course, none of us knows what was inside Stockett's head at the time of writing.

What do you think? Have you heard about this recent controversy regarding The Help? Does it change your mind on the book if you have already read it? Or change your decision to pick it up and read it for the first time? What is appropriate when authors draw from real life to create their own literary worlds? What to they owe those that inspire their characters?

I have not sorted out my own feelings on the subject, but I plan to continue reading about the issue. I will share my findings with you all here. In the meantime, I would love to know what you think.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review: The Help

I'm going to start right out and say that if you haven't already read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, go get it. Right now.

I had heard people mentioning it for nearly a year when I finally picked it up at Borders last fall. It's a hefty volume and I was preparing myself to settle into the book for a while, but I finished it in less than two days. I brought it home to my mom over Thanksgiving and she finished it in time for me to pass it on to my stepmom before I returned to Austin. I just got it back from her a week ago because it was passed around a few more times. I love it when books garner that kind of excitement. You can almost feel the enthusiasm of readers as it has been passed from one eager reader to another.

So back to the book itself. The story is told from the perspective of three different women who live in a Southern community in the 1960s. One is a young, white, college graduate, who is struggling to find her way in a world that expects her to marry and quietly slip into the mold of perfect wife, mother and Junior Leaguer. The other two women are black housekeepers, who are best friends, but quite different from one another. One has raised over a dozen white children in her life and clearly does so with a great deal of love and steady affection. The other has trouble keeping her mouth shut and has recently lost her job because of it and has trouble finding new work. The three courageous women find themselves banded together in a secret mission that could be devastating to all of them if it was revealed.

Although parts of the book are heart-breaking and extremely maddening, overall, it is a feel good story. I think it is to Stockett's credit as a writer that she deals with a topic such as racism with such grace and humanity. The Help is as funny as it is difficult, and left me with thoughts of hope and gratitude.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wednesday Web RoundUp 2/23/11

Apologies for my lack of posts this last week. I'm in some career transition and I haven't figured out a good schedule yet. I promise to post some real posts the rest of this week.

In the meantime, here are a few bits of literary news from around the web.

Check out this cool website, Read It Forward. (Thanks to Jillian for pointing it out!)

Curators find previously unknown volumes that belonged to Thomas Jefferson's library.

Can negative book reviews constitute criminal libel?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wednesday Web RoundUp 2/16/11

Here's another round of literacy and book related news bits. Please let me know about any interesting links and articles that you have come across!

Teachers say that Kindergarten success is helped by making reading and literacy fun.

The new budget proposed by President Obama is bad news for libraries.

An old-school Great Gatsby video game for NES?

Watch this trailer for the new movie version of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. (Which I admit, I haven't read. Can anyone out there persuade me?)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

RIF Thank-You Video

I just had to share this precious thank-you video from Sandburg Elementary School. The students share some of their favorite books that were introduced to them by the RIF program.

Poor neglected books...

I have no idea where this came from, but it makes me smile. Thanks to my dear Katie for pointing it my way.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review: Writing to Change the World

Today I wanted to share with you a powerful book by Mary Pipher, Writing to Change the World. If you are at all interested in writing for any kind of social change, you have to get your hands on this book. Pipher discusses all types of writing from novels to news articles to letters to the editor. She covers both writing technique and how to find what it is that you are passionate about.

And Pipher knows what she is talking about. She wrote a powerful book, Reviving Ophelia, that changed the current thinking on what life is like for modern adolescent girls. Through this book, Pipher undoubtedly directly and indirectly saved the lives of many troubled girls. In Writing to Change the World, she discusses her previous book and how it came to have such a powerful impact.

If you are interested in having an impact through your writing, whether through a blog, a newspaper, a book, or a letter to your local school board, I urge you to pick up this book. It changed the way I think about my writing, and has encouraged me to (slowly) make some necessary changes.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wednesday Web RoundUp 2/9/11

Another edition of Wednesday Web Round-Up for some interested book and literacy related news:

A thought-provoking take on the whole paper vs. ebook debate. An entirely different set of potential consequences of going wholly digital. A must read.

Kids might be more interested in reading than TV if they read on e-readers.

Why are young adults reading so much and are they reading more than you?

Monday, February 7, 2011

An Ode to RIF

I've spoken of my love for Reading is Fundamental before, but I wanted to revisit it again today because they do such important work.

If you don't know, Reading is Fundamental (or RIF) is a national organization that goes into communities and puts books into the hands of the kids and families that need them. Schools, doctors offices, clinics, and other locations across the country are armed with books and staffed by wonderful volunteers thanks to RIF. Kids have a variety of books to chose from and are encouraged to find something they are truly interested in. They not only bring books to children, and also foster a feeling of joy and excitement around reading. This is just one of the many reasons I love RIF.

So what can you do?

I'm so glad you asked! Visit RIF's Get Involved page for ways you can advocate, volunteer, and support RIF (even by shopping!). They partner with many organizations, who provide ways for you to donate and support RIF while also getting great deals for yourself. Visit their website for all the great details.

RIF's website also provides tons of valuable resources for teachers and parents. Come check it out for reading-aloud tips, book lists, and other great information.

Hurray for RIF!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Friday Book Suggestions: Relationships

This week's book recommendations all deal with relationships-specifically marriage. I found them all to be thought-provoking and insightful, though it very different ways.


Now, of course, I could have picked any number of novels that deal with marriages and relationships, but I chose these because the relationships were complex, and at the center of the plot and characters. I wanted something more that just a good romance.

Life After Yes by Aidan Donnelly Rowley
The charming tale of Quinn, who must find out who she really is, and what she really wants after the dream proposal from the perfect guy.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfield
Although purely fictional, this story may sound familiar if you are at all familiar with Bush family. A young woman falls in love with and marries a man who eventually becomes the President of the United States.

The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller
A young couple move into a town-home adjacent to a retired Senator and his wife. But soon they discover that the older couple's relationship is quite unconventional. Very enthralling.


I steered clear of self-help and personal development books here, but rather looked at books that take a more exploratory and analytical approach to the subject.

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
After meeting her love at the end of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert is perfectly content committing to him forever without the formality of a wedding or marriage vows. In fact, they prefer it that way. But after an immigration incident, the marriage-wary couple is forced to marry or spend their lives apart. Gilbert works through her feelings about the institution by studying the history of marriage across cultures.

The Committment by Dan Savage
As his 10th anniversary with his boyfriend approaches, Savage must field questions advice from family, friends, and their young adopted son about their decision not to wed. Law and politics aside, Savage and his boyfriend examine their relationship, the roles they play in it and the purpose of marriage in the first place.

Okay, I have to admit that I haven't finished this one yet. It's a dense, but fascinating look at the history of marriage and how it has come to mean what it does today. Gilbert sites much of Coontz's research in her book, so if you read Committed, you'll get a taste of what Coontz has to offer. However, after reading the first half, I know that there is much more here for those who want to go deeper into the subject.

What marriage and relationship books do you recommend? Has anyone else read these? What do you think?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wednesday Web RoundUp 2/2/11

Another installment of book and reading news from around the interwebs.

What do your bookshelves say about you?

A great post reviewing Pat Conway's book.

Check out this week's new paperbacks.