Tag Archives: The Help

What You See is What You Get

There is an interesting aspect to vision that many people aren’t aware of. When we look at something, it seems as though we are viewing a homogenized image, as if the body’s camera has all of its pixels activated and every nuance is just waiting to be observed.

Except that we’re not. It is a fascinating fact that the end result of what we see is much different than what our eyes actually observe. Our brains translate two separate points of view, compare and constrast shades of color, and translate the dramatic delineation of objects into a picture perfect scene. While the eyes supply the nuts and bolts of an image, the brain interprets and makes sense of things, filling in the blanks by merging available information with previous experience.

Most of the time, this system works well. Our cognitive ability, combined with the movement of the head to scan an area, usually enables us to see what there is to see. Sometimes, though, we think we see things that upon second glance are really something different, like when a cat runs across the road but then we realize it was a fox, or when we look down into the Grand Canyon and things appear to be 2-dimensional even though we know they are 3-dimensional. 

In many ways, this is similar to the picture that happens in our heads when we read.  The author supplies bits and pieces, and the reader fills in the blanks. Most people don’t need 100% of the image to see what’s going on. A character might be “a six year old female, 3’4,” sixty pounds, with braided blonde hair, eyebrows in a darker shade, blue eyes and knobby knees,” but, “A chubby little girl with blonde braids and a determined expression” is really all the reader needs, unless the knobby knees figure into the story somehow.

For centuries, readers have depended on this flow of communication between author and psyche to provide enduring mental images. These days, however, there seems to be a tendency for writers to either blatantly spell things out (always showing, never telling) or to skip details entirely (eliminating adverbs and adjectives), leaving the reader bereft of the joy of “the movie in your head.”

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett,* is one of the most engaging books that I’ve read in a while, and I happily stayed up late to finish it. The reason that I didn’t give it a higher rating was because after I read it, I didn’t experience my usual reliving-the-best-parts-of-the-story-in-my-head-later afterglow. It was just, “The End.” I was able review the course of events in my mind, and had mental images of the toilets on the lawn, Mae Mobley perched on the pottie in the wrong bathroom, and the stain on Miss Celia’s carpet, but there was a depth of field that was missing. 

What I suspect was at the heart of the problem, was the current trend of deleting most adverbs and adjectives. For me, that removes a lot of the visual aspects of a read. I don’t think that stories should be hazy with purple prose, but I like the subtleties of language that adverbs and adjectives can supply. I enjoy knowing about the quirky eyebrows on the teacher, or that the mother said something in a mysterious way. Those details are parts of the picture that the author has painted, and I want to see them. I don’t go to an art museum to look at a coloring book and fill in the pictures myself — I want to see a completed masterpiece, the world as the artist sees it.

Similarly, I want to see a story through the author’s eyes. If I like it, I like it, if I don’t, I don’t. If a writer wants to fill in some information with an adjective, I’m all for it. My vision is a little skewed, anyway.

* To see my review of The Help, click to read the first-half and final-review posts.

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THE HELP Follow-Up Review

I finished The Help at 2:19 this morning.  (See my March 8th post if you haven’t read the first half review.) Good book! I was not disappointed after page 200. A few things cropped up in the second half that nudged me as a writer, but as a reader, I loved it. It had a nice pace, light suspense, and was very descriptive. The characters were easy to empathize with, and the description and backstory were perfectly blended with the action. I was very happy that it was over 400 pages, because I hate reading a great book and then having it end too soon. This was just right. 

As a writer, I was startled when about three-quarters of the way through the book, it abruptly switched from first person to third person. I had to read the first page of that chapter three times for it to sink in that it was not Skeeter speaking, but an omniscient narrator with a similar speech pattern. The book went right back to first person directly afterward, but I found it quite disruptive. Granted, all three of the MC’s were involved in the scene, and it would not have been easy to convey the complex events of that particular chapter from only one perspective, but I think that it could have been done.

I was also surprised that the author confessed at the end of the book to having been less than accurate with a few of her historical facts. Shake ‘n Bake was referenced, for example, even though in actuality it would not yet have been invented. That can be a slippery slope. I personally strive for authenticity in that regard, even researching dialogue to make sure that common phrases (such as “spilled the beans”) had been coined by the time period I’m writing.

In spite of these minor hiccups, I highly recommend the book, and am happy to own it. Great job, Kathryn Stockett!

Layinda’s Blog Final Rating: ¶¶¶¶

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So Far, So Good: Middle of the Book Review: The Help

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, has been sitting unopened on my nightstand for more than three weeks. My book group is reading it for our end-of-April meeting, but I didn’t want to start it too soon, for fear of forgetting the details. Saturday night, I found myself with a few spare hours on my hands, and my willpower evaporated. I sat down to read at six-thirty and didn’t budge for 200 pages. For the rest of the weekend I was too busy to get back to it, but found myself reflecting on it often.

You might find it odd that someone is reviewing a book that she has not yet finished, but I have some very good reasons for doing so. One is, it won’t spoil the ending for anyone! The other is that I want to get back to reading it, but have to write today’s post, and this seems like the ideal compromise.

The Help takes place in 1962 Mississippi, during the Civil Rights movement. Factual events are artfully mixed with the fictitious lives of two maids and a privileged college graduate who has dreams of becoming an editor. The book is told in the voices of these women, who take turns telling their concurrent stories.

Skeeter (a.k.a. Eugenia), the graduate, stumbles onto the idea to write about a maid’s perspective of working for families in Jackson. Aibileen and Minnie agree to share their experiences, even though the consequences for all of them could be dire. Along the way, various relationships intermingle with their growing determination to get the book published. An intriguing subplot, which I am pretty sure will supply a twist by the end, is Skeeter’s search for Constantine, the maid who raised her. (I have some theories about this, but won’t share them so as not to spoil anyone else’s predictions. I’m also pretty certain what was wrong with Minnie’s pie!)

My main criticism thus far is that the characters, while likable and engaging, are somewhat stereotypical: the good hearted and selfless Aibileen, the good hearted and outspoken Minnie, the well intentioned but naïve Skeeter. A few believability issues have cropped up for me, as well. How could the fair minded and unprejudiced Skeeter have known friends Hilly and Elizabeth for so long without noticing what malicious bigots they were? Why on earth would someone like Skeeter be friends with those girls in the first place, and frankly, why would they be friends with her? I also had some initial issues with the use of first person, present tense. While the two maids’ stories flowed smoothly, the use of present tense blending with their dialect, its use in Skeeter’s story was a little jarring until I became accustomed to it.

These things are by no means deal breakers. The Help is the best book I’ve read in a long time. Ms. Stockett, a first time novelist, has woven an absorbing and well-written tale of Southern women, different in color, but the same in every other way. Read it! You won’t be sorry (at least until after page 200!).

Layinda’s Blog Midpoint Rating: ¶¶¶¶

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Note: With 36 people signed up ahead of me for the library copy, I decided to buy it so that I could read at my leisure. I was happy to discover that the hardback edition is on sale at Amazon.com for $9.50 (it was originally $24.99). The paperback edition is not yet available, but will be soon, if the clearance price is any indication. Here is the link to it on Amazon: Amazon.com Widgets

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P.S. Although many people viewed “Line in the Sand,” no one submitted an entry, so there are no winners!
[Or losers – I get to keep my $10! ;)]

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