Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Help ~ Kathryn Stockett

I managed to read The Help back in September, back before things started to be due for my graduate classes, and I had a (now defunct) book club and an assignment (though I was allowed to just watch the movie) to motivate me.  Now the idea of reading a 400-page book while classes are going on, even a quick read like this, makes me want to start pulling my hair out.  But back in September I managed it, though not the review, so I'm playing catch-up now (it's my hope to also write a review of The Awakening before the end of my rapidly disappearing long weekend).  I can't promise a very thorough review since it's been two months, but here goes.

I liked it despite myself.  And despite itself.  I went into the reading experience with some other bloggers' thoughts in my head, most notably the opinion that Stockett would have achieved her aim better by putting together a real version of The Help, i.e. the real stories of real black maids as told in their real words, and also by not making a white character their savior.  And I still stand by those opinions.  But I liked it anyway.

Skeeter, as you may know, is a white native of Jackson, Mississippi, where the novel takes place.  She misses the black maid who raised her and flinches when her racist friends make racist comments but doesn't say anything.  She wants to be a writer, so she applies to a publishing firm in New York, and is told to submit a writing sample on something super-interesting and relevant, so she says Aha!  I will write about these black ladies because surely they want to help me!  And then after months of convincing them, she becomes a hero and runs away to New York and leaves them to their fates.  It makes me sad that she's the character I mention first in a novel that seems like it should be about black women, but really it's about a white lady helping black women (oooh, I wonder if that's what the title really means).  Oh, by the way, I don't like her very much.

I do like the maids, though, whose stories intersperse hers (though not often enough).  They were a joy to read about and are really what made the story.  While Skeeter is worrying about upsetting her mom and being fired from her job as editor of the Junior Racists Newsletter, Minny and Aibileen are living.  They support their friends and families, work harder than their employers could imagine, suffer real pain and worry, get dumped on regularly, and still manage to thrive.  They expose the truths of their employers, both good and bad, while not letting those truths get in the way of their own beings.  They are why I couldn't dislike this book.

I'm not going to ramble too much, but I'm going to direct you to the Reading Rambo's discussion of a short bit of the book because everything she says I agree with, and how often does that happen?  Not very.

As for recommendations, I don't know what to tell you.  It's an easy read and the writing's decent.  Not great, but decent.  I took it out of the library (a service I rarely utilize) and am happy I did, because I won't be reading this again.  If you want something quick and balanced between fluffy and really quite serious, this is a good choice.  If you're likely to vomit at the idea of somebody pooping in a pie, you might want to shy away.  If you're looking for a great idea of a project to work on, you might consider a factual collection of the stories of black maids in Civil Rights-era Jackson, Mississippi.  I know I'd read it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Meatless Monday *er* Tuesday ~ Thanksgiving Recipes

Sadly, this is my first Meatless Monday post in months and I didn't even manage to post it on a Monday.  Ah well.  This will be a quick post; I just wanted to share with you some yummy vegetarian Thanksgiving ideas because OH YEAH.  It's possible to have a delicious Thanksgiving feast without a dead turkey in the middle of the table!  I just had my fourth annual pre-Thanksgiving celebration with friends, which was entirely vegan except for a pie somebody brought, and I really don't think anybody missed the bird.  In fact, one of my omnivorous friends even texted me ahead of time to tell me how excited he was for my cooking (which totally made my day).

Meatless Monday is a movement to get Americans to eat less meat and more veggies through the simple expedient of not eating any animal products one day a week.  It's a great way to segue into vegetarianism or even veganism, or just make a small but real difference in your health and the environment.  To that end, on Meatless Mondays here at Soy Chai Bookshelf I will talk about anything related to food and vegetarianism, from cookbook reviews to to recipes I've created (don't hold your breath) to bragging about the delicious vegetarian feast I just whipped up to discussing in a (hopefully) not-too-judgemental way why vegetarianism is a great choice.

But first, a rant.  I HATE it when people call it Turkey Day and I always have, even before I became a vegetarian.  Calling it that completely undermines the purpose of the holiday, which is to give thanks for all you have and not verbalize your gluttony.  Also, the idea of Thanksgiving is not an American thing!  Many, maybe even most cultures have an equivalent celebration, even if they don't necessarily call it that (though some, like Canada do).  Ever heard of a harvest celebration?  Yeah, same thing.

But anywho, the recipes!  I started the meal with a repeat hit from last year: Houlihan's shrooms, deep-fried and delicious.  I subbed in Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese, and nobody could care less, they were so yummy.  This year, I decided to make a yummy lentil loaf, which is a first for Thanksgiving and will certainly be repeated.  I also made a delicious sweet potato casserole, sans vegetarian-unfriendly marshmallows.  I don't think marshmallows are necessary for sweet potatoes, but if you want them, go for Dandies or Sweet & Sara's brands.  They are gelatin free and veg-friendly!  I also made stuffed butternut squash from an e-cookbook that I can't seem to find, but here's what seems to be a free updated version of it (there are about a trillion other great Thanksgiving recipes there as well).  I also made the mushroom gravy from Vegan Brunch, which is always a big hit.  There's also this stuffed pumpkin recipe (vegans beware - there be cheese).  I've never made it, but I have my eye on it for next year.  If you make it, let me know how it turns out.

Then there are the basics that you don't really need recipes for.  Boil up some potatoes until fork tender, drain, and mash with enough melted Earth Balance and warmed soy milk until they're just how you like them.  Don't forget the salt.  Take some from green beans and broccoli and saute them in olive oil with some garlic, and you have an easy and yummy green veggie to serve (I add a splash of water in the pan and cover it for a couple minutes so that they soften without shriveling up or getting burnt).  And you don't need help with the dessert, right? That link up there with a whole list of recipes also has some great veganized desserts.  Check out the list of veg references I posted a couple of months ago for more great ideas.

And here's a bit of Thanksgiving Day advice: if you're a vegetarian hosting omnivores, please don't feel like you need to cook a turkey (see above comment about how this is about the harvest not a dead bird).  Stick to your convictions and serve up some delicious veggies, and everybody will be happy, including you.  And for you omnivores that are entertaining vegetarians - use vegetable stock instead of chicken or beef so that everybody is happy (and Earth Balance and non-dairy milk if they're vegan), and please don't be insulted when they don't partake in the bird.  It's nothing personal.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!  I hope it's a great day for all!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fragile Things ~ Neil Gaiman, Week Eight

I'm writing this at work - shh, don't tell!

I'm a week behind on both the final Fragile Things post and the RIP IV challenge.  Better late than never, right?  As usual, here's the link to all of the final week's posts.  Since it's the last week, I'm also going to give you links to all of my posts up to now:

Our first (and fourth-to-last) selection was a poem, "The Day the Saucers Came."  I actually liked this poem's rhythm and pattern, so I'll share a stanza with you:
That day, the day the saucers came, by some coincidence,
Was the day that the graves gave up their dead
And the zombies pushed up through soft earth
or erupted, shambling and dull-eyed, unstoppable
Came towards us, the living, and we screamed and ran
But you did not notice because (271)
Each stanza feeds into another (hence the abrupt stop above) and it flows well.  The content I'm not as big a fan of - zombies and similar horrors really aren't my thing - but I was still able to enjoy it.  The apparent point of the poem is for the narrator to list all of the horror some person could overlook in waiting for him to call, which was a bit of an underwhelming end and demonstrated exception immodesty but, you know, whatever.

"Sunbird" was a story that had me considering a Meatless Monday discussion but lets face it, it's unlikely that that will happen, so I'll just talk about here.  So there's an Epicurean Club of obnoxious, wealthy people whose sole goal seems to be to experience every possible thing on the planet via their gustatory systems.  As a vegetarian, I've got to say that I'm not a fan of people eating every living being they can't get their mouths on just for the hell of it.  They begin the story listing everything they've eaten - "vulture, mole, and fruitbat ... kakopo, aye-aye, and giant panda ... several long-extinct species" (274).  I think there's a bit of a problem when people choose to experience their world by digesting it rather than seeing and learning about it.  And yes, I know that this is a story, but there are a lot of people out there who couldn't give a crap about other cultures yet get their kicks from eating whatever weird new animal has made its way onto a menu.  But anyway.  The Epicurean Club is lamenting the fact that there's no new weird thing left to eat.  But their oldest member, who mysteriously dines on fireflies and coal, suggests the Sunbird (aka phoenix), so the party travels down to Egypt to catch and munch one.  They never seem to actually kill it, which I guess is the point with a phoenix, but they also don't seem bothered by the fact that they're eating an animal that's not dead.  But anyway.  So it turns out that phoenixes are delicious but they burn you up from the inside unless you train for it by eating fire and stuff beforehand, so you could say that the old dude tricked them but I'd say that they should not be eating mythical creatures to begin with.  We'll call it a draw?  I had a hard time thinking about this story in a literary sense because I was so bothered about it, so I'm sorry for the uselessness of this paragraph.  Ah well.

"Inventing Aladdin" was a poem about a woman who tells stories to stay alive.  Literally.  If she runs out of stories to tell and her husband gets bored, he will kill her.  This was obviously a fictional creation of how Aladdin came to be, but I like it.  There are some things that will never be known, and this was a good an explanation as any.  I tend to like historical fiction (though I rarely read it) and this definitely falls into that category.  AND, me liking it sets us up for a strong ending...

...which, fortunately, the book had.  The collection ends with a novella, "The Monarch of the Glen."  It apparently is connected with American Gods, which I have never read and now want to.  Which is rather impressive, considering the fact that for most of the book I was all "meh" and then it ends and I somehow want more.  Clever, Mr. Gaiman.  Very clever.

So "The Monarch of the Glen" tells of a creepy place filled with monsters and rich people who delight in barbarism.  This place is called Scotland.  Which I am now a little scared to visit and has also jumped to the top of my list of places to visit.  Our main character is called Shadow, and he is large, large enough to be called a monster and to be selected as a last-minute "security guard" at a party for people he's never allowed to talk about.  Mr. Smith and Mr. Alice from "Keepsakes and Treasures" make another appearance, which was a pleasant surprise.  So does Grendel, or some Grendel-like creature, which was odd and made me want to revisit the story of Beowulf, which I think I last read in 2003 for junior year English.  I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just say that this story was creepy, evocative, and shows what Gaiman can accomplish with more words than he uses in most of the pieces in this collection.  It was a great way to end the book.

Overall, I'm not sure that I really enjoyed this book, but I don't regret doing the group read.  It was nice to feel like I was in a book club, even if I was that obnoxious member that never does the reading on time.  A commitment like this was a bit too much too pile on top of grad school, but I've got nobody to answer to but myself, so deal. :] This also brings the RIP challenge to a close for me (I managed to stretch it out a bit), but I look forward to next year and to Carl's spring challenge devoted to fairy tales (I already have a book ready for that). 

Next I'll be reading The Boat by Nam Le, another collection of short stories.  I also have a books up my sleeve that I still need to write reviews for (The Help, The Awakening, and Neverwhere) so look out for that.  And I'm deciding what book to read over Thanksgiving, since I know I won't be devoting the whole week off to getting ahead on school work.  I'm thinking The Difference Machine, which I've had sitting on my shelf for several months now.  Thoughts?