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Kathryn Stockett's The Help: Building Bridges and Breaking Down Barriers

July 11, 2011 in Contemporary Literature, Literary Movies 2011, Literary Traveler Book Reviews, Southern Writers

Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help, was recommended to me by a friend.  She described it as a book she just couldn’t put down, a book that allowed to her to immerse herself in a different world. I was eager for a page-turner, but hesitated when I discovered The Help was advertised as a “bestseller,” a label that prompts both curiosity and fear.

As I began, I was immediately struck by the accuracy of my friend’s description. After a single paragraph, I felt as if I were thinking from the perspective of an African-American maid, responsible for “taking care of white babies…along with all the cooking and the cleaning” in Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. As I read on, however, I discovered the story is narrated by three different women: two black domestic workers and one white, upper-class daughter of plantation owner. These characters present radically different perspectives, and this is clearly reflected in Stockett’s style and strict attention to character details.

Stockett also employs a controversial method to distinguish her characters: eye dialect, a literary technique in which words are spelled as they are pronounced in a particular vernacular.When the character Aibileen exclaims “Lord!”, for example, the word is written, “Law!”, because that’s how the word sounds when it comes from Aibileen’s mouth.

At first I was a bit startled by this technique, as it is frequently attributed to older works like Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and is sometimes discouraged in contemporary literature. Eye dialect has been criticized as a form of racism, depicting minorities as uneducated or “incorrect.” Mark Twain often replaced the word “civilize” with “sivilize.” Critics argue this kind of substitution is unnecessary because it does not further the understanding of the pronunciation of the word, but is used merely to stress an African-American character’s lack of education.

In my opinion, Stockett’s use of eye-dialect is different than prior use, so it doesn’t seem out-dated. Authors like Twain misspelled and made up new words, intending to depict the pronunciation of a dialect. Stockett doesn’t do this; instead, she only substitutes one word (lord) for another, existing word (law), subtly expressing a dialect’s variance in pronunciation. This variation on eye-dialect does not insinuate that the African-American characters are unintelligent or ignorant; rather, it is incredibly effective in developing character voice, and accurately illustrating the time, place and culture each character embodies. The Help is a riveting novel that discusses a truly difficult time in our nation’s history. Stockett’s inspiring characters and unforgettable use of perspective act as a bridge between races and societies rather than a barrier.

Be sure to check out the motion picture interpretation of The Help, which will be coming to theaters August 12, 2011. The film, directed by Tate Taylor, will star Emma Stone, Viola Davis, and, Octavia Spencer.


Midnight in Paris: A Philosophical Stroll through the City of Lights

July 6, 2011 in Famous Painters, Literary Movies 2011, Pop Culture

Midnight in Paris, Sony Pictures Classics

Amid the tempest of sequels and special effects that currently shrouds Hollywood, it seems difficult to find a good summer movie. Woody Allen’s latest production, Midnight in Paris, might cast off your concerns–it’s a thoughtful and strikingly elegant film.

Owen Wilson plays Gil Bender, a restless, romantic screenwriter, who travels to Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents. Inez isn’t as enamored by the bohemian lifestyle Paris represents for Gil, so he walks the city streets at night alone, finding himself actually transported into the roaring twenties, an era he considers to be a golden age.

Some of the film’s most delightful moments occur as Gil encounters beloved literary and artistic figures of the time. He comes across a brusque, rugged Hemingway (Corey Stoll), whose blunt remarks on the value of courage, truth and the importance of hunting and making love epitomize (even exaggerate) the persona that is clearly present in Hemingway’s prose.

Woody Allen also attempts to capture Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill) and of course, her husband F. Scott (Tom Hiddleston), as well as Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), and my personal favorite, Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody).

The plot thickens when Gil finds himself not only falling in love with 1920s Paris but with Picasso’s young mistress, Adriana (Marion Cotillard). Gil’s relationship with Adriana is no carefree fling though, forcing Gil to ask an uncomfortable question: Can he live happily in the past and forget the present? This philosophical quandary becomes more complicated as Adriana confesses that she would prefer to live in the 1890s, a time she considers a golden age.

This “grass is always greener” mentality is something that resonated with me. I’ve often thought I would love to have grown up in The Sixties, a time when important social movements took the world by storm and rock n’ roll was at its finest. Midnight in Paris reminded me that there are downsides to living in any time period. If I lived during my golden age I would miss the convenience and profound influence of the internet, and been frustrated by the enforced Vietnam draft. But I can certainly relate to Gil’s longing for a perfect, simpler time.

Midnight in Paris not only brings to the screen witty representations of important artists and gorgeous Parisian scenery, but it serves as a commentary on the nature of humans, our longings and awakenings.

Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre: Independent Women

April 21, 2011 in British literature, European Writers, Literary Movies, Literary Movies 2011, LIterary Traveler Birthdays

Charlotte Bronte, Painting by George Richmond

Charlotte Brontë was no stranger to death. Her mother died when she was only five years old. When Brontë was nine years old both her older sisters died, and the rest of her siblings, Branwell, Emily, and Anne all passed away in 1848-49. Charlotte herself came to an untimely end when she died of tuberculosis at age 38, along with her unborn child.

However, this presence of death did not stop her from publishing the literary masterpiece, Jane Eyre and taking her place among the most prominent writers of the 19th Century. In fact, the hardships Brontë suffered may have helped her to portray the character of Jane with such realism and sensitivity. The orphaned Jane is forced to endure a variety of unfortunate situations throughout her childhood as she is passed from guardian to guardian: first her pitiless aunt, Mrs. Reed, then the cruel headmaster of Lowood School, Mr. Brocklehurst. Just when Jane appears to have finally found happiness at Thornfield Manor, she discovers that her fiance, Mr. Rochester, is in fact hiding a horrific secret that could compromise her blissful “happily ever after” ending.

It is precisely Jane Eyre’s strength in the face of adversity and her independence (characteristics not frequently ascribed to women of the time period) that make her such a compelling character. These traits are famously showcased in one of Jane’s speeches to Mr. Rochester: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.” This sort of empowering, proto-feminist discourse was rarely found in many novels of the time, and in fact, Brontë felt the need to write her first two novels under the masculine pen name, Currer Bell, because, as she later admitted, she had “a vague impression that authoresses [we]re liable to be looked on with prejudice” Later, however, her identity was very well known, thus Charlotte Brontë, herself was an independent woman who possessed the strength and determination so frequently attributed to her most celebrated character.

Jane Eyre is a character who has obviously left her mark on the public mind, as she has inspired various adaptations of the novel, including musicals, literary sequels, television series, and of course, motion pictures. The most recent film version was just released March 11, 2011 to positive reviews; it stars Mia Wasikowska (who also played Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) as Jane, and Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester.



Water for Elephants Movie Opens April 22

April 18, 2011 in American literature, Literary Movies, Literary Movies 2011

Robert Pattinson / Photo by Nicolas Genin

Water for Elephants was a surprise hit.  It reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, captivating audiences with its young-old protagonist, timeless love story and circus theme.  It even has a big leading lady named Rosie, the elephant.  Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen was never supposed to succeed; Gruen was rejected many times by publishers but never gave up.  She finally found a small publisher, Algonquin Books, who helped turn Gruen’s book into a huge success.

From that success, not only came a bevy of die-hard Gruen fans, but a feature-length movie based on the novel.  The lead role of Jacob goes to Robert Pattinson, more commonly known as “Edward” in the Twilight Saga movies.  The beautiful Marlena, Jacob’s love interest, is played by Reese Witherspoon.  And Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (of Inglourious Basterds fame) plays August, the villain.  The choice of Pattinson raised many eyebrows, so it will be interesting to see how he is received by audiences in the role of Jacob.

Water for Elephants hits theaters on April 22, 2011.  The book is wonderful and has a magnificent, larger-than-life presence.  We’re hoping the movie is the same.


Will Literary Colin Firth Win the Oscar?

February 25, 2011 in British literature, Literary Movies 2011, Literary News

Colin Firth / Nicogenin, CC LicenseColin Firth is certainly a handsome brooder.  He’s made his mark on literary television when he played the always brooding Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  For those of us–especially the ladies–who remember this epic series in 1995, we all remember Colin Firth’s scene stealing dark glares.

Firth has made quite a bit of money off of the literary.  In fact, he played the modern version of Mr. Darcy as the character of Mark Darcy, a lawyer from a well-established, British family, in Bridget Jones’ Diary.  The movie was a modern and quirky adaption of Pride and Prejudice.  Firth then continued his literary movie success acting in hits such as Shakespeare in Love, The Importance of Being Earnest, Dorian Gray and A Christmas Carol.

For anyone who has seen Colin Firth in his latest movie, The King’s Speech, you’re probably not surprised to hear he’s a favorite to win the Oscar for Best Actor.  The King’s Speech is not exactly literary, but it is historical.  It keeps in line with Firth’s career, which is to put quality over anything else.

So what do you think, will Colin Firth win the Oscar?

American Pastoral, My Literary Movie Pick for 2011

January 4, 2011 in American literature, Classic Writers, Literary Movies 2011, philip roth, Pulitzer Prize Winners

gdcgraphics / Creative Commons License2011 already looks like a big year for literary movies.  The much anticipated movies The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson (starring Johnny Depp) and On the Road by Jack Kerouac (starring a host of famous faces including Kristen Stewart, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, etc.) are finally set to release in 2011.

But there’s one movie release I can’t wait for.  I’m obsessed with 20th-21st century literary great Philip Roth, so it’s only natural I’m waiting for American Pastoral to come out on the big screen.  This is the book that taught me how to write.  And this is the book which has incredibly complex and compelling characters such as the Swede and his sociopath daughter Merry.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998.

The movie has been slated to release for a while now.  Even at press time, I cannot find the exact details or release date.  But what I do know is that Evan Rachel Wood will play Merry, an absolute crazy, which Woods has already proved she can play in Thirteen and on the HBO series True Blood.  The pick for the Swede is Paul Bettany, who played uber pale Silas in The Da Vinci Code.  He is a perfect pick for the Swede because the Swede is actually Jewish, but he looks Scandinavian, hence his nickname “the Swede.”

The Swede’s troubled wife and former Miss Jersey is to be played by the beautiful Jennifer Connelly of House of Sand and Fog and A Beautiful Mind fame.  She is gorgeous enough to play the Swede’s wife and she certainly knows how to play a woman in emotional turmoil.

So as you can see, I’m psyched about American Pastoral.  I will keep our literary travelers up to date on when the movie will be released to the big screen.  And I’ll definitely be the first in line.

~ Jennifer, Network Editorial Director

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