Book Review: The Circular Staircase

Title: The Circular Staircase
Author: Mary Roberts Rineheart
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Year of Publication: 1908
Goodreads Rating (Avg): 3.66
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Mild Spoilers

the circular staircase.jpeg

Plot Description: A spinster aunt, her inseparable companion, and her adoptive children (niece and nephew) rent a house in the country for a few months. Almost immediately, there is a murder in the house – the son of the owner is dead. What’s more, the servants believe the house is haunted, due to mysterious noises and intruders who somehow manage to get into the house no matter how many windows are barred, how many doors locked, and how many armed men keep watch.

This made for an enjoyable read, although I was under the impression that I was reading an Agatha Christie novel from start to end. The same thing happened when I read “The Man in Lower Ten,” although in that case I figured out halfway through the book that it was a different author.

It’s hard to imagine a book written a hundred years ago managing not to sound entirely too alien, but I guess this explains all the constant hysteria on the part of the women in the book. I’m rather glad that the female characters – and specifically, protagonist Rachel Innes – dominate the storyline entirely. Lady’s maid Liddy and niece Gertrude also play significant parts in the novel, and the book tends to focus on their perspectives and interests, as well as those of the numerous interchangeable (mostly female) servants and the delicately ill Louise Armstrong.

It is quite annoying to watch these women hear strange sounds in the night and then immediately rush into their rooms and bolt the doors, rather than go out and catch the culprits red-handed. It’s equally annoying that on the few occasions where they actually go out to try and catch the culprits red-handed, they faint with amazing promptness at the slightest whisper of contact with said culprits. All this serve as narrative devices that stretch the mystery out, and while they may have been believable plot devices in Rineheart’s head, they’re rather pathetic plot holes now.

The book rushes headlong through numerous twists, some of which would be easily guessed by a veteran reader of detective fiction. To be honest, I was more interested by Rachel Innes – her nosiness and spirit for adventure, despite the ever present danger of spontaneous fainting. Miss Innes is exhilarated by the prospect of going on an adventure involving midnight grave desecration and mischievously enjoys Liddy’s confusion at finding her mistress’ boots covered in dirt and smelling of the graveyard.

The description of Thomas Johnson (“the Armstrongs’ colored butler”) was something else I found interesting:

“Mrs. Watson had been glad enough, I think, to turn Louise over to our care, and Thomas went upstairs night and morning to greet his young mistress from the doorway. Poor Thomas! He had the faculty–found still in some old negroes, who cling to the traditions of slavery days–of making his employer’s interest his. It was always “we” with Thomas; I miss him sorely; pipe- smoking, obsequious, not over reliable, kindly old man!”

A perspective from the 1900s, written by a white woman, telling of the more “benevolent” conceptions of race and of black people in those days. At any rate, “poor Thomas” did not survive the novel – he had a heart attack upon seeing what he thought was a ghost, and died hiding in a cupboard. “Poor Thomas” was a complete narrative device – one dimensional and existing to enhance parts of the mystery through his actions, all of which were born of selfless devotion. I particularly dislike his thieving employer for having caused Thomas’ death – the man had faked his death, and then returned to search the house for his ill gotten goods, causing Thomas to assume that he’d seen a ghost.

I enjoyed this book much more than I did The Man in Lower Ten, quite possibly because this story wasn’t being narrated by a pompous prat of a man who seemed incapable of telling women apart, and incapable of assessing the female personality on any grounds except that of physical attractiveness. Rachel Innes is a great narrator and protagonist, her inquisitiveness and nose for adventure giving fresh breath to what would otherwise have been a very stuffy enterprise indeed.

Next Review: The 39 Clues [The Clue Hunt] #5 – The Black Circle

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Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Title: Prentice Alvin
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1989
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.76
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2.5

Watch for Spoilers

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Plot Description: After his adventures with the Native Americans, Alvin finally reaches his birthplace for the long promised apprenticeship. The blacksmith under whom he is to learn is understandably put off by the fact that he’s about a year late. In the meantime, Peggy (the Torch from the first book) is finally ready to stop protecting him full time and get herself a life of her own. The very day Alvin is set to return to Hattrack Town, Peggy runs away. A subplot deals with a runaway slave girl who is determined to ensure that her child is born a free man.

Prentice Alvin is undoubtedly where the Alvin Maker series begins to spiral out of control. For the most part, the plot is boring, dealing with Alvin’s trials under the ornery Smith, who finds it difficult to decide whether to be jealous or greedy. The people around him continue to react to him in predictable ways – unconditional admiration, or jealous loathing, but obsessive in either case.

The runaway girl’s son is named Arthur Stuart, after the King of England of the time and adopted by Peggy Guester’s mother in the place of the daughter she had lost. Arthur Stuart grows up to completely adore Alvin and has a knack of mimicking voices and sounds perfectly, along with an eidetic memory.

I spoke about the theme of white guilt pervading Orson Scott Card’s writing in Red Prophet, and this theme becomes even more pronounced in Prentice Alvin. Card goes out of his way to emphasize the foulness and vileness of slavery as a practice, as if to ensure that the reader is left with no doubt as to Card’s stance on the issue. Unfortunately, Arthur Stuart is a complete nonentity of a character, surrounded by privileged white characters who devote their time and energy to protecting him from danger. He is the first non-white character to have a major role in this series (yes, it took three books) and he barely does anything at all.

Card’s worldview as far as Native Americans and African Americans are concerned is similar to the Orientalist perspective on Asian countries. Factors that are considered indigenous to that culture are upheld and applauded, while attempts at integrating factors that were until then unique to white cultures are looked down upon. For example, he decries the decisions of the Iroquois and Cherokee tribes to integrate with the American nation, and in his alternate universe, the Native Americans move away to form their own nation, on which Whites may never set foot. As far as the rest of the country is concerned, the ‘greensong’ has all but died out there, and will never return. That land is considered dead.

The problem with a privileged party taking up the cause of an oppressed party as a means of assuaging their own guilt is that the voices of the oppressed are once again passed over in favour of that of a member of the privileged class. In addition to this, Card’s interpretation of history is still largely white-centric, for all his moral lecturing, and black characters are yet to become a major part of the story of Alvin Maker.

Moreover, I’m one of those people who think that scenes depicting graphic violence towards demographics that have traditionally suffered much violence, and who are still quite vulnerable to violence should be avoided unless completely necessary to the plot. This is one of the biggest reasons why I stopped watching Game of Thrones, and it’s a major criticism I plan to bring up when I eventually review the Alex Cross series by James Patterson. A lot of GR reviews talk about how the adult content in this book prevents them from reading it to their kids, and I think that while the scenes in Prentice Alvin still fall under the heading of ‘Adult Content’ and not ‘Completely Unnecessary Pornographic Sensationalism’ (CUPS?) they were perhaps not entirely necessary to the plot. I can think of a few other ways in which the same information could have been imparted to the reader without using the scenes Card did in this book.

My final criticism of Prentice Alvin (which extends to the rest of the series as well) is how obsessively the story centres around Alvin now. The lives of every character – most prominently that of Peggy Guester – has become about Alvin. In one of the final scenes of the book, Alvin uses his powers to create his journeyman piece – a plow made of living gold. While the fantasy genre is no stranger to wild, weird concepts, it feels out of place in this series which largely rests on an atmosphere of American folk magic.

P.S.: I really don’t like the Alvin depicted on the cover above. He looks awfully smug and arrogant.

Next Review: The Dark Tower #3 – The Waste Lands

Next Review in this Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #4 – Alvin Journeyman

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Year of Publication: 2009
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.44
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

SPOILER WARNING

Thehelp

Plot Description: A young white woman who returns from college to Jackson, Mississippi to find that the black maid who raised her from her childhood onwards is gone. Abileen is a black maid who is currently raising her seventeenth white child. Minny, Abileen’s best friend, also works as a maid, and is one of the best cooks in the area, but her sharp tongue means she loses her job easily. Set in the Segregation-era United States, The Help tells the story of how Skeeter, the white girl, helps the black maids working in and living around her home tell their stories of working for white families.

This is a hard book for me to review, and I might not have attempted it if it weren’t for (a) my obsession with reviewing every single book I’ve ever written, (b) my interest in feminism and intersectionality, (c) the fact that I watched the movie first, loved it, read the book and only then began to wonder whether there were any problems with it.

Here’s the thing. I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m not american, and my knowledge of cultural history in the US is limited to what I’ve learned from history books, newspapers, biographies, fiction and popular media. When a friend asked me my opinion of The Help right after I’d finished reading it, I didn’t know what to tell her. I liked it, sure, but I wasn’t sure how much the book mirrored real life. I’d seen a story I liked, but I didn’t know whether it was the truth.

I then read Roxane Gay’s review of The Help in the book Bad Feminist. And it became clear to me that the story I liked wasn’t really the truth – it was a sanitized, child friendly version of the truth.

“I don’t expect writers to always get difference right, but I do expect writers to make a credible effort. The Help demonstrates that some writers shouldn’t try to write across race and difference. Kathryn Stockett tries to write black women, but she doesn’t try hard enough. Her depictions of race are almost fetishistic unless they are downright insulting. At one point in the book, Aibileen compares her skin color to that of a cockroach, you know, the most hated insect you can think of. Aibileen says, staring at a cockroach, “He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.” That’s simply bad writing, but it’s an even worse way of writing difference. If white writers can’t do better than to compare a cockroach to black skin, perhaps they should leave the writing of difference in more capable hands. In The Help , Stockett doesn’t write black women. She caricatures black women, finding pieces of truth and genuine experience and distorting them to repulsive effect. She makes a very strong case for writers strictly writing what they know, not what they think they know but actually know nothing about.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

I don’t usually go searching for things in particular, so the things I read and see are the things I come across as zombie around. Which makes me wonder why it took so long for me to come across a review of The Help by a black person.

Before I read this review, I thought The Help was a good story. A little over-the-top, perhaps. Could people in real life be as Mean Girls-esque as the white married woman who were the owners of the homes that maids like Abilene and Minny worked in? Could they be as narrow minded and cliched? Reading the book gave me a growing sense of impending doom that the movie never did. Even though I’d already seen the movie, and could therefore presume that no such thing was about to happen, I read with growing apprehension as I waited for someone to catch Skeeter at Abilene’s house. I’d never even known about the existence of Jim Crow laws.

Reading The Help cleared away a little of my ignorance about the time. A lot of people I speak to tend to confuse the Civil War and the abolition of slavery with the civil rights movement. “Civil Rights Movement”, I say. They respond with “Abraham Lincoln?!” This is because, like me, they are neither black nor white, and nor are they American.

“Watching historical movies about the black experience (or white interpretations of the black experience) have become nearly impossible for the same reason I hope I never read another slave narrative. It’s too much. It’s too painful. Too frustrating and infuriating. The history is too recent and too close. I watch movies like Rosewood or The Help and realize that if I had been born to different parents, at a different time, I too could have been picking cotton or raising a white woman’s babies for less than minimum wage or enduring any number of intolerable circumstances far beyond my control. More than that, though, I am troubled by how little has changed. I am troubled by how complacently we are willing to consume these often revisionist stories of this country’s complex and painful racial history. History is important, but sometimes the past renders me hopeless and helpless.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist.

And this is why The Help and books like it are important to someone like me, who is a veritable outsider to the contents of the book. Because with no other frame of reference, reading The Help forces me to take its contents as the truth. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to wonder whether there’s an alternate version of the truth, or to go looking for it. If I hadn’t already been halfway through Bad Feminist at the time, it might have taken me quite a long time to go searching for a black person’s perspective on this book. On the other hand, I might never have gone searching for it at all, and might have spent my entire life believing that The Help (or Gone With the Wind before it) were realistic representations of black people.

I would try and rate The Help on the basis of its story alone, but I can’t. I’m unable to see past the fact that people with as much right to telling the story of the Segregation era have disagreed with its version so strongly. I want more books out there that receive as much popularity as The Help did, and which give me a better understanding of worlds I’ve never seen, worlds I might not ever see. I want this book to be replaced by books that do a much better job than it did.

 Next: The Blackcoat Rebellion #1 – Pawn by Aimee Carter