Harsh as a cry of terror in their quietness

Invisible Man
by Ralph Ellison

I have been meaning to read this for years, and especially so since I added it to two of my reading lists: Classics Club and the Luke Cake Reading List. I finally bought a copy after seeing the Gordon Parks photography project of the same name in Berlin last year (Parks and Ellison worked together on the project for LIFE magazine), which was a really moving experience.

The novel is also moving, but equally brutal and shocking. It opens and closes (aside from the slightly abstract, essayistic prologue and epilogue) with its most shocking scenes. The un-named narrator starts out as a successful scholar whose family can’t afford to send him to college. His one chance is to impress the local rotary club – i.e. powerful rich white men. At the club he finds himself in a group of black young men who are stripped to their underwear and forced to fight each other while blindfolded. Afterward they are made to scrabble on the floor for their pay. It’s upsetting, humiliating, dehumanising, and the outcome is that the narrator is given a scholarship to a black-only college. It seems that his life is set.

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It was foolish to think some things were beyond happening

The Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kidd

A few years back a publisher sent me a book on spec that I completely fell in love with: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I have been meaning ever since to go back to her famously popular debut novel. As her previous writings were spiritual memoirs, she’s not an obvious candidate for my fandom, but this book also really hit the spot for me.

It’s the story of Lily, a 14-year-old white girl who lives on a peach farm in South Carolina with her perpetually angry father. She may or may not have accidentally killed her mother when she was four. Either way, there’s not a lot of affection in her life and what little there is comes from her black housekeeper Rosaleen. When Rosaleen spits tobacco on the shoes of white men who are racially abusing her, she is arrested and Lily’s father refuses to bail her out. Lily fears for Rosaleen’s life in police custody so she busts her out and they run away together.

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Sunday Salon: #Diverseathon

The Sunday SalonDuring Trump’s first nine days in office I have been constantly thinking about civil rights, women’s rights…human rights, basically, and how they are being threatened and outright denied. As well as doing practical things to help – donating to refugee charities and subscribing to newspapers that I feel are doing vitally necessary journalism – I also wanted to base my reading around these subjects. And then I heard there was already a BookTube project to do just that.

#Diverseathon runs from 22 January to the end of today and is co-hosted by Simon Savidge, Monica Watson, Christina Marie and Joce. The primary aim is to encourage everyone to read more diversely, but there are some more specific goals. There was a group read of The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I didn’t join, but I’ve thought the book sounded fascinating since I first heard about it on the Slate Represent podcast.

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Voices

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

Audiobook narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer and Cassandra Campbell

A few weeks ago the Guardian offered readers this audiobook as a free download via Audible. Well, I couldn’t say no to that, could I? This book was even on my wishlist. Perfect.

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to in years and it’s a very different experience from reading, so I still can’t say for sure whether I would have enjoyed reading this book. Probably, but I can’t be certain. However, I loved the audiobook. It’s a gripping story, with lots of wonderful characters and the narrators did a fantastic job of bringing it to life. Really, this felt more like a radio play than a read, but it was more immersive and captivating than any radio play I can remember.

The story is narrated by three characters, plus there is one chapter told in third person, and those are the four voice actors. Each narrates their own chapters in full, putting on different voices for the different people they talk about, so you hear some characters voiced three or even four different ways. It sounds confusing but it isn’t really.

The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. White women throw themselves into the busy schedule of society events, setting up their unmarried friends with suitable partners and having babies, while their coloured maids raise those babies, clean their houses and cook their meals. No-one questions this state of things or tries to change it, even while the rest of the USA is discovering civil rights, but beneath the surface, tensions are high between the communities. Nasty things happen to anyone who steps out of line, and the line is narrow.

Narrator number one is Aibileen, maid to Elizabeth Leefolt, a vacuous woman whose eagerness to please centre of society and “League” president Hilly Holbrook makes her an increasingly difficult and even dangerous employer. Narrator number two is Minnie, another maid, who near the start of the book is fired by Hilly Holbrook on behalf of her aged mother and must find another job while Hilly is spreading lies all over town about her. Narrator number three is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an old schoolfriend of Elizabeth and Hilly and the only one to make it through college – the others left to get married. She is a slightly awkward woman, convinced by her mother’s constant sniping that she is too tall, too plain and too lacking in taste to ever attract a man. So instead she lives with her parents and sticks to her routine of League events and tennis at the country club, keen to be a part of it all.

At the start of the book Elizabeth and Skeeter seem quite similar – nice enough, thrown by Hilly’s nasty comments about black people but pretty clueless about the world really. But a combination of things make their paths diverge. Skeeter is intelligent while Elizabeth is dumb, but Elizabeth is a central member of society by being married and a mother, while Skeeter, by being single and resisting attempts to change that, is held at arms’ length from society. When Skeeter pitches article ideas to a New York publisher and touches on civil rights, she is only raising the topics she thinks the publisher wants to hear about. But then she starts to look around her and find out what is actually going on, and is shocked into taking sides.

The three narrators are warm, funny, wonderful characters – at least, once they get to have their own say they are. But there’s also a large cast of further characters running the whole gamut from scheming and vindictive, complacent and therefore complicit, genuinely good but afraid to stand out from the crowd, and many others inbetween. There’s a violent husband, a loving husband, an absent husband. There’s white outsiders besides Skeeter. All are fully fleshed out and real (though that may be due to good acting as much as good writing).

I thought I knew the facts about civil rights, about the divisions and the violence and the politics, but this book brought to life what it must have really been like, the genuine life-threatening danger of being different, just 50 years ago in a so-called civilised country. It’s terrifying but it’s also wonderful to see how brave people could be, had to be, in the face of awfulness. And yet, in spite of the huge, dark issues, this is a warm, uplifting book.

When I first downloaded the audiobook I didn’t know how I would find time to listen to over 17 hours of it. That’s a lot of time. But I downloaded the Audible app so I could listen on my phone and it has been my companion for two weeks – walking to work, doing housework, taking the train – all to the soundtrack of Mississippi accents drawing me into a world that I was genuinely sad to leave behind.

The film rights were snapped up pretty quickly and I believe The Help (film) has already been released in the US, while in the UK we have to wait until October. I’m intrigued but so much will have to be cut. Hmm.

Book first published 2009.

UPDATE: There has been some controversy surrounding this book and a great discussion has started over on Amy Reads and Wolfs Howl, who are also running a related reading project. Very illuminating.