The Help (Book Review) – Kathryn Stockett

For the movie review, click here.

Born in Jackson, Mississippi and raised at the hands of a maid, Kathryn Stockett knows firsthand how it was to be a “superior” white person in the American South in the 1960s. The black maids tend to the white children, watch those children grow up and eventually become their bosses.

So it is with that sort of autobiographical flair that Stockett approaches her debut novel: The Help. No, the book is not an autobiography but it feels very real because it draws upon life-like elements and historical events to drive its plot. Eugena “Skeeter” Phelan is a fresh college graduate going home to Jackson in 1962 after a failed attempt at securing a job with important New York publishers. As she settles in the hierarchal routine of her hometown, Skeeter starts to realize that she doesn’t really belong in the bridge circles her friends have every week or their banquets. She’s also not as interested in the mundane elements of their lives that they love to share so much. So as Skeeter looks upon her friend’s maid, Aibileen, she asks her if she wished things were different. Aibileen cannot reply. But in a world where the white people of Jackson were trying to pass a regulation whereby colored individuals would have a different bathroom just because “they” carry different germs that do not go well with them while folks, Aibeleen has every reason to want change.

It is to the backdrop of racial segregation, fear, the KKK and white supremacists, mostly in the form of Skeeter’s friend, miss Hilly, that three women: Skeeter, Aibileen and a third maid, Minny, embark on an extraordinary quest that is really ordinary in all of its details: write a book about the stories of the maid of Jackson, a book that talks about the help including all of the bad, the ugly and the beautiful moments they have lived with their white employers.

The Help is told in three main parts, divided according to each character. The three parts intertwine as the story progresses but they are as distinct as they can be mostly due to the drastically different natures of the characters outlining and driving each part. Even the english language employed by Stockett is drastically different for each part: Aibileen’s part is mostly slang, Skeeter is proper English and Minnie finds a middle ground between them.

What is common to the three parts, however, is that all three characters driving them jump off the page due to their complex structure, warmth and exquisite character. Aibileen is the mother who cares about her employer’s little girl, Mae Mobley, as much as she cared about her son. Minnie is the angry, scrappy character who can’t stand silent to her employers berating her, who can’t stand by as Miss Hilly accuses her of being a thief. Skeeter is the woman wanting change in a time when people like her even existing is frowned upon, in a time where even the people she was trying to help are wary of her.

All of this is exposed in Stockett’s The Help in three-dimensional glory.

What leaves you as you finish The Help is a sense of happiness. It is a book about tormented lives seeking emancipation from the bonds of society. It is a book that gets you to laugh at points and sit in reflection at your own life at other points, especially as we, the Lebanese, have many of the incidences taking place in this book happening in own households with our “help”.

The Help, at the end of the day, is a book about empowerment. Be it the white woman empowering the black women to rise beyond their predicaments or Aibileen empowering Mae Mobley to be more than what her mother tells her: “Mae Mobley is kind. Mae Mobley is smart. Mae Mobley is important.”

The Help is kind. The Help is smart. The Help is important.

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The Heroes of Olympus: The Son of Neptune (Book Review) – Rick Riordan

The second installment in Rick Riordan’s new Greek (and Roman) mythology series: “The Heroes of Olympus,” was released a couple of weeks ago and immediately shot up to the top lists of best sellers. The book’s publishers prepared a 3 million copy first run print, something unprecedented in their history.

“The Heroes of Olympus” picks up where Riordan’s first series: “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” left off. With the first book, “The Lost Hero“, released last Fall, we were introduced to Jason, a demigod with no memories whatsoever about his origins or how he ended up with two other demigods named Piper and Leo. Together, they faced a terrifying quest where they had to save the goddess Hera from having her force absorbed by Mother Earth Gaea who sought to rise, as our regular cast (comprised of Annabeth, Grover and Tyson) searched frantically for a missing Percy Jackson.

As “The Lost Hero” ends, it is revealed to us that while the events of that book were taking place, Percy Jackson was taking part in the events of another demigod camp (illustrated in “The Son of Neptune”) – one where descendants of the Roman gods train. Both camps had been kept separate because Greek and Roman demigods – although they share godly parents – have different forms of those same gods and tend to get into brutal fights around each other.

In “The Son of Neptune,” Percy Jackson also has no recollection of who he is – apart from his name. He is taken to Camp Jupiter where he is immediately perceived as an outsider, with more than one person knowing who he truly is and refusing to tell him. Soon enough, he finds himself on another quest with Frank, a Chinese-descendant boy with a heavy burden and family secret, and Hazel, a girl with a mysterious past: two demigods with secrets they would like to keep hidden. And as the trio travel to Alaska – a land beyond the protection of the gods – they will grow a tight bond that helps them through all the ordeals they will face to finish their quest and come back to Camp Jupiter before it is destroyed by an army sent by Gaea.

The interesting thing about “The Heroes of Olympus” is that it is way more interesting than “Percy Jackson & The Olympians” book for book. While the first two books in the latter series struggle to keep an older reader interested, these ones do so right off the bat, simply because Rick Riordan doesn’t have the need to establish a readership for them anymore. Those who are reading “The Heroes of Olympus” have already read “Percy Jackson & The Olympians” – and stuck with Percy to the end.

Rick Riordan manages to create interesting new characters without you feeling they are overloaded with too much side story. And in books made out to be a light, breezy read, this helps the purpose while keeping those characters interesting enough for you to keep reading. The main fuel for “The Son of Neptune” – what gets the story going the most – is not the necessary need to advance the plot but rather the small revelations you get about those characters, especially Frank and Hazel.

The Son of Neptune” is a must read for whoever has stuck with Percy Jackson and Rick Riordan up to this point. This is definitely not the time to let go. And being an easy read, it won’t take much of your time, and with it alternating between the points of view of its three protagonists, provides you with different approaches to the plot. There’s everything you search for in a Rick Riordan book in this one: fight scenes, comedy, intrigue… and as usual Riordan delivers.

The third book in “The Heroes of Olympus” series, titled “The Mark of Athena” is scheduled for a Fall 2012 release.

Rick Riordan also has another series out – The Kane Chronicles – about Egyptian Mythology. Check out my reviews for The Red Pyramid and The Throne of Fire from that series.

The Holy Orb (Short Story) – Part 7

Continued from Part 6.

“Indeed, I am Veronica…”
“So you know where the cloth is!”
She smiled.
“Let us continue the story… the Church got hold of my cloth around the eighth century. I wasn’t dead as people thought. I was merely in hiding. So I gave up the cloth, though they did not notice that its upper left corner was missing. That corner had blood from Christ’s forehead. And I kept it with me all along. It’s the reason I remained alive for such a long period of time.
“David, listen carefully. The reason Eric is searching for the orb has something to do with that piece of the cloth. I placed it in the orb and wrote the riddle, constructed the mechanism of the sequence and created this enchanted and protected place just to make sure the only person with the necklace you are wearing can actually get to it. You are the only one, besides me, who can see the pedestal, who can read the riddle and who can construct the sequence that makes the code. You see, David, they used you to crack my protections because they couldn’t.
“The necklace around your neck has a rather intriguing story itself… it is called the Scroll of Life. It‟s what will allow you to swim to the orb and get it”
“So that orb contains a cloth that‟s covered with Christ‟s blood?” he asked, just to be sure he was hearing correctly.
“Indeed…”
“And why do they want it? Why does – err – Eric need it?”
The woman smiled.
“Eric is not the head of the Dark Order… he is second. The man who is first died a few months ago”
“Oh, you mean Thomas Conundrum?”
She nodded.

“Thomas Conundrum was killed a few months ago, leaving his followers in a hectic pursuit of a way to bring him back. The only way they thought of was a rather bloody and murderous trail. I‟m sure you noticed how many people have been killed in the last few months in ways that were unexplainable…”

David nodded.
“Those fourteen people, to be exact, were killed by an artifact called the Scroll that was manufactured by an Alchemist whose name is Alessandro Del Ialuna. The Scroll kills people and traps their soul inside it. Seven souls are enough to bring someone back from the dead!”
“But they killed fourteen! Were they just having fun?” said David, outraged.
The woman shook her head.
“Think about it David, if two souls were centered in one body, what would that make of the person?”
“Immortal… the Dicruxol effect!” he breathed.
“Exactly, having two souls in one body produced immortality. And that‟s precisely what those followers were attempting…”
“And the Scroll, David, gave rise to your own necklace. Just as your necklace protects your life, its predecessor takes it away. Just as a tyrant is bound to face opposition right from the people he is oppressing, the Scroll gave rise to the Scroll of Life. Death gave rise to Life…”
David nodded.
“So why do they need the cloth?” he asked, not knowing how the cloth fit into all this.
“The cloth, David, and the blood have been made part of a bold experiment by the Alchemist of Esquiline to extract the Divine entities inside them. It‟s only enough to make one draught, and the drinker would become nearly a god… you see, immortality just didn’t cut it to them. They also wanted to give him powers beyond imagination. And it‟s up to you not to let them succeed in their quest!”
David sighed.
He closed his eyes for a second, only to open them and find himself alone, again.

He knelt besides Elodie‟s body and wept.
And then the water-level of the lake began to rise.
It slowly reached David and surprisingly, as he sat there, the water did not feel like water. It was far less dense, more transparent, far lighter.
Elodie‟s body shone with a bright yellow light…
David looked at her in amazement.
And then her body disappeared.
He looked ahead.
There was the orb in front of him, and even though the water was now well beyond his nose, he could still breathe easily.
He swam towards the red-glowing sphere. He got to it and touched it with the tips of his hand, and warmth spread all over him.
Then, from the orb, a bubble erupted, moving water away from itself and David.
He smiled, knowing what to do next.
He opened the sphere, took the cloth with his hands and placed it inside the Scroll of Life. Then, he took out his wand and cut a piece of his shirt. Then, he neared it to his face and let it get soaked with blood from his cut.
He placed it inside the sphere, closed it and went back to the shore.
The Scroll of Life shone intently…

A few seconds later, he was inside his house, sitting on his favorite couch, his face neat and woundless, his soul whole, divine.

The Holy Orb (Short Story) – Part 6

Continued from Part 5.

“David… the man that took you to Our Lady of the Spirits is Durance in disguise. Durance is the main follower of the snake man. He is the person you shouldn‟t have trusted on your journey to the orb!
“Elodie, on the other hand, did not trust him. And she decided, when you left that she should follow you and that‟s what she did!”
David felt something choking him in his throat. It’s because of me, he thought, that Elodie is now on

the grass, lifeless.

“Elodie’s death was just meant to be! Don‟t dwell on it. Don‟t ever dwell on things that are fated. You cannot control, nor will you ever be able to control, fate…”

He nodded.
“What‟s your name?” he asked timidly.
The woman smiled.
“You will know in a few… I‟m just curious though. Did someone tell you what‟s in that orb?” David shook his head.
“I thought so,” she whispered. “The importance of this orb, David, is what rests inside it. Let me take you back to the origin of it all… let me take you back!”
She moved her hands again in the air and David was standing in a rather busy tight street.
He looked around and noticed the place was not medieval. It was far earlier than that. There was a huge rush of excited people. He thought they were having some sort of parade. He was mistaken. He saw Roman soldiers leading a crowd of people, at the beginning of which a Man was holding an enormous piece of wood.
He was walking weakly as the soldiers hit Him on His back. He did not, however, express pain. He just moved onwards.
And then He fell to the ground. And He was hit even harder to get up.
The march continued.
They were now going up a hill.
David looked in amazement at the single event in history everyone would die to see: Via Dolorosa. And then as He gasped for air, a woman appeared out of nowhere, with a cloth in her hands.
She wiped His face, shaking, fearing for His life.
David noticed as some thorns, from the bunch He had on His head, caught hold of the cloth. And then he was back besides the lake, the orb shining brighter than ever.
“You were there?” asked David amazed… “You – you are that woman, Saint Veronica!”
The woman smiled.

The Holy Orb (Short Story) – Part 5

Continued from Part 4.

David looked at Elodie’s body in shock. He felt his soul ache as the idea that he‟ll never be able to talk to her sank in. There was a flash of red light and David felt an immense pain across his face. There was a big cut across his face.

Feeling powerless, he knew he couldn‟t do anything.
He grabbed Elodie‟s hand and looked up.
A snake was slithering towards him, spitting poison as it got nearer.
A few feet away, it became a man again and that man pointed his wand directly at David‟s face. “Any last words, Parker?” he asked shrilly.

David did not reply.
There was another jet of yellow light…
An inch away from David, but it vanished.
The necklace around his neck was shining brightly, making him feel secure and warm. He got to his feet, and looked at the snake-man who seemed to cower from the rays that emanated from it. David grabbed Elodie‟s body… the rays grew stronger… he focused on his destination… and the next thing he was standing next to a crystal-clear lake, as a red orb shone right in its center.

David looked around and noticed the place was deserted. He laid Elodie‟s body on the ground and took a gasp of fresh air. He was appreciating the loneliness.
But it didn‟t last long.
A moment later, the woman who helped him solve the riddle appeared. He turned around, looked angrily at her, hoisted his wand and lunged forward.

“Wait!” she said calmly.
“You –” he breathed, his voice quivering. “You – you killed her!”
“David, please! It wasn‟t my fault! Something happened! Please trust me!”
There was something about her that told David she wasn‟t lying and that he could trust her. Nonetheless, he pressed it onwards.
“No… I can‟t trust you! You led me straight to that snake man!”
“You faced Eric and survived?” she asked.
“I don‟t care! You led me to him… you caused the death of my Elodie!”
The woman looked unfazed. She drew a sigh and moved her hands across the air.

The snake man was looking at David through the portal he opened with his nail. As bright blue eyes shone on him, he felt disgusted. How can people be happy when they are around others? He thought.
David was caressing the blond girl’s hair. They were laughing. And then a man came.
His mouth twisted into a smile as his followers tried to move away fearfully. The man grabbed David by his arm and they both disappeared…
“Durance has just taken David Parker to the church. We have to set up a trap there! Quickly!” he said slowly.
His followers looked at him questionably.
He gave them a dull look.
“Do I have to explain every single thing for you?” he said threateningly, and as they tried to move away he whispered: “use portals to get him to me!”

David looked at the woman intently.
Why was she showing him this?

The Holy Orb (Short Story) – Part 4

Continued from Part 3.

“Okay…. But how do I know that what you are telling me is true? How do I know that you‟re not some fraud?”
“I‟m not a fraud because I am the only one who knows that I created the rime intentionally to infer you should read: the „ly‟ rime can be read as lit, which means read in French! Light does not always mean candles. Transparency is the clearest reference to the candle. And I am the only one who knows that the sequence in which you put the first three determines the next three. The poem is vague to the utmost point of vagueness on that because I didn‟t want anyone to get to the place that I called a refuge.

But now, the only way to set myself free from the chains of this pestilential and material world has come, and I am willing to take that chance and help you…”
He nodded, agreeing to the help she was offering. She smiled, took a deep breath, and looked at the poem and started to read. Something about her was far different from all the people he had met so far in his life… far different.

After about two minutes, it seemed that the woman had read the poem a good number of times. She gasped, straightened her sitting position, and began:
“The poem begins by telling you things that are true… I divided the three dozens equally, which means that you have four candles, four Chalices and four Crosses that intervene in the code. So when I say begin with light I mean that the light is something that would enlighten a soul spiritually, which is the Cross. I mean, if you think of it… I did tell you not to take it so lightly!”

Now, we begin with a Cross… let‟s take this” and she reached out for a Cross and placed it on the pedestal where the sequence should be built. A light appeared instantly.
She took the candle that shone transparently and placed it right after the Cross. Another light shone brightly and the woman nodded.

“Now we proceed to the chalice…”

Another candle followed, then another Cross. It appeared that the woman knew what she was doing. About three minutes later, she placed the final item of the sequence, a candle. And though sarcastically, David thought that at least one part of the poem was right: begin with light and end with light. The thing that puzzled him, however, was that, although the puzzle was complete, nothing had happened.

Then, David instantly found himself inside an empty church, where waves of light were pouring, and his body began to get nearer to the altar.
He looked under the altar and could see a trapdoor. He kneeled and pushed it up. It instantly opened and David slid under it. It closed, drowning him in total darkness.

“Welcome, David Parker” the eerie voice of the snake man hissed. And then he felt a gentle hand grabbing his hand from behind. “Don‟t worry!” Elodie‟s mature voice rang in his ear. “I am with you!”
And then there was a flash of bright, yellow light…

Elodie jumped in front of David and got the full blast of the spell. Her body flew in the air in slow motion, as if suspended by invisible strings and then she fell in front of David, her face blue. She was dead.

The Holy Orb (Short Story) – Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

David read the verses back and forth several times before the fact that he was supposed to solve a riddle dawned on him.
He began to whisper the verses:
“So three dozens, that makes about thirty-six object, are divided equally, so among the twelve there must be four Crosses, four Candles and four Chalices… that‟s clear. Now, begin with light and end with light… maybe the first artifact is a candle…”

He looked at the poem again and thought he got the first clue but he soon turned skeptical.
He looked around and he could see people walking. Some were praying near the altar, others were kneeling in front of statues of Mary and Joseph and Jesus. Everyone was preoccupied with asking God to help him with his own troubles, and not one of them cared about the difficulties David was facing.
He looked around and saw an old woman, with long silvery hair. She had a serene look on her face. She moved gracefully as if flying a couple of inches above the ground. She was moving towards David at a slow pace. But there was something about her that he couldn‟t quite describe.

She moved closer and sat on the bench right in front of him but did not talk with him.
That situation lasted for about three minutes until David breathed a deep sigh and the woman looked at him. He looked back, straight into her eyes and a look of shock appeared on her face.
“Tu peux me voir?” she gasped in amazement.
“Oui, je peux, c’est une stupide question… tu es la et j’ai des yeux”
“Ah! Alors tu ne sais pas qui je suis ou quel est mon état physique, metaphysique pour etre de plus en plus precis?”
David looked at her in awe. What was she talking about? She was right there, flesh and bone, in front of him. But who was she? He didn‟t have any clue whatsoever.
“Look!” he spoke in fast English. “I don‟t know who you are, and I don‟t know what sort of metaphysics you‟re discussing. Now if you‟ll excuse me, there is something time-consuming that I‟m preoccupied with!”
The woman did not reply. David couldn‟t figure out if she understood him or not; he did appreciate, however, the silence as he returned to the poem.
It was then that the woman caught a look of what he was reading and a look of utter happiness appeared on her face.
“I can help you with that poem!” she said calmly.
“Excuse me?” asked David, half not-hearing what she said exactly and the other half not quite sure if what he heard was true.
“You heard me…. I can help you with the poem. I know the sequence. I created the poem. That’s my handwriting…”
David looked up at the woman and tried to comprehend what she said.
He looked at her again and thought for a moment. He decided that he had nothing to lose.