The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

Of all the books I read, there are precious few that grab hold of my heart the way this one has. I have not fallen so deeply in love with a book like this since To Kill a Mockingbird. The hubs was privy to many of the hilarious occurrences buried in these twenty or so odd chapters, and I love him for always listening when I started out with "You are not gonna believe what Minny Jackson has done to Miss Hilly Holbrook now!"

Set in the tumultuous 1960's in the even more volatile city of Jackson, Mississippi, this is the tale of a blossoming novelist and her desire to write about the precarious relationship between white ladies and their black maids. "The help" finally get their chance to tell their side of the story, but it is not without consequence for these truly brave women of Jackson.

Like all great novels, The Help is wondrously complex, with its side stories twisting and turning all over one another in one red hot mess. Skeeter is a new graduate with no prospects for a husband and, much to her momma's chagrin, is itching to put her shiny new English degree to use. While writing for the town paper, Skeeter's eyes become opened to the injustice of the way black people are treated. She begins to question the lines that have always been so clearly assumed between the white family and the help. Aibileen is one of the first maids willing to share her stories, and is soon followed by several others, all with the strictest condition of anonymity. They all have much to lose if they are discovered.

There are some truly lovable women in this book. Minny, Aibileen, and Skeeter are just the kinds of characters you love to love. Hilly, Stuart, and Elizabeth are simply the ones you love to hate. Regardless of which side they are on, every character is distinctively complicated. Their natures and their situations would easily give way to endless discussions in a book club or high school lit class.

I'm definitely filing this one under "Favorites." :)

For more about the author: 

I also just discovered that The Help is coming to a theater near you in August! :)

The Confession (John Grisham)

Donte' Drumm is a young man wrongly accused, wrongly convicted, and potentially on his way to being wrongly executed by the state of Texas. There is a team of legal experts working feverishly to save him, but the one person who can set him free is the man who actually committed the crime of which Donte' is accused. 

Enter Travis Boyette. Total freak and creepazoid with one disgusting crime after another on his record, Travis is one troubled man. He decides it's time to confess to the world that he knows Donte' is innocent, and explain how he knows that, and chooses a Lutheran minister in Kansas as his recipient. Pastor Keith Schroeder is in for the ride of his life as he and Travis race to Texas in a last minute attempt to set Donte' Drumm free. 

The Confession was an absolute fantastic read! I do love a good Grisham, and this one was definitely one of his best. No confusing legal jargon, no technical and detail-heavy plots that twist beyond all recognition. Just a great story that leaves you thinking, truly thinking, about what you believe and why you believe it. Capital punishment is definitely an issue that divides America, and not always along party lines. It is good to examine your beliefs in order to alter or affirm them, and it's why I am liking this one a great deal. I do love a good book that makes me think! 

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Stieg Larsson)

Meet the second installment in the Stieg Larsson series.

Salander remains a force to be reckoned with, as does Mikael Blomkvist.

Just before an expose' on the prevalence of sex trafficking in Sweden was set to be published, its authors are cruelly murdered. Mikael has the distinct misfortune of arriving at their apartment very briefly after the killings occur, and becomes intrinsically linked to the case.

Salander disappeared after the conclusion of their last adventure and is tucked away minding her own business until suddenly she becomes accused of the murders, and another-the slaying of a man who she had every reason to kill.

Oddly enough, the hunt for Salander eventually leads to the discovery of her father, whom she never wished to see again after a time in their life she referred to as "All the Evil." It is in this book where we find out exactly what happened to Salander to shape her into the fascinating, ruthless woman that she has become.

All along the way, Mikael trails her, attempting to exonerate her (despite her efforts otherwise). He is the friend to her that she never had, though she fails to recognize it even now, and even though she is determined to kill...again?

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)

Mikael Blomkvist is a reporter who has been convicted of libel. He has a hefty fine to pay and a gaol sentence to serve, but he is mostly concerned with saving his magazine, which is primed for closure given Mikael's conviction. Before he can work out his next moves, he is summoned by Henrik Vanger, who turns out to be the head of the Vanger family and CEO of the Vanger Corporation. Henrik has spent the last 40 years obsessing over the unsolved murder of his niece. He wants Mikael to comb through the files just one more time to see if he can uncover what really happened to Harriet. Mikael's venture into the questions that surround Harriet's murder, and the eccentricities which cloud the family gradually lead Mikael to uncover some of the deepest, darkest secrets beyond all the Vangers could have possibly imagined.

The girl who actually has the dragon tattoo is the most important part of this story. Her name is Salander, and though she seems a bit frightful, she has very good reason to be just that. Salander saves Mikael in every way one human can save another, and becomes an important part of his team.

There are several crucial pieces of the Dragon Tattoo pie missing here that would positively ruin a fantastic read if I were to share them. The first in a series of 3, and which already has a movie version out, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was a bit tedious at first but quickly escalated to one that I could not put down. The coarse language and descriptive chunks of vile s*xual crimes was at times oppressive, and I could definitely have done without so much of both. I had no idea that Sweden has such a dark history of violence against women, and this book definitely changed my perspective of that country as well.

Three Cups of Tea (Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin)

Greg Mortenson was a mountain climber. Not your neighborhood outdoor store brand of mountain climber either, a real mountain climber. In 1993 he visited the Pakistan Himalaya Mountains, specifically a summit called K2 in the Karakoram district, and set out to scale K2. Long story short, he failed. He came off that mountain lost and broken and near death, but was taken in by a local village called Korphe. They saved his life, and by the time he was well enough to realize it and head home, he had decided he would come back and help this impoverished group of people who had given so much to help him. That turned into a dream of building a school for the Korphe children. Greg raised enough money (in the most desperate, sad, and interesting ways) and returned to Pakistan to build the school. Long story short, he was able to build the school despite incredible opposition and numerous glitches.

Then, one school turned into another. And another. And another. And eventually Greg Mortenson was in charge of an organization called the Central Asia Institute building schools all over Pakistan. He dealt with many issues along the way, and nearly lost his life numerous times. Eventually he was able to build schools in Afghanistan as well. As far as I can tell, Greg Mortenson is still spending most of his time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, building schools. He learned the process of getting things done (usually the hard way) in Pakistan, and also was fortunate to receive wise counsel from some of his friends in Korphe. One mentor explained to Greg that to thrive there he would have to respect their culture, their ways. The first cup of tea he shared with a Pakistani was as a stranger, the second was as a friend and honored guest, and the third was as family member, for whom any of them would die. Greg Mortenson learned to share many cups of tea with his acquaintances in Pakistan.

Mortenson was in Pakistan on September 11, 2001. He made some foolish mistakes during this time, in my opinion, such as returning several times in the months following 9/11, remained in the country even after he was specifically told it was a very dangerous place for American citizens, and approached the Afghanistan border "just to see what would happen" (what happened was he lost his passport and had to waste weeks getting one back and explaining to the hyper paranoid Intelligence Agency what he was doing there in the first place-he was lucky he didn't lose his life). He had a front row seat to the events that occurred in the Middle East following the terror attacks on America. Soon, the motivation for building these schools evolved from merely wanting to return a kindness to wanting to help promote peace in the world through providing an opportunity for educating Pakistan's opportunity other than the Islamic Wahhabi madrassas, many of which at that time taught (and may still teach) militant jihadi Islam. "The madrassa system targeted the impoverished students the public system failed. By offering free room and board and building schools in areas where none existed, madrassas provided millions of Pakistan's parents with their only opportunity to educate their children." (pg. 243)

 Mortenson believed then, and continues to believe, that the most important and effective way to fight terrorism is to prevent future generations from being trained to hate. The schools built by the Central Asia Institute are traditional Islamic schools which honor the culture of this country, but without the harsh militant agenda. The more schools that are available for children (especially girls) to attend, the better a chance the people have at rising above the hate that spews from some of Pakistan's best-known inhabitants (the Taliban and al-Quaeda).

I thought the piece about how Greg met his wife Tara was super sweet, and sort of awe-inspiring. I was a little concerned that this book seems to imply that Greg was married to building schools in Pakistan and was involved with his family only a little the side, though. I certainly hope that isn't an accurate assumption. It would be sorrowful for a man to accomplish so much in the lives of other families while forsaking involvement with his own.

I learned so much from this book. I had no idea there were so many various people groups in Pakistan, nor did I have a clue about the way most Pakistanis felt/feel about the Taliban. I also learned quite a bit about the Pakistani government, and (from Greg Mortenson's point of view, anyway) the United States's great successes and great failures in the days following the September 11th attacks. It made me remember how scary and broken we all were in America on September 11th, but also to realize a new perspective on the events that took place in the years leading up to and following the attacks on the United States. It made me angry to read that the yellow humanitarian food packets that American military planes were dropping down to Afghan refugees closely resembled the bright yellow pods of unexploded cluster bombs. (pg. 279)

This book has been plaguing my life as a reader for well over a year now. As I have inched through it, it has taken up space in my bag, my laptop case, my backpack, my bookcase, basket of books, and my stack of books on the bedside table. I started it over a year ago, when it was first released in paperback. Everyone was talking about this book, and how I just had to read it. I'm a library girl, not much a book purchaser (except for my children's collection), but in this case I made an exception. I've read it on and off ever since then, frustrated because it wasn't a very friendly read. It was difficult, and sad, and did not truly catch my attention until about 180 pages in.

This is very unlike me. I believe life is too short to read bad books. I know there is great value in seeing a book through to the end no matter what you think about it. In this case, I never felt like Three Cups of Tea was a bad book, it just required a lot of effort to read. More so than just about any other book I've read. The names of the cities in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the unfamiliar names of individuals Mortenson encountered, and the ever-changing rules and politics were so confusing. There is a map included at the beginning of the book, and I wish I had remembered it was there to go back and look up the name of each city rather than relying on my mind's very abstract notion of where those cities were in relation to one another. There is also an index provided so that would also be very helpful to readers. Those are some mistakes I feel as though I made when reading this book. I underestimated it, I did not put forth significant effort to keep the people and places straight, and I did not use the index to refer to places, people, and issues. In essence, I'm saying that this book isn't meant to be read casually. It's meant to be studied and discussed. So I'm reiterating that Three Cups of Tea is not a bad book, it's just a difficult one. Approach with caution, handle with care, and for crying out loud, use the maps.

For more info, follow Greg Mortenson on Twitter- @gregmortenson

or see his website: