My top 5 books of 2011

Last year I attempted to to read 26 books in 52 weeks, but unfortunately life got in the way and could only manage to get through 16. This year I contemplated doing the same challenge, but figured I’d just read as much as I could and not look for a goal, but I managed to read 16 again this year anyway. Oh, these are my favourite books that I’ve read this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were published this year:

5. Between the Assassinations

Between the AssassinationsAravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations was the second book I reviewed this year and I was really pleased with his second output.

The book features a series of ‘day in the life’ stories from people of (fictional) Kittur, India, shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. With that lens it looks at many issues including: caste, sexual disease, drug problems, political corruption, the influx of villagers seeking a better life in the city, and much more.

As with many of the books that really speak to me, this one has very strong characters whose stories stick with you long after you’ve moved on from their tale.

4. Fall of Giants

Fall of GiantsIt seems like I’ve only read the biggest books by Ken Follett; first there was Pillars of the Earth, then World Without End and now Fall of Giants. Each of these were either a bit less or a bit more than 1000 pages, so they weren’t all that fun to read on public transit, but they were all very well written.

Fall of Giants is a fictional story based on history and takes place during the 13 1/2 years leading up to the First World War and it’s end. Each character introduced in the book cross paths at one point or another, whether it be an American diplomat coming to the aide of two Russian slum-raised teenagers, or Ethel the former housewife of Earl Fitzherbert of her village rising up in the political ranks and making an adversary of him in the process.

3. The Given Day

The Given DayWhen I saw The Given Day by Dennis Lehane I immediately picked it up. I’d read two of his other novels, Mysic River and Gone Baby Gone and really enjoyed his writing style. This one was a bit different though – still set in Boston the others, but this time in the 1930s.

The novel follows the two main storylines. The first is that of Danny Coughlin, a Boston police officer; the second follows Luther Lawrence, an African American man who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. The two become intertwined as we see them separately take on issues of unions and race. Lehane does wonders with mingling the two lives and his writing is full of imagery and the words jump off the page to take you back in time.

2. Steve Jobs: Biography

Steve Jobs I managed to get through Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson rather quickly (for my standards) and just posted my review for it a couple days ago, so have a look:

Review of the Steve Jobs biography

I was thinking it would make a great movie. Do you think any director could do it justice and live up to Jobs’s standards? There was a movie called The Pirates of Silicon Valley in 1999 and it starred Noah Wyle as Jobs. I haven’t seen it but I think this biography would make a bit more of an interesting story since so many of Jobs’s friends and enemies have spoken up about him. I also think Christian Bale would make a great Jobs.

1. The Help

The Help

The Help is set in the 1960s and looks at the issue of race relations in Jackson, Mississippi. The premise is ‘Skeeter’ a white woman is looking to the maids of the city to help her write a story from the point of view of ‘the help’. You just have to do a Google search and you’ll see it’s a book that has gotten as much flack as it has praise.

One interesting news article from September says Stockett stole her identity for the character of Aibileen. Her name is Abilene Cooper and she was the maid to Stockett’s brother for 12 years. Much of the similarities are the same, but the case was thrown out.

I feel at the very least the book is a great starting point for race discussions.

My top 5 movies of 2011

It’s the end of the year, so you know what time it is? That’s right, it’s time for my 3rd annual top 5 movie blog post.

Looking back to 2009 I was a big fan of comedies, as all of my choices gave a good laugh or two. In 2010 I’m sure I watched funny movies, but I moved on to more dramatic/thriller kind of movies for my top 5 picks. After watching 37 movies this year, let’s see what top picks are. When you’re done scrolling let me know your favourites:

5. 50/50

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, 50/50 is based on a true story of writer Will Reisler who blends the seriousness of a life-threatening cancer story, with comedy.

4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2It was a long journey but the story of Harry Potter was finally settled, and they couldn’t have finished it in a better way. I found as the cast got older and the storyline became darker, the movies became more entertaining.

3. Bridesmaids

BridesmaidsI hadn’t really seen a comedy that made me laugh til it hurt since The Hangover, but I was expecting Bridesmaids, starring Kristen Wiig and a great cast would at least compete for the title – and it matched it.

2. The Help

The HelpAs I mentioned in my review earlier this year, I was worried the movie version of The Help, wouldn’t live up to the book version – thankfully it did, and then some. This is a great story to open up the discussion of race relations, but also one with strong female characters played by Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and (though on the evil side of strong) Bryce Dallas Howard.

1. Super 8

Super 8When I first saw the previews for Super 8 I wasn’t all that excited to see it, but once I watched it I couldn’t take my eyes off the movie, and it shot to the top of my list. I’ve seen a few people saying this J.J. Abrams directed movie is an homage to producer Steven Spielberg’s films like E.T. for the most part, but I could also feel a hint of Hook and Jurassic Park – simply for the use of the children.

The Help (movie) does The Help (book) justice

The HelpWhen I finished reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett earlier this winter, I couldn’t help but put it down. At the time I wrote my review, I was happy to see a movie was coming out – I just hoped that it could live up to the book.

Starring the amazing Emma Stone as Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, the story takes place in early 60s Jackson, Mississippi where racist tensions are at their thickest between whites and blacks. ‘Skeeter’ is a recent university graduate who really isn’t fit for the small town living int the south, and is looking to make it as a big city journalist, or writer. After some advice from a New York editor at Harper & Row, she finds an issue she’s passionate about, and that’s giving a voice to “the help” of Jackson.

One of the first maids to help by providing stories for her book was Aibileen, as played by Viola Davis. It’s Davis, along with Octavia Spencer as Minnie, that steal the show. Skeeter is the one that gives them the platform, but they’re the ones that bring the life and personality to the story. They’re also the ones that help gather the rest of the maids to help make the book a reality.

Minnie is such a strong woman and Spencer plays her perfectly – I’d even say it was an Oscar-worthy performance. Every time she was on screen it was hard to pay attention to anyone but her. In an ideal world, I’d say Viola Davis also deserves a nod for her role – it would sure be more deserving than that nod for Doubt.

The evil Hilly Holbrook, as played by Bryce Dallas Howard, has already been added to a list or two of top movie villains, so it goes to show you how disliked she is. What’s unfortunate, and I’m sure I’m not exaggerating, is that there were many Hilly Holbrooks across the States and even Canada. The story played it off as if all the other housewives were just sheep to whatever Hilly had to say, but she was probably closer to the norm for how many thought at the time. That being said, she was a great villain and Howard played her just as I’d imagined when reading the book.

I was worried the movie wouldn’t do the book justice after watching a few of the overly lighthearted previews. In the end, I’d say the movie did a great job of mixing humor with the serious racial tensions of the time and I definitely wasn’t disappointed. If you’re looking for a story that explains the racial tensions of the time, but one that isn’t too heavy for kids to watch, then this is a great place to start the conversation. I highly recommend reading the book first, then checking this one out. I give The Help a 5/5.

The Help: A story of standing up for your beliefs

The HelpI was introduced to The Help at a dinner with friends one night. A couple of my friends had read it, and seemed like they were really moved, so I made a point to remember it. Eventually I had a gift card to Chapters, so I decided to make the purchase, though I don’t normally buy hard covers.

When I got around to reading it, I didn’t really know what to expect, other than it was set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 60s and that it dealt with race, class and so-forth. After reading the first chapter, which started off in the voice of Aibileen, a maid, I was hooked.

It took a bit of getting used to when I found it was telling the stories from three different characters perspectives. Each one, and the others were Minny (another maid) and Skeeter (a white daughter of a plantation farmer), shone with personality and were all strong female characters, but also had weaknesses as well.

The book deals with the very real problem of segregation in Jackson, as Skeeter goes about recounting the experiences from the help of Jackson. It’s really sad to read the many unfortunate things that African Americans lived with on a daily basis. Rules these maids had to abide by, like not sit at the same table as a white person, shake their hand or look them in the eye, because if it was the wrong time of day, you could set the boss off and next thing you know you’re on the street, struggling to find the next household to take you in.

Similar to what the show Mad Men often does, The Help also entwines major news headlines of the day into the story. Obviously with the time and topic, Martin Luther King Jr. plays a big role in the motives of the characters. There is also talk of space exploration, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, The Sit-ins, and so on. Stockett did a great job at weaving these in, adding  tidbits of historical information in the background, making it much more real.

I’m not an expert on race relations in the 60s, but I think Stockett offers a great viewpoint into what it was like. As a white woman, I’m sure she’ll get some criticism for attempting to portray what those women went through, but I think she did a hell of a job. It can also come across as a Pocahontas or Avatar-like story where the white woman helps out the poor unfortunate maids to see their own strength, but I felt throughout the book the characters were casting off any kind of pity they perceived from Skeeter; they were stronger than that, and worked with her out of their own wants and needs.

I think I’ve explained this one enough. If you’re not enticed to read this one, then you never will be. If you have already read The Help please share your thoughts. It’s such a great discussion book.

.. Oh and of course I give this one a 5/5.

This is also set to become a movie in 2011, according to Metrolic.com and IMDB (plus it stars Emma Stone!).

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