Monday, 31 May 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Despite having said I would be taking a long break from reviews, when Shastri Rashmi from Penguin emailed to ask if I’d like to review The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, I jumped at the chance. I find it very difficult to turn down a book, plus the literary snob in me gushes at the thought of being contacted by Penguin, a publishing company that I have always associated with quality – and I spend most of my working week in contact with publishers.

More importantly, though, the book sounded like it would be both interesting and a good read…. and it was both.

The book is set in the Mississippi of the 1960s and deals with the relationship between black maids and their white employers. It’s told through the eyes of three women – two black maids, Aibileen and Minny, and a single white woman, Skeeter. These three women really come to life in the book. The dialogue is so real that after reading a chapter or two, my thoughts (and sometimes my speech) were coming out sounding like a black woman from the deep south (should that be the Deep South?).

There is a book inside the book, as well. Skeeter is writing a book about maids in the South and Aibileen and Minny are helping her. Their stories are part of the book and Aibileen is a talented writer in her own right.

The Help brings a glimpse into two worlds that are very alien to me – the world of the domestic, but particularly the domestic descended from slaves and sometimes treated not much better than their ancestors; and the world of the wealthy white women of the South in the 1960s. They were far from the hippy movement and the beatniks, far from the concept of free love, and pretty far from understanding the civil rights movement. These women leave the running of their households and the raising of their children to their black maids, while insisting that these same maids use a separate toilet and never sit down and eat at the same table as them.

But it’s not all black and white. The most awful white woman in the book, whose racism makes you feel sick, is a fantastic mother. Some of the black women have worked for the same family for 30 or 40 years and feel like part of the family, both to them and their employers. It’s interesting to see that it wasn’t all bad, that good things could happen amongst the bad.

I felt a little discomfort at first, because the author (Kathryn Stockett) is white, and a little part of me thought ‘What does she know about it? Does she have the right to write this?’ And, first of all, of course she does. As much any woman has the right to write from a male point of view and vice versa; as much as any adult has the right to write from a child’s point of view; and so on. But, also she grew up in the South and was partially raised by a black maid herself, so she does know that side of the story. And, in her own words:

"I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.”

I loved this book and was very sad to leave behind Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter when I finished it. If I had more spare time, I would have read it through in a day or two, rather than the couple of weeks it took fitting it in during breastfeeds. If you’re looking for something to read at the moment, then I would heartily recommend The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.

Disclaimers: I got a copy of the book for free. If you click on any of the links and spend money at Amazon while there, I will receive a percentage of the money you spend..

Monday, 24 May 2010

Spring cleaning

I have just found an understanding and empathy with the whole concept of spring cleaning. Chris had just strimmed the lawn, while I was getting the girls ready for bed and before reading Rosemary her bedtime stories. The kitchen window was open, with the heat floating into the room, bringing with it that loveliest of aromas – freshly cut grass. The kettle was boiling.

And I had a sudden urge to pick up the broom and sweep the floor. I swept the kitchen floor and the dining room floor and what I really wanted to do was continue sweeping through the house. Sweeping away the dust and the dog hairs, the cobwebs, the piles and piles of disorganised junk. I wanted to get a basin of luke warm water and scrub away the stains and the stickiness, wipe away the cup rings and yet more dust. I wanted to get out a duster and polish the windows until they gleamed.

Of course, what I actually did was come upstairs and write about it, instead. So, now you know a little more about me. I can fantasise about cleaning, just not actually do it.

Though, really, I’m here to work. Which seems like all I do these days. Of course, it’s not all I do, but free time is in short supply. There is most certainly no spare hours in the day to go through spring-cleaning the whole house.

Which is a shame, because this weather is really making me yearn for freshness and cleanliness and, well, a lot less stickiness.


Do you spring clean? Did you read this and think ‘She swept the kitchen and dining room and had to blog about it? I do that twice a day!’? Do you not have time to hoover, let alone organise and dust the bookshelves? Do you want to come and spring clean (and spring organise) my house for me?

Sunday, 16 May 2010

What kind of playdate?

Rosemary had a friend round to play on Friday afternoon, someone who hadn’t been round before. While she was here, I started thinking about all the different kinds of playdates there seem to be and how I was probably building up a collection of favourite children to come to play, depending on the situation.

First of all, there are the friends who bring their mums (and quite often their younger brothers or sisters). For these playdates, I get to drink to tea and have a chat. They can also be quite tiring, because many children of Rosemary’s age tend to get a little bit annoyed when their mums are giving someone else attention and may be noisier, messier or more disobedient. When there’s no mum there, I have more opportunity to  keep an eye on things and persuade them into an occasional tidy-up, as opposed to mess-up session. A playdate with mum and siblings almost always results in more tidying up later on.

There are playdates with friends who have as much energy and as small an attention span as Rosemary. These also result in a big mess, and frequent tears, because they’re running about so much one or other of them inevitably gets hurt in some way. They fly from one activity to another, running up and down the stairs and Wesley tends to go and hide up in the office.

There are playdates where nothing is played with, but the two of them spend the time running around, jumping on each other and shouting ‘Ben 10!’ at the top of their voices. This is great in terms of limited mess, but it’s impossible to leave Eleanor on the floor and it really, really hurts my head. There are also usually a lot of bumps.

Then there are playdates, like Fridays, where the two children play together reasonably quietly and calmly. Where they stick with each activity for at least 10 minutes, if not longer. Where I can leave Eleanor in the room with them and they’ll amuse her and/or keep an eye on her for a few minutes. Where they take turns without any prompting, and need little or no guidance in what to do.

Needless to say, I like the latter ones the best. But I do also really enjoy the accompanied playdates, if I’m not too tired and don’t have too much of a backlog of housework that’s going to a) be very noticeable and b) mean I’m going to have even more tidying to do at the end of the playdate.

I think Rosemary probably prefers those with friends who are similar to her in energy levels and likes and dislikes, despite the frequent meltdowns over sharing and what to play next. Though she enjoys them all, so I don’t think I need to worry too much about encouraging my favourites!


What about you? Do you have a preferred playdate type and is it the same as your child(ren)’s? Do you try to have a mix?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

How much independent play?

Eleanor can crawl around on the floor and play on her own for considerable chunks of time. If you put a variety of toys down, she’ll explore them in detail for up to three quarters of an hour at a time.  She likes toys she can chew, toys that make music and toys she can push around. She’s also just discovering toys that she can bang to make a noise. And, if you leave a shoe anywhere in her vicinity, she’ll be your friend for life.

This is, of course, very convenient. It means I can take her upstairs and do a bit of work in the morning, while she crawls around the office floor, playing with her toys and desperately searching for some paper to chew on. It means I can leave her in the living room with Rosemary for a bit, while I load the washing machine or empty the dishwasher. In theory, it means I can sit and catch up with blogging for a bit, though in practice work or housework is taking priority most of the time, as we’re so humungously busy at the moment.

When she does get bored, just 15 minutes or so of attention, be it walking her round the room (she loves to walk and stand), bouncing her on your knee, dancing round the dining room, ticking her, changing her nappy, giving her some milk, etc. and she’ll be able to go back to her independent play, though not for as long. Or she can go in the bouncer or her bouncy chair for a bit (both of which will probably have passed their use-by date soon! She does get frustrated sometimes, if she’s trying to get to something and can’t pull herself up to it, for example, but for the most part, she plays happily, chattering and squealing away.

At the other end of the spectrum, Rosemary has been struggling with independent play recently. When a friend comes round to play, they’ll play imaginatively together for ages, but on her own she is finding it difficult to come up with independent play that she wants to do. She’s getting bored with a lot of her toys, or can’t find them, because the toy corner needs a good sort out.

But mostly, it’s because her default position is in front of the TV. When she gets up in the morning, she asks to watch TV, when she gets home from playgroup/nursery school, she asks to watch TV. And for this I entirely blame myself. She’s always (well, not quite always, of course!) watched TV, but since Eleanor was born, I’ve found myself switching the TV on for Rosemary, so I can get on with sorting Eleanor out, whether that’s changing her nappy, feeding her or just playing with her. Or, indeed, leaving her to play on her own while I catch up on the washing. It’s just easier that way, and I’ve done it far, far too much.

Chris, when he’s on Rosemary and Eleanor duty, tends to have the TV off. He comes up with things for Rosemary to play with, if she’s not thinking of them herself – he’ll get the blocks out or the Happyland people, for example. Or he’ll just leave her until she starts playing independently and imaginatively, which really doesn’t take a huge amount of time after the TV is off. And he usually manages to get a bit of housework done, too. This is what I used to be like and I’m not entirely sure where the laziness has come from – maybe from the constant exhaustion?

Anyway, we are now trying to gradually cut down on the TV, making sure it doesn’t go on the second she comes downstairs or in the front door. Encouraging other play, for example, we made some playdough yesterday, as all the old stuff had dried out ages ago. And we’re trying to encourage watching a DVD or video instead of the TV, so it’s for a finite time and not just vegging in front of the TV. Rosemary is fantastic at independent and imaginative play, given the chance. So we (I, really) need to give her that chance. Even if it means being interrupted while filling the dishwasher or having ten times as many toys to pick up at the end of the day.


How are your children at independent play? Do you have one better than the other? Has TV taken over and how have you changed that? Do you think it’s OK for a 7-month-old baby to be spending so much time on independent play?