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Apr 28, 2011

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Our Kind of Traitor Island Beneath the Sea The Long Song The Help Crazy Like Us

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Our Kind Of Traitor

by John le Carre

The end of the Cold War forced a lot of thriller writers into early retirement or irrelevancy. John le Carre has avoided this fate largely because his main interest has always been in the deceptions and self-deceptions of the human mind, the dangers of ideological thinking and the corruptions of power — none of which, sadly, disappeared from our world along with the Soviet Union. Our Kind of Traitor more than anticipates the recent WikiLeaks disclosures about Russia's degeneration into a mafia state; it shows, too, the sinister ways in which many people in democracies enable the violence and brutality of unfree societies. Our Kind of Traitor is a book to read on a long winter's evening. It quickly draws you in — le Carre excels at quick portraiture as well as being a master of narrative suspense — and you emerge from the novel feeling a little more cynical about the world, and definitely a lot wiser.

320 pages, $15, Penguin Books

Island Beneath The Sea

by Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende's appeal as a novelist hasn't just been her fascinating background — she grew up in Peru, Chile, Bolivia and Lebanon and was the cousin of deposed Chilean President Salvador Allende — but also her lyrical, enchanting narrative style, at times a kind of Day-Glo version of magical realism. Her latest novel, Island Beneath the Sea, is a sprawling, multifaceted historical epic, like her 1982 best-seller, The House of Spirits, and her underrated Ines of My Soul. Island Beneath the Sea follows a young woman born into slavery, Tete, and her master, Toulouse Valmorain, through Haiti and New Orleans, over several years. While Allende has always been comfortable chronicling grand passion and deep love, she's at her best here when she's angry — her descriptions of the treatment of Valmorain's slaves, particularly the sexual assault of Tete, are shocking. At its best, Island Beneath the Sea is elegant, moving and infused with a real sense of loss.

480 pages, $14.99, Harper Perennial

The Long Song

by Andrea Levy

Andrea Levy came to prominence when her debut novel Small Island won England's 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Book of the Year awards. Her follow up, The Long Song, is a remarkable and profoundly imagined re-creation of plantation life in the waning days of slavery in 1830s Jamaica. It's narrated by July, a bold, engaging and keenly observant mulatto. Levy is masterful at orchestrating the complex intimacies among those living together in the plantation owner's "great house," where his sister teaches July to read and turns to her for protection during a bloody 1832 slave rebellion. Levy lends humanity to even the most brutal of her characters in this saga of hardship, cruelty and resistance, while seasoning her solemn tale with moments of comedy, even farce. But the stroke of genius that makes this radiant novel soar is the forthright, courageous, captivating and indomitable July.

352 pages, $15, Picador Books

The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

Told from three different points of view, The Help takes place in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, when the Deep South was beginning its immersion into the civil rights movement. Kathryn Stockett captures both black and white voices, and all three main characters — renegade debutante Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, and housekeepers Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson — are complex, admirable women.

534 pages, $16, Berkley Books

Crazy Like Us: The Globalization Of The American Psyche

by Ethan Watters

Author Ethan Watters thinks that America is "homogenizing the way the world goes mad." In Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, he describes how American definitions and treatments of mental illness have spread to other cultures around the world. "[McDonald's] golden arches do not represent our most troubling impact on other cultures," Watters writes. "Rather, it is how we are flattening the landscape of the human psyche itself. We are engaged in the grand project of Americanizing the world's understanding of the human mind." Though the United States is often eager to help after wars and natural disasters, he argues that we should be cautious about treating the consequences of trauma in countries where therapists have little understanding of the culture, and where they may undercut local efforts that are more effective.

320 pages, $16, Free Press

Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. ET on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag .
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'The Help' primary ()

A Nuanced Novel Of Race In The Deep South

Jul 1, 2009

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Cover: 'The Help' Kathryn Stockett The Long Song The Help Crazy Like Us

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If Barack Obama's candidacy did nothing else, it began to pry open the door to a national conversation on race. More than President Clinton's Initiative on Race, Obama's candidacy made us look at what race is, why we continue to be uncomfortable with discussing it (especially among people of different races), and how our vision of who and what is black continues to change.

In his famous speech about race, delivered in Philadelphia in March 2008, Obama told us that we didn't need to go over the sad history of racial inequality in this country — but that we did need to understand that the legacy of past segregation had led to some of the ills that plague today's African-American communities. As he pointed out, the country's unresolved feelings about black America isn't, to quote him quoting Faulkner, "'dead and buried.' In fact, it isn't even past.' "

Which brings us to The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.

As black-white race relations go, this could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird. Told from three different points of view, The Help takes place in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s, when the Deep South was beginning its immersion into the civil rights movement.

Stockett masterfully captures both black and white voices with astonishing believability, and all three main characters — renegade debutante Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, and housekeepers Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson — are complex, admirable women.

Skeeter hovers on the periphery of her elite social circle because she cares more about having a career than snagging a husband. Her real goal is to write about both sides of life in segregated Jackson — the frustrated middle-class women who both glory in and are trapped by their prescribed roles of wife and mother, and the black women who have put aside their personal needs and interests in order to make a living by serving them.

Meanwhile, Minny and Aibileen must choose between keeping their silence and remaining employed, or ripping away their employers' smug delusions that they treat their maids "just like family." The black women know they'll be fired (or worse) if they're discovered telling the truth about their working conditions and their employers.

Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny dare to step outside the tight cells of race and class and circumstance that constrain them to begin constructing what eventually will become the foundation of the New South. As they come to know and trust each other, they appreciate the peril each has chosen to face for being brave — or foolish — enough to buck convention to expose themselves and their lives to each other.

In The Help, Stockett has done what Mockingbird's Atticus Finch told his daughter, Scout, to do when he advised, "You never know how another person feels until you walk a mile in his shoes." The author has put us in the shoes of three ordinary women at an extraordinary point in American history. If you read only one book this summer, let this be it.

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The Help
By Kathryn Stockett
Hardcover, 464 pages
List price: $24.95
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