Celebrity chef, Marcus Samuelsson (Photo Credit: Mariela Lombard/Newscom)
I have read many books in my life and have had many, different reactions. Some have prompted great sorry. Some have made me laugh. This book stands alone among those that elicited a reaction from me for an interesting reason: it made me hungry, for both food and life.
When I read about all the accolades he’d won, I was nervous that this book might be cerebral and stale. I was pleasantly surprised. The narrative is personable and refreshing. It is layered with the richness that Chef Samuelsson accomplished with his food and there is something for every palate. Unlike other memoirs, which capture a snapshot of a season of life, Yes, Chef portrays a full picture of Samuelsson’s life and struggles.
The book is divided into three sections: Samuelsson’s life as a boy, as a chef, and as a man. Each of these sections evoked a different kind of hunger for me. The first section made me hungry to overcome adversity. Samuelsson tells about how his young life began with his mother walking he and his sister seventy-five miles to a hospital, all while they were sick with tuberculosis. Despite that and his mother’s death, Samuelsson recovered but faced more adversity when a Swedish couple adopted him.
Here we see Samuelsson’s first introduction to cooking through his grandmother since his mother didn’t hold cooking in as high regard as his grandmother. Here we also find something else that makes this book great: Samuelsson writes great imagery. He writes that his mother made “…pasta as not even a prisoner would tolerate it…”.
The second section stirred up the hunger to persevere as it gave an intimate look not only into Samuelsson’s progression as a chef, but the service industry as a whole. I found myself in awe of his drive to become the best, amazed at how he endured unkind treatment for the sake of perfecting his craft. Most of all, this section documents Samuelsson’s remarkable desire to learn; a desire which, as he notes, is not always present in African-American youth.
One piece of this story that made reoccurring appearances in the book was the racism Samuelsson experienced. Since he wasn’t a traditional African-American male, his thoughts gave an “outsider looking in” feel to parts of his narrative. He also highlights the subtle racism in the food service industry with his aversion to the term to the French and Swiss term negre, a word used for lower level kitchen assistant.
Race also plays another role in this book, a significant one. Samuelsson’s journey to becoming a chef took him through several different cultures and ethnicities. Having visited or eaten many of cuisines mentioned in the book, I appreciated how he incorporated them into his life and cooking.
And the cooking! Most readers snack while they read, but this book took snacking to a new level. My mouth watered for the dishes he described, especially the section on fried chicken. Given Samuelsson’s poetic writing style, I could almost taste the flavors of his cuisine. He learned his craft well and it shows in the pages of this book.
Samuelsson’s endurance is to be applauded and celebrated. Too often success in our culture is presented in a microwave perspective. Although achieving goals appears to happen overnight, Samuelsson’s journey illustrates that success comes from years of persistence and perseverance.
The last section reads like the serving of a great dish. It shows how all of the flavors of Samuelsson’s life come together. Reading the end of the journey is as satisfying as a wonderful meal, but even better because it shows how the events of his life shape his character. One of my favorite things about this book is that it’s not just for readers who admire Chef Samuelsson or for people who love food. It’s for anyone in love with life and Samuelsson doesn’t disappoint – just be sure to keep a snack nearby.
Depending on whom you ask, the question of what most defines the African American community varies. Some will point to strides made toward racial integration. Others will point to the establishment of our own culture, traditions, and institutions that distinguish us from other races. And depending on whom you engage in this debate, most will admit, there are significant cultural and class divisions among African Americans. Creating a sense of community among African Americans is challenging, but imagine attempting this when the prevalent identifier was slavery.
In his book A Nation Within A Nation: Organizing African American Communities Before the Civil War, scholar John Ernest offers an insightful view of how African Americans to establish their identities before the civil war. This is a unique view since most accounts of this time in history focus on how the Civil War changed our status and sense of community. Ernest presents a view of the oft-overlooked organizations that were pushing for the establishment of an African American community well before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ernest, a professor of American literature at West Virginia University, presents a historical account of how five types of social organizations — the church, Masonic lodges, conventions, schools, and the media/press — got their start. He traces how each attempted to meet the unique needs of the African American community.
One of Ernest’s most striking observations is that our forefathers held two key approaches on how the establishment of community should be accomplished. Some believed that African Americans should fight to assimilate into the majority community, and that finding acceptance there was the ultimate measure of progress. Others, smarting from their experiences with severe racism, believed that creating a new community — i.e., a nation within a nation — was the best approach.
What’s fascinating to consider is that the African American is still divided along those lines. What’s more, the tension between those two mindsets still polarizes our community. Those who fight to be accepted among the majority, which in our time is still white Americans, are often accused of being disloyal to their heritage. Those who fight to establish their own culture are often accused of being separatist, or in the most severe cases racists themselves.
Ernest also highlights the painful fact that from our earliest history, oppression was the most common connection among most African Americans. Even free African Americans faced oppression, opposition, and racism. Many of the organizations formed during that time were built on freedom from that oppression.
A Nation Within a Nation, although focused on the past, whispers to our current conditions. What would our culture be like if the oppression of our ancestors was removed from our current community? How would we then define ourselves? This book made me wonder if a common denominator could ever be found for African Americans. It also made me wonder about the efficiency of trying to define ourselves by a single idea.
But don’t expect answers to those questions in this book. Ernest writes the book in true historian style, only presenting information without his personal beliefs. His writing has the density of academia, so this is not a quick read. In my opinion, this is the best approach. So much our history has been interpreted for us by pop culture or presented in snapshots. It’s refreshing to be able to read such rich history without a filter and with all the weightiness it deserves.
I think the most enjoyable aspect of this book is the discussion that has arisen among those in my African American community. This is a topic that needs to be revisited, and A Nation Within a Nation provides a great springboard for beginning that important dialogue.
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: The film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestseller, 'The Help,' features Emma Stone as Skeeter, Octavia Spencer as Minny, and Viola Davis as Aibileen.
A repost of our March 23, 2010 book review.
Kathryn Stockett’s novel of race, class, and friendship during the Jim Crow era has become a phenomenon on the best-seller lists, despite dealing with a potentially volatile subject matter. Here’s why everyone’s reading The Help.
I should not have enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as much as I did. First of all, it is a novel about racism, a topic that I am not normally drawn to. Hearing my parents’ stories about the racism they suffered in North Carolina during the ’60s and ’70s broke my heart. Those stories are a part of my family’s history that I needed to know, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I seek out for pleasure reading.
Second, there is a good bit of profanity in the book, which usually strikes me as an unnecessary distraction. Despite these things, I found The Help to be an engaging and, at times, gripping read.
And I’m not alone. Since its release a year ago, the book has graced all the national best-seller lists, from Amazon.com to the New York Times. Both secular and faith-based media have praised the novel for its powerful narrative and memorable characters. And it reached another impressive milestone recently when Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Studios acquired the film rights and announced plans to begin production on a movie this summer.
In The Help, first-time novelist Stockett (left) depicts the lives of three women, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter, all living in Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights movement in 1962. Abileen is an African American housekeeper. Her duties include caring for little Mae Mobley, the seventeenth white child that she has raised. This experience, however, is different from all the others times. Aibileen is recovering from the loss of her own 24-year-old son, Treelore, who is killed on the job due to the negligence of his white employer. Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, who pays little attention to her daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen cares deeply for the little girl but worries that she will grow up to be just like her mother.
Minny’s smart mouth has cost her a job or two, despite her mother’s instruction in proper behavior for housekeepers in the segregated South. After being accused by her last employer of stealing, she finds herself working what should be the perfect job; she is the housekeeper for Miss Celia, the strangest white woman she’d ever met. Instead, she finds herself breaking all the unspoken rules of interaction.
Miss Skeeter, despite her good social standing, is an outcast among the whites in Jackson. A tall and socially awkward 22-year-old who’s fresh out of college, her desire to live a different life from what everyone expects of her makes her stand out among her friends, Miss Leefolt and Miss Hilly. When life brings her in contact with Aibileen, a tentative friendship forms. Miss Skeeter is moved when she hears of Treelore’s death and the book he was writing about life in Jackson. Inspired, she decides to “break the rules” and pursue a project that could put her, Aibileen, and Minny in danger. In time she enlists ten other African American maids to help her continue Treelore’s dream, exposing what it means to be an African American living and working in Jackson.
The women find themselves straining against the confines of their social statuses. Each woman pushes the boundaries in her own way and draws readers into the story. The Help also exposes the emotions of parties on both sides of the racial divide, revealing that not everyone feels the way that their social standing dictates they should.
The complicated nature of human love is at the heart of the story. Stockett shows how deeply some of the maids cared for their white bosses, despite the bad treatment they received in return. At the same time, she reveals that not every white employer mistreated their help. Stockett also depicts the ugliness of racism from both sides. We see the whites’ belief that African Americans are second-class citizens, as well as the hatred many of the black housekeepers harbored toward their white bosses.
Throughout its 400-plus pages the story remains enthralling. Stockett has a gift for capturing the voices of her African American characters. Though some of the black Southern dialect may sound clichéd to some, it’s an easy issue to forgive. The range of African American dialect is too broad for its authenticity to be nailed down. Among my own family members, variety abounds even though some of them are from the same part of the South. One must also take into consideration how different contemporary African American dialect is from the ’60s time period during which Stockett’s book is set.
From the first ten pages, you immediately care about the characters and marvel at their complexities. Aibileen, despite the loss of her son, displays deep love for the toddler in her charge. Minny carries herself as a tough, no-nonsense woman but is suffering a situation in her own home that makes her a powerless victim. Miss Skeeter’s encounter with her childhood maid sets her firmly in the opposite direction of her white friends and their beliefs.
Stockett covers the truth of race relations in the ’60s without drowning readers in the hopelessness of it. Unlike other novels about racism, she presents reality without emotional manipulation or regard for shock value. Some people may complain about this approach, uncomfortable with a white woman discussing such an intimate African American experience. Natalie Hopkinson at The Root questions whether such a frank depiction of race relations in America could have reached bestseller status had it not been written by a white woman.
I must admit, when I first realized that Stockett is white, I felt a tinge of weariness. Over the years, I’ve seen many movies and read many books in which whites exploit racism and white guilt, and then present themselves as the noble heroes of the story. This, again, is one of the reasons I avoided books on the topic. But Stockett, who shares in the book’s afterword about her own experience of being raised by an African American housekeeper during the 1970s, proves that she’s not just another white looking to exploit a black experience. The Help is her story, too.
She treats the subject with a grace, humility, and humor that minimize the fact that this story has been told countless times before. She does not present herself as an expert on racism, or a white savior, but as a witness to how it affects both whites and African Americans. She tells a complete story, bringing all the pieces together for a fuller picture of life in Jackson during the Jim Crow era.
I believe some of this book’s success can be attributed to the fact that African Americans have taken great strides in moving beyond the boundaries that were once imposed on us in society. We can read stories like The Help and recognize that they portray a chapter in our past but also highlight the progress of our current culture. While our nation is by no means “post-racial,” it is being transformed by the increasingly diverse communities all around us.
Through its richly conceived narrative and characters, The Help shows how profound change begins small — in the hopes, dreams, and courageous choices of both African Americans and whites.
What would happen if we all took one small step outside the confines of our socially assigned roles to do something that would impact the greater good? We might find that people are far more receptive to change than we thought, just as Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter discovered. We might find that we are not the only ones tired of the world’s injustices. We might find allies in surprising places.
Ever wonder what your life would be like if you had made different decisions? I know I have. I’ve done some downright crazy things in life and have spent many days wishing to erase them from my memory. Unfortunately, that is the nature of life. We all have events in our lives that didn’t go exactly the way we planned. We find ourselves wondering if we had chosen a different college, career, or spouse, would our lives be better. Would we have found that elusive happiness we longed for?
The Someday List is the story of Rachelle Covington, wife of a handsome surgeon. She lives with her two children in a perfect house and community. She has all the material trappings that come with her station in life but she is far from happy. Her perfect life becomes a prison of unhappiness.
After a tense outburst with her husband, Rachelle reaches her breaking point. She takes advantage of her husband’s mission trip and her children’s stay at their grandparents to get away and to see a dying friend. That visit shakes her, making her question her life. She returns to her hometown, Jubilant, Texas. There she faces her past, namely Troy Hardy. Seeing Troy again forces Rachelle to deal with her past, and her decisions will greatly impact her future.
Adams does an excellent job portraying the struggle between wanting to change the past and accepting the life we have. Rachelle is torn between her miserable life and the fantasy of righting a perceived wrong from her past. She spends much of her time wondering how things would’ve turned out if she’d made a different choice.
Regret is a powerful motivator, as Rachelle and Troy’s actions show. It keeps us in our past, relieving moments that we can’t change. The most damaging side effect of regret, however, is not recognizing the blessings God has given us now. The gift of the present is sacrificed for the regrets of the past.
The novel also depicts how the decisions we make now can negatively or positively impact the future. The characters’ choices make the story engaging, with some making decisions that eventually cause great hurt and pain. Others, like Rachelle and her husband, lead them down a road of great self-discovery.
The other characters in the book lend themselves to the reader’s introspection. We see ourselves, and our bad decisions, in them. We see the power of choice and how it impacts our lives. We also see how it only takes one bad decision to cause a great amount of pain and the truth that “good people” are not exempt from the consequences of bad choices.
Regret is only one of the themes of the novel. Greater than regret, Adams chronicles the power of having a dream. The importance of dreams cannot be stressed enough. Without them, life seems stagnant. Adams presents the Someday List much the way we think of “Bucket Lists” (things we want to do before we die). Her portrayal is not as morbid as “Bucket Lists” but they both aim for the same result: the realization of dreams.
Sometimes we don’t realize we’ve stopped dreaming until we are faced with death. Rachelle’s dying friend challenges her to create a someday list and causes Rachelle to take a fresh look at her life. In Rachelle’s case, a terminal illness drives her to introspection, but any type of loss has a way of making us reconsider our lives. The important lesson to learn is to make the most of every opportunity. Loss has a tendency to cause us to take stock of our lives. It reminds us of our finiteness. In order to ensure that our lives are filled with meaning, dreams are necessary. They become a guiding force through the tough times. They give our days a sense of forward motion.