Category Archives: Penguin By Hand

The Postmistress

This book is part of the Penguin By Hand set and like “The Help“, it has a beautiful embossed cover. The embossing matches the design and you get the wonderful tactile experience of it feeling as though it’s been cross stitched. I’d been eyeing off the set for a while, and bought myself this book as a treat for finishing a unit at university.

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“The Postmistress” by Sarah Blake is a World War II story set in 1941 about three women. There is Iris, who is the postmistress in a small town called Franklin in the USA; Emma, the Franklin doctor’s new wife; and Frankie, an American newsreader based in London that the other two women hear on the radio. The women are united by the increasingly irrefutable impact of the war in Europe on America, and by a letter to be delivered.

I have very complex feelings about this book. On the one hand, Blake is without a doubt a beautiful writer who has brought to life a fraught period in world history from a number of perspectives. Her research is excellent and the detail of her own descriptions of everyday life as well as that of Frankie’s observations in her reports on the radio are very immersive. Frankie is an excellent character and Blake does a great job of handling the peculiar situation women found themselves in during World War II with burgeoning opportunities resulting from necessity and changing social attitudes but the lingering sexism of the past still very much present.

There are some wonderful subtleties in this book, however I did find myself wanting more from the story. I felt that Blake simply did not do the character of Iris, the postmistress, justice. I was completely disinterested in Iris’ blossoming romance with the town mechanic. What I wanted to know more about was about Iris herself. There were only a handful of chapters told from her perspective, and there was scanty information given about all the things I was desperate to know. How did she get the job as postmistress? What was it like working in the post office? I was way more interested in her troubleshooting the machine that printed dates on the letters than I was in her anxiety over her virginity. I feel like with books that look retrospectively at the chronically underwritten role of women in history almost have a duty to look at the influence women had on keeping society running. Blake did a fantastic job in this sense with Frankie, so it just seemed out of step that Iris’ character was cheapened by reducing her to not much more than her relationship with a man.

The other thing that I felt was a wasted opportunity (and this is a minor spoiler, so if you want to read the book completely unsullied, skip to the final paragraph now) was that Blake hints that Frankie’s housemate Harriet had actually met Otto’s wife in London before they were separated in Spain and he went on alone to America. I was hoping that somehow Frankie might have put two and two together, and delivered some of Harriet’s intel or a letter or something but Otto’s story was left in limbo (which, fair enough, it is WWII – that’s realistic) and Frankie’s focus is elsewhere. I think I just felt that maybe where other things had failed and gone wrong, that could have been a nice little thing amongst the collective disaster of war to go right.

This is a well-written book with some great historical and literary merit, and this edition in particular is absolutely gorgeous. A unique take on America’s role in WWII that perfectly captures the senselessness of war, but that I wanted a little bit more from when it came to some of the characters.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Penguin By Hand

The Help

This is one of the rare times that I saw the film before I read the book. I remembered quite liking the film “The Help” at the time, but thinking that it lacked depth. I had intended on reading the book, but hadn’t gotten around to it because to be honest, I wasn’t really that enthusiastic. Then I came across the Penguin By Hand Series. A series of general fiction books written by women, these beautiful paperback editions each show off a different kind of craft in beautiful embossed designs. “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, is gorgeously decorated like a quilt and if you run your fingertips across the cover, it feels like it’s been quilted. I picked up a copy and I’m hoping to eventually get the full set of these beautiful books.

“The Help” is set in Jackson, a city in the state of Mississippi, USA in the early 1960s, where racist attitudes and racist laws are still very much in force. The book is narrated by three different women: two maids and a graduate. Aibileen is a black maid who has been working for white families for decades. Minny, who is also a black maid, is Aibileen’s younger friend whose smart mouth gets her into a lot of trouble. Skeeter is a young white woman who has just come back from college and is looking to start her career in journalism. When Skeeter’s friend Hilly conspires to introduce separate toilets for black maids in a racially motivated “health initiative”, Skeeter is inspired to interview black maids in Mississippi and write about the their lives. However, the risks of being caught after curfew and of the maids being found out by their employers, not to mention the risk that the story won’t even get published, prove to be significant hurdles for Skeeter’s scheme.

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I wasn’t expecting much from this book, but I was surprised at how much I liked it. The film is almost more of a comedy than a drama and paints Skeeter as an almost insufferable Mary-Sue. The book is far, far better with a lot more substance and nuance. Skeeter is much more well-rounded as a character with plenty of faults and many sacrifices to make. Instead of being a book about a privileged girl following her dreams of becoming a writer, it is a book about a white woman learning that good intentions are no substitute for empathy and understanding. I thought that Aibileen and Minny were also much better depicted in the book, with far more focus on their home lives and their own perspectives. I really felt that where the movie glossed over the racial issues, the book went into far more depth and detail. Minny in particular has so much more going on than meets the eye, and is an incredibly complex and interesting character.

Stockett is a convincing and evocative writer with a real flair for characters and relationships. I think my only lingering reservation is that I would have liked to have seen a story of working as a black maid in Mississippi in the ’60s written by a black author. I was somewhat mollified after reading “Cane River” and I do think that Stockett was able to tackle this topic with sensitivity and insight. A surprisingly enjoyable novel that is easy to read, I would highly recommend it over the film.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Penguin By Hand