He was a real nice Martian, Mister King.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

No, this is not a sci-fi novel. And you will have to read the book to find out which character said those words and in what context. (It has nothing to do with aliens.) It happens to be one of my favourite parts of the story, involving one of my favourite characters—a very courageous and intelligent woman. There are, in fact, several courageous, intelligent women in this novel. I think that’s what makes it such a compelling read.

The women in The Help are actually writing a book, a collection of their own personal stories about what it’s like being a southern black woman working for white people in the 1960’s. You’re a free woman, not a slave, but certainly not treated as an equal by your white employers and their friends. You can’t even use the same bathroom as white people.

I was surprised by how much I could identify with the black maids in this story. Like Minny, I take great pleasure in expressing myself through the art of cooking. (After reading about Minny’s famous caramel cake, I was thrilled to find the recipe for her special icing on the author’s website.) Like Aibileen, I love taking care of other people’s children and finding creative ways to teach them. I even used to write my prayers down on paper like she does. (When I read that, I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start doing it again.) They tell their stories with humour and wisdom, and I loved how their voices, with their Mississippi accents, can be heard loud and clear. Aibileen’s voice drew me in from the very first chapter.

I could also identify with some of the white female characters: Miss Skeeter, the writer, and Miss Celia, the… um, young naïve housewife? Let’s be honest—she’s a floozy. But oh Miss Celia, my heart breaks for you! You’ve faced one of the hardest, saddest things a woman could ever face, I think. (Again, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened to poor Miss Celia.)

This wasn’t one of those books that I left sitting in the pile on my nightstand. No, I lugged this heavy hardcover around with me, reading a few paragraphs, pages, or chapters every chance I got—while waiting in the car for my husband to leave work at the end of the day, while waiting for the teakettle to boil, while eating my soup. And yes, of course, I read some more before falling asleep.

Now that I’m done reading The Help, I miss the voices of those characters. I wonder if the upcoming movie will do them justice. I’m also eager to see whether Stockett will write a second novel (this was her first). It was one of those books that I was almost sorry to finish. But I’m glad I read it.

Books About TV Cooks

I used to love watching cooking shows on TV. Rachael Ray, Yan Can Cook, and Emeril Live, they all fascinated and inspired me with their magical kitchen talents. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes (who pre-measures those ingredients, or cooks the picture-perfect roast that’s ready to pull out of one oven seconds after the demo roast is put into another oven?) then here are two books I recommend. One is fiction, and one non-fiction.

Comfort Food by Kate Jacobs

This book is a breezy, fun read if you’re in the mood for something not too heavy. It depicts the behind-the-scenes drama of the fictional TV show, Cooking With Gusto! (a phenomenal name for a cooking show in my opinion). The main character, Gus, who hosts the show, is a Martha-Stewart-like figure. Despite her flawless cooking skills, life is not so perfect for her outside the kitchen. Gus must deal with the loss of her husband, rocky relationships with her two grown daughters, and a younger, more attractive cohost who ruffles her feathers.

I enjoyed listening to this story as an audiobook while I did some painting in our living room last summer. It was amusing enough, and the cooking show aspect appealed to me since I love to cook so much. I could have done without the lame love interest, but I suppose romance is a must-have ingredient for this type of women’s fiction. In terms of my reading diet, you might say this book was more of a quick snack than a nutritious meal, but hey, if you’re not overly hungry, sometimes that’s all you need.

Being Martha by Lloyd Allen

What better companion to a story about a fictional character resembling Martha Stewart than a real-life account of the domestic maven herself? Written by a long-time neighbour and friend, this non-fiction narrative portrays the “real” Martha as she is seen, not through a TV camera lens, but through the eyes of those who know and love her.

I was truly inspired by this book (once again, downloaded as audio so I could listen to it on my iPhone). It made me want to be a little Martha Stewart in my own home: cooking delicious meals, keeping things spotless and well-organized, and making my plants and loved ones around me flourish. I suppose I identify with Martha not only because of my love for cooking, gardening, and crafts, but also because I tend to be a driven perfectionist too (although I’m learning to accept that life cannot and does not always have to be perfect).

Even Martha Stewart has made some mistakes in life. The book also talks about the time she spent behind bars following the infamous insider trading scandal. But even in prison, she was making crafts and crab-apple jelly.

I love the way Martha’s daughter Alexis defended her mom:

“No matter what they say about my mom, all she ever does is teach the world good things that will help them in life. So what if she shows you the perfect way to do it? Would you want your professor at school to do anything less in any other subject?”