25. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
It's the early 1960's, Jackson, MS, and the civil rights movement is building up. Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is back home after graduating college with a degree in journalism. Her mother would rather her tall, lanky, frizzy-haired daughter have found a husband. Her family's maid, Skeeter's dear Constantine, left suddenly and no one will tell Skeeter why. As Skeeter sits with her married friends at their weekly bridge game, she begins noticing the way they treat their maids. It chafes her and she begins a secret writing project that is bound to destroy her future in Mississippi if she is found out.
Aibileen is a middle-aged black maid who dearly loves her 2-year-old charge, Mae Mobley. She is determined that "Mae Mo" not become prejudiced against blacks the way her parents and their friends are. She builds Mae Mo's self-esteem as her mother and grandmother tear it down. She teaches her to love and respect all people. And she's afraid her time with Mae Mo may be cut short.
Minnie is a sassy, outspoken maid and the town's best cook. She's also a harried mother of five and abused by her drunken husband. Her mama tried to teach her not to sass her white ladies, but she can't hold her tongue or her temper. When she crosses Miss Hilly with the Terrible Awful pie incident, she's afraid she'll never find work again. Fortunately there's a new lady in town who doesn't know the gossip and she hires Minnie to work for her - in secret because she doesn't want her husband to know she can't clean or cook. Her job and her life are threatened when truths start coming to light.
These three women come together to work on a project that can threaten their jobs, their lives, and the lives of their friends, but one that holds a hope for a better future.
This is Kathryn Stockett's first novel, and it's a masterpiece. I had to get used to reading the Southern dialect, but that was relatively easy after a while. The only real problem I had was Stockett's overuse of ellipses. In some cases, they're useful, but too many of them can make reading awkward.
The story is both heart-breaking and heart-warming. I felt disgust, outrage, sympathy, joy, and fear. I cried. I laughed. And laughed. And kept laughing after I'd closed the book - and that was mostly due to the revelation of the Terrible Awful pie incident. And I'm still laughing about it. (You must read it for yourself.)
26. Beyond Belief by Josh Hamilton
Drafted into major league baseball straight out of high school, Josh Hamilton looked like the next big thing. He was an all-American boy next door - handsome, athletic, polite - who placed a high value on family ties.
He was rocketing his way through the minor leagues, ready to take on the next challenge that would put him on the map, when an accident initiated more changes than he was ready to handle. His parents, who had been an integral part of his life, had to return home for his mother's recovery. With his own injury slowing him down and no family around to keep him balanced, he soon turned to alcohol and drugs. The addiction was immediate, and destruction soon followed.
Banned from professional baseball because of several failed drug tests, Hamilton sank even deeper into the pit. Not even marriage and a new baby could pull him from the grip of drugs. Rather it seemed to tighten around him and threaten to destroy everything he once stood for.
Once he realized he couldn't clean up on his own, that he needed God's power to overcome his addiction, he turned his life over to God completely, ready to face whatever would come. In a relatively short time, he was able to get sober, reclaim his family, and return to baseball - quickly landing a position as an outfielder for the Texas Rangers.
Uplifting and encouraging, Hamilton details the horrors of his addiction, the struggle to succeed in sobriety, and the impact he is honored to be able to make in the lives of people who are going through similar circumstances.
The book was published before Hamilton's early 2009 short relapse. Rather than hide the truth, he immediately admitted his failings to his family and his teammates. While the truth wasn't publicized until later in the fall, it seems he has held to his renewed promise to sobriety.
I'm not much of a baseball fan, but Hamilton's story is intriguing. Knowing what I do about him, I might be interested in watching him play.
27. Prairie Tale by Melissa Gilbert
Melissa Gilbert is probably best known for her role as Laura Ingalls on the long-running hit Little House on the Prairie. I watched it faithfully as a child, and occasionally catch reruns even now. If I had to imagine what Gilbert's childhood was like, I probably would've thought it to be much like Laura's, though in modern times. Not so.
Adopted as a baby and loved fiercely by her overprotective mother, she was expected to swallow her feelings and let everyone believe everything in life was perfect. This led to problems in her late teens and early adulthood, once she was able to break away.
From an on-again, off-again romance with Rob Lowe (which included a devastating miscarriage), to an unstable marriage to an insecure man (and the birth of her first child), to her strong relationship with husband and fellow actor Bruce Boxleitner (and birth of her second son) - and everything in between - Gilbert doesn't pull any punches. She's finally able to be honest.
I enjoyed all of the book except for the chapter about the Screen Actors Guild and all the politics involved with it. Thankfully the book doesn't end on a dull note, but rather details her work to provide hospice care for children, as well as her current role as Caroline "Ma" Ingalls in the Little House musical. It'll be interesting to see what she does next, whether in the entertainment field or in the field of health care.
28. Against All Odds: My Story by Chuck Norris
While I'm not a huge fan of martial arts or martial arts movies, I do have a lot of respect for Chuck Norris. Billy and I used to watch Walker, Texas Ranger regularly, and even now I'll watch a rerun every now and then. I saw him in person (though from a distance) several years ago in Dallas when I was attending a Mary Kay convention. Several of us were outside a West End restaurant that had been cordoned off for a private party. We saw Norris and several of his co-stars arrive. I think we were all a little star-struck.
Norris' childhood was marked by hardship - a low-income family with an abusive, alcoholic father who later abandoned the family. He wasn't much of an athlete or a scholar, but he had determination. He joined the military and was introduced to martial arts while stationed in Korea. At first it was something to pass the time, but he grew to love competing and learning new skills.
After returning to the states, he began teaching martial arts and eventually opened a chain of studios under his name. His excellence in the field led to encounters with several Hollywood actors and eventually a spot in a film. From there, his acting career took hold and grew.
Norris, a conservative with friendly ties to the presidential Bush family, began working to establish a martial arts program in schools, designed to improve the self-esteem of teens in low-income areas and encourage them to reach beyond their surroundings to achieve their goals. The program started out slow, but has grown considerably in the last several years. Students from the early years of the program have proven its effectiveness, giving it strength to be implemented in new places.
Throughout the book, Norris is honest about his faith, his faults, his failings, and his future. He continues to grow in his Christianity and looks for ways his family can minister to others. He really is an inspiration.