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The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics) (January 28, 2003)
ISBN-10: 0142001740

This is the second time I’ve read this book. The first time was about four years ago, and what a difference four years and some personal growth makes.

The Secret Life of Bees follows Lily Owens, a 14 year old girl in 1964 South Carolina, during the year the Civil Rights Bill was signed. She lives with her father in rural farm country, growing peaches and being miserable. She’s not one of the popular kids, she’s not pretty, and she’s too smart for her father’s peace of mind. Her father, T. Ray, is verbally abusive and emotionally distant, and closed-mouthed about the events leading up to her mother’s death when Lily was four years old.

After an incident between Lily’s African-American nanny Rosaleen and a group of white men, Lily lands in trouble and Rosaleen lands in jail. In a fit of pure spunk, Lily breaks her out and they run away to Tiburon, a town who’s name Lily finds on the back of a picture of a Black Madonna that belonged to her mother. Once they reach the town, they meet the Boatwright sisters, a trio of independent African-American women who raise bees and stand as pillars in a community that worships the Black Mary. August, June, and May Boatwright may hold the secrets of Lily’s mother and her troubled past, and the ability to heal Lily of years of self-doubt and parental abuse.

When I first read this book, I loved it, and I still don’t think it’s a bad book. It has many thought provoking and touching moments, and I do believe Sue Monk Kidd wrote from the heart. Lily is a believable character, and her troubles, large and small, are things many teenagers go through, regardless of what point in history they live. And as a feminist, I like this book a lot because it’s all about women young and old taking charge of their lives as well as they can. But I don’t think the overall story is believable, and I don’t think it’s necessarily right that it was told from the perspective of a white girl.

I can very much see Lily’s personal narrative happening, in that she runs away and ends up staying with generous female figures. But I don’t think, during that time, they would have been black. If they had been black, I don’t see them wanting or having the ability, to take in a young white girl. In that day and age, I just don’t see that as being smart on the part of otherwise highly intelligent characters, or allowed by the white citizens of the town for that matter. And the ending, which I won’t spoil, is not realistic. I feel that there would have been too many repercussions to the final ending for those characters to make those choices.

I can truly see the history and lore of those women occurring during that time, but I don’t really like how that story has to be told out of the mouth (and eyes) of a white girl. If Sue Monk Kidd wanted to explore the feminist theology of the Black Madonna, why couldn’t she write it from the perspecitive of a young black girl being initiated into the society around her? Or being rescued by it, in a similar situation to Lily’s? Jump on me if you like, but the Boatwright sisters were turned into a trio of Magical Negros for the benefit of Lily. (Ah! Lily! As in lily white!!)

Every twist and turn of the story became a learning experience for Lily, to the detriment of the stories being told about the black women involved. Every event was an Event! that is there to teach Lily, and through her, the reader, a lesson about racial tension during the Civil Rights Era, or about inter-racial relations, or about people in general. The Messages were so loud sometimes that it was hard to hear the story.

These things don’t kill the book for me, but they were a constant thought in the back of my mind as I read. As I said, it’s still a good book, and I’ve been conflicted about this review for days now. I’d recommend it, just to get someone else’s opinion on it. Please, let me know what you think in the comments.

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As an (aspiring) book reviewer, I’m trying to teach myself how to read critically, not just for enjoyment. This is at times fun, and other times distracting. It can be difficult to concentrate on the story, when I’m thinking about how I’ll write a review for it.

I have begun to develop a strategy, though.

1. A notebook next to me. As I read, I jot down my thoughts and observations, but it’s really just a streaming thought, not a coherent whole. I put these notes together later.

2. Peer discussion. I’ve mentioned my bookclubs on here several times, now. I’m a member of several local clubs that meet once or twice a month to discuss the book we picked and read together. This allows me to hear other opinions on the novels I’ve been reading, and helps me articulate and defend (or concede) my own opinions on the book. I also visit message boards, for those books that I’m not reading for a club.

3. Falling back on education. While currently not in school, I was once (and hope to be again) an English Literature major (also majoring in Biology). Years of reading, and then writing papers on what I’ve read, has definitely helped me out in my reviews. A college essay is not the same as a review, but you use many of the same skills with each.*

These three strategies have begun to help me bring my reviews more thought and depth, as well as perhaps more relevance. I am, of course, still learning. My eventual hope is that I might even make a little money from my blog, but my true goal is to share my love and understanding of books. If even just a few people get something out of my writing, I’m happy. I want to be a published writer someday, among many dreams, and I can only think that writing here, and reading with my brain turned on, are great places to start.
*This is not at all to say you must be (even partially) college educated to do intellectual work. It’s just helped me personally in this particular instance. There are many continuing education and community outreach programs, even through local libraries, that adults can learn critical thinking skills from. Many great minds, though, were entirely self-taught.

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Bee Season by Myla Goldberg

Another selection that I read for a bookclub held yesterday, Bee Season was definitely an interesting book for me. We first meet Eliza Naumman, a young Jewish girl adrift in a sea of mediocrity, her teachers and family having written her off years before for failing to get into her school’s Talented and Gifted program.

When she unexpectedly wins the school spelling bee, it sets off a chain of events that could never have been foreseen. Making it all the way to the National Bee in the first few pages of the book, so much more is in store than spelling bees for Eliza and her family. Her father, Saul, has put all his energy and dreams on Eliza’s older brother, Aaron, in the hopes that one day Aaron will become the rabbi Saul dreamed of being but failed to achieve. Aaron is a teenage outcast when away from his Jewish community, with no close friends at school, and having grown up as the constant target of bullies and harrassment. Mirriam, their mother, is a distant career woman hiding a dark and confusing secret.

After Eliza wins the first bee, things are throw out of whack, with Saul turning his entire focus on her in order to help her win the National Bee, and thereby leaving Aaron lost without his constant guidance and approval. This leads Aaron to question everything about his life, including and most especially, the Jewish faith he has always followed dilligently. Mirriam begans to lose her grip on the world around her, falling further and further into delusions. And poor Eliza, all she has ever wanted was for someone to love her, and be her guide. Saul pushes her into a strange world of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalistic word/spelling/letter meditations in order for Eliza to win the National Bee, and to eventually reach transcendence and hopefully communion with God.

Throughout this entire book, I was on the edge of my seat, desperate to reach through the pages and shake these characters to wake them from their selfish daydreams and enclosed worlds. All they needed was to talk with each other! It’s spelled C-O-M-M-U-N-I-C-A-T-I-O-N, people!! There are so many near-connections and close encounters, where they almost reach each other, that it is maddening. This a family who has become stuck in the rituals and motions of what a family should look like, but without the caring and attention that a real family has.

The parents are not parents at all. Mirriam has never felt connected to her children, and as the book progresses, we see that more and more, as she pulls further and further into herself, and leaves everything to Saul. Saul is a man obsessed with his own failures, everything he does with his children is based around an agenda. Aaron is the golden son, the one who will become the pillar in the Jewish community, the aspiring rabbi. But this dream is Saul’s and it was really interesting to see Aaron pull away from his roots as he begins to question his own convictions and assumptions, searching for his own path to God through Eastern Religion.

Interesting side note: I felt the portrayal of what was once viewed as a cult, the “Hare Krishna” church, if you will, was very well done. It’s made clear that these people are merely offering Aaron information, and not trying to convert or preach to him. (or Brainwash him…)

And Eliza is, as I said, a lost little girl. She never truly understands what is happening around her, all she can focus on are the words and letters that have begun to change her life and the lives of her family.

The characters are rarely, if ever, likable. They seem to live in a vaccum, the only people they come into contact with being each other. It’s the ultimate example of complete disconnection from each other, and often from reality itself. The story, I feel, isn’t necessarily believable, and again, as someone who is not religious, I can’t truly fathom the need and the desperate hunger to find a connection or a pathway to God.

Also, thinking back on the descriptions and timelines of the book, I think it’s pretty confusing at points. Discussing it with the bookclub, I realized that the author was portraying Eliza and Aaron’s relationship in a very confusing timeline, with Eliza as a little girl, but Aaron being older than he should be if their age difference remains the same throughout the book. Things are referred to as years ago, but if correct, Eliza would have been too young, generally, to even remember or understand what was going on or what games she was playing with her brother.

By the end of the book, I was exhausted. The characters seemed to just drift further apart, instead of learning from their mistakes and getting closer together. When a cataclysmic event happens, it seems to splinter the family completely, whereas most families would pull together and marshall their reserves. I was tired of rooting for them, and tired of reading about people who thought they were intelligent, but continued to make the same mistakes and missteps over and over. They lacked growth and development (perhaps except for Eliza).

And the ending? Well, hell, it’s a doozy, is all I’m saying.

I didn’t like the book, although I found it fascinating, for the glimpses it gives into Jewish faith, mental illness, and a little bit about spelling bees. I wouldn’t personally recommend it, but obviously everyone has their own tastes.

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I received my first Paper Back Swap book today! It’s Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, which I’m supposed to read for one of my book clubs. I originally borrowed it from the library, but when I realized how god-awful long the thing was, I decided I needed to go ahead and buy it. But I didn’t really want to buy it, because I’m already somewhat set against the book, just for the fact that it’s been on Oprah’s Book Club list. Gag!

I’m a rebel! I don’t read popular novels! But since I started my two book clubs, I’m being forced to. (If I want to have anything to talk about at the meetings.) My last two BC books, Revolutionary Road and Eat, Pray, Love both blew chunks, in my opinion, so Pillars also has those strikes against it.

Therefore, when I signed up for PBS, I decided I would use my two free starter credits on books I’d never normally buy, and walla! My first “free” book came today!

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I discovered a new love tonight.

I’ve known about it for quite a while, but have always kind of poo-poo’d it, thinking, why, that’s what libraries are for! I’m talking, of course, about Paper Back Swap. Being the tremendous book lover I am, (for those who haven’t noticed), I’m always looking for ways to get my hands on more books to Slobber Over. By slobber I do mean read.

I’m also cheap, or at least, trying to be. I’d give my wallet to Barnes & Noble if I didn’t need it so much myself, and Half-Price Books holds a special place in my heart, because they make things affordable, and you never know what you’ll find. (This can also be a downside!) I love my local library dearly, as I’ve stated in other posts. And their Inter Library Loan feature is to die for, seriously. But still, I sometimes find them lacking, and at the end of the day, (or two weeks), the book must go back, especially the popular novels that have a waiting list of people behind me.

Well, I’ve found the solution! Affordable books, an easy way to find, or request, what you want, and no need to return it if you don’t want to! List the books you don’t want or need anymore, gain “credits” by mailing them off to those who request them, then ask for what you want. This is dependent on someone posting that book, but you can add books to your wish list and be notified immediately when your book becomes available. And the books are yours to keep! There are no fees (currently) to use the website, and you pay a small mailing fee, about as much as an old paperback from Half-Price, to send your book off at the local post office.

I think this a great compromise between the free library and the cheap Half-Price. I’ve already ordered two books using credits I received for listing my first ten books, and I’ve already had four of my books requested by other people. I didn’t know I had such great taste!

One of the parts I’m most excited about is the opportunity to write more reviews. I’ve joined two local book clubs as a way to broaden my reading horizons. That’s where Eat, Pray, Love and Revolutionary Road came from, two books I never would have chosen for myself. But with two books clubs, one of which meets two or three times a month, that’s four books a month, a tab which can run up quickly. (Pillars of the Earth is 7.99 for the new Mass Market Paperback.) Now I can get them from Paper Back Swap and pay next to nothing! And it’s green living, reusing what others no longer want, cheaply. I may be in heaven.

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