The Bees: A Review

I used to do my lunchtime-reading in the office pantry and would occasionally get asked, “What’s the book about?” Now this question frustrates me on two levels. First, don’t engage in a conversation with someone who’s reading. Second, I find it painfully difficult to answer that question from people who are only asking to make conversation. Don’t ask me that if you are not genuinely interested. Because how can I condense the plot of a book in 140-characters or less (which is how I am expected to answer that question, it seems.) This tiny rant has a point. My point is that this book will suffer so much when condensed to that sort of elevator talk. “It’s a literary thriller about bees.” It sounds slightly absurd and shallow, doesn’t it?

When in fact, The Bees covers multiple layers of themes, rich in parallels with the human experience. This is one of the most highly original and compelling books I have ever read. In fact, I like that it is likened to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale because it captures the same sort of chilling reality.

Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, the lowest level in The Hive class. She was born different in a society where different means dysfunction and leads to immediate death. But Flora was saved from immediate death to experiment how The Hive can benefit from her abnormality. From feeding the newborns to doing sanitation work with her kin to becoming a forager, we journey with Flora as she slowly discovers the different facets of The Hive life. Fiercely loyal to The Queen (Accept.Obey.Serve.), until Flora breaks the sacred law of The Hive.

The Hive symbolizes power politics. Ruled by The Queen, it is a totalitarian government, chosen because of her ability to breed. But when Flora spends time with Queen Mother, we see someone who rules more on a ceremonial level. She was almost a prisoner and a victim. The real power belongs to The Hive Mind which controls and relays all the messages.

The Hive symbolizes religion. The Queen Mother as a ruler is treated as divine and her role to breed a divine right. It is through Devotions that the Sage class (who really are running the show behind the scenes) can control and sway the Sister Bees.

The Hive symbolizes the class struggle. Flora’s kin being the sanitation workers, the lowest class, they are without the ability of speech and exist only to clean. The foragers have probably the most physically demanding and dangerous task. They leave the safety of The Hive to collect pollen from all the flowers in the orchard. They face many potential dangers in the form of wasps, crows and spiders and the elements – rain, wind and snow. More than the class within The Hive, I think there is a bigger discussion in terms of Nature’s class/power struggle. Man hardly figures in the story, but when he does “visit” The Hive, it forces you to think about man’s (being at the top of food chain) nature of self-entitlement and disrespect for other creatures.

Another aspect of Flora’s struggle that resonated with me was how lonely she is. Because she keeps a terrible secret, Flora constantly has to keep her antennae closed off to keep her secret safe. When she develops a friendship with Sir Linden, it was both heartbreaking and beautiful to see.

One last thing that I want to bring up is the respect I have gained for the honeybees. We should realize how much hard work there is to produce honey and how they struggle with violence and danger everyday of their lives. No spoilers here but there’s one section that tackles how the bees handle the droughts of winter and it was the most chilling section of the book.

I was also awed at the complexity of the bees as an organism. The sections about Flora going to the garden to forage shows their physical strength. In an interview with Laline Paull, she mentions how signals are transmitted via the honeycombs through the bees’ feet and legs which have sensors like our ears that can hear these signals. Very interesting creatures.

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On lending books

Judging by the amount of heartbreak and angst that readers have on the business of lending books (listen to this awesome discussion from the Dear Book Nerd podcast), it seems that all of us readers have been victimized by the irresponsible borrowers. Just recently, I did a massive book shelf re-organization when it hit me just how many books I have lost to lending. Because many of these lent books have gone to folks I have hardly any contact with anymore, I have accepted that those books are lost forever. However, there is one, The Book Thief that is lent out to a colleague in March 2014. I really loved this book and I know it’s one of those novels I would want to re-read or perhaps even read to my future son or daughter so I know I want it back! So I have devised a plan to get this book back to my shelf, where it belongs! (Not really! I did however cooked up plausible excuses to get the book back home. I came up with the “another friend wants to borrow the book, can I have it back?”)

I’ve asked bookish friends on Instagram and it seems we’ve all been victims of the book-lending that 1. some resolved not even to lend any books at all and 2. use a templated excuse to make sure the book is returned home – no matter what.

But, why do we bear this pain, dear fellow readers? Why can’t we just go up to those borrowers and say, “Give me my book back!” So here’s what I propose. From now on, let’s not hesitate to ask for our books to be returned. No excuses. No more being nice boys and girls.

2014 Reading Goals

I know I’m a month too late but I thought I’d share with you my reading goals for 2014. If you are on Goodreads like me, you’re probably powering through achieving your 2014 Reading Challenge. Apart from achieving my Goodreads book challenge (24 books – cause I’m seeking to redeem last year’s failure.), I thought I’d share here the rest of my reading goals.

1. Read contemporary writers
It’s no secret that I am sucker for the Classics, especially those from the 19th to the early 20th century. As much as I strive for diversity in my reading, I find myself gravitating towards the Classics most of the time. While this is well and good, sometimes when one starts to use the expression “What a capital idea!” one too often, it’s a sign that one needs to delve into the modern every once in awhile. The good news is that some new titles published last year have been likened to the 19th century novel (uh-oh!) like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I’ve also started on the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, a gothic mystery written by Spanish novelist, Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

2. Chunkers
I am currently reading my first chunker for the year – Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and have another Victorian novel (see what I mean about being a sucker for Classics!) waiting for me, George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I recently discovered 2666, Robert Bolano’s complex book about literary sleuths. It’s one massive read and contemplating on whether to add that to my list of chunkers.

3. Share through reviews
I am convinced that our journey with the book doesn’t end once we’ve reached the last page. No. Each book is an experience, a life lived and to discuss and share our experiences (even if it’s in a form of a review) opens us up as readers. It challenges us to more actively articulate our feelings, our learnings and take-aways from each and every encounter with a book. This is the reason why I started this book blog so I could have a place to put down these thoughts to whoever will care to listen.

So onwards to an awesome and bookish 2014!

Fully Booked in Manila

Spent the Christmas holidays at home in Manila and I’m glad I got to spend time to check out

Fully Booked, the biggest book store in Manila. I spent some time at their High Street store and it was 3 floors of heaven!

I especially love this book wall and I have to give props at the well-curated titles on display. 

fully booked

Being a huge sucker for Classics, I immediately gravitated to the Classics section where I was impressed by their huge collection of titles. I picked up the following:

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Daniel Deronda by George Eliot and The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

Fully Booked makes me so happy to know that there are options for bookish folks out there in Manila who have a passion for more than the usual book sellers (National Book Store, I’m looking at you!).

The Book Thief: A Review

Where do I even begin? Thematically, The Book Thief is so layered that I need to spend some time to unravel them.
In a lot of ways, it is a typical Holocaust story. Set in a small, made-up town of Molching near Munich, we see the transformation of the residents of Himmel St. as the country is swept into the Nazi ideology. The Book Thief is young Liesel Meminger. She enters the world of Himmel St. via her adoptive parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann. As Liesel struggles to adjust to her new family set by a harrowing trip to Molching (she loses her brother on the way while her Mother left and disappeared forever), we also see this tiny town struggle to make life in Germany seem normal amidst the onset of war.
Because of a promise made, the Hubermanns find themselves harboring a German Jew in their basement, a sin equivalent to death – if found out – in Nazi Germany.
But in a lot of ways too, The Book Thief is not your typical Holocaust story. For one, it is set not in occupied Poland nor Austria, but in Bavaria where Nazism was born, featuring Hitler’s most prized Aryans – blonde, blue-eyed Germans. Rather than painting the characters in black and white – the bad Germans vs the persecuted minority – it explores the dichotomy of human nature. How can average men – shop owners, teachers, tailors – actively participate in the persecution and killing of a fellow, or even worse, stand back and let it all happen?
While hiding out at the basement during one of the air raids, Death addresses this complicated dichotomy. “Did they deserve any better, these people? How many had actively persecuted others, high on the scent of Hitler’s gaze, repeating his sentences, his paragraphs, his opus? Was Rosa Hubermann responsible? The hider of a Jew? Or Hans? Did they all deserve to die? The children?
…I pitied them, though not as much as I felt for the ones I scooped up from the various camps in that time. The Germans in basements were pitiable, surely, but at least they had a chance. That basement was not a washroom. They were not sent there for a shower. For those people, life was still achievable.”
And yeah, another unique factor – Death narrates!*
But the theme that resonated with me the most is the redemptive power of books and words. While the rise of Nazism in Germany demonstrated that words can destroy and hate, words can also heal, save and give hope.

* On a side note, Jeffrey Eugenides employs a similar literary trick in Middlesex by making his narrator, Calliope/Cal, all-seeing and all-knowing.

Glimpses of the Moon: A Review

Spent a good part of 2013, catching up on Wharton’s works. Glimpses of the Moon is a short story centered on social hangers-on, Nick and Susy. Almost on a whim, they decided to get married and see how far they can go living off of their wealthy friends. Expect the typical Wharton commentary on the rich New York society she was born into but more lighthearted, almost hopeful in its belief that “Love can conquer all.” Here’s my review:

“She knew all these by heart, had always known it. It all belonged to the make-up of the life of elegance: there was nothing new about it. What had been new to her was that short interval with Nick – a life unreal indeed in its setting, but so real in its essentials: the one reality she had ever known. As she looked back on it she saw how much it had given her besides the golden flush of her happiness, the sudden flowering of sensuous joy in heart and body. “

By “these” here refers to the unspoken expectations of a hanger-on – to be a distraction, to be an entertainment and to be a co-conspirator, and finally, to “manage”. And before she met Nick, Susy welcomed the little luxuries that a social climber like herself was afforded with. (After all, what else could someone sitting along the fringes of high society aspire to.)

Social climbers Susy and Nick found a loophole in the unspoken laws of the society they so desperately want to become a part of by marrying each other (despite not having any money or property or means for earning) and live off of their friends and their wedding cheques for a year (or until those cheques run out or they overstay their welcome in friends’ villas or chateaus.) When either or both find other partners who can advance them in society, they will part and divorce. Good – until the couple actually truly fall in love with each other that they contemplate living “the simple yet happy life”. But in an uncharacteristic (for Wharton that is) rom-com fashion, hi-jinx ensue, before our hero and heroine get back together.

Before the happily ever after though, let’s back up a bit and talk about Nick. When he found out how Susy “managed” their stay at Ellie’s by aiding her in covering up for her affairs, Nick freaked out and ran away. So melodramatic and on some level, arrogant! He can’t admit that social parasites “managed” no matter how much bitter taste it leaves on the mouth.

Serendipity

How do you find books? I am lucky enough to have a lot of bookish friends who recommend  good titles and good authors (It is not uncommon for my friends and I to greet each other with “What book are you reading now?”). Aside from recommendations from trusted friends, Goodreads is great way to find recommendations based on books that I like (it’s all algorithmic of course). I also discovered that Quora is a good source – lots of bookish folks out there. My newest discovery is Go Book Yourself, which distinguishes itself from the rest by providing recommendations made by humans. They recently featured The Book Thief, which I just finished reading. There were so many elements to the story of The Book Thief – the dichotomy of human nature, WWII from the German perspective, etc but the theme that resonated with me was the redemptive power of books and words, so thanks to Go Book Yourself, I stumbled upon this:

  The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Cousin Bette: A Review


My foray into the 19th century realist novels continues with Balzac. Set in mid 19th century Paris, I am drawn into Balzac’s slow unveiling of the French high society. This is my first Balzac and in the first few pages alone, I am introduced to his style of direct (to the point of crude) depiction of the French aristocracy. (How different from the style of his contemporaries who rely on saying much by not saying anything at all, relying only hints and implications.) Women – let me qualify that – beautiful women are treated not just as possessions but as a commodity to be used as a bargaining ace, to be discarded when convenient, to be bought for societal gains. (Only the denizens of the 13th arrondissement of Paris can equal this.) Plain, old and forgotten Lisbeth knew her place in society. Cunning, she used these societal expectations to setup the Hulots’ fall. I enjoyed Balzac’s direct, bold, comical and exaggerated characterizations – the Baron as the “(self)lovesick fool”, the leering (and posing) Crevel (I spent the entire novel picturing him as Gerard Depardieu) and the ambitious Madame Marneffe who at some point juggled 4 lovers and a husband. And though a bit tedious, I did like that Balzac spent the first 150 pages setting up the characters’ back stories.

Book and Song Mash-up

This post is inspired by Book Riot’s 11 Amazing Book-Song Pairings. It is inevitable, isn’t it? Both are creative forms of storytelling, lending interesting imagery and articulating emotions. Since I am as much a music nerd as I am bookish, here’s my own list of book and song pairings.

While some have direct literary references, others share similar themes and mood, and others just naturally fit (in my head, at least).

1. Radiohead’s 2+2=5 to George Orwell’s 1984


Well this is a no-brainer. The phrase 2+2=5 is of course the false propaganda in Orwell’s 1984, representing “the Party’s” thought control and manipulation. The track 2+2=5 is from Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief CD. Recorded in 2002, the album was written at the time of the US War on Terror, exploring powerlessness and paranoia.

2. Accidental Babies by Damien Rice to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover


Damien Rice is one of my favorite singer-songwriters and I’ve always felt that there’s intensity and complexity in his songs and lyrics. This intensity perfectly reflects the mood of Constance and Oliver’s relationship. It deftly captures the feeling of insecurity in being the other and the intensity and sense of urgency of their relationship.
 
3.  I Lost You by The Walkmen to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

 The attraction between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska is so palpable. But he had to sacrifice his greatest love to conform to a close-minded, malicious society.  The Walkmen’s big, rich, dramatic tune and Hamilton Leithauser singing with such longing perfectly matches The Age of Innocence’s mood.

4. Beirut’s Postcards from Italy to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James


 Italy is that other in Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond’s relationship. At the blossoming of their love affair, Osmond likened their love to a Florentine summer day, “My dear girl, I can’t tell you how life seems to stretch there before us – what a long summer afternoon awaits us. It’s the latter half of an Italian day – with a golden haze, and the shadows just lengthening, and that divine delicacy in the light, the air, the landscape, which I have loved all my life and which you love today.” Sadly, Italy (Rome, in particular) also became Isabel’s prison, removing her from society and family.

5. White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes to Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome


The song’s lyric “And I turned ’round and there you go. And Micheal you would fall,
And turn the white snow, Red as strawberries in the summertime.” The image of the red blood in the snow? We all know how Ethan Frome ends.

Payback: A Review

In Margaret Atwood’s richly informative and highly entertaining, Payback, she explores Debt – not just in its financial sense – but Debt as a construct in religion, literature and in – as she entertainingly illustrates in her re-imagining of Scrooge of the 21st century renamed as Scrooge Nouveu – the effects of Debt (and money) in human societies.

The book can best be summed up by Atwood herself in this amusing opening of the book’s last chapter,
“In my part of the world, we have a ritual interchange that goes like this:
First person: “Lovely weather we’re having.”
Second person: “We’ll pay for it later.”
What this ritual interchange reveals is a larger habit of thinking about the more enjoyable things in life: they’re only on loan or acquired on credit, and sooner or later the date when they must be paid for will roll around. “

Spending a great part of the year reading 19th century novels, I was looking forward to her exploration of the theme of debt (and money) in literature. She theorizes that at the very core of these novels (even in Austen’s romantic novels) is money (or the lack thereof in some cases). In fact, in novels like Madame Bovary and House of Mirth, the heroines’ ruin was brought about by issues of money. Although, I have to say I’m slightly disappointed that Balzac, whose novels unabashedly explores the ill effects of debt (both in the financial and metaphorical sense), was not referenced.

Here’s Atwood herself discussing Debt as motif in literature: