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.


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.

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.

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:

The House of Mirth: A Review

**Spoiler Alert**
My 2012 literary journey can be highlighted with the discovery of two authors. Dabbling into sci-fi (I haven’t been much of a fan) by way of HG Wells via Margaret Atwood and this ongoing love affair with Edith Wharton. I picked up a copy of Age of Innocence years ago – it survived my move to Singapore 9 years ago but has stayed forgotten in my bookshelf until late last year. I was blown away by that book and once again, Wharton doesn’t disappoint in The House of Mirth. I daresay this is my favorite work of hers.

A novel once again set at the turn of the 20thc New York upper class, Wharton explores the role of the female in an unforgiving society (“Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?”) and the societal maneuverings that chews up its victims. The shunning of Lily Bart by a society that was all too quick to believe the worst, left her with no prospects, no friends and without any useful skills that she was so completely stripped of confidence. She refused Rosedale’s help (I am convinced it was without any dark motives.) and she didn’t even think herself deserving of Selden’s love. But ahh Lily, if only you were a little bit more cunning!

And Lawrence Selden – can you think of any male character more vile? He was quick to judge Lily for her aspirations and scoffs (and call bullshit) at the society he pretends to be outside of. He ran away from Lily when he thought she was having an affair with Trenor (when he himself was tapping Bertha Dorset!) and was ready to believe the worst in her. He acts like he’s Lily’s savior yet never had the courage to offer any real, tangible help. Spineless!

Edith Wharton’s writing is so deft, her characters so fleshed out that I have often forgotten throughout reading this novel that this is written in the third person.

On a lighter note, I am no smoker and hate cigarettes but damn you Edith Wharton, you make them sound so delicious.

*Note this review was originally written in January 2013.