Books I Love: Part I

July 28, 2008 at 12:37 pm 4 comments

As promised, I’m back after having read a book! If you’ve been paying attention, I also wrote a review of SYTYCD Top 8 and several haiku (haikus?) in the interim, plus added a quotation box and a couple of Mensa puzzles to this here humble blog.

But it’s the reading of the book that really feels like a victory, somehow.

I am going to slowly wean myself away from online activities (with the exception of this blog, and some other selected activities–baby steps, you know). In their place, I vow to regain my lost love for books. I had forgotten the joy they bring. I feel, somehow, much less guilt after whiling away an afternoon reading a book, than I do spending the same amount of time online. I wonder why that is?

As part of my recovery from online addiction (kind of contradictory that I should be writing in my blog about this now, isn’t it?), I have been discussing with a friend The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, a beautifully crafted story set in South Carolina in 1964, revolving around Lily, a 14-year-old white girl living with an abusive father in the aftermath of her mother’s death.

More about this book, and–to borrow a Gawker phrase–a listicle of other books you might enjoy, if you enjoyed this one, after the jump.

Yearning for the mother she has never known but believes she killed, Lily battles crippling isolation, guilt and abuse at the hands of T-Ray, her miserable excuse of a father. Through a series of unfortunate events and coincidences, she rescues herself and her black housekeeper-aka-stand in mother, Rosaleen, from a beating at the hands of three racist townsfolk and heads off to a new life using a picture of the Black Madonna, one of the few memories she has left of her mother, as her guide.

Following her instincts, she finds a home with May, June and August Boatwright in Tiburon, SC. With them, she learns to raise bees, make honey and pray to the Black Madonna…a ship’s masthead handed down from generation to generation, and serving as a rich and layered symbol in the story. In the Calendar sisters’ home, abuzz with activity, Lily finds the answers to her past and even more importantly, that she is lovable and loved.

The richness of this novel lies in three things: first, the writing, which is simple, elegant, and compact. It retains a leisurely but deceptively-focused pace, like a southern summer day, showing events as they unfold and bringing them quickly to fruition, without being weighted down by unnecessary description or the clutter of irrelevant plot twists. The novel began as a short story, and each chapter–starting with the allegorical “Life of Bees” quotation at the head, and ending with a decisive moment, sometimes captured in prose or sometimes simply a clear demarcation in plot–bears traces of that origin.

Secondly, the characters are interesting and for the most part, well-defined. Lily carries the story–a precocious, introspective, traumatized girl whose first-person narrative is impeccably voiced by Monk Kidd. Each of the Boatwright sisters, as well as Rosaleen, are similarly well-wrought without being caricatures. They are also, even the remote June, just downright likable for all their eccentricities. A film of the novel is being premiered at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival in September, and it will be the ability of the actors to bring off these characters that will mark its success transferring to the screen.

When Lily reaches the pink bee hive house, we feel as sheltered and safe amongst the Calendar sisters as she does. As comforting as this is, it also reduces somewhat the drama and urgency of her situation, a point I’ll return to shortly. The male characters don’t fare as well; Monk Kidd is uninterested in exploring their stories, but uses them as props to flesh out the stories of the women.

Thirdly, the novel’s symbols and metaphors help develop the multiple themes: self-, spiritual and parental love, sisterhood, the bonds of community and family; the organizing forces of life that give it meaning. Without the images of the Queen Bee and the worker bees in their hives, which set up each chapter and drive the action, plus the Black Madonna which adds a spiritual texture as well as resonating with the subtle, but unmistakeable, historical and present tension between black and white that runs through the novel, this story may have been flat and mundane.

I have just two criticisms of note: there were times when the dialogue was a little clunky. Monk Kidd’s writing is strongest when she is narrating from the first-person introspective voice of Lily; but the exchanges between Lily and August, in particular, felt like plot contrivances rather than real-life dialogue. In some cases, they also felt filtered through modern-day Oprah-ized psychobabble, for which I have a particular sensitivity and distaste. Dialogue is one of the hardest things to get right, and in this novel, creating true external “voices” of each character–through local dialect, homilies and expressions (she got close, on a couple of occasions, with Rosaleen)–would have added authenticity. It would also have helped the novel be as fully realized in terms of external events, as it was for internal.

Similarly (and this may just be due to my own interest in the events of the time), I felt the sub-plot/setting of the social chaos and violence of the aftermath of the passing of the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964 was underplayed. We had hints of it–allusions to the threat and reality of violence that pervaded life for African Americans before and after. We saw, in small ways, the suffering of those who dared to claim their rights and the hatefulness of those who tried to deny them. But the effects of the violence were minimized–everything from Lily’s abusive treatment by her father, to Rosaleen’s beating, to the Lily/Zach sub-plot.

May’s wailing wall, stuffed with notes, stood as the chief symbol of the violence of the times; we got a glimpse of these indirectly through her angst but to feel the full drama and maintain some looming sense of threat, making the resolution all the more satisfying, we needed to see a little more of the effects of them on the lives of the characters. The effects on May were clear and dramatic, but even the pain of this was ritualized and sanitized through some pervading sense of inevitability. The event that led up to it–Zach’s jailing around the desegregation of a local movie theatre–occurred (actually, it didn’t–it was merely suggested) as background context.

As much as the literal portrayal of real-world events impacting these fictionalized characters would have added drama to the novel, there is much to be said for Monk Kidd’s control and the deliberate choice she made in the gauzy, indirect portrayal of violence. Any overt depiction would have fundamentally tipped the delicate balance of internal versus external struggle and made the novel into something it is not, not to mention marred its tone and quality. Viewed from this perspective, Monk Kidd displays extraordinary talent and mastery of her medium. I look forward to her most recent release, The Mermaid Chair.

In the meantime, I have been asked for book recommendations, and had to search my memory for those books that really made an impact on me in the recent past. I’ll create a sub-page for this and will add to it as I read and comment on new ones.


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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. lena  |  July 28, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    just so you know the movie “The Secret Life of Bees” starring Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, and Dakota Fanning will be hitting theaters October 17th!

  • 2. zennifer516  |  July 28, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    Hi lena! Thanks so much for stopping by. I’m going to do my best to get tickets for The Secret Life of Bees when it premieres up here at the Toronto International Film Fest. If I do, look for a sneak preview/review of the film right here!!

    Much is being written about the casting for the film–and all in the hands of a relatively unknown director, too. What do you think of it? (I have some doubts, I confess …)

  • 3. Gwen  |  July 29, 2008 at 11:31 pm

    Loverly review!!

    I completely agree with your synopsis of what made the book work, and perhaps what could have been corrected.

    However, I have given some thought to the way that Monk Kidd seemed to “brush over” details of the Civil Rights events of that day. It seems that too much insight might have overshadowed the book, but the real angst, pain, and suffering of that day actually lay in the characters’ reactions to their circumstances.

    As you said, May had her “wailing wall”.

    June was proud, angry, and full of distrust when it came to whites. It didn’t seem that she would withhold her discrimination – even when it came to a lost girl, who really only need love and support, regardless of race.

    Then, there was Rosaleen, who proudly became the “stand-in” mother for Lily, even though there was repressed anger toward her plight. The Civil Rights Act meant much to her, and it was with pride that she stepped forward to take her rightful place in American society. It was only the hard way that she discovered that the law meant nothing until the people themselves changed.

    There was August Boatwright – a strong, solid woman, who became successful in her own right, but not without some hardships of her own. She was well-known in Tiburon, S.C., and she took great pride in her beekeeping work. Yet, there were those who still looked down on her because of the color of her skin. Note those who questioned Lily because she was staying with “colored people”.

    Finally, there was Lily. The fact that she was white flipped the situation just a little bit. She was on the other side of the spectrum. Although through her own self-discovery, she discovered that she had some prejudices of her own, there was no denying her love for Rosaleen or any of the calendar sisters. A key part of the novel was when she felt like she was “one of them”.

    The Civil Rights movement and the resulting atrocities are a common part of history. We are aware enough of the details to know what went on. However, it was because of this period in history that each female character in the book when through their own journies of self-discovery, redemption, healing, and tragedy.

    More later. This is long enough….:)

  • 4. zennifer516  |  July 30, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Hey Gwen! Great to see you here! 🙂

    I think your character analysis is spot on, and agree that “the real angst, pain, and suffering of that day actually lay in the characters’ reactions to their circumstances.” I flip-flopped on my opinion of whether there should have been more overt action (i.e., violence) and reference to specific events between the start and the end of my review.

    Thinking about it now, I’m pretty sure the book would be a completely different thing if that was the angle Monk Kidd had decided to take. And really, we have a lot of books that address violence and racism so directly.

    In some ways, the tight bonds between the women — and the bond that Lily comes to have with them — is testament to the need for these bonds, as a defence. And Lily’s character is evidence of the ability we all have to transcend these biases. I very much enjoyed Lily’s recognition of her own racism as it occurred during her personal journey.

    I think this book is being taught in high schools, based on what I’m reading around the study notes and so on. The edition I have has a series of 11 Questions for Discussion in the back. They seem geared to high school level students and/or book clubs.

    That’s the upside of teaching English lit–getting kids who are ripe and open to debating these issues to engage with them through novels like this, and to develop their critical thinking abilities. Makes me almost wish I had gone in that direction in my career. Then I think of the insolent, gangsta-rapper contingent, and that scares the hell out of me.

    There are powerful, constructive ways to battle racism–such as those the Calendar sisters and Lily portray–and then there is the giving in to anger and violence as a result of it. I wonder what direction Zach would have taken, if his character arc had been allowed to continue? And was that unresolved plot line intentional to suggest exactly that: that he could have gone in either a positive, socially constructive direction (become a lawyer and fought the system from within) or a potentially negative and violent one?


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