Monthly Archives: September 2012

Little Bee

Little Bee


I’m not sure how I missed this book when it first came out in 2008, but I regret that I didn’t read it until now.  Part of me wishes I hadn’t read it yet, so that I could enjoy reading it for the first time again.  Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, is one of those rare books that has both brains and beauty in one package.  I was alternately amazed, entertained, and, in the end, emotionally wrung out (in the most satisfying way).  More than once I had to lay the book down and walk away from it before I broke into small pieces.  At other times, this book sent me digging frantically through my purse for a pencil so I could underline a passage that was so luminous I wanted to tattoo it on my wrist.  It’s worth noting that these two reactions were sometimes triggered within the same paragraph.

Little Bee is the story of two very different women from two very different cultures.   Sixteen year old Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee, arrives in to London, where her story entwines with that of Sarah, editor of a glossy women’s magazine and mother of Charlie (a.k.a. Batman).   Cleave gets these characters just right, creating smart, insightful, and strong women that help us  come to a compassionate understanding of these two cultures: the first world and the developing world.  How Cleave knits these worlds together into this seamless story is extraordinary.   He chooses to narrate the story from the perspective of both women, alternating the voice from one chapter to the next.  Four year old Charlie, in addition to being a fully fleshed and fascinating character all on his own, gives us another frame from which to enter the story.

It is difficult to say almost anything about the plot of Little Bee without giving away too much, as it is the unfolding of events, and the way that Cleave structures the unfolding, that lends this story its fascinating shape.  It’s like reverse origami.  Cleave makes a paper swan, and, over the course of a few hundred pages, unfolds it until we can glimpse its heart.  In the unfolding of this story, Cleave takes the time to show us how the light hits each fold and crease.  These were the moments that brought me to tears, rather than any sad or devastating event; the moments when Cleave would render a detail so perfectly that it brought me right into the scene.  Cleave doesn’t deny that bad things happen, but by illuminating the beauty in each moment, he shows us that beauty can make the bad things bearable.

Put Little Bee on your book club list, and give it away as gifts to friends and family.  It’s complex, deep, socially relevant, and so well written that you will wish you could read it for the first time twice.  The magic really is in the unfolding.

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Posted by on September 27, 2012 in Fiction


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Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

There are some books that you mourn the ending of as you come to the final pages.  Arcadia was not one of those books for me.  It is a testament to the author that I made it to the end at all.  If you decide to read Arcadia (and I recommend you do, for Lauren Groff is an amazing writer), be prepared to struggle.  But also be prepared to be moved profoundly by a story of true depth and power.

The Arcadia that Lauren Groff imagines is a 1970’s hippie commune populated with full, rounded characters that are eerily recognizable, even today.  Each of them transcend their defined roles of ‘idealist’ or ‘trippie’ or ‘guru’ or ‘midwife’.  Each of them is complex, human, and real.  We experience this profoundly disturbing place through the experiences of tender, open-hearted Bit (the Littlest ‘Bit’ of a Hippie), as we follow him from age 5 to adulthood. The subtle tension between the actual events, which are horrifying at times, and Bit’s perception of them leaves the reader as vulnerable and exposed as Bit.  Because of this tension (which felt strangely like fingers on a chalkboard to me), I struggled to get through the first half of the book.  I found that once the screeching stopped, however, the story was incredibly beautiful, deeply meaningful, and resoundingly true.

Even though Arcadia is widely acclaimed and comes highly recommended by readers and industry experts, I still found Arcadia difficult to read and, on some levels, flawed.  Part of the difficulty stemmed from the unreliable narrator, to be sure, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  The timeline of the story stretches too far into the future to maintain the intensity of the plot, and the scope widens to include world events that throw the novel off-center.  Groff sets up all the elements and conflicts she needs early in the story, and dabbling in the larger themes of 9/11 and world contagions only serves to dilute the solid reality of the world she so carefully created in the first half of the book.

Groff deserves to be praised for her prowess as a writer.  She has the uncanny ability to strip away the filters between the reader and the text until the events of the story are uncomfortably close.  Flaws and all, Arcadia is worth reading.  Just don’t expect it to be easy.

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Posted by on September 20, 2012 in Fiction


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The Age of Mircacles

The Age of Mircacles

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

I picked up The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker,because of its unusual premise:  the Earth’s rotation begins to slow down.  Something in the short description I read about the book made me think that, despite the ‘global destruction’ scenario, this was not another dystopian Hunger Games novel, and not pure science fiction, either.  It was, it seemed, a character driven story about an 11 year old girl.  I was intrigued.  How does an author use such an unlikely story line as the slowing of the rotation of the earth effectively in literary fiction without it becoming genre fiction?   In what literary world would that whopper of a plot element not be the main point of the book?

In the world Karen Thompson Walker creates for Julia, the young protagonist in The Age of Miracles.

This is a beautiful book, but it’s not about beautiful things. This is a book about a natural disaster more significant as any seen on the national news, and yet it has a cover featuring twinkling stars on a benign blue background.  And while it is a book about one possible ending (perhaps) to the world as we know it, what it’s really about is the ending of a different kind of world:  a world of innocence.  I can’t say for sure that Walker is using the slowing of the Earth’s rotation as a metaphor for growing up, but she earns my respect for juxtaposing something so damn big against the small, quiet tide of one painfully shy girl’s adolescence.  The narrator gives equal weight to the longer length of a day and to having her prepubescent breasts exposed to a group of onlookers at the school bus stop.  The new reality of entire days passing in darkness, and nights full of sunlight, is no more devastating than her discovery of her father’s apparent infidelity and the stress that creates in her life.  It is a common literary practice to have the physical environment mirror the internal struggles of the characters (there’s always a dark and stormy night in a horror novel, right?)  but the scale of Thompson’s environmental disaster gives such a surprising weight to the personal events in Julia’s life that the reader is forced to consider each small failing, each tiny heartbreak, each broken promise, on the same scale as that of a planetary disaster resulting in the potential extinction of our species.

Does she succeed?  Is it worth it, this huge cosmic metaphor?  I suppose it depends on who you are.  If you are looking for a sexy, high drama, plot based thriller, than, no.  This book would totally disappoint you.  But if you enjoy books that deliver far more than they promise, books that are like small splinters of wood, ones that are deceptively benign until they get wedged under your cuticles and become painfully uncomfortable, than, yes, the grand metaphor (and the book as a whole) might work for you.  It worked in spades for me.  Death is death, and change is change.  Whatever the scale and no matter who you are, life is full of sorrow.  People adapt and life goes on.  Walker looks at adolescence, and change, through a powerful new lens in The Age of Miracles.  Don’t underestimate the power of a good metaphor and excellent writing to deliver a message that will get under your skin and stay there.

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Posted by on September 14, 2012 in Fiction


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