Lavish and unique, The Bees is a study in world-building. Laline Paull has taken a dissertation’s worth of dry facts about apian culture and transformLavish and unique, The Bees is a study in world-building. Laline Paull has taken a dissertation’s worth of dry facts about apian culture and transformed them into a dripping, droning, vibrating multi-caste tale of a beehive.
I nearly set aside this anthropomorphic dystopian thriller early on, because, well, it’s an anthropomorphic dystopian thriller. I did Animal Farm as a sophomore in high school; I wasn’t keen on revisiting those salad days. But Laline Paull’s gorgeous writing, and my immediate affection for Flora 717, the underdog sanitation bee (hee!) pulled me in like, oh damn, a bee to honey.
Paull’s orchard hive is enchanting. It is a castle complete, from corridors and antechambers, secret passageways and nurseries, great halls where tales are told in a furious shuffle of delicate feet and trembling antennae, and orgies of nectar unfold amidst throbbing abdomens and gaping spiracles. The Hive, presided over by the beloved Queen, thrives according to a carefully-tuned social hierarchy: from the lowliest sanitation worker and hard-working foragers to the crafty Teasel nurses, callous fertility police and prescient Sage priestesses. This is a matriarchal society—a ripe, sensual, emotive world where females are bossy, bitchy, weepy, nurturing, subservient, and often in a state of warm, sweet tumescence. Males are occasional visitors, arriving as drones in a cloud of Henry VIII bawdy revelry, flirting with bee wenches, getting sloppy-drunk and generally making a mess of things with spilled bodily fluids.
Flora 717, a preternaturally gifted sanitation bee, is our guide into the Hive Mind. Though ugly and besmirched by her low caste, she is strong, resourceful, and clever. Her gifts are noticed by a Sage priestess and Flora advances through the ranks of the hive until she becomes a forager, one of the true worker bees who leave the hive in search of nectar and pollen to feed her sisters.
Flora 717’s forays into the world beyond the hive are great fun. She runs into bewitching spiders, is lured into a sugar snare by wasps, nearly eaten by crows and sucked in by a carnivorous plant. Her fur coat is pummeled by rain, her wings nearly defeated by wind. She discovers the delights of gardens in full bloom and laments the poor cultivated plants that will never know the flower-bee communion of pollination and harvest.
Although rich in description and scene-setting, The Bees is thin of plot. For all the activity around her, Flora 717 is a singular character. Had she interacted with bees of a similar strong nature and evolving consciousness and embarked upon adventures that raised the stakes, there would have been more to this story. But she seems to be the only bee that can move among the ranks and the only one capable of independent thought. This, as well as her mysterious ability to produce eggs, the strange poison brought into the hive by hapless foragers, and the odd mythology of the six panels, are among the plot threads left dangling. After a while, the dancing and feeding and descriptions of how nectar and pollen and wax taste and smell and feel and elicit orgasmic reactions in the hive’s residents become filler prose, meant to round out where the story itself falls short.
In various reviews of The Bees I have read that this book is about racial identity, environmental degradation, a riff off Margaret Atwood’s classic deconstruction of fertility, The Handmaid’s Tale, a reflection of Hive Mind politics and the dangers of a totalitarian state, an allegorical tale of class and society. Oookaay. . . Nope. Really, it’s just about bees. A fantastical, rich, imaginative look into the life cycle of the amazing little bee and its vast community. I will never look at a bee again without wondering how far away she is from home and what messages she sends through her legs and spiracles, and the humming of her wings.
Mind-bendingly beautiful, witty, charming homage to mushrooms both humble and exotic. I'm blessed to live in a part of the world where a walk in the wMind-bendingly beautiful, witty, charming homage to mushrooms both humble and exotic. I'm blessed to live in a part of the world where a walk in the woods can net a bounty of comestible 'shrooms and the most exotic of species can be found in our little local co-op, but I've never ventured beyond porcini, shiitake and chanterelle in my own cooking. Lion's Mane, Lobster, Hedgehog, Oyster—gorgeous to look at, but what the hell do I do with them?
Enter 'Shroom. Not only is this ripe with divine and accessible recipes, it's written with incomparable verve and humor. I've had the great pleasure of working with Becky, and her vibrant, funny, warm self shines through in the text. This is as much fun to read as it is gaspingly gorgeous to peruse.
Since it 'Tis the Season, here's a brilliant gift for the chef or culinary historian or mycologist in your life. ...more
“Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hoo
“Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain. You don’t honor someone by telling them, “I can never imagine what you’ve been through.” Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels. If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better.”
In his searing collection, Redeployment, winner of the 2014 National Book Award, Phil Klay strips the wartime experience of everything that makes us congratulate ourselves for our nation’s bravery, dispels any romantic notion we have of soldiers in combat, and empties our hearts of hope that we have not done grave, even irreparable, damage to the bodies and minds of these young men and women.
“We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.”
And so opens Redeployment, with its eponymous story. The collection offers voices of men, nearly all Marines, some speaking from home, others still in Iraq—each offering a distinct and visceral reflection of his war experience.
There is the adrenaline rush of combat, rife with acronyms and Oo-rahs, fuck and blood in Frago, Ten Kliks South, and After Action Report. The latter shows how missions can be twisted and misremembered, as one soldier claims responsibility for something he did not do to spare a buddy the consequences of truth.
But the consequences of war do not spare any of the soldiers. The stories of veterans returned home affected me the most, for it is here that our failure of these volunteers is the starkest. The training for war is planned and executed with precision; the plan for the soldiers once they no longer have a leader and a mission is almost non-existent and their emotional wounds are left to fester. The young man in Bodies collected the bodies of the dead; not only was he an outcast in war, the lowest member of the military caste system, but he returns home to a girlfriend who rejects him for having enlisted in the first place. He belongs nowhere, and his loneliness is crushing. The black humor between two friends in War Stories is painful and tender: one young man is so disfigured from his burn wounds, he and his buddy both know he won’t win even a pity fuck from the ugly girls in the bar.
Money as a Weapons System is a window into the surreal “Who’s on first?” world of government bureaucracy, as told by a baffled Foreign Service Officer. Prayer in the Furnace is the author at his most tender and philosophical, writing in the voice of a chaplain who believes he has knowledge of war crimes. His attempts to bring the transgressions to the attention of those in authority and his attempts to bring God to the attention of the soldiers force the reader to reconsider morality and judgment.
“There’s a perversity in me that, when I talk to conservatives, makes me want to bash the war and, when I talk to liberals, defend it.” That’s how an Iraq veteran, now student at Amherst, explains his ambivalence about his service. His story takes a twist: he’s a Copt—an Egyptian Christian—who grew up in the shadow of 9/11. As America deepened its mistrust of anyone who looks Middle Eastern—the underlying assumption being that Middle Eastern = Muslim = Enemy—his father became a gung-ho Fox News conservative to deal with the prejudice. His son joined the military in a perverse need to both please and hurt his father.
What elevates these stories above voyeurism and shock value is Phil Klay’s pitch perfect writing. His ear for dialogue, his eye for detail—offering just enough poetry in his prose to seduce, but not to saturate—and the immediacy and emotion of his characters’ voices reveal the power this young writer wields in his pen. These are masterfully crafted stories of war, walking in the same footsteps as Tim O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway, and Wilfred Owen before him, but with a vision all his own.
As I write this review, the Senate Intelligence Committee is at long last issuing a report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s program to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks. The report is a damning indictment on the techniques used by the C.I.A.—techniques the report identifies as torture. Former Vice President Dick Cheney is already spinning away, calling these “enhanced interrogation techniques” lawful and justified. After all, these were members of the Axis of Evil, determined to undermine peace, justice, and the ‘merricun way.
I wonder if any of the men and women who made the decision to lead our country into war with Iraq has the courage to read Phil Klay’s Redeployment. I wonder if any of these politicians has the courage to understand what their war has done to the soldiers who volunteered to serve in their name.
“If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better.” Phil Klay
“At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.”
Intention and perception are at the heart of Margaret Atwood's wry and rueful collection Stone“At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.”
Intention and perception are at the heart of Margaret Atwood's wry and rueful collection Stone Mattress: Nine Tales. Her characters—women, men, beings other than human, even a mischievous hand—look back on their lives, some with wonder, others with regret, all with an inchoate understanding of how they got to the fix they are in now: old, older, or even dead.
A cocktail of absurdity and tragedy is blended to icy perfection in Stone Mattress. But Atwood's stories are more than sardonic takes on the indignities of aging or the follies of writers. Tenderness and trauma run deep, causing the reader to stumble over her own laughter. Wilma's sweet release into hallucinations in Torching the Dusties is set against the near-future horror of a virulent anti-elderly movement. A young woman's genetic abnormality sets a Gothic stage for the haunting fable Lusus Naturae. In the collection's title tale, Stone Mattress, Verna, who is looking for the wrong love in all the right places, plans the perfect murder. It would be noirly funny but for Verna's motive, which is the stone mattress she has been carrying on her back for fifty years.
Freeze-Dried Groom is sublimely creepy, as delicious an homage to Edgar Allen Poe as I've read. Read this and shiver with delight.
The first three stories are linked by the character of Gavin Putnam, a poet of moderate success, and three women whose lives he blundered into. The first, Alphinland, is the most charming and affecting. Constance, home alone at the outset of an ice storm, was once Gavin's lover. Her pulp fantasy stories and waitressing paid the rent while Gavin penned drippy Romantic sonnets, until Constance walked in on him and Marjorie in flagrante delicto (we meet Marjorie again in the third story, Dark Lady). Years later, Constance is a famous author, her fantasy fiction having won her an JK Rowling-type fan adoration. But she is old now, recently widowed, and trying to make her way in the world, or at the very least to the corner store for some sand to spread on her icy front steps. But as we learn, her make-believe world of Alphinland is eminently preferable to the real one.
Margaret Atwood is so freaking sharp and funny and shining. That's it—her stories sparkle and shine with wit and intelligence. She probes our darkest impulses and in them she always finds some kind of light.
It’s rare that the ending of a book finds me sobbing, but sob I did. The vulnerability of animals has yanked hard at my heartstrings since Charlotte’sIt’s rare that the ending of a book finds me sobbing, but sob I did. The vulnerability of animals has yanked hard at my heartstrings since Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows. I can make it through all manner of atrocities inflicted upon adults with my stomach intact, but when it comes to children and animals, I’m toast.
Add to this a personal connection to the subject matter of Karen Joy Fowler’s engaging and original We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and this story had the potential to hold me from the get-go. I went into it knowing the secret twist; it's nearly impossible this long after the book's release not to. I promise there are no spoilers here.
But my initial reaction was one of reluctance and mild disappointment. I found the character of Rosemary-- the young woman coming to terms with her childhood and the astonishing decisions her parents made-- too quirky, and the present-day plot too slapstick for the serious nature of the narrative. But as I read, I accepted Rosemary’s self-effacing, ironical voice as the most solid emotional defense she had. The moments of comic relief can’t hide the darker side of Rosemary’s tragedy or mask the profound themes of human behavior vs. humane action, the horrors of animal research, and what it means to be a family.
Grief pervades the novel, and the characters' mourning taints even the silliest of Rosemary’s circumstances with a Tears of a Clown hue. A sense of doom is present even if you know Rosemary’s secret. I hope you don’t know the entire story, because what happens to Rosemary’s family is at least as gripping as who they are. Fowler takes this tension, and the reader's empathy, to the breaking point. And she broke this reader into pieces.
I'm so very glad to have read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for what I learned and for how it made me feel. It would make a perfect book club read, for there is so much to discuss and debate. ...more