Tag Archives: Harper

Review: The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

24th January 2013

Via Goodreads

Via Goodreads

*This book was sent to me by the publisher Harper in exchange for an honest review.

Today is Christmas Eve.

Today is my birthday.

Today I am fifteen.

Today I buried my parents in the backyard.

Neither of them were beloved.

Thus starts The Death of Bees, a book I started reading with a very perplexed, very one-eyebrow-raised expression on my face. Marnie is fifteen. Her younger sister Nelly is twelve and a bit…off. Their parents are dead, and within the first ten pages, there are graphic depictions of the burial described above. And when I say graphic, I mean it was lucky I was doing some bathtub reading, as I very nearly gagged when the sisters move their father, his fingernail comes off, and Nelly calls him a “beastly, beastly man.” But something compelled me to push down the bile and keep reading.

That something would be Nelly and Marnie. Marnie is hardened to the ugliness around her – parents who are rarely around and leave the girls to fend for themselves. Nelly, on the other hand, is tough but seems so fragile, bound up in a different sort of world, seeing her reality but trying to  change it at the same time. When Lennie, their elderly neighbor, reaches out to them, I was relieved but nervous, as Lennie has baggage of his own. This trio is an odd one to narrate a story. However, in the projects of Glasgow, this group is no worse than their neighbors, and as the three tell their story, you realize they are very much the cream of the crop, building a makeshift family without requiring all that much from one another.

Marnie wants to be young and carefree, but she also loves her sister and wants to protect her. Nelly is exasperated by Marnie and those around her who don’t understand who she is. Lennie is gay and once propositioned a young man, not realizing his age, but he, too, has lost someone – the difference is, his loss was of a beloved one. What holds them together is the simple fact that no one cares about them. Lennie is actively reviled in a community of prostitutes and drug dealers. Nelly and Marnie have been in foster care before and have no desire to go back, and no one is exactly banging down the door to check on them.

As each sees the wounds in the other, the process of healing begins, and they band together in an unexpected but fierce love, until the world around them attempts to point out the wrongness of their situation. A book of juxtaposition and unexpected nobility, The Death of Bees will and should shock you, but it should also make you question who exactly should be reviled and how we can live in a world where children would rather bury their own parents in the dark of night than face the alternative.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag by Jennifer Gilbert

12th July 2012

*The fabulous Mel from The Feminist Texican [Reads] sent me a copy of this book when she learned I wanted to read it. Thank you!

Jennifer Gilbert is 22 in 1991, happy and carefree, back from a year in Europe, and on her way to visit her friend when the unthinkable happens: a man follows her into her friend’s building and stabs her over 30 times. She survives (I’ll pause to allow that to sink in)….and recovers in an amazingly short amount of time – physically. Mentally, she shuts down, unable to sleep without someone outside her bedroom door, unable to venture out without someone she trusts by her side. I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag is Gilbert’s exploration of this violent attack and her story of survival.

When Mel from The Feminist Texican [Reads] mentioned on Twitter how effective the opening to this memoir is, I knew I had to read it, and indeed, it is gripping. Even though Gilbert isn’t overly graphic in her description of the attack, I was absolutely sickened. I had to put the book down several times and breathe deeply, reminding myself that the woman who was attacked wrote this book, that she is alive, that she made it.

After being released from the hospital, Jennifer is an absolute mess. She can’t sleep. She doesn’t look in the mirror. Her mother, absolutely petrified by what could have happened to her daughter, can’t discuss the attack. Her father doesn’t. When mentions of the attack are on the news, her parents change the channel. No one knows what to say and in trying not to upset her, Jennifer describes it as feeling almost like the attack was a dream, yet she’s fearful her attacker will find her and finish the job.

After initially shutting down, Gilbert describes throwing herself into planning weddings and parties, so focused on a missing petticoat or an upset mother of the bride that she doesn’t have time to face her own crises. She shuts the attack and her fears away and learns that everyone around her is more comfortable not discussing it as well. Twenty years down the road, Gilbert is a successful businesswoman who owns a prestigious event planning company in New York City, and in telling her story, she traces the moments in her life where she’s had to stop, slow down, and work through the attack and its residual effects.

I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag was an intense, personal book for me, though thankfully I’ve never been physically attacked. In one of the passages, Gilbert said something that struck home:

This is what people said to me after the attack:

At least he didn’t get your face.
At least you’re alive.
At least you weren’t raped.

I learned that this is what “at least” means: Move on. Get over it. Let’s not talk about it. It could be worse, so it must be better…I’m sure this was meant to be encouraging. But the message I received was that I should feel lucky to be blessed with such resilience, and that they expected me to bounce back, good as new. Meanwhile, I couldn’t imagine leaving my house without an armed escort.

At least. People mean well, they do. Tell almost anyone something terrible you’ve experienced, and the natural inclination is to make you feel better. That’s where the “at least’s” come out. Or the “I know what you’re going through.” It’s just what people say, right? The problem is that even if you’ve been through the same exact experience as someone else, you don’t and can’t actually know. Gilbert acknowledges this, saying people wanted so badly to relate, and they would tell her about the time they got mugged or how their best friend’s sister was shot.

Unfortunately, these instances reinforced Gilbert’s feeling that the attack was something to be processed and pushed aside. But grief and anger and fear are not linear processes, and these observations affected her so deeply that after a miscarriage, she emails family and friends asking that they leave her to her grief. As she says, after the attack, she “had absorbed the pain that other people felt for me, to the point that I could no longer feel my own.”

Memoirs are tricky for me to read. Often, I read something in a memoir so far out of my own experiences that I cannot relate, but Gilbert writes about her life in such a way that not only did I relate to her pain, but I also nodded my head again and again, agreeing with her observations and sympathizing with her reactions and perceptions of her life.

The Books of BEA (And a little treat for you!)

27th June 2012

How have I not yet managed to talk about the books I got at BEA? I will tell you, though, that I am so excited about the books I had shipped home. There are only 15 of them, but wow, do they look good. These 15 represent almost all different publishers, many of them independent. They range from stories about an artist who does reproductions to a biography of a body part. Of the 15 books, 8 are by women, 7 are by men. Three are distinctly nonfiction, with Naomi Wolf’s Vagina in a category of its own. In all their, ahem, glory…

From the top:

From the top:

  • Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City Who Made the World by Boris Johnson/Riverhead Books
  • Instant by Chris Bonanos/Princeton Architectural Press (October 2012)
  • The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell/The New Press (October 2012)
  • Inferno by Dante Alighieri, Translated by Mary Jo Bang/Graywolf Press (August 2012)
  • Vagina: A New Biography by Naomi Wolf/Ecco (September 2012)
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles/Penguin
  • Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Julianne Garey/Soho (December 2012)
  • The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón/Harper (July 2012)

Which will I be reading first? It’s almost as though I’m afraid to break the spell, as though if I choose one, the rest will disappear. That said, I think I’ll start with the slimmest volume, Beside the Sea. Lori and Tara actually told me about the book, saying: “It’s about a mother who is planning to kill her children.” Pleasant, right? Except that my Master’s thesis was about women who kill their children throughout literature. Specifically, the title is The Dialectic of Maternity: From Medea to the Moderns. Snazzy, huh? Ok, so it sounds kind of ridiculous, but it’s interesting how many many time this sort of story repeats itself in literature (and in life). So that will be my first pick.

And for those of you who weren’t able to make it, I have a BEA bag just for you. In the Random House tote bag are the BEA edition of The New York Review of Books, Anne Lamott’s newest, Some Assembly Required, in audio, Next to Love by Ellen Feldman (this one is so good!), and A Fatal Debt by John Gapper. Something for everyone! The only rules are you cannot have attended BEA, and you must leave me a comment. Which book would you most love to get your hands on? Is there any particular publisher you’re interested in? Do you think I’ve got 15 winners in these stacks? Make sure you comment by next Tuesday, July 3, at midnight!

UPDATE: Rachel won the BEA bag o’ goodies. Congrats!

The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones

17th May 2012

*I received this book from the publisher Harper through TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.

Morning rooms, walks in the gardens, and pearl-handled butter knives are the trappings of the Torrington family on the Sterne estate – an estate the now-deceased Mr. Torrington wanted for his family. Unfortunately, the grandeur of Sterne is a facade, as the family can no longer sustain their “lord of the manor” lifestyle, and the book opens with Charlotte Torrington’s new husband Edward Swift departing for London to repair the family’s financial situation. Emerald and Clovis, Charlotte’s adult children, are neither impressed nor appreciative, but it’s Emerald’s birthday, and they are expecting guests. When a local train is derailed in the vicinity, however, Sterne is called into service, forcing the Torringtons and their guests to amend their plans and make the best of the intrusion. The train passengers, initially about 10 of them, are put into the morning room, only to multiply each time someone opens the door. A strange, unsettling man, Charlie Traversham-Beechers, alights at Sterne and claims to know Charlotte. But Traversham-Beechers becomes increasingly sinister until his purpose is unmistakeable to the small, conflicted party.

I couldn’t quite get my head around The Uninvited Guests. At first, it’s such a polite novel with undertones of class and financial struggles. However, the longer I read this book, the more I enjoyed it and saw it as an allegory for the fall of the Edwardian era and the changes Britain would soon see with the start of World War I:

Sterne itself has two wings: the Old House and the New House. Both are in disrepair, but the Old House is never inhabited. Life is already changing for these types of families, and the Torringtons are concerned with preserving the appearance of upper class, though there are only two servants, and the cook’s relationship with Charlotte is quite familiar.

When the uninvited guests – the passengers from the derailed train – arrive, no one is particularly concerned about them, other than to worry about the extra work they will cause, and the longer the passengers are denied attention, the more restless they become, and their numbers grow.

Meanwhile, Smudge, the youngest Torrington, is working on a Great Undertaking, and as she gears up for it, the weather changes:

…there was a smell of thunder on the air. Smudge couldn’t have said what thunder smelled like exactly – something like lively coal-dust, perhaps – but knew that she had always known the thick scent of it, as well as that of lightning, which was sharper and apparent to everybody, like gunpowder and lemons. Yes, there was a storm coming, and…she could smell the air charging.

It’s 1912. Storm clouds are indeed gathering, and as they do, the situation in Britain and in the Sterne household becomes more serious. The small party feeds the mass of people, but their attitudes toward them do not change, particularly Charlotte, who refuses even to help with that chore, saying, “She had built her life so that she might avoid third-class carriages and she wasn’t going to wring her hands over those who made use of them now.”

In fact, it isn’t until Traversham-Beechers introduces a game that debases them all that the Torringtons or their party begin to understand their duty. They open up the Old House, taking linens from their own beds to create pallets and comfortable resting places for the passengers, when they are interrupted by Smudge’s Great Undertaking, which must be resolved before the passengers can find rest and the Sterne household finds peace.

I’m not one to typically try to read into a book as much as I have done here, but bear with me: The typical English estate is failing. The family within (who, it is important to note, are not high born) desperately hold onto it, but the desperation is showing in the furniture without cushions and the diminishing staff. The lower classes are slowly invading these spaces, but it isn’t until a Great Undertaking occurs amid stormy skies (World War I) that change is wrought and the lower classes are welcomed into the Old House, tying both new and old together and decreasing the gap between upper and lower classes.

Could I be completely off base? Of course. Was I looking for a way to explain this oddity of a novel? Yes. However, in my experience when you have something that goes into a rather outlandish place, very often there is some sort of extended metaphor. But what you want to really know is: does it work? I’d have to say yes. The novel goes into dark places, much darker than the opening chapters signify, but in the end, its wickedness makes this stand out as a much more interesting novel.

Buy this book from Indiebound or for your Nook.

Also, check out the other stops on the book tour for other opinions.