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06 January 2014

Book Review: Little Bee

Little BeeLittle Bee by Chris Cleave
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The back cover blurb claims that the magic of this story is not what happens, but how the story unfolds.  I disagree.  I think the magic is not in the story or the plot.  The magic is in the moments, the small worlds within the larger world of the novel, that Cleave creates with his prose.

Cleave paints a complex tale of interior conflict arising from a tale of exterior conflict.  And while the exterior conflict of Cleave's characters is intense, dramatic and highly political, the interior conflict is what drives the book forward. The politics of Cleave's book become secondary because Cleave chooses interior over exterior.  He studiously avoids painting the blatant swath of a morality tale; instead, he invests in the smaller story that trickles out like a tributary from a powerful river.

And somehow when Cleave, a white, privileged male, channels a black, African teenage girl, he is at his best.  When he puts himself into her world and her thoughts, his prose resonates with meaning and thoughtfulness;

"I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly.  That is what the scar makers want us to think.  But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them.  We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret.  Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying.  A scar means, I survived."

"This was always my trouble when I was learning to speak your language.  Every word can defend itself.  Just when you go to grab it, it can split into two separate meanings so the understanding closes on empty air.  I admire you people.  You are like sorcerers and you have made your language as safe as your money."

"In your country, if you are not scared enough already, you can go to watch a horror film.  Afterward, you can go out of the cinema into the night and for a little while there is horror in everything...For one hour you are haunted, and you do not trust anybody, and then the feeling fades away.  Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it."

"I do not know why the small puddle of urine made me start to cry.  I do not know why the mind chooses these small things to break itself on."

Cleave doesn't do as well with the white Brits of his tale, though there are a few moments;

"I'm so sorry, Charlie.  Mummy is too grown up to feel very much anymore, and so when she does, it catches her by surprise."

"There's eight million people here pretending the others aren't getting on their nerves.  I believe it's called civilization."

But despite the gorgeous prose Little Bee was somewhat of a disappointment.  Look past some of the more beautiful writing and it becomes simply the story of three unlikeable adults, one loosely-drawn and mostly annoying child and a girl who we only get a chance to know through her story of personal tragedy.  Add a nebulous ending and you get one of those books that you finish and throw aside in disgust.  But you aren't sorry you read it.  And parts of it stick with you long after you've returned it to the shelf.

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Book Review: Eighty Days

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the WorldEighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love history books that expand outside the main story and provide tangents to enrich my reading experience AND give me random trivia to blurt out in a Cliff Clavin-like way.  This is one of those books.  The original story was intriguing to me, as I had never heard of the race between these two women, but then Goodman adds things like;

The Statue of Liberty was originally supposed to stand at the mouth of the Suez Canal, dressed in the veil and dress of an Egyptian peasant, holding a lantern, representing the light of Egypt bringing progress to Asia.  But Egypt's leaders thought it was too expensive, so it was re-imagined as liberty and shoveled off to the US.  But it was too expensive for us, too;  Congress refused to allocate funds to build a pedestal.  So the centennial came and went and Lady Liberty was sitting in a warehouse somewhere.  They put her right arm outside Madison Square Park to try to bring attention to her plight.  It was there for 7 years and the money was still not raised.  Finally, Joseph Pulitzer issued a personal appeal for funds in the pages of his paper, The World and the paper's working class readers, sent pennies and nickels.  Five months later, the 100k needed was raised, 80% from donations of less than a dollar.  And Lady Liberty took her place in the harbor.  Crowd-funding before the word existed.

Did you know until the latter decades of the 19th century, communities had the power to establish their own time zones?  Local mean time, they called it, determined by the position of the sun as it passed overhead.  Illinois had 27 different time zones, Wisconsin, 38.  The train station in Pittsburgh had six clocks and each one showed a different time.  When it was noon in Washington, D.C., it was 12:08 in Philadelphia, 12:12 in New York and 12:24 in Boston.  Of course, trains that could traverse a mile a minute made local mean time untenable.  So in October 1883, the largest railroad companies had meeting and declared that the country would be divided into four time zones, corresponding to the mean sun time at the meridians near Philadelphia, Memphis, Denver and Fresno. The president, the Congress and the courts had nothing to do with it but it became the law of the land.  On November 18, 1883, clocks were changed.

Otherwise, this book highlighted the amazing strides in travel in only 120 years.  Elizabeth Bisland believed that humans were not made to travel a mile a minute.  "She wondered how coming generations, who would surely travel one hundred or even one hundred fifty miles and hour, could possibly handle the strain of it.  Some process of adaptation to the new environment would doubtless take place: humanity, it seemed, always found a way to bear what had previously seemed unbearable."  What would she think now?

And Nellie Bly despised the British (whose transport she was forced to use as they had developed it in pursuit of their empire)  Goodman writes, "As she traveled among the English, Nellie Bly was becoming increasingly conscious of the peculiar privilege that imperial power conferred upon its citizens; the privilege of insensitivity.  They could, if they chose to, carry the empire along with them on their travels, as they sailed on English ships, slept in English hotels, ate English meals, taking little notice of the specific characteristics of the countries through which they passed..."  Huh.  That's exactly the complaint I have about American tourists now.  And cruise ships.  And tour buses, that allow people to wander through a country without having to touch, smell or taste it.  The more things change...

In 1910, Elizabeth Bisland returned to Japan with her husband.  She was looking "for the Japan of the Japanese, 'light, fine, frail, with a touch of whimsey; of gay fancifulness; of soft delicate fairness and flowery quiet.'  That Japan, though, was becoming increasingly difficult to find; the new trains brought swarms of tourists, and the streets were lined with the modern hotels and teahouses that catered to them. 'One wouldn't begrudge the tourist so if he seemed to enjoy it, but his perspiring pervasiveness apparently derives nothing but fatigue from the effort, and one can't but wish he'd leave the places of beauty alone to the few who do get comfort out of them.'" Bisland considered the world "utterly destroyed by our loathsome Occidental 'improvements.'"

And as the ladies traveled, they asked questions like, "Why do Chinese women bind their feet?" only to receive the non-answer, "Why do European women wear corsets and pinch their waists?"  World travel makes you question your own fashion, customs and ideas in ways that these women had never had the chance to experience.  In our internet-laden present, the world is smaller.  But are we paying attention the way these wide-eyed, intellectually curious ladies did in the late 1800s?  Or has the world shrunk so much and become so universal (with our loathsome Occidental improvements) that the common ground has overtaken the differences?

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