There was plenty for me to relate to in Myla Goldberg's Bee Season: Judaism, word obsession, teenage insecurity (after all, who can't relate to that?), etc. It took me a little while to get used to Goldberg's writing style, which includes tacking additional predicates on to the end of sentences, like so:
Eliza expects to be able to poke her finger into the walls, is surprised to find she cannot.
Once I got over that, it was smooth sailing.
In Bee Season, Eliza Naumann is an aspiring spelling bee champion, her father is a cantor at the local synagogue, her mother is a workaholic, and her brother is a seventeen-year-old boy. Roughly 50% of the book is spent on interactions between the family members and the other half is the individuals pursuing their own lives and thinking. In the pages focused on individuals, we learn about the mother's hidden compulsion, the brother's spiritual identity crisis, the father's struggle to relate to his children, and Eliza's insecurities and feelings of inadequacy. It's truly the most depressing book about a spelling bee I can imagine there being.
Yet, it's kind of delightful. It's very sweetly written. Eliza's innocence is charming, as is the father's unwavering love for all of them in the face of such a diverse spectrum of conflicts, among which is his own family history.
The story is interlaced with moments from a Jewish childhood that are nostalgic for me. I loved reading about Eliza's experiences in temple, especially the scene in which she describes the game/social experiment she and her brother played during the silent prayer. They would take turns subtlely nudging their chair to simulate the sound of people sitting down, and see who could get more of the congregation to sit as a result of the ruse.
Over the course of the book, I got sick of hearing about the mother's kleptomania and the brother's search for spiritual identity. They were interesting elements of the story, and certainly the book wouldn't have been the same without them, but it wasn't the part of the book I was interested in. I wanted to hear more about Eliza and Saul.
I was completely caught off guard by the news that Miriam hadn't been to work in ten years, and of course by her collection. I think the saddest moment in the book was when Saul brought her the rubber ball. I was sad for Miriam that her life crumbled at the discovery of the flawed ball, and I was sad for Saul that he brought her this object that obviously meant a lot to her, and might have been able to make a breakthrough with her, and then she lashes out at him and effectively ends their relationship.
When, at the end of the book, Saul finally lost it and yelled at his son for being such a little bitch, I was happy, but his yelling quickly turned mean and he became a bully, and then I stopped being happy.
If there's any indication that the book was truly about Eliza, and not about the Naumann family, it's the ending. Eliza finally takes a stand in her life and throws the bee, finding resolution, but poor Saul has lost everything. He's lost any relationship he had with his son and his wife, and now the only hope he had in his life, for his daughter to be successful at the bee and to continue their studies, is crushed. While Aaron and Miriam seem satisfied with themselves, somewhere in their stubborn minds they must feel some sense of loss. I guess the story with Aaron and Saul is that history repeats. But poor Saul. I'm so sad about that.
When I flipped to the end of the book to see the number of the last page, I accidentally saw that Eliza spells ORIGAMI wrong, in an obvious way that can only be on purpose. At this point I was about half-way through the book, and I thought that meant that she gets to the national bee again and decides to throw it. I was close, I guess, wrong only in that she throws the class bee.
It was a very good book and I'm glad I read it. It took me forever to read, but I think that's just because I'm a slow reader and I've pretty much only been reading on the subway lately, where I read about five pages per trip or less.
I'll post an invitation to read whatever the Page & Popcorn selection ends up being in a few days. Right now it looks like the frontrunner is Breakfast at Tiffany's, which would be good because it's a short novel, and most publications of this book come with a few of Capote's short stories, so maybe we can read and discuss those as well.
I just found out that they made a movie of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I'd love for that to be our selection, but the movie's been out for a few weeks already so we might not finish reading it in time to catch it in theaters. We'll have to save that one for DVD.
Other book/movies we're considering for when the movie comes out are The Golden Compass in December and Kite Runner in November. Nanny Diaries and the 5th Harry Potter movie are also coming out, but I'm not going to waste my time linking those.