Little Bee offers a lot to talk about, but without a lot of substance. It exhibits a weird tension between visceral and twee, with its pretty cover, gimmicky blurb, Dickensian coincidences, and gritty portrayal of humanitarian crises in western Africa. It’s a book that doesn’t make you decide between ‘drama of unimaginable cruelty and violence’ and ‘saga of suburban ennui and infidelity’ – it just has both, and by virtue of that uniqueness, it’s already worthy of discussion. Additionally, the sadness of the subject matter and its real-life inspiration make this a heart wrenching book that will absolutely give book clubs fodder for great discussion.

There’s a lot of good in Little Bee; it’s snappy and readable, even beautiful in its language at times. Its setting contrasts the familiarity of London with the unknown of its asylum-seekers and Nigeria’s oil conflict in a surprisingly effective way. But there are lots of negatives too: the plot has turns so contrived you’ll wince, and Little Bee herself is so perfectly perfect that her nobility can be tiresome. Few of the characters are memorable and even fewer are sympathetic.

It also suffers from the plight of Changed Title Syndrome, wherein the publishers change the original title in an attempt to appeal to American audiences (this also famously happened with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – because presumably, American kids would never stoop to read something with a word as dull as ‘philosopher’ in the title). In this case, the wonderfully apt and evocative title “The Other Hand” was rewritten to the rather plain and accessible “Little Bee.” Rather than calling attention to the central metaphor and most vivid scene of the book, the new title simply names the main character, and it’s rather banal by comparison.

“Little Bee” is an unusual, readable book that, while imperfect, would make a great choice for book clubs (provided all members are comfortable with some gritty, violent scenes).

 

Two things I usually do not like to read about: war and hot places. And yet I found myself picking up Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai everytime I walked past the New J Fiction shelf. I could tell by the description on the back of the book that the story was about a young girl living in South Vietnam right before the fall of Saigon, thus, it was about war in a hot place. Yet, the praise on the back cover also demanded that I “read it slowly to savor the delicious language” and cheer on “a protagonist so strong, so loving, and vivid [that fellow author] longed to hand her a wedge of freshly cut papaya.” I asked myself one question: Have I ever eaten a papaya? I don’t think so, but after reading this book I am convinced that papaya is now my favorite fruit, and that Inside Out & Back Again has my vote for the Newbery Award this year.

This story, told in verse, spends one year with ten-year-old Hà as her family undergoes the transition from their war-torn, unsettled home in South Vietnam to the the unknown and sometimes cruel world of being refugees in the United States. Ha’s environment is something I have never experienced, but her spirit and humor remind me of many of my kindred fictional friends from Ramona Quimby to Allie Finkle. Thus, she enabled me to live a piece of our world’s history that, until now, had really only been presented to me through dry history books or masculine, heated war literature.

Hà’s story in heartbreaking, but not without hope and smiles. An excerpt from Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai:

Quiet Decision

Dinnertime
I help Mother
peel sweet potatoes
to stretch the rice.

I start to chop off
a potato’s end
as wide as
a thumbnail,
then decide
to slice off
only a sliver.

I am proud
of my ability
to save
until I see
tears
in Mother’s
deep eyes.

You deserve to grow up
where you don’t worry about
saving half a bite
of sweet potato.

April 19

Emmett Conn is now a fully-Americanized 92-year-old man living in Georgia in The Gendarme.  But his story fades back in forth in time, to when he was still Ahmet Khan, a 17 year old Turk charged with deporting a large group of Armenians from Turkey to Syria at the start of World War I.  Emmett has recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor; it is unclear whether the tumor of the medications used to treat it are causing him to have vivid, sometimes terrifying dreams.  Or perhaps these dreams are the truthful but shocking memories of a past he has long forgotten?

A central figure in Emmett’s dreams is the beautiful Araxie, one of the Armenian refugees who first captivates him by her unique appearance, but with whom he later becomes obsessed.  He is determined to protect her — indeeed the odds are stacked against her.  The conditions in the refugee camps are abysmal; food and water are scarce and many die from dysentery.  Of the original 2000 deportees, possibly only fifty are expected to make it alive to Aleppo.

It is an alarming fact of history that these forced death treks occurred.  But more alarming is that so few people know about it, and I include myself in that group.  Initially, I felt guilty about my ignorance, but these feelings were somewhat assuaged when the author (Mark Mustian, who is of Armenian descent) stated that he himself had not heard of the atrocity until well into his thirties.  Indeed, even the World Book Encyclopedia barely mentions it.  I quote: “The campaign reached a peak during World War I.  By 1918 about 1,800,000 Armenians had been murdered and thousands more had fled to other countries.”

This was a fascinating book with a little something for everyone — adventure, danger, romance, much of it in an exotic setting.  Even the secondary characters, such as Emmett’s daughter, Violet, were multi-dimensional.  Still, I think the best part of the book was how the author almost subliminally imparts a deeper message of peace and forgiveness, about how love can transcend race, religion and politics.

Author Chang-Rae Lee admits that the first chapter of his book is based upon a tragic event in his father’s life — something so traumatic that his father had never disclosed it — until questioned by his then college-aged son.  The chapter features June Han, an 11-year-old orphaned refugee during the Korean War, desperately struggling to flee the approaching military with her younger siblings in tow.

The chapters often leave the reader hanging, wondering what happened, only to open the next one to discover a new character in a totally different time period. We are later introduced to Hector, a handsome American who enlists to fight in Korea, but then decides to remain after the war to work in an orphanage.  There, his life becomes entwined with June’s and also with Sylvie Tanner, the beautiful wife of the minister who runs the place.  But Sylvie’s story reveals her own scarred and tragic past.

We primarily see June thirty years later, now a successful New York antiques dealer who is dying of cancer, as she reunites with a reluctant Hector in a search for her long-lost son.  As the book spans three decades and several continents, The Surrendered is an epic saga, masterfully written with complex characterization, but also, according to Publisher’s Weekly, “a harrowing tale, bleak, haunting, often heartbreaking — and not to be missed.”

right of thirstAfter his wife’s death, successful cardiologist Charles Anderson volunteers to assist with earthquake relief in an unnamed and impoverished Islamic country in Right of Thirst.  At the relief camp, he joins a young German woman doing DNA research as well as a local soldier assigned to them, presumably because he speaks excellent English.  Though they wait patiently and try to keep busy preparing, the refugees never come.   However, the volunteers do visit a local village where they find a young girl with a mangled foot, which Charles later amputates.  This scene is particularly credible, perhaps because the author is himself an emergency-room physician.

The fact that the author, Frank  Huyler, has also lived extensively abroad (including Iran, Brazil, Japan and  the U.K.)  seems to serve him well in describing cultural differences.  For example, one character explains that giving water to travelers is one of oldest laws in their religion. They call it the “right of thirst”, and that is why offering tea is an obligation, not simply a social pleasantry.

The book’s plot takes a sudden turn when artillery fire is heard along the country’s border.  It’s assumed that spies have mistaken the relief tents for army ones, so a quick escape is planned for the relief workers, traversing  dangerous mountainous terrain.  A tragic accident occurs, further tainting the doctor’s good-will expedition.  This is a book that will make you think;  it may also make you a bit sad, or perhaps it just might make you question relief efforts in general.  It also qualifies as a good choice for a book discussion group as there are ample opportunities for opposing viewpoints, such as the doctor’s role in his wife’s death.