The Death of Bees Possibly the Novel of the Year

The Death of Bees (2013)
Lisa O’Donnell
Harper ISBN 978-006220847
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Are you a fan of great opening lines? How about this one? “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.” Those words come from Marnie Doyle, one of the three protagonists of Lisa O’Donnell’s stunning, moving, debut novel. As the words suggest, Marnie’s the female equivalent of a manchild (womangirl?)–grown up enough to be screwed up in a lot of ways (sex, drugs, cynicism) but also that volatile mix of adolescent maturity and pre-teen vulnerability. She’s also the closest thing her 12-year-old sister, Nelly, has to a real mother and the only thing standing between state custody for both of them.

The novel is set in a grim Glasgow housing estate–the sort populated by working-class folks damaged by poverty, substance abuse, and hopelessness built up by a lifetime of being kicked down. Marnie is right; her parents, Gene and Izzy (Isabel), were not beloved. In fact, they were viewed as so irresponsible that few of the girls’ neighbors bother to question Marnie’s assertion that they are simply on a prolonged holiday with an open-ended return date. (Gene and Izzy had left their kids plenty of times before.) Marnie’s goal is simple: to make it till 16, when she can be declared Nelly’s legal guardian and the secret of how Gene and Izzy died can be revealed. It won’t be easy. Nelly is a language savant and violin prodigy who does brilliantly in school, but she’s also a high-functioning autistic prone to living in a fantasy world. Plus, she’s as tired of being good all the time as her sister is of being the bad girl. Marnie is savvy enough to do decently in school as well, achievement that surprises everyone but she, as it provides cover for some of her less-mature decisions. But, seriously, how can she hope to support herself and Nelly? Even if both girls were playing with a full deck, how could they feed, clothe, and house themselves?

That’s a question that occurs to their neighbor, Lennie, a cultured gay man who unfairly carries around the label of being a sex offender. He doesn’t know where Gene and Izzy are either, but he knows kids in trouble when he sees them. Lennie takes to inviting the girls for meals, walks, and chat. Thus begins one of the oddest friendships in literature, and thus unfolds a story that is, in turn, grisly and touching, cruel and kind, tender and cold-hearted. O’Donnell tells it by alternating chapters from the points-of-view of Marnie, Nelly, and Lennie.

I won’t pretend that The Death of Bees goes down easy, but it is a book you will tear through as it’s tearing you apart. One reviewer aptly compared O’Donnell’s book to the Jennifer Lawrence film Winter’s Bone. (It was my favorite film of 2011.) Like Winter’s Bone, you want to scream at the injustices facing the girls and their would-be savior, but you’ll also marvel over the inner strength upon which damaged people draw just to get from Monday to Tuesday. This book will make you weep, laugh, and quake with rage. And you will hard pressed to read anything that’s half as good. --Rob Weir

Postscript: Yes, the odd title relates to the book. Find out how!


When it Comes to Safety, Let's Hear it for the Nanny State

The little black box that might just take a few idiots off the road! 

In a recent trip to Italy we joined a tour group for the Amalfi Coast, as it’s a pretty hard region to navigate privately. Organized tours have their tribulations, but one of the joys is hopping into an air conditioned bus and being chauffeured to one’s destination. Particularly if the driver is as skilled as our driver, Vittorio. (He parked the bus in spaces I might not have attempted with my Corolla.) Vittorio was always cheerful and alert; he also scrupulously obeyed traffic laws–and that’s the point of this piece.

Here in Massachusetts, our former lieutenant governor, Timothy Murray, crashed a state-owned car back in 2011. At first he called it an accident, but the story changed to “I fell asleep,” when it was revealed that he was traveling at over a 100 mph and wasn’t wearing a seat belt at the time. The smash-up ultimately sandbagged Murray’s political career and resulted in a $555 fine, because it wasn’t Murray’s conscience that revealed his first story was a lie; it was the little black box recorder recovered by investigators.

Nearly all new cars have recorders in them that are akin to the ones in use for decades in the commercial airline industry. This being the United States, the existence of such monitors has the privacy fanatics up in arms. At present just 14 states allow law enforcement or anyone else to mine the data, but this is another (of many) areas in which it would be a very good idea to embrace the Nanny State–that is, unless you think it’s perfectly okay for morons to operate massive motorized machines for as long and as fast as they wish.

Let’s go back to Italy for a moment. Vittorio struck me as a very conscientious guy, but it wasn’t his inner angels that made him obey traffic laws; it was the little black box. If you are alarmed by the data your car collects on you, try this on for size–in Italy, that box records one’s route, the speed correlated to the legal limit within each stretch of it, and how long one is behind the wheel. Vittorio was cheerful in part because he was well rested. (Italian law requires that drivers must take a break after every three hours they drive.) All of a bus’s data is stored on a CD, which records up to six months’ worth of driving. Here’s the kicker. A police officer can stop a bus at any time for any reason and request the CD, which is then placed into a computer. If, at any time, the driver has been speeding, not wearing his seat belt, or violates the mandatory rest law, he must pay a fine on the spot and points are added to his license. The same laws apply for truck drivers. You’ll see the big rigs hugging the right-hand lanes in much of Europe.

Imagine such a law in the United States! The track record for bus companies here is pretty awful, starting with the fact that it’s actually legal to drive up to 70 hours per week and we only find out someone has violated that pathetic rule when there’s a horrible accident like the one that killed nine in Oregon, or the one that snuffed out seven in California. More than two dozen bus companies, including Mi Joo Tour, Scapadas, and Sky Express–have been taken off the road since 2012, but the reality is that cut-rate firms such as Bolt and Megabus have troubling safety records as well. Check out the accident reports and you’ll see that speeding and fatigue are the cause of most accidents. Jumping on a curbside bus to save a few bucks is a game of highway roulette. And who among us hasn’t been nearly blown off the road by a semi traveling at warp speed with some amphetamine-fed dude with eyes the size of trashcan lids behind the wheel? Or stuck in a crawl behind semis illegally traveling in the third lane as they seek to pass other semis on an uphill grade? Think this behavior would change if we had Italy’s laws? You bet it would!

But isn’t it true, you protest that truckers have lower fatality rates than passenger vehicles? Yes it is. In terms of overall accident rates, SUV drivers are the most dangerous, followed by bus drivers. That’s why I think we should expand, not limit, the use of vehicle black box data. I wonder what we’d find if cops pulled over speeders and made them hand over their data discs along with their license and registration? I also wonder what would happen if, like Europe, there were generals on the odometers that controlled how fast a vehicle can go, or if there were simple fixes such as breathalyzer-ignition systems? (Think about it. If you enable a car to attain a speed of over 100 mph you can rest assured that some fools are going to test that limit.)

Expanding public safety laws will, of course, set the privacy hounds a-baying. There are those that think regulating anything smacks of a Nanny State and government intrusion. Stay home, then, I say! The idea that one’s vehicle is one’s private castle is patently idiotic. Bad drivers–whether they are behind the wheel or a bus, a truck, an SUV, or a Corolla–endanger the public and the moment they pull out of their driveways and onto public roads, they abrogate their right to privacy. If you fear the Nanny State, you’re haunted by a false boogieman. The death rate on U.S. highways is 124 per million. That’s 300% higher than in Europe, where drivers tend to have smaller, lighter cars that theoretically are less “safe” than our gas-guzzling behemoths. Why is the rate lower? Because Nanny is watching and you never know when she’ll spank your behind!

PS--As this article was being written, a horrible bus accident in southern Italy claimed more than three dozen lives. As sad as this is, eyewitness accounts affirm that the bus was neither speeding, nor operating erratically–a blown tire was the likely culprit.


Time for the Yankees to Go Fish

I hate to shop. When I buy clothing, I buy a lot all at once. This means, of course, that at some point in the future most of my clothes wear out at the same time. The New York Yankees are like my wardrobe–full of comfy, soft, stained chinos ready for the recycling bin. It’s been a helluva run, but it’s over in the Bronx. Fans won’t like it, but it’s time for the Yankees to go fish–that’s fish as in Marlins. Hold a clearance sale, go with youth, and be patient.

The White Sox swept the Yankees last week–the White Sox, as in MLB’s second worst record. Yet GM Brian Cashman incredulously pronounced that the Yankees were looking “to add pieces.” Add pieces! To what? You don’t nail a board to side of a barn once it collapses. Blog readers will recall I picked the Yankees to finish last. I may be wrong about this as the Blue Jays are tanking worse than Rommel at El Alamein, but I was right that this would be the year they would finally be too old to compete. Spare me the “too many injuries” litany–breaking down is what old bodies do. (Trust me. I own one. I know!) Unless the Yankees face facts and begin rebuilding now, it could be 1965 to 1990 redux, years in which the Bronx Bombers were the Bronx Bummers.

What to do? First, avoid what too many disappointing teams do. Don’t allow contenders to cherry pick the roster. The Yankees will field lots of offers for Robbie Cano, David Robertson, and Brett Gardner. Just say “no.” These are three guys the team will need as it rebuilds. They can’t move Mark Teixeira as MLB rules make it hard to move guys on the disabled list, plus he’s worth keeping for a few more years–somebody needs to protect Cano in the lineup and, for all his faults, Tex is a solid RBI man. Hold onto Alphonse Soriano as well–not because he’s a stud, but because the Cubs are picking up most of his salary. Plus, he does all the things the high-priced Curtis Granderson does: hit homeruns, strikeout a lot, and play lousy defense. The Grandy Man–who is a free agent after the season–is the first person I place on waivers. If you get a blue chipper prospect for him and a few of Cashman’s “pieces,” that’s a good deal. Take what you can get for Joba Chamberlain–Sean Kelley is much better–and get Phil Hughes a one-way ticket on the next plane leaving LaGuardia.

Now the controversial part: Who else goes? I’d say pretty much anyone not named Cano, Robertson, Gardner, Soriano, Kelley, Nova, Phelps, Kuroda, or Rivera (who is retiring and deserves to wear Pinstripes at the end). Why keep Nova or Phelps? Because someone has to pitch next year and they are the best options that are MLB-ready. It is imperative that the Yankees re-sign Cano and Kuroda, or things will be really glum next year. But jettison any of the rest to anyone that makes a reasonable offer. You might notice that this includes C. C. Sabathia. Put bluntly, C. C. is too much of a risk to carry any longer, and if the Yankees can get out from under his contract, they should. Someone might want Ichiro for one year and that saves another $6.5 million. Vernon Wells? I’ll take a beer towel and a chilidog. Hafner? You can keep the towel. Someone might want Boone Logan and even a middling prospect would be just as good. I have sincere doubts that Austin Romine will hit MLB pitching, so put him on waivers and see what he yields. (There are no sure-thing prospects in baseball, but Trenton’s Gary Sanchez promises to be the next Jorge Posada.) Someone will want Eduardo Nunez, though he’ll never be a full-time player.

The really tough stuff comes in the offseason. Several administrative shakeups are in order. First, it’s time for Cashman to go–not because he’s as bad as the talk radio crowd thinks, but because he’s best suited for a veteran club and the Yankees need to think small to rebuild. Second, minor league management needs to be gutted and rebuilt, especially insofar as pitching instructors and physical conditioning coaching goes. Too many promising arms have come through the system and frayed on the verge (or were given up on because they were advanced too quickly). If the Yankees could swallow their pride, they’d rehire the best hitting coach they’ve had in decades: the temperamental Chris Chambliss. Here’s the move that will make Yankees fans (including me) weep: Convince Derek Jeter to make 2014 his Mariano Rivera year–once through the league, collect the accolades, feel the love, and quit. And if the Yankees don’t move Joba, Hughes, and Granderson in waiver deals, do the next best thing: Go to arbitration with lowball offers that will be rejected and collect draft picks when they sign elsewhere. Simply tell A-Rod he’s done. He’ll cost nothing in 2014 once the suspension hits; buy out what’s left. And tell Kevin Youkilis “Thanks for nothing. We won’t be sending a rep to Fenway if there’s ever a day in your honor.”

Yankees fans need to accept that 2014 will be a dreary season with a roster dominated by low-cost guys and youngsters (though at least the team ought to be more fun to watch than the stiffs they throw out now). If the team plays it right, it will have a ton of money to play with in 2015 and beyond. Subtract Sabathia, Granderson, Ichiro, Hughes, Youkilis, and a few others and the payroll drops by nearly $75 million. Play it right and the Yankees will be big-time players for Clayton Kershaw, and look out in 2017, when Mike Trout hits the market.