Obliquity of the Ecliptic

Poetry, Prose, Photography, etc.

The Secret Life of Bees: A Review and Other Thoughts

The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd, is a realistic-fiction novel set in the 1960s American South, where temperatures were high and racial tensions were higher. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 may have granted equal rights for all, but the long-standing divide between blacks and whites remained stubbornly in place, which is thoroughly apparent throughout this tale. Narrated by its protagonist Lily Owens who recalls the time when she was fourteen years old, it is a first-person bildungsroman (coming-of-age story), with undertones of feminism, religion, and death’s tragic influence. Above all, it expresses the beauty and wonder of bees, which in some ways act as the glue (or in this case, the honey) that holds the story together.

Each chapter begins with a different quote about bees from various informative works, and these foreshadow the series of events set to take place in the upcoming section. A quote about the short lifespan of a bee (like “a bee’s life is but short”) implies the upcoming death of a character. A quote about a bee swarm abandoning its nest and searching for a new home (“Scout bees look for a suitable place to start the new colony”) surely relates to how the protagonist prepares to run away from home and set forth on a quest. It is one of the many clever devices the author uses to enhance her story. Kidd also utilizes good imagery, like “the sky had whited over with clouds, and shine spilled across the surfaces”, and figurative language, like the simile “water beaded across her shoulders, shining like drops of milk,” to add more detail and depth to her descriptions. It very much sets the tone and mood of a narration from an adolescent girl observing the southern, summertime world around her.

As a protagonist, Lily Owens leads a less-than-desirable life. She lives on a peach farm in Sylvan, South Carolina (which, as far as rustic southern towns go, is no better than the lot of them). Her family consists of her irritable father, T. Ray, and her African-American nanny Rosaleen. She has no other next of kin, because her mother died in 1954 when she was 4 years old, and this acts as the source of the novel’s main conflict. Lily is not a typical heroine, for she is neither beautiful, courageous, or overly kind; she considers herself physically unattractive and unpopular at school, with her safety-pinned clothes and unassertive personality. However, like any young teen, she still has her hopes and dreams. After discovering her love for English literature and being told by a teacher that she “could be a professor or a writer with actual books to [her] credit” if she tried, she decides she wants to become a writer and/or professor in the future. All of these details make her relatable, evoking empathy from the readers to help connect to her journey.

This journey begins on her 14th birthday, which takes place on Independence Day: July 4th. Her quest, which is a common motif in many coming-of-age stories—The Catcher in the Rye and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example—commences when she joins Rosaleen on her trip to town to register to vote. Even though the Civil Rights Act may have legally granted Rosaleen this liberty, the southern whites of Sylvan prove to be, as ever, resistant to change, and this leads to her being beaten and jailed. Eventually, when Lily rebelliously helps her escape, they become fugitives: a skinny white adolescent and a robust black adult on the run from the law, which is truly reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. The parallels between these two novels end, however, when Lily finally finds the home of the Boatwright sisters, a pink house “painted like Pepto-Bismol” where the mystery surrounding her mother is unraveled, where she discovers the power of the Black Madonna, and where she learns all there is to know about bees and bee-keeping.

“The Black Madonna of Breznichar in Bohemia” is especially important. She is a dark-skinned Virgin Mary who appears on the label of August Boatwright’s honey products (the very label Lily had among her mother’s belongings, which is what helped her find the home). Also referred to as “Our Lady in Chains,” the Black Madonna is their role model, their eternal mother, and the object of their worship, because, as August says, “everybody needs a God who looks like them.” The majority of Lily’s spiritual encounters in this story are because of a connection to the Black Madonna, so she is undoubtedly a key figure deserving of special recognition.

Overall, religion and spirituality play a key role in this novel, in both obvious and subtle ways. The South is full of Baptist and Methodist influences, but Lily commonly brings up discussions of Catholicism, which is what the Boatwright sisters more readily practice. With close analysis, one might see how the many eating scenes the characters participate in could be considered acts of communion. In almost every chapter, there is a meal described in detail, and when the characters partake in the food together, they bond much like Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. This idea that sharing a meal is an act of communion is a common one in literary analysis practices, and it certainly rings true in this novel.

Furthermore, there is the motif of bodies of water, whether it be a pond, river, or creek, and this connects to the concept of baptism. Near the beginning of the story, Lily states that, when she is on her quest to find out the truth about her mother, she submerged herself in a creek and “slide down till the water sealed over [her] head” and then “held [her] breath and listened to the scratch of river against [her] ears, sinking as far as [she] could into that shimmering, dark world.” It is the ending scene of that chapter, and in the next chapter the readers see her begin to change and grow. It sounds like the process of baptism—submerging oneself underwater to symbolize a cleansing, to show that they are a new creation. Later on, when Lily is reflecting on the suicide of one of the characters in the river, she says “you could die in a river, but maybe you could get reborn in it, too,” which is further proof that the motif of baptism is prevalent. Religion and spirituality are common thematic concerns in this book because they reinforce the purpose of the story, which is to show how a savior can be found in unique ways among unique people.

But what about the bees? Is this not what the novel is about?

First, let me clearly state that I love bees. I love honey a lot too. This is one of the many reasons why I enjoyed this book so much, because it focused so intently on these things and made me more informed about them and the honey-collecting process.

Bees are very important to the world we live in, and not just because of the honey they produce. While honey is truly “the ambrosia of the gods and the shampoo of the goddesses,” bees are crucial because they are responsible for the pollination of over two-thirds of the world’s agricultural crops. Unfortunately, bee populations are declining at an alarming rate due to habitat loss, diseases, and pesticides, and honey bees have officially been declared endangered. No pollinators mean no vital crops such as almonds, berries, and apples, which is disastrous on many levels. Consequently, I greatly appreciated how this book focused intently on bees and taught the reader how to love them. August even told Lily to “send the bees love” because “every little thing wants to be loved.”

I must also point out that I relate to bees, which is something I did not realize until after I read this. It is said that “[bees] are hardworking to the point of killing themselves,” and upon reading that line, my love for bees grew because I now find them relatable. They literally work themselves to death, going unnoticed and unappreciated, but continue to work because it is their nature, and that is how I (and I’m sure many of us) feel all the time.

Nevertheless, bees do serve an important role to this story. When August explains how “Aristaeus was the first keeper of bees . . . and after that people believed that bees had power over death,” we see that bees connect to death, which is actually a quite prevalent matter in the novel. The death of Lily’s mother looms over her constantly, just as the death of April Boatwright looms over her living sisters, especially her twin May. It is peculiar to think the fat, bumbly bee could be symbolic for the nearness of death, but this seems to be true when one examines the facts. Symbolic or not, they still add to the story’s tone and plot, thus making it interesting and sweet (pun intended).

All in all, this novel truly is a summertime story, and I am very glad I had the opportunity to read it in the summer. Every time I discovered a particular quote I liked, I would underline it in pencil, and I found myself doing this every few pages. Some were simple yet impactful, like “You can be bad at something, Lily, but if you love doing it, that will be enough” which is a philosophy I try to remind myself of daily. Another is “Enough was enough. You cannot fix the whole world,” which is still applicable in the modern day. Other quotes were more insightful yet just as meaningful, like “women made the best beekeepers, ‘cause they have a special ability built into them to love creatures that sting.”

But my favorite quote from this entire book was this: “I couldn’t understand how it had turned out this way, how colored women had become the lowest ones on the totem pole. You only had to look at them to see how special they were, like hidden royalty among us.” I want to share it with the entire world. The older I get, the more I see how, even in our progressed society, black women remain at the bottom of the social ladder because of persisting racist and misogynistic influences. And while black women are human, no doubt, and each individual has their flaws, they are not the lowly creatures that I feel media and society depicts them as. I hope it is something others can see as well, so that in time, the long-standing racism and misogyny will finally be overcome, and equality will finally be achieved. It is perhaps the greatest lesson this book has to offer, which is why I wish everyone should read this book, and maybe they will appreciate it as much as I do.

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

Why do we believe in myths?

It’s a valid question, really. Why are we so fascinated by stories of Zeus, Thor, or Anubis? Why do these stories get retold over and over, in different forms and across different mediums, in different societies across the world?

These questions are ones I want to answer, but I didn’t feel qualified enough to do so without any research first. So like any curious soul seeking knowledge, I read a book.

Well actually I googled it first, but the results were so less than satisfactory, so then I read a book.

Found at the local library, it was called The Universal Myths: Heroes, Gods, Tricksters and Others by Alexander Eliot. Now this is not the author’s only work regarding mythology—his other books bear titles like The Timeless Myths and The Global Myths, which gives you an idea of this author’s expertise. It went into such great depth and detail that I highly suggest reading it for yourself, since the collection of quotes and explanations below are just the tip of the iceberg on this topic.

One of Eliot’s first points is that myths are very complex. He states: “No wonder myth eludes definition. It’s not something which we can isolate for a close look. The primal myths are built into our brains, our genes, and our blood. However distant they may seem, they still surround, embrace, imbue, and color human consciousness.” [1]

Poetic, no? Essentially, mythology cannot be so simply categorized. Myths are, in many ways, like history—a deeply ingrained part of humanity.

But what exactly does “myth” mean? According to Mircea Eliade (a Romanian historian and professor who helped write the book), the exact definition of the word doesn’t adhere to our expectations of it. For those living in the nineteenth century, “‘myth’ was anything that was opposed to ‘reality.’ . . . the word mythos in Greek meant ‘fable,’ ‘tale,’ ‘talk,’ or simply ‘speech,’ but it came be used in contrast with logos and historia, thus coming to denote ‘that which cannot really exist.’” [2]

So really, in the past a myth meant any type of story told, but then over time it became a contradiction to fact. Interesting indeed.

So how do myths come about? Now that question has a very long, complicated answer, but to use the words of Andrew Lang (a Scottish poet and anthropologist who also co-wrote this book): “myths reflect actions, ideas, and institutions which actually existed at some time in the past.” [3]

And I believe this reason plays a huge part in why mythology is so fascinating to us. It reflects the different cultures across the globe, and by learning about different myths, we also have the opportunity to learn about the ideals and mentalities of diverse societies.

But to go even more in depth, Eliot brings up Swiss psychiatrist C. G. Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. He asserts:

“Another attempt at psychological understanding of myth is that of C. G. Jung, whose theory of myth is interdependent on his theory of the collective unconscious. Indeed, it was mainly the striking similarities between myths, dreams, and symbols of widely separated peoples and civilizations which led Jung to postulate the existence of a collective unconscious. He noticed that the images and structure of this collective unconscious manifest themselves in regularly repeating forms, which he called ‘archetypes.’ Like Freud, Jung considered myth, dream, and fantasy to be the indifferent products of the unconscious . . . these mythical images are structures of the collective unconscious and are an impersonal possession.” [4]

In other words, mythology is an extension of the “collective unconscious,” or the part of the mind that stems from ancestral memory and experience and is a shared quality by all humankind, which is different from an individual’s unconscious. How truly fascinating.

In the modern day, we tend to categorize those past stories of demigods and demons as just another slice of fantasy, yet we can see that they are much more ambiguous than expected. They are a shared experience, a crucial part of humanity, and should not be so easily defined or scorned.

Mythology is a very broad topic, and I hope to continue pursuing it with these little research and writing endeavors. In fact, with all this in mind, I plan on writing the next installment of my “mermaid-a-month” series, focusing on the history of the mermaid myth.

But after this discussion, are they really myths after all?

Bibliography

[1] Eliot, Alexander. The Universal Myths: Heroes, Gods, Tricksters and Others. New York: First
Meridian Printing, 1976. Print.

[2] The Universal Myths, 14

[3] Ibid, 17

[4] Ibid, 20

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

Shen Yun: A Review

The lights are dim, the crimson curtains drawn.

It’s approximately 7:15 on the night of January 25th, and I sit in the balcony of the grand theater, waiting for a life-changing performance. I know it’s life-changing because the first time I saw it 2 years ago, I was moved, astounded, inspired, and so much more.

I came alone, wanting to fully submerge myself in the experience, but I am still surrounded by a crowd well over a thousand, all of different ages and appearances. The 74 dollars needed for the ticket and the treacherous teetering up the stairs in heels are just small prices to pay for two hours of the diverse and powerful music, dance, acting, culture, and history I am about to receive.

The title printed boldly on the blue pamphlet in my lap reads Shen Yun. According to the inside, “Shen Yun” loosely translates to “the beauty of divine beings dancing.” Shen Yun itself is a performing-arts and entertainment company formed in New York City. They perform a mixture of classical Chinese dance and ethnic/folk dance, usually in a narrative structure, with orchestral accompaniment and solo performers. So along with traditional Western instruments being played in the orchestra, like the violin or the trombone, there is also traditional Chinese instruments such as the pipa or the erhu. The dancers are also not just dancers, but acrobats, actors, and even comedians. It’s truly fine art in the highest form.

A man walks around several rows below, waving a sign that declares No photography permitted during the show! In this day and age, when I can spy at least 12 people on their smartphones at a time, I find it’s getting harder for them to enforce this. Since I lack a cell phone of my own, I worry not about breaking this rule. After all, to distract both the performers and the audience with the bright light from a phone screen would be sacrilege.

The orchestra begins to play, each musician joining in until they form one single swell of melodious noise. The show has begun.

Two hours later, I leave the theater in a daze, the crisp night air waking me from some sort of dream. The sound of chatter from surrounding strangers is background noise, the glowing headlights of vehicles blurred in my vision. I am at peace and yet also abuzz with excitement, wanting to share my experience.

Words cannot truly express how sensational it was, but I will try my best describing the performances that appealed to me the most. The first is titled “Mongolian Bowls”: an ethnic dance in which 16 women performed with bowls of simmering milk tea, precariously balanced on their heads or in their hands. I loved this dance the most not only because of the sheer skill involved, but also because of the costumes. They were made of jewel-adorned sapphire fabric which sparkled with every twirl, atop layers of flowing white skirts and puffy white sleeves. That, coupled with the fluidity of their movement, reminded me much of the ocean.

My second favorite dance was “Yellow Blossom”, in which the female dancers, dressed in mint-green and white gowns, used ruffled yellow fans to create the appearance of flowers in motion. At one point, they even came together to form one large flower shape, shaking the fans to make the “petals” of the flower rustle.

My third and final favorite piece was a narrative with a lot of acrobatics, named “Monkey King at Fire Mountain.” It takes a story for the 1592 novel, Journey to the West, which is about a monk and his companions who search for Buddhist scriptures. I won’t spoil the story, but it involves a humorous monkey king (of course), a princess, a goddess, and a lot of fire.

These were just three pieces, but there were close to 20 in all. My descriptions really don’t do Shen Yun justice; you must experience it for yourself to understand. It’s not just for lovers of drama or dance like me, but anyone willing to endure a few hours of sitting to undergo a transformative ordeal.

For those who have seen it, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comment section below.

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

The Mothman, the Myth, the Legend

Who is Mothman?

Well, according to a clever text post circulating around the internet, he’s “half moth…half man…….100% boyfriend material.” Amusing, but not too informative. And obviously, this legendary figure has had his appearances in comic books, video games, and the occasional poorly-made TV special, but right now we’ll just be focusing on the one, the true, and the original figure: the red-eyed cryptid from Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

So, according to Wikipedia (the age-old source for things of any real importance), the Mothman is a creature “reportedly seen in the Point Pleasant area from November 12, 1966, to December 15, 1967. The first newspaper report was published in the Point Pleasant Register dated November 16, 1966, titled ‘Couples See Man-Sized Bird … Creature … Something’.”

Interesting. But we could go deeper.

Now recently I indulged myself by watching the 2002 film The Mothman Prophecies, based upon John A. Keel’s book bearing the same name, which of course was inspired by the events mentioned above. The movie features Richard Gere as the tortured protagonist and Laura Linney as the blonde cop sidekick. Though it is described as a “spine-tingling, supernatural thriller that will rattle your nerves and shake your beliefs”, I just found it highly entertaining. However, it did cover some important details concerning Mothman’s story.

This movie also seemed like a metaphor in which industry is the greatest evil and Mothman’s a communist fighting the capitalist agenda, but notwithstanding.

For one, it emphasized how Mothman is associated with precognition, or being able to foresee catastrophic events (in this case, the collapse of Point Pleasant’s Silver Bridge) before they occur. Consequently, it is a common belief that a Mothman sighting means disaster and tragedy are nigh. This doesn’t exactly mean that he himself brings calamity. In fact, one might argue that he has good intentions, trying to warn humanity of danger. So to paint him as a blood-thirsty monster out to hunt and kill humans like some television depictions do is kind of silly.

This doesn’t mean he isn’t a chilling figure. Moths overall are known to be a bit spooky. In the movie, one of the characters, Alexander Leek, actually stated that “in ancient cultures, the moth represents a form of the psyche, or the soul immortally trapped in the hellish death realms.” This could explain why a moth-like humanoid would be particularly feared and revered.

Also, the movie pointed out that those who see Mothman up close are described as having inflamed, swollen red eyes afterwards. Mothman himself is described as having glowing red eyes. Coincidence? I think not.

One thing the movie touched on but I feel didn’t sufficiently explain is Indrid Cold, who is somehow associated with Mothman. But my description of him will have to be saved for another post.

And as a final fun fact, there is an annual festival held in Point Pleasant devoted to the Mothman legend. I hope one day to go.

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

Holden the Golden or Holden the Foul?: The Issue of The Catcher in the Rye and Censorship

Language. Alcohol. Sex. Angst. Elements bound to cause controversy, yet they and so much more can be found in the pages of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a 1951 literary classic. Narrated by the infamous pessimist Holden Caulfield, whose personality resembles that of a cynical stormcloud with a drinking problem, this work relates the coming-of-age story of a boy wandering the streets of New York having flunked out of prep school. With its excessive profanities, sexual references, underage drinking, and melancholy narrator, The Catcher in the Rye poses the question of whether or not it should be censored in schools, an issue teachers and scholars alike debate thoroughly.

Personally speaking, the novel should undoubtedly take part of higher-level school curriculum (taught with careful analysis, of course) because it is a realistic story with which teenagers can relate. However, personal opinion aside, its blatant obscene content often causes controversy, making it one of the most banned literary works in America.

Such content includes swearing (237 “goddams,” 58 “bastards,” and 32 “chrissakes” to be exact¹), sex, deceit, alcohol abuse, secular ideologies, and even homosexuality. It is therefore perceived as an unholy machination by the education system to destroy the ethics of a nation’s students.

However…

Holden Caulfield is an antihero, a character who believes himself to be a martyr of the world and who lacks typical heroic qualities such as optimism or virtue. And though he may have many warped views and bad habits, his actions are very understandable. His speech is excessively pessimistic and vulgar and his actions immoral because he’s a teenager. He agrees to meet with a prostitute partially because he’s lonely, and this loneliness might also explain his alcohol consumption prevalent in the novel.

The Catcher in the Rye as a whole treats juveniles with a special kind of respect and recognition, speaking to teens’ morality. It addresses isolation and a struggle to make sense of the world. Ergo, it should be taught in schools, but with guidance. Teachers should prompt their class on what they, the students, interpret Holden’s various statements or actions to mean and then offer their own professional insight on the deeper meaning.

Classic literature should not be censored for young adults in general, because the act of banning books is a slippery slope which can lead to the removal of classic, beloved works just for some peace of mind. To shield teenagers from negativity and criticism of society is to teach them that pessimistic views are not allowed. And by doing so, it isolates the youth consumed by their troubles, causing the very thing that the censors are trying to prevent.

Furthermore, it makes modern-day readers better understand the past. On the surface, it merely tells the story of its protagonist, but it also subtly describes the change in philosophy and thought in society post-World-War II, providing criticism of middle-class America. After all, a better understanding of past societal views and values helps current society adjust accordingly.

But above all, it is relatable. It does not romanticize the teenage years as much as it makes them more understandable.  Adolescence is undoubtedly stressful, and reading a book where the narrator reacts to this stress with a less-than-positive attitude mirrors the pessimism many teenagers themselves feel. And like many argue, Holden’s actions and feelings should not be praised but instead pitied.

Censorship is a well-debated issue and often evokes controversy, but it is something to consider when dealing with literature that has so much to offer. Even with his crude words and inappropriate behavior, Holden has profound thoughts that resonate within the minds of equally troubled teenagers. In any case, The Catcher in the Rye is more than just a trite tale of adolescent angst, and Holden’s dream of being the catcher in the rye just might be fulfilled when teens read this book and learn from his mistakes.


¹  Steinle, Pamela. “‘If a Body Catch a Body’: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Debate as Expression of Nuclear Culture.” Popular Culture and Political Change in Modern America. Ed. Ronald Edsforth and Larry Bennett. State University of New York Press, 1991. 127-136. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 138. Gale, 2001. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 Feb. 2016.

© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Review

In efforts to revive my habit of reading more than just comic books, I took upon myself the task of reading Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, this past summer. Published in 1890, it caused much controversy with its homosexual undertones and encouragement of giving into sinful temptations. Literary critic Camille Cauti calls it “a neo-gothic horror chiller about a cursed antihero” and sums up the main character well with her statement:

“Dorian is obviously a beauty, a dandy, an impressionable, petulant boy who mutates into a wicked hedonist. He also breaks hearts, takes drugs, tortures his friends, and murders with nigh-impunity.”

The story revolves around the young and gorgeous Dorian Gray, his artist friend Basil Hallward, and the cynical Lord Henry Wotton. Hallward paints a portrait of Dorian (because essentially, he’s in love with him), and this is where the trouble begins. As Dorian commits more misdeeds and becomes more twisted in nature, his portrait radically changes, becoming disfigured and horrific while he stays beautiful and unchanged for decades.

Basically, it’s a scandalous novel. Explicit content—sex, drug use, etc.—is more so implied than it is described, but it’s not exactly subtle either. It adds to the theme of self-indulgence throughout. And of course there’s murder. Nothing spices up a good book like murder.

As a whole, it was a lovely read with dark undertones. I like old books with flowery language, vivid descriptions, and, of course, drama. Many quotes stood out to me as well, such as:

“In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures, and so we fill out minds with rubbish and facts, in the silly hope of keeping our place”

“There is always something ridiculous about the emotion of people whom one has ceased to love”

“I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it”

and perhaps the greatest of all:

“I adore simple pleasures. They are the last refuge of the complex”

So those are my thoughts on it. As far as classic literature goes, I highly recommend it. Several movies have apparently been made about it, the most recent being the 2009 film Dorian Gray starring Ben Barnes (a favorite actor of mine), Colin Firth, and Ben Chaplin, but I don’t think it did the book justice, lacking some depth to focus more on fantastical thrill and sexual content.

What are your general thoughts on the book or movie?