The Bees By Laline Paull‎

anthropomorphic, bees, books, dancing, fantasy, fucking beautiful, review, sci-fi
We’re into the third month of the year and I’m still incredibly far behind my Penguinspiration target of 30. Although, I have just got through 2 more and am well on the way with a third so I might actually get there by 2017 or something. Recently, despite all my best efforts, I caved and bought a handful of the Penguin Little Black Classics because they cost 80 fucking pence each. They’re all pretty tiny so I’m hoping I can cheat a little and count them as 1 each. Anyway, as I mentioned, I’ve just finished a couple of books and, with the announcement regarding the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist recently I was overjoyed to discover that one of the books was on it. I’m never this ahead of the times. I feel quite proud. So I thought I’d talk about it.

Nowadays, I do most of my reading on my lunch-break from work, which clearly explains why I’m doing such a tiny fucking amount. As I’m sure my fellow readers will know from first-hand experience, this means I’m constantly being interrupted by people asking me what I’m reading. Whilst this is one of the most irritating things known to mankind, I’m never one to miss the chance to talk about books. When trying to describe Laline Paull’s The Bees I was met with much mocking and it was nothing to do with Nicolas Cage for once. It was because every time I tried to describe it I’d make it sound like a fucking children’s book.
As the title suggests, this is a book about bees: one specific bee really, Flora 717. She is supposedly meaningless sanitation worker; the lowest of the low. However, Flora 717 stands out in more ways than one. She’s bigger than her sisters and is the only worker of her class to be able to talk. One of the mysterious Sage priestesses spots Flora’s potential and sees that she is reassigned to help feed the newborns. It is the first step on a never-seen-before rise through the ranks that leads the poor bee to discover things both great and world-shattering.
Despite the titular bees having an unusual predisposition to communicate in English, Paull’s novel starts off with a very strong and scientific feel about it. I enjoyed the initial pages describing Flora’s birth and introduction to hive life; they didn’t feel too gimmicky or Beatrix Potter-y. Slowly things start to get weirder and the anthropomorphising gets a little more serious. When the bees are described as eating pastries and pitchers of nectar then it started to feel a little silly and harder to justify to my sceptical co-workers.
It’s a tiny but infuriating thing about this book: everything is so close to being perfect. There are just odd little moments or occurrences that just stand out. The supposedly insignificant human embellishments on hive society that stick out like a fucking sore thumb. I’d have been much happier if Paull had stuck to her more factual descriptions. It’s clear that a lot of research went into the novel and it seems fucking stupid to dilute all that with a load of twee descriptions of bees acting like human beings.
These slight misses can be seen throughout the book: with similar lapses being visible in the plot and characterisation. There are so many random events and unusual decisions made just so Flora can get to where she needs to be for the narrative to work. For the first half of the book at least, Flora feels less like a character and more like a vapid narrative tool. Everything is circumstantial and the narrative is annoyingly episodic rather than flowing.
However, Paull’s writing is fucking beautiful regardless of this. The prose envelops your senses in much the same way as the Queen’s Love hypnotises her loyal daughters. The description of Flora’s first few flights in her new role as forager are, frankly, breathtaking. From the second Flora gains her freedom we start to see her fleshing out. The scenes within the Dance Hall where she communicates direction and key foraging spots are full of joy. She finally has purpose and desires.
The second half of the book is almost at odds with the first and becomes more akin to the publisher’s desire to create “Watership Down for the Hunger Games generation”. With her newly found independence from the hive mind kicking in, Flora is able to see beyond the Queen’s Love and uncover a disastrous secret. The Beessuddenly becomes Watership Downmeets fucking John LeCare or some shit.
However, there are still unanswered questions here: the plot still feels fractured and unsure of itself. The political thriller at the centre of Flora’s story is less clear than the spotlight Paull places on social and racial difference. There are so many oddities that are just unexplained: why is Flora so special for fuck’s sake? It leaves the reader a little bewildered and attempts to compensate by mixing them up in too much drama and action to notice.
I don’t wish to give the impression that I disliked The Bees because I didn’t: I fucking loved it. I loved it from the moment I read the plot summary on the dust jacket. As a debut, it paves the way for a strong future and, despite it’s insect-based setting, speaks to its audience on many familiar levels. It’s hardly necessary to point out that the strict class system, scenes of unadulterated violence and the devotion to an almost unseen ruler all reflect real-world totalitarian states. Nor does it seem worthy to waste time commenting on the importance of gender within the narrative, the book has often been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale for good reason.

Despite all of this good stuff, I can’t help but wish it had been better: perhaps shorter, less playful in areas and more defined in terms of plot. It didn’t blight my enjoyment per se but I found my attention drifting through parts and waiting for the action to pick up again. Although, it did increase my fascination for bees: they sound fucking awesome. 

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Bradley Cooper, dancing, Jennifer Lawrence, mental illness, review, Robert DeNiro
To quote Kate Winslet in the third episode of Ricky Gervais’ popular sitcom Extras, “you’re guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.” Bizarrely, in the case of Bradley Cooper in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, that could very well be correct. For this isn’t your usual romantic-comedy. It’s about crazies so it’s got depth… supposedly.  For this film has been eaten up by critics and the Oscar voters alike as a refreshing and exciting new direction for the now incredibly stale genre. It is certainly the type of film that was bound to get plenty of attention during award season. I think we all have to be thankful that Russell’s follow-up to his Oscar nominated The Fighter wasn’t also set during World War 2 otherwise Cooper would be a certainty for the Academy Award for Best Actor. So it was in the midst of all this hype that audiences flocked to see two of Hollywood’s most bankable stars step into the quirky and thought-provoking world of mentally ill romantic-comedy. But could it live up to it?

Silver Linings Playbook follows the story of former teacher Pat who suffers a breakdown after he discovers his wife partaking in some afternoon delight with a colleague. We meet him after an eight month stint in psychiatric hospital where he was attempting to come to terms with bipolar disorder. Being removed from the facilities against the wishes of his doctors, he finds himself back in his childhood home with his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro). He is keen to return to his old life and prove that he can stick to his new, positive outlook: to prove that he can find his ‘silver lining’.

Bradley Cooper cannot be described as the most subtle of actors but he brings a certain frenzied energy to some of Pat’s more manic episodes. All in all though his performance is pretty one-note. Pat is completely motivated by his delusional belief that he is cured and that proof of this will get his wife back. He is not the easiest character to root for and Cooper’s frantic, wide-eyed portrayal of a volatile man coming to terms with bipolar often becomes tedious and far too intense. It gets to the point when it almost doesn’t feel as if Pat’s bipolar is actually that big a deal. It just seems like it’s one of those silly little quirks that people have. Rather than being ill Pat simply has strong feelings about certain songs, is quick to anger and has an obsessive desire to look on the bright side. He doesn’t provide any real drama here and you can’t help but feel that he’d fit better in a Wes Anderson film than he does here.
Thankfully, to offset this, Pat and the audience are offered a certain amount of respite with the introduction of troubled widow Tiffany. Still coming to terms with the death of her husband, the young woman becomes fixated on Pat Jr. and orchestrates her way into get closer to him. She proposes a deal in which she gets messages to and from Pat’s wife (bypassing that pesky restraining) if he helps her take part in a charity dance competition. This premise all sounds rather silly and it often feels like Russell is trying a bit too hard to seem quirky and unusual. However, Jennifer Lawrence does remarkably well to bring us another incredible performance. She brings a depth and emotion to Tiffany that we never see anywhere in Cooper’s Pat. She may be close to him in terms of craziness but she definitely outclasses him on the sympathetic scale. You want Tiffany to succeed much more than you ever want Pat to. Lawrence also does a great job when interacting with the other cast and there are several moments, during which Tiffany attempts to out-crazy the two Pats, which are simply splendid. In fact, the big showdown between DeNiro and Lawrence is one of the stand-out moments of the whole show.
As with so many films of this type the best moments occur in the first 30 minutes or so. This is thanks to the comic potential garnered from Pat’s transition from hospital to the big wide world. There is a great deal of glee to be had in his ruthless honesty and the discomfort it creates for everyone else. Even Cooper’s bull-in-a-china-shop style performance provides some great moments, such as his sudden insistence that he must work his way through his estranged wife’s literature syllabus before deeming it to be full of damaging messages about life. However, the narrative quickly changes pace when Tiffany is introduced and it becomes painfully clear what is about to happen. We move into obvious and stereotypical romantic-comedy territory with everyone’s future happiness becoming linked to the outcome of a football game and the dance competition. The unusual premise that had a great deal of potential quickly descends into something quite forgettable and frustratingly usual. This film doesn’t reinvent the genre, as so many critics would have you believe, it simply adds some mentally unstable characters into a narrative that even the laziest rom-com writers would reject.
Anyway, being surrounded by this many neurotic and eccentric characters, even Pat and Tiffany don’t really seem that outrageous. The supporting cast itself is fairly hit and miss with both DeNiro and Weaver doing the best they can with the material that is being offered to them. DeNiro in particular does a fine job considering he flits between an emotional father trying to reconnect with his son and a farcical version of a man suffering from OCD and a dependency on sporting superstition. The more sentimental moments between the two Pats show that DeNiro still has a great deal to offer but Pat Sr.’s more exaggerated moments played out for comic gain become fairly tiresome. Another brief shining light comes in the form of Chris Tucker’s (I know it confused me too) Danny, Pat’s friend from the hospital. Danny isn’t really important to the plot so he is simply played for comic effect.
I can’t say that I didn’t like this film but, like Black Sawn, it credits itself with more intelligence than it actually possesses. It offers a great deal that it simply never lives up to. You cannot create a new and interesting perspective on this genre by just adding characters suffering from different mental illnesses into a completely bland situation. If these characters had no psychiatric problems this film would have been brushed off as a pathetic affair but, as it stands, all Hollywood needs is a bit of bipolar and OCD to create a masterpiece. We are being lead to believe this is One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest meets When Harry Met Sally but the actual results is as corny, contrived and over-sentimental as even the worst Jennifer Aniston rom-com. If it wins any of the many awards it has been nominated for it just goes to show Hollywood is as shallow and predictable as Ricky Gervais accuses it of being.