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Bee Season

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Overview

Eliza Naumann, a seemingly unremarkable nine-year-old, expects never to fit into her gifted family: her autodidact father, Saul, absorbed in his study of Jewish mysticism; her brother, Aaron, the vessel of his father's spiritual ambitions; and her brilliant but distant lawyer-mom, Miriam. But when Eliza sweeps her school and district spelling bees in quick succession, Saul takes it as a sign that she is destined for greatness. In this altered reality, Saul inducts her into his hallowed study and lavishes upon her...
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Bee Season

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Overview

Eliza Naumann, a seemingly unremarkable nine-year-old, expects never to fit into her gifted family: her autodidact father, Saul, absorbed in his study of Jewish mysticism; her brother, Aaron, the vessel of his father's spiritual ambitions; and her brilliant but distant lawyer-mom, Miriam. But when Eliza sweeps her school and district spelling bees in quick succession, Saul takes it as a sign that she is destined for greatness. In this altered reality, Saul inducts her into his hallowed study and lavishes upon her the attention previously reserved for Aaron, who in his displacement embarks upon a lone quest for spiritual fulfillment. When Miriam's secret life triggers a familial explosion, it is Eliza who must order the chaos.

Myla Goldberg's keen eye for detail brings Eliza's journey to three-dimensional life. As she rises from classroom obscurity to the blinding lights and outsized expectations of the National Bee, Eliza's small pains and large joys are finely wrought and deeply felt.

Not merely a coming-of-age story, Goldberg's first novel delicately examines the unraveling fabric of one family. The outcome of this tale is as startling and unconventional as her prose, which wields its metaphors sharply and rings with maturity. The work of a lyrical and gifted storyteller, Bee Season marks the arrival of an extraordinarily talented new writer.

Finalist in Frankfurt eBook Award 2000, for Best Fiction work originally published in print and converted to eBook form.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Does adolescent insecurity, Jewish mysticism, the Hare Krishnas, and obsessive-compulsive disorder seem like a lot to pack into a first novel? Myla Goldberg tackles all that and more in a seamless, compelling narrative in Bee Season. Not bees as in honey, but bees as in S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G. The kind you either dreaded or loved as a child.

When 9-year-old Eliza Naumann finds out she has an unusual talent for spelling, she is utterly confounded. The long-time disappointment in her highly intelligent family, Eliza has grown accustomed to her role as under-performer. Her father Saul spends his evenings immersed in Jewish mystical studies; her mother Miriam, a successful lawyer and compulsive housekeeper, maintains a safe emotional distance from her family; and her brother Aaron usurps what little time Saul has to offer in the form of spiritual instruction in his father's hallowed study.

Initially very much alone in this quirky family, Eliza becomes the center of attention when she wins the regional spelling bee and goes on to face the nationals. Her father quickly jettisons Aaron's spiritual education in favor of training Eliza to win, and her mother spends more and more time at the office. Left to his own devices, Aaron is drawn into an eastern religious cult (the Hare Krishnas) and begins to lie about his whereabouts while Miriam's life begins to spin out of her careful control.

With impeccable imagery, Goldberg's extraordinary skill brings the trials of children's competition in the classroom, onstage, and within one's own family to brilliant, blinding light and details the unraveling of one family in just a few, untended months. (Spring 2000 Selection)

From the Publisher
"Bee Season is a profound delight, an amazement, a beauty, and is, I hope, a book of the longest of seasons."
—Jane Hamilton, author of A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth

"Myla Goldberg's Bee Season is a bittersweet coming-of-age in which wise little Eliza Naumann's quirky passion for spelling bees unites and divides her family while revealing universal truths about the often crippling pain of love."
—Martha McPhee, author of Bright Angel Time

"There is such joy and pain thrumming inside Myla Goldberg's spelling bees! She delicately captures one family's spinning out by concentrating equally on the beauty and the despair. Bee Season is a heartbreaking first novel."
—Aimee Bender, author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

"In a story told with unique delicacy and brave inventiveness, a young girl, innocent and all-knowing, learns how much there is to lose, and what it takes to win."
—Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle

Scott Tobias
While it's common for writers or artists to claim that American families like Eliza's suffer from a feeling of spiritual emptiness, Goldberg doesn't take the usual shots at suburbia, the media, or consumerism. In her hermetic universe, God is at the mercy of family dysfunction and dumb luck; at any time, Eliza's connection to her father and the Jewish mystics could be shattered by a single misspelling. As Goldberg expertly demonstrates, the pressures of spelling bees may seem ridiculous, but they're closer to ordinary life than most would care to admit.
Onion AV Club
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
This "intense and enjoyable" debut novel filled with "interesting characters" is a bittersweet coming-of-age story in which a girl with an extraordinary talent for spelling examines the unraveling fabric of a family, with a startling outcome. "A gem of a book." "This book is A-W-E-S-O-M-E and captivating." "Two thumbs up."
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An eccentric family falls apart at the seams in an absorbing debut that finds congruencies between the elementary school spelling-bee circuit, Jewish mysticism, Eastern religious cults and compulsive behavior. Nine-year-old Eliza Naumann feels like the dullest resident of a house full of intellectuals--her older brother, Aaron, is an overachiever; her mother, Miriam, is a lawyer; and her father, Saul, is a self-taught scholar and a cantor at the community synagogue. She surprises herself and the rest of the Naumanns when she discovers a rare aptitude for spelling, winning her school and district bees with a surreal surge of mystical insight, in which letters seem to take on a life of their own. Saul shifts his focus from Aaron to Eliza, devoting his afternoons to their practice sessions, while neglected Aaron joins the Hare Krishnas. Seduced by his own inner longings, Saul sees in Eliza the potential to fulfill the teachings of the Kabbalah scholar Abulafia, who taught that enlightenment could be reached through strategic alignments of letters and words. Eliza takes to this new discipline with a desperate, single-minded focus. At the same time, her brilliant but removed mother succumbs to a longtime secret vice and begins a descent into madness. Goldberg's insights into religious devotion, guilt, love, obsessive personalities and family dynamics ring true, and her use of spelling-as-metaphor makes a clever trope in a novel populated by literate scholars and voracious readers. Her quiet wit, balanced by an empathetic understanding of human foibles, animates every page. Although she has a tendency to overexplain, Goldberg's attentive ear makes accounts of fast-paced spelling competitions or descriptions of Miriam's struggles to resist her own compulsions riveting, and her unerring knack for telling details (as when Eliza twitches through a spelling bee in itchy tights) captures a child's perceptions with touching acuity. While coming-of-age stories all bear a certain similarity, Goldberg strikes new ground here, and displays a fresh, distinctive and totally winning voice. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Saul Naumann and his wife, Miriam, appear to have an unremarkable marriage. He works in the temple, and she is a compulsive lawyer. Of their two children, Aaron seems destined to become a rabbi, while Eliza is an underachiever. Suddenly, Eliza demonstrates a talent for spelling, and everyone's life is transformed. After finishing second in a national spelling bee, she becomes her father's pet project. Convinced that she has a gift that will allow her to receive shefa, a concept developed by a Jewish mystic named Abraham Abulafia in 1280, he begins daily study sessions with her that eclipse everything else in their lives. Saul fails to notice Aaron's growing disaffection and clandestine immersion in Hare Krishna. Miriam's behavior also becomes more distant and aberrant. Eventually, a family crisis ensues. First novelist Goldberg's story is one of personal voyages. As each character embarks on an individual quest for personal meaning and fulfillment, the family spirals into chaos. The result is not always compelling, however; too much time is devoted to Eliza's study of words. For larger collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/00.]--Kimberly G. Allen, American Inst. of Architects, Washington, DC Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
YA-Eliza and Aaron Naumann are never chosen for school teams and struggle to make friends. Their father, a cantor devoted to the study of Jewish mysticism, spends his days reading ancient Hebrew texts, cooking the meals, and taking care of the family. Their mother is a lawyer and the breadwinner. The parents sleep in separate rooms and barely converse. Saul Naumann hopes that "gifted-and-talented" 16-year-old Aaron will follow in his footsteps and become a scholar. Nine-year-old Eliza is a C student of whom little is expected. However, when she wins her school's spelling bee, things begin to change. After she earns first place in district and area competitions, she becomes the focus of her father's attention. Jealous, Aaron reacts by exploring alternate religions and focuses on the Hare Krishnas, where he feels welcomed and valued. Meanwhile, their mother, a kleptomaniac since childhood, has graduated from shoplifting to breaking and entering. Finally, she is arrested and placed in a mental hospital. As the family unit breaks apart, Aaron finds the courage to tell his father of his new religion, and Eliza declares her independence from her father during the national spelling bee. Teens will identify with these young people as they seek out their own identities while risking the loss of parental approval.-Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Giles
It is amazing how quickly a true talent can announce itself. In the case of Mylas Goldberg, it is now even a matter of pages, but of sentences...a marvelous debut novel.
Newsweek
Dwight Garner
A dispassionate, fervidly intelligent book that comes by its emotion honestly . . . has something else going for it, something you didn't realize you'd been missing in recent fiction: a bit of actual suspense . . . Bee Season flickers past like a dream, and it is artful indeed.
New York Times Book Review
Cathy Langer
The protagonist of this first novel is a heretofore-unremarkable nine-year old girl who is revealed to be a spelling prodigy. This novel is beautifully written and draws the reader into the world of this young girl, the compelling world of Jewish mysticism, Spelling Bee politics, family dynamics, and deep secrets. Absolutely amazing!
Tattered Cover
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
As mundane and unmystical as these longings of Eliza's may be, you never stop caring about whether she will fulfill them....sensitive and witty.
The New York Times
Claxton
Goldberg, who is only 27, has something rare in first-time novelists, and for that matter, in more experienced writers: an appreciation of the subtlest dynamics of human relationships and experience. And as a stylist has the equivalent of a musician's perfect pitch. This is a fantastic first novel, that I wanted to read again as soon as I'd finished it.
Time Out New York
Kirkus Reviews
An impressive debut about a young girl from a brilliant but eccentric family whose special talent earns her a place in the family and finally in the world. Eliza Naumann has never really excelled at anything. In fact, she's always been rather ordinary—to the point where she seems pretty much to disappear amid the other members of her highly accomplished family. Her father Saul is a brilliant scholar, entirely dedicated to the study of Jewish mysticism. He has, in turn, poured all his hopes and dreams for spiritual enlightenment into his sensitive and thoughtful son Aaron, while his wife Miriam, though a lawyer, drifts off into an emotional haze, trying to put meaning into her existence by entering other people's empty houses and stealing small, seemingly insignificant items. Eliza remains invisible and at sea in the midst of this hyper-odd family—until her unknown talent for spelling is surprisingly unearthed. After having been more or less ignored for all of her nine years, she wins the attention of her schoolmates, teachers, and, most important, of her father, who responds not so much because of the acclaim Eliza is beginning to garner, but because he suddenly sees in her a disciple, someone who, through the use of letters, words, language, can be used as a conduit to God. Her broth Aaron, meanwhile, having always been the golden child but now left to his own devices, begins searching for enlightenment through other religions, eventually settling on Hare Krishna. And so, just as Eliza is finding her way in life, her family starts to unravel, fall away, and drift farther and farther apart. Goldberg is a gifted writer, but her style—delivered in a detached, almostclinicalprose that gives the feeling of fable or dream—holds the reader at a distance and keeps her characters from ever quite coming into the third dimension.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385498807
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/15/2001
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 275
  • Sales rank: 453,278
  • Lexile: 1050L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Myla Goldberg
Myla Goldberg lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Jason Little.

Biography

Myla Goldberg is the author of the bestselling Bee Season, which was named a New York Times Notable Book in 2000 and made into a film, and of Time's Magpie, a book of essays about Prague. Her short stories have appeared in Harper's, McSweeney's, and failbetter. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Author biography courtsey of Random House, Inc..

Good To Know

In an interview with her publisher, Goldberg discusses the spark for her debut novel, Bee Season:

"In 1997 I went to D.C. to visit the National Spelling Bee. I interviewed the kids and I sat in the auditorium and watched the whole thing -- it was intense! If nothing else, that was what made me realize that I could write a novel about this. It's an alternate universe; there's just so much there.

"For me it became a microcosm of the childhood experience, for just about everyone that I know. You grow up, you have parents who have expectations of you, who want certain things, and you try really hard to fulfill them. And then you realize that you can't always. That kind of moment is defining for a lot of people. The spelling bee functions in two days to sum up that entire childhood experience."

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    1. Hometown:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 19, 1971
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.A., Oberlin College, 1993

Read an Excerpt

At precisely 11 a.m. every teacher in every classroom at McKinley Elementary School tells their students to stand. The enthusiasm of the collective chair scrape that follows rates somewhere between mandatory school assembly and head lice inspection. This is especially the case in Ms. Bergermeyer's fourth/fifth combination, which everybody knows is where the unimpressive fifth graders are put. Eliza Naumann certainly knows this. Since being designated three years ago as a student from whom great things should not be expected, she has grown inured to the sun-bleached posters of puppies and kittens hanging from ropes, and trying to climb ladders, and wearing hats that are too big for them above captions like "Hang in there," "If at first you don't succeed . . ." and "There's always time to grow." These baby animals, which have adorned the walls of every one of her classrooms from third grade onward, have watched over untold years of C students who never get picked for Student of the Week, sixth-place winners who never get a ribbon, and short, pigeon-toed girls who never get chased by boys at recess. As Eliza stands with the rest of her class, she has already prepared herself for the inevitable descent back into her chair. She has no reason to expect that the outcome of this, her first spelling bee, will differ from the outcome of any other school event seemingly designed to confirm, display, or amplify her mediocrity.

Ms. Bergermeyer's voice as she offers up spelling words matches the sodden texture of the classroom's cinder block walls. Eliza expects to be able to poke her finger into the walls, is surprised to find she cannot. She can certainly poke her way through and past her teacher's voice, finds this preferable to being dragged down by its waterlogged cadences, the voice of a middle-aged woman who has resigned herself to student rosters filled with America's future insurance salesmen, Amway dealers, and dissatisfied housewives.

Eliza only half listens as Bergermeyer works her way down the rows of seats. In smarter classrooms, chair backs are free from petrified Bubble Yum. Smooth desktops are unmarred by pencil tips, compass points, and scissors blades. Eliza suspects that the school's disfigured desks and chairs are shunted into classrooms like hers at the end of every quarter, seems to remember a smattering of pristine desks disappearing from her classrooms over spring and winter breaks to be replaced by their older, uglier cousins.

Bergermeyer is ten chairs away. Melanie Turpin, who has a brother or sister in every grade in the primary wing, sits down after spelling TOMARROW, which even Eliza knows is spelled with an O. Eliza also knows that LISARD is supposed to have a Z and that PERSONEL needs a second N. And suddenly the bee gets more interesting. Because Eliza is spelling all the words right. So that when Ms. Bergermeyer gives Eliza RASPBERRY, she stands a little straighter, proudly including the P before moving on to the B-E-R-R-Y. By the time Bergermeyer has worked her way through the class to the end of the first round, Eliza is one of the few left standing.

Three years before Eliza's first brush with competitive spelling, she is a second-grader in Ms. Lodowski's class, a room that is baby animal poster-free. Eliza's school universe is still an unvariegated whole. The wheat has yet to be culled from the chaff and given nicer desks. There is only one curriculum, one kind of student, one handwriting worksheet occupying every desk in Eliza's class. Though some students finish faster than others, Eliza doesn't notice this, couldn't tell if asked where she falls within the worksheet completion continuum.

Eliza is having a hard time with cursive capital Q, which does not look Q-like at all. She is also distracted by the fact that people have been getting called out of the classroom all morning and that it doesn't seem to be for something bad. For one thing, the list is alphabetical. Jared Montgomery has just been called, which means that if Eliza's name is going to be called, it has got to be soon. The day has become an interminable Duck Duck Goose game in which she has only one chance to be picked. She senses it is very important that this happen, has felt this certainty in her stomach since Lodowski started on K. Eliza assures herself that as soon as she gets called out her stomach will stop churning, she will stop sweating, and cursive capital Q will start looking like a letter instead of like the number 2.

Ms. Lodowski knows that second grade is a very special time. Under her discerning eye, the small lumps of clay that are her students are pressed into the first mold of their young lives. A lapsed classics graduate student, Ms. Lodowski is thrilled that her teaching career has cast her in the role of the Fates. Though she couldn't have known it at the time, her abbreviated classical pursuits equipped her for her life's calling as overseer of McKinley Elementary's Talented and Gifted (TAG) placement program.

Ms. Lodowski's home, shared with a canary named Minerva, is filled with photo albums in which she has tracked her TAG students through high school honors and into college. In a few more years the first of her former charges will fulfill destinies shaped by her guiding hand.

Ms. Lodowski prides herself upon her powers of discernment. She considers class participation, homework, and test performance as well as general personality and behavior in separating superior students from merely satisfactory ones. The night before the big day she goes down her class roster with a red pencil. As she circles each name her voice whispers, "TAG, you're it," with childlike glee.

Steven Sills spells WEIRD with the I before the E. Eliza spells it with the E before the I and is the last left standing. As she surveys the tops of the heads of her seated classmates she thinks, So this is what it's like to be tall.

She gets to miss fifth period math. Under Dr. Morris's watchful eye, she files into the school cafeteria with the winners from the other classes and takes her place in a plastic bucket seat. The seats are shaped in such a way as to promote loss of circulation after more than ten minutes. Two holes in each chair press circles into the flesh of each small backside, leaving marks long after the sitter has risen. Each chair has uneven legs, the row stretching across the stage like a hobbled centipede.

Through the windows on the left wall, buses arrive with p.m. kindergartners. In the kitchen, hundreds of lunch trays are being washed. From behind the closed kitchen comes the soothing sound of summer rain. Eliza feels a sudden pang of guilt for having left a lump of powdered mashed potato in the oval indentation of her tray instead of scraping it into the trash, worries that the water won't be strong enough to overcome her lunchtime inertia.

Dr. Morris is the kind of principal who stands outside his office to say goodbye to students by name as they scramble to their buses. Administering the school spelling bee allows him the great pleasure of observing his best and brightest. The children before him are the ones whose names adorn the honor roll. They are names teachers track long after having taught them in order to say, "This one was my favorite," or "I always knew this one would go far." Eliza is the exception to this rule. When Dr. Morris spots her in the group, he is reminded of something he can't quite place. At his puzzled smile, she blushes and looks away.

The meeting between Dr. Morris and Eliza's father that Dr. Morris can't quite remember occurs on Parents' Night one month after Ms. Lodowski goes from Kathy Myers to John Nervish, skipping Eliza. Saul Naumann only learns of his daughter's exclusion through one of his congregants who, after Shabbat services, announces loudly enough for the people on the other side of the cookie table to overhear that her son has been identified as Talented and Gifted. Saul realizes that the boy is in Eliza's class. Eliza hasn't tendered Saul the congratulatory note Aaron delivered at her age, the one that made Saul feel like a sweepstakes winner.

Saul's is one of many hands Dr. Morris shakes that Parents' Night. Dr. Morris's office contains a desk with a framed picture of his daughter, two squeaky chairs, and a window that looks out onto the school playground. On a small bookshelf, binders of county educational code bookend with instructional paperbacks devoted to several categories of child including "special needs," "precocious," "problem," and "hyperactive." Dr. Morris keeps mimeographed pages from these books on hand to distribute to the parentally challenged.

"Hello, Mr. Naumann. It's a pleasure to see you here tonight." Dr. Morris remembers the son--smart, awkward, too quiet for his own good. While he knows the daughter's face, he can't attach words to the picture. He scans her file, hoping for help and finding nothing. "Eliza is a lovely child."

"Thank you. We think she's pretty special. Which is why I was a little surprised when I learned that she hadn't been TAG-tested with the rest of her class."

Morris manages a polite smile. Every year there is at least one like Mr. Naumann.

"Well, Mr. Naumann, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Only a portion of the second grade is tested, the fraction of the class Ms. Lodowski feels may benefit from an accelerated curriculum."

"The smarter ones."

"There are a lot of different kinds of smarts, Mr. Naumann, a lot of ways for a child to be special."

Dr. Morris addresses that last part to the picture on his desk. It's too bad Saul can't see this picture from where he's standing. If he could see it, he might conclude that this is a somewhat sensitive topic for Dr. Morris. The only people who generally get to see Rebecca Morris's picture are the students Dr. Morris catches using the word "retard." He escorts these students to his office, where they are shown the picture and ordered to repeat the word, this time to his daughter's face.

"Of course there are a lot of ways to be special," Saul continues, no way to know that he really shouldn't. "But my older son was placed in the TAG program, and I just thought that--"

Dr. Morris's face has grown red. "Instead of focusing on what you think you lack, Mr. Naumann, why don't you appreciate what you have? Eliza is a caring, loving child."

"Of course she is. That's not the issue."

Dr. Morris pictures Rebecca walking unsteadily to the van that comes for her each morning, the beatific smile that fills her face at the sight of any animal, and her pleasure at a yellow apple cut into bite-size pieces. He wants Mr. Naumann to get the hell out of his office.

"So sorry, Mr. Naumann, but our time is up. I wouldn't want to keep the other parents waiting."

"But--"

"Goodbye, Mr. Naumann, a pleasure seeing you again."

From third grade onward, Eliza's class is divided into math and reading groups. Eliza's reading group is called the Racecars. She likes it okay until she learns that the other reading group is called the Rockets. The Rockets read from a paperback that has The Great Books printed on its cover in gallant letters. When she asks Jared Mont-gomery what's inside, he tells her that his group is reading excerpts from "the canon" and Eliza feels too stupid to ask if that means something other than a large gun. She can't help but wonder if someone told her which books were great and which ones were just so-so, if she'd like reading more. While she eventually adjusts to the faded motivational posters featuring long-dead baby animals, and the fifties-era reading books whose soporific effects have intensified with each decade of use, she can't get it out of her head that, while she is speeding around in circles waiting to be told when to stop, other kids are flying to the moon.

Within half an hour all the fourth graders have been eliminated except for Li Chan, who never washes his hair and outlasts two fifth graders and a sixth grader from a fifth/sixth combination. When Li finally misspells FOLLICLE, the eliminated fourth graders chant "Stink bomb" until Dr. Morris blinks the lights to quiet things down.

Eliza gets CANARY, SECRETARY, and PLACEBO. By the time CEREMONIAL and PROBABILITY come around, it is down to her, Brad Fry, and Sinna Bhagudori.

Everyone knows that Sinna is the smartest girl in school and that Brad is the smartest boy, but probably not as smart as Sinna. If anyone knows Eliza, it is from breaking the school limbo record, which got her name on the music classroom blackboard for a few weeks but which always goes to the short kids anyway.

Sinna has blue contact lenses and big boobs. Everyone knows her eyes are fake because they were brown the year before, but Sinna insists that a lot of people's eyes change when they go through puberty.

Brad plays soccer at recess and has a lot of moles. There are rumors that he spends his summers at a camp for kids who take math and science classes because they want to, but Brad tells everyone he goes to soccer camp. No one believes him either.

A couple times when it's Eliza's turn, Sinna starts toward the podium and Dr. Morris has to remind her to wait. Waiting for Sinna to return to her seat, Eliza pretends she is a TV star during opening credits, her face caught in freeze-frame. She imagines her name appearing below her face in bold white letters.

Sinna spells IMMANENT without the second M. She is already walking back to her seat when Dr. Morris says, "I'm afraid that's incorrect." It gets very quiet, like at the beginning of a blackout before anyone has thought to fetch a flashlight. Sinna walks offstage biting her lower lip.

Brad is next, but he is so surprised by Sinna getting out that he has to ask for POSSIBILITY three times before he spells it with one S. Despite his assertions to the contrary, he also believes that Sinna is the smarter one. Which just leaves Eliza, who spells CORRESPONDENCE with her eyes closed to avoid looking at three rows of students staring at her in disbelief.

In Eliza's fantasy she walks to the podium, which she is suddenly tall enough to see over, and begins speaking to a cafeteria suddenly filled to capacity.

A few of you might know my name, but most of you don't even recognize me. I know you, though. And what I'm about to say is as important to you as it is to me.

It's the lead-in to a speech from a particularly powerful after-school special. Eliza's always thought it made a great beginning. No actual words come after that, but Eliza's mouth keeps moving and the music swells. By the end, all the students are smiling with little tears in their eyes and Lindsay Halpern makes a place for Eliza at her table between her and Roger Pond.

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Table of Contents

The protagonist of this first novel is a heretofore-unremarkable nine-year old girl who is revealed to be a spelling prodigy. This novel is beautifully written and draws the reader into the world of this young girl, the compelling world of Jewish mysticism, Spelling Bee politics, family dynamics, and deep secrets. Absolutely amazing!
—Cathy Langer, Tattered Cover, Denver, CO.
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Reading Group Guide

1. Eliza Naumann has "been designated . . . as a student from whom great things should not be expected" [p. 1]. How does Myla Goldberg use both humor and poignancy to bring home the impact of this judgment on a child? Does Eliza accept her "mediocrity" without question? What evidence is there that she resents (or is frustrated by) the way the teachers and other students, as well as her own family, perceive her?

2. Why does Eliza slip the information about the district spelling bee under Saul's door, rather than telling him about it in person? Is her behavior unusual for an eleven-year-old? How do Aaron's and Saul's reactions to Eliza's winning the district bee and moving on to the regional finals [p. 43] shed light on Eliza's own feelings about the significance of her newly discovered talent?

3. Initially, Saul is portrayed as an involved and caring father. What hints are there that his interest in his children's lives masks a need to satisfy his own ego? How does his relationship with Miriam enhance the image he has created for himself? Is Miriam in some ways a victim of Saul's determination to take the primary role in the family or is she equally responsible for the pattern they have established? In what ways do the dynamics of the Naumanns' marriage reflect the times in which they live?

4. Before the depth of Miriam's problem is revealed, how do you respond to her as a character? Do her ostensible involvement with work and her treatment of her children make her a "bad" mother? What incidents, if any, demonstrate that at some level she wants to express her love for Eliza and Aaron?

5. Are the interactions between Aaron and Eliza typical of sibling relationships, or are they closer than most brothers and sisters? If so, what contributes to their closeness? At what point does the pattern they have established begin to change?

6. "Saul Naumann spends the first portion of his life as Sal Newman, son of Henry and Lisa Newman, decorator of Christmas trees and Easter eggs" [p. 10]. When he embraces Judaism as a teenager under his mother's guidance, Saul becomes estranged from his father. What effect does Saul's childhood have on how he approaches parenting and the goals he sets for Aaron? As the only child of a wealthy couple who wanted a large family, Miriam is raised to fulfill all her parents' expectations. What does Saul offer her that her own parents were unable to provide? Goldberg writes, "The two bond over their mutual lack of family ties" [p. 22]. How do their assumptions about marriage and, later, their behavior with Eliza and Aaron belie the notion that they are free of the legacies of their own parents?

7. In addition to his desire to achieve a higher level of spirituality, why does Saul devote so much time to his studies of Jewish mysticism? Do his retreats into his study serve another purpose, either conscious or subconscious, in his life? Is the time he spends with Aaron early in the book and later with Eliza compensation for--or relief from--his self-imposed isolation?

8. Discuss the development of Eliza's enchantment with spelling. Is she driven by more than just the desire to please her father? How does the author use metaphors and other literary devices to extend the meaning of what is happening to Eliza at each stage? For example, what does Goldberg mean by the sentence, "When Eliza studies, it is like discovering her own anatomy" [p. 44] and her descriptions of Eliza's delightful characterizations of each letter [p. 49]?

9. When Eliza triumphs at the Greater Philadelphia Metro Area Spelling Bee, Miriam is struck with a sense of pain as she "realizes too late that she has made her daughter more like her than she ever intended" [p. 59]. Saul, in contrast, feels gratitude and humility; he "would like to think he has kept his distance in order to protect his daughter from his unfulfilled hopes" [p. 61]. Is this self-deception on Saul's part? How do you think Eliza would respond to her parents' feelings?

10. Why is Eliza's failure to appreciate Miriam's gift of the kaleidoscope so devastating to Miriam [p. 67]? Would the situation have been different if Miriam had explained its importance to her? Why doesn't she?

11. Eliza's transformation from ordinary student into nationally recognized spelling prodigy undermines the roles Aaron and Miriam have always assumed in the family and sets in motion events that destroy the Naumanns' fa?ade of contentment and normalcy. Is there a common thread that links Aaron's experiments with different religions, Miriam's secret excursions, and Eliza's plunge into Jewish mysticism? In what ways do each of their quests embody the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam, "the fixing of the world" [p. 87]? What parallels are there between the rituals they perform, the risks they take--and the revelations they receive?

12. What does Miriam's sudden sexual aggressiveness symbolize? What does it represent in terms of her feelings about Saul and their marriage? How is it related to the other signs of her increasing recklessness? Despite his discomfort and shock, why is Saul reluctant to discuss it, choosing instead to sleep in his study? Why does he convince himself "that he is there for Eliza's sake" [p. 186]? What are other examples of his unwillingness to face the profound changes occurring in the family?

13. Eliza masters arcane skills and grasps mysteries that few people in history have even dared to examine, yet she remains a typical little girl in many ways. How does Goldberg bring this to life in her descriptions of Eliza's thoughts and actions? She writes, "Abulafia's words speak to Eliza like a promise" [p. 195]. How do Eliza's studies, of both spelling and mysticism, relate to the concrete facts of her life and the promises she hopes will be fulfilled?

14. Describing Saul's reaction to the room Miriam has constructed, Goldberg writes, "Saul starts finding it difficult to breathe. . . . When Saul starts to cry, it is out of this sense of supersaturation as well as having arrived at a new level of understanding" [p. 225]. Does Saul live up to this "new level of understanding" when he sees Miriam at the hospital [pp. 235- 236]? When he discusses the situation with Eliza and Aaron?

15. How does Eliza's final act shed light on her character and the changes she has undergone in the course of the novel? Is it an act of defiance or of resolution?

16. Bee Season presents the narrative viewpoints of all the family members. How does this technique add depth and nuance to our understanding of each character? How do the self-portraits differ from the portraits, implicit or explicit, sketched by the other members of the family? Which characters become more sympathetic or appealing through this juxtaposition of perspectives and which ones become less so?

17. The book opens with quotations from the mystic Abulafia and spelling champion Rebecca Sealfon. It is clear how they relate to Eliza's life; in what ways are they relevant to the other characters in the novel and the themes Goldberg explores?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 67 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(21)

4 Star

(16)

3 Star

(10)

2 Star

(7)

1 Star

(13)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 67 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2008

    A reviewer

    The first sentence was all it took for me to fall in love with Myla Goldberg's debut novel. Her writing is so delicately made that it is an art form in itself. It is gorgeous, as is the story it tells, one of hope, and loss, and the love of a family that has quite frankly fallen apart and trying to stitch it all back together.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2006

    good, but confusing.

    The diction in this book is advanced, but i enjoyed learning so many new words. The author has great skill in handling words and creating analogies and metaphors that remain lodged in one's mind long after one has put the book down. The ending was confusing for me... i'm not sure if i understand it, which bugs me very much because i enjoyed reading everything that led up to the ending so much. This book portrays the desperate need an adolescent has for meaning in life, for something to hold onto when one's parents aren't around to be that something solid to cling to. overall, i enjoyed reading it because i like the Author's way with words, and there were some interesting themes. However, im definately confused by the ending.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2005

    Literary Vomit - I know, I'm being harsh, but...

    this book could not have been a bigger disappointment. I regret not reading the reader reviews prior to purchasing the book- I would have saved myself time and money. As the other reviewers have noted, the writer has an incredible ability with words, however, the story was unrealistic and painful to read (in that it was difficult to fully get into the story). Moreover, it seemed that there was little 'story' and more description. For example, it would take a page to describe one simple object (of course, I exaggerate, but you get the idea). I, literally, had to force myself to finish the book. If you are consisdering purchasing this book, please reconsider. There are more enjoyable books on the market!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 26, 2013

    Amazing book

    There are many books that delighted me, saddened me, angered me, or frightened me.
    But this is the first book that rattled me; that moved me so profoundly. I still don't fully understand my own reaction, but it's very real. Immediately after reading a borrowed copy of Bee Season, I bought four more copies to share with friends.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2012

    Please answer my question

    Are spelling bees for nerds that have no lofe and are forever alone

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2012

    Oprah person

    What are you saying you sound like oprah

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2011

    Depressing

    The author's observations are at times clever and humorous, but for me, the story was tragically dark. The characters were so deeply troubled and flawed that I couldn't relate to them or their depressing circumstances. If this book were a color it would be dark gray. If you are looking for something that is up beat, entertaining or has redeeming features, this is not it.

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  • Posted June 18, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    No, I shall not do a spelling joke as a title

    This book was an odd little novel, one I was not expecting.

    This is about Eliza Naumann, a normal girl who family has resigned themselves to her ordinariness. This all changes when Eliza surprisingly wins her school spelling bee, opening doors to herself that she never even knew existed. Eliza's family is strongly impacted by this sudden change. Her father, Saul, is a Jewish scholar, and is determined that his daughter use her abilities to the best advantage possible, resorting to the old leather tomes in his study for guidance. Her brother, Aaron, is thrown off by this sudden change of his father's affection, exploring any way to be closer to God. Her mother, Miriam, is not what she appears, and this sudden change in the family dynamic brings her secrets to light. All this happens because of one girl's ability to spell.

    This book has a whole lot shoved in it. Jewish mysticism, Hare Krishnas, kleptomania, obsessive compulsion, complicated families, and spelling bees. It really is like nothing I've ever read before. It was more complex than I was expecting, and I read it slowly in order to soak it all in. The characters and all their actions wer well-developed and intricate. I just really enjoyed the journey it took me on. And, as an added bounes, my vocabulary has been hereby expanded.

    I can see how it's not for everyone, and I don't exactly recommend it. This is a book people have to stumble on for themselves.

    My only complaint was the ending, which I felt was a little unclear.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2009

    I did not like this book!

    While I found Bee Season engrossing and interesting I found it disturbing with an unsatisfactory ending. It is not enjoyable to read about a dysfunctional and disturbed family. I may have liked it better if there was some more positive resolution at the end.

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  • Posted May 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Astounding

    Miriam, Saul, Aaron and Eliza are like vastly different puzzle pieces from four separate puzzles, accidentally shoveled into one box and expected to fit together sensibly. Myla Goldberg's language and incredible skill at telling the story of this incongruous family is breathtakingly fitting. Her strange, unworldly creative metaphors give the story a feeling of such reality that I could hardly put the book down or stop myself from wanting to reach out to each character to give comfort. Sad, confusing, amusing, and thrilling all at once, Bee Season is like dipping your hand into a lukewarm pool of fantasy and reality at the same time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2007

    Amazing

    A moving, intellectual, heart breaking book that will leave you truly changed. I was shocked when I saw so many negative reviews, I felt compelled to write one for myself. Bee Season was one of the best books I've ever read. I felt connected to each character and found the book hard to put down. Myla Goldberg's poetic writing style makes Bee Season all the more powerful and I would recommend it to anyone.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 15, 2006

    This has Oprah written all over it

    And what I mean by that is...if you like a sad, twisted, depressing book about a sad, twisted, depressing family, then look no further, because this is the book for you!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2006

    not as good as the hype

    i thought this book was good, but after all the hype, i honestly expected it to be much better. it didn't totally draw me in, and some of it was kinda weird. the most interesting part was the mom and her condition, which i wish would've been a bigger part of the book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2006

    dissappointment

    Whatever literary accomplishments Goldberg achieved were erased by her use of pornography and attempt to cram too much into one book. I was misled by other reviews to purchase the book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2006

    Disappointed and confused by the ending

    I didn't begin to like Eliza until I was over halfway through the book. The first part is really boring and the ending is a letdown. I didn't actually like the book much until I was 60-50 pages away from finishing it. The things that happened to Miriam were surprising. I don't think I would enjoy the movie because overall I didn't like the book that much. I really enjoyed the spelling bee part of it though.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2005

    I completely disagree w/these reviews...

    Bee Season was amazingly written, and I don't feel Goldberg was trying to stuff words down our throats. Goldberg is talented with prose, and she weaves beautiful images, unlike many books today which sound like a teenager could have written them (The Historian, for example). Second, the story line may not be believable, but it could happen. So many people live unordinary lives--you would be surprised! Plus, since when is a fictional novel supposed to be believable. To the person who recommended The Historian, I would have to ask--is that AT ALL believable? I highly recommend this book, and urge everyone to ignore any of these reviews. Bee Season is lovely, well written, and not at all childish, and the story is heartbreaking (but good).

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2005

    Interesting but so sad...

    I did hear about this book from many people and because of the hype I was expecting great things. I was expecting a strong voice and beautiful writing, which I found. I wasn't expecting to put the story down feeling sad and dissapointed in this particular family. It was a lovely and creative story, but much sadder than I ever expected. It wasn't sad in a cry your eyes out way, it was sad in a sense of desperation. I will try and read her other books because she has an obvious talent.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2005

    Bee Season

    What a let-down. Considering all of the hype about this book, I was really looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately I had to force myself to finish it. Myla Goldberg's obvious talent with words was sadly overshadowed by a completely depressing story with unbelievable subject matter. The story could have been enjoyable if the forays into mysticism hadn't been so totally over-the-top, and the entire family so grossly pathetic. The description of Eliza's mystical re-birth at the end sounded a lot like an epileptic seizure - which would have actually made for a more interesting story. The final outcome of the story was completely predictable. I don't recommend this book at all. I honestly cannot believe it is being made into a movie. Skip this one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2005

    Bee Season

    Rarely do I feel so strongly about a book that I feel the need to voice an opinion on-line. Bee Season was the biggest disappointment of my summer reading. I just don't understand all the praise and hype. Though Myla Goldberg has an obvious talent with words, Bee Season is just plain difficult to get through. The writing is frenetic and I felt like words were literally being stuffed down my throat in each paragraph. Not at all enjoyable. The family is pathetic, the story is not in the least bit believable, and Ms. Goldberg tries too hard to fit too much into this book. Was there an editor here? I truly had to force myself to get through this book, hoping to find something redeeming. Unfortunately it just never happened. Skip this one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2005

    Interesting Story line but . . .

    It took me a while to finally get into the book, and then when I started to enjoy it, it twisted too weird for me. I hate it when a book ends that way, It leaves me feeling satiated to find out what happened to the family. I found parts quite enjoyabe however this isn't the greatest book out there. I was very dissappointed.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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