Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn (2018) March 1, 2018

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 12:28 am
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originalThis page-turning psycho thriller kept me up way too late on a Sunday night and continued to distract me until I finished it a few hours after I got home from work on Monday. All told: about 8 hours of reading over 3 days, squeezing it in whenever I could–ignoring laundry, dishes, cleaning, and grading.  But my cat was digging it since he flopped on the couch with me for hours while I immersed myself in the life of child psychologist Anna Fox, a pill-popping, three wine-bottle-a-day agorophobic who hasn’t left her 4 story NY brownstone in 10 months. She watches black & white movies for hours and spies on her neighbors, and she sees things: maybe they’re there and maybe they aren’t.




I was caught off guard at every plot twist—but then again, I’m a psycho-thriller novice.  This is not my genre. Lots of reviewers found the plot turns predictable and too much like other books with unreliable narrators who witness crazy stuff (apparently this is a popular genre these days), but as a novice, I had nothing to compare it to and no experience with predictions, so I was just reading along, startled at each revelation along this twisty road of a story—and shocked at the end. So in that sense, it was a five-star read.  If I were a more astute critic of this genre, I’d perhaps rate it lower. Mostly, it wasn’t too creepy (I hate creepy), but when it becomes a movie—film rights have already been sold—I definitely won’t see it.  Psycho-thrillers on screen are a definite no for me.  That said, I bet it will make a really good film.


Hunger by Roxane Gay (2017) February 8, 2018

Filed under: book reviews,Memoir — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 3:50 am
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This is an important book.  I’ll start with that. I started it this morning, finished it by 5:30, and went to her book talk at St. Mary’s College at 7.  My colleague mentioned going to her speaking engagement, so I had a quick deadline to read at least one of her books. I chose her memoir because it’s the only one that was available at our school library.

Why is Hunger important? It’s a story of suffering, and of using food to fill a void created by violation.  But as she makes clear early in the book, violation is “detached” language. So is “incident” and “assault.”  At twelve years old, she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and several of his friends.  Her body was no longer her body, and because she was a good Catholic girl and a straight-A student, she told no one—not her parents, not her friends (she had very few), no one. Instead, she ate. She ate to become safe from men (and boys), figuring the bigger her body, the less attractive she would be, and the less attractive she could make herself, the less anyone would come near her. And the bigger she became, the more she could literally hide inside her body, hide from the shame and guilt she felt, from the confusion that plagued her.

It reminded me why so many women and girls cannot speak up, and it reminded me that a violation of a minute or an hour can take a lifetime to heal—and it may never heal. It reminded me that we so often judge fat people as lazy and undisciplined before ever considering why they are fat, what may have led to a fat body. Her story made me think about behavior, suffering, shame, assumptions, and all the untold stories that surround us.

That said, I thought the first hundred or so pages captured her story’s message: its power, its capacity to make me stop in my tracks and think and to reflect.  But eventually it felt repetitive and wandering, and even a little whiny (which I feel guilty mentioning given the subject and the courage it took to write about it).  At her talk, I was captivated by her story, her honesty, her stage presence, and her responses to tough questions. She offered important advice on writing: on boundaries, and on accepting that we can only write about a subject when we’re ready, and on looking beyond suffering.  We are more than our worst experiences, and as writers, we do not need to delve into the personal—plenty of other topics and experiences are brave, interesting, and worthy of reading.



The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott (2017) February 4, 2018


Alice McDermott is a beautiful writer.  That sounds cheesy, I know.  But The Ninth Hour had the exact same effect on me as Charming Billy: I could not put it down. Yet it’s not a thriller, it’s not melodramatic, and it’s not a skim-get-to-the-end-quickly type of book. Rather, her understated, poetic approach to detail pulls the reader so far into the story and its characters that we feel like we’re in the room—in this case, in the basement laundry room of the convent or the apartment after the fire, or the bedroom with Mrs. Costello complaining while the nuns change her bedding and empty her chamber pot.


This is the story of Annie, a young Irish immigrant in early 20th c Brooklyn, whose husband just killed himself because he couldn’t face unemployment with a child on the way.  But really it’s a story of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor who took her in and helped raise her daughter.  It’s a story of grace and humility and what it means to be human–to serve others, to love, to sacrifice, and to forgive.  The Little Nursing Sisters function as today’s home health care, hospice, Molly Maids, meals on wheels, and social workers all in one. Smart, prudent, practical women dedicating their lives to the poor. It’s no wonder we struggle to pay for these services today; they were once free in so many cities with Catholic convents.

In describing the dreary February day of the suicide, McDermott, writes from Sister St. Saviour’s point of view (after she’s been out begging—part of the job in addition to the myriad of home services): “we’re all feeling it. the weight of the low sky and the listless rain and the damp depths of this endless winter, the sour smell of the vestibule, the brimstone breath of the subway, of the copper coins, the cold that slips behind your spine and hollows you out to the core” (13).  How well that captures New York in February from someone who’s been out on the street for six and a half hours. And then, Sister goes inside to help Annie vacate the apartment. Because that’s what the Sisters did: one foot in front of the other.  Day after day for their whole lives. The rest of us have much to learn from their compassion and commitment.




American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee (2017) February 3, 2018

Filed under: book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 10:58 pm
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The whole wolf debate was not much on my radar until I read this book which I bought for my son–not for me–and devoured in a few days.  Who knew that O-Six,

978052549327321, 755, 744, and other wolves could feel like characters in a novel?  I found myself ready

for bed at 9 pm so I could read more about these controversial creatures who have thousands of followers cheering for their survival and thousands of hunters and herders applauding their deaths.  The way Nate Blakeslee describes the wolves as well as the park rangers and naturalists who love them, track them, and report on them makes them nearly human: some show empathy for the runt of the litter, some fight for attention from the alpha male, some are weaklings, some are friendly but cautious, some flaunt their strength, some seem shy.  Each Yellowstone wolf has a name or number and a personality–and the watchers get to know them like their own children.

But the reintroduction and protected status of wolves in the Rockies has been fraught with controversy.  Cattle ranchers lose livestock, hunters compete with wolves for elk, and other hunters want a wolf trophy on their walls.  I don’t claim to fully understand either side—and the book is definitely biased toward the conservationists who have reintroduced wolves—but I find the issues and the wolves themselves fascinating.


With 20 pages of endnotes, the book is well-researched, and I found the story–indeed it reads like a novel—enchanting. I highly recommend it to the outdoor crowd, especially those who love Yellowstone and the Tetons.


Phones in the classroom January 23, 2018

Filed under: Articles and Issues — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 3:32 am
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I’m back on educational technology, and specifically phones in the classroom.  I’ll get back to book reviews soon (I’m reading a great wolf book and can’t wait to blog about it), but I saw this article posted by former colleague and Latin teacher extraordinaire, Steve Prince: How to Eliminate Cell Phone Use in the Classroom.

We just need to be done with phones in the classroom for several reasons:

  1.  Our students are addicted to their phones–literally addicted.  Students are anxious if they have to go an hour (or 5 minutes) without checking updates–whether that be social media, texts, or even news.
  2. They’re a distraction to learning.  Even when students are not using/have access to a phone, they’re thinking about it–which means they’re not thinking about whatever task they should be engaged with.
  3. They’ve come to think of any moment of “down time” in the classroom—even a 30 second break to stretch, talk to another student, notice the sunshine streaming in the windows—as “legit” time to check their phone. So they miss a conversation with a classmate, they miss the sunshine, they miss an opportunity to give their bodies, minds, and eyes a needed break. So much learning can happen through casual conversation, but currently, if there is no specific task using every minute, students go straight to their phone.
  4. We do not need them as learning tools.  Can they be helpful at times? Yes. Quicker than a computer for simple tasks? Yes.  But as soon as we give in to this, it’s one blurry line. And when the yes/no cell phone policy is a blurry one, teachers will say “please put your phone away” over and over and over every day. Simply counting the number of times we either say this to an individual student, remind the whole class, or actually ask a student for his/her phone would likely yield surprising results in lost learning time.
  5. As long as schools have a policy of “classroom by classroom,” there will never be a clear expectation for student behavior. I used to be a fan of letting each teacher decide what works best in his/her classroom, but I’m over that. I’m tired of monitoring, tired of politely reminding, and tired of watching student anxiety levels increase. We have to set the limits for them because they cannot do this on their own.

Have thoughts? Please share them.


Americanah by Ngozi Adichie (2013) November 25, 2017

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 8:52 pm
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Aside from a somewhat disappointing ending, I appreciated this story, specifically its Nigerian perspective of being a non-American black in America.  I don’t think I often enough distinguished the Black experience into its many subcategories, but I feel 81PwSNLlMpL

at the very least more informed now. In a nutshell, the story centers around Ifemelu who leaves Nigeria during her university years for America where she succeeds in school and in her career, becoming a successful blogger (though not without numerous setbacks in her early years, including unemployment and poverty).  Yet, she feels as if she never quite fits in. Left behind in Nigeria is her boyfriend, Obinze, who eventually emigrates to London but never escapes the pitfalls of undocumented life, eventually returning to Nigeria.  At times a little rambling, she tackles numerous issues in this book: Nigerian politics and corruption, immigration (US and England), race, interracial dating, love, and more. Good–but not great–writing, its rawness gave me a better understanding of the frustrations of each of these issues.  Perhaps what I liked most were the blog entries, the most interesting titled “Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking about Blackness.” So even though she’s a non-American Black, she has much to say about both the non-American Black experience and the American Black experience.


Technology in the Classroom

Filed under: Articles and Issues — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 6:46 pm

I continue to ponder every day the use of technology in the classroom.  Yes, there are distinct advantages, ways in which technology has enabled my writing students to access information/websites that offer strategies for improving their writing. Much of this technology I would use of my own accord simply because I try to stay abreast of best practice methodology.  We produce digital stories and podcasts, we collaborate on Google Docs, we offer snippets of writing through a discussion panel where students can comment, and we make use of quick access to student and professional writing models as a way of improving our own pieces. But when technology feels forced on us, and we’re constantly asked how, when, and where we’re using it, I continue to wonder who’s driving this bus? The number of edtech jobs seems to be exponentially increasing.  On a limited school budget, each time we add yet another technology consultant, administrator, or IT support person,  it seems that our class sizes get bigger.  Job security means shoving more tech requirements at us at the very same time we’re also reading about the negative side of technology, both in and out of the classroom.  Here are three recent articles that address some issues we should all be thinking about: A NYT article from a few days ago Laptops are Great.  But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting; another recent article showing the infiltration of edtech companies How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom; and an article recently sent to our staff from our VP The Distracted Student Mind: Enhancing its Focus and Attention.

Our students need breaks from technology.  Yet we’re never asked “How often are your students engaging in non-tech activities? How often and for how long are they asked to focus deeply and think critically without a screen?”  I have never been asked either of those questions.  I’m only asked how often and in how many different ways I am engaging students in technology. Perhaps down the road, when more research comes in, will someone ask about tech breaks instead of tech use.




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