Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016) July 18, 2017

Filed under: Bean's favorites,book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 3:40 am
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A Gentleman in Moscow is a gem of a book that could be just as easily double as a self-help book about how to live life with a positive attitude despite challenging circumstances.

51YCzUi5OJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The mere suggestion of the self-help genre would undoubtedly ruin the experience, but thematically, it fits.  This novel about a Russian aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov, confined to a hotel in Moscow for his entire adult life due to “revolutionary writings” (aka: a poem), offers such beautiful language, Towles transports readers into another world. Through the Count’s eyes and experiences, we see the transformation of Russia, from the early 1920’s to the mid 1950’s–the rise of comrades, the brutality of the leadership, and the humanity of many people. Though the Count is confined to his tiny attic room plus the hotel’s common areas, he creates a world that feels far larger, and much of the time it’s easy to forget he has never left the physical building as the story seems to grow outward rather than inward. He leaves the hotel in so many other ways through relationships, stories, and shared experiences.  (more…)

 

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (2016) July 13, 2017

Filed under: book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 3:37 pm
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91ePx6oDUTLI read this book many months ago, probably last fall: post election season. Like everyone else, I was looking for answers.  I was trying to get a better understanding of the rural population in flyover states (in this case rural Kentucky and Ohio) and why many of them voted the way they did. So I went into the book looking for specific answers.  In that sense, I felt gyped.  I left the last page with more questions than answers, more scrunched eyes than clarifications. But then I realized I was reading for such a specific purpose that maybe I wasn’t processing all the information openly. So I sat down and reread it a few weeks later with the attitude that I’d glean what I could from it rather than assuming it would magically clarify the tumultuous thoughts in my head. My second read was better at helping me listen and see, though it was not necessarily better at helping me understand. What I walked away with was a book of contradictions–but in a sense, I think that’s much of what Vance feels about his people and value systems: contradictions.

I found the introduction to be the most compelling part of the book.  That’s where he lays out his background the most clearly.  Here are a few snippets:   “I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children” (2).  “I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree.  To these folks, poverty is the family tradition” (3). “Working class whites are the most pessimistic group in America…We’re more socially isolated than ever, and we pass that isolation down to our children” (4). “Our men suffer from a peculiar crisis of masculinity in which some of the very traits that our culture inculcates makes it difficult to succeed in a changing world” (5). “It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible.  It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it” (7). “There is a lack of agency here–a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.  This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America” (7).

This introduction led me to believe he’d more or less support these assertions/observations and possibly offer solutions that might improve the lives of those in his community.  But the rest of the book merely relays a series of stories that seem to ramble on describing his “hillbilly people” and their “hillbilly values” in which they constantly glorify the good, ignore the bad, and refuse to look at the truth. A community in which, according to the author’s own observations, people don’t want to work hard and many are on government assistance, yet they despise people on welfare and see themselves as hardworking people getting screwed by the government.  It felt depressingly repetitive without ever offering much insight or depth of analysis. Basically he offers a world of irrational behavior–and it seems like it’s a cycle that’s destined to continue.  In that sense, I didn’t feel the “elegy” of the title. Maybe solutions are so complex and so hard to come by that he just didn’t have the energy to offer any. I just wanted a better sense of hope, I guess. The book reminded me of an article from the NYT about an Ohio farmer who’s lost two kids to overdoses: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/12/us/opioid-epidemic-rural-farm.html?mcubz=2

 

 

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potuk (1972) April 10, 2017

Filed under: Bean's favorites,book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 11:27 pm
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51a4de5ha8l-_sl500_aa300_I’ve never taught this book, and as an English teacher, I’m a bit embarrassed to say I’ve not read it until now. I do know this: there is no way I could have appreciated this book as a student the way I can as a parent. I’m sure some students would really like it, but I think others would get bored.  While it may engage them with the familiar theme of rebellion, I don’t think students could comprehend the agony of choices that comes with parenting. In a nutshell, Asher is born into a Ladover Hasidic Jewish family in Brooklyn in the 1950s (Wikipedia was my friend here–I knew we were talking about orthodox Jews, but I had no idea what Ladover or Hasid actually meant).  His father works for the Rabbe (which also confused me as I initially thought it was just a different spelling of Rabbi, but apparently a Rabbe is more of the top guy among a whole sect of people), essentially creating schools and communities that spread their brand of Orthodox Judaism throughout the world. The kids–Asher included–go to school all day learning Hebrew, praying, and reading the Torah, and not seemingly much else. So the goal of school is not so much an education but an indoctrination.  I couldn’t help but think this is pretty much what some of the current Madrassas in the Middle East are–schools that teach you to be a religious zealot.

Anyway, Asher is pretty much a child prodigy in art, creating amazing drawings at age 3 or 4. So, it’s a story of conflict: Asher wants to pursue his gift and his dad wants him to pursue his religious teachings and one day carry on his work. The real complexity begins when we see the father not as a villain but as a man who has seen 6 million Jews led to their death in the Holocaust, someone who wants to rebuild what has been taken away. He doesn’t understand Asher; he cannot understand passion for art.  It is outside his ability to see the world. And yet, Asher’s gift is so strong, he often paints even when he does not realize he is doing so–when he’s not holding a brush or pencil, he paints in his head, seeing and feeling colors and textures that others cannot even perceive. What does a family do with such strong and dire differences? That’s where the mom comes in, and it’s both beautiful and heart-wrenching to watch her try to bridge this gap between her son and her husband. To allow her son to pursue what brings him life–but to know that further study of painting also means studying Christian traditions, artists, movements, and all aspects of “the Other Side” that so pains his father. What Potuk handles so well is the innerworkings of the family, the struggles, the drive within us that we have little control over.  Not that much happens in this book, but the conversations and the body movements are emotionally terrifying.  There are no villians or heroes–only a family trying to do their soul’s work without painfully damaging one another.

Just a day after I finished the book, I opened the NYT to this story (The High Price of Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Life) about an organization in Brooklyn and other areas of New York offering counseling and sanctuary to adult children struggling to leave their ultra-Orthodox Jewish families.  I had no idea this is still such a challenging issue.

 

The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro (2015) March 13, 2017

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 2:20 am
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With a 6 hour bus ride to and from Pittsburgh, this was the perfect page turner to pass 43thetime.  Needing the distraction, I found myself willing to overlook the less than stellar writing.  The historical aspect of the novel took me away to pre WWII in both the US and Europe.  Taking place in New York in the late 1930s, the story centers around the abstract expressionist movement of the WPA, something I know little about: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Mark Rothko are the key players–all students of Hans Hofffman. The main character, Alizee Benoit is one of the only purely fictional characters.  Many of the others–including Eleanor Roosevelt, an avid supporter of the arts and of progressive ideas–are historical figures, though Shapiro has taken great liberty (a fact disclosed in the end notes) in creating them, so who knows how much, if any, of their words or actions accurately portray them.

The story is narrated alternatively by Alizee, in 1939,  and by her great niece Danielle, in 2015. Danielle is looking for information about her great aunt Alizee whom she knows was a painter in the abstract expressionist school, but who disappears sometime in 1940 and is never heard of again. The third group of players is Alizee’s family  living in Europe during the rise of Hitler, trying desperately to get Visas to come to the US before they end up in a concentration camp. We meet them primarily through letter exchanges with Alizee in the late 1930s. I think these exchanges felt the most poignant, encompassing the parts of the book that pulled me into their desperate world. The weight of their words was haunting as they tried to maintain hope while also begging for help.

Other parts of the story felt contrived such as most of the dialogue between the artists and especially the dialogue between Alizee and Eleanor Roosevelt. I had to forget Hemingway and everything he and other writers teach us about good dialogue and just skim read those lines.

What I did not know, in terms of history, was the controversy over American Visas and the restrictive immigration policies in the late 30s and early 40s.  I did not know about the Fifth Column, the America First Committee, or Asst. Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who essentially controlled the number of Visas and who reduced that number by more than 50% (against official US policy) under the auspices of “keeping America safe” by keeping immigrants out–and away from “our” jobs. I couldn’t help but wonder if Shapiro was somewhat influenced by the 2015 Presidential primaries while writing this.  Honestly the parallels are so strong it almost felt like a political book.  I had assumed Long was a fictional character meant to represent the anti-immigrant mindset of the pre WWII era.  And so I was shocked when I looked him up and found him and his policies real, mirroring those of many in our current administration.

The end of the book felt even more contrived than the dialogue, but I appreciate what I gleaned about the artistic and political movements of the time.

 

The Nightengale by Kristen Hannah (2015) January 11, 2017

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 1:32 am
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Unlike my previous post about The Door, this book is a page turner the lacks the poetic flow and complexity of Szabo’s writing, but it offers a 515p3orn1kl-_sx327_bo1204203200_compelling WWII story that kept me up until 2 am reading the last 150 pages because I simply couldn’t go to bed without finishing it. Set in France just prior to and during the war, it centers around two sisters, abandoned at young ages by their father after their mother dies.  Haunted by the first World War, he is no longer able to cope without his wife.  His older daughter, Vianne, soon falls in love, becomes pregnant, and marries at 17. She moves to an old family home to start her own family and raise her young sister, but after suffering a series of miscarriages, she can no longer care for Isabelle who is then left to fend for herself at various boarding and finishing schools, many of which she gets kicked out of due to her rebellious spirit. Vianne feels guilty and Isabelle, resentful. When the Germans occupy France, eventually rounding up Jews and shipping them off, both girls are affected–not only by lack of food, heat, and basic provisions, but also by their involvement in efforts to save or hide those in peril. For Vianne, it’s her neighbor and best friend who is Jewish, and for Isabelle it’s as a smuggler for downed pilots and others who need to get out of France so they can continue fighting with the Allied forces. It’s a bit of a soap opera and probably not much of a discussion book, but I couldn’t help becoming completely drawn into their world, wondering if I’d ever be brave enough to volunteer as a smuggler or if I’d be more reserved like Vianne, trying to go unnoticed in an effort protect her daughter.  Yet, even she takes action when her best friend is taken away leaving her baby with Vianne.

As far as WWII books set in France, All the Light We Cannot See is better literature and  Sarah’s Key was a more unique story, and I liked both of them better than The Nightengale.  Still, it’s a story that swept me in with characters I cared enough about that I started the book on a Friday afternoon and finished it very late the next night–all the while completely ignoring the papers I should have been grading. (more…)

 

The Door by Magda Szabo (1987; 2005)

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 12:23 am
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Originally published in 1987 in Hungary, The Door arrived via Amazon as a githe-door-szaboft from my sister.  We were planning a trip to Budapest to visit my son, and she was combing for quality books about or written by Hungarians.  Turns out this one was reviewed in the NYT just last year as a relatively unknown gem.  Not much happens in this story. Mostly it’s a story about the relationship between two women–the narrator, a writer, and her housekeeper, Emerence.  And through them, it is also a study in all human relationships.  It deserves to be read slowly, to notice the intricacies of the push and pull of people who depend on one another.  In this particular relationship, it is Emerence, the illiterate housekeeper who also sweeps the street (year round) in front of 11 houses on the street, takes care of the sick, and also is some sort of animal whisperer, that wields the power.  The story is told in flashback to a time when the narrator (who only mentions her name once or twice) gets her writing career back up and running after a hiatus through the Communist years in Hungary, she and her husband need a housekeeper, but when she finds Emerence, it is Emerence who agrees to “try them out.” She remains a mysterious woman (often arriving and leaving at odd hours and in silence) throughout the novel as the narrator tries–sometimes successfully and often not–to understand her. Their relationship teeter totters as the narrator missteps, then backsteps, and takes a step forward to repair their working relationship.  It sounds weird that a 250+ page novel centering around an educated writer and her peasant housekeeper could be so engaging.  But it is. The writing is beautiful, and the Hungarian history embedded into the story offers the larger context of the political and economic landscape, much of which also contributes to the awkward balance and co-dependence in their relationship. The fact that it’s told in flashback–when the narrator is an old woman–contributes to its reflective quality. This is not a fast read.  It deserves pondering, trying to make sense of the most intricate human interaction and all of its emotional and psychological complexities.

 

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathanial Philbrick (2000) October 9, 2016

Filed under: book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 9:37 pm
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When I was 10 or 11, I read the book Alive, the Story of the Andes Survivors.  I can still picture scenes from the book in which the passengers (especially the Uruguayan rug51yifrrn4tl-_sx330_bo1204203200_-1by team) were freezing, injured, starving, and near death.  And then they succumbed to eating the dead.  I was both fascinated and disgusted.  It made a strong enough impression that 40 some years later, it was the first image that came to mind when I read the description on the back of this book. The word cannibalism sent me back to reading Alive, following the survivors’ every movement until their eventual rescue. In the Heart of the Sea has that same pull.  Philbrick, through in-depth research, takes us on a similar journey–this time on the whaleship Essex in 1819 when it is rammed in the middle of the South Pacific by a sperm whale that sank their boat (yes, the impetus for Melville’s Moby Dick). Withe the few provisions the crew could recover from the Essex, they set out in three teams on three lifeboats hoping to reach South America, 3,000 miles away–against prevailing winds and currents–foregoing the much closer Polynesian islands where they feared the unknown, particularly cannibals.  Much of their information was unreliable, and in only a few years, it would be well known that they could have found safe harbor in any number of places within 1,000 miles of their sunken ship, using prevailing winds to get them there. The author explains that Nantucket–the whaling capital of the world at that time–was known for its arrogance and close-mindedness.  Thus, most of the Nantucketers preferred 3,000 miles of open sea with little food or shelter in a tiny boat to an unknown island chain. Fear of the unknown crippled them.

Hmmm… Americans in 2016?   The irony is unmistakable.  Their decision to head for South America cost many lives–some died of starvation and at least one was killed because he drew the shortest straw.  The others needed his body for food. The details are at times, difficult to read, but the story is a page turner, delving into the moral and societal implications. I’m always a nonfiction adventure fan, and this book felt like a fusion of Alive, the Perfect Storm, and Into Thin Air–all survival (or lack of survival) stories that captivated me.

 

 
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