Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

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.




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

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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…)


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.


Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson (2014) August 7, 2016

This might be the most important book I’ve read this year.  Paired with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s  Between the World and Me, these two memoirs offer a raw and brutal lens with which to examine race in America.  As a recent Harvard Law graduate in the 203426171980s, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a firm based in Alabama dedicated to defending the poor, the non-represented, the incarcerated, the  condemned–specifically those on death row. The book spotlights one of his first cases–Walter McMillian, a black man wrongly convicted of murdering a white woman–in which Stevenson discovers not only a shocking lack of credible evidence that sent a man to death row (where he spent decades of his life), but also a rural Southern culture steeped in political corruption, racism, and fear-mongering. Stories of numerous inmates are woven in between the McMillian case, one just as heartbreaking as the next.

I found myself continually shocked by the information in this book: shocked and embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of prison statistics and my lack of understanding of policies like “three strikes and you’re out” or political slogans like “tough on crime.”  These seemingly positive policies that appear to protecting our safety have actually led to startling statistics: “the highest rate of incarceration in the world, a quarter of a million kids sent to adult jails and prisons for extremely long sentences, 3,000 juveniles sentenced to die in prison, hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders forced to spend decades in prison, a half a million people in prisons for drug offenses, and life sentences for non-homicide offenses” (p 15). And finally, “scores of innocent people who were sentenced to death and nearly executed” (16). An unprecedented amount of money has shifted from health, education, and social services to prisons, and a huge number of private prison companies have hit the jackpot through our mass incarceration rate.

I could go on for pages and pages, but here are some of the most memorable statements I took from this book:

  • “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (17).
  • One older man said to Stevenson, “Tell them to stop saying our country never experienced terrorism before 9/11.  We grew up with terrorism. Anyone who was white could terrorize you. We had to worry about bombings, lynchings, and racial violence of all kinds.”(299).
  • “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we have thrown away children, the disabled, and the weak, not because they are a threat to public safety, but because it makes us seem tough” (290).
  • A society should be judged not by how it treats the rich, but how it treats the poor and the disenfranchised.
  • The opposite of poverty is not wealth.  The opposite of poverty is justice.

When I teach Mockingbird to 9th graders next month, we inevitably talk about race, racial profiling, false accusations, and fear.  But over and over again, students are quick to say, “thank goodness it’s not like that anymore.”  They are so mistaken.  Because most of them are white, they have no idea what it means to be black.  And they have no idea what it’s like to live with the fear of being arrested and jailed for something they didn’t do or for something so minor, it would heed little more than a warning for someone with lighter skin. Stevenson has committed his entire career to providing equal justice for those who have been ignored by our court system.  We could learn so much from his definition of mercy.

View Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk: We Need to Talk about an Injustice


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (2013) August 6, 2016

Filed under: Bean's favorites,book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 9:07 pm
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Before re18428067ading this book, I knew next to nothing about Chechnya aside from the fact that it was in a seemingly constant battle for independence from Russia.  And in some ways, I guess that’s still what it’s known as: a republic that would like to be independent of Russia except that it can’t seem to remain stable as its own nation. Like so many nations plagued by war and a struggling economy, corrupt leaders plunged a fledgling Chechnya into chaos instead of stability–and that chaos led it right back into a Russian Republic. The story takes place between 1994 and 2004, jumping back and forth between the times before, during, and after the First Chechen War and the Second Chechen War. The time jumps can be a little confusing, and I found myself rereading Wikipedia articles to try to keep the war outcomes straight and trying to figure out who the “Feds” referred to exactly, but eventually, I decided it didn’t much matter.  This is a story of family and neighbors. Of Sonja, who is trying desperately to run a nearly abandoned hospital in Grozny while dealing with the loss of her sister, and of Havaa whose father has been abducted and who needs a safe haven. It’s a story that reveals the complexities of survival–how far can each of them (or each of us) be stretched before we break or give in. How compassionate can anyone afford to be in an environment of devastation and corruption.  And yet, we witness faith and commitment beyond what seems possible in such a war torn place. At one point in the story, Akhmed–Havaa’s neighbor who shepherds her after her father’s abduction–is drawing portraits of missing people.  Families come to him to draw a portrait of their son or brother or father or mother or aunt, the family member who has been abducted by the Feds and will likely never return.  These portraits offer the only physical reminder of those who have disappeared, and Marra writes this scene in one sentence that is nearly 500 words long (1.25 pages of connected clauses that is–yes–grammatically correct). The sentence seems to be a metaphor for challenges that stretch out indefinitely.

This story reveals the power that the Russian government inflicted on these people and of the courage that the rebels used in their resistance.  But we also see how Russian soldiers who brutalized others were starving and freezing because their own government gave them guns but not food or proper clothing.  Basically everyone in the story is scrapping out a life of survival whether they’re fighting for or against the Russian Feds.  Torture, kidnapping, starvation, forced prostitution, corruption, you name it.  It’s part of the Chechen story.  And while this is a book of fiction, it seems to bring out the raw truth of living in Chechnya during this war torn era. And yet, somehow, Marra brings this devastation to us through beautiful, at times almost poetic, writing.


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015) April 6, 2016

Filed under: Bean's favorites,book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 10:31 pm
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This is a tough and powerful read: it’s intellectually challenging, and, at times,  emotionally draining. Written as a letter to his teenage son, Coates  puts 150709_SBR_Coates-COVER.jpg.CROP.original-originalforth his philosophy of life and what it means to be black in America.  Within the first few pages he questions not what Abraham Lincoln meant by a “government of the people,” but what the word “people” actually means because–as he asserts–America’s progress was built on looting and violence by those Americans “who believe they are white” (6).  Wow.  I had to read that sentence several times.  Not white Americans, but Americans who believe they are white. What does he mean by this? I think he means that being white allows me to live a white life, but the phrase “white American” is not strong enough or angry enough to convey the privilege and the freedom that comes with that life .

He spends much of the book talking to his son about living in a black body–again, not living as a black man but living in a black body. Emphasis here on the fact that the black body has encased him in a frame that allows others to suspect him, trail him, harass him, shoot him. And so his question to his son is “how to live within a black body within a country lost in the Dream”(the dream being the American dream which was built on the backs of slaves). Ultimately he says that the question is “unanswerable, though not futile” (12). I have to say, though, that the tone of much of the book makes it feel futile–and yet, Coates intersperses this grim reality with a hopefulness at times. He wants his son to understand the reality of their world and their black bodies, especially since his son has grown up in a different world from his father’s streets of inner-city Baltimore; thus, he feels his son has more to lose.  He follows this with, “I am not a cynic.  I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover. But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know. Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of black bodies, which, somehow will always be assigned to you” (71). That’s the line that hit me hardest, and when I hear white teenagers at school say “if we just stop talking about race, we’ll all get past it” it’s because they have never lived in a black body; thus they will never know what it feels like to carry that responsibility every day of their life.

This is a must read.  Coates made me think and reflect in a way that I have never pushed myself before.  Others need to do the same.


The Opposite of Loneliness: stories and essays by marina Keegan (2014) February 2, 2016

1397733525000-TheOppositeOfLoneliness-600A gift from a former student, The Opposite of Loneliness sat on my night stand for several weeks before I could find the right time to open it. The book is a collection of stories and essays by Marina Keegan, a Magna Cum Laude 2012 Yale graduate who was killed in a car crash a few days after receiving her diploma. She was 22.  And already a published, award-winning author of multiple genres. She was set to begin a job at The New Yorker. I needed to wait for the right time because it was already so sad, and I wanted to read her work without feeling rushed to get my requisite 8 hours of sleep or distracted by piles of student essays.  And now that I’m finished, I want to go back and reread–to appreciate how she could produce stories and essays with the insight of someone twice her age, someone who has lived through so much more of life than 16 years of schooling.

She writes stories about the death of a boyfriend, about a 60-ish woman who reads to a young blind man while taking off her clothes, about a boyfriend who cheats at Yahtzee and thus can never be trusted, and about a guy in the Coalition Provisional Authority inside the Green Zone in Afghanistan. And about shopping at the Unclaimed Baggage Center where all lost luggage ends up after 90 days with no owner, and about a 42 year old woman who adopts a baby after having given up her own at age 23.  An in all of these stories, she seems to understand–truly understand–the range of emotions that each character feels: guilt, jealousy, doubt, fear, etc. How does someone take on that range of plot and emotion at an age when most people are just dabbing their toes in the complexity of life? And these are just her fiction pieces. Add to this her collection of essays, the two most powerful being “Against the Grain,” a piece detailing life with Celiac Disease, and “The Opposite of Loneliness,” her final piece in the Yale Daily News. The number of times she references life’s possibilities and death’s inevitably is haunting, though never morbid.  In “The Opposite” she says “We’re so young…we have so much time..what we have to remember is that we can still do anything.  We can still change our minds.” And in “Against the Grain” she writes, “On my deathbed I will instruct the nurse to bring me the following.” Next comes a list of junk food in all varieties, from Oreos to a Big Mac Supreme. And in her fictional piece “Winter Break” she’s back to possibility, writing from her main character, Addie: “My Professional ambitions were still switching with the channels of my illegal downloads.  Wide-eyes and coiled in bed, Sam and I would be convinced by the dramas of forty-six minutes–idealizing the pursuits of doctors, politicians, and astronauts in space…cuddling away our apathy until we were reminded that all we really wanted was to lie in bed.”

This book is a keeper.  I feel privileged to own a copy signed by Marina’s parents and Marina’s college professor, Anne Fadiman, an author I’ve admired my whole adult life. I hope its contents will continue to inspire me as a writing teacher and my students as they strive to realize the power of the written word.


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