Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

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.



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


When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi (2016) August 6, 2016

Filed under: book reviews,Memoir — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 8:07 pm
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In my continued fascination with cancer books, I easily read this small book in one41jFVZL72YL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_ sitting.  It’s hard not to.  From the outset, we know the author is doomed by a cancer diagnosis at a young age, and we cannot help but be heartbroken by his unfortunate circumstances.  A neurosurgical resident in his mid thirties, Kalanithi worked at breakneck speed for years on end trying to become the best doctor he could be.  This entailed never-ending shifts, personal sacrifices, and seemingly little attention to his marriage.  And just as he sees this pace of life nearing its end, he notices something is awry with his body.  How and why it took him several months to realize his symptoms were a sign of something far worse than fatigue is rather confusing and seemingly unrealistic, but apparently he was able to justify  pain, weight loss and other discomforts as merely the strain of his work. That struck me as rather out of touch for a doctor dealing with cancer patients on a regular basis, but much like teenagers who feel invincible, a successful surgeon in the most difficult specialty probably lives in that same false state of security.

Kalanithi write this book as he is undergoing treatment–and literally as he’s dying.  We get detailed accounts of daily appointments, his attempts to continue to work, and his conversations with his wife and his friends.  And yet, somehow, the raw emotion of this journey doesn’t come through the way it should.  Perhaps because the book is essentially a first draft or perhaps because his attempts at humility feel forced or perhaps because he simply does not know how to express himself, it feels like there is a gap between the writer and us. His story is emotional, but I still felt like he was holding back his true self.  Whereas the last 20-ish pages of the book written by his wife after his death seem to hit the reader with much more power and genuineness.  I guess I just liked her better than him and felt connected with her loss more than his.

Still, it’s a book that cannot help but ask us to reflect, to consider what it means to live and to die, to hang on and to let go.  It does not have the power of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, but it does move us to consider who we are, what we value, and how we’re living our lives.


The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy (2013) April 3, 2016

Filed under: book reviews,Memoir,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 10:47 pm
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17857644The first time I read The Prince of Tides, I was mesmerized.  I remember blocking out the world until I finished it and thinking how could any family be that messed up? How could any writer so compellingly convey the dynamics of a dysfunctional family? The feared, all-powerful father, the mother propelled by societal rise, the sister struggling with depression and suicide, the narrator tormented and yet seemingly functional. Soon after finishing the book, I devoured Conroy’s previous novels, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipine, and the Water is Wide, a memoir that spoke to me as I was currently trying to inspire and understand my inner-city high schoolers though I was a young, white teacher with little experience.

A few years after all of this reading–sometime in the mid 90s–I went with a friend to Fripp Island, South Carolina, and while there, visited Beaufort.  I think I wanted to be as close to Conroy’s life and characters as possible. By then, I knew that much of his fiction was really a re-enactment of his own family’s journey, centering around his abusive father, and I wanted to be physically close to the epicenter. Eventually, though, I took a Pat Conroy break.  I had seen all of the movies, had my fill of the emotional turmoil of his characters (aka: family), and had moved on to marriage and kids of my own.  I revisited him briefly when I picked up Beach Music several years after it came out (it seemed overwrought and I never finished it) and then My Reading Life, which I skimmed. But nothing could quite match his earlier work.

Yet, I remained intrigued by Conroy’s relationship with his father–and with the rest of his family.  I knew his books had unhinged them as family members easily recognized themselves in the fictional characters he created (though they were already unhinged, so I’m not sure how much further they could unravel).

I picked up The Death of Santini (albeit more than 2 years after it came out), probably because Pat Conroy had just died, and I became once again interested in the intertwining of his life and characters. I flew through the first few hundred pages as Conroy recreates scenes of his childhood and the daily violence –both physical and emotional–that occurred at the hands of his father. I suppose I was ready to read the “real thing,” after living through it with his fictional families so many times.  And I was not disappointed.  His use of detail and dialogue made me feel like I was in the kitchen witnessing his parents fighting: “I saw my father’s hated face getting ready to slap the living hell out of me when I saw something rising into the air above him. It was a butcher knife.  I saw its flashing blade slashing into the artificial night.  A jet of blood hit my eyes and blinded me” (8). And so it goes, scene after scene of what actually happened in the Conroy household and how it unraveled the family, including the author who subsequently spent the rest of his life struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts as he continued to write, trying to make sense of his past. But I actually became tired of the scenes with his father as Conroy both hated and loved him, blamed and forgave him–over and over.  And often, the book strays away from the father/son relationship into a minutiae of details about grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other family members that seemed unimportant.  I ended up skimming many parts of the book.  In the end, my feeling is this: Conroy will always mesmerize as a writer of precise detail, though overdone at times, in bringing out the rawest of human emotion, capturing the essence of what it means to hurt and betray.  But I couldn’t help but feel that I shouldn’t be privy to such private family encounters.  This memoir seemed to be primarily cathartic writing, spilling every detail of his family and his marriages into the public.  I kind of wish he had just written it as a personal journal.



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.


I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb (2013) December 28, 2015

Filed under: book reviews,Memoir,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 9:59 pm
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Several of my students have read this book that’s been on my to read list for a long time, and I finally picked it up this winter break.


While Trump is calling for a deportation of all Muslims and other Republican candidates and governors are pushing to “close” their state to all refugees, I thought it would be a good time to read Malala’s story, an inspiring story of one Muslim girl’s willingness to speak out and fight for the education of girls in Pakistan, her country, as well as in other Islamic countries, and the price she paid for her outspokenness.  I cannot imagine any readers do not know who Malala is, but as a short reminder, at 15, she was shot in the head by the Taliban while riding home from school.  She was eventually flown to England for treatment and rehab where she continues to reside today (at least, I think she does).  She has become a world-wide symbol for peaceful protest of girls’ denial of education, and she was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at age 17.  According to Wikipedia, “on her 18th birthday, Yousafzai opened a school in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, near the Syrian border, for Syrian refugees. The school, funded by the not-for-profit Malala Fund, offers education and training to girls aged 14 to 18 years. Yousafzai called on world leaders to invest in ‘books, not bullets.'”

As I read this book, I was struck by so many details that I had either forgotten or never known.  Here are a few that stood out:

  • Pakistan is only 68 years old, created in 1947 when British India was divided into two countries: Pakistan, an independent Muslim state and India.
  • Like almost all Muslim populations, Pakistan is made of up Sunni and Shias and within each of those groups there are a bazillion sub groups, sects, clans, tribes, etc., many of whom have fought over power, land, religion, government for years–or centuries.
  • Pakistan has had a history of revolving governments ranging from secular Democracy to corrupt tribalism to fundamentalist sectarian or some combination of all of them.  The rise of the Taliban can be traced to various fundamentalist leaders who, among other things, rid the country of all modern devices and blamed an earthquake on the people’s sinful behavior (sins such as dancing and watching Western TV). For an uneducated, highly religious people, this type of brainwashing can easily succeed–especially when the Taliban and its supporters helped with the earthquake clean-up effort whereas the inept Pakistani government did little.
  • Once the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley–a once independent culture and people of Northwest Pakistan–they essentially erased the culture and history, taking it back to a time and place of religious, male domination.

And through this turmoil, Malala spoke out and fought for girls to continue their education.

It is easy to see the parallels between what the Taliban did to the Swat Valley and other areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan and what ISIS is doing now: recruiting people through propaganda; preying on people’s fear, religious beliefs, and lack of education; and offering them false power  and promise of a better life.  It’s a complicated mess, and though I do not see Malala as a wholly unbiased reporter of this experience, through her story we can certainly see how incredibly difficult it is to develop a successful strategy to deal with an area and a history that few understand.

The recently released documentary about Malala’s experience with the Taliban and her fight for women’s rights is called He Named Me Malala, directed by Davis Guggenheim.  Link to movie trailer.


The Snow Leopard by Peter Mattheissen (1978; Penguin Classics edition 2008) July 30, 2014

I’m not entirely sure how to categorize The Snow Leopard.  Travel diary?  Nature writing?  Guide to a Zen life? It’s a cimagesombination of those and more.  Written in 1978, it precedes most self-help and personal journey books and even much of the nature writing genre, so Peter Mattheissen was surely ahead of his time in revealing his innermost thoughts and descriptions—essentially inviting the world into his head as he journeys through the remote Dolpo and Inner Dolpo region of Nepal at a time when the area was, more often than not, closed to outsiders.  In the fall of 1973, Mattheissen and field biologist George Schaller traveled to this remote location to study the Himalayan blue sheep (bharal) and to catch sight of the elusive and rare snow leopard (Schaller did so on his way out, but Mattheissen never saw one).  Mattheissen, though, seems to be on more of a spiritual quest.  A student of Zen Buddhism, he fills his days with difficult trekking meditation, and reflection–usually in very cold conditions,   His wife has recently died, and though they were considering divorce just five months before, he seems adrift with this new void.  He left his eight year old son home and feels guilty for heading off to remote Nepal only a few months after his son just lost a mother. And therein lies my mixed feelings toward this man.  Perhaps he needed this journey to clear his mind and move forward as a single dad, seeking out Buddhist monasteries and meditation as well as committing to a serious challenge with nature in all its beauty and harshness.  But I couldn’t put aside my incredulousness.  Your wife just died and you left your eight year old son at home for two months without a mom or his dad? Is anyone’s spiritual quest more important than being a good dad? Two months of wandering through mountains and pondering how to be better at living a Zen life seemed a little self-absorbed to me (especially since a tenet of Zen is to de-emphasize “I”).  At one point he says “the purpose of meditation practice is not enlightenment; it is to pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event in ordinary life” (245) . I kept thinking that since he was trying so hard to be “in the present,” it might have been easier and better to be in the present at home with his son.


Nevertheless, his descriptions of his surroundings—including the Sherpas and porters with whom he traveled—are exquisitely  detailed.  I could feel the wet boots turned to ice, the cold penetrating his tent and sleeping bag and muscles; I could see the cerulean blue sky behind crystal white peaks, and I could sense the sun’s warmth soothing his face and the wind’s bite chafing it as he crossed the highest passes.  And Mattheissen’s knowledge of biology, botany, history, religion, geography, sociology, and all the other -ologies is extraordinarily impressive. He embeds tangents that connect cultures and people across time and continents—each story deepened my understanding of the people around him and the terrain he traveled.


Through a quick Internet search, I see that one can follow the exact path of Mattheissen and Schaller using any number of trekking companies.  This area of Nepal has been open to tourism since 1989, and though it is still rugged, remote country, I can only imagine how it has changed since 1973.  The ancient monasteries with their colorful prayer flags are now part of the tour, and the nomadic people (of Tibetan descent who still follow the pre-Buddhist B’on religion) are clearly no longer surprised by the sight of  outsiders. With the rise in tourism, I would hope the local people are also no longer going hungry in the winter. Mattheissen and Schaller may have been the last people to see this area untouched by the outside, modern world.


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