Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

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…)

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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.

 

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.

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi (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.

 

Deep South by Paul Theroux (2015) August 5, 2016

The magic of Paul Theroux’s writing lies in his ability to bring out the character of a place through anecdotes and observations.  He picks up bits and pieces

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along the road–often the very bits and pieces that others overlook–and in weaving them together, he creates a story.  The main character of his story is a place, and in this case, that place is the Deep South. Over a period of a few years, he traverses the back roads and rural highways of Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina, talking to mayors, social workers, preachers, hotel and gas station owners, gun sellers, and a host of other locals to portray the very best and very worst qualities of this area of our country, both past and present. We learn about Virgin Johnson who was 12 when he became the first black student in an all white school after “voluntary integration” in 1966.  His only guardians were the black janitors.  At 13, while working for a survey company,  a property owner shot at him and told him to get off his property. Virgin recalled finding his fighting spirit at an early age and harnessing it throughout his life.

Over and over, we meet people who have lost their jobs in manufacturing with no retraining programs available to help them find new work or no new work to be found and no way to support themselves.  Some have lost hope; others find hope and beauty in the smallest things: an uplifting sermon, a flowering shrub, a patched ceiling, a food pantry. Theroux often makes comparisons between the lack of aid and resources offered to these tiny communities in the Deep South and the billions of dollars and resources our government and NGOs provide to African villages.  Why do we do so little to care for our own people, he asks.

Many of the stories are heartbreaking, some of them are uplifting, and some of them are shocking.  Toward the end of the book, he arrives on the campus at University of Alabama where he discovers that the Greek system remains segregated.  Though a number of sororities wanted to offer membership to black women, and the University’s president marched across campus in support of sorority integration, the sorority alumni forbid the acceptance of black students.  This is current day.  Good Lord, I nearly dropped the book from my hands when I read that.  And people in this country think we don’t have a race problem?

This book is a bit longer than it needs to be, but Theroux is never less than thorough, and when I read the last story, my heart ached for the people and places in our country that are so off the map, it’s as though they cease to exist.

 

 
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