Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

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.


San Miguel by T.C. Boyle (2012) August 6, 2014

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 3:27 am
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9780670026241_custom-4c7d5f1c89f73484fc7fdd6a525882653717a1ae-s6-c30I finished this book last night, and I cannot even remember the names of the main characters.  That’s how much I cared about them.  I’ve not read any other books by T.C. Boyle, but I hope the others are of better quality than this one. The premise of the book is interesting. Based on historical data, two families moved to the island of San Miguel off the coast of Santa Barbara—one in the 1880’s and one in the 1930’s—and both raised sheep there.  Both families lived an isolated life, and much of that isolation (which some family members enjoyed and others didn’t) is the theme of their stay on the island.  I was drawn to that aspect of the story.  The problem is that there really isn’t much of a story.  The first half of the book is about the Waters family, made up of an overbearing and verbally abusive husband, a complaining wife suffering from consumption (who is encouraged to live on the island for its fresh air), and their daughter who wants to escape, especially after her mother dies and her father becomes unbearable.  None of the characters is likeable or interesting and the plot doesn’t really build to anything (though Boyle’s descriptions of consumption are well detailed).  The ending of that section drops off with no closure.  The second half of the book, which has little, if any, connection to the first half, focuses on the Lesters, a more interesting family—who at one point becomes known as the “Swiss Family Lester”—but that, too, goes nowhere.  The story hops from one event to another with no clear path or plot development or rising action, and not much character development.  In fact, the father, Herbie Lester, appears to suffer from bipolar disorder—an interesting aspect of his sunny but moody personality that seems like an important detail/character flaw that will lead up to the story’s outcome—but it never actually connects well-enough to the story’s ending. This is a pattern throughout the book.  Boyle’s characters have flaws and quirks just like all humans do, but in good literature, these flaws and quirks should be integral to building the narrative. In the case of San Miguel, it’s as if Boyle happened upon information about two families who lived on a remote island, and he made a historical novel out of the notes and published writing of various family members. But the novel isn’t much more than a recounting of this happened then this happened then this happened. The only characters that stand out as memorable are the island itself, the sheep who live there, and the disease consumption (the archaic name for tuberculosis). Though the island and the sheep both needed much more detail, I was drawn to them more than the characters Boyle attempted to create. But above all, the sputtering bloody cough of Marantha Waters is likely the detail I will remember most about this less-than-memorable book.   Cover image:


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