Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn (2018) March 1, 2018

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 12:28 am
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originalThis page-turning psycho thriller kept me up way too late on a Sunday night and continued to distract me until I finished it a few hours after I got home from work on Monday. All told: about 8 hours of reading over 3 days, squeezing it in whenever I could–ignoring laundry, dishes, cleaning, and grading.  But my cat was digging it since he flopped on the couch with me for hours while I immersed myself in the life of child psychologist Anna Fox, a pill-popping, three wine-bottle-a-day agorophobic who hasn’t left her 4 story NY brownstone in 10 months. She watches black & white movies for hours and spies on her neighbors, and she sees things: maybe they’re there and maybe they aren’t.




I was caught off guard at every plot twist—but then again, I’m a psycho-thriller novice.  This is not my genre. Lots of reviewers found the plot turns predictable and too much like other books with unreliable narrators who witness crazy stuff (apparently this is a popular genre these days), but as a novice, I had nothing to compare it to and no experience with predictions, so I was just reading along, startled at each revelation along this twisty road of a story—and shocked at the end. So in that sense, it was a five-star read.  If I were a more astute critic of this genre, I’d perhaps rate it lower. Mostly, it wasn’t too creepy (I hate creepy), but when it becomes a movie—film rights have already been sold—I definitely won’t see it.  Psycho-thrillers on screen are a definite no for me.  That said, I bet it will make a really good film.


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.



American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee (2017) February 3, 2018

Filed under: book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 10:58 pm
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The whole wolf debate was not much on my radar until I read this book which I bought for my son–not for me–and devoured in a few days.  Who knew that O-Six,

978052549327321, 755, 744, and other wolves could feel like characters in a novel?  I found myself ready

for bed at 9 pm so I could read more about these controversial creatures who have thousands of followers cheering for their survival and thousands of hunters and herders applauding their deaths.  The way Nate Blakeslee describes the wolves as well as the park rangers and naturalists who love them, track them, and report on them makes them nearly human: some show empathy for the runt of the litter, some fight for attention from the alpha male, some are weaklings, some are friendly but cautious, some flaunt their strength, some seem shy.  Each Yellowstone wolf has a name or number and a personality–and the watchers get to know them like their own children.

But the reintroduction and protected status of wolves in the Rockies has been fraught with controversy.  Cattle ranchers lose livestock, hunters compete with wolves for elk, and other hunters want a wolf trophy on their walls.  I don’t claim to fully understand either side—and the book is definitely biased toward the conservationists who have reintroduced wolves—but I find the issues and the wolves themselves fascinating.


With 20 pages of endnotes, the book is well-researched, and I found the story–indeed it reads like a novel—enchanting. I highly recommend it to the outdoor crowd, especially those who love Yellowstone and the Tetons.


Americanah by Ngozi Adichie (2013) November 25, 2017

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 8:52 pm
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Aside from a somewhat disappointing ending, I appreciated this story, specifically its Nigerian perspective of being a non-American black in America.  I don’t think I often enough distinguished the Black experience into its many subcategories, but I feel 81PwSNLlMpL

at the very least more informed now. In a nutshell, the story centers around Ifemelu who leaves Nigeria during her university years for America where she succeeds in school and in her career, becoming a successful blogger (though not without numerous setbacks in her early years, including unemployment and poverty).  Yet, she feels as if she never quite fits in. Left behind in Nigeria is her boyfriend, Obinze, who eventually emigrates to London but never escapes the pitfalls of undocumented life, eventually returning to Nigeria.  At times a little rambling, she tackles numerous issues in this book: Nigerian politics and corruption, immigration (US and England), race, interracial dating, love, and more. Good–but not great–writing, its rawness gave me a better understanding of the frustrations of each of these issues.  Perhaps what I liked most were the blog entries, the most interesting titled “Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking about Blackness.” So even though she’s a non-American Black, she has much to say about both the non-American Black experience and the American Black experience.


Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens (2016) October 2, 2017

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 2:35 am
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This is a quick, one afternoon read, chronicling one woman’s childbirth experience.  Lore shows up at a Manhattan hospital alone with a multi-page birth plan.  We don’t know why she’s alone or why she has prepared such an intricate birth plan. Over the course of the next eleven hours, she connects with her nurse, Frankline, the only one who seems to understand Lore–or at least the only one who has the patience to try to understand her. Frankline is also pregnant, though no one knows yet, and she is coping with the

26096924fear of  repeating her previous unsuccessful pregnancy and childbirth. Though the setting remains entirely in the hospital, we find out Lore’s story–her reason for arriving alone, her relationship with the father, her teenage years lost to caring for her sick mother–all while she labors.  And we find out Frankline’s story of life in Haiti and of her wish for a child. Told in third person, we see both women’s actions, their words, and also their thoughts which flashback to the past and then forward again to Lore’s current pain. This is a page-turner in a weird sort of way.  It feels like we’re in the room experiencing Lore’s childbirth along with her.


The end leaves us a bit hazy on precisely what happens, but I was okay with that. One line near the beginning of the story made me stop and reread a few times: “She (Lore) would like the surprise of children, the way they bring pieces of the outer world back to you, pieces of the past, present, and future.  The way they are always in a place where you cannot quite meet them” (31).  That last part about them always being in a place where you cannot quite meet them feels so true, and yet I never thought of it that way.



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…)


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.


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