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.


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2007) April 30, 2011

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 2:47 am
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After my daughter read this book, she repeatedly told me that I would love it–and I did.  It took a while, though, to pick it up, and by the time I did, she had read it one or two more times.  I think a part of me wasn’t sure I was ready for another Holocaust or WWII book. In the past year I’ve read Sarah’s Key, Night, and Unbroken.  Was I ready for more devastation, starvation, dehumanization?  Probably not, but since Annie often reads the books I recommend, I thought I should read what she so highly recommended.  What I loved about the book is that it offers so much more than the horrors of the Holocaust.  It’s about goodness as much as it’s about suffering.  We see a Jewish man grasping at a crust of bread on a death march to Auschwitz—but we also see young Liesel willing to sacrifice her own safety to offer that bread.  We see Max hiding in Liesel’s basement, fearful that any moment might be his last—but we also see Liesel’s adoration for him and her home made gifts that decorate his bed.  We see neighbors crammed together in a bomb shelter, fearing that each noise will bring utter destruction–but we also see one young girl brave enough to read aloud from one of her stolen books while they huddle together.  And we see Liesel losing her younger brother and her mother on the same day–but meeting her foster father, Hans Huberman, who calms her each night, reading to her at 2 am when her nightmares chase her awake. We see humanity and we see inhumanity, a constant reminder of the complexity of human behavior.  And we see death–the narrator of the story–who honors his victims, even as he removes their souls.  And on a personal note, Hans Huberman reminded me of Opi, my grandfather, who always had a book in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and a mellow, soothing voice. This book is categorized as young adult, but that sells it short.  It’s accessible, so I hope teens will read it.  But it’s complex and original, so I hope adults will read it too.  Zusak certainly doesn’t minimize the brutality but he also doesn’t dwell on it.  I think he offers us the resilience and the human spirit that keeps us going no matter what life throws our way. (fiction)


**Great House by Nicole Krauss (2010) February 26, 2011

Filed under: Bean's favorites,book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 10:20 pm
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I still think of the writing in History of Love, Krauss’s previous book, whenever I’m asked about beautiful prose.  And she’s done it again in Great House.  Though her novels are not short, they read like prose poetry–something few authors can pull off page after page for 300 pages.  I read countless sentences three or four times, thinking to myself she just nailed that description.  And then she’d do it again a paragraph later.  I might be able to conjure up one simile of her caliber–but it would probably take a year.  She writes: “After three nights of talking as we had not in many years, we arrived at the inevitable end.  Slowly, like a hot-air balloon drifting down and landing with a bump in the grass, our marriage of a decade expired.”  And later, in the voice of a different character: “I read without absorbing the meaning of the words.  I would flip back and begin again at the last place I remembered reading, but after a while the sentences would dissolve again and I would go back to skidding obliviously across the blank pages, like those insects you find on the surface of stagnant water.”

The novel is actually a collection of stories loosely woven together by an antique desk.  They don’t connect seemlessly–and at times I wondered how they connected at all–but I gave up trying to hunt for a direct link and simply enjoyed each one in its own right.  By the end, they come together enough to give it the feel of a novel, but don’t expect a tightly wrapped gift.  It’s not that neat and tidy.  But that’s okay because the characters are unique, the stories compelling, the writing beautiful.  And I have no doubt that with a second read, I’ll find more connections, more threads to offer a tighter weave than I noticed the first time around.


Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay (2007) December 29, 2010

Filed under: book reviews — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 8:29 pm
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Sarah’s Key is a good read and an important Holocaust story from a perspective I was not aware of: the French police rounding up Jews  and holding them in inhumane conditions at the Vel’ d’ Hiv’ in Paris before sending them off by train to concentration camps.  Most people, and most Parisians, picture German soldiers leading these round-ups, but in this case, it was the French taking their own French Jews to their deaths.  That part of the story is based on historical truth.  The fictional part is the story of young Sarah who tries to save her little brother by locking him in a cupboard in their bedroom in their Parisian apartment.  The apartment then becomes the connection between Sarah’s world and Julia’s, the writer whose in-law grandparents  moved into the apartment just days after Sarah’s family was taken away.  The book is written in two voices: third person narration describing Sarah’s life and fist person narration describing Julia’s.  I found this see sawing narration to be irritating, partly because each chapter is very short–just a few pages–and partly because the writing just isn’t that good, so neither character seems all that real.  And at only a few pages for each voice, there are 40-50 switches–that’s just too many.   Unlike Little Bee, a fabulous book also written in two voices, De Rosnay just doesn’t make her characters as compelling as the plot.  Still, it’s an important story and it’s worth reading, just not savoring.  (fiction)


*** Night by Elie Wiesel (2006, 1958) July 28, 2008

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 6:37 pm
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   Somehow I’ve never read this book.  Of all the Holocaust literature, this seems  to be the most famous, and

   yet I hadn’t picked it up until 2007.  I had no idea how powerful it is.  It’s short, but so very long in the

   way you are drawn into this world. Everyone should read this book—no exceptions. (memoir)


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