Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

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.

 

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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 Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013) October 20, 2014

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 2:27 am
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The_goldfinch_by_donna_tartWhew.  At 771 pages, it took me awhile to finish this book, and once I was done, I got sucked into the world of reviews and the big debate among critics as to whether or not this book is “literary.” It won a Pulitzer Prize.  It has sold a million and a half copies.  It received rave reviews in The New York Times and New York Times book Review.  But alas, not so in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, both of which called it “adolescent, far-fetched, and overwrought.” Because I read so many reviews and blogs and articles, here’s a quick book summary  from an article in Vanity Fair: the book iscentered on 13-year-old Theo Decker, whose world is violently turned upside down when, on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a terrorist bomb goes off, killing his mother, among other bystanders. At the behest of a dying old man, he makes off with a painting—the 1654 Carel Fabritius masterpiece, The Goldfinch. For the next 14 years and 700 pages, the painting becomes both his burden and the only connection to his lost mother, while he’s flung from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, encountering an array of eccentric characters, from the hard-living but soulful Russian teenager Boris to the cultured and kindly furniture restorer Hobie, who becomes a stand-in father, to the mysterious, waif-like Pippa, plus assorted lowlifes, con men, Park Avenue recluses, and dissolute preppies.” (http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/07/goldfinch-donna-tartt-literary-criticism)

At first I was mesmerized by the writing, especially the scenes depicting Theo’s relationship with his mom, the grief ripping him apart.  Every reminder he encountered—a restaurant, a park bench, a women’s outfit—might send him spinning into his pre-bomb world.  But other parts of the  story got too long: getting out of the museum (18 pages between the bomb going off and Theo finding the exit); the Las Vegas section (entertaining at first, but ultimately too depressing and too detailed); definitely the ending in Amsterdam (I lost track of which thug worked for whom and how they all related to the art/drug trade).  By the last 130 pages I was skimming and didn’t much care, I just wanted to see how it ended  (it took an abrupt turn from mob scene to philosophical discussion of art).

I loved some of the characters so much, I hated to part with them.  Andy, nerdy and brilliant was my favorite.  Hobie, patient and wise, was the calming presence we all want in our lives. Ukrainian Boris is hilarious, although I tired of him after a while.  Theo in the first half was endearing, but later, I tired of him too. Still, Tartt’s power of description is often breathtaking (as are her literary references: it feels like she’s read everything on the shelves of the New York Public Library) .  I found myself over and over wondering how she could capture a character or scene with such detail and then do it again a page later.  Near the beginning of the book when Theo is first staying with the Barbours, we get Theo’s impression of Mrs. Barbour: “so cool and blonde and monotone that sometimes she seemed partially drained of blood.  She was the masterpiece of composure…a stillness so powerful that the molecules realigned themselves around her when she came into a room” (79). When I read descriptions like that I’m overwhelmed by the power of words.  It would take me 2 weeks to write a sentence like that (okay, I could never write a sentence like that), so how does one write 700+ pages filled with such description? I guess that might explain why the book took more than 10 years to write.  This book is an investment, and though some parts get a little carried away, the writing is worth taking time on almost every page.  (fiction)

 

 

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu ( 2010) July 2, 2012

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 10:17 pm
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I like Mengestu’s books because he conveys the Ethiopian immigrant experience, something I know little about, but I can’t say I love his writing. How to Read the Air feels like it contains similar holes in plot, motive, and character that I found a few years ago in his previous novel The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears. It’s as if his primary goal is to give readers a sense of what Ethiopians grapple with in coming to America, and his secondary goal is to write a compelling narrative.  He succeeds on the first, but not on the second.  Jonas, the main character, sets off on a journey to learn about his parents’ marriage and his father’s horrifying escape from Ethiopia to Sudan where he was smuggled in a small box on a container ship to Europe.  From there, he eventually makes it to America where he is finally able to send for his young wife.  The story moves from present-day Jonas and his rocky relationship with Angela (a rocky relationship that leaves the reader puzzled as to why they ever got together or stayed together at all) into flashback where Jonas’ father and his newly pregnant wife venture from their home in Illinois to Nashville, Tennessee.  Through their three-day ‘vacation,’ we learn a great deal about their failed marriage and the abuse Jonas’s father’s inflicts on his wife.

Sometimes the present-day Jonas scenes are the stronger narrative, and sometimes the flashback scenes into his parent’s lives are the stronger story.  Each storyline has weaknesses that take away from it and made me want to get back to the other one.  I think the point of the novel is to show the difficulty in both getting to America and assimilating once here—and how this often affects and destroys a marriage.  The second generation then has similar problems, perhaps recovering from the parents’ failed marriage while trying to be more American than Ethiopian. This is all valid stuff.  It’s just not smoothly developed in too many places.  At one point, Jonas reflects on his family saying, “what we were was something closer to a jazz trio than a family—a performance group that got together every once and then to play a few familiar notes before dispersing back to their real, private lives.”  This was one of Mengestu’s many insights about family and relationships that are sprinkled throughout the novel.  Those insights and the many beautiful descriptions make this book a worthy read.  There is much to learn here—I just can’t say I loved this novel.

 

Lapham Rising by Roger Rosenblatt October 31, 2010

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 11:41 pm
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I  laughed out loud for about the first 50 pages of this book; then it got old.  Harry March (the narrator) is a recluse living on a tiny island in The Hamptons and trying to remain anchored to a simple life and home.  But since he’s in The Hamptons where no one lives simply, he rants about Lapham, his neighbor, who’s building a monstrously large house nearby.  Harry is pretty funny in his conversations with the Mexican construction workers that he befriends and with his talking dog who is the voice of reason.  This story–a witty satire on the rich and pretentious with their superficial and trivial lifestyle–is hilarous, but only for a while.  After those first 50 pages, I got the point.  Rosenblatt is an essayist, and a good one.  The book felt like it should be a long essay, not a novel.  For a limited time, the humor works, but once it gets repetitive, I skimmed to the end to find out what he actually did to the house he was plotting against.  So feel free to skim to the end–you don’t miss a whole lot in between.  (fiction)

 

 
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