Bean's Books and Beyond

Sharing thoughts on books–and sometimes on education and life

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.



Missoula by Jon Krakauer (2015) May 22, 2016

Filed under: book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 2:06 am
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I have utmost respect for Krakauer as a writer and an investigative journalist. He al635590820521456528-Missoula-Krakauer-coverways seems to find a story that needs telling, and he humanizes his stories in such a way that his readers understand the issues and implications of his topics, but we also see the personal and emotional side by getting to know the people who make up each story. In that sense, Missoula, the story of  rape and the justice system in a college town, lives up to his other books.  However, unlike his other works, I found Krakauer’s bias to be obvious and angry.  He’s always been good about disclosing his personal biases, but I think he usually does a good job of keeping them in check. In this book, they seem to color some of his descriptions and depictions.  I also found this book to be tedious at times, especially in the middle when we get a blow by blow analysis of a long court case.  I usually cannot put his books down, but I ended up skimming much of the second half of Missoula, getting the gist of it. That said, it’s an important story: people need to be aware of the extent to which rape happens on college campuses–and the extent to which so many rapes go unreported.  This book helped me better understand the emotional toll many girls/women experience, and why so many cannot bring themselves to report a rape. It also exposes the football culture, not only at University of Montana, but at other schools, where too often football players carry a sense of entitlement toward women and sex. This is surely an important book for any parent who’s sending a child (female or male) off to college as I did two years ago and will again in a year.  (nonfiction)


The Round House by Louise Erdrich (2012) April 4, 2013

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 12:45 am
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images-1Every time I read a Louise Erdrich novel, I expect it to be as captivating as Love Medicine, but nothing has lived up to it yet.  The Round house is okay—sometimes compelling, sometimes confusing, and sometimes tedious and dragging. The story, told by Joe, the 13-year-old narrator, takes place on an Indian reservation (as do most of Erdrich’s stories). Joe’s dad is a tribal lawyer and his mom is a tribal clerk who knows the ins and outs of all tribal relationships and transactions.  The central plot, which we find out early on (so no spoiler alert here), is that Joe’s mom is brutally raped by a white man.  But the rape takes place in a sort of “no man’s land” where it’s unclear who has jurisdiction over whom.  As a result, though it’s clear who the perpetrator is, there is no trial or punishment.  This is essentially a story of a boy learning that sometimes there is no justice.

The most moving parts of the story are the moments between Joe and his parents. Joe and his dad plant flowers, they tend to their mother in every way they know how, they speak softly, they encourage, and they remain patient. But she is unreachable.  She cannot recover from the rape, and she becomes a shadow of herself.  Joe tries and struggles to understand this, and eventually, he does seem to reconnect with his mom on some level, but it’s chilling to witness the suffering.

The confusing moments come when we are expected to understand this “no man’s land” through Erdrich’s detailed descriptions of the rape scene in which Joe’s mom is blindfolded and thus does not know precisely where the violent act takes place.  From the countless questions posed by Joe’s father and his clear frustration at not being able to pursue a conviction, we are to discern that tribal laws do not have jurisdiction over non-tribal members on tribal land. Or maybe it’s non-tribal land?  Much of this is not clear, and I would have liked a better explanation of exactly why the guy could not be prosecuted and how tribal law vs. federal law works. In reading the Afterward, we get insight into the Violence Against Women Act that was recently argued in Congress, so it seems that much of the novel is a response to the importance of prosecuting these acts of violence—regardless of where they take place. Additionally, the story becomes more complex as the motive is tied to additional characters, blackmail, a corrupt governor, and a wrecked tribal family.  But I found that some of these connections were a little too subtle.  Maybe I didn’t read carefully enough, but I felt like I was constantly missing important links that clarified the motive.

The tedious moments came from characters that were undeveloped (Joe’s friends all ran together in my head—I could never distinguish who was who), characters that didn’t seem that important, and Native American folklore thrown in that didn’t seem to fit the flow of the story.  Erdrich often feels a little heavy-handed with tribal culture, and this book is no exception. Perhaps part of why I have such fond memories of Love Medicine is because that was the first Erdrich novel I read, and tribal culture was newer to me back then. Or maybe it was a much better constructed novel.  I’m not sure.

Though I didn’t love this book, I did like it. Erdrich often writes poetically, which ties us to her characters and her story both imagistically and emotionally.  Because of this, there were moments when I couldn’t put it down. (fiction)


*I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou March 24, 2010

Filed under: book reviews,Memoir — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 3:25 pm
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I read this for the first time about 15 or 20 years ago, and though it’s one of those books that everyone should read, it didn’t strike me as powerfully this time as it did when I read it back then.  I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of her books except her poetry collections, so maybe what I remember being struck by is more the journey of her life than any one particular book.  That said, I do like her matter of fact writing style–it’s not gushy or self deprecating like so many memoirs are.  But it also feels kind of choppy, meandering from one event to another without a whole lot of linear direction.  Some events seem very important to her identity and others not so much, but she doesn’t necessarily give more time or space in the book to one over another.  I’ll comment on two parts of the book that struck me the strongest.  One is when she describes waste vs. charity (my words, not hers).  Whites often gave clothing to blacks, but there was no sacrifice there—they simply didn’t want or need the clothes and it was a way to get rid of them.  But when blacks gave things to each other, it was a sign of true generosity and sacrifice because the items were “probably needed as desperately by the donor as the receiver.”  A second part of the book that stood out was when she writes about her post rape behavior and treatment.  For a few weeks, everyone tolerated her silence, but once the nurse said she was “healed,” she was supposed to be back on the sidewalk playing games as if nothing had happened—as if physical healing and psychological healing are the same thing.  Though published in 1969, there are definitely some timeless ideas and points of discussion in this book.  (memoir)


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