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.


Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper (2015) July 8, 2015

Filed under: book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 8:25 pm
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Though I haven’t posted a review in um…9 months, I have been reading.  I just haven’t found time to reaettaandottod AND write about it. I’ll start with my most recent book, and then I’ll pick and choose a few others.  I think the days of blogging about every book are probably over.

This is a book with good writing and a unique premise. Etta, at 83, decides to walk over 2000 miles to the ocean because she has never seen it. From her small farm in Saskatchewan, she heads for Halifax along with her companion James, the coyote that tags along with her and talks to her. Otto is her endearing husband who lets her go because he knows how important this is to her. Russell is their neighbor, a lifelong friend of Otto, a man whom Etta once dated, and a man who has been in love with her his whole life. Unlike Otto, Russell insists on going after Etta, but once he finds her, he lets her continue her quest for the sea. Throughout Etta’s journey we get the stories of her past and the stories of Otto’s past: Otto’s been through WWII, Etta was a teacher in a prairie town, and Russell avoided the war because of a childhood injury, but also because war was never his ambition. Unlike so many other boys who yearned for adventure and heroism, Russell was content to learn and farm and live a simple but meaningful life.

The story shifts back and forth between Etta’s journey (in which we relive her memories) and Otto who is at home passing the time by cooking and creating paper mache animals that fill their yard. But at some point, their characters seem to mesh into one. In fact, the last third of the story left me saying huh? a few too many times. Things that didn’t make sense to me (spoiler alert here): Russell is hell bent on finding Etta, but when he finally does, he wanders north to see the caribou instead of staying with her. A reporter shows up and journeys with Etta for several days/weeks, but then essentially drops out of the story. Etta ends up in a nursing home of some sort, but while there, her character morphs into Otto such that they’re almost one in the same–are they? James, the coyote, also drops out of the story without enough explanation or concern from Etta. Finally, the ending isn’t clear. Does Etta die? Is she with Otto? In spirit or in reality or is he dead, too?

An ending doesn’t need to be neat and tidy, but it should offer something more than utter confusion. And I’m okay with sliding in and out of reality, but Hooper just wasn’t consistent. It felt like the first two thirds of the book were well executed and the last third was tossed together as ideas popped into her head. For a writer of this caliber—someone who can use language so beautifully and fluidly and someone who can come up with compelling characters and a fresh story—it felt sloppy. In an interview, Hooper says, “ Writing this book was very… sporadic. I’ve got three other jobs, as a freelance musician, an academic at Bath Spa University and a violin teacher…I don’t make outlines, I prefer to start each writing session having no idea what’s going to happen next… keeps things interesting for me, and I think the spontaneity allows for a more vibrant, living story.”

I’m not sure her approach works as well as it could, but overall, I still really liked this book.


The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (2011) April 29, 2012

Filed under: Bean's favorites,book reviews,Fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 4:25 pm
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I have so many pages dog-eared in this beautifully written book, it’s hard to decide which ones I want to reread.  Were I to write a book about the art of constructing a sentence or the art of making sense of war, I would certainly include Tea Obreht’s prose.  I’m not sure how—at age 25—she could weave such well-crafted prose into magical realism to create a complex story about a part of the world that makes little sense to anyone, including well-researched historians. Her writing—which morphs from realism to folklore and the mystical—reminds me a little bit of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Martel’s Life of Pi.


This is a story about the Balkans—but unlike Simon Winchester’s Fracture Zoneor Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, Obreht chooses fiction, legend, and the mystical to paint essentially the same picture as the nonfiction authors do: Balkan people, culture, and history shattered by confusing wars, shifting boundaries, and religious fanaticism.  The narrative shifts back and forth between present and past, with the present-day story focusing on Natalia, a young doctor who delivers supplies to an orphanage across the border and finds out that her grandfather has died.  This news shifts the narrative into the past, into the life of her grandfather, also a doctor, who used to take her to the zoo and who carried a copy of The Jungle Book in the pocket of his coat, and who told her many stories—stories about the deathless man, stories about the tiger who escaped from the zoo in the early years of WWII bombing, and stories about the tiger’s wife, the only villager who doesn’t fear the tiger. These stories are the crux of the novel, and though sometimes they go on a bit too long, they are far more compelling than Natalia’s story of border checkpoints, medical school obstacles, and orphanage children. Through her grandfather’s stories we try to make sense of life through the lens of death: death by war, death by ignorance, death by disease, death by animal, the digging up of death, and the man who escapes death.  I’m not sure that clarity is the end result, but Obreht certainly makes us think.

My favorite passage, one which sums up the break-up of Yugoslavia and the history of the Balkan conflict comes from Natalia who reflects on the differences between her grandfather’s life and her own: “War had altered everything.  Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formerly represented their respective parts of the whole.  Previously shared things—landmarks, writers, scientists, histories—had to be doled out according to their new owners.  That Nobel prize winner was no longer ours, but theirs; we named our airport after our crazy inventor, who was no longer a communal figure.  And all the while we told ourselves that everything would eventually return to normal” (161). In speaking of her grandfather, however, we get a different picture: “All his life he had been part of the whole—not just part of it, but made up of it.  He had been born here, educated there.  His name spoke of one place, his accent of another.  None of this had mattered before the war” (161).


Neighbors who once shared coffee, later shared only violence and tragedy as borders shifted and entire cultures were wiped out in the name of religion. This is the post-war world that Natalia tries to navigate, and in doing so, she helps us understand why this volatile area of the world offers no easy solutions.  (fiction)


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)


*Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (2010) April 17, 2011

Filed under: Bean's favorites,book reviews,Non-fiction — Bean's Book Blog: books and beyond @ 10:12 pm
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I was mesmerized by this story, reading most of it in a day on our way back from Colorado where I kept staring out the window of the airplane  trying to imagine Louie and the rest of the crew flying over the Pacific in their B-24 bomber.  Just as she did with Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand once again found a captivating subject and brought it to life after years of exhaustive research (filling 50 single spaced pages of end notes).  This time, instead of a race horse, it’s Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner in the mid 1930’s whose career was sidetracked by WWII where he became a hero in a new endeavor, one much harder than Olympic running: first as a B-24 bombardier and then as a record-setter surviving 46 days at sea in a raft (after a brutal crash), and finally as a POW under the most brutal Japanese prison commander.  This was a shocking, depressing, triumphant story, one that had me reeling from the opening page where Louie’s in a deflating raft, surrounded by sharks and diving into the water each time a Japanese bomber flies overhead strafing them with machine gun fire.  And it only gets much worse from that point on.  This is one of those stories where the events become so unbelievable that his story truly is stranger than fiction.  From the number of planes that went down in the Pacific (more bombers were lost on training exercises than in actual combat) to the number of POWs massacred in the “kill all” directive to the conditions of the POW camps, I just continued to stare at the book in disbelief.  And having recently read In Love and War about Jim Stockdale’s many years as a POW in Vietnam, I was amazed by the similarities: disease, starvation, solitary confinement, propaganda, and severe torture (in both cases, the Geneva Convention rules were absolutely ignored).  How these men maintained the strength—both mentally and physically—to survive is beyond comprehension.  Both knew that they had to hold onto one thing: their dignity.  And somehow, they did.  Thus, the title Unbroken.  (non-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)


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