Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Dutch House

Posted by nliakos on October 15, 2021

by Ann Patchett (Harper Collins 2019)

As Bel Canto is one of my favorite books of all time, I thought I’d try this one by Ann Patchett. The Dutch House is the saga of the Conroys, a family doomed to sadness. It is narrated by Danny Conroy, the second child of Cyril and Elna Conroy. Cyril has made enough money in real estate to buy a mansion north of Philadelphia. Originally built by a Dutch family, the Van Hoebeeks, the Dutch House is Cyril’s gift to his wife, but she hates it from the moment she sees it, finding it pretentious and wasteful. The Conroys, the parents and their young daughter, Maeve, move in; later, Danny is born. But Elna cannot bear living in the house. She often escapes and eventually, when Danny is three and Maeve ten, leaves for good. The children are well cared for by Fiona (“Fluffy”) and sisters Sandy and Jocelyn, but their father is incapable of giving them the affection and acceptance they crave, and the loss of their mother is a source of ongoing grief for Maeve and loss of feeling for Danny.

Eventually, Cyril remarries, but his gold-digging second wife, Andrea, takes an active dislike for Maeve and Danny, which drives them closer together. When Cyril dies, they discover that he has left everything to Andrea and her two daughters, Norma and Berenice (“Bright”). Other than an education trust fund for Danny and Andrea’s daughters, Maeve and Danny are left with nothing but a hatred of their stepmother. Maeve, who is by then working and living on her own, endeavors to liquidate the trust fund before Norma and Bright can benefit from it; to this end, she pushes Danny to go to an expensive boarding school, a private university, and medical school, although he does not want to be a doctor; he wants to work in real estate, his real love. Andrea forces Danny out of the house and he goes to live with Maeve. He finishes medical school but follows his heart into real estate. He marries and has children, but his attachment to his sister outweighs everything else in his life. Maeve almost dies of a heart attack, which has the effect of bringing Elna back into their lives, which is welcomed by Maeve, but Danny finds it impossible to forgive his mother for abandoning them.

Elna encourages Maeve and Danny to return to the Dutch House, where they find Andrea in the throes of dementia; Elna improbably moves back to the house she hated to help care for her husband’s second wife. Maeve’s premature death brings Danny and Elna closer, but after Andrea’s death, it is Danny’s daughter May, Maeve’s namesake and lookalike, who returns to live in the Dutch House and bring it to life again.

The whole story is pretty improbable, but I enjoyed it.

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Little Fires Everywhere

Posted by nliakos on October 9, 2021

by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press 2017)

She ran from room to room. . . . Every bedroom was empty except for the smell of gasoline and a small crackling fire set directly in the middle of each bed, as if a demented Girl Scout had been camping there.

“The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” Lexie said. “Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.” (from Chapter 1)

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, and the ferocious pull of motherhood–and the danger of believing that following the rules can avert disaster. (from the jacket blurb)

This novel follows two families–the wealthy Richardsons, parents and four children who are natives of the upscale, progressive suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio; and the Warrens, unmarried Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter Pearl, who are renting an apartment in a small house that the Richardsons own. Mia is an artist; she and Pearl have led a nomadic life, never staying long in one place; as soon as Mia completes a project, she wants to move on to seek inspiration elsewhere, and Pearl has never known any other kind of life. But Mia wants to give Pearl a more ordinary adolescence, so she promises her that they will stay in Shaker Heights. Alas, it is not to be.

The novel opens with the Richardsons’ beautiful home burning down–Mrs. Richardson immediately assumes that the culprit is her youngest daughter, Izzy–and the Warrens dropping off the keys to their apartment and leaving for good. Chapter Two flashes back to a year earlier, when they moved in, and subsequent chapters detail how the two families have become entwined. First, Pearl Warren and Moody Richardson, both 15, become close friends; Pearl gradually begins spending a lot of time with Moody and his siblings, and she develops a crush on his older brother, Trip. Izzy becomes close to Mia, who is less judgmental than her own mother is. Pearl helps Moody’s older sister Lexie when she has to have an abortion, and she and Trip begin an affair which they manage to keep secret for quite a long time–until Moody figures it out.

And there is the case of Mirabelle McCullough, whose Cantonese immigrant mother, Bebe Chow, hungry, sick, jobless and desperate, leaves her baby at a fire station. When she recovers, Bebe cannot remember where she left the baby; Mia deduces that the Chinese baby in the process of being adopted by wealthy friends of the Richardsons is the missing May Ling Chow, and tells Bebe, a co-worker at one of her part-time jobs. Bebe immediately tries to reclaim her daughter. There is a trial, and Mrs. Richardson, a reporter for the local newspaper, decides to take matters into her own hands. What she discovers will set in motion the events that lead to the fire, the Warrens’ departure, and Izzy’s disappearance.

I enjoyed getting to know each character better as the novel progressed, and I really admire several of them (e.g., Mia Warren and Izzy Richardson). But Ng does not shy away from the characters’ foibles and bad choices.

Now I am inspired to read Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You.

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The Girl on the Train

Posted by nliakos on October 3, 2021

by Paula Hawkins (Riverhead Books [Penguin Group] 2015)

I saw the 2016 movie which this psychological thriller is based on, but I remember none of it (it must not have been memorable). The movie is set in the New York City area, but the novel is set in the London suburbs. Like The Mother-in-Law, the story is told in chapters alternately narrated by Rachel, a divorced, unemployed alcoholic; Megan, whom Rachel watches on her terrace from the train she takes into London, who disappears one night and is later found murdered; and Anna, Rachel’s husband’s new wife. Rachel and Anna’s chapters cover incidents in July, August, and September, 2013; Megan’s chapters begin a year earlier and end on July 13, 2013, a week after Rachel’s first chapter. I found the thoughts and actions of all the characters disturbing. Rachel is constantly making excuses for her drinking, her obsession with Megan and her husband Scott, losing her job, behaving badly toward her endlessly forgiving roommate, her blackouts. Megan describes predatory behavior toward men. You wouldn’t want either of these women as friends! Anna is no prize either. The reader is kept guessing (but suspicious) as to who the killer is until very near the end, and then does not know if someone else will die at the murderer’s hand. I won’t give away ending! If you like this sort of whodunit, you will like this book.

Posted in Fiction, Mystery | Leave a Comment »

The Mother-in-Law

Posted by nliakos on October 2, 2021

by Sally Hepworth (St. Martin’s, 2019)

This is the story of Lucy and her mother-in-law, Diana, who dies under mysterious circumstances; of Ollie, Lucy’s husband and Diana’s illegitimate son; of Tom, the husband Diana loves surprisingly much; of Nettie, Ollie’s barren sister, and her husband Patrick. It is mostly narrated by Lucy and Diana, each with her own chapters, sometimes labeled the present and at other times labeled the past. Motherless Lucy hoped to forge a close and loving relationship with her mother-in-law, but Diana seems distant and unfriendly from the beginning. However, when we read Diana’s point of view, we come to understand her difficulties with human relationships, her motivations and her fears. She doesn’t actually dislike Lucy as much as Lucy thinks she does. And even though she does things that drive Lucy crazy and make her furious, reading Diana’s thoughts help the reader understand why she acts as she does. Lucy and Diana’s relationship undergoes a major transformation over the course of the novel.

Diana’s death apparently by her own hand and the disposition of her and Tom’s estate raise a lot of questions, and the reader suspects first one and then another character of foul play before Hepworth reveals who the murderer really is.

The story is set in Melbourne.

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Someone Knows My Name

Posted by nliakos on September 24, 2021

by Lawrence Hill (Norton, 2007)

This is the narrative of Aminata Diallo, aka Meena Dee, kidnapped at the age of eleven from her home village in West Africa (perhaps Mali), force-marched to the African coast, taken across the ocean in the infamous Middle Passage, enslaved on an indigo plantation in South Carolina, sold to another master and taken first to Charles Town (now Charleston) and then to New York, where she escapes. She is transported with many other “Black Loyalists” to Nova Scotia by the British at the end of the Revolutionary War as a reward for helping the British. After six terrible years in Nova Scotia, she manages to return to Africa, where she helps establish Freetown in Sierra Leone, almost, but not quite, achieving her dream of returning to her home village. In old age, she settles in London, where she works with English abolitionists to end the slave trade (their goal) and slavery (her goal).

On the march to the coast, she is befriended by a boy from a neighboring village, Chekura, who ends up on the same ship as she and with whom she eventually falls in love and marries (unofficially). They have two children, both lost to Aminata; one is later restored to her. Chekura and Aminata are forced to live apart, not seeing one another for years at a time, but their love for each other remains strong.

Aminata lives by her wits. She learns to read and write eloquently and can speak many languages (two African languages, English, Gullah, and the dialect spoken to white people by the slaves of South Carolina). For forty-plus years, she manages to survive in terribly difficult circumstances as a teacher and as a midwife (“catching babies”), which she learned to do as a girl in her village, where her mother was the village midwife; while enslaved, she is also forced to work on the indigo plantation, and later she cleans houses and becomes a printer’s assistant. She helps the British to compile The Book of Negroes, which lists the Black Loyalists that the British removed from the Colonies when they lost the war (a real document, but not written by one person). Aminata is smart, and she will do what she must to survive, while not compromising her values. The reader can only love and admire her. She encounters some wonderful people who help her, like Georgia in South Carolina and Daddy Moses in Birchtown (Nova Scotia). Several of the white characters (Solomon Lindo, John Clarkson, and others), who are loosely based on real people, are a mix of kindness and cruelty, while others, like Aminata’s first enslaver, Robinson Appleby, are pretty despicable without any redeeming traits.

Lawrence Hill did a great deal of research while writing this story, and a reader will learn many things about the slave trade, American slavery, Canadian racism, the Black Loyalists and their treatment by the British, the founding of Freetown, and much more. I found the book difficult to put down and read it in less than a week. Aminata is an unforgettable character.

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The Premonition: A Pandemic Story

Posted by nliakos on September 24, 2021

by Michael Lewis (Norton 2021)

A cannot-put-down book about the smart, brave people who have been trying to save us from the COVID-19 (and also future, as yet unknown) pandemic, in particular:

  • Dr. Charity Dean, chief public health officer in Santa Barbara County, who took the job to its logical limits, and whose 12/21/19 premonition that “it has started” gives the book its title;
  • Carter Mecher, a doctor/administrator at the Bureau of Veterans Affairs (aka “the Redneck Epidemiologist”) whose ability to think outside the box is superseded only by his ability to fly under the radar;

and a host of other memorable characters: Laura Glass, whose middle school science fair project got her father researching pandemics; Rajeev Venkayya, who sat down and wrote up the first draft of a pandemic-fighting plan; Richard Hatchett, who teamed up with Carter Mecher to advise the White House how to fight a pandemic; Joe DeRisi and his Chan Zuckerberg Biohub technologies, and others. We learn how masking and social distancing have long been fallback strategies in the absence of vaccines for new viruses, and that schools and school buses are both designed to pack the greatest number of children into the smallest possible space, making them superspreaders from the get-go. We read on, appalled, knowing how it will turn out when the counsel of these brilliant people, who find one another kind of by accident and form a working group they call the Wolverines (with Dr. Dean given the title of “Wolverette”), is ignored by those in power. A very worthwhile read.

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Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest

Posted by nliakos on September 3, 2021

by Suzanne Simard (Alfred A. Knopf/Borzoi Books, 2021)

You may remember that Patty Westerford was my favorite character in The Overstory, so when I found out that she was based on the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, and that Simard recently published a book about trees and forests, I had to get it. (And I actually did buy the (e)book, because the waiting list on Libby was interminable! I had to have it.)

Not surprisingly, Suzanne Simard is not Patricia Westerford. Westerford was hard of hearing; Simard is not. A discouraged Westerford flees academia when it rejects her work; Simard turned to academia when government forestry work rejected her conclusions. Westerford forged a unique path in forestry; Simard’s work draws on the work of countless others, which is not to minimize its importance. This autobiography details (sometimes in too much detail for this non-scientist) the experiments she carried out in the field (in the forest, actually, haha) which eventually demonstrated that a forest is not just a collection of diverse species in competition with one another; rather, the various plants and animals work together in an exquisite balance which maintains the health of the whole. Clear-cutting a natural forest and planting only commercially valuable trees there results in poor growth, sick and dying trees, and forests unable to heal themselves. It seems so logical, yet it was a huge fight to get people to even begin to accept the wisdom in this: forests can heal themselves, and to some degree could heal our suffering planet, if they are left to themselves, in a natural state. Leaving anything to itself, of course, seems to be something that humanity cannot tolerate. We always think we know better. Now, as the Earth fights back with the COVID-19 pandemic and the horrors of a warming planet (monster storms, floods,droughts, wildfires), it seems that most people still doubt. Suzanne Simard places her faith in the wisdom of indigenous people, who lived in the forests, harvesting their bounty without damaging them. She places her faith in the trees themselves, especially the mother trees, which share their resources and wisdom with their offspring and also with their unrelated neighbors. And under the forest floor, a maze of roots and fungi (mycorrhizae) connect everything growing with everything else, making this sharing possible.

I wonder whether Suzanne Simard has read The Overstory, and if she has, what she thinks about “her” character.

Read an excerpt, watch a video, and find out more at https://suzannesimard.com/finding-the-mother-tree-book/.

Listen to a TED Talk by Suzanne Simard at https://youtu.be/breDQqrkikM.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Science | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Outlander

Posted by nliakos on August 24, 2021

by Diana Gabaldon (1991; original UK title: Cross Stitch)

The first book in the Outlander series, as listed here:

  1. Outlander (1991) (published in the UK, New Zealand and Australia as Cross Stitch)
  2. Dragonfly in Amber (1992)
  3. Voyager (1993)
  4. Drums of Autumn (1996)
  5. The Fiery Cross (2001)
  6. A Breath of Snow and Ashes (2005)
  7. An Echo in the Bone (2009)
  8. Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (2014)[16]
  9. Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone (2021)[17]

Claire Randall, a World War II nurse, is on holiday in Scotland with her husband Frank in 1945. She time travels back to 1743 Scotland and lives there for several years; she marries and falls in love with gorgeous hunk Jamie Fraser (in that order). She has many adventures and finally returns, pregnant, to her own time, unwillingly but pushed to do so by Jamie prior to the Battle of Culloden, which they both know will end the era of the the Scottish Highland clans and in which they both fully expect Jamie to perish.

I got into this the same way I read those 12 Poldark novels: after watching the TV series with Vicki. We are presently in Season 3 of that series, and I doubt I shall be able to stop reading after the first book! Lots of sex, gore, true love and adventure.

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The Sunrise

Posted by nliakos on July 23, 2021

by Victoria Hislop (Harper 2015; first published in 2014 by Headline, a Hachette UK company)

I was looking for the Island by the same author, but couldn’t find it in my library, so I picked up this one instead. It’s the story of several Greek Cypriot families and a Turkish Cypriot family caught up in the events of 1974, when proponents of unification with Greece overthrew Archbishop Makarios and Turkey responded by invading Cyprus. The coastal resort city of Famagusta (Αμμόχωστος, [aˈmːoxostos]) was emptied out of its people, surrounded by barbed wire, and rendered a ghost city.

The main characters include Afroditi and Savvas Papacosta, who own two beachfront hotels in Famagusta: The Paradise Beach and The Sunrise, their fancy new hotel; Emine Özkan and her family: husband Halit, sons Ali, Hüseyin and Mehmet; and the Georgiou family: Irini and Vasilis, sons Markos and Christos, and Maria, her husband Panikos and their little son Vasilakis. Markos is Savvas Papcosta’s right-hand man, who is entrusted with the hotel when Savvas and Afroditi flee the city; Markos and Afroditi are engaged in a passionate affair. Emine works in The Sunrise as a hairdresser. Her friend Irini lives with her family on the same street. The friendship between the two, one Greek and the other Turkish, is perhaps unusual; their husbands refuse to meet each other.

When everyone else flees the city, the Georgious and the Özkans do not leave because in each case, one of the sons is missing (Christos, who was involved with EOKA B, the organization fighting for unification with Greece, and Ali, who of course opposed this). Initially, neither family realizes that the other has remained behind, but they find each other and eventually move in together, first in the Georgious’ home after the Özkans’ is broken into and ransacked, and later, when that is no longer possible, in The Sunrise. It is very dangerous to go out in the city; the only people who do so are Markos and Hüseyin, who go out at night to find food. But Markos has other, secret reasons to be out in the city at night, which in the end lead to tragedy.

Readers will learn a lot about the events in Cyprus which transformed the island to this day. The horrors of the invasion, the uncertainties faced by the inhabitants, the atrocities suffered by both sides, the plight of the refugees, are all depicted as the novel progresses. And because we come to know the characters, we care about what happens to them.

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The Hearts of Horses

Posted by nliakos on July 17, 2021

by Molly Gloss (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

Readers also get to know something about the lifestyles, motivations, challenges and desires of the various people living in this part of the country during the Great War. And finally, readers learn quite a lot about horses, most of which I already knew, but others probably don’t.A former horsy kid, I tore through this novel in about two days. It’s the story of 19-year-old Martha Lessen, gentler of horses in 1917 Oregon. Martha has left an abusive home in Pendleton and come to Elwha County, looking for work “breaking” horses. Actually, Martha loves horses and gentles and trains them without breaking their spirits. She has the good fortune to ask for work first at the home of George and Louise Bliss, who not only take her on and give her a place to eat and sleep, but who help her find enough jobs to keep her busy “riding the circle” of their neighbors’ properties, working with the untrained horses at each farm or ranch and then riding one of them on to the next place. As winter turns to spring, Martha gets to know the neighbors; acquires a beau; gets an abusive hired hand turned out of his job and home; saves a family from ptomaine poisoning but is almost killed when the clueless husband and father, on his way home from a drinking bout, frightens her horse off the road. Martha is an appealing character, naive and tender-hearted, terribly shy and awkward with people, but confident and skilled with horses. Another favorite character is Henry Frazer, who is as gentle and patient in his pursuit of Martha as she is when working with a frightened horse. The Blisses, the Woodruff sisters, the Thiedes, the Romers, the Kandels, and other characters all have their own stories, which the reader will follow with interest.

It’s not a love story, although love has a role. There is not a single over-arching plot, unless it’s Martha’s search for community. Some chapters deal with important events, like the death of Tom Kandel from cancer; others just follow Martha’s daily routines or activities like attending a dance or going to a skating party. But Gloss held my interest throughout the book.

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