Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Nightingale

Posted by nliakos on October 2, 2022

by Kristin Hannah (St. Martins Griffin, 2015)

I found this almost 600-page novel about women in the French resistance in my local Little Free Library. I’d never read anything by Kristin Hannah, though she’s written over twenty books. In this one, Hannah follows sisters Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol (“Nightingale”) through the horrors of war and the Nazi occupation of France. Vianne, the elder sister, is married to her first and only love, Antoine the postman, and has a daughter, Sophie. Isabelle is eighteen at the beginning of the novel, unmarried and rebellious. They could not be more different. Rejected by their father after the death of their mother when they were young, Vianne puts him out of her mind, while Isabelle fantasizes about somehow winning his affection. When Antoine is conscripted into the army and then taken prisoner, Vianne struggles to keep going on her own. Isabelle wants to join the fight against the Germans and despises Vianne’s acquiescence when a Nazi officer, Captain Beck, is billeted in their house. Vianne is terrified that Isabelle’s inability to think before she speaks will get them into trouble. Isabelle joins the resistance, eventually helping downed Allied pilots to escape over the mountains to the British Consulate in Spain. (She also falls in love with a fellow resistance fighter, Gaëtan.) Back in Carriveau where Vianne lives, the Nazis begin persecuting and then rounding up Jews, including her best friend and neighbor, Rachel. When Rachel is deported, Vianne takes her toddler, Ari, and concocts a story about his being her dead cousin’s child whom she has adopted. From there, she begins her own resistance against the Nazis, rescuing and hiding Jewish children. Isabelle puts them all at risk when she hides an injured flier on the property; she and Vianne end up killing Capt. Beck, who is replaced in Vianne’s house by an SS officer who makes Beck look like an angel of mercy by comparison. Vianne is outraged by the risk Isabelle has taken and tells her never to return–which she will regret later.

The chapters set during wartime are interspersed with a first-person narrative by one of the sisters–it is not clear which one until the end–who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer after many years of living in America. She receives an invitation to attend a “passeurs’ reunion” in Paris and abruptly decides to go. Her son Julien, who has no idea of the roles his mother and aunt played during the war, accompanies her.

Reading of Nazi atrocities while similar atrocities are perpetrated by the Russians in Ukraine was difficult. We also recently watched Ken Burns’ The U.S. and the Holocaust, and I’m reading Corelli’s Mandolin with Adriana. Too much World War Two. I need a break. But The Nightingale was excellent.

Isabelle is eventually captured and deported to a work camp. She barely survives until the end of the war but is eventually rescued. Antoine makes it home.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Shipping News

Posted by nliakos on September 12, 2022

by E. Annie Proulx (Scribner Paperback 1993)

Another book that’s been sitting in our Karpenisi house. I started it once, years ago, but didn’t like it and put it aside. This time, I was able to finish it. It is certainly a weird book. Proulx uses a lot of phrases in place of sentences, as if she were simply using some notes she made, not bothering to expand them. Names of people and places are quirky (reminding me of Dickens): the protagonist’s name is Quoyle (I don’t think she ever tells us his first name); other characters include Petal Bear, Partridge, Ed Punch, Billy Pretty, Jack Buggit, Diddy Shovel, Tert Card, Alvin Yark, Wavey Prowse, Quoyle’s daughters Bunny and Sunshine, Beety, Nutbeem–there are too many to list them all. Places include Killick-Claw, No Name, Capsize Cove, and more I can’t remember, all in Newfoundland where the majority of the action takes place. Very weird.

Quoyle is a large man with “a great damp loaf of a body” and a “monstrous chin”. I think he could be describes as being on the autism spectrum. He is completely naive, doesn’t get jokes or sarcasm, and always seems to do or say the wrong thing. He falls in love with, and marries, a horrible woman (Petal Bear), who despises him and cheats on him and sells their daughters before dying in a car accident. Quoyle, however, adores her and almost passes up a second chance at happiness because he remains obsessed with her. After he rescues his daughters from impending abuse, Quoyle and his aunt Agnis (always referred to as “the aunt”) decide to leave the States and head back to Newfoundland, where they were originally from (though Quoyle never lived there). It turns out that the Quoyles have a very bad reputation among the population there, but they fix up the ancestral home, which has been standing empty, the aunt starts up a business upholstering yacht furniture, Quoyle lands a job writing for an extremely weird newspaper, Bunny and Sunshine start day care with a local couple, and Bunny starts school. Eventually, everyone kind of fits in, and Quoyle even meets a woman he likes (and who seems to like him!).

I don’t really think that The Shipping News is as “exciting”, “vigorous”, “beautifully written”, “wildly comic”, “funny-tragic” as the critics quoted in the flyleaf. I don’t see it as “a sweet and tender romance” or “a stunning book, full of magic and portent.” I don’t understand why it got the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1994. But yes, it certainly is “quirky”.

At least I finished it this time! Now to leave it in my local Little Free Library for somebody else to experience.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Complete Plays of Sophocles

Posted by nliakos on September 9, 2022

translated by Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb; edited and with an introduction by Moses Hadas. (Bantam Classic Edition, 1982)

This little book has been in our little house in Karpenisi (Evrytania, Greece) for years, but I never attempted to read it until this year. Slowly, I read through all seven of Sophocles’ surviving plays:

  1. Ajax (Aias): Ajax’s rage at Odysseus causes him to do awful things. He attempts to murder Agamemnon and his brother Menelaus, but Athena blinds him, and instead of slaughtering soldiers, he slaughters a flock of sheep. When he realizes what he has done, he commits suicide, leaving his wife, Tecmessa, without any support.
  2. Electra: Orestes murders his mother, Clytemnestra, and her husband and co-conspirator Aegisthus, to avenge the murder of his father, Agamemnon (who in turn was murdered to avenge his sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, but that’s another story). Electra’s role is to grieve and give sad speeches.
  3. Oedipus the King: Oedipus, the king of Thebes (Thiva), finds out that he has inadvertently killed his father, married his mother and fathered two sons and two daughters with her. Distraught, he blinds himself and goes into exile to punish himself for these unnatural deeds.
  4. Antigone: Antigone, one of Oedipus’s daughters, sacrifices love and life on principle in order to properly bury her brother Polyneices (Polineikis), whom her uncle Creon has condemned to be left dishonored and unburied. Her sister Ismene supports her, albeit somewhat hesitantly.
  5. Trachinian Women/Women of Trachis/Trachiniai: Heracles returns from his labors with a new love interest, Iole; His wife Deaneira tries to secure his love and fidelity with a magical salve given to her by the Centaur Nessus, but the Centaur has tricked her, and the salve kills Heracles instead, an agonizingly slow and painful death. In dismay, Deaneira kills herself; her son, Hyllus, attempts to do likewise; Heracles, in his death throes, implores Hyllus to marry Iole in his stead. Bodies litter the stage.
  6. Philoctetes: The warrior Philoctetes has been betrayed by Odysseus after being bitten by a venomous snake, abandoned on the uninhabited island of Lemnos. Odysseus persuades a reluctant Neoptolemus to use guile to get Philoctetes to yield them his magical bow, without which they will be unable to prevail against Troy. Neoptolemus struggles to remain true to his ideals while obeying his king, an impossible task. In the end, they get the bow and they convince Philoctetes to join them against Troy.
  7. Oedipus at Colonus: Oedipus, self-exiled from Thebes after his disgrace, has reached the town of Colonus, outside Athens, with Antigone. The play describes his relationship with Theseus, King of Athens, Antigone’s and Ismene’s faithful support, Creon’s deviousness, and Oedipus’s death while under the protection of Theseus.

As you can see, the plays intertwine stories about the same characters. Each play is preceded by a short introduction which kind of sums up the action, which is helpful; what would have been even more helpful is annotations to help an uninformed reader to figure out who everyone is. There are characters that appear without explanation (Greek audiences would have known who they were, but I needed to be told) and characters are referred to in several ways (by their name; as the son or daughter of X; by another name or nickname), which is confusing to the uninitiated. I would have preferred an annotated edition. This edition would be fine for students reading the plays under the guidance of a professor who can explain who people are and how they relate to one another.

Anyhow, reading the plays has inspired me to watch some of the many films that have been made based on them, most of which are probably available on YouTube or Kanopy (I hope!).

Posted in Drama | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Art of Racing in the Rain

Posted by nliakos on July 2, 2022

by Garth Stein (Harper, 2008)

This is the story of race car driver Denny Swift, his wife Eve, and his daughter Zoë, told from the perspective of Denny’s dog Enzo. Enzo is “an old soul” who is eagerly anticipating his reincarnation as a human; in the meantime he patiently plays out his role as a dog, bemoaning his inability to communicate with language with the people he loves. “I so longed to shed this body, to be free of it. . . . Unable to unlock the door and go to greet [the people]. And, even if I had been able to greet them, I had a dog’s tongue and therefore would have been unable to speak to them. . . .”

Enzo senses Eve’s fatal brain tumor long before it is diagnosed by doctors, but he is helpless to change the outcome. After Eve dies, her parents fight Denny for custody of Zoë. They go so far as to accuse Denny of having sex with a teen-aged relative. The legal battle depletes Denny’s finances and threatens to ruin his reputation, but with Enzo’s “encouragement”, Denny does not give up his fight for custody of Zoë. Denny is a truly good person, a person with integrity, and the reader suffers along with him as he seeks justice in a seemingly unwinnable case, where all the chips are stacked against him.

There was rather too much description of car racing (Enzo being a big racing fan who enjoys watching car races on TV; the high point of his life is when Denny lets him sit in the car on a test drive in California) and references to famous drivers (I assume they are real people, but I don’t actually know). That almost put me off the book at the beginning, but once the story became more about the little family and less about car racing, I felt more involved and even cried at the end (though the ending is actually a happy one).

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Crying in H Mart (A Memoir)

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2022

by Michelle Zauner (Alfred A. Knopf, 2021)

Michelle Zauner was born in Korea to an American father and a Korean mother and raised in the United States, in the Pacific Northwest. She is the lead singer in the band Japanese Breakfast; her husband Peter Bradley is the guitarist in the band. The book is a memoir about Zauner’s mother’s cancer and death, as well as being about Korean food–who knew there were so many kinds of Korean food? Zauner tends to mention them without explaining them; occasionally she describes how to make them. This vegetarian found some of the foods off-putting, but that’s life.

Zauner examines her emotions during the roller-coaster ride of her mother’s illness and death, avoiding nothing: her difficult relationship with her father, her inability to believe her mother could actually die so young (Zauner was only 25 when she lost her mother), her pursuit of the man who would become her husband, her relationships with her Korean relatives and also her mother’s Korean friends who came to help Zauner and her father care for the dying woman. She struggles to find and keep the Korean part of her that comes from her mother.

The book has been on the Washington Post‘s bestseller list for months.

Michelle Zauner is interviewed about Crying in H Mart at https://youtu.be/TW0m4IwHnCY

Japanese Breakfast performs songs from their album Soft Sounds from Another Planet at https://youtu.be/xFKH42R8wak.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Religion, Philosophy, Culture | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy

Posted by nliakos on June 24, 2022

by Jamie Raskin (HarperCollins 2022)

I live in Maryland’s Sixth Congressional District. I used to live in the Eighth District, but redistricting resulted in a newly configured district map, and that is why Jamie Raskin does not represent me in Congress <sigh>. (He does represent my Congressman, who actually resides in the Eighth District, but that’s another story.) But I love and admire Jamie: when jaded people complain that “all politicians are corrupt,” I tell them about Jamie’s integrity and honesty and dedication to our country, our state, our county, and democracy in general. He’s the real deal. So when I learned that Jamie’s only son, Tommy, had taken his own life on December 31, 2020, I was as shocked and sad as any of his constituents. Then, just six days later, Donald Trump’s mob laid siege to our Capitol in a vain attempt to steal the election from Joe Biden. Jamie was tapped to be the Lead Manager of Trump’s second impeachment, this time for incitement of insurrection, and we all watched him and his team of managers build a superb case to convict the lawless president only to be undermined by McConnell and the other Republican hypocrites in the Senate.

This book is Jamie’s letter to those who wrote to him following Tommy’s death; he received so many condolences that it was impossible to answer them all (though he tried). He writes about Tommy and his family (wife, daughters, siblings, nieces, nephews…), Tommy’s struggle with depression, his amazing intelligence and kindness, how funny he was and how he could make anyone laugh. He writes about his last evening with Tommy, the two of them alone in their Takoma Park home, and how he found Tommy’s body when he went to wake him up the following morning (could anyone think of a worse horror for a parent?). Then how when he went to work to participate in the official electoral vote count on January 6, he found himself and his fellow legislators under attack by Confederate-flag-wielding rioters–just how close those rioters came to being able to physically attack Senators, Representatives, and their staff, as well as the Vice President, there in his official capacity to oversee the counting of the votes (but under intense pressure from Trump to break the law and send the slates back to certain swing states so that Trump could overthrow the election results–and with them, the government). Jamie’s younger daughter Tabitha was also in the Capitol that day with her brother-in-law Hank; they were barricaded inside an office, cowering under a desk as the rioters tried to break down the door. Jamie, still consumed by grief, felt no fear except for Tabitha and Hank.

When the House voted to impeach Trump again for inciting the riot, Speaker Nancy Pelosi “threw him a lifeline” by asking him to manage the impeachment in the Senate. Jamie went to work, feeling that Tommy, with his innate sense of fairness and justice, was with him. Most of the book describes how the team of managers built their case and took it to the Senate, where a majority were convinced to vote for conviction–but not the 2/3 required to convict. As I write, the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol has just finished airing the first five of its public hearings. Jamie Raskin is on this committee too, but he has not yet had his day as the main questioner. I look forward to that hearing.

At the recent Gaithersburg Book Festival, Takoma Park mayor Kate Stewart advised everyone to buy this book so that the truth of what happened on January 6th will not be lost. She said, “Read the book; keep the book; pass the book down to your children and grandchildren, so no matter what happens in the next couple of weeks or months or years, they have a record of this time.” Good suggestion.

You can watch Mayor Stewart’s introduction and Jamie Raskin’s talk here. And be sure to read this book. It should be required reading for all of us.

Posted in History, Memoir, Non-fiction, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures

Posted by nliakos on June 6, 2022

by Merlin Sheldrake (Random House 2020; Ebook)

In this love letter to the fungi of the world (and out of this world), Merlin Sheldrake regales his readers with his stories of fungi and how they make life possible for both plants and animals.

Prologue: Sheldrake describes field work in the jungle, hunting fungi. It sounds pretty off-putting for a city girl like me.

Introduction: What Is It Like To Be a Fungus? – “Fungi . . . are inside you and around you. They sustain you and all that you depend on. . . . As you read these words, fungi are changing the way that life happens. . . . They are eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, surviving in space, inducing visions, producing food, making medicines, manipulating animal behavior, and influencing the compoition of the Earth’s atmosphere.” These and lots more amazing facts about fungi. Who would have thought?

Chapter 1: A Lure – All about truffles. A truffle’s “job” is to be eaten, which will scatter its spores. Sheldrake explains what constitutes smells and what makes them smell as they do. In fungi, the whole surface of the fungus is like a human nose. It all reacts to chemicals in the form of odors. Did you know there is a breed of dog (the Lagotto Romagnolo) bred especially to hunt truffles? Sheldrake describes truffle-hunting in Italy.

Chapter 2: Living Labyrinths – All about mycelium. How fungi exist, including how they move (with their “hyphal tips” protruding in this direction or that). What mycelium is (“ecological connective tissue”; “polyphony in bodily form”; “a kind of collective behavior”; what happens when fungal hyphae commingle”) and where it is (pretty much everywhere). It’s similar to a swarm (of birds, bees, termites, sardines)–a kind of collective behavior. Famous experiments with slime molds that can replicate the rail network around Tokyo. They do very well in maze experiments, which we use to measure intelligence in animals like rats. Mycelium is how fungi nourish themselves: “Some organisms–such as plants that photosynthesize–make their own food. Some organisms–like most animals–find food in the world and put it inside their bodies. . . . Fungi . . . digest the world where it is and then absorb it into their bodies. . . . Animals put food in their bodies, whereas fungi put their bodies in the food.” Mushrooms are the “fruiting bodies” of fungi–a fungal version of flowers.

Chapter 3: The Intimacy of Strangers – This chapter concerns lichens, which are part fungi and part algae. Lichens are “extremophiles” which can live on the edge of what can sustain life: in space (on the outside of a space ship), inside volcanoes, in the deepest ocean trenches. That greenish stuff on my iron railing is pretty amazing! It used to be thought that either the fungi or the algae were exploiting the other partners, but now it seems clear that both benefit from the partnership. The fungi are mycobionts; they acquire nutrients and protect the organism. The algae are photobionts; they make the food that sustains it. Together, they can survive where neither could survive by itself. The word symbiosis was coined by German scientist Albert Frank to describe lichens. (Frank was also the first to suggest that fungi might be helping plants to get nutrients from soil.)

Chapter 4: Mycelial Minds – Here Sheldrake focuses on “magic mushrooms”–the fungi that produce the drug psilocybin, which is capable to producing life-changing visions of inter-connectedness. Many animals eat or drink substances which intoxicate them. He also describes how a fungus (Orthiocordyceps unilateralis) infects carpenter ants, essentially controlling their behavior and eventually killing them–as if the ant becomes an extension of the fungus (or its tool). Interestingly, Sheldrake doesn’t mention the books of Carlos Castaneda, which so intrigued me in the seventies.

Chapter 5: Before Roots – This chapter examines the relationships between fungi and plants. Fungi first enabled plant life on land, transforming the land and life. Fungi acted as roots before plants had roots to forage underground and gather nutrients from the soil. Now, fungi live in and around roots–mycorrhizal relationships (interconnectedness). Most plants depend on their mycorrhizal fungi to survive, and their mycelium “makes up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils.” As with lichens, the roots and mycorrhizal fungi of the plant collect nutrients from the soil while the upper part of the plant, the green part, collects light and CO2 and manufactures food. Here we learn that it seems to be the fungi which decide who should get what, and how much. This impacts the evolution of life on Earth. Plants associate with various mycorrizal fungi and “develop differently when grown with different [fungal] communities.” Many characteristics (flavor, odor, antioxidant activity…) are determined by which fungal community a plant associates with. (I thought, that could explain why foods, like fruits or cheese or bread of whatever, taste different in different countries.)

Chapter 6: Wood Wide Webs – This chapter focuses on shared (or common) mycorrhizal networks. There is a lot of information about the ghost plant, also known as the Indian pipe plant, Monotropa uniflora, which grows in our woods here in Seneca Creek State Park–a plant which looks like a fungus, because it is a ghostly white instead of green. It turns out that there are a lot of such plants (about 10% of all plants!) without chlorophyll, and they all depend on fungi for the carbon compounds that provide energy for them to live. Another is Voyria; a third is Allotropa virgiata, known as candy canes because they are red and white. Sheldrake calls these fully dependent plants mycoheterotrophs or “mycohets”. Suzanne Simard’s work is discussed in this chapter. Sheldrake considers the situation through a myco-centric perspective rather than a plant-centric one; he points out that we tend to prioritize animals over plants and plants over fungi, which distorts our view of what is happening. This chapter considers how fungal networks provide a way for bacteria, chemicals, nutrients and more to “travel” through the soil and also how huge and complex the fungal networks actually are.

Chapter 7: Radical Mycology – In this chapter, we learn about the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse, the result of plant matter that did not decompose for millions of years. Wood, made of cellulose and lignin, does not break down easily, but white rot fungi are able to break it down, using a process called radical chemistry. The huge amounts of undecomposed forest became our deposits of coal. Fungi can be “trained” to break down toxic waste, such as used cigarette butts. Led by mycologist Paul Stamets, “fungal nerds” are exploring ways to use fungi to solve the problems human civilization has caused. (Cf. Stamets’ TED Talk, Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.) Stamets “has done more than anyone else to popularize fungal topics.” Fungi could conceivably restore polluted ecosystems (“environmental remediation”). Mushroom nerds are people who come from all walks of life–not just scientists. As entrepreneurs, they have come up with companies like Ecovative, which grows white rot fungi to be used in mycoremediation and licenses others to grow and use the fungi themselves. Fungal Architectures work to create buildings using fungal materials. The Unconventional Computing Laboratory dreams of harnessing mycelial networks to compute data. Mycofabrication can grow substances to wrap damaged skin while it heals, replace the graphite in lithium batteries, grow building materials (in space or in disaster zones) and packaging (replacing styrofoam) and fungal “leather” and shoe soles and dock floats. There seems to be no end to the research and development going on with fungi.

Chapter 8: Making Sense of Fungi – This chapter zeroes in on yeast, a fungus humans have used for thousands of years, to brew beverages and make bread, but yeast also live in and on us. Sheldrake writes that fungi defy classification of the type that we use to organize our knowledge of plants and animals. He considers various attempts to do this and why they have failed.

Epilogue: This Compost – “Fungi make worlds; they also unmake them.” Musings on the amazing properties of fungi.

The above take up about 60% of the book; the rest is comprised of illustrations (which I wish I had realized were there while I was reading!) and copious notes, which I did not refer to while reading.

This book is totally fascinating!

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

Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal About Earth and the Worlds Beyond

Posted by nliakos on May 21, 2022

by Robin George Andrews (Norton 2021 Kindle edition)

Andrews is fascinated by volcanoes and the people who study them, and he shares his enthusiasm with readers in this book. Volcanoes are more constructive than destructive; they made/make Earth (and other planets and moons in our solar system and presumably also those outside it) what it is today and what it will be.

Prologue: “The Gate in the Sky”

Chapter I: “The Fountain of Fire” focuses on the 2018 eruption of Kilauea (Hawaii).

Chapter II: “The Supervolcano” is about the volcano that created Yellowstone.

Chapter III: “The Great Inkwell” concerns Tanzania’s Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano, which spouts peculiar black lava, making it possibly unique in the universe.

Chapter IV: “The Vaults of Glass” highlights Marie Tharp’s mapping of the Atlantic Ridge, which eventually confirmed plate tectonics to skeptical male scientists.

Chapter V: “The Pale Guardian” is about volcanic activity on our Moon.

Chapter VI: “The Toppled God” is about Mars.

Chapter VII: “The Inferno” is about Venus.

Chapter VIII: “The Giant’s Forge” is about the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn) and the ice giants (Neptune, Uranus) and their moons, as well as Pluto and Ceres (a big rock in the asteroid belt). Who knew they all feature volcanic activity?

In Epilogue: “The Time Traveler”, Andrews muses, We really do only get one go at our lives on Earth. But these volcanic stories let us walk across the world, and across other worlds, diving in and out of all those memories recorded in volcanic rock. . . , leaping back and forth, from the distant past to versions of the future, through eons of time–all within a single human lifetime. Who could resist such an opportunity?

So this book is not just about volcanoes. It also concerns astronomy and history of science. But it’s all fascinating.

Posted in Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Posted by nliakos on April 25, 2022

by Christy Lefteri (Ballantine Books 2019)

Reading the story of a Syrian couple fleeing their native land for the U.K. as I watch Ukrainians fleeing the savage Russian invasion of their country on the evening news only makes Nuri and Afra’s story more intensely affecting. Narrator Nuri Ibrahim turned away from a fabric merchant’s life (his father’s business) in favor of keeping bees at the edge of the desert with his older cousin Mustafa. But the war (another Russian invasion on behalf of an unpopular despot) intervenes. There is a bomb, and the Ibrahims’ young son, Sami, is killed. Nuri’s wife Afra, an artist, who was injured in the blast and saw her son die, is so traumatized by this tragedy that she loses her sight. Unwilling to leave Sami’s body behind, she refuses to leave, but eventually Nuri convinces her that they must go if they are to survive.

They are smuggled into Turkey, then to Greece, and finally to the U.K. But there are dangers aplenty on this clandestine flight from all they know and hold dear. The reader begins to realize that Nuri is suffering from post-traumatic stress as much as Afra is. In his dreams, he cannot remember what his son looked like, but he becomes obsessed with saving another little boy who is traveling alone. Little by little, we realize that “Mohammed” only appears in Nuri’s nightmares. Nuri and Afra meet many others on their journey: The Afghan Nadim, who is not what he appears to be; the Moroccan man whose name we never learn; Lucy Fisher, who steers the couple through the asylum process; Angeliki, a traumatized young Somali woman; the nameless smuggler who carefully arranges their illegal journey to the U.K., but who takes cruel advantage of Afra’s vulnerability. Nuri tries to overcome his emotional response, but it takes him a long time to overcome–especially since it is his fault that the smuggler was able to gain access to their locked room while he was away.

Christy Lefteri is a Greek-Briton who worked for an NGO helping refugees fleeing war and poverty in Athens. She created her characters based on the many people she met there and made them come alive in this novel.

Lefteri uses an unusual strategy to link some of the chapter parts: the final sentence of one part is incomplete (e.g., I think back to our time in). The next page begins with a title (e.g., Istanbul) which completes the previous sentence, but is also the subject of the first sentence of the following part: (e.g., was where I met Mohammed.) I thought it happened at certain chapter endings/beginnings, but I now see that it happens only within chapters. Interesting.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had

Posted by nliakos on April 12, 2022

by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocki (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005)

As often happens, I came to this book after watching the (Hallmark Hall of Fame) movie of the same name based on it, which I recently saw with Vicki. Brad Cohen describes his life with TS and how he overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles and challenges to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. Cohen describes tics (they resemble blinking, yawning, sneezing in that when you have to do it, nothing can prevent it) and recounts the many, many times he faced discrimination, rudeness, and cruelty on account of his tics and barks, and how he responded by educating his tormentors about this neurological condition for which there is no cure. The book includes a chapter about his involvement in the B’nai Brith Youth Organization in high school and college, which the movie did not show; the BBYO played an important role in Cohen’s skill development and leadership. Predictably, the love story that is featured prominently in the movie gets much shorter shrift in the book. A fascinating book which is sure to educate neurotypical readers about TS and the discrimination faced by Touretters and to inspire readers with TS (and other disabilities) to dream big (Cohen shares general advice for dealing with disabilities and not letting them take over your life in an Appendix.).

For more on Tourette’s, see also: “Witty Ticcy Ray”, an essay in Oliver Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

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