Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Davita’s Harp

Posted by nliakos on September 30, 2016

by Chaim Potok (Fawcett Crest/Ballantine, 1985; ISBN 0-449-20775-7)

Davita, or Ilana, or Ilana Davita, narrates this coming-of-age novel about a young girl living in New York in the 1930s as Hitler is coming to power in Europe. Her parents, Michael and Anne Chandal, are idealistic Communists who have forsaken their respective religions–his Christianity and her Judaism–and raised their daughter as an atheist and humanist. But living in close proximity to Anne’s Orthodox Jewish relatives has an unexpected effect: Davita feels inexplicably drawn to the music and ritual of her mother’s native faith, and she begins to attend shul and to teach herself Hebrew so that she can follow the service.

The Spanish Civil War is unfolding in Europe, and Michael, a journalist, travels to Spain several times to cover the war. A family friend, writer Jakob Daw, also goes to Spain and then to the United States, where he lives with the Chandals and tells Davita strange stories. Jakob Daw is in fragile health, having been gassed during the First World War. Predictably, Michael Chandal is killed in Spain while covering the horrific destruction of the Basque town of Guernica; later, Jakob Daw is deported and dies in France. With their deaths, Davita has lost the two men she loved the most.

Davita’s mother, like many American Party members, feels betrayed by Stalin’s signing of a non-aggression pact with Hitler. She leaves the Communist Party and sinks into depression, her life’s work suddenly meaningless. Her cousin Ezra Dinn, a devout Jew who has loved her for many years (member of the same community Davita worhsips with), finally persuades her to marry him and brings her slowly back into the faith. Davita attends the community’s yeshiva (school) along with Ezra’s son David, whom Davita has befriended. Both David and Davita are excellent students. One year, David is awarded the prestigious Talmud prize, and the following year, Davita is striving to win the equally prestigious Akiva Prize. However, despite the fact that she has the highest grades in her class, the prize is awarded to a boy–because to give it to a girl, to admit that a girl was the best student in a class that included boys would discredit the entire yeshiva: “What sort of future students of Torah would come out of a class where the best student was a girl? And how could a high academy of Torah learning accept any boy from such a class?” Davita has had a liberal upbringing, and she is devastated to realize that she has smacked into an immovable wall of tradition. Despite her parents’ protests, she has to settle for two lesser prizes instead of the coveted Akiva Prize. Afterwards, she broods, “I lay very still and felt the anger rising within me. How sweet it could have been! How proud I could have made my family! And it was mine, really mine. And it had been stolen from me for a reason I could not control: I was a girl. What else would they steal from me in the coming years? I would accomplish something, and they would tell me I couldn’t have it because I was a girl. I had made this community my home, and now I felt betrayed by it. . . . for the first time I began to understand how a single event could change a person’s life. . . .”

From this novel, I heard for the first time about the Centralia Massacre and the lynching of I.W.W. member Wesley Everest. I learned gruesome details about the Fascists’ destruction of Guernica. I read about the American Communist movement of the thirties. I liked Davita, the narrator and protagonist, and admired her sharp wit and her stubborn streak (all the while wondering at her innate feminism, which seemed unusual both for the time and for her young age). I enjoyed the other characters: Anne/Channah, Michael, Michael’s sister Sarah (who shows up from time to time to use her nursing skills to help the various characters), Jakob Daw, Ezra and David Dinn, and the Helfmans. Although I found the story somewhat less compelling than that of Reuven Malter* and Danny Saunders (in The Chosen and The Promise), the more I read, the more engaged in the story I became. Chaim Potok can really tell a good story, skillfully evoking a time his reader has not experienced.

*I appreciated Reuven’s cameo appearance as a student in Davita’s class competing for the Akiva prize!

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Posted by nliakos on September 25, 2016

by Marjane Satrapi (L’Association, Collection Ciboulette, combined edition published in 2007; ISBN 978-2844142405 [4 volumes originally published separately between 2000 and 2003])

Published in English in 2007 by Pantheon; ISBN 9780375714832.

I’ve seen this called a graphic novel, but it isn’t a novel. It’s a graphic autobiography, written by an Iranian woman in her twenties, telling the story of her life in pre- and  post-revolutionary Iran and also in Vienna, where her parents sent her to study for four years in high school because they were afraid her penchant for getting into trouble and her independent streak would end badly for her.

I read it in the original French, which was not difficult; the style is conversational but without too much slang. Perhaps the simple black and white illustrations (also by Satrapi, who studied art at university in Tehran) provided enough context to make guessing the meaning of the occasional unfamiliar word or expression easier.

Satrapi does not mince words, nor does she try to make herself look good. She includes her failed romances, unkindnesses, rudeness, and many cases of poor judgment on her part. Volume 3, which recounts the story of her wild years in Vienna, made me cringe in horror. She falls in with a wild crowd, smokes, drinks, takes drugs, sleeps around, lives on the streets and ends up in a hospital (without which, I think she would have died). Maybe not all that surprising for a rebellious teenage girl living on her own in a foreign country far from her parents, but scary. Only the Iran-Iraq war could have made her parents think she would be better off in Austria without supervision.

After Vienna, she returns to Tehran, depressed, and not surprisingly, has difficulty re-integrating into her native culture, which has been rendered schizophrenic by the Islamic revolution. She even tries to end her life, but her failed suicide attempt convinces her that she is meant to go on living. She finds a boyfriend, whom she eventually marries (but later divorces), enrolls at university, and reads widely. Eventually, she decides to leave Iran to live in France, realizing that she will never be able to control herself enough to stay out of trouble in Iran.

For those readers who have no idea about Iranian culture or history, this book is an excellent introduction as well as a great story. I know many Iranians; they were the first large group of students I had when I starting teaching ESL in the Washington area in 1974. I’ve also read a fair amount about Persian culture and know a little (but not much) about Persian history, so there was a lot that was not new to me in the book. However, I learned many new things–for example, that Reza Shah (father of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah I remember) was an illiterate army officer before the British used him to overthrow the Qajar emperor (from whom Marjane Satrapi is descended).

The thing that surprised me the most is that Satrapi’s parents and other relatives were not arrested following the publication of the book(s)! She goes into great detail about their politics.

Persepolis is really a coming-of-age story (Bildungsroman). It’s too bad Marjane had to suffer so much on the way to adulthood, and it must have taken enormous courage for her to write and draw her story for public consumption. Since she had the courage to write it, we should have the courage to read it, even though parts of it are difficult.

By the way, Persepolis was made into an animated film  in 2007, with Satrapi as co-director with Vincent Paronnaud. You can watch a trailer here. I think the story would be even more appealing with animation. I am not a fan of graphic books; I find the images rather distracting and not necessary. But I think I will enjoy the film.

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I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Posted by nliakos on September 13, 2016

by Nujood Ali, with Delphine Minoui; translated by Linda Coverdale (Broadway Paperbacks, 2010; ISBN 978-0-307-58967-5)

Nujood Ali was a child of 9 or 10 (she does not know her birthdate) in 2008, living in poverty in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Unable to feed his family, her underemployed, khat-chewing father arranged for her to marry a man from their ancestral village.  He claimed that the man (who was about 30 years old) had pledged “not to touch” her until a year after she got her period. This promise was quickly forgotten, and Nujood was brutally raped the night they arrived at her husband’s family home in the village, which was far from Sana’a and almost completely inaccessible. That night, and the next night, and the next. . . . despite her pleas and screams, despite her attempts to run away and hide from the man she began to call “the monster.” She was in constant pain and felt “dirty inside”. She thought of nothing but how to escape this horrible life and return to her family and her school.

Nujood got her chance on a rare visit to her family in Sana’a. She ran away and went to the courthouse, where she somehow managed to be seen by a sympathetic judge by the name of Abdo. Judge Abdo was appalled when he realized that this little pre-pubescent girl was married and suffering the worst kind of abuse. At that time in Yemen, girls could not legally marry before the age of fifteen; but according to the book, in rural Yemen, this law was frequently broken. Nujood’s case was not at all unusual. What was unusual is that Nujood refused to submit to her fate. She managed to escape; she found her way to the court (taking unfamiliar buses and a taxi), she insisted on seeing a judge, and she persisted until the divorce was granted. Following her historic divorce, the age of marriage in yemen was raised, other Yemeni girls found the courage to seek divorces from older and abusive husbands, and even an eight-year-old Saudi girl was granted a divorce. Nujood Ali is a role model and a hero for many women and girls. For herself, Nujood simply wanted to return to her family and to go back to school, where she was resumed her third-grade studies, but now with a specific career goal in mind: to become a lawyer like Shada Nasser, who represented her in court, helping other girls and women to win their rights. Fortunately, the income from this book has enabled her family to have a somewhat better life; at least, the children are no longer reduced to begging on the street.

Young adults and English language learners should be able to understand the fairly simple style and vocabulary in the book, and they will be inspired by the simple courage of this young child who refused to deny her humanity in order to follow the customs of her culture.


Posted in Autobiography, Children's and Young Adult, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Posted by nliakos on September 12, 2016

by Benjamin Franklin (Dover Thrift Editions, copyright 1996, ISBN 978-0-486-29073-7; originally published posthumously by J. P Lippincott, 1868)

I don’t remember having read Franklin’s Autobiography before, but it should be on all Americans’ required reading list. I bought my Dover Thrift Edition for a whopping $2 at the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Philadelphia earlier this summer (B&N and Amazon both list it at $3.60.). It has 136 pages of small, closely set type, and lacks the annotations that would have been helpful in establishing and explaining the context for the people and events described by Franklin, but even lacking these, it is fascinating reading and appeals even to a modern reader who has forgotten much (and never knew a lot to begin with).

The Autobiography began as a letter written to Franklin’s son with the aim of explaining how Franklin’s own success in life was achieved, in the hope that his descendants might “find some of [the ways he achieved success] suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated.”  He describes his early life, how he became a printer, his escape from Boston to Philadelphia at the tender age of seventeen, and his rise to prominence in the colony of Pennsylvania. He does not omit behavior of which he was not proud; for example, he writes how when he went to England, he never wrote to his girlfriend, Miss Deborah Read; believing he had forgotten her (as he probably had), she married someone else, with whom she was unhappy. Later, after that marriage ended, she and Franklin became close again, and he married her in 1730. He wrote, “We throve together, and have ever mutually endeavor’d to make each other happy. Thus I corrected that great erratum as well as I could.” Later in life, Franklin, by then a kind of elder statesman, was persuaded to finish and update the autobiography. He then added Parts Three and Four, but was unable to finish them before he died, so the Revolutionary War and its aftermath are unfortunately not included.

It is astonishing to think of Franklin’s many achievements: Philadelphia’s fire department, public library, hospital, the academy that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society… He published a newspaper (the Pennsylvania Gazette) and almanac, printed paper money for the colony, served in the colony’s militia and supplied the British army with provisions during the French and Indian War, was Pennsylvania’s ambassador to England, transformed the American postal system, invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, counterfeit-proof paper money, and more…. The list goes on and on (not all of it included in the Autobiography, which he never managed to finish; see this timeline for a complete list). I was reminded of Ayla, the character in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, who domesticated the first dog and horse, invented surgical stitches and a host of other things, and almost single-handedly created human civilization. Only Franklin was a real person; he actually did all those things.

Franklin considered himself an honest, hard-working man of integrity who never tried to profit from his position of influence–which is why, he claims, he was able to wield so much influence; people respected him and trusted his judgment. He worked hard at being a virtuous person. He avoided alcohol, meat, gambling and other vices. If you read his Autobiography, you will wish you could have met this extraordinary man.

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

About Alice

Posted by nliakos on September 8, 2016

by Calvin Trillin (Random House 2006; ISBN 978-1-4000-6615-5)

This is the first book I’ve read by Calvin Trillin; by 2006, he had written 24 of them, of which a number feature his wife, Alice. This tiny volume, only 78 pages long, is a tribute to Alice, who died in 2001, a victim of radiation therapy, which saved her from lung cancer in 1976 and permitted her to see her daughters grow up and get married, but ultimately destroyed her heart.  Alice was a beautiful person, inside and out, and Trillin’s tribute to her is very moving. It makes me want to read more of Trillin’s work, as well as Alice’s article, “Of Dragons and Garden Peas”, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1981 and is still a resource in some medical school courses.

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The Secret Garden

Posted by nliakos on September 6, 2016

by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Harper Trophy; originally published in 1911)

Vicki and I recently watched two movie versions of The Secret Garden; one from 1987, and the other from 1993. This made me curious as to which one was more faithful to the book, so I reread it.  I very much enjoyed revisiting the story of spoiled Mary Lennox, her equally-if-not-more-spoiled cousin Colin Craven, and the strange Dickon Sowerby, who can communicate with wild animals and seems to know everything about animals, gardening, and human nature.

When Mary is orphaned in a cholera epidemic in India, she is sent to live with her eccentric uncle Archibald Craven at Misselthwaite Manor, in Yorkshire. Mr. Craven is still grieving the death of his wife ten years before, is rarely at home, and does not wish to see Mary or anyone else even when he is there.

Mary is an obnoxious child who has been indulged, but never loved. When she follows the sound of crying to her hidden cousin’s room, she meets her match, and so does he. Mary is the first person to refuse to kowtow to Colin, and they become fast friends. Mary finds a way into the locked garden where Colin’s mother had the accident ten years previous that resulted in her death; Dickon helps the two younger children to restore the garden to its former beauty, and Colin finds a reason to live.

It’s a lovely story about the redemption of two lost souls by the eponymous garden. On the negative side is the implication that the climate in India can make people sickly, lazy, and stupid, whereas the climate in England restores them to good health and renders them energetic and clever.

I always wonder why film directors make gratuitous changes in the details (I understand about the changes they have to make to bring a story to the screen.). For example, in the book, Mary’s father was Mrs. Craven’s brother, but in the 1993 film, Mary’s mother was Mrs. Craven’s twin sister, and in the 1987 film, Mary’s father was Archibald Craven’s friend–they weren’t even related. Why not stick to the “facts” as written in cases such as this? Overall, the 1993 film is truer to the book; the 1987 film kills off Dickon in World War I and has Mary and Colin fall in love when they grow up!

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | Leave a Comment »

I Take Thee, Serenity

Posted by nliakos on August 29, 2016

by Daisy Newman (Houghton Mifflin 1975; ISBN 0-395-20551-4)

I am not in the habit of reading abridged books (The Origin of Species being a notable exception!), but sometime in the 1980s, a Reader’s Digest volume containing two abridged novels came into my possession. One of the novels was Dick Francis’ Banker, which I duly read and then forgot so completely that during my Dick Francis phase, when I read everything Francis wrote (including his biography of jockey Lester Piggott), I reread Banker without realizing that I had already read it. The other one was a very sweet love story called Indian Summer of the Heart by Daisy Newman: Quaker farmer/writer Oliver Otis and feminist/college president  Loveday Mead find love together in their eighth decade. I was fascinated by the description of Quaker beliefs and lifestyle. Every so often, I would pick it up and reread it, or reread parts of it; and when I realized that it was actually the sequel to another book about Oliver and the  Quaker community in Kendal, R.I., I promised myself that I would read that, too. But then I would forget to look for I Take Thee, Serenity at the library or in bookstores–until this month, when I finally searched, came up with nothing (neither in the Montgomery County Public Libraries, nor in the University of Maryland’s libraries), and decided on an impulse to buy a used copy (it’s out of print) for $0.01 (plus shipping and handling of course). While I waited impatiently for it to arrive, I quickly reread Indian Summer of the Heart in its abridged version for the umpteenth time, and enjoyed it as much as ever.

In that book, Oliver is sharing his home, Firbank Farm, with his young cousin Serenity Holland, her husband Peter, and their toddler son Ross. I Take Thee, Serenity tells the story of how Serenity and Peter came to live at Firbank. It begins in their sophomore year at a small college in New York State, in the 1970s. They are in love and sleeping together, much to the dismay of Rennie’s parents, who urge them to marry, while Peter’s parents would prefer that they not marry while they are still in college. Rennie’s parents assume they will have a big wedding and start to plan it, but Rennie and Peter are reluctant. They become interested in the idea of a simple Quaker wedding, and the book opens with Rennie traveling to Kendal, Rhode Island to meet her father’s cousin Oliver Otis to ask him about the possibility of a Quaker ceremony. The encounter proves to be life-changing; Rennie is captivated by Firbank, by Oliver and his artist wife Daphne’s loving welcome, and by the simple friendliness of the entire Friends community in Kendal. But before the wedding can take place, both Rennie and Peter have a lot of growing up to do, over several years. Rennie especially is a childish know-it-all at the beginning of the novel; by the time she and Peter are man and wife, she has matured considerably. I didn’t like her at all in the first chapters, but had come round by the end.

And then I discovered that this novel is actually the third in The Kendal Trilogy! Now I have to find Diligence in Love and Dilly to complete the set.

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The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics

Posted by nliakos on August 27, 2016

by Daniel James Brown (Penguin 2013 , ISBN978-0-14-312547-1)

If you enjoyed Chariots of Fire, you will love this story of the University of Washington crew who won gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, to the dismay of Hitler and his Olympic organizers who did their best to put the American (and British) crew at a disadvantage while favoring the German and Italian crews. You will also learn a lot about rowing, shell construction (the long, narrow boats are called shells), the Depression, the rise of the Nazis and their calculated use of the Berlin Olympics to appear legitimate in the eyes of the world, the rowing coaches, and the young men, undergraduates at the University of Washington, who powered the Husky Clipper to victory in Berlin despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Brown focuses his attention on Joe Rantz, a young man who grew up motherless and in poverty and was abandoned by his father and stepmother when he was fifteen. The story of how Joe managed to finish high school and then put himself through college is truly amazing. He never lost sight of his dreams: of marrying his girlfriend Joyce Simdars, of making the U of Washington rowing team and later of making it to the Olympics, and of graduating from the university. Brown was able to interview Rantz at length before he died in 2007, with the result that he could accurately describe Joe’s thoughts and the emotional highs and lows of eighty years ago.

Brown’s description of the race for the gold in Chapter 18 had me on the edge of my seat (reading in the Metro on the way home from the Shakespeare Free-for-All, where we had seen a wonderful performance of The Tempest). There were so many strikes against the Americans during that 2,000-meter race that it seems impossible that they could have won it; yet win it they did. What a story! No wonder this book has been on the Washington best-seller list for many weeks!

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

When Breath Becomes Air

Posted by nliakos on August 16, 2016

by Paul Kalanithi (Random House 2016; ISBN 9780812988406)

Paul Kalanithi was a 26-year-old neurosurgeon in his last year of residency, with a bright future ahead of him, when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. In the little time remaining, he worked until he was no longer able to do so, and he wrote this book. Abraham Verghese, who knew Kalanithi slightly, wrote the Foreword.

The first part, “In Perfect Health I Begin”, chronicles Kalanithi’s early life, his decision to become a doctor, his time in medical school, and his marriage to a fellow medical student. I like memoirs, and I’m interested in how people become doctors, so I liked this part. (But I still don’t get how they are transformed from naive first-years into residents performing operations.)

The second part, “Cease Not till Death”, describes Kalanithi’s experience as a patient in the same hospital where he works (then used to work). He explores his evolving understanding of life and death. As the cancer inexorably destroys his body, he examines his relationships with his doctors and with his wife, describes his changing states of mind, and shares the joy he experiences cuddling and playing with his daughter, born eight months before his death in 2014. There are plenty of lessons to gained in this part. In some ways it is similar to Tuesdays with Morrie and The Last Lecture of Randy Pausch. It is true that thoughtful people facing their own imminent death have much to tell those of us who can still pretend that we are immortal–at least, our own ends are likely far enough in the future that we need not confront them. We avoid thinking about death until we are forced to think about it.

Rounding out the book is an Epilogue written by Lucy Kalanithi, detailing her husband’s last weeks and days. That part made me cry.

Like Tuesdays with Morrie, this would be a good book to reread every so often as a reminder to cherish each day we are given and each loved one with whom we share our journey through life.

Advanced English language learners will enjoy this book, which is beautifully written and also quite short, as the author did not live to finish it.



Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Leave a Comment »

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Posted by nliakos on August 13, 2016

(Parts One and Two) by Jack Thorne, based on a story by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne (Scholastic 2016, ISBN 978-1-338-09913-3)

I’m not actually sure who wrote what here. J. K. Rowling never published the story on which Jack Thorne’s play is based. Did all three people conceive the story together? This is not clear to me. And if this is Parts One and Two, does that mean Parts Three and Four are coming later? Who knows?

Anyway, the book is supposedly the “Special Rehearsal Edition” of the play being performed in London; it is written in the form of a play, with minimal stage direction, so a lot is left to the reader’s imagination. I kept thinking I would rather be watching it than reading it. That said, it sort of satisfied my wish to return to Harry Potter’s world (especially the flashbacks to the story we already know of Harry’s time at Hogwarts and what preceded that, such as the murder of Harry’s parents by Voldemort).

This is the story of Harry’s younger son and youngest child, Albus Severus (named for Profs. Dumbledore and Snape). Albus hates being the son of the famous Harry Potter. He is sorted into Slytherin House instead of Gryffindor, where he befriends Draco Malfoy’s unhappy son Scorpius, who is more cautious and gentler by nature than the impulsive and reckless Albus, who is constantly hatching plans and attempting to execute them without thinking them through–which lands him and Scorpius, and the entire wizarding world, in big trouble, which Harry and his friends (which now include a somewhat reluctant Draco) must sort out.

I hope someone will make a movie of it soon!

English language learners who have read the previous books in the series will probably find this one easier to read because of the screenplay format.


Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | 1 Comment »