Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Little Women

Posted by nliakos on July 14, 2018

by Louisa May Alcott (Grosset & Dunlap Illustrated Junior Library 1947)

I was not one of the many girls who adored Little Women when I was younger. I am pretty sure I read it (but not Little Men or Jo’s Boys), but probably just once. It doesn’t feature animals, for one thing. And perhaps I found it too saccharine. It is kind of a goody-goody story. But I enjoyed the performance on PBS this year and resolved to re-read it. I bought it very cheap for my Nook app and alternated between that and a friend’s somewhat dilapidated 1947 edition (Ex Libris: Carmen Valenzuela) featuring color plates and line drawings by Louis Jamber.

This time around, I preferred Part Second, when the sisters are older, to Part First,  during which Mr. March is away ministering to the Union troops in Washington. Almost all the main characters are introduced in these chapters:  next-door neighbor Teddy “Laurie” Laurence, and his crotchety grandfather; equally crotchety Aunt March; and of course, mother Marmee and the four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. I think it is common knowledge that Alcott modeled Jo after herself, and I think she is most readers’ favorite character. Jo is a tomboy;  had the story been written now, she could be a lesbian or even, eventually, a trans-gender man. (Even though in Part Second, she bows to convention, falls in love, and marries.) She is a more natural character than Marmee, Meg, and Beth, who are all rather saintly, and more likable in Part First than practical Amy, who will grow up to decide that she should marry for money (so that she can take care of her poor relations). But in Part Second, the girls, now young women, take on more authentic characteristics. Meg, the first to marry, almost squanders her husband’s love and attention by paying too much attention to her children; Beth, facing her own death, inspires her family with her courage and kindness; Jo struggles with her ambition, her sharp tongue, her inability to reciprocate Laurie’s love for her, and the loss of her beloved Beth; and Amy finds true love and a fortune in the person of Laurie, once he has gotten over his crush on her sister. Through it all, the parents are founts of wisdom and good advice, especially Marmee. All of these things are pretty well known. But I cried over Beth’s passing and cheered for Jo and her Professor. Despite its moralistic tone, Little Women can still delight.

 

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Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The Map of Salt and Stars

Posted by nliakos on June 23, 2018

by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (Touchstone 2018)

This novel by Syrian-American author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is actually two novels in one. The first one, set in Syria, Jordan, and North Africa in 2011, is the first-person account of the escape of one Syrian family from the conflict in their homeland. This family consists of the mother, a cartographer, and her three daughters, Huda, Zahra, and twelve-year-old narrator Nour. The family had been living in New York, where Nour was born, but decided to move back to Syria after the death of the husband and father to cancer. They have barely settled in to their home in Homs, and Nour’s Arabic is still quite rudimentary, when the house is destroyed by a shell, and they find themselves homeless. Joined by the father’s best friend, Abu Saeed, they begin to make their way westward, through Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and finally Morocco, seeking safety. They confront dangers of many kinds, lose one person when the ferry they are on sinks, are separated when the mother has to remain behind to take Huda to a hospital, and are finally reunited in Ceuta, the Spanish city across from Gibraltar, where the novel concludes.

We experience this harrowing journey through the eyes of Nour, who happens to be a synesthete; her descriptions are accordingly vivid, such as “a dog barks silver purple”, “the bare walls will be splashed with color from everybody’s singing”, and “I smell the brown-red brakes before we see the bus terminal”. (I wonder: Is Joukhadar also a synesthete?) She is still grieving for her father, as they all are, in their different ways. She idolizes her eldest sister Huda, but has to learn to love middle sister Zahra, who can be hard to like but who undergoes her own transformation as the novel unfolds. This is Nour’s coming-of-age; it could not happen in a more challenging setting.

The other novel within the novel is the story of another journey, undertaken nine centuries earlier in the same part of the world, that of Rawiya of Ceuta, who disguises herself as a boy so that she can apprentice herself to the famed (actual historic) mapmaker, al-Idrisi, as he travels throughout the then-known world to make the first accurate map of it for the Sicilian king, Roger II. Rawiya (aka Rami) is a kind of super-hero(ine), smart, courageous, highly skilled and seemingly indefatigable. Rawiya and al-Idrisi, together with another apprentice, Bakr, and the poet/singer Khaldun, make their way over the same lands as Nour and her family do, although some of the names are different (Aila for Aqaba, Barneek for Benghazi). This is a story that Nour’s parents have told her over and over again, a story that she tells herself, trying to take on the attributes of Rawiya, who never seems to be afraid, never panics, never loses sight of her goal, whether she is fighting people or mythical monsters (giant serpents, the roc). It is Rawiya’s story that will help Nour to reach the place where she and Zahra are reunited with their mother and Huda.

Both stories were engrossing, both protagonists admirable and likable, and I enjoyed the novel very much.

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Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart * How We Come Together

Posted by nliakos on June 10, 2018

by Van Jones ( Ballantine 2017)

I don’t watch CNN much, and I have never seen Van Jones’ show, The Messy Truth. In fact, I had no idea who he was (progressive activist, CNN political contributor, author, attorney, founder/supporter of numerous progressive organizations). However, reading this book has made me curious to know more (if you know when The Messy Truth airs on CNN, please let me know!).  In it, Jones speaks as a progressive, but he speaks to both liberals and conservatives. He believes that both share responsibility for the mess we are in today, and both have the power and the responsibility to fix it. In fact, he says, we need each other, because neither side has the whole answer. He writes, “In the end, the promise of America is liberty and justice for all. My fellow liberals are so focused on justice we too easily forget about liberty. Conservatives can be so committed to liberty that you become blind to cases where injustice curtails freedom. We need each other. We cannot improve this country alone.” He couches the progressive/conservative split as a difference in which values are prioritized. It’s a simple thing, but I had never really thought about it in that way before. I think perhaps he is right. Government can be too big and too intrusive. Regulations can be too onerous than necessary. Not every conservative goal ends in injustice. We do need a balance between the sides; the discussion between them slows down the process and gives everybody a chance to consider all the options and possible consequences of change, and forces everyone to think about and clarify their ideas and their consequences.

Chapters Two and Three are “open letters” to liberals and conservatives, in which Jones speaks first directly to his fellow progressives and then to those on the conservative side. As a lifelong liberal, I read the “Open Letter to Liberals” with interest and introspection, and found Jones’ conclusions to ring true. (Example: Democrats take the African American vote for granted, not bothering to make good on their promises to this group: “The party should dramatically increase its paltry investments in the one community that has backed it unconditionally” [92% of the African American vote generally goes to Democrats.]).

Jones has great compassion for the poor and working-class white voters who have been abandoned by the party that should prioritize their interests–the Democrats. He understands that not all of these voters are racist bigots. He understands how globalization, trade deals, wars, and other decisions made in the interests of the big parties and big business have stolen the ability of many to support their families as they were accustomed to doing by working in factories and mines, for example. But he doesn’t excuse them for supporting Trump despite his offensive statements. He writes, “I understand where [they] are coming from. I hear their pain, and I want to give voice to that. . . . [but] as much as I want liberals to understand where blue-collar families . . . are coming from, I want Trump voters . . . to broaden their political agenda to include real compassion for the pain experienced by Americans who are black and brown. I want them to understand that the impact of their choice has created a living hell for American Muslims living in fear, for Latino workers facing deportation, . . . for Native Americans fighting the imposition of leak-prone pipelines, for those Americans . . . who will face longer prison sentences under the reignited drug war.” He concludes, “Trump’s stoking of racial animosity was one factor, but not the only factor, in his victory. Liberals need to keep that in mind–lest we paint too many people with the wrong brush and push persuadable people deeper into Trump’s arms.”

In Chapter Five, “Prince, Newt, and the Way Forward’, Jones describes some of his personal relationships with people on both sides of the great divide, like his college journalism teacher and mentor, E. Jerald Ogg (a white, conservative Republican), Newt Gingrich (an unlikely friend for a liberal Democrat, but nevertheless), and Prince, the rock star. The part about Prince was especially interesting to me. I was never a fan of his music (probably because I never heard much of it or recognized it as his, and I was surprised at the outpouring of emotion when he died. Jones, who became great friends with Prince, describes how he would donate large amounts of money to many individuals, projects, and causes, but generally anonymously, because he wanted to avoid attention for his generosity; and how Prince stood by him and advised him during a particularly dark time in his life. Jones and Prince together created a program to encourage young African Americans to learn computer coding so that they would have the skills to work in the new 21st century jobs. He writes, “Prince touched people’s lives in countless ways. . . . His music will be his legacy, always and forever, but I will always remember him for his generous commitment to giving back. He notes how people of all races, religions, and ethnicities were among his fans: “Somehow everyone was in on the secret of the purple magic he created, and everyone belonged.” Jones’ words turned Prince from a mere celebrity  into a human being that I think anyone would have admired.

The final chapter is devoted to four ideas to help bring Americans together again:

(1) fixing the justice system that incarcerates more people than any other country, and sometimes spits them out after their sentences are served, deprived of their fundamental rights or any way to make an honest living. Specifically, he recommends keeping disruptive students in school rather than suspending, expelling, or arresting them; eliminating excessive fees and fines; doing away with money bail; decriminalizing addiction and mental illness; not sending people to prison for low level crimes; abolishing mandatory minimum and solitary confinement, increasing access to education and family visits; supporting ex-offenders’ ability to make a living; and restoring their voting rights.

(2) ending the opioid addiction crisis by ending the “detox and die” method; making naloxone  readily available; providing medicine and counseling to incarcerated addicts; requiring insurance companies to cover addiction treatment; training medical professionals to deal with addiction; and treating addiction like the illness it is rather than like criminal behavior.

(3) recognizing that “technology is great for consumers. But it can be bad for workers.” And really training people for work in the tech industry.

(4) Supporting clean technology and cleanup of industrial pollution.

Reading this book renewed my hope that perhaps things can get better again, if we would just respect one another and seek innovative solutions to some of our most pressing problems.

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Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America

Posted by nliakos on May 28, 2018

by Ari Berman (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015)

Despite all the recent GOP squealing about imagined, unproven voter fraud, I guess I thought the problem of voter suppression was mostly solved by the Voting Rights Act back in 1965. Wrong. This carefully documented history of the VRA showed me how the GOP, having lost the battle to legally deprive African-Americans of their right to vote with absurd literacy tests and poll taxes, set immediately to finding other, more creative ways to suppress the minority vote. During the Reagan and G. W. Bush administrations, they received a lot of support from the Executive Branch in their fight for inequality; and Reagan was able to tilt the Supreme Court so far to the right with his conservative appointments that it became more of an adversary than an ally (and still is!).

My state, Maryland, generally makes it easy to register and vote. Marylanders can register to vote at MVA offices and in schools. They can vote early, absentee, or on Election Day, as they choose. Even if their legitimacy as voters is questioned, they can cast provisional ballots, which are counted after being validated. But residents of many other states (in particular, states of the former Confederacy) are not so lucky. For them, ground gained in the late 20th century is being lost in the 21st.

After describing how President Johnson managed to get the VRA passed in 1965, Berman walks his reader through the various reauthorizations of the Act (1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006) and the landmark Supreme Court decisions which either strengthened or weakened the law:

  • Allen v. State Board of Elections (1969) – this challenge to election laws in parts of Mississippi and Virginia raised the question of whether Section 5 of the VRA might be used to prevent states from setting district boundaries in such a way that African Americans never constituted a majority, effectively barring them from winning elective office, since whites in the south did not vote for persons of color–in other words, rendering racial gerrymandering illegal.
  • White v. Regester (1973) – This decision found that at-large elections discriminated against black candidates, who were more likely to be elected when they ran in smaller districts where they constituted a majority (aka minority-majority districts).
  • City of Mobile v. Bolden (1979) – This decision essentially reversed White v. Regester, reflecting the more conservative makeup of the Supreme Court.
  • Thornburgh v. Gingles (1986) –  prevented minority vote dilution by racial gerrymandering.
  • Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (2008) – allowed states to restrict voting in response to the “threat” (as opposed to the actual existence) of voter fraud
  • Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 (NAMUDNO) v. Holder (2009) – did not actually change the VRA but encouraged further challenges
  • Shelby County v. Holder (2013) – This shameful decision essentially gutted Section 5 of the VRA by invalidating Section 4 (I did not understand well how one thing led to the other), thus removing the teeth from the law; states/counties with a history of vote suppression no longer have to have all changes to their election laws pre-approved by the Justice Department. By making it impossible to prevent abuse, this decision has undone much of the progress made possible by the VRA. As a direct result of this decision, voter turnout in 2014 plummeted; the number of voters turned away at the polls for failure to comply with some obscure procedure (or because the lines were too long) skyrocketed; and the GOP increased its stranglehold on state governments. Shame!

Berman explains the crucial importance of Section 5, which forced sixteen states (or counties within those states), mostly in the former Confederacy, to have any changes to their election laws “precleared” or pre-approved by the Department of Justice, giving the federal government the ability to block so-called second-generation voting restrictions which these states liked to use “to subvert the power of the growing minority vote”. Southerners hated being singled out for preclearance, even though relatively few abuses occurred elsewhere in the country. (Presumably, requiring preclearance in all fifty states would be prohibitively expensive, but it might have shut them up.)

Other concepts discussed in the book include voting rights versus states’ rights (to control their own elections); and simple ballot access vs. the right to be represented by someone like you. (The original VRA focused on access; subsequent reauthorizations added prevention of voter dilution, or representation.) Ballot access can be suppressed with tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes, which were outlawed in the original VRA; in addition, measures that increase voter access, such as opportunities to vote early or by mail, adequate equipment and staff at the polls, sufficient hours of open polls, convenient locations of polls, use of provisional ballots, same-day registration, and no need for special identification which voters are unlikely to have, can be manipulated or gotten rid of (in areas where there are many minority voters), thus effectively suppressing the minority vote. Representation is mainly a result of racial gerrymandering.

The cast of characters includes the good guys (such as John Lewis, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Lani Guinier, Nicholas Katzenbach, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Eric Holder, Barack Obama, James Sensenbrenner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a lot of poor, black, and elderly voters) and the bad guys (such as Strom Thurmond, John Roberts, Brad Reynolds, Abigail Thernstrom, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, William Rehnquist, Richard Nixon, Hans von Spakovsky, and Brad Schlozman).

I was appalled at the tactics employed by many Republican politicians and others to deprive minority voters of their most precious right in our democracy. I wonder, how did they justify these actions to themselves? Or maybe they truly believe in white supremacy.

During the Reagan administrations, the people appointed to run the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (Schlozman, von Spakovsky) were precisely the people who did not wish all Americans to have equal civil rights. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse! I was reminded of the EPA under the leadership of EPA-hater Scott Pruitt, who has turned the Environmental Protection Agency into the Environmental Destruction Agency. In both cases, many career civil servants working in those agencies, who believed in the mission of those agencies, resigned or were reassigned. Ugh.

Berman ends on a hopeful note–young activists inspired to fight on by past activism. But we shouldn’t have to fight this battle anymore. It was supposed to have been fought and won in 1965. I am thoroughly ashamed of my country.

 

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Posted by nliakos on May 10, 2018

by J. D. Vance (Harper-Collins 2016)

Those of us who consider ourselves part of the “resistance” to Donald Trump and his GOP supporters often wonder why Trump’s “base”–those voters who are faithful to him, no matter what he says or does–continue to stand by their man–and whether we can bridge the divide between Us and Them and perhaps help them to see reason. Before we try to convince them that they are wrong and we are right and Donald Trump represents a disaster for our country, we should read this book about hillbillies–the “white working class” folks who live in (or originate from) the Appalachian mountains in the Eastern United States. And getting our message across to them won’t be easy, because as described by J. D. Vance (who considers himself a hillbilly although he was mostly raised in southwestern Ohio), they are more different from us than the most exotic Asian or Middle Easterner, African or European.

According to Vance, their honor code of protecting their family above all seems more like something you would find in Sicily than in America. If you insult a hillbilly’s family member, s/he would consider it normal to beat you up or shoot you. Rather than trusting the justice system, hillbillies mete out a harsh justice themselves. And if they criticize “welfare queens”, it’s because abuse of government assistance is so widespread among them that they assume everybody does it.

Vance is of this culture, but he was able to escape the poverty he grew up in and join the educated American middle class. He calls himself “a cultural emigrant.” He joined the Marines (which forced him to grow up and learn to take care of himself) and then went to college and Yale law school. But before that, he gives most of the credit to his grandparents, especially his grandmother “Mamaw”, who partly raised him and always gave him a place to escape to when things got too hard or stressful at home, where his mother alternately fought and then gave in to drug addiction and presented young J.D. and his sister Lindsay with a never-ending parade of boyfriends and husbands. His grandparents pushed him to do well in school and constantly assured him that he could succeed. But he confesses that without them and the safe haven they provided, without his older sister’s loving care, without his four years in the Marines, without any of the many factors that conspired to help him succeed, he couldn’t have done it. His present-day comfortable life would have been out of reach. Thinking about it now, about how close I was to the abyss, gives me chills. I am one lucky son of a bitch. Yet despite all the negative things he sees in his culture of origin, Vance harbors a real appreciation for these people, and a desire to see them do better, as he himself proves is possible.

I always enjoy reading books about foreign cultures, and this culture certainly qualifies, despite its being embedded in the heart of the United States of America.

 

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A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

Posted by nliakos on May 8, 2018

by James Comey (Flatiron Books 2018)

If you have been paying attention, you already know that James Comey did not unveil any deep dark secrets or smoking guns in the memoir he published after being fired from his position as FBI Director by Donald Trump, four years into a ten-year term. But the reader will learn much about Comey’s own life and career, which touched some of the most notorious cases of the past thirty years (including Whitewater, Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Edward Snowden and “the collision between privacy and public safety”, Marc Rich, Abu Ghraib and the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture), David Petraeus, and of course, the notorious Clinton email investigation. As Assistant Attorney General of the Southern District of New York (the ones who are suing the Administration to prevent them from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census), as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan under Rudy Giuliani, as Deputy Attorney General and later Acting Attorney General of the U.S., Comey has had a front seat to many if not most of the big cases we’ve all heard about. He dealt with the Mafia, and he dealt with George W. Bush’s barefaced attempt to coerce John Ashcroft, Attorney General and Comey’s boss, to approve extensive surveillance of American citizens by the NSA. It was fascinating to read his retelling of these events.

The book is essentially an autobiography; after an initial chapter on his encounters with La Cosa Nostra, it begins with his childhood (when he was the target of bullies in his Allendale, NJ elementary school (I used to ride horseback in Allendale!). He spent years doing his utmost to avoid those bullies. He credits his parents (“tough, but kind”), some of his teachers, and an unforgettable boss named Harry Howell, with giving him the support and guidance which helped him to become the person he is. There is a marvelous story about how he once spilled 24 gallons of milk on the floor of Howell’s supermarket. He explains, “I stopped abruptly and pushed the hand truck hard upright, heedless of the basic laws of physics. The universe and the milk, of course, were not heedless.” Howell’s low-key reaction to the catastrophe (“Have you learned something? . . . . Good.  Clean it up.”) exemplifies Comey’s idea of “great leadership”.

But Comey was not only the target of bullies; he describes a memorable time when he participated in the humiliation of a nerdy classmate at the College of William and Mary when he was a freshman. But he learned from that experience, too: “Four decades later, I’m still ashamed of myself.” Despite his own experience being bullied and despite the teaching and examples of important adults in his life, he gave in to the temptation to belong to “the group”. Still, he concludes that being bullied made him a better person and instilled in him a hatred of bullies and sympathy for the victims of bullies. (Of course, the reader thinks of Donald Trump, Bully-in-Chief.)

Comey describes his career in public service and his family life. The Comeys had hoped to settle permanently in Richmond, where he worked as Assistant U.S. Attorney under another memorable boss, Helen Fahey. But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, he returned to New York as U.S. Attorney.

Comey writes intelligently and thoughtfully about lying (in a chapter mostly about the Martha Stewart and Scooter Libby cases) and leadership. He writes that he spent a lot of time during his first year as FBI Director traveling around the country and abroad to every field office, where he met and listened to special agents and other employees. It was very important to him that each employee knew how much he valued him or her. Reading about his views on good leadership and how he tried his best to be a good leader, I thought that he must be a fantastic person to work for, able to get the best out of each employee.

Chapter 6, “On the Tracks”, is one of the most fascinating, describing the struggle between the Justice Department and the (second) Bush administration over Project Stellar Wind, a program of citizen surveillance which required the Attorney General’s approval before it could be implemented. Both Comey and Ashcroft opposed the project because they felt it was not within the law. With Ashcroft desperately ill in intensive care at GW Hospital, two White House staffers rushed to the hospital to get him to sign off on the program, but Comey and several of his staff beat them there and in the end, Ashcroft refused to approve it. I remember reading about this in the Washington Post when it happened but not understanding well what had happened. Comey’s chapter explains everything in great detail. It reminds me a little of what happened during the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, and of what could happen if Donald Trump were to fire Robert Mueller or Rod Rosenstein. In such blatant power grabs by a President, the DOJ must function as a check on the White House. If not, then Congress must explore the impeachment option. I never realized that the Card-Gonzalez-Comey-Ashcroft situation very nearly precipitated that kind of crisis in 2004.

Of course, what most readers are itching to get to are the sections which describe Comey’s relationship with Donald Trump, Trump’s attempts to get Comey to pledge loyalty to him, and the horrible way in which Trump fired Comey. This was interesting, but these were also the parts that were quoted and summarized extensively in the media when the book came out, so there was less to learn that was new. However, I was impressed by the detailed description of Comey’s emotional reaction to having to leave the FBI and a job that he loved, just when he was hitting his stride as Director. I was amazed to learn that Trump was nasty enough to want Comey, who was in Los Angeles giving a speech to staffers in the field office there when he learned of his dismissal on TV (he thought it was a joke at first), to have to pay his own way back to Washington while the FBI plane he had flown out on flew home empty. It was Andy McCabe who authorized Comey to return on the FBI plane, and Trump was furious. Not satisfied with dismissing Comey in a horrible, public way, Trump wanted to humiliate him as much as possible by forcing him to fly back on a commercial flight, at his own expense. The mean-spiritedness of the man is astounding.

A few favorite quotes:

Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear–like a Cosa Nostra boss–require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders care deeply about those they lead, and offer them honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice.They have a confidence that breeds humility. Ethical leaders know their own talent but fear their own limitations–to understand and reason, to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. They speak the truth and know that making wise decisions requires people to tell them the truth. And to get that truth, they create an environment of high standards and deep consideration–“love” is not too strong a word–that builds lasting bonds and makes extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.

I say this as someone who has worked in law enforcement for most of my life, and served presidents of both parties. What is happening now is not normal. It is not fake, It is not okay.

There are men and women of good conscience in the United States Congress on both sides of the aisle. . . . But not enough of them are speaking out. They must ask themselves to what, or to whom, they hold a higher loyalty: to partisan interests or to the pillars of democracy? Their silence is complicity–it is a choice–and somewhere deep down they must know that.

The situation offers an opportunity to rebalance power among the three branches of our government, closer to the model the founders intended.

Far from creating a new norm where lying is widely accepted, the Trump presidency has ignited a focus on truth and ethics.

I choose to be optimistic.

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

A Man Called Ove

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2018

by Frederik Backman (Washington Square Press, originally published in Swedish in 2014 and translated by Henning Koch in 2014)

Ove is 59, apparently “on the spectrum” with all the difficulties with human relationships that that implies. As a young man, he fell head over heels in love with Sonja, who did not judge him (perhaps because her father had very similar traits), who loved him in return. Ove and Sonja married, but their happiness was marred by a tragic accident. Sonja was able to move past the tragedy and get on with the business of living, so Ove did, too. Until Sonja died, robbing Ove’s life of all its color and robbing Ove of his reason to go on living.

Spoiler alert: Below, there are some details about the story that you might not want to know if you are going to read it. Stop reading here!

So Ove decides to end his life, and the novel focuses on a period of weeks (I think–it’s not entirely clear, and there are numerous flashbacks to Ove’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood (meeting, falling in love with, and marrying Sonja) one winter during which Ove attempts to commit suicide several times, in different ways (neatly and with minimum trouble to those who would need to deal with the aftermath, as per Ove’s idea of the right way to conduct oneself). But each attempt is interrupted by others who need Ove’s help: his old friend (more recently, enemy) Rune and Rune’s wife Anita; his new neighbors, Patrick, Parvaneh, and their children; his obese young next-door neighbor Jimmy; the awkward teenager Adrian; gay Mirsad, whose father hates homosexuals; and a nameless stray cat, among others. Slowly and inexorably, they pull Ove back from the brink and show him how to love and live again.

Although she is dead as the novel begins, Sonja is a luminous major character in Ove’s story. Part of the reason that Ove does what he does is because he knows Sonja would approve, and he believes that when he dies, they will be reunited; he doesn’t want her to be angry with him because of what he does or doesn’t do. Sonja’s good qualities shine throughout the story: gentleness, generosity, intelligence, perseverance, a sense of justice and an ability to meet each human being on his/her own terms, without judgment.

Parvaneh, an Iranian immigrant, is also a very important character in the book. Outgoing, generous and practical, Parvaneh also refuses to be frightened by Ove’s grumpy exterior. She does not hesitate to ask for, even to demand, his help when she needs it, thus saving his life on several occasions.

I just loved this book. Especially if you know someone on the spectrum, you may gain some insight into how that person thinks and sees the world. The novel has been made into a movie, which looks good, and I hope to see it soon, but I don’t expect it to surpass the novel. Movies seldom do.

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Black Narcissus

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2018

by Rumer Godden (Little, Brown 1939)

This one is part of my on-going project of reading all of my mother’s books which I still have and haven’t read (Cf. The Birds Fall Down). She had two by Rumer Godden: this one, and An Episode of Sparrows, which I believe is better known.

Black Narcissus is the story of a small group of Anglican sisters who are sent to a remote village in the Himalayas to open a convent with a school, clinic, and dispensary in a building which has been offered to their order by “the General”, the local potentate. Ominously, a group of brothers failed at a similar project in the same location. The offer of the building seems too good to pass up, but at the same time there are numerous signs pointing to failure (so the reader isn’t very surprised when in the end, the nuns depart, leaving little to remember them by).

There are some colorful characters, including Sister Clodagh, the sister-in-charge (I spent the whole book wondering how to pronounce her name); Sister Blanche, aka Sister Honey, the over-emotional sister whose rash kindness will eventually set the group on the road to disaster; Sister Ruth, “the snake-faced sister”, who sinks into madness; Mr. Dean, the Englishman “gone native” (apparently a terrible thing) who kindly helps the nuns in every way he can, including trying to get them to understand the people they are trying to serve; and Dilip Rai, “the young General”, the eponymous Black Narcissus, who wants to study in England, so he convinces Sister Clodagh to teach him. Reluctantly, she acquiesces, but his presence in the Convent eventually leads to trouble.

I am always astonished at the arrogance of the English (and of Christian missionaries) who believe that they have everything to teach the inhabitants of other lands, and nothing to learn from them. (Mr. Dean is the exception to this unfortunate tendency.) In this novel, Rumer Godden seems to be saying that some other cultures are impervious to Western teachings, although some of her characters refuse to believe this.

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Washington Schlepped Here: Walking in the Nation’s Capital

Posted by nliakos on April 2, 2018

by Christopher Buckley (Crown Journeys 2003)

Even 15 years later, this little gem will appeal to both visitors to and residents of Washington, D.C.  In a series of four walks, Buckley (who worked for Vice President Bush in the 1980s) regales the reader with fascinating (and often funny) details of the history and background of the various sites, memorials, monuments, government buildings, and more.

Walk One covers Union Station, the Capitol, the Grant Memorial, the National Gallery, and the major Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. Of course, it would take you weeks to really see what’s in all those museums (plus the ones that have been added since the publication of the book, like the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African Art, the Sackler Gallery (Asian art) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. So if you were really making the walks, you might want to break this one down into about ten walks. But as someone who has lived in and near DC for many years, I was happy just reading about places I have already visited. Something new I learned: Alexander “Boss” Shepherd was appointed by President Grant to govern D.C. in the 1870s, and it is Shepherd who filled in the stinking open sewer that was Tiber Creek and installed new (covered) water and sewer systems, who paved and lit the streets, and who built parks and planted 60,000 trees, among other achievements. I wonder if Shepherd St. N.W. was named for him. He deserved something grander, if so.

Walk Two: the major memorials and monuments on the west end of the Mall, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Interesting factoid no. 1: The Washington Monument was supposed to have been built on a north-south line running from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial, but the ground there would not have supported it, so the site had to be moved slightly south and east. (I wonder how they figured this out, exactly.) Interesting factoid no. 2: Prominent Washington women had chained themselves to some of the cherry trees around the Tidal Basin to prevent their being cut down to accommodate the Jefferson Memorial, so Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes had tea and coffee delivered to the women  so that they would have to pee, and when they left to pee, the trees were cut down. (Sounds suspect to me: not because tea and coffee don’t make people need to pee, but all at the same time? And they didn’t think to take turns, leaving somebody there guarding the trees?)

Walk Three: the area around the White House, including Ford’s Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was shot. Interesting factoid: Daniel Sickles, a congressman from New York, who lived next to Decatur House on Lafayette Square, killed his wife’s lover, pled (or pleaded, which I understand is more correct) temporary insanity (the first time the insanity defense was used) and was acquitted, and later lost his leg at Gettysburg; it was put on display at the Army Medical Museum, where he used to go and visit it.

Walk Four: Arlington National Cemetery. I learned a lot that I didn’t know, like the re-interment of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designer of the capital city, who died in poverty and disgrace (after being fired for his “bad attitude”, apparently) and was initially buried in Bladensburg, Maryland. Interesting factoid: Clinton’s Ambassador to Switzerland had to be dug up and re-interred elsewhere when it was discovered that he had not, in fact, been a veteran, as he had claimed. And Joe Louis, the boxer, wasn’t eligible for burial at Arlington either, but Reagan made an exception for him, and so he is there.

 

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Follow My Leader

Posted by nliakos on March 21, 2018

by James B. Garfield (illustrated by Robert Greiner; Viking Press 1957)

This novel about a young boy who must learn to cope with blindness after a tragic accident was one of my favorite books when I was a child, and I have actually re-read it many times. It can still bring a chuckle to my lips and tears to my eyes. Eleven-year-old Jimmy Carter loses his sight when his friend Mike inadvertently tosses a lit firecracker in his direction. The book follows Jimmy’s progress as he learns to use a white cane, read and write using Braille, and finally gets a guide dog, whom he names Leader. Almost half of the book describes the training Jimmy does at the guide dog school, both before and after he gets the dog. Jimmy learns a lot from his fellow students as well as from the school staff about living as independently as possible. But possibly the most important lesson he learns is from his roommate, 28-year-old Mack. Mack helps Jimmy to realize that hating Mike is useless and toxic, and when he returns home, in addition to going back to school, getting an after-school job (a newspaper corner), and rejoining his Boy Scout troop, he finds a way to forgive his friend.

Along the way, Jimmy’s widowed mother, his younger sister Carolyn, his best friends Chuck and Art, and others, learn valuable lessons about how to act (and how not to act) around a blind person, and by extension, around anyone with a disability. I think this book may have been the first one I ever read which helped me to vicariously experience the life of a person living with a disability. Despite the tremendous changes we have gone through as a culture since the 1950s, I think children today can still benefit from reading Jimmy’s story.

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