Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

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 »

The Violinist’s Thumb (And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code)

Posted by nliakos on August 13, 2016

by Sam Kean (Little, Brown & Co. 2012; ISBN 978-0-316-18231-7)

What with house guests and several other books, it took me over two months to finish this, which may explain why I remain confused about the roles of and differences between genes, chromosomes, and DNA in our genetic makeup; or maybe it’s just confusing stuff. Sam Kean writes about the history of genetics (important figures like Gregor Mendel, Baron Cuvier, and Craig Venter) as well as the science itself and what we can learn from it. Regrettably, I don’t remember the details! Kean’s style is conversational, slangy, and rather tongue-in-cheek.

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

The Atonement

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2016

by Beverly Lewis (Thorndike 2016; ISBN 9871410487605)

The Atonement is the story of Lucy Flaud, a young Amish woman who has flouted the conventions of her strict community by having an affair with an Outsider. The story is set in the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, three years after Lucy lost the baby that resulted from this affair; the father declined to marry her when he realized that he would be expected to become “Plain” (Amish). Lucy’s grief over her lost love and the death of the fetus is unabated. Her guilt has also estranged her from her beloved father, Christian Flaud, who is likewise grieving the loss of his relationship with her. Christian begins attending a grief support group at a nearby (non-Amish) church, and he eventually persuades Lucy to attend as well. But Christian inexplicably befriends a young “English” man he meets there, exposing Lucy to the charms of yet another potential suitor who is not Amish. Lucy gives herself over to charitable work to fill her time, believing that she can never marry. When her longtime friend Tobe expresses his desire to court her, she rejects him, believing herself to be forever ineligible to marry a virtuous Amish man because of her past transgression.

Beverly Lewis grew up in Amish country, daughter of an Amish mother, so I think it is safe to say that her depiction of Amish home life, way of speaking, and beliefs is probably pretty accurate. I enjoyed the story (although the characters seemed too goody-goody to be real), but this glimpse into the religion and culture of the Amish was for me the best part of the book.

Two other novels by Lewis set in Amish country are The Shunning and The Brethren.

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

Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2016

by John Elder Robison (Spiegel & Grau 2016; ISBN 978-0812996890)

I recently read and blogged about Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison. It turns out that he also wrote two other books before this one came out this year: Be Different and Raising Cubby. (Must read those too.) I am fascinated by his descriptions of life with autism, much as I was by Temple Grandin‘s and Daniel Tammet‘s. It’s like reading about how life is lived in an alien culture; if you’ve read much of this blog, you know how cultural differences fascinate me. Autistic people’s way of experiencing the world is so different from most people’s, and their unique abilities are so remarkable.

This book briefly covers some of the autobiographical material in Look Me in the Eye, but what it is really about is Robison’s participation in a research project at Beth Israel Hospital near Boston in 2008. The study, by neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone and psychologist Lindsay Oberman, explored the effects of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) on people with autism. (TMS involves “using an electromagnetic field to induce signals in the outer layer of the brain.”) The goal of the study was to assess whether TMS might be able to increase autistic people’s emotional intelligence–their ability to read emotional signals in others, which they are famously bad at.

The upshot of the research study is that in Robison’s case, the TMS did radically transform his ability to sense emotions in other people, which in turned engendered major changes in his behavior and human relationships–not all of which were positive. He writes openly about his post-treatment experiences, what he learned from the study, his fears and insecurities, his relationships with family and friends and researchers, and his feelings when his new-found abilities fade with time.

Robison also considers the question of whether using therapies like TMS to “cure” autism is in fact a good idea. He admits that the loneliness and bullying he endured as a child and his difficulties with human relationships as an adult were painful, but considers that the special abilities that enable him to understand machines better than other people provide a kind of counter-balance to this pain. He writes, “Sometimes, a touch of disability makes us great.” (p.274) Many of humankind’s quantum leaps forward have been made possible by the minds of people who, when we look back, seem to have been on the autism spectrum: Einstein, Beethoven, da Vinci, Mozart, and others. What if their eccentricities had been “fixed” when they were children? Would they have gone on to greatness anyway?

I strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in brain science and/or autism.

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

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Posted by nliakos on June 20, 2016

by David Eagleman (Pantheon 2011; ISBN 978-0-307-37733-3)

In this excellent book, neuroscientist David Eagleman explores the question of who we really are, given that the conscious part of our brain is but a small part of the whole. He writes, “Your consciousness is like a tiny stowaway on a transatlantic steamship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.” (p. 4)

That “massive engineering underfoot” not only runs our physical bodies (digestion, vision, reproduction, etc.) but also influences our conscious decisions in multiple ways, impacting who we are attracted to, what we choose to eat, what thoughts and ideas we have–pretty much everything, actually. As Eagleman writes, “Almost the entirety of what happens in your mental life is not under your conscious control.” (p. 8)

He likens this realization to the “dethroning” of the earth as the center of the universe and the “dethroning” of humankind as the apotheosis of creation or evolution, yet he stops short of espousing materialism and reductionism–the assumption that everything about us can be explained by understanding our physical components (the “break-it-down-to-the-smallest-bits approach”). He keeps an open mind and urges his readers to do likewise.

The book begins with a retrospective of our understanding of the role of the brain (“There’s Someone in My Head, But It’s Not Me”), continues with an exploration of sensory perception with an emphasis on vision (“The Testimony of the Senses”), and goes on to examine the automaticity of habitual actions, like changing lanes while driving, as well as the hidden preferences behind racism, mate selection, career choice, and more (“Mind: the Gap”).

In “The Kinds of Thoughts That Are Thinkable”, Eagleman examines the limitations placed by our biology on our experience of the world and our ability to interpret it, and considers how one person’s perception can differ from the next person’s–if she is a synesthete, for instance, Tuesday might be magenta to her. Next, he explores the question of whether there is a true self and concludes that there is probably not, in “The Brain Is a Team of Rivals”; to quote Walt Whitman, we “contain multitudes”, which explains our self-contradictory behavior. This chapter also considers the concept of being angry with oneself, making a deal with oneself, being ashamed of oneself, etc. Who is angry at whom?

“Why Blameworthiness Is the Wrong Question” advocates for a justice system that stops exacting retribution for criminal acts and instead metes out sentences based on the modifiability of the criminal’s behavior and the prevention of future crime. Finally, “Life After the Monarchy” (remember “dethroning”?) sums up the book’s themes and posits that one can be more than just the sum of one’s parts. Eagleman presents a strong case that the answer to the “nature or nurture?” question is usually “both”, or in his words, “The future of understanding the mind lies in deciphering the patterns of activity that live on top of the wetware, patterns that are directed both by internal machinations and by interactions from the surrounding world.” (pp. 219-220)  (I love the term wetware for the human brain!)

It’s a very interesting, readable, and thought-provoking book.

 

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

A Street Cat Named Bob & The World According to Bob

Posted by nliakos on June 9, 2016

by James Bowen (A Street Cat Named Bob, and How He Saved My Life: Thomas Dunne Books 2012 – ISBN 978-1-250-02946-1; The World According to Bob, Thomas Dunne Books 2013; ISBN 978-1-250-04623-1)

I happened on these two memoirs while cruising the biography shelves in the public library. They are really like one book, so I will review them together.

Apparently, Bob the London Street Cat is very famous. If you search for Bob the street cat on YouTube, you will find lots of videos about James and Bob. Somehow, I had never heard about them, so it was all new to me. James Bowen was a recovering heroin addict living in a small subsidized flat in London while he tapered off of methadone in 2007. He was living from hand to mouth, making a little money as a street musician, with few friends and a very poor opinion of himself. Somewhat reluctantly, he took in an injured young ginger tomcat whom he called Bob. In the end, it was Bob who rescued James, not the other way around. Bob is a very unusual cat in many ways: he was fiercely loyal to James from the beginning; he travels around London on a leash or sitting on James’ shoulders; he doesn’t mind wearing scarves and jackets (made for him by his many admirers) or taking baths. Is this cat for real???

In addition to being about Bob and his extraordinary relationship with James, the book describes the strange life of a recovering addict and sometime homeless person. Bowen has written honestly about his life as a street musician and later a magazine seller, barely scraping by, living from hand to mouth. It is hard for most of his readers to imagine living as he did for many years.

A Street Cat Named Bob describes how Bowen found Bob, how Bob enchanted passers-by into giving James money when he was busking and buying The Big Issue magazine, how James finally got off methadone, and how he was reunited with his mother in Australia. The World According to Bob reprises some of the material from the earlier book and also describes how the first book came to be written, and how its surprisingly warm reception changed Bowen’s life.

If you are a cat-lover, you are going to love these books! And even if you aren’t, you might love them. Bob is definitely not your ordinary cat. In fact, in many ways, he behaves more like a dog (like when he attacked a would-be mugger who tried to steal Bowen’s rucksack on a dark street one night).

And apparently, there’s going to be a movie about James and Bob, starring Bob himself, coming out this year.

 

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

Me Before You

Posted by nliakos on May 31, 2016

by Jojo Moyes (Penguin 2012; ISBN 978-0-14-310946-4)

Louisa Clark has just lost her job at a café in her English home town, and she’s desperate to find another. She finally lands a position as a companion/caregiver to a rich young quadriplegic, Will Traynor. At first, Will is sulky and rude, but over time, Louisa and Will’s relationship begins to develop into a kind of friendship. Inevitably, Louisa’s feelings for Will go beyond simple friendship. But Will is planning to end his life; in fact, hiring Louisa is a last-ditch effort by his parents to get him to change his mind. Louisa is so horrified that Will would contemplate such a thing and that his parents would let him do it that she quits the job, but is persuaded to return by Mrs. Traynor. Will Lou succeed in convincing Will that life is worth living? (I’m not telling.)

The right to die is central to this story, making it somewhat more thought-provoking than your average romance. Lou’s relationships with her parents, her sister, her boyfriend Patrick, Will, his parents, and his nurse, Nathan, are all explored in the novel (which is narrated mostly by Louisa, but occasionally by her sister, Will’s mother, and Nathan), as is the intellectual and personal growth Lou experiences through her relationship with Will. I could hardly put the book down, finishing it in 24 hours. I wonder if the movie is as riveting as the book! (It’s coming out this Friday. I just watched the trailer. Must see it!)

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Secret Chord

Posted by nliakos on May 30, 2016

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2015; ISBN 978-0-670-02577-0)

If only Geraldine Brooks could write her historical novels as fast as I read them! I have now run out of Brooks’ novels (but am looking forward to sampling her nonfiction, especially Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women and Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal’s Journey from Down Under to All Over, which was recently recommended by a librarian at my local library).

The Secret Chord is the story of David–of David & Goliath fame, yes, King David, the writer of psalms–narrated by Natan (Nathan),  who has divine visions of what will be (and sometimes what is or what has already been) and serves as an advisor and confidant to David. An aging David has authorized Natan to interview people from his past about his life and to record the story; Natan, having finished this task, refers to the securing of the manuscript in “the high, dry caves where [he] played as a child”–perhaps a reference to the Dead Sea Scrolls and the possibility that such a manuscript might someday be unearthed.

Brooks/Natan portray David as a gifted musician and poet, a charismatic leader, and  a military and political strategist, whose abundance of love for his sons leads him to spoil them outrageously, thus sowing the seeds of his downfall. His seduction (or rape?) of Batsheva, wife of the faithful general Uriah, ends in tragedy for all, but eventually Batsheva (now a favorite wife) will bear the child who will become David’s successor–Shlomo (Solomon).

It makes me want reread the story of David in the Bible, because I am curious as to how much Brooks fabricated and from what actual references. (I did the same after reading The Red Tent.) I also guess that the songs and poems quoted in the novel are actual psalms, although I did not recognize any of them.

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

Spider Woman’s Daughter

Posted by nliakos on May 23, 2016

by Anne Hillerman (Harper 2013; ISBN 978-0-06-227049-8)

Tony Hillerman’s daughter Anne has taken up the mantle of continuing her father’s Leaphorn and Chee  mystery series. I have only read a few of these, but someone gave me this one, and I liked it well enough, although I am not so enamored of mysteries as I once was. Joe Leaphorn himself is out of action in a hospital CCU after being shot in the head by an unknown assailant. It’s up to Jim Chee and his wife Bernie Manuelito, Leaphorn’s former colleagues, to solve the mystery. Of course, there are some tense moments when it looks as though the assailant will succeed in getting rid of them, but I don’t think I will spoil anyone’s reading experience to say that the assailant’s evil plot does not succeed.

Lots of information about Navajo rugs, Chaco pots, and the Navajo way of thinking. There’s an interesting side story concerning Bernie’s relationships with her ailing mother and younger sister.

Posted in Fiction, Mystery, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,372 other followers