Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for July, 2006

The Year of Magical Thinking

Posted by nliakos on July 15, 2006

by Joan Didion, Knopf 2005.

This is a book about grieving.  It is a reminder that the longer we live, the more likely it becomes that we will lose someone we love, and that we cannot prevent these losses. It reminds us that grief can “un-do” us in a very real way, and that we cannot always control our behavior or our thoughts.

Joan Didion’s husband died very suddenly, five days after their daughter became gravely ill.  Didion had to deal with her husband’s death even as she was dealing with the possibility that she might also lose her only child.  Months later, when her daughter was finally out of danger, she still had to deal with her unresolved grief over her husband.  The book chronicles the first year following her husband’s death.  At the end of the year, she is still not ready to “move on,” as the culture tells us we should be able to do.  “I look for resolution and find none.”

A fast read, one that makes you think.  “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”  It can happen to any of us.  But until it does, we maintain our denial.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

A Crowded Heart

Posted by nliakos on July 9, 2006

by Nicholas Papandreou, Picador 1999 (orig. published 1996)

ISBN 0-312-20400-0

This is supposed to be a novel–it even says so on the cover!–but it is a thinly veiled one at best.  The narrator, like the author, was born in California to an American mother and Greek father who is heir to a political dynasty, just like Andreas Papandreou, former Greek Prime Minister and father of the author.  The book describes the boy’s childhood and coming of age from about age eight to seventeen, set in Greece and Toronto.  It was undoubtedly a difficult childhood: only part Greek, not even fluent in the language, the boy must live up to a certain standard of behavior, and his life, like that of all politkcal families, was very public.  I am sure it wasn’t easy.

That said, there is no real plot; no ascending action, no climax, no real resolution.  The book reads more like a memoir or collection of autobiographical essays than a novel.  It is interesting and well written, but not gripping.  It was also an easy read and quite short, only 177 pages.

I am left wondering to what extent the events were fictionalized, if at all.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments »

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Posted by nliakos on July 8, 2006

by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1967 (Spanish edition) and 1970 (English Translation by Gregory Rabassa)

With this novel, Garcia Marquez launched magical realism, in which fantastic events are related in a matter-of-fact way.  I have to admit that I did not enjoy the book.  I was confused by the multi-generational characters with similar or identical names.  I found it difficult to empathize with the characters, who seemed like mere caricatures of real people, unlike those in Like Water for Chocolate, another magical realist novel, and for me, a much more enjoyable read.  Most of the characters were either totally selfish or totally selfless; no one seemed like a real human being.  I was disgusted by the wars and killings and unimpressed by the love stories, which seemed to be based mostly on lust.  I don’t generally like novels if I can’t identify with the characters.  Still, I am glad to have finally read it!

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »

Digging to America

Posted by nliakos on July 2, 2006

by Anne Tyler, 2006.

This could be my favorite Anne Tyler! It tells the story of two families, one Anglo-American and the other Iranian-American, who meet when they both adopt Korean orphans. The book takes them through about 6 or 7 years following the adoptions. Many of the characters are wonderfully developed and interesting (I found them to be more realistic and less eccentric than Tyler’s usual characters), especially the main character, Maryam Yazdan, widowed grandmother of one of the Korean adoptees. Maryam has always been an outsider, even in her home culture; now, after 40 years in America, she is very well-assimilated, but continues to feel excluded from the surrounding culture (while also feeling apart from the Iranian-American subculture).

I get the impression that Tyler, married for many years to an Iranian, must have really gotten this culture clash right. The novel is full of insights into the themes of cross-cultural adoption and friendships, being bicultural and bilingual, what it means to be an American and also to be an immigrant.

Some favorite quotes:

Living in a country where your native language is not spoken:

“Wouldn’t it feel like a permanent bereavement, to give up your native language?” (p. 116)

Culture shock:

“[Maryam] wondered how they (Iranians) had lasted this long in a country where everything happened so fast and everybody knew all the rules without asking.” (p. 143)

(Comment: But we don’t know all the rules without asking. We also have to ask about how to behave and what to say when someone dies, how much and whether to tip, and lots of other things! Of course, there are many things that we simply absorb as we grow up; what Tyler says here is absolutely true.)

Linguistic code-switching:

“It was a phenomenon that Maryam had often observed among Iranians. They’d be rattling along in Farsi and then some word borrowed from America, generally something technical like ‘television’ or ‘computer,’ would flip a switch in their brains and they would continue in English until a Farsi word flipped the switch back again.” (p. 143)

Being foreign:

“It’s a lot of work, being foreign.” (Maryam, p. 179)


“He is so American…. He takes up so much space. He seems to be unable to let a room stay as it is; always he has to alter it, to turn on the fan or raise the thermostat or play a record or open the curtains. He has cluttered my life with cell phones and answering machines and a fancy-shmancy teapot that makes my tea taste like metal.”

“But, Mari-June,” Ziba dared to say, “That’s not American, it’s just …male.”

“No, it’s American,” Maryam said. “I can’t explain why, but it is. Americans are all larger than life. You think that if you keep company with them you will be larger too, but then you see that they’re making you shrink; they’re expanding and edging you out. I could feel myself slipping away….”

I loved this book.

Posted in Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | 1 Comment »

The Lighthouse

Posted by nliakos on July 2, 2006

by P. D. James, 2006.

A new Adam Dalgleish mystery is a big event!  I found this one on my library’s 7-Day Express shelf, but it actually took me only a little over two days to read it.  Although formulaic (murders in a closed society on a remote island), it is cleverly contrived and leaves the reader guessing until the end.  I had to keep a list of characters to keep everyone straight in my mind.  Cmdr. Dalgleish is assisted by Inspector Kate Miskin and a new police sergeant, Francis Benton-Smith, who is an interesting character in his own right.  P.D. James seems to be unwilling to leave her hero forever alone, so now in her eighties, she has allowed him to fall in love, have a sex life, and propose marriage!  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »

The Skull of Truth

Posted by nliakos on July 1, 2006

by Bruce Coville.

Another of the Magic Shop Series, this delightful book tells the story of Charlie, who discovers the Magic Shop in the usual way (when he is chased by bullies and suddenly finds himself in an unfamiliar part of town) and comes away from it with a wisecracking human skull that turns out to be that of Yorick (yes, as in “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.”). Yorick was cursed by a witch, making him unable to lie, which ultimately leads to his death; the same compulsion to speak the truth affects Charlie and anyone else in close proximity to the skull. Thus, the book examines the concept of truth and untruth, and how telling the truth can cause pain and trouble, but that it can also heal and be a very powerful force in the world. The plot is clever, and the book gives plenty to think about. Like the other Magic Shop books, it is beautifully illustrated in black and white by Gary Lippincott.

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