Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for December, 2006

Back When We Were Grownups

Posted by nliakos on December 30, 2006

by Anne Tyler (Knopf 2001)

I love Ann Tyler. I reviewed Digging to America here and have read a lot of her books. However, I would have to say that this one is not one of my favorites. Why not? Could it be that the protagonist, Rebecca Davitch, is overweight? That would be a stupid reason not to like a book, wouldn’t it! (I remember not being able to read The Shipping News because of a similar problem.) I didn’t dislike this book, just wasn’t crazy about it. Rebecca, at 53, suddenly feels as though she is living the wrong life; that she took the wrong turn (as in the Robert Frost poem), “and that has made all the difference.” Unlike Frost, she decides that perhaps she can go back and go the other way. It’s an interesting idea, but I think we all know that it can’t be done, and in the end, Rebecca doesn’t (can’t?) do it either.

Favorite line: “She had imagined her future as a single, harmonious picture. But what she had ended up with was more like the view in one of those multi-lensed optical toys that Lateesha was so fond of: dozens of tiny chips of pictures, each interfering with the others.” (page 107) I liked this because every person’s life is a collage of different pieces. It’s never as neat as we would like it to be.

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The Alice series

Posted by nliakos on December 22, 2006

by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

The Agony of Alice has spawned 18 sequels (the latest to be released next year) and 3 prequels. My daughter Vicki and I have been reading the books together. Both of us love them. Alice, her father and brother Lester, her best friends Pamela and Elizabeth, her first boyfriend Patrick, her sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Plotkin, her seventh-grade English teacher Miss Summers (who eventually marries her father), and others in the series seem like real people. They face real-life dilemmas and deal with them honestly. They are a great way to stimulate dialogue between mothers and daughters. They are a kind of “how-to” manual for growing up because of the wide range of issues dealt with in the various books.

The American Library Association reports that this series is one of the “most challenged”, surpassing even Harry Potter in 2003 in complaints, due to the “sexual content” of the books. Actually, the sexual content is one of the things I like most about the books, as it stimulates a lot of conversations with my daughter as we follow Alice through adolescence. By the way, “sexual content” may be somewhat of an overstatement–we are currently reading Patiently Alice, which deals with the summer between 9th and 10th grades, and there has been no explicit mention of anyone having sex! But Alice and her friends (especially Pamela) wonder about sex a lot, and if I remember correctly, so did I when I was their age, and I would have appreciated a series such as this one that answered all my questions!

We enjoy the books because they are laugh-out-loud funny. Lester always adds comic relief, and Alice herself describes her frequent blunders and faux-pas in such a forthright way that a reader cannot help laughing.

Naylor does not shy away from the hard issues of racism, bullying, death, depression, abuse, suicide, and more, yet the tone of the books is unfailingly optimistic and good-humored, as Alice picks her way through the minefield of adolescence with the unfailing support of her family, friends, and teachers.

For me, the biggest mystery is why the series is not more popular, especially in this area, since the books have a lot of local color. Alice shops at Wheaton Plaza, her father manages the Melody Inn, a music store in Silver Spring modeled after Dale Music, and Lester is a student at the University of Maryland. Yet when we visit our local library or bookstores, I find only a few of the series on the shelves. Can it be that they can’t keep them in stock?

Because the books deal unflinchingly with the issues facing a girl in public school in the U.S., they might also be of interest to adult learners of English. The language is not particularly difficult.

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | 5 Comments »

The World Is Flat

Posted by nliakos on December 9, 2006

by Thomas L. Friedman

This book is wonderful! Like John McPhee, Friedman makes his subject interesting and memorable by writing in an informal style and including much dialogue from people he interviewed as well as his own personal experiences researching the book. As with The Lexus and the Olive Tree, I was immediately drawn in, as one would be with a good novel.

Since this is this year’s First Year Book at the University of Maryland, I had the opportunity to hear Thomas Friedman speak at the university in October. Friedman basically summarized the main points of the first half of the book, but since I had put the book down for a while and didn’t remember them so clearly, this was just what I needed to hear. He’s a very dynamic and convincing speaker.

December 26: I finished the book!  Despite taking so long to finish it, I really liked it and would recommend it to all.  The ideas are fresh and very thought-provoking.  It is somewhat repetitious and could probably have been edited down (it is almost 600 pages as it is), but is otherwise very well written–I like Friedman’s use of metaphor and his many examples of actual people and businesses.  Reading the book feels like having a conversation with the author.  The most challenging thing for me is trying to keep all the arguments straight.  As soon as I finished the book, I felt like I should start it all over again and read it with a highlighter, or take notes.

Posted in Non-fiction | 1 Comment »

Larry McMurtry

Posted by nliakos on December 9, 2006

I’ve been reading a lot of Larry McMurtry lately, mostly on audiobook. I recently finished Lonesome Dove. What a great read! What memorable characters! My favorite is Augustus McCrae. He combines, in one character, a macho self-reliant Texas Ranger with a modern feminist guy who loves deeply and isn’t afraid to admit it. Maybe this isn’t a very likely combination, but I liked him and was saddened by his demise. By the way, as I was listening to the part when Gus and Pea Eye are attacked by a band of Indians and take refuge in a cave in a riverbank, I realized that it all sounded very familiar. I had read of a startlingly similar event on a website about the Goodnight-Loving cattle trail (http://www.net.westhost.com/loving.shtml). Oliver Loving and a man named Wilson were cornered by Indians in exactly the same way. I went to the website and reread the account, then continued reading Lonesome Dove. It followed the historical event almost exactly, which made me wonder how many of the other unlikely happenings in the book may have been based on real events! I was interested to observe that Charles Goodnight makes a cameo appearance in the novel when Captain Call encounters him as he is taking Gus’ body back to Texas (just as the historical Goodnight did for Loving). Another character I liked very much is Clara, Gus’ true love. But the book is replete with memorable characters: Lorena Wood, Woodrow Call, Call’s illegimitate son Newt, Sheriff July Johnson and his horrible wife, “Dish” Boggett and the other cowboys, Bolivar and Po Campo…. the list goes on and on. I am now curious about the TV miniseries, which got such good reviews when it came out, but which I never saw. I wonder if it can possibly do the book justice.

The first McMurtry book I ever read was not a novel: it was his biography of Crazy Horse. I found it very well-written and also very interesting. After that, I tried Anything for Billy on audiobook and enjoyed it immensely. I was surprised when I realized that he also wrote Terms of Endearment (which I am reading now), the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, and The Last Picture Show. He’s incredibly prolific.

So far, Terms of Endearment is not my favorite. I need to like a character, and Aurora Greenway is very off-putting…. but I will reserve judgment, because I am only on tape 3. [Dec. 26: I finished Terms of Endearment. I did enjoy it, and I even came to like Aurora! However, the second part of the book, which focused on Aurora’s daughter Emma Horton, seemed like an after-thought–a hurried overview of Emma’s life and death after the main events of the novel. Imagine my surprise when I learned, from listening to an afterword by the author, that it was Emma who was one of his favorites among all the characters he has created! If he liked Emma so much, why did he give her such short shrift in this book, and then kill her off? I didn’t think Emma was given much depth as a character.]
I plan to read the others in the Lonesome Dove series soon: prequels Dead Man’s Walk and Streets of Laredo, and sequel Comanche Moon. By the way, Wolfram Kandinsky’s reading of Lonesome Dove is awesome.

Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment »