Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for September, 2007

A Drinking Life

Posted by nliakos on September 29, 2007

by Pete Hamill (narrated by Jonathan Davis)

I’ve had this on my To Read list for a while because I absolutely loved Hamill’s Snow in August (a mostly realistic, partly fantastic novel about a young Catholic altar boy who becomes friends with a Czech rabbi, a refugee from the Nazis, in the years after the war when Jackie Robinson was breaking the color barrier in professional baseball) and also really liked Forever (the story of an Irish immigrant who is granted eternal life–as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan). A Drinking Life is Hamill’s memoir of growing up in Brooklyn, wanting to draw comics,dropping out of high school, joining the Navy, going to work for the New York Post, getting married and divorced, and throughout it all, how he was affected by alcohol–first his father’s drinking, and then his own.

I enjoyed seeing how similar Hamill’s boyhood was to the young protagonist in Snow in August, who also loved comic book heroes, whose father was absent, who served the mass, who lived near a synagogue…. But I kept wondering how someone could make so many bad choices–getting into fights, dropping out of school, drinking like a fish, sleeping with numerous women, neglecting his family–and still somehow survive and be successful! It seems to be he should have been dead long ago of either venereal disease or cirrhosis of the liver. I’m glad he lived to write those books, but I can’t understand his charmed life. He probably doesn’t think of it as charmed–with an alcoholic father whom he could never manage to please and a failed marriage–but the fact that he lived so long seems charmed to me. I’m on the final CD, when his marriage has broken up and his wife has taken his two daughters and gone to study in Mexico, and I am hoping he is going to tell how he finally managed to stop drinking! (Later: I could hardly believe how he quit drinking: he just stopped one day.  He must not have ever been truly addicted, because he doesn’t seem to have suffered DTs or had any real difficulty quitting.  Some people are lucky when it comes to quitting smoking or drinking, but I am sure it’s not a typical experience.)

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The Ravaging Tide

Posted by nliakos on September 29, 2007

by Mike Tidwell

This is our First Year Book at the University of Maryland this year; Mike Tidwell is a local author who lives in Takoma Park, Maryland and is the founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Tidwell is known for having predicted the disaster of Hurricane Katrina before it happened, but as he makes clear in this book, many native Louisianans and scientists knew very well that a big hurricane would devastate the Louisiana coast; Tidwell got the credit for reporting the predictions of many others, as he freely admits.  An environmentalist who is not afraid to express his intense dislike of George W. Bush and his (lack of an) energy policy, Tidwell describes the Katrina catastrophe and shows how it was made possible and how it could have been prevented (or mitigated), and then goes on to make a strong case for action NOW to reduce CO2 emissions and slow, or maybe even reverse, global warming before it is truly too late.

I am convinced–but is anybody else out there listening?  Is anybody else reading this book?  Why aren’t we demonstrating in front of the White House to force this President, this “oil man”, from destroying the world?  It’s funny; my daughter loves to watch anime shows that feature evil characters whose goal it is to destroy the world.  George Bush doesn’t look evil, but he surely seems bent on destroying the world as we know it.

My class of 17 international students at the University of Maryland is reading the book also.  Their reactions range from resentment of the United States for withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, to shock at the realization that their home countries (Korea, India, Qatar, Japan, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, China) will lose significant land from sea level rise, to astonishment that an author can voice such open disapproval of his country’s president, to motivation to use less energy than they are accustomed to using.

Everybody should read this book.  Then we should cut our own energy use as much as possible (Tidwell tells us exactly how to do it) and lobby the government to come up with an energy policy with muscle.

Posted in Non-fiction | 2 Comments »

My Year of Meats

Posted by nliakos on September 3, 2007

by Ruth L. Ozeki (audio version narrated by Anna Fields)

Jane Takagi-Little is a documentary film-maker whose assignment is to find and interview American women for My American Wife, a TV program intended to encourage Japanese housewives to cook more meat. Akiko is the bulimic wife of the advertising executive whose idea this series was. The book alternates between Jane’s descriptions of the various filming episodes and Akiko’s reactions to the shows as she sees them and rates them for her husband, who is a world-class jerk.  As the book progresses, it becomes a vehicle for a kind of diatribe against the meat industry.  As a long-time vegetarian, I liked that!
Anna Fields does a Japanese accent better than a Spanish one (see previous post).

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

Bel Canto

Posted by nliakos on September 3, 2007

by Ann Patchett (audio version narrated by Anna Fields)

This is one of my favorite books, one which I have read numerous times, included several times with ESL classes. Students usually like it too, although some of the more straight-laced ones are offended by the sexual behavior described in the novel, in particular the adulterous relationship. I just love it, though. I love the way Patchett uses language, the way she describes each scene and the way she leads us into the strange world of the hostages and their captors, allowing just a touch of magic to render the events almost (but not completely) believable. I love the characters: calm, quiet Mr. Hosokawa and his geeky translator, Gen Watanabe; the diva Roxana Coss; Carmen, who can make herself invisible; Cesar and Ishmael, the terrorists who discovered in themselves the capacity to dream of normal lives; Simon, the French diplomat whose love for his wife is his only reality; Father Arguedas, the simple priest whose love of opera is surpassed only by his desire to be helpful; and Ruben Iglesias, Vice President of “the host country”, who discovers a predilection for housework during the long months of captivity. Patchett develops her characters with loving care as the novel progresses toward the climax she has warned us about in Chapter One, but which we cannot bear to contemplate as we are drawn deeper and deeper into their lives.

Anna Fields does a good job of narrating the book, but I wish she had worked a little harder to pronounce some of the Spanish words and names correctly. Interestingly, everybody has an accent (although they are all supposed to be speaking in their native languages as Gen interprets) except for the American (okay, that’s expected) and the Japanese (huh?), even though Fields is very capable of producing a creditable Japanese accent (see next post).

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

Ellen Foster

Posted by nliakos on September 3, 2007

by Kaye Gibbons (Vintage Contemporaries, 1987, 1990)

Recommended strongly by a friend, this is a first-person  fictional narration about a girl growing up abused and escaping from the abuse.  Ellen’s mother dies, leaving Ellen in the care of an alcoholic, abusive father.  It takes a while, but Ellen manages to remove herself from her father’s house.  She identifies a good foster home and sets about moving in, even taking the name Foster.  Throughout the book, her concept of racial equality, as seen in the person of her friend Starletta, develops until she understands that there is no reason to look down on Starletta and her family because of their race.

The narration is written in southern dialect and as if written by a child.

I liked the book well enough, so I checked out its sequel, The Life All Around me by Ellen Foster, published by Harcourt in 2006, which tells the story of how Ellen manages to get herself educated at Harvard University.  Here, however, I lost patience with both Ellen and her story, and did not finish the book.

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