Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for October, 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Posted by nliakos on October 31, 2007

by Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen L. Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver; read by the author(s)

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors; I have read and loved most of her previous books, notably The Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, Animal Dreams, and The Poisonwood Bible.  I remember enjoying her first collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson.  She writes wonderfully, so reading her is always a pleasure.

This, her newest book, is about her family’s year of “eating locally.”  Soon after moving from Tucson to a small mountain farm in southwestern Virginia, theKingsolver-Hopp family put into action the plan they had been hatching for about seven years: that of eating only what they grew themselves or bought from farmers in their region or state.  They planted a large vegetable garden and ordered chicks and turkey poults; the farm already had some fruit trees.  The book follows their odyssey for a full year, beginning with asparagus, the first spring vegetable, and continuing through greens, tomatoes, infinite amounts of zucchini, turkey “harvest”, and tubers, followed by frozen and canned foods purchased and harvested throughout the growing season, which sustained the family through the winter.  Barbara’s chronological narrative alternates with shorter sections by Stephen (on the science and politics behind the local food movement) and Camille (on nutritional aspects of local vs. ag-industry food).  The youngest member of the family, Lily, did not participate in the writing, but she plays an important role in the book as the family’s egg maven (a born entrepreneur, she started her egg business at the age of 6 with mail-order chicks).

The book meshed very well with other books I have read recently, in particular The Ravaging Tide, because the fossil fuels used to transport mass-produced food long distances  is implicated in global warming, and My Year of Meats, because long before they committed themselves to local food, the Kingsolver-Hopp family gave up eating feedlot beef and other products made from or by animals living in close confinement and denied any sort of normal existence (hogs, chickens, dairy cows…).  Before they began to eat local, that had meant vegetarianism, but they resumed eating meat,  poultry and eggs and consuming dairy products when they were sure that the animals had lived a more natural life and had been slaughtered humanely.  As an ethical vegetarian myself, I found Kingsolver’s chapter on the pros and cons of vegetarianism very enlightening.  It doesn’t make me want to eat meat again, but it makes sense.

My favorite chapter, the one that had me laughing out loud, was the one near the end of the book about turkey sex.  It seems that domestic turkeys, having been artificially bred and incubated for many generations, have kind of lost the knack for natural reproduction. How Barbara managed to learn about the lost art of turkey breeding and then persuade her turkeys to mate had me in stitches.  I also enjoyed Kingsolver’s descriptions of her and Stephen’s trip to Italy, where they ate their way through Tuscany, but in fact, I loved the whole book.  It definitely inspired me to try to eat more locally grown foods, something I had actually never really considered as important before I read it.

More information and recipes can be found at

The three co-authors narrated their own contributions to the book.

Posted in Non-fiction | Tagged: | 2 Comments »


Posted by nliakos on October 21, 2007

by Johanna Spyri

I think Heidi must be my all-time favorite children’s book, at least from those that I actually read as a child. I have three hardcover editions; my most recent acquisition is a Knopf 1987 edition illustrated by Ruth Sanderson (interestingly, the translator is not named).

I don’t know why this story of a young Swiss orphan, her grandfather, the people who dwell on the Alp with her, and those she meets when she is sent to Frankfurt as a companion for a crippled child, appeals to me so much and so consistently; but I love Heidi’s honesty and goodness. Other characters the reader cannot help loving and admiring are Heidi’s grandfather, the Alm-Uncle (or Nuncle, as he is called in one translation); young Clara Sesemann, whom Heidi is sent to Frankfurt to befriend, her father, and her grandmother; and the Frankfurt doctor who helps Heidi return to her beloved home. In addition, the characters of Peter the goatherd; Fraulein Rottenmeier, the Sesemanns’ housekeeper; and Sebastian, the butler are memorably drawn.

My favorite parts include the part where Heidi’s simple trust and intelligence win over her grandfather, who has lived for years isolated from his fellow men; the part where Clara’s Grandmamma persuades Heidi that she can, in fact, learn to read; the part where Heidi’s homesickness gets the better of her and she sleepwalks, frightening the entire household, and especially where the doctor quickly gets to the root of the problem and induces Mr. Sesemann to send her back to her grandfather; and the doctor’s and Clara’s visits to the Alm. I read and reread these and other favorite parts, never tiring of them, always finding tears in my eyes at the same moments.

I also love the descriptions of the natural beauty of the Alps and the mountain meadow where Heidi and Peter go with the goats; the mountains, plants, and animals are lovingly described. It is this natural beauty that Heidi misses in Frankfurt, as much as she misses her grandfather. Shut up in a big city house, unable to see the sky or hear the wind in the trees, served fancy food instead of the wholesome goat’s milk, cheese, and bread she was accustomed to, she actually begins to wither like a plant deprived of light and water.

When Vicki was young, I purchased the Shirley Temple movie for her, and when we began watching it together, I was delighted to see the beginning of the story unfolding exactly as it is told in the book. Imagine my horror when the movie soon diverged so completely from the story as to be unrecognizable. In the movie, Fraulein Rottenmeier, instead of the vain, foolish woman portrayed in the book, is frankly evil, bent on selling Heidi to the gypsies, and Heidi’s grandfather travels to Frankfurt and rescues Heidi in a ridiculous carriage chase through the snowy streets. I wondered, why invent such absurdities when the story is so satisfying as originally told? Despite its moralistic tone and old-fashioned piety, Heidi is a timeless treasure of children’s literature.

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

Great Expectations

Posted by nliakos on October 15, 2007

by Charles Dickens (narrated by  ?)

I think I have read this before, or listened to it before, but  I didn’t remember much of it.  I know I’ve watched parts of a dramatization or movie, but I think not all.  I do remember Miss Havisham’s ghostly appearance and her horrible surroundings.

Dickens weaves a great story.  “Pip” is a small boy when he helps an escaped convict in the marshes near his home; this good deed (involuntary though it was) will have repercussions on his later life that will change its course completely.  Instead of becoming a blacksmith like his kind, slow brother-in-law Joe, Pip is given the chance to become a gentleman with property and “expectations”.  (I had always believed that the strict class divisions of English society made it impossible for mere money to raise up a person from the low classes into the upper classes; but of course Pip is educated by Matthew Pocket and taught social graces by Matthew’s son Herbert, who becomes his dear friend and rescuer.  Pip erroneously believes his benefactress to be the eccentric Miss Havisham.  He falls hopelessly in love with her beautiful adopted daughter, Estella, raised to be heartless and to make men suffer as Miss Havisham’s intended caused her to suffer by jilting her on their wedding day.

Early in the novel, I wanted to shake some sense into this young man who would choose the haughty Estella over the gentle Biddy, who would be a much more appropriate mate for him, and who is ashamed of Joe, his sister’s husband, who is a saint if there ever was one.  He is repelled by Magwitch when his true benefactor reveals himself to him; he is unable to appreciate the man’s sacrifices for him.

Later on, however, Pip matures into a more likable character than he is at the beginning.  He fully gives himself over to the saving of Magwitch, and he reconciles himself, insofar as possible, to the loss of Estella.  I really enjoyed the story and the narration of it.

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The Birth of Venus

Posted by nliakos on October 15, 2007

by Sarah Dunant

Alessandra is a tall, awkward girl with a passion for painting, living in Florence during the time of Savonarola, the friar who inflamed the city with his abhorrence of intellect, art, beauty and finery. She is the narrator of her own story: her desire to witness the events of her time; her unfortunate marriage at the age of 15 to an older man who turns out to be in search of a cover for his homosexuality in a time when to deviate in any way from Savonarola’s fundamentalist views was very dangerous; her affair with the Dutch or Flemish artist brought to Florence by her father to cover their family chapel with frescoes. I enjoy historical novels, for they make the past come alive in a way that history texts, with their reliance on names, places, dates, and battles, cannot. I can imagine Cristoforo’s terror of being denounced and tortured; the artist’s fall into insanity; Alessandra’s courage in the face of the rising hysteria of Savonarola’s movement. She describes the “bonfire of the vanities” and other actual historical events in a way that makes them real and memorable. The reader can well imagine what it might have felt like to live during that turbulent time. Alessandra herself is torn between her disgust for Savonarola’s methods and her contempt for the corruption of the Catholic Church. Dunant does not force her character into a modern atheistic mindset, but lets her express her belief in God and the Church, as well as her confusion as to who is actually right in the battle between the friar and the Pope.

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