Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for July, 2009

The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Posted by nliakos on July 22, 2009

by Eric Weiner (Twelve, 2008)

It always amazes me how some people persuade other people (publishers?) to foot the bills for extensive travel and purchases so that they can write books or articles about them–like the person who got his publisher to pay for a horrifically expensive bottle of very old wine so he could review it (he wasn’t impressed).  Eric Weiner somehow got funding to travel around the world to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, and India (not to mention the United States), as well as to purchase a Ridiculously Expensive Pen (which he subsequently lost)–so he could reflect on that experience.  Life is tough.  I loved the book, though, so why am I complaining?

Weiner did his homework concerning research on happiness, and he asked informants in all those different places whether they were happy, how happy they were, what made them happy, and so on–not very scientific, but it makes for very interesting reading.  In the end, he sums up what he learned: Wealth does not ensure happiness, especially if Culture is absent.  Familial and social connectedness are necessary to happiness, as is trust; envy makes happiness impossible. If we think too much about happiness (or anything), it will elude us.  That last comes mainly from the chapter on Thailand, which also yields the expression, mai pen lai, or “never mind”.  If we don’t let the bad stuff get to us, if we just let it roll off our backs–mai pen lai–we can be happier.  I think I will try it (although I am pretty happy, generally–maybe a 7 or an 8 out of 10, depending on the day).

English language learners may enjoy reading the chapters about their own countries–although they may not always like what Weiner has to say about their compatriots!

I’d definitely recommend this book.

Posted in Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Leave a Comment »

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences

Posted by nliakos on July 22, 2009

by Kitty Burns Florey (Harvest 2006)

I am of the generation that was taught English grammar through diagramming.  Unlike Kitty Burns Florey, I don’t remember particularly liking it at the time.  As a matter of fact, I was not a born grammarphile; I became one after I started teaching ESL in the 1970s.  I am well aware of the research that tells us that explicit grammar instruction is not particularly helpful for ESL students, yet I persist in explicitly explaining; my students do not remember or apply the rules I try to teach them, but that doesn’t seem to stop me.

At one time, I became intrigued by the idea of using diagramming with my ESL classes, but I never actually did it.  The main reason may have been phrasal verbs.  I remembered how to diagram prepositional phrases, but what about two-word verbs?  Do you diagram “She ran into her old friend” the same way you diagram “She ran into her old house”?  Obviously not.  So what is “into” in the first sentence?  We ESL teachers would call it a particle.  I don’t think the rules of diagramming included particles.  Would Reed and Kellogg have called it an adverb, and put “friend” in the direct object position?  Or would they include it as part of the verb (my preference)?  It was these kinds of questions that stumped me, so I never actually used diagramming with my students.  But I did enjoy reading about it.  Florey also concludes that diagramming sentences does not result in better writing, but that gives students the perception that they control the sentences. Also, she claims that it’s fun!  Maybe for her it was. In any case, I enjoyed deciphering the diagrams in the book, and it was interesting to realize that diagramming, like new math, was an educational fad that I happened to experience when I was a kid in school.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »


Posted by nliakos on July 8, 2009

by Carol Shields.  Fourth Estate, 2002.

I think I enjoyed The Stone Diaries, but I had trouble getting excited about Unless.  (I didn’t notice until I was almost done with it that all the chapter titles were adverbs, with a few preposiitons thrown in for good measure; but what the titles have to do with the chapters themselves wasn’t obvious.)  Carol Shields was a woman writer writing about a woman writer (Reta Winters) writing about a woman writer (Alicia something or other) writing about…. you get the picture.  Except that Reta’s eldest daughter has inexplicably dropped out of college and started begging for a living on the streets of Toronto.  This is hugely disturbing to Reta, her husband Tom, and their two younger daughters.  (While I am sure it would indeed be very upsetting, I can think of lots of worse things that could happen to one’s child.  As Reta points out, she knows exactly where her daughter is and can go and see her whenever she wants, even if the girl refuses to talk to her.)  In the end, the reason for Norah’s rejection of family, friends, home, and education becomes clear and all ends “happily.”  I thought the ending was too pat, actually.

I did enjoy this little eponymous paragraph:

“Unless is the worry word of the English language.  It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence. Unless–that’s the little subjunctive mineral you carry along in your pocket crease.  It’s always there, or else not there…. Unless you’re lucky, unless you’re healthy, fertile, unless you’re loved and fed, unless you’re clear about your sexual direction, unless you’re offered what others are offered, you go down in darkness, down to despair. Unless provides you with a trapdoor, a tunnel into the light, the reverse side of not enough. Unless keeps you from drowing in the presiding arrangements. Ironically, unless, the lever that finally shifts reality into a new perspective, cannot be expressed in French.  A moins que does have quite the heft; sauf is crude.  Unless is a miracle of language and perception,…. It makes us anxious, makes us cunning….But it gives us hope. (pp. 224-225)

It’s a book to be passed on, not one I would keep on my shelf.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »

She’s Come Undone

Posted by nliakos on July 8, 2009

by Wally Lamb.  Pocket Books 1992.

I didn’t much care for this novel about an obese, disagreeable girl who eventually undergoes psychotherapy, loses weight and becomes a good person.  I don’t generally like books about unpleasant characters (think Gone with the Wind), and I didn’t find Dolores’ transformation very convincing.  In the first half of the book, she is really obnoxious, treating people worse than they treat her (which is badly).  Is it supposed to be the psychotherapy that turns her into a kind and generous person?  Or just growing up?  Anyway I finished the book because I liked her better in the second half, but I’ve already forgotten most of it.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »