Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for June, 2011


Posted by nliakos on June 27, 2011

by Dick Francis and Felix Francis (Putnam’s 2010)

I guess this must be Dick Francis’ last novel; he died in February of 2010 (Click here for the NY Times obituary).  I have probably read all of his books (for years, I waited anxiously for the next one each December; I couldn’t even wait for the paperback before buying it). This one follows the same formula: fundamentally nice guy with connection to British racing world gets mixed up in and finally solves crime after suffering excruciating pain inflicted by criminals. The protagonist usually falls in love with a lovely woman along the way; in this book, that doesn’t happen, but everything else goes according to the usual plan. Tom Forsyth, having lost a foot in Afghanistan, returns reluctantly to his mother’s home in Lambourn to find that she and his stepfather are being blackmailed. Tom single-handedly tracks down the blackmailers and brings them to justice, although he almost loses his life in doing so.  I have read so many versions of Francis’ basic plot that I can’t understand why I still find it appealing, but as always, I devoured all 336 pages in less than a single day. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I just like the protagonists of Francis’ books: they are smart, brave, tough, and honest (see previous post) and I just want to see how they defeat their adversaries. Apparently, knowing that this will happen does not dilute the pleasure of reading to the end.  This is not great literature, but for a pleasure read, Francis is still one of my favorites. I will miss him.

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Posted by nliakos on June 27, 2011

by David Mitchell (Random House 2001)

This one has been on my to-read list for years. I have not read Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten, and did not know what to expect. There was a lot I did not like about Number9Dream: the mixing of “reality” (i.e., what is supposed to be actually happening to the narrator, twenty-year-old Japanese “hick” Eiji Miyake as he searches Tokyo for the father he never knew) with dream sequences and descriptions of video games and (to me) gratuitous violence.  Much of Chapter 5, “Study of Tales,” consists of pieces of someone else’s stories about characters called “Goatwriter” (any relation to Ghostwritten?) and “Mrs. Comb”.  Waiting in line at the MVA, I just skipped over them; they seemed both confusing and unnecessary to the story. I was more interested in Eiji’s blooming love interest, the young musician Ai (“Love”). I liked Ai, and I liked Eiji. He’s an essentially good person, and I always look for a likable protagonist. I also enjoyed the descriptions of Japanese life, like this wonderful image from p. 323: “Tokyo is a model of that serial big-bang theory of the universe. It explodes at 5 PM and people matter is hurled to the suburbs, but by 5 AM the people-matter gravity reasserts itself, and everything surges back toward the center, where mass densens for the next explosion.”  (Is densen a word??)  You can forgive a lot of someone who can write that.  🙂

There is much to like in this novel about obsession and forgiveness. What do parents owe their children? Where is the line between an unhealthy obsession and a determination to see something through to the end?  Is it possible to rise above what was done to us as children and to forgive?  But the price for these thoughtful insights is a lot of (to me) inconsequential descriptions of waking and sleeping dreams, unconnected fictional passages, and gruesome violence. I was glad I stuck it out until the (weird) end, but it was not always easy, and several times I almost threw in the towel.

(Robert MacFarlane basically agrees with me in this review in The Observer.

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The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story

Posted by nliakos on June 19, 2011

by Diane Ackerman (2007 Thorndike, Gale, Thomson)

The Zookeeper’s Wife was Antonina Zabinski, wife of the director of the Warsaw Zoo. When the Nazis bombed Warsaw in 1939, the zoo was heavily damaged and many animals killed, but things would get worse: the Nazis occupied Poland, and what animals were left were either taken to German zoos or shot for sport. Jan and Antonina Zabinski fled for a short time with Jan’s frail mother and their young son Rys, later returned to live out most of the war in their villa on the zoo grounds. The zoo became, for a while, a pig farm and then a fur farm, but for the Zabinskis, it provided them a way to shelter Jewish friends and acquaintances (at first) and then others who were fleeing persecution and the Ghetto. Jan was active in the Polish resistance; Antonina ran an ever-growing, ever-fluctuating household of legitimate and illegitimate “guests” which included non-human as well as human animals.

I learned how many Poles risked their lives to protect their Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation. I tried to imagine how it would feel to be in such danger for so long, and to actually court danger by hiding people from the occupying Germans.  It is important to remember the bravery of people such as the Zabinskis and their friends.

The book  is meticulously documented but also somewhat over-written, by which I mean the language was a bit flowery for my taste.  However, I enjoyed it, if one can enjoy reading about Nazi cruelty; appreciated it is perhaps the better term. I am glad I read it, at any rate.

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Posted by nliakos on June 10, 2011

by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (2007)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Somali refugee turned Member of the Dutch Parliament and then a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, tells her extraordinary story in this fascinating autobiography.  Raised in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, Hirsi Ali describes experiences that most (Western) women can barely imagine.  Always a questioner and a thinker, she became a voracious reader, and it is interesting to note that it was the trashy novels she read when a schoolgirl in Kenya, as well as more literary and historical fare, that showed her the radical idea that girls and women might have the right to hold their own opinions and make their own choices. This dangerous idea eventually led her to escape the marriage her father arranged for her and to seek asylum in the Netherlands. The story of her life there constitutes the second part of the book.  Despite everyone’s advice to the contrary, she follows her dream of studying political science and eventually succeeds in publicizing the plight of Muslim women and children in a Europe she deems too willing to turn a blind eye to suffering in the name of multi-culturalism.

The book made me wonder whether I have perhaps too easily accepted my Middle Eastern students’ assurances that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance and that women are not abused in the name of Allah. The picture painted by Hirsi Ali in Infidel really made me rethink.  Maybe all religions are not just different but equal, and maybe she is right when she demands that Westerners ensure that Muslim women living in Western countries be accorded the same rights as others living in the same country. This is explosive stuff!

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The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

Posted by nliakos on June 3, 2011

by Susan Orlean (1998; Ballantine paperback)

The orchid thief of the title, John Laroche, is not in fact what this book is about. It is about orchids and the people who love them and collect them (John Laroche being one of these; he does appear in many chapters and sort of ties the narrative together). It is about the history of the orchid industry and to some extent about the biology of orchids, “the most highly evolved flowering plants on earth,” of which 30,000 natural species are known to exist; orchid fanciers have created maybe 100,000 more by cross-breeding. It is about Susan Orlean’s refusal to be drawn into the seductive world of orchid fanciers while interviewing them, following them around, attending orchid shows, and researching the facts for the book, and for her quest for a “ghost orchid”, polyrrhiza lindenii, which leads her to wade into the black waters of Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, feeling for alligators in the muddy bottom before she puts her weight down. It is about the Seminoles, who, it turns out, are actually Cherokees and Miccosukees who fled into the Everglades to escape being exiled to Oklahoma by the white invaders, and their valiant and gentlemanly leader Osceola, who “fought on principle, was captured ignominiously, died prematurely, and left behind an unconquered people.” And it is about Florida, which as described by Orlean is a truly unique place the rest of us can hardly imagine–a place people go to reinvent themselves as something other than what they are. I found the book fascinating!

Orlean’s prose reminds me of the writing of John McPhee, another favorite writer of mine. She crafts long paragraphs stuffed with facts, and she explains things by writing about the people, living and dead, who devote (and devoted) their lives and fortunes to this most interesting of plants.

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