Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for October, 2011

Faith, Hope, and Ivy June

Posted by nliakos on October 29, 2011

by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (2009)

This is the story of two seventh-grade Kentucky girls. Catherine lives in an upper middle class neighborhood in Lexington and attends a private academy; Ivy June lives with her grandparents outside of a mining community near Hazard. One spring, the girls participate in an exchange program. First Ivy June spends two weeks with Catherine in Lexington; two weeks later, Catherine travels to Thunder Creek to stay with Ivy June for two weeks.

In addition to the third-person narrative, Naylor lets the girls tell their stories through the diaries they are required to keep for the exchange program (printed in two different manuscript-like fonts).  Both girls are basically good people, smart and unprejudiced; but there are those in both communities ready to pre-judge the outsiders. Despite this, Catherine and Ivy June become friends; but their friendship is tested during Catherine’s visit to Ivy June as each faces a crisis of her own.

Although not as good as the Alice series, this is a simple story, well told. Girls from about ten up should like it.

Posted in Children's and Young Adult | Leave a Comment »

Evolutionary Catastrophes: The Science of Mass Extinction

Posted by nliakos on October 29, 2011

by Vincent Courtillot, translated by Joe McClinton. Cambridge, 1999 (original French version published in 1995 by Editions Fayard)

In America, we think that the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid that hit the earth somewhere in Mexico 65 million years ago, changing the climate and making it impossible for the great beasts to survive.  Vincent Courtillot and his colleagues have a different scenario: yes, there was an asteroid, but in what is now western India around Bombay, there were also massive volcanic eruptions lasting perhaps a hundred thousand years. This series of eruptions, which produced the Deccan Traps (a thick layer of basaltic rock resembling steps, or “traps” in several Scandinavian languages), also coincided with the demise of the dinosaurs. But as Courtillot explains, it is just one of seven gigantic trap-forming series of eruptions, all of which correspond in time to a mass extinction of species marking the boundary between two geological eras. (There are other traps, but these do not correspond to major species die-offs.) Courtillot shows the reader that while an asteroid may have contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs, they were probably already under intense pressure from climate changes resulting from the ongoing eruptions halfway around the world from where the asteroid hit.

I am proud to say that Vincent Courtillot is a friend of mine; I have known him for forty years.  When he first told me about his idea that volcanoes did in the dinosaurs, Walter and Luis Alvarez had not yet found the crater that seems to have convinced everyone on this side of the Atlantic, at least, that their asteroid theory was correct.  I remember thinking, when they did find it, that he must have been disappointed to find that his theory had turned out not to be true.  Ha! not at all.  He remains convinced that the eruptions that produced the traps were responsible not only for the disappearance of the dinosaurs but for the disappearance of millions of species that formerly lived on the Earth.  With meticulous care, he  builds his case, one piece of evidence at a time.

Although I am not a scientist and could not follow all of the explanations in the book, it is a book written for a general audience; it carefully introduces each new concept to the non-expert, as well it must, as the science of the traps is truly an interdisciplinary endeavor, requiring the expertise of geologists, paleontologists, physicists, chemists, engineers, oceanic and atmospheric scientists, mathematicians and computer scientists. (The author is himself a geophysicist specializing in paleomagnetism.)

Reading this book reminded me of what a dynamic thing science is. You may think things have been pinned down, but another discovery can always open the way to a new path of inquiry.  It is always a good idea to keep an open mind.

Posted in Non-fiction, Science | Leave a Comment »

Banker to the Poor

Posted by nliakos on October 29, 2011

by Mohammed Yunus. Original pub. date 1999 ~ 2003. Blackstone Audio 2007; read by Ray Porter

I first encountered the concept of micro-lending, and the name of its inventor, Mohammed Yunus, when teaching a semi-intensive English course at the University of Maryland years ago. There was a chapter about it in our textbook, Quest 3.  I was fascinated. It made so much sense: giving impoverished women a way to escape poverty by lending them tiny amounts of money to start or grow a business.  Yunus and his Grameen Bank (or Village Bank, in Bengali) usually lent money only to women; they discovered that men tended to be irresponsible and did not use the money well; they did not use it to grow a business or take care of the family.  To supplement the chapter, I found videos about micro-lending programs in other countries too.  I thought that Yunus should win the Nobel Prize for economics. He didn’t, but he did win the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2006). (I still think it should have been the economics prize.)

So when I discovered that he had written an autobiography, Banker to the Poor, I had to read it. (Coincidentally, it happens to have been the first audiobook which I successfully downloaded from my local public library and listened to on my iPod.) And I did like it; it was interesting to read about how Yunus grew up, how he came up with the idea for microfinance and tried it out.  I did not find the book to be particularly well-written; it seemed kind of self-serving at times. But hey! He’s an economist, not a writer.  He’s someone who has changed the world for a lot of very, very poor people. Read the book.

Posted in Non-fiction | 2 Comments »

Girl in Translation

Posted by nliakos on October 4, 2011

by Jean Kwok (Riverhead/Penguin 2010)

Kimberly Chang, the narrator of this short coming-of-age novel, has much in common with author Jean Kwok. Both immigrated to the United States  from Hong Kong; both lived in Brooklyn; both worked in a sweatshop; both graduated from top schools, making successes of themselves through sheer grit and brains.  So it is tempting to wonder how much of the novel is autobiographical: the freezing apartment in a condemned building? the roaches and mice? the full scholarship to a fancy prep school? Kimberly and her mother’s mistreatment by an unfeeling, jealous relative and their perseverance under seemingly impossible conditions make the book hard to put down (I read it in two days).  It’s impossible not to like this plucky young girl (when the book opens, she is eleven; it ends when she is eighteen and there is an epilogue that takes place twelve years later) as she resolutely develops her American self, smart and successful in school, and her Chinese self, rather more outspoken than is proper, but ready to do whatever it takes to survive and help her mother.

I enjoyed the way Kwok portrays Kimberly’s limited English by substituting what she thinks she hears people say for what they actually say, for example: the prep school headmistress tells Kimberly that although she is applying after the normal deadline, they can “make an excession for you”–possibly “up to fifty percent of the twosheen costs.” It’s a good reminder that language learners do not always hear what we think they hear!  I also loved the way Chinese idioms are translated word for word in the dialogue between people speaking Chinese, and then interpreted, for example: “Hey, someone has to find the rice, right?” To earn the money. And “he has the white disease.” She was calling Park retarded. Additionally, colorful Chinese insults are translated word for word, like “You have the nose of a pig and slits for eyes too!” These add an authentic flavor to the text.

There are several wonderful characters besides Kimberly, including her true love Matt and her best friend Annette, a Caucasian girl she has the good fortune to meet when she enrolls in public school. Annette has a pure soul and offers Kimberly true friendship, even though Kimberly finds it necessary to lie in order to hide the extent of her poverty from Annette. Annette goes on to the same prep school as Kimberly, and it is a pleasure to watch her grow from a rather naive child who cannot imagine a life so different from her own wealthy existence into an independent thinker, a political activist, a feminist, but always a true friend to Kimberly. I wonder if Kimberly would have had the strength to persevere through the years of abject poverty, bullying, and accusations of dishonesty on her road to immigrant success, had she not had the love, support, and trust of this one friend. By offering friendship to someone like Kimberly, the Annettes of this world can make a huge difference in their lives.

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