Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for January, 2012

Sarah’s Key

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2012

by Tatiana de Rosnay (St. Martin’s Griffin 2007)

First I saw the movie based on this novel. I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it if I had known what it was about. I usually avoid holocaust books and movies; they are too upsetting. But I was glad I saw it, and so when the opportunity presented itself to read the book, I took it.  Knowing how it turned out certainly did not spoil the experience–I was immediately drawn into the twin stories of Sarah and Julia and finished the book in just a few days, hardly able to put it down.

For almost half of the novel, Sarah’s chapters alternate with Julia’s. Sarah is ten, living in Paris with her parents, Jewish immigrants from Poland, when the French police, in an overly enthusiastic response to Nazi orders to round up and deport Jewish adults, arrest thousands of toddlers and children as well, separate them from their parents, leave them without food and water for days in the Vélodrome d’Hiver in the middle of Paris, and eventually send them to their deaths in Auschwitz. Sarah and her parents are taken to the Vel’ d’Hiv’; her four-year-old brother Michel hides in a secret closet in their apartment to wait for Sarah to return, which of course she cannot do.  Sixty years later, Julia, an American woman married to a philandering Frenchman, is investigating the story of the roundup for the magazine she works for when she discover,s to her horror, that the apartment that she and her family are planning to move into had been occupied by one of the Jewish families arrested in the roundup–specifically, it turns out, by Sarah’s family. As Julia’s marriage falters, she becomes obsessed with finding Sarah, or at least, with finding out what happened to her, since she was apparently never deported with the thousands of other children who were with her in the Vel’ d’Hiv’.

At the halfway point, Sarah’s story ends with her return to Paris, where she learns with finality how her brother died; but Julia’s story continues on for another 140 pages, as she struggles to decide between her husband and her unborn child while continuing to search for Sarah.

A wonderful book.

Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment »

The Laramie Project

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2012

by Moisés Kaufman

I don’t usually read plays; I prefer to see them performed on stage or even on TV. Maybe that is why I never read this when it was the University of Maryland First Year Book back in 2002-2003, and it has been sitting on my shelf ever since. I took it down after the public library snatched the book I was reading off my Nook when I couldn’t finish it in 14 days (Excuse me? The book had over 400 pages! I have a job! How could I possibly have finished it?).

The tragic story of the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shephard is the centerpiece of this Teutonic Theater Project play, so I assumed I would be reading about the callousness and prejudice of the people of Laramie, whose interviews make up the play. I’ve been through Laramie, driving west to California on Route 80.  It is so alien for me–like a different country, maybe a different planet. But I was wrong. Most of the people who “speak” in the play were as appalled by the crime as I was. Several of them are also gay. Who thought there were so many gay students, professors, and citizens in Laramie WY? (I guess it’s like Jews: we are everywhere.) So I ended up feeling somewhat comforted by the idea that the two young men who beat Matt Shephard to the point of death and then left him to die, and who are paying for their crime in prison, were as much of an aberration in Laramie as they would be in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

I recommend it to English learners because it is quite short and the language is quite accessible.

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Posted by nliakos on January 10, 2012

by Emma Donoghue (Back Bay Books, 2010)

Five-year-old Jack has never been outside of the small room where his mother has been held captive for seven years, and he has never spoken to another human being other than Ma, who makes sure he is hidden in the wardrobe during the nightly visits of her captor to her bed. Although they have a television, Jack believes that the people and things he sees on TV aren’t real like him and Ma. Even the person he calls Old Nick does not seem quite real to him, and he cannot imagine Outside at all. The individual things in his world (Room, Wall, Ceiling, Bed, Table, Spider, Toilet, Eggsnake, etc.) are the only things that matter. Jack’s Ma has somehow managed to structure their lives to include reading, cooking, cleaning, exercising, playing, and talking.  It is as if Jack spent his formative years in complete isolation, like Genie or the Wild Boy of Aveyron; but unlike them, Jack had his mother to talk to him, read to him, tell him stories, and teach him, with the result that not only does Jack have language–his language is very sophisticated for his age.

Jack and Ma do almost everything together, with what little they are allowed. It is enough for Jack, but not for his mother, who, of course, must still submit to the sexual predator who keeps them locked up in this soundproofed shed in his back yard. After Old Nick cuts the power to the shed for three long, freezing days, she decides she cannot wait any longer to act, and she plans a daring escape, using Jack as her tool. (That particular chapter made me so anxious I raced through it to find out what happened and then had to go back and reread it for the details!)

The last part of the book describes Jack’s gradual adjustment to life Outside. This part is very compelling. Never having known the wider world outside Room, Jack longs to return to the one place he really felt safe. When he finally does go back, he finds it different from how he remembered it, but he also finds closure.

Written in the language of a very precocious child, Room is accessible to high intermediate and advanced English language learners.

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

People of the Book

Posted by nliakos on January 10, 2012

by Geraldine Brooks (Adobe EPUB eBook)

It’s pretty ironic to be reading this particular book as an eBook, because it is about the discovery in postwar Sarajevo and restoration of a medieval Haggadah (Passover prayer book) and is all about the physical book: binding, pages, tiny little bits of detritus stuck therein… But my Nook has been crashing tonight, really irritating (only a month old after all!), so I have to take a break and read an actual book.

(a few days later) Eventually, the Nook starting behaving again, so I was able to finish the book. It’s an intriguing idea: an expert conservator of medieval books and manuscripts (Australian Dr. Hanna Heath) examines the  500-year-old Sarajevo Haggadah which has turned up after being lost for many years. As the war in Bosnia is ending, Hanna travels to Sarajevo to examine and restore the ancient codex, which is unusual not only for its extreme age but also because it is lavishly illustrated–a rarity in Jewish manuscripts. She collects some tiny fragments (a bit of insect wing, a hair, a stain, some salt) and observes that there is a place for clasps, but no clasps), and sets off to consult several learned colleagues to try to figure out what they can tell her about where the book has been. They speculate, but they can never know how these things came to be in the book. However, Brooks can invent some plausible stories! Between the chapters describing Hanna’s work and life, we travel back in time as Brooks weaves fictional stories of how the artifacts got into the book. Our glimpses of the book’s history go farther and farther back in time, first to 20th century Sarajevo, then to 17th century Venice and finally 15th century Spain, where we meet the artist who created the illuminated illustrations.  It takes a novelist with poetic license to tell the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Although parts of the book seem contrived, it is an enjoyable read and despite the fictionalization, an interesting journey into Jewish and European history.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments »

Water for Elephants

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2012

by Sara Gruen ( Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2006)

Running away and joining the circus may be a cliché, but Sara Gruen puts a twist on it and spins a tale that is really hard to put down. The runner is Jacob Jankowski, whose world collapses around him just as he is about to sit for his final exams in veterinary medicine at Cornell. With no family and all of his plans for the future wrecked, Jacob hops a train only to discover that it is carrying a second-rate circus. Happy to have an (almost) veterinarian on board, they let him stay. Over the next few months, Jacob learns the ropes of circus life, falls in love, and encounters great goodness and great evil.  The story is told in flash-backs by the 90- (or 93-) year-old Jacob, who can’t stand what his life has become in a nursing home, on a day when a small circus opens just down the street.

Gruen meticulously researched her subject and incorporates several of the true anecdotes she came upon into her story, such as a lemonade-stealing elephant and a menagerie stampede. The story pulls the reader along, but the ending strains the imagination, in my view.

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