Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for February, 2012

The Road

Posted by nliakos on February 25, 2012

by Cormac McCarthy (Vintage Books, 2006, originally published by Knopf, 2006)

This was a thoroughly depressing book. A father and son trudge through a destroyed America. It is not clear what has burned the country, killed all the plant life and wildlife and most of the humans, yet left a few humans alive; but they must keep going if they are to survive the winter and avoid the marauding gangs who will kill and consume them if they catch them. It’s a kind of survival story (like Hatchet or My Side of the Mountain), but much grimmer. There is no clean place to return to; everything that was before, is gone now. Corpses litter the landscape and they find little to eat, wear, or use because everything has been ransacked before by others. Apparently the destruction, whatever it was, happened years ago.

The redeeming part of the story is the love and trust between the father and son. They are everything to one another. I guessed the boy to be between seven and ten, but he has been aged by the horrors he has seen and experienced on the road. He remembers nothing else. I kept hoping for something good to come out of it, although I couldn’t see how that would be possible.

The grammar is very simple, and most of the sentences are short. Most of the vocabulary is common as well, but then there will be a sentence like “He rose and stood tottering in that cold autistic dark with his arms outheld for balance while the vestibular calculations in his skull cranked out their reckonings” (p 15).  There are a lot of sentence fragments, and for some reason contractions are written without apostrophes (e.g., didnt) and dialogue without quotation marks (that’s common these days). An English language learner who could ignore these things would understand the story at least as well as I did, but why you would want to read it is another question. It won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie, and I kept reading until the end, but I guess I prefer my fiction to more more uplifting than this was.

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

Shanghai Girls

Posted by nliakos on February 25, 2012

by Lisa See (Random House 2009, 2010)

Narrated by Pearl, Shanghai Girls tells the story of Pearl and her younger sister May, born to wealth and privilege in pre-war Shanghai. At 21 and 18, Pearl and May earn their own money by modeling for “Beautiful Girl calendars”, wearing mostly western clothes and showing rather more skin than is proper for young Chinese women. They speak fluent English and Pearl has just graduated from college. She is in love with the artist who frequently paints them. Pearl and May do not respect their parents as good Chinese daughters should, but life is good and full of promise. At the beginning of the book, I rather dislike the two sisters. They are empty-headed and spoiled.

Abruptly, their world collapses. Their father has gambled away the family’s wealth and has promised Pearl and May as brides for the sons of “Old Man Louie” in Los Angeles, as a repayment for his debts. Pearl and May are forced to go through with the weddings, and Pearl even sleeps with her husband, Sam, but neither girl intends to show up to take the boat for California. However, the “Green Gang” comes after them on behalf of Old Man Louie as the Japanese are attacking Shanghai.  They barely escape with their mother and then undergo horrors as they try to distance themselves from the besieged city. In the end, after many troubles, they do end up in Los Angeles, but the promised wealth and beautiful houses turn out to be a pack of lies. Old Man Louie is relatively poorer than their family was. But there is no going back, as the Communists follow the Japanese in Shanghai. Pearl and May must make their lives in Los Angeles as best they can.

This is a great story, well written and with a lot of historical detail. I learned a lot and enjoyed it.  Advanced English language learners, especially Chinese students, will probably find it enjoyable as well.

Posted in Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | 1 Comment »

Children and Fire

Posted by nliakos on February 18, 2012

by Ursula Hegi (Scribner 2011)

The fourth book in the Burgdorf Cycle, Children and Fire tells the story of the young Thekla Jansen, who teaches the fourth grade at Burgdorf’s elementary school. A passionate and dedicated teacher, Thekla knows herself to be a good person with high moral standards and without prejudice against non-Aryans such as her former teacher and mentor (A Russian Jew who has converted to Catholicism) and her mother’s Jewish employers the Abramovitzes. Nevertheless, as the Nazis tighten their grip on power and begin to purge those who cannot prove themselves to be pure Germans, Thekla finds reasons to go along with the changes.  She thinks she can influence her students for the better, and she believes that the Nazis will not last. Too late, she realizes that she can scarcely recognize herself in the person she has become.

I would like to say that in Thekla’s place, I would have done differently–but I doubt it. Standing up to evil takes more courage than I think I have.

I still think that Stones from the River is the best of the cycle, but Children and Fire is a good, if quick, read.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »

All the Little Live Things

Posted by nliakos on February 13, 2012

by Wallace Stegner (Viking, 1967)

This was not my first Stegner novel; I read and enjoyed Angle of Repose and maybe also Crossing to Safety, if I remember well, back in the days of the West Riding Book Club. I like the way he writes very much; it’s a pleasure to read him.

The narrator of this fairly depressing novel is Joe Allston, who has retired to California with his wife Ruth. Their son, Curtis, died in a surfing accident; Joe is still nursing his disappointment in and anger at Curtis.  Joe narrates the heartbreak of the past year: the destruction of the lovely hill they can see from their home by the owner who wants to develop it and make money; the hippie “student” who insinuates his way onto a piece of the Allstons’ land and then proceeds to turn it into a sort of free-love commune, mooching off the Allstons’ electricity and water and trashing their land; but most of all, the death of their neighbor Marian Catlin, who loves unreservedly “all the little wild things”, who radiates beauty and positive energy, who forgives everyone but who faces her death with courage and dignity–something Joe cannot do. He cannot accept her loss even though she has accepted it.

Joe’s reflections are starkly honest; he tells all, recognizing when he should have spoken or acted differently, recognizing when it is impossible for him to do what he knows he should do. These reflections made the book a sad read for me. I wanted Joe to be happier than he seemed capable of being. Approaching retirement myself, I couldn’t help thinking that the best planning cannot control all the inevitable annoyances and griefs that await us: the hostile neighbor, the hurtful thing we say without meaning to that alienates a friend, the decline and death of someone we love. Retirement, like life itself, is just more challenges and problems. We can’t escape them, no matter how we try.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »

To Say Nothing of the Dog, or How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump At Last

Posted by nliakos on February 13, 2012

by Connie Willis (Bantam, 1998)

This quirky novel is classified as science fiction because it is predicated on time travel, but it’s totally unlike any other sci-fi book I can think of. Ned Henry, a 21st-century historian, is searching for an artifact known only as “the bishop’s bird stump” (after a while, I googled bird stump because I couldn’t stand not knowing what the thing was–but it turns out it wasn’t, after all, so no matter), hounded by Lady Schrapnell (!), who is bent on recreating Coventry Cathedral exactly as it was before it was destroyed by German bombs in 1941 and so needs to know whether  the bishop’s bird stump was in the Cathedral or not when it was destroyed. It’s all quite confusing. Anyway, Ned travels to Victorian England to escape Lady Schrapnell and meets a fellow historian, Verity Kindle. They desperately try to undo Verity’s inadvertent mistake (carrying a cat forward in time), which could change the course of history.

There is a lot of technical discussion about drops (trips through time), the continuum of history, incongruities which can alter the continuum,  time slippage which occurs in the vicinity of an incongruity or a historical crisis point, etc.  Willis focuses on the question of whether history can be altered by minute changes in events or behavior. What would it take to tip the balance in a war, to avoid a catastrophe, to cause or prevent one’s meeting one’s own true love?  And if we fiddle with these things, can history correct itself? Will it? These are the questions the book’s characters try to answer as they stumble through time together and apart.

What I enjoyed most was the comical description of Ned’s flounderings through Victorian society, his commentary on the people and customs, and the weirdos he keeps meeting (naive Terence St. Trewes, crazyProfessor Peddick who will inconvenience anyone for a chance to go fishing, ditsy Tossie Mering and her ditsy mother, the almost-human bulldog Cyril and the time-traveling cat Princess Arjumand).

I tried reading this on the Nook, but my library eBook expired after only two weeks. At almost 500 pages, there is no way to read it in two weeks (unless one were on vacation). Disgusted, I placed a hold on an old-fashioned paperback and finished it that way.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »