Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for March, 2012

The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine

Posted by nliakos on March 18, 2012

by Somaly Mam (Spiegel & Grau 2008)

Somaly Mam’s story should have been in Half the Sky (which I just discovered I neglected to blog about). Like many of the stories in that book, Mam’s story is at the same time appalling and inspiring. Parentless in a forested region of Cambodia, she spent her earliest years like a feral animal (but retains a love and knowledge of nature and forests from that innocent time).  Taken as a servant by a man she knew as “Grandfather” (not a relative), she knew a life of hard work and beatings without cause until her master sold her, first sporadically, and then permanently, into first a kind of marriage and subsequently prostitution (or, as it is known today, sexual slavery, to distinguish it from a woman’s own decision to prostitute herself) in Phnom Penh. She was sixteen at the time.

Mam’s description of her years in the brothels of Phnom Penh is sickening.  But when foreigners began to return to Cambodia in the 1990s, she “met” several foreign relief workers–first “Dietrich,” a Swiss, and subsequently “Pierre,” a Frenchman. From these men, who were clients but were less abusive than the Cambodian clients she had had before them.  Pierre eventually offered to marry her and take her with him when he returned to France. While she did not love or trust him (he was a man), she finally decided to go with him.

France changed Mam in very significant ways. Most importantly, she gained some self-esteem, and she learned how to be assertive: “I had proved that I wasn’t stupid, and I no longer felt worthless.” (p. 107) When her husband took a job with another relief agency and then with Médecins sans Frontières, Mam felt herself compelled to begin to help the young prostitutes like herself–first by providing them with condoms and soap, and eventually by helping them to escape the brothels. She founded an organization (AFESIP) and raised funds, and she managed to build several centers which could house the young women and children whom she rescued in relative safety as they began their healing process (which, according to Mam, has no satisfactory end: after so many years, she still endures horrific nightmares about her years as a slave). Along the way, Mam learns about such strange things as showers, airplanes, elevators, and escalators; she adopts her sister’s child, and has two children of her own. She is reunited with the family who took her in for a period during her servitude to the man she called “Grandfather,” and she braves death threats to advance her work saving prostitutes, one at a time. This is truly an inspiring story.

The website of Somaly Mam’s foundation in the United States is here.

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Corduroy Mansions

Posted by nliakos on March 15, 2012

by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon 2009)

I love almost everything I’ve read by McCall Smith (despite wondering why, since his name is not hyphenated, his books are shelved under McCall in my local library, rather than under Smith). My favorites are the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, as read by Lisette Lecat, but I’ve read and enjoyed most (all?) of the Isabel Dalhousie series and one or two of the 44 Scotland Street series. (I didn’t like Portuguese Irregular Verbs, despite its delicious title.)

Corduroy Mansions does not appear to belong to a series, but it certainly could. Like 44 Scotland Street, it tells the various stories of the residents of one apartment building (or should I say block of flats, since this one is in London). Since people’s stories go on forever, constantly changing, until they die, McCall Smith (Smith?) would have enough material to keep going. In fact, several of the stories were left hanging at the end.  (How exactly will Barbara Ragg wreak vengeance on former lover Oedipus Snark? Will Terence Moongrove figure out how to drive his new Porsche safely before he kills himself? Will the obnoxious Manfred James  reappear to claim his stake in my favorite character, Freddie de la Hay [a Pimlico terrier]? etc.) I admit I had a little trouble keeping the four young female flatmates straight, and Basil Wickramsinghe did not play much of a role, although he obviously might in a future book. (Actually, I just checked the WIkipedia entry for the book and discovered that a second novel has already appeared! Also that McCall Smith published these two books online in serial form à la Charles Dickens.) Overall, it’s a sweet book and kept my interest over the few days it took to finish it (reading mostly on the bus on my way to and from work).

P.S. I’m one of the many people who has never heard of a Pimlico terrier before. I googled it, but all I find are references to this book, so I am beginning to suspect that A.McC. S invented the breed. Maybe it was an April Fool’s joke.

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Purple Hibiscus

Posted by nliakos on March 8, 2012

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003)

I first heard of Chimamanda Adichie when I listened to her 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In that presentation, she talked about how she grew up reading the literature of other cultures, e.g., British, but that she came to realize that the stories she needed to write should be about her own experiences as a Nigerian. That is what she does in this story of 15-year-old Kambili and her family: her father, Eugene, a fanatical Catholic and owner of a daily newspaper, who abuses his wife and children in the name of saving them from sin; her mother, Beatrice, who enables the abuse until she can put up with it no longer; her brother Jaja, who rebels openly against their father’s intolerant brand of Catholicism; her Aunty Ifeoma, Eugene’s sister, also Catholic but loving, liberal, and tolerant of diversity; Ifeoma’s three children, Kambili and Jaja’s cousins; and Papa-Nnukwu, Ifeoma and Eugene’s “traditionalist” (for Eugene, “heathen”) father. Kambili adores her father and does her utmost to please him, but he is not easily pleased; instead, he is enraged by the slightest infraction of the impossible rules he sets for his household. His children and his wife are required to be perfect at all times. He schedules Kambili’s and Jaja’s every waking moment, and a tiny slip brings a beating or worse. He is responsible for his wife’s miscarrying at least two babies. Still, Kambili makes excuses for him–even when he nearly kills her. Like so many abused women before her, she believes that she deserves the abuse.

Kambili and Jaja are given permission to visit Aunty Ifeoma and her children in a nearby university town–their first experience sleeping away from home. They experience life in a relaxed and loving home and slowly come to enjoy the freedoms they find there. Kambili even falls in love–with a young Nigerian priest, Father Amadi. Their priest at home in Enugu is almost as punitive as their father. A whole world begins to open up for her.

The story is told against the backdrop of a coup d’état which puts a brutal dictatorship in charge of the country, causing economic chaos. As much as we hate Eugene, we cannot help but admire his courage in speaking out against the dictatorship.

The book catches and holds the reader’s interest–I read it in about 3 days. An advanced English language learner could probably understand it well (especially one from an African country). The language is not difficult, but I frequently wished for a glossary of Igbo words (especially words for food), which would not have been difficult to provide and would have increased my appreciation of the book.

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

What the Dog Saw and other adventures

Posted by nliakos on March 5, 2012

by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown 2009)

This was my first encounter with New Yorker essayist Malcolm Gladwell. The blurbs on the back jacket (Baltimore Sun, “Nobody else thinks the way he does;” Time, “He’s like an omniscient, many-armed Hindu goddess of anecdotes: he plucks them from every imaginable field of human endeavor;” Chicago Sun-Times, “he can look at seemingly mundane things…and find valuable lessons about what makes human beings human”) suggest  someone like John McPhee, whose writing I love. I dove right into the title essay, which was about “Dog Whisperer”, Cesar Millan, whose show I used to watch before the NatGeo channel was taken off the basic cable lineup, and I liked it.  Actually, I found pretty much every essay in the book very interesting and well worth reading.

The essays in the book are divided into three categories, though I must confess I don’t really understand the basis for their separation:

(1) Obsessives, Pioneers, and Other Varieties of Minor Genius;

  1. “The Pitchman: Ron Popeil and the Conquest of the American Kitchen”  A family who invent kitchen gadgets (e.g., rotisseries, food dehydrators, smokers) and sell them, at first live and then on night-time TV. (I keep wondering: how do you pronounce Popeil? Pop ALE?  POP ale? POP ile? pop EEL?) As one who always pretty much assumed those infomercials were lies, I was interested to learn that a lot of these gadgets are, according to Gladwell, really worth the money.
  2. “The Ketchup Conundrum: Mustard Now Comes in Dozens of Varieties. Why Has Ketchup Stayed the Same?” Good question, and one I had never thought of before.
  3. “Blowing Up: How Nassim Taleb Turned the Inevitability of Disaster into an Investment Strategy”  Empirica Capital’s CEO is a humble man. He knows he doesn’t know what the markets will do, so he ensures against disaster by buying everything. I realized that the so-called experts don’t really know all that much more than the rest of us.
  4. “Hair Dye and the Hidden History of America” Shirley Polakoff (“Only her hairdresser knows for sure” and Ilon Specht (“I’m worth it”), who changed the marketing of hair dye in America.
  5. “John Rock’s Error: What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn’t Know About Women’s Health” John Rock was the staunch Catholic doctor who invented the modern birth control pill. I learned from this essay that women did not evolve to menstruate every month from puberty to menopause, because primitive women spend so much time pregnant and nursing, so what we think of as normal and natural (monthly periods) is in fact extremely unnatural and possibly the cause of serious health problems. Birth control pills that decreased the frequency of menstruation would probably improve women’s health. Very, very interesting.
  6. “What the Dog Saw: Cesar Millan and the Movements of Mastery” I always wondered how Millan expects dog owners, who have created their dogs’ behavior problems in the first place, to just step into his shoes and be able to control their dogs without slipping back into their own bad habits, especially since a large part of his mystique is his air of confidence (Gladwell talks about the way he moves), which the owners lack after such prolonged failure to get their pets to behave. Maybe he doesn’t expect it.

(2)Theories, Predictions, and Diagnoses;

  1. “Open Secrets: Enron, Intelligence, and the Perils of Too Much Information” What’s the difference between a puzzle and a mystery? With a puzzle, you need to piece together all the information to get the answer, but with a mystery, there may not be a satisfactory conclusion at all. What happened at Enron is a mystery. Information about what Enron was doing was public and easily available (although hard to slog through); nobody was trying to hide anything. Cornell University graduate students, assigned to assess the worth of its stock, recognized that it was worthless. Why didn’t the rest opf the financial world pay any attention?
  2. “Million-Dollar Murray: Why Problems Like Homelessness May Be Easier to Solve Than to Manage”  Hard-core homelessness is not as prevalent as we think, and for some people, it may be more cost-effective, and also just more effective, to give them a place to live and some supervision, than to keep saving their lives in emergency rooms.
  3. “The Picture Problem: Mammography, Air Power, and the Limits of Looking” We trust what we see more than we trust what we feel, but sometimes we can get better information through our finger tips. And satellite photos of enemy installations are not as easy to read as people think.
  4. “Something Borrowed: Should a Charge of Plagiarism Ruin Your Life?” No, according to Gladwell, the victim of a plagiarist. Certainly not in this age of mashups.
  5. “Connecting the Dots: The Paradoxes of Intelligence Reform” Hindsight may be 20-20, but when a lot of “noise” obscures the important information, you can’t recognize its importance. We should stop blaming the intelligence community for not preventing the 9/11 attacks.
  6. “The Art of Failure: Why Some People Choke and Others Panic”  Choking is when you think too much (you become a beginner again at something you were expert at), and panicking is when your brain shuts down and you can’t think, or even see what’s in front of you.
  7. “Blowup: Who Can Be Blamed for a Disaster like the Challenger explosion? No One, and We’d Better Get Used to It” Kind of like “Connecting the Dots”. Unfair and inappropriate to go back and blame people for not knowing then what we know now. There’s a lot of conflicting data out there, and it’s only in retrospect that it looks as though someone should have known what was going to happen, and prevented it.

and (3) Personality, Character, and Intelligence.

  1. “Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius with Precocity?” Not every genius explodes out of the starter gate; some, like Paul Cézanne, need a lifetime, and a great deal of support from family, friends, and mentors, to achieve greatness. If we discourage all those who don’t show exceptional talent early in life, we lose some great artists and writers.
  2. “Most Likely to Succeed: How Do We Hire When We Can’t Tell Who’s Right for the Job?” Most interesting to me was the part about how what makes a teacher great is not what teachers study in school, but their ability to connect with their students and manage their classrooms. This quality could be recognized by observers watching a few seconds of a video; their assessments of teachers were essentially the same as those of students who spent an entire semester in those teachers’ classes. Also, what makes quarterbacks and financial advisors tick.
  3. “Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy” Organized vs disorganized serial killers; FBI criminal profiling and its limitations.
  4. “The Talent Myth: Are Smart People Overrated?”  Yes, according to Gladwell, and I agree.  Again, how Enron screwed up.
  5. “The New-Boy Network: What Do Job Interviews Really Tell Us?”  Something about charisma, and whether we like an applicant, but not much about the sort of job s/he will do for us.
  6. “Troublemakers: What Pit Bulls Can teach Us About Crime”  Pit bulls were bred to be fearless fighters, but the vicious ones were made that way by their owners or trainers, who want vicious dogs.

Excellent book! Full of facts, very thought-provoking.

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