Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for April, 2012

Helen Keller

Posted by nliakos on April 26, 2012

by Dorothy Herrmann (1998, Knopf)

Like most people, I saw The Miracle Worker  but knew little beyond that about the most famous disabled person of the 20th century. When I read Lies My Teacher Told Me, an example of a lie by omission was that of Helen Keller, who lived an active life until she was 87, writing and lecturing about her views of a variety of topics but whose adult life most people are totally ignorant of because (in the author’s view) of her radical politics and unpopular views. Ever since then, I’ve been planning to find out more.

I found Herrmann’s biography very interesting, if sometimes too detailed and somewhat repetitive (she incorporates the life stories of practically everyone in the book; for example, does the reader need to know the tragic details of Samuel Clemens’ life in a biography of Helen Keller? pp. 104-106).  She devotes many pages to the unique relationship between Helen and Annie Sullivan, her “Teacher”, who both controlled her and was controlled by her. Numerous people have argued over which of these women was the more intelligent. Were Helen’s ideas and literary output truly hers? Or were they Annie Sullivan’s. Sullivan guarded her charge against even family members who sought to come between them. According to Herrmann, Annie Sullivan was the only person Helen ever truly loved. (Nevertheless, once when Sullivan was away recuperating from an illness, Helen fell in love with a young man who wished to elope with her, but their plans were foiled and he was prevented from seeing her again. Was the brevity of this affair such that Helen could not be said to have trule loved Peter Fagan?)

Herrmann devotes many pages to Keller’s relationships with other people in her life. She quotes extensively from her books, poems, and letters. The book features numerous photographs of Keller at different ages and with different people (and dogs–she was a great dog lover). Herrmann decries the tight control under which Helen Keller lived all of her life. Her “handlers” (as we would call them now, including her family) wanted to present her to the world as a pure and innocent being uncorrupted by normal human emotions and desires. As a result, she was never allowed normal friendships or love affairs and learned to always present herself as serene, capable, and accepting of her disabilities. She did not permit herself, or was not permitted, to show anger, to make mistakes (Annie Sullivan used to make her retype everything she wrote until it was perfect) or (God forbid) to have sexual feelings for a man. Part of this was the time in which Helen Keller lived (1880 – 1968), and part of it was everyone’s revulsion of disabled people who actually looked disabled. (Helen Keller and her handlers placed great emphasis on looking and dressing very well; for much of her life Keller was photographed only in profile so that people would not see her left eye, which protruded and looked obviously blind.) All of these things made me feel very sorry for Helen Keller. But she was a pioneer, and disabled people today have benefited from her life and work–especially hearing- and/or sight-impaired people.

Interestingly, according to Herrmann, Keller considered her one true disability to be her voice, which throughout her life was unattractive  and difficult to understand, despite her continuous efforts to improve it. Her blindness and deafness were surmountable obstacles in comparison; she did not remember being able to hear or see, but her  “tinny, robotic, and grotesque” voice (( p. 180) prevented her from expressing herself.

Reading this biography has inspired me to read some of Keller’s own works, notably The World I Live In (1908), in which she describes what it is like to be deaf and blind, and to visit the Chapel of Saint Joseph of Arimathea in the National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C, where lie the ashes of Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan Macy, and Polly Thomson, companion to Keller after the death of Mrs. Macy.

Posted in Biography, Non-fiction | 1 Comment »

Eat, Pray, Love

Posted by nliakos on April 26, 2012

by Elizabeth Gilbert (2006, Viking)

Probably, most people have already either read this book or seen the movie. I myself saw the end of the movie on some airplane going somewhere (Paris 2010?), but I somehow didn’t get around to seeing the rest of it, or reading the book, until now. I loved it! A delicious read.

It’s a memoir of (mostly) a year during which the author visits first Italy, then India, and finally Indonesia in an attempt to reclaim her Self and her life after some personal crises which have left her in a pretty bad state. (Actually, it’s difficult to understand how she managed to continue her successful career as a writer while in such a state.) (Yes, I know: we would all like the opportunity to travel around the world for a year without having to work…. on the other hand, Gilbert is a writer; she financed her trip with an advance for the book she would write about it; and she really bared her soul in this book, which you couldn’t get me to do for all the pasta in Italy.)

I loved each part of the book. In Italy, Gilbert gains back the 30 pounds she lost after her marriage ended, and she lovingly describes each meal (“They have only two varieties of pizza here–regular and extra cheese. None of this new age southern California olives-and-sun-dried-tomato wannabe pizza twaddle. The dough…tastes more like Indian nan than like any pizza dough I’ve ever tried. It’s soft and chewy and yielding, but incredibly thin….Holy of holies! Thin, doughy, strong, gummy, yummy, chewy, salty pizza paradise. On top, there is a sweet tomato sauce tht foams up all bubbly and creamy when it melts the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and the one sprig of basil in the middle of the whole deal somehow infuses the entire pizza with herbal radiance….” p. 80) until your mouth waters. And I teach in an intensive English program here in Maryland, so I really loved the description of her placement in Italian classes at the Leonardo da Vince Academy of Language Studies: she takes a placement test, hoping to be placed in Level Two (anything but Level One! That would be too humiliating!). She is ecstatic when she is actually placed in Level Two, but when she gets to class, “it becomes swiftly evident that these are not my peers and that I have no business being here because Level Two is really impossibly hard. I feel like I’m swimming, but barely. Like I’m taking in water with every breath. The teacher…is going way too fast, skipping over whole chapters of the textbook, saying “You already know this, you already know that…” and keeping up a rapid-fire conversation with my apparently fluent classmates. My stomach is gripped in horror and I’m gasping for air and praying he won’t call on me. Just as soon as the break comes, I run out of the classroom on wobbling legs and I scurry all the way over to the administrative office almost in tears, where I beg in very clear English if they could please move me down to a Level One class. And so they do.” p. 42 (Too bad this doesn’t happen more often where I teach, where students are more likely to beg to move up than they are to move down. Oh, well.)

Gilbert’s four months (and 36 chapters) in Italy are up before I am ready to move on, but on she (and I) go to India, where she plans to stay for a few weeks in an ashram and then travel around some. She ends up staying the entire four months in the ashram. As she has studied yoga and meditation before, she is not in Level One, so to speak, and before the four months are up she experiences some pretty mystical events and meets some wonderful people. She describes her frustrating attempts to clear her mind for meditation, reminding me of the conflict between the left brain chatter and the right brain bliss (cf. Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, which I read but forgot to blog about).  She writes about her battle with a chant she instinctively abhors but which eventually helps her along her path. She writes about her friendship with “Richard from Texas,” a very funny guy, and how the people in the ashram seem to understand her better than she understands herself.

Thirty-six chapters later, she goes to Bali, where she hopes to find an elderly healer whom she met years before.  However, she doesn’t remember where he lives and knows no one in the country. As soon as she gets there, she realizes she should have done her homework first; but all’s well that ends well, and she finds her healer, who eventually (after some embarrassing moments) remembers her and offers to teach her. She also becomes friends with a woman healer, Wayan, who lives with her daughter and two adopted orphan girls, and meets Felipe, a Brazilian divorcé with whom she has a torrid affair. The book actually has a happy ending.

I have to comment here on the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. A few years ago, I read What Is the What by Dave Eggers (another book I read but forgot to blog about), which reads like a memoir but is called fiction because it contains dialog that its subject, Valentino Achak Deng, could not possibly have remembered accurately. When I read it, I felt annoyed by this because I couldn’t be sure if the events described were also made up. I mean, if it’s fiction, anything goes, right? Well, Eat, Pray, Love is called “an intensely articular, sensible, moving and funny memoir of self-discovery” in the book jacket blurb, but it is full of dialog the author couldn’t possibly have remembered unless she had recording every conversation she had. So, is it fiction? Did she embellish it–just a little bit, perhaps? (I’ve wondered the same thing about John McPhee’s many portraits of people he has spent time with; they include many lines of dialog. I actually asked McPhee once how he did that. He doesn’t record his interviews, he assured me; he takes voluminous notes. He must be a court stenographer in his free time.)

Well, be it fictionalized or not, I really enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love–so much so that I was already planning to read it a second time as I was reading it the first time. For my purposes here, I’ve categorized it as nonfiction, and I hope that is correct. I want to believe everything in it.

Posted in Non-fiction | 1 Comment »

Reading on the Bus

Posted by nliakos on April 20, 2012

by me

I work about 25 miles from where I live, and for almost 30 years, I commuted by car. Now, there is a free university shuttle bus which takes me from a point about 15 minutes from home and lets me off less than 5 minutes’ walk from my office. This means that I have more time to read now than I have had for many years, and I often immerse myself in a library book, a Nook book, or a newspaper as the bus driver navigates the traffic I no longer have to contend with. It’s great!

The other day, as I was enjoying Eat, Pray, Love on the bus, my seatmate was reading a textbook (something on the courts and the media). This was not surprising, as most of my fellow passengers are students. But what tickled me was that two other people (also students, from the look of them) on the bus were also engaged in pleasure reading: one was poring over Trainspotting,  while the other was deep into The Hunger Games.  For some reason this pleased me. When I was in college, I don’t remember reading anything I didn’t have to (as a literature major, I had to read a lot, so maybe that explains it), and the sight of these (to me) kids reading for fun despite the approach of final exams was heartening. All is not lost.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2012

by Roger H. Martin (2008, Univ. of California Press)

As readers of this blog may be aware, I have two rather long lists of books I would like to read, yet the books I actually do read are, more often than not, not on those lists; instead, they are books lent to me by friends who tell me I must read them or books I simply grabbed off the shelf at the library because they looked interesting. This was such a book. I was cruising the shelves in the biography section, thinking, “I usually like  biographies! I should read some,” when I came upon Things I’ve Been Silent About, which I had read about and already decided I wanted to read, and Racing Odysseus, the title of which simply caught my eye, so I took it out.

I thought at first that Roger Martin, President of Randolph-Macon College, had gone back to college to get a second Bachelor’s degree.  This turned out not to be the case. A few years after a brush with mortality (metastatic melanoma), Martin uses a semester’s sabbatical to “enroll” at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland as a first-semester freshman. But he is not really a freshman in that he is not taking courses for credit; in fact, he is not actually taking the course at all, more observing it (he does not allow himself to participate in the all-important discussions). He also seems to be taking only one seminar, whereas the actual freshmen seem to take more than one; but these are mere details.

The book has three main foci: first, the weekly seminar in which Martin and his young classmates read and discuss Homer, Aeschylus, Herodotus, and  Plato; second, Martin’s participation in the sport of crew; and third, his memories of his own difficult year as a freshman student at Denison University.  These three threads, which run through the book, are intertwined with each other and with other themes, such as the value of a liberal education.

My guess is that the book is basically Martin’s journal kept during the semester at St. John’s. The chapters seem so immediate, the reader feels that Martin is logging his experiences as he has them. perhaps he went back and smoothed it out later, but I could picture him writing down what he would have said in those seminar meetings about the readings he is doing if only he permitted himself to participate. (It is unclear whether his status as an observer in the class was his own decision or whether he had been asked by St. John’s faculty to observe for fear of intimidating his classmates; yet even as I wrote that I thought that St. John’s students are not easily intimidated! College faculty do not lecture but are there to ask provocative questions and keep the discussion moving on track. Supposedly, they are partners in learning (however, having served as a tutor for the same book more than once, I imagine they accumulate a certain wisdom about it that the 18-year-old freshmen do not have.) He constantly draws connections between the readings and his experiences at St. John’s.

Never having rowed before, Martin selects crew as the sport he would like to participate in. (Every St. John’s freshman is encouraged to participate in a sport he/she has never done before, and everyone plays “on the team”–not just the more gifted athletes.) He navigates the tricky relationships between himself and the coaches and also with his fellow students. He obsesses about not disgracing his teammates due to age or health status. Crew becomes kind of a metaphor for life, and especially for this unusual sabbatical. (Happily, it ends well.)

Martin frequently reminisces about his painful introduction to college life at Denison University, forty years prior to the time he writes about in Racing Odysseus. He describes himself as a social and academic failure, remembers his horrible homesickness and his awkward attempts to make friends and “fit in” (some of which he relives at St. John’s, with somewhat more success).  He calls himself a slow reader. These reminiscences serve to remind me that some people hit their stride later in life than others. The fact that Roger Martin was unsuccessful as a freshman at Denison did not prevent him from transferring to a different school, getting his Bachelor’s degree, becoming a historian, earning his Ph.D. and eventually becoming President of a college. The moral is: don’t give up!

But for me, the most interesting aspect of the book was its description of St. John’s and its quirky curriculum.  I first heard about the St. John’s Great Books experiment many years ago and have often wondered about it (and fantasized about doing it–although had I known about St. John’s when I was in high school, I would surely have rejected it on the grounds that it did not offer a major in languages (it doesn’t offer a major in anything; everyone studies exactly the same thing for four years). Had I applied and been admitted, I doubt I would have appreciated the incredible education I would have gotten there. I enjoyed reading about the history of how St. John’s turned itself from a traditional liberal arts college into something unique in the United States; about the faculty, who teach across the curriculum, no matter where their own expertise lies; about the students, who often come to St. John’s after struggling in high school as book-loving geeks and who bloom in the liberal, nonconformist ambiance of the school; and about the famous Great Books curriculum and how it actually operates on a day-to-day, semester-to-semester basis. It’s a fascinating subject.

Contrary to what one might expect, I found it hard to put this book down! It was a great read and raised a lot of interesting questions in my mind about the nature of education, what constitutes academic success, and the importance of sports and teamwork.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

Things I’ve Been Silent About (Memories)

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2012

by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2008)

I assumed that this was an autobiography, but by the time I came to the end, I realized that it is really an extended memoir about the author’s parents, Ahmad and Nezhat, in whose memory the book is dedicated. Nafisi writes about her two marriages and life both under the Shah and after the Islamic Revolution; but mostly, she writes about her parents, their relationships with others, their relationship with each other and with her and her brother Mohammed.  Theirs was a dysfunctional marriage (to say the least) which affected everything and everyone around them. In fact, if Nafisi’s descriptions are true, and I assume they are (but everyone writes from his/her own perspective), her mother was mentally ill. She spent a lot of energy punishing her husband and her children (for anything and everything). It is hard to imagine growing up with such a parent. Nafisi paints her father in a more favorable light; certainly he had a lot of influence on her, yet she concedes that he was weak vis à vis the women in his life.

It was interesting reading about life after the revolution–about how ordinary people learned to lie and deceive so that they could carry on with their normal activities without being arrested. I also enjoyed the glimpses into Persian culture which the book offers.

Nafisi describes her feelings as a new student at an English school (cross-cultural experiences are always of interest to me) but glosses over her experiences adjusting to life in the United States, where she initially went as a young bride to the University of Oklahoma and later returned to live with her second husband and children. She does not write much about her experiences mothering young children. She is very candid about some of the darker parts of her story–not only her mother’s erratic and punitive behavior, but also sexual abuse that she suffered as a child. It is difficult to be honest about such things. But she does not really write that much about herself; the book focuses much more on Ahmad and Nezhat (She quotes extensively from her father’s diaries.) and their relatives and friends of their generation. Along the way, she muses about literature and its influences on her own life and the lives of others. She writes about her parents’ deaths; after all she wrote about her mother’s toxic behavior, I was kind of surprised to see the extent of her grief when her mother died. I suppose that toxic parent/child relationships leave the child always longing for the love which has been withheld; the parent’s death forces an unwelcome closure on that process, making it forever impossible to mend the relationship. I think that in such a situation, I would be not sad that the toxic parent was out of my life, but who knows?

I enjoyed the book a lot.


Posted in Non-fiction | 1 Comment »

Truth and Beauty: A Friendship

Posted by nliakos on April 4, 2012

by Ann Patchett (Perennial 2005; originally published by HarperCollins in 2004)

Bel Canto is one of my favorite books. This book isn’t a novel, though; it’s a memoir, the story of the close friendship (love, actually) between the author and her friend Lucy Grealy.  It’s a testimony to friendship and love, and a study of a unique character. Lucy Grealy had cancer of the jaw as a child; the treatments she received then caused the lower part of her jaw to collapse, and she spent the remainder of her life having one failed surgery after another to try and repair the damage, hating the way she looked (which kept changing after each surgery). In her endless quest for romantic love (the love of her friends was not enough), Lucy led a dangerously promiscuous life, and in the end, it was an overdose of drugs that killed her. Throughout, Ann Patchett and other friends supported her unreservedly and put up with behavior that must have been at times quite difficult to tolerate. The reader wonders how they never seemed to tire of serving Lucy. She must have been a really extraordinary person.

As I read, I did wonder a bit what Lucy’s family thought of what is a very revealing book; what is revealed is not always very nice. I happened to find this article written by Grealy’s sister on just that topic. It kind of throws light on the other side of the story.

Reading this has made me want to read Grealy’s memoir, Autobiography of a Face. I remember reading reviews of it when it came out and thinking yes, how difficult it would be if one’s face–how we present ourselves to the world, in a way, how we recognize ourselves for who we are–were completely disfigured (like the “Elephant Man”). Patchett describes Grealy’s face as much worse than it looked in the pictures I saw of her online; but then again, the face kept changing, so I don’t know if she looked quite different from some of the pictures I saw.


Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

Beyond the Hole in the Wall: Discover the Power of Self-Organized Learning

Posted by nliakos on April 1, 2012

by Sugata Mitra (TED Books 2012)

This is my first TED Book. TED launched TEDBooks recently: “an imprint of short nonfiction works designed for digital distribution. Shorter than traditional books, TED Books run fewer than 20,000 words each — long enough to explain a powerful idea, but short enough to be read in a single sitting.”  Each book (there are currently just 13, but presumably more will be added) costs just $2.99 and can downloaded for the Nook, the Kindle, or the iPad/iPhone (I think; available from the ITunes store, anyway). I envision the day (pretty soon) when I can have my students purchase a few TED books to read on their iPads, iPhones, Kindles, or Nooks. The fact that the books are so short and so inexpensive, that they are nonfiction and that students can be turned on to their subjects by watching the related talks, is bound to make them popular. I just have to wait until everyone has the capacity to download the book somewhere. (I suspect that it may already be the case, as I think they all already have iPhones, and there are apps for eBooks available for those.)

Sugata Mitra was an invited speaker at the last WiAOC  (Click on “Keynotes for 2009” at the top); this may have been where I first learned about the “Hole in the Wall” project, or I may have listened to his 2007 talk, “Sugata Mitra Shows Kids How to Teach Themselves,” or perhaps “The Child Driven Education” in 2010. Mitra is described as “an education  scientist.” His big idea was to make a computer with internet access available to poor children in the streets of New Delhi and to watch what happened. What happened was that the children rapidly taught themselves/each other how to use the computer and how to get online. From this starting point, Mitra tried out his experiment in different places and in different ways, always finding that children are seemingly hard-wired to learn from each other. They naturally organize themselves into learning communities and need very little (if any) adult supervision or actual instruction to do so. Mitra praises MIE, or “minimally invasive education,” as a way to ask groups of kids a “big question” (e.g., Who was Archimedes and what is he known for?” or even better, a question to which even the teacher does not know the answer) and then stand back and let them use the computer to find the answer.

I found Mitra’s descriptions of what he has observed to be very interesting, his predictions about how things will work 50 years in the future, using a fictional child named Rita, much less so. We really have no idea what technologies will be invented between now and 2062 nor how they will affect our lives. MIE and SOLE (self-organized learning environment) are interesting enough!

The book is only 56 pages; I finished it during part of a bus ride from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. I am looking forward to reading more TED books! See here for more information about TEDBooks and a list of books that are currently available.

Posted in Education, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners, Web Technology | Leave a Comment »

Death Comes to Pemberley

Posted by nliakos on April 1, 2012

by PD James (Knopf 2012; eBook)

I love Jane Austen; I love Pride and Prejudice; and I love P. D. James, so it was inevitable that I would have to get James’ sequel to P&P.  It is several years after Elizabeth married Darcy; they are living at Pemberley with their two young sons, and Elizabeth’s sister Jane lives not far off, at a place called Highmarten with her husband Mr. Bingley and their children.  Just before the Darcys are about to host their annual ball, Elizabeth and Jane’s wayward sister Lydia descends upon the house in hysterics. On her way to crash the party with her husband, the despised George Wickham, and his friend Captain Denny, the two men had gotten out of the carriage and run into the Pemberley woods and had not returned, but shots were heard. Sure enough, Captain Denny is found dead, with Wickham kneeling over him and proclaiming his guilt. Surely an open-and-shut case! But not at all. James strings us along all the way to the end, dropping hints along the way but never revealing whodunit.

I especially enjoyed being privy to the inner thoughts of both Darcy and Elizabeth. James describes Darcy as shy, determined to do the right thing, and very much in love with Elizabeth.  She paints Elizabeth as good, but not completely immune to status and money, and as still somewhat  conflicted about Wickham. Other characters, whether known or unknown from Austen’s books, are convincingly portrayed.  Although it’s not a page turner (it falls short of James’ best Dalgliesh novels), I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments »

Laughing Without an Accent

Posted by nliakos on April 1, 2012

by Firoozah Dumas (Villard 2008)

I was looking for Funny in Farsi, which was Dumas’ first book, but it was out; so I settled for this one instead. It was good; it was funny. Dumas was born in Iran and emigrated to the U.S. when she was quite young.  She writes about her experiences as an Iranian in California, both before and after the Iranian hostage crisis. She writes about going to college (excruciating), and meeting her husband, who is French, and about the interaction between him and her parents. I enjoyed reading the book a lot, but now, three books later, find I can’t remember much in particular about it! (Then again, that is why I started this blog, so I shouldn’t blame Dumas.)

I’d still like to read Funny in Farsi!

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »