Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for May, 2012

My Sister’s Keeper

Posted by nliakos on May 31, 2012

by Jodi Picoult (Washington Square Press, 2004)

I haven’t posted in a while because I’ve been slowly slogging through Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and Other Invisible IllnessesThe Comprehensive Guide. But I took time out to read My Sister’s Keeper, which I has been on my to-read list for a while (possibly not on this blog, but in my head). It took hold of me like some kind of flesh-eating bacteria. I could hardly put it down; I read the 423 pages in just a few days.

The book is the story of the Fitzgerald family–Brian and Sara and their children, Jesse, Kate, and Anna–and the lawsuit that Anna brings against her parents to prevent them from forcing her to donate a kidney to Kate, who suffers from a usually fatal form of leukemia. The story is seen from the perspectives of all of these characters, and also those of the lawyer and the guardian ad litem, a person appointed by the court to get to know the plaintiff, her family, and the situation in order that she might make an informed but objective recommendation to the judge. Each chapter is written in the first person from the point of view of one of these characters, at a certain point in time (or in the week or so between Anna’s hiring the lawyer and the verdict of the court), and each character has his or her distinct font. The reader is drawn into the stories of each character and comes to care about all of them.

The book raises a number of serious ethical questions (example: Is it right to conceive a child for the purpose of saving the life of another child?), and there may be no good answers. But Picoult gets you to ponder them.

If there was anything I didn’t like, it is perhaps that the (surprise) ending is a little too pat. (No spoiler here; you will have to read it yourself.)

Advanced non-native readers will not find particularly difficult language, and the chapters are mostly short, but it’s a really long book for a slow reader. On the other hand, if it grabs your interest the way it grabbed mine, you may find yourself reading faster than you usually do because you want to know what will happen next!

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

Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara

Posted by nliakos on May 12, 2012

by Colleen Morton Busch (Penguin, 2011)

All I really know about the Tassajara Zen Center is Ed Brown’s books, Tassajara Cooking and The Tassajara Bread Book.  I don’t use cookbooks much (I either cook with a recipe, use a recipe I already have, or look on the Internet for recipes), but I do love Tassajara Cooking. Brown doesn’t write recipes so much as educate his readers about the different ways to prepare food, and encourages them to experiment. I refer to it when I want to prepare a food I’ve never used before, or when I can’t remember basic cooking times or ratios.

Fire Monks tells the story of the great California wildfires of July 2008, which threatened the Zen Center and eventually caused its (almost) complete evacuation–“almost” because five monks turned around at the last moment and went back to man the pumps and hoses and save the Center. Busch, a Zen Center student, researched the fires and interviewed numerous people, monks, students, visitors, and firefighters, to tell the story.

I was a bit put off initially by the amount of detail in the narrative and almost put the book down, but I kept going and did finally finish it. I learned quite a lot about wildfires and also a bit about Zen Buddhism, like its distillation down to seven words:

Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.

I like that. I also liked the idea of “meeting”, rather than “fighting,” the fire. Fires are natural to California, and much of its natural life depends on fire. The monks saved their home by keeping it wet, mainly, so that the fire went on to burn the dry forest around it. Busch writes in the Afterword, “The creek is the voice under every other at Tassajara, and in this story…. It flowed through the hoses and the … sprinklers. It revived tired bodies and filled every bowl of soup or cup of tea sustaining each human thought, feeling, and action. Named for a place it cannot stay, the creek is always there–the constant teacher and perfectly humble hero of Fire Monks.”

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman’s Story

Posted by nliakos on May 4, 2012

by Latifa (Hyperion 2001)

“Latifa” (not her real name) was sixteen years old when the Taliban took over Kabul, where she lived with her parents, her sister and brother (another sister and brother having already left home), their dog, Bingo, and their canary.  Her mother was a doctor; her sister worked as a flight attendant for the national airline. Both women were forced to give up their careers, although her mother continued to treat patients secretly until she ran out of medical supplies. Latifa had just begun her entrance exams for university, hoping to follow a career in journalism. Her dreams of furthering her education were crushed as the Taliban systematically imprisoned women in their homes and chadris, making it too dangerous for them to venture out for any reason. Those women who had no male family members to run errands for them or escort them either starved in their homes or risked savage beatings and rape if they went out. (An infraction of any of the many decrees governing their behavior gave men an excuse to punish them any way they wanted.) Sick or injured women had no access to medical care, because male doctors were not permitted to treat female patients, and female doctors (the majority, before the Taliban) were not permitted to practice medicine at all. It’s difficult to imagine how any person (let alone a whole group of people) could so oppress half of the population of a country.

The book is written like a journal, mostly in the present tense; if it were not for the fact that I think it unlikely that the author could have left Afghanistan with a diary in her luggage, I would assume that that it is her actual journal, kept over a span of years between the Taliban takeover and her leaving Afghanistan for Paris, along with her parents, in 2001, to publicize the situation of Afghan women in France. While they were in Paris, the Afghan authorities apparently discovered her identity and ransacked the family apartment, making the their return impossible.

The genius of the book is its ability to make the reader feel that such a thing could actually happen to any of us. Latifa does not come across as “foreign”. Although a devout Muslim, she enjoyed all the same things that American teens enjoy; she was a good student, with hopes of a bright future. Suddenly, all that was lost. She battled boredom and then depression, until she courageously began to teach some of the children in her building in one of what must have been many clandestine “schools” set up under the noses of the Taliban. This was why she was invited to go to Paris to speak on behalf of Afghan women. At the end of the book, she is pessimistic about the response: “…I don’t think anything will change. My father, ever the optimist, keeps telling me that … a word is never lost in the desert. One day it will burst into bloom…. Women listen to other women, and what you’ve told them will make people here understand what the Taliban are doing to you. A woman is not nothing. If a talib tells a woman she is nothing and he is everything, he is ignorant. Man is born of woman, the saint has a mother, the whole world was born in the body of a woman….” (pp. 196-197) But after the news that a fatwa has been issued against them and their apartment gutted, even her father is demoralized.

The book ends in 2001, after Al Qaeda’s attack on America but before the escalation of the American war in Afghanistan. A quick Google search does not bring up updated information on whether Latifa and her parents were ever able to return to their country or whether they were ever reunited with her brothers and sisters in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States. In any case, as I write, the Taliban are still in control of parts of Afghanistan and are still presumably waging war on the women and girls of Afghanistan.

The book is simply written and would be accessible to upper-intermediate and advanced English language learners.

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

I Am in Here: The Journey of a Child with Autism Who Cannot Speak but Finds Her Voice

Posted by nliakos on May 4, 2012

by Elizabeth M. Bonker and Virginia G. Breen (Revell 2011)

Virginia Breen narrates the story of her 13-year-old daughter Elizabeth, interspersing her narrative with Elizabeth’s poetry (written between the ages of eight and thirteen) and commentary.  Autism prevents Elizabeth from speaking, but after she learned to use a device called a letterboard from Soma Mukhopadhyay (another “autism mom” who created this simple device to help her son Tito communicate), and then  began to use a typewriter, Elizabeth was able to write poems and messages to communicate her thoughts. One of her first comments after learning to use the letterboard was, “I finally got to talk.”

Elizabeth’s poems are not complicated, but they are heartfelt. I loved her comments on the poems. A couple of examples: “I am frustrated because I can’t speak. Why me? I don’t get it. Why do people have disabilities?” (p. 60) and “I sometimes get frustrated and act out before I realize what I have done. I hope to be able to better deal with my emotions so people won’t be scared to be my friend or schoolmate.” (p. 72) and “I am not always able to show people how I am feeling. Sometimes I am not feeling well inside, or I have a hard time focusing. Sounds or smells that bother me do not seem to be noticed at all by others. I struggle to fit in, and succeed most days, but like everyone else, I have a bad day once in a while.” (p. 77) and “When learning something new, I have a hard time. I need time to figure it out in my own way.” (p. 85) These comments give NT (neurotypical) readers some insight into Elizabeth’s experience.

Both Breen and Elizabeth believe deeply in God and His power to heal Elizabeth. I am not a believer, but I admire their faith and hope for both their sakes that Elizabeth will be healed some day.

Elizabeth’s compassion for other people whom she sees as more challenged than she is is inspiring.

As I was reading this book, I often wiped tears from my eyes.

Posted in Learning Disabilities, Non-fiction | 1 Comment »

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

Posted by nliakos on May 2, 2012

by Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking, 2010)

I mentioned that as I was reading Eat, Pray, Love, I had already decided that I would read it again when I finished, but in fact, I returned it to the library having read it only once. Nevertheless, as I was cruising the biography shelves looking for something new, I came upon Committed and decided that my destiny was to read something by the same author. Good choice!

At the end of the “Love” section of Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert and her Brazilian lover “Felipe” (which is the name she assigns to him in both books, although I should think it would be fairly easy to uncover his real name; in any case, the man’s privacy has been seriously violated here, as the author herself admits in the acknowledgments: “…unfortunately his privacy ended the day he met me…. Back when we were first courting, there came an awkward moment when I had to confess that I was a writer, and what that meant for him…. Despite all my warnings, though, he stayed.”[(p. 285]) decide to share their lives traveling among four countries: the United States, where she lives; Bali, where he lives; Brazil, where he is from; and Australia, where his children are. Everything is going fine when the Department of Homeland Security refuses to let him re-enter the United States unless she marries him.

Both the products of painful divorces, neither Gilbert nor Felipe want to get married, but it iis the only way they can stay together without her permanently leaving the United States, so they spend the next ten months living in cheap Southeast Asian hotels while her application to bring him in to the U.S. as her fiancé wends its way through the bureaucracy and she delves into the question of marriage: its history, its role in various cultures, its advantages and disadvantages, its impact on women, its relationship to love and infatuation, and so on.

I found the book  fascinating, especially the chapter on “Marriage and History.” Like many others, I had bought the bill of goods about the “sanctity of marriage” and the important role marriage plays in religion; Gilbert informed me that for almost 1,000 years after Jesus Christ, the Church despised marriage, at first attempting to dissuade its converts from marrying (or lure them away from their families) and subsequently (when that proved ineffective) considering married people as somehow dirtied by their regular participation in sexual intercourse. When the Church finally gave up its opposition to the institution, it tried (pretty successfully!) to control marriage by taking it over and forbidding divorce (which had, up until then, been pretty simple to do) unless sanctioned by the Church (pretty much as it is today, although as we know, a lot of Catholics simply nod their heads and do what they want anyway–which is essentially what everybody’s been doing since time immemorial, according to Chapter Seven, “Marriage and Subversion”).  These and many other ideas in the book were new to me and quite thought-provoking. Other ideas, such as the vastly different expectations of marriage we find in cultures different from our own (Gilbert’s example is Hmong), were not really new to me, but interesting and entertaining to read about in Gilbert’s relaxed, conversational style.

Oh, yes: there is a happy ending.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »