Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for July, 2012

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Posted by nliakos on July 30, 2012

Stories by Yiyun Li (Random House, 2005)

I am not usually a big fan of short stories. These are kind of depressing. They focus on bad marriages, disappointing relationships between parents and adult children, being gay in Chinese culture, abuse of power, taking care of a severely handicapped child in a society with no ADA legislation, the doomed love of an older woman for a young child…  The situations are tragic, the outcomes often unhappy. Definitely not an uplifting read!

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »

Searching for Hassan: An American Family’s Journey Home to Iran

Posted by nliakos on July 28, 2012

by Terence Ward (Houghton Mifflin 2002)

Terence Ward describes a trip he and his family made in 1998 back to Iran, where they had lived in the 1960s, when he and his three brothers were children. They have only happy memories of their idyllic life in a well-to-do neighborhood in the north of Teheran–especially of the family cook, Hassan Ghasemi, who was like a second father to them.  Hassan taught them about Iranian culture, told them traditional stories and legends, and was a significant influence on them as children. But after the Ward family left Iran to return to America, the Wards and the Ghasemis lost touch. In 1998, spurred on by the youngest brother, Richard, they all returned to the Islamic Republic to search for the Ghasemis, with only the half-remembered name of a tiny village as their guide.

The book follows them from Shiraz to Teheran, along with a driver, a guide, and a translator (it is never made very clear how much Farsi they knew or remembered, although I would assume that when they were children, they knew Farsi well) .  They begin the trip with some trepidation, but soon discover that what endeared Iranians to them in the 1960s has not really changed. Iranians are still hospitable, warm people, and they respond positively to the Wards’ friendliness. They encounter Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians living under Shari’a.  The reader learns that much of what we consider to be “Western” culture really originated in ancient Persia: belief in a messiah, angels, archangels, and the devil, as well as the concepts of good and evil; life after death; heaven, hell, and purgatory; and the last judgment (Ward attributes this information to the Cambridge History of Iran). The book presents information about Iranian history, culture, literature, and politics in an easily understandable format. I liked learning about the great 14th-century Iranian poet and humanist, Hafez. One of his poems, cited in the book, seems to speak directly to the fanatical mullahs of today:

Do not judge us, you who boast your purity–
No one will indict you for the faults of others.
What is it to you whether I am virtuous or a sinner?
Busy yourself with yourself!
Each in the end will reap the seed he himself has sown.
Every man longs for the Friend, the drunkard as much as the awakened.
Every place is the House of Love, the Synagogue as much as the Mosque.

This has inspired me (not normally a seeker of poetry) to read more of Hafez’s work! He speaks to us through the centuries as if he were alive today (but he died in 1390).

Finally, although we tend to see the mullahs’ rule in Iran as a universally bad thing, Ward shows the many positive changes that have come about in Iran since the revolution, including a more equitable distribution of wealth than under the Shah, who cannot be called a humane, enlightened ruler by any stretch of the imagination.

I loved this book, and I learned a great deal about Iran from reading it.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Posted by nliakos on July 22, 2012

by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown 2005)

In the first part of this study on snap decisions, Gladwell seems to be saying that our snap judgments are more reliable than our rational, logical decisions (examples: people who recognized that the Getty Museum kouros is a fake, people who can correctly predict when a couple will divorce or which doctor will get sued for malpractice from watching a few minutes of videotaped conversation, Paul Van Riper’s rout of the U.S. military is Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) war games). But then he points to case after case where first impressions deceive: the Pepsi Challenge and new Coke, the shooting of Amadou Diallo). The snap decision is based on what is called thin-slicing: taking the tiniest bit of information and basing one’s decision on it. (I wonder if Thin-Slicing was the working title of the book!) When we base our judgments on prejudice, for example, which is impossible not to do (as explained in Chapter 3), we can make very bad decisions indeed.

Gladwell claims that the ability to thin-slice and make decisions based on those critical first moments is part of what makes us human: we all do it. But we don’t all do it. Gladwell does finally get around to this in Chapter 6: “The classic model for understanding what it means to lose the ability to mind-read is the condition of autism.” But it is not only people with autism who are “mind-blind.” I kept thinking of people on the autism spectrum, people with impaired social skills, people with nonverbal learning disorders. That is exactly what they cannot do. No wonder life is so stressful for them! They have no basis for predicting what other people are going to do. Every interaction must nerve-racking for them because it is so completely unpredictable.

Gladwell believes that people can learn to use their ability to thin-slice to live better, but in saying this he seems to contradict his contention that we cannot control our prejudices even if we want to (Chapter 3), so at the end of the book I was not sure which is true.

Posted in Non-fiction | 1 Comment »

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media

Posted by nliakos on July 20, 2012

by Brooke Gladstone, illustrated by Josh Neufeld (W. W. Norton, 2011)

This book is this year’s First Year Book at the University of Maryland and my first experience with “a graphic format” book (Since it’s non-fiction, I can’t call it a graphic novel.). I’m still not sure why she decided to use the graphic format; it doesn’t seem to add anything to the text. The book doesn’t do anything it couldn’t have done in an ordinary text format; actually, there are parts of it that are written that way. The rest of it is essentially a lot of talking heads. Instead of quoting and citing her sources the usual way, Gladstone lets the sources do the talking; sometimes, information about where the quote was taken from appears in the frame (and there is a complete reference list in the back as well). The graphic format made me feel as though the information had been dumbed down, which in fact it wasn’t, but that was the impression I had: it looks like a comic book, so it can’t be serious/intellectually rigorous.  That said, it is a serious history of the media in the United States, and I learned a lot of things I never suspected. For example, there is the “brief history of speech suppression in America” and the explanation of the various types of bias that journalists fall prey to ( commercial bias, bad news bias, status quo bias, access bias, visual bias, narrative bias, and fairness bias).  It’s a good book, but I still don’t really understand why it was done in the graphic format.

Posted in Non-fiction | 4 Comments »

Outliers: The Story of Success

Posted by nliakos on July 15, 2012

by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown 2008)

I really enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s books. I always learn things I never knew from them! Outliers is no different.  Did you know that 10,000 hours of practice are necessary for greatness, whether you are an athlete, a musician, or a computer geek? That the most auspicious year to be born in is 1930 for a New York Jewish lawyer and 1954-55 for a software tycoon? That you can measure respect for authority using something called the Power Distance Index (PDI) and use it to predict airplane crash probability (sort of)? That Southern men are quick to fight if insulted because of their cultural legacy (kind of like Sicilians)? And on and on.

Gladwell defines outliers as “those who have been given opportunities–and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” (p. 401) He shows how the most successful among us have combined talent with hard work and happy accidents to achieve their successes.

An easy and fascinating read. I’ve just put a hold on Blink.

Posted in Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | 2 Comments »

The Sixteen Pleasures

Posted by nliakos on July 14, 2012

by Robert Hellenga (1989; Delta 1995)

One of the joys of being on vacation is being able to devote long hours to reading. I read this one in a single day. It tells the story of American book conservator Margot Harrington (Didn’t I just read a novel about a book conservator?) who travels to Florence in 1966 to help clean up after the Arno floods. She discovers a unique book in a convent she lives and works in. She has a love affair with an older man and thinks it will last forever. When it doesn’t, she focuses on the book, eventually shepherding it to Sotheby’s in London.

Along the way, the reader learns a lot about what life was like in Florence after the flood,  conservators’ techniques for restoring damaged books and art, what it’s like to live in a Carmelite convent, and how a Sotheby’s auction is run.

The book certainly kept my attention, but when I finished it, I confess I felt a kind of disappointment, like “Is that all?”

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The Battle Over Hetch Hetchy: America’s Most Controversial Dam and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism

Posted by nliakos on July 13, 2012

by Robert W. Righter (Oxford University Press 2005)

This is another one of those books that’s been on my to-read list for ages–since it was published, I suppose.

I was around twenty when I visited Yosemite National Park for the first time. At that time, I was unaware of the Hetch Hetchy controversy. The Hetch Hetchy Valley was said to be like a twin of the Yosemite Valley. It was also in the National Park…. but that was not sufficient to save it. Today, it is a reservoir. The beautiful valley was stripped of its vegetation; the Tuolumne River, which flowed through the valley between granite cliffs, was dammed, submerging Hetch Hetchy under a vast reservoir created to provide water for the city of San Francisco.

Every time I think of all that natural beauty under water, I want to weep. I think that if I were John Muir or one of the other defenders of Hetch Hetchy who had actually seen it, I would have wept. But Righter’s even-handed telling of the story from its beginnings around the turn of the 20th century right up to the present, with the formation of the Restore Hetch Hetchy movement, makes it clear that there really are no villains. There were those who wanted to keep Hetch Hetchy in its “natural” state for the sake of tourism, and there were those who felt “the greatest good for the greatest number” would be served by damming the river to create sources of both water and electric power for millions of people in the Bay Area. The irony is that the water and power could have been gotten in other ways–ways that would have been less expensive for the people who used them and which would have spared the beautiful valley in the National Park (but flooded other valleys outside it).

It was in the struggle to save Hetch Hetchy that America’s environmental movement cut its teeth and learned how to fight. The loss of Hetch Hetchy was followed by other victories by the Sierra Club and other newly created environmental groups.  Righter shows how the battle resonated throughout the 20th century and still resonates today.

The book is well-written but in places poorly edited (I spied a few dangling modifiers, and one of San Francisco’s many mayors was named either Rolph or Rolfe…. both spellings occur.), and the typeface was uncomfortably small, making it difficult to read if the light was not really bright. (Maybe I just need new glasses!)

The book makes me want to reread John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid.

Posted in History, Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan

Posted by nliakos on July 8, 2012

by Robert Kanigel (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991)

This is one of the books that has been on my to-read list for many years–since long before I started keeping this blog, when the to-read list was a folder stuffed full of handwritten lists and book reviews clipped from The Washington Post and other publications. I no longer have that file, but I can almost picture the review that prompted me to add The Man Who knew Infinity to the folder; it occurs to me that it probably dates from the year the book came out; if so, I have been meaning to read it for over twenty years. “Better late than never” is certainly true in this case.

I am kind of math phobic. I used to weep over my algebra homework in high school, and I deliberately went to a university where I would not have to take any math; the last math course I took was plane geometry in my junior year of high school. No trig, no pre-calc, no calculus, and as a result, no physics either. My avoidance of math has left a hole in my education that can never be made up.

Ramanujan, the mathematical genius of Madras and the subject of this detailed biography, was at the other end of the continuum; in order to devote himself to mathematics, he avoided doing pretty much everything else. As a result, he never received a college degree in India and came very close to living and dying in obscurity. Due to his own stubborn perseverance and self-belief and to his good fortune in meeting people who were in a position to support him in one way or another, this did not happen. When he died, at the age of only 32 (leaving behind a mathematical legacy that continues to absorb scholars today), he was probably one of the most famous men in India.

Robert Kanigel’s biography is rich in detail about the people, places, and times that figure in Ramanujan’s story.  However, it is never boring; I avidly read the descriptions of life in the towns and cities of South India under the British Raj; of the life of G. H. Hardy, the English mathematician who “discovered” Ramanujan  and became his mentor and collaborator; and most particularly of the difficulties experienced by Ramanujan and other young Indians who traveled to England to study without the benefits enjoyed by today’s international students (such as the company of numerous others in the same situation, offices dedicated to their support and counseling, and easy communication via the Internet with friends and family back home). The fact that Ramanujan was at Cambridge during the First World War, with its rationing of food (he was a strict vegetarian) and the danger surrounding sea travel which prevented him from visiting India for five cold and lonely years, probably contributed to the decline in his health which led eventually to tuberculosis and the tragedy of premature death soon after his eventual return to India after the war ended.

Kanigel’s own genius is that he could write a book with frequent references to mathematics and make it so interesting to the lay reader. Kanigel writes, “Because it lies on a cool, ethereal plane beyond the everyday passions of human life, and because it can be grasped only through a language in which most people are unschooled, Ramanujan’s work grants direct pleasure to only a few…. The rest of us must either sit on the sidelines and…cheer, or else rely on vague, metaphoric, and necessarily imprecise glimpses of his work.” (p. 350) Kanigel’s lucid prose certainly inspired this reader to cheer Ramanujan’s achievements from the sidelines.  The book was easy to read and hard to put down, even if I did not put energy into trying to understand the actual mathematics (which would have been fruitless, anyway!).

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »


Posted by nliakos on July 3, 2012

by Ann Patchett (Harper, 2007)

This is the story of Bernard Doyle, former mayor of Boston; his three sons Sullivan, Tip, and Teddy; their uncle Father Sullivan; Tip and Teddy’s birth mother, Tennessee (formerly Beverly) and her precocious eleven-year-old daughter, Kenya. The Doyles are a pretty dysfunctional family (remember Tolstoy’s line about all unhappy families being unhappy in unique ways?) who are forced to confront each other when Tennessee, who has silently and secretly observed her sons’ lives since giving them up for adoption when they were babies, comes between Tip and an oncoming SUV on a snowy night in Boston. In the 24 hours after the accident, the various members of the (now larger) family confront each other on several different levels.

My favorite character was Kenya. In the interview following the novel, Patchett reveals that although she did not intend to have a child in the story, “she became so much more central than I ever imagined her being.” Patchett says that for her, it was always Tip’s story, but for me, it was Kenya’s. I found Tip kind of hard to like. Tip’s into ichthyology, which suits him very well–he’s the kind of person we might call “a cold fish”, not considerate of others’ feelings and physically distant from the members of his family. (Only Kenya is able to approach him during the events following their accidental meeting; however, to be fair, I must add that Tip does “penance” later, as described in Chapter 11, which is really an epilogue.)

I don’t think anything can ever surpass Bel Canto for me, but I really enjoyed reading Run.

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Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

Posted by nliakos on July 2, 2012

by Clay Shirky (Penguin Press, 2008)

I can’t believe it took me four years to read Shirky’s seminal work about crowdsourcing, political activism using Twitter and blogs, how Wikipedia works, why traditional news media are in crisis, “Meetup,” open source projects, and more. Much of what Shirky wrote here back in 2008 is not news in 2012, but it’s still worth reading. He was already predicting that mobile devices would be the next big thing. This is one smart guy.

Shirky explains the power law curve–the visual curve that expresses a relationship where large occurrences are rare and small ones are common. He finds instances of power law everywhere. In Wikipedia, for example, the bulk of the work on an article is done by just a few very committed people, while most people contribute just one tiny edit. Working together in this way, people can create something valuable.

I was reminded of the Electronic Village Online, the free professional development sessions offered each winter by TESOL’s CALL Interest Section. In every session I have been involved in either as a participant or as a co-moderator, I have observed that there is a relatively small number of very active participants and a very large number of lurkers. I had always seen that as somehow a failure of the session to garner enough enthusiasm on the part of everybody. After reading Shirky, I have come to realize it’s natural.

A power-law curve

Shirky’s prose is lucid and his ideas come across clearly. I am now looking forward to reading his new one: Cognitive Surplus. I hope it doesn’t take me four years to get around to it.

Links to Clay Shirky’s TED talks:

  1. “Clay Shirky on Institutions vs Collaboration” (2005) This talk serves as an introduction to Here Comes Everybody. Shirky explains the power-law distribution at length and uses many of the same examples he does in the book.
  2. “How Social Media Can Make History” (2009) Given the year following the publication of Here Comes Everybody, this talk also incorporates some of the ideas from the book (like social capital, “tools don’t get socially interesting until they are technologically boring”, and the 20th vs 21st century media landscape).
  3. “How Cognitive Surplus Will Change the World” (2010) This one previews the next book. It mentions Ushahidi (a tool for crisis mapping) as an example of how people volunteer their talents for the good of others. Each talk is a few minutes shorter than the previous one!
  4. “Why SOPA Is a Bad Idea” (2012) Shirky’s explanation of the fight to create without the hindrance of copyright.

Posted in Non-fiction | 1 Comment »