Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for September, 2012

A Man Without Words

Posted by nliakos on September 30, 2012

by Susan Schaller (Univ. of California Press 1991)

Another of the books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, but it wasn’t available at my public library; I found it at the university library, on a shelf with many other accounts of the lives of the deaf. Susan Schaller is a hearing person who learned American Sign Language because she loved it. After moving to Los Angeles with her graduate student husband, Schaller signed up with the local interpreters’ registry and was assigned to a reading class for hearing-impaired people. This was where she met the man she calls Ildefonso, a 27-year-old Mexican she soon realized was “languageless”–having never learned any language at all, either oral or sign-based, he had no concept of what language was and no comprehension of what people were doing when they interacted with each other.

Schaller took on the enormous challenge of introducing Ildefonso to language. She describes her often fruitless attempts to get him to understand the smallest things, as well as her misgivings about having unlocked the door to human communication for him while being unable to help him cross the threshold  She wondered if it was even possible for a languageless adult to learn a language; she searched and found nothing written about such people, yet she knew Ildefonso was not the only one. She tried to solicit support from the only academic she could discover who had written about adults without language, only to be rebuffed. But she could not give up.

Eventually, Schaller’s path led her away from Los Angeles and she lost sight of her pupil for several years. When she found him again, he had indeed acquired language, and he was eager to answer all of the questions she had tried to ask him when they worked together, which he had been unable either to understand or answer.

Schaller does not describe how Ildefonso managed to progress from the very rudimentary ASL she was able to teach him to the complete fluency he acquired later. And it was not only language that Ildefonso lacked when she met him; he knew nothing of time, history, geography, science, or anything that someone who has attended elementary school would know something about, yet somehow, he managed to catch up once he learned ASL. This would appear to contradict the critical period hypothesis for language development.

Despite the dearth of research Schaller found concerning languageless adults, Ildefonso introduced her to a whole group of such people just in his own community. Obviously, there must be many more such people in the world, which makes me wonder why there hasn’t been more research done or attempts to help them participate in the societies they live in.

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Posted in Education, Learning Disabilities, Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Posted by nliakos on September 26, 2012

by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown 2000)

I think The Tipping Point was actually the first Gladwell book to have been suggested to me, but it has turned out to be the last one I read. It’s about the notion that a small thing or a few people can be responsible for “tipping” something–an epidemic, a fashion, a trend, or a crime rate–from negligible to noticeable, even huge.  Gladwell illustrates his point using Paul Revere and William Dawes (who???); the AIDS epidemic; the crime rate in New York City; Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues; Bernhard Goetz’s shooting of four teen-aged thugs on the New York City subway; Airwalk shoes and Hush Puppies; and a rash of suicides among  teenagers in Micronesia.  He shows how in each case, a small group of people (sometimes even one person) or a seemingly small or unrelated action can result in a big change. For example, he claims that the sudden drop in  New York’s crime rate in the 1990s was due to cleaning up the graffiti in and on the subways.

Gladwell’s “Law of the Few” claims that three kinds of people–Connectors (people who know lots of other people, “Masters of the Weak Tie”), Mavens (people who collect knowledge and like to share it), and Salesmen (people who are gifted at the art of persuasion)–are responsible for the sudden popularity of certain trends and fashions. The quality of “Stickiness” is what makes something memorable. Context (as opposed to character) is responsible for more than we realize, and the Fundamental Attribution Error is the mistake we make when we overestimate the importance of character traits to the detriment of context when interpreting people’s actions. Finally, 150 is the maximum number of people that work well together.

If these claims seem incomprehensible, I’m afraid you’ll just have to read the book, because Gladwell makes it all perfectly clear (as he always does).

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection

Posted by nliakos on September 20, 2012

by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon 2012)

This is the thirteenth book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I don’t remember when I first discovered these gentle novels set in Gaborone, Botswana, but I do remember that I didn’t begin with the first one; I began with The Kalahari Typing School for Men, which is actually the fourth in the series, and I think I happened on it while grazing along the Books-on-Tape shelves at the Quince Orchard Library (remember books on tape?). I was hooked. I went back to the beginning, and except for my recent faux pas (reading The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party before I had read The Double Comfort Safari Club), have read them more or less in order.

Fans of Mma Ramotswe will be glad to know that in this installment, she actually gets to meet the author of The Principles of Private Detection–yes, the great Clovis Andersen himself–although he turns out to be a bit different from what she and Mma Makutsi had imagined.

Also in this installment, Mma Ramotswe occupies herself with helping the people she knows, rather than clients who seek her assistance. Fanwell, one of Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni’s apprentices (who has actually qualified as a mechanic!); Mma Potokwane, matron of the orphan farm; and the newly married Rra and Mma Radiphuti, all find themselves in difficult situations. Mma Ramotswe (aided by the hapless Charlie) eventually gets things sorted out. As usual, further criminal activity is forestalled by the gentle threat of exposure and the police need not be called in.

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

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Posted by nliakos on September 16, 2012

by Susan Cain (Crown 2012)

“Love is essential,” writes Susan Cain in the conclusion to this book about the strengths of introverts; “gregariousness is optional.” Cain, a self-professed introvert, has gathered together plenty of support for the concept that introversion is a good thing, despite our societal preference for extroversion. Introverts think more deeply, are more sensitive to the needs of others, are our writers and artists and scientists and inventors–in brief, where would we be without introverts? Yet many of this very large segment of any population (she speculates 1/3 to 1/2 of the population is introverted) feel compelled to disguise themselves as extroverts, despite the attendant difficulties (high stress levels, enormous fatigue, betrayal of one’s real self…), because they have internalized the message that this is the only way to be successful. It may work, but it doesn’t make them happy. Cain offers introverts plenty of advice on how to survive without selling out (for example: carve out “restorative niches” in your day where you can recharge your energy).  She discusses introverts in the workplace, in schools (where the fashion for groupwork has taken over) and in personal relationships. And she summarizes a lot of research that points to a biological basis for introversion (introverts actually tend to have thinner skin than extroverts do!).

Interestingly, hypersensitivity to environmental stimuli, impaired social skills (including misinterpretation of nonverbal signals), “nerdiness” and a passion for certain pursuits are all common (if not universal) in introverts, according to Cain, making introversion almost a synonym for Asperger’s syndrome. Cain never mentions the autism spectrum; but the book made me wonder whether Asperger’s might be an extreme form of introversion. Of course, Asperger’s may also be characterized by repetitive movements, difficulties in communication, lack of emotional affect and other features that your garden-variety introvert is not saddled with. Still, they have a lot in common, if what Cain says is true.

Cain believes that if introverts are passionate enough about something, they can certainly overcome their natural preferences for solitude and quiet and act the part of an extrovert well enough to achieve their goals.

You can hear Cain’s TED talk on the subject here.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

The Lost Art of Gratitude

Posted by nliakos on September 9, 2012

by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon, 2009)

In this sixth episode in the Isabel Dalhousie series (Wasn’t that originally called The Sunday Philosophy Club Series, after the title of the first one? Or did I just imagine that?), Isabel is manipulated by the very disagreeable Minty Auchterlonie, who implores her for favors and then turns around and abuses Isabel’s good nature. Isabel never manages to get and hold onto the upper hand in this unpleasant relationship, due to the fact that she is basically a moral person, whereas Minty is amoral. The book deals with Isabel’s reactions to Minty’s treacheries. She is constantly making wrong judgments about people who turn out to be quite different from what she suspects, so by the end of the book, I had somewhat lost my faith in Isabel’s abilities. But anyone can be mistaken, especially if they are predisposed to thinking that others are more likely to be good people than bad.

I was pleased to note that Isabel’s love affair with the younger Jamie is coming along beautifully, and their little son Charlie continues to be the most well-behaved 18-month-old on the planet.

I will note here that I am three novels behind in this series: The Charming Quirks of Others (2009), The Forgotten Affairs of Youth (2011), and The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds (2012). Get to it, Nina!

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »

The Double Comfort Safari Club

Posted by nliakos on September 9, 2012

by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon, 2010/Recorded Books 2010, audiobook narrated by Lisette Lecat)

Success! I managed to borrow this audio book from my public library.  It took a long time and a lot of patience to download the OneClickdigital software I needed to do this, primarily because it took time for things to happen, yet there was no indication that they were, in fact, happening, and no indication when they were completed, either. But I finally got the thing installed and borrowed the book, although I had to go back and search for it from the beginning, which seemed irritatingly unnecessary, and then I couldn’t find it on my computer (it was in the OneClickdigital folder), and when I finally got it loaded onto the iPod I couldn’t find it there, either. It was hiding in the Music folder, rather than in the Books folder, which would have made it so much easier to find, as it would have been the only thing there. Oh, well. I suppose this technology is a work in progress.

In this episode (if I can call a novel an episode), as usual several disparate cases and situations are confronted and finally resolved (perhaps a little too neatly in some cases).  Mma Ramotswe takes Mma Makutsi on a trip to the Okavango Delta in the north of Botswana to find a guide who has been left a legacy by a grateful safari client, and that was interesting because I don’t think McCall Smith had ever written about that (wet) part of Botswana before in the series, and I didn’t know anything about it.  (This was the part where the conflict resolution was a little too pat for my taste. Alexander, are you getting lazy?)

Perhaps the main story line concerns a kind of weird love triangle among Mma Makutsi, her fiancé Phuti Radiphuti, and Phuti’s extremely possessive and neurotic auntie. After Phuti loses his foot in an accident, the aunt tries her best to discourage Mma Makutsi from seeing or communicating with him. Even the redoubtable Mma Ramotswe seems unable to break the aunt’s stranglehold on her nephew. But help finally comes from an unforeseen source, the even more formidable Mma Potokwane, directress of the Orphan Farm.

Lisette Lecat’s reading, as always, is perfect–even to the American accent she assumes for the reading of the letter Mma Ramotswe receives from an American lawyer.

I’ve already borrowed the newest book in the series, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, which I happened to see on the New Arrivals shelf when I went to the library to return some other books (but I might still try for the audio book through OneClick…).

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

Why Does This Have to Be So Difficult?

Posted by nliakos on September 2, 2012

I decided I should not be intimidated by the technology involved in borrowing eBooks and digital audio books from my library (Montgomery County Public Libraries in Maryland).  I’ve done each thing once. Let’s try again! I looked up The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and found an eBook that was available immediately (so they said), so I tried to borrow it, and ended up on some waiting list (?). Next I searched for The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith–the prequel to the one I just read and blogged about, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party.  I discovered that I had to download yet another application in order to do this: OneClickdigital Media Manager. I did not note the time I started this process, so I can’t tell you how long it took, but I can tell you it took a very very long time!!!!!  Maybe one hour? Maybe two hours? And of course, it’s a holiday weekend, so there was no one available in Support (8:30 – 5 pm Monday through Friday–not any time I would be likely to be in the same place as my laptop on a normal day). I watched tutorials, I clicked on this and that, I tried different things.  In fact, I think the main problem I had was that everything just took a really long time and there was no indication (no pop-up message or anything like that) when things were finished, so I kept trying to borrow the book only to discover (on a different tab) that I had already succeeded in borrowing it. Then I kept trying to transfer it to my iPod and I kept getting the message that I should check the connection and the space available on my device. After I gave up in disgust, I discovered that the book had, in fact, already been transferred to the iPod (under Music, naturally, not Books–I remember that happening with Banker to the Poor as well. Why have a Books category if books don’t end up in it?)

It’s almost dinner time, and I have spent a goodly part of my afternoon on this stuff. GRRRRRRR. But at least I’m ready to listen to my book now. 🙂

And I still feel pretty intimidated by this whole process.

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A Dead Man in Athens

Posted by nliakos on September 2, 2012

by Michael Pearce (Carroll & Graf, 2006)

My second light read is a light mystery set in Athens in the decade prior to World War 1. Seymour (unclear whether it’s his first or last name; I suspect the latter) is a London detective of Polish and Hungarian ancestry who is sent to Athens to investigate the death of the exiled Ottoman sultan’s cat because it is feared that the sultan himself will be the next victim.  A polyglot, Seymour goes around asking everyone from the kitchen staff to the sultan’s wives in the harem what they remember about when the cat died, apparently poisoned. He uncovers all sorts of intrigues and tries to navigate the tense political atmosphere of the Balkans. He becomes friendly with one of the locals, Dr Metaxas, and kind of falls for the doctor’s freethinking daughter, Aphrodite. Toward the end of the book, a new character is introduced: Popadopoulos (should be Papadopoulos, technically), a Greek detective. “Pop” is a very sympathetic character; I wish Seymour (and the reader) had had the benefit of his wisdom throughout the book.

The reader gets a sense of the complicated politics of the time and also learns about Blériot machines, an early type of aircraft. (Some people were obsessed with the wartime potential of these tiny planes, while others dismissed them as toys.)  I enjoyed the book. Although the historic events are not always accurate (for example, according to my husband, who knows about such things, the Ottoman sultan was not in exile in Athens in 1912), reading the novel opened my eyes to things I knew nothing about before, and what more can one ask of a book?

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The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

Posted by nliakos on September 2, 2012

by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon 2011)

I’m a huge fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I especially love listening to the audio books, which are deliciously narrated by Lisette Lecat in many different accents. But recently I have had to forego audio books; I commute by bus now, and even if I were driving, the CD player in my car eats CDs. I know I should have figured out how to listen to audio books on my iPod by now, but the one time I successfully installed an audio book from the library on the iPod (Banker to the Poor), I found it inconvenient (difficult to borrow, to install, and to navigate around in), and I have since grown addicted to podcasts anyway. The upshot of all this is that I haven’t been keeping abreast of new developments in Gaborone. Browsing through the mysteries at the public library last week, I discovered an unread book in the series, but as I read it, I discovered to my dismay that I must have missed the previous one as well, because I definitely don’t remember Phuti Radiphuti losing a foot in an accident! Never mind. I kept reading anyway, and will go back to get The Double Comfort Safari Club ASAP.

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party begins and ends with Mma Ramotswe’s tiny white van (almost a character in the series), and in McCall Smith’s usual style jaunts through several other plotlines, most of which are neatly wrapped up at the end, when Mma Makutsi (finally!) marries Phuti Radiphuti.

Although they are shelved with the mysteries, at least in my library, the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books aren’t like your average whodunit, but you want to keep reading anyway because the human interest factor is so high and because (in my case anyway) the characters are so sympathetic and the dialogue so delectable.

Advanced English language learners should not have trouble reading these books.

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