Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for December, 2012

The African Queen

Posted by nliakos on December 30, 2012

by C. S. Forester (Little, Brown paperback; originally published in 1935)

I love the movie with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn; it was my mother’s favorite movie! I own a copy and have seen it multiple times on TV, but I never thought about the novel it was based on or even realized that it was based on a novel; so when I came upon this paperback in a Friends of the Library second-hand bookstore for $2, I got it out of curiosity.

The first thing that struck me was how faithful to the novel the movie actually is. Many familiar scenes come right out of the book: Rose pouring the gin into the river, running the gauntlet past Shona and then going down the rapids, fixing the broken propeller, losing themselves in the Bora Delta, the leeches, and more.  I even recognized some familiar lines of dialogue, such as, “Yes, if you think that will do. But couldn’t you stick it on, somehow? Weld it. That’s the right word, isn’t it? Weld it on,” and many others. But Charlie Allnutt is a Cockney in the book, not a Canadian (I suppose Humphrey Bogart was unable to impersonate a Cockney). Rose Sayer, the prim missionary’s sister with a will of steel, is definitely based on Forester’s Rose, who is depicted as even stronger in the novel than she is in the film. In fact, Rose is in charge pretty much throughout the entire journey down the Ulanga and the Bora; Allnutt is depicted as lacking both will and intelligence, although he is capable of carrying out Rose’s demands. And the ending is different, but it had to be: the film ends with Charlie and Rose happily backstroking across the Lake, the implication being that they will live happily ever after despite the improbability that they will ever reach the shore, let alone survive on land without supplies if they do. The Germans aboard the Louisa are better people than those in the movie, and the Louisa meets her end in a different way.

For me, the biggest surprise was the power of Rose’s character in an era I had assumed to be lacking in feminism. And in a novel written by a man, too!

C. S. Forester, the pen name of Cecil L. T. Smith, is known for writing a series of historical novels about a character named Horatio Hornblower, as well as numerous other novels often with naval settings (which explains all the detailed boat lore in The African Queen!) and several works of nonfiction as well.

The African Queen is a great story and a quick read!

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Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Posted by nliakos on December 29, 2012

by Clay Shirky (Penguin, 2010)

Shirky’s second book focuses on what we do in our free time (in the second half of the 20th century, we watched TV, but now we are more likely to use the Internet to interact) and why (intrinsic or extrinsic motivation). His thesis is that if we aggregate all the leisure time of all the people on the planet, we can do great things–but we may also choose to do inane things. He postulates four levels of creativity and sharing: personal (individual to individual), communal (in a group), public (for the public good, e.g., Wikipedia or Apache), and civic (with the goal of improving society). Creative artifacts range from the ridiculous (lolcats, or photos of cute cats with stupid captions) to the sublime (, with everything in between.  What we do with our time and our abilities depends on our means (the tools that enable us to create and share), our motivation (for love or money?), and the opportunity (described as an environment where a group of participants can do more than what individual people can do by themselves). Shirky advocates for more society-changing civic-level sharing but notes, “The question we now face. . . is what we’ll do with those opportunities. The question will be answered . . . by the opportunities we provide for one another and by the culture of the groups we form than by any particular technology.” (p. 192)

Clay Shirky’s first book is Here Comes Everybody.

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The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted

Posted by nliakos on December 22, 2012

by Mike Lofgren (Viking 2012)

Mike Lofgren is a Republican disillusioned with (one might say disgusted by) what the Republican party has become. As the title indicates, he is not enamored of the Democratic Party either. Lofgren worked for 28 years for Republicans John Kasich and Judd Gregg on the House and Senate Budget Committees. As a Hill staffer, he had a good vantage point from which to observe the changes in the Party. When he was finally disgusted enough to quit, he wrote this book. He seems to have written it during the 2012 primary season, as he did not yet know who would be the Republican candidate.

It is quite funny, or would be if the subject were not so serious. Somehow, reading about the corruption of the system as described by someone of Lofgren’s background makes it scarier for me. Lofgren’s prose is frequently inflammatory: The Republican Party is “full of lunatics” (pp. 9-10) who “bamboozle millions of people” (p. 56); the Bush administration went “off their rockers” (p. 173); the new Democrats “will say anything to win an election–an objective that . . . generally requires them to emulate Republicans, particularly with respect to moneygrubbing on the fundraising circuit” (p. 3). He does not mince words.

There are a couple of chapters that were particularly interesting to me. One is Chapter 4, “A Devil’s Dictionary,” which examines the way Republicans have come to call the linguistic shots in U.S. public discourse. I remember how the phrase “family values” suddenly became something I didn’t want to identify with, and when the use of “pro-life” for anti-abortion-rights advocates implied that the rest of us were somehow “pro-death.”  He attributes this in part to the fact that Democrats take their language cues from academia (“arcane, qualified, and convoluted,” p. 61), whereas Republicans take theirs from advertising (the phrase public relations is itself an example of the creation of a new term to replace one that has become tainted, in this case propaganda, according to Lofgren). He writes at length of the sudden use of the word homeland and shows how “the war on terrorism” morphed into “the war on terror” (“How can one make war on a subjective mental state?” p. 59), comparing this use of language to Orwell’s Newspeak. The chapter ends with a funny but chilling mini-glossary including such gems as “conservative: a person profoundly respectful of heritage, tradition, and old-fashioned values while preaching the revolution and strip-mining the Grand Canyon for high-sulfur coal” and “liberal (pronounced librull): a satanic ideologue who is at once a social leveler, an elitist defender of privilege, and atheist, and a secret Muslim determined to bring sharia law to America” (pp. 64-65).

Another eye-opening chapter is Chapter 7, “Media Complicity.”  In it, Lofgren takes no prisoners, lambasting everyone from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to Tom Friedman and The Washington Post (my hometown newspaper). He accuses the so-called “respectable media” of bending over backward to appear balanced and becoming the mouthpiece of whoever is in power. He berates the Post in particular of overuse of anonymous sources and warns that “the true danger lies in an ostensibly neutral journalism that most Americans count on to tell them what is going on in the world but which too often acts as a stenographer for powerful and self-serving factions in government operating under a cloak of anonymity.” (p. 127)

There are also chapters on the abuse of the Constitution, taxes, war, religion, intellectuals, the decade of the 2000s (from the run up to 9/11 when the Bush administration should have been paying attention to the warnings of imminent terrorist attack from its own people, to the economic debacle from which we have yet to recover–a time he describes as “grubby and dishonest” [p. 177]), and the Democrats, who he accuses of lacking core beliefs and contributing to the massive expansion of military spending. The final chapter offers what he sees as the only possible way out of the mess we are in: public financing of drastically shortened politic campaigns, and an electorate that does the hard work of informing itself so that it is no longer ” apathetic and befuddled” (p. 211).

I liked the book, but I am sure it will not be read by the people that most need to read it: Republicans. I have to admit that I would probably shy away from a similar book criticizing liberals or progressives. (I confess to being a card-carrying member of the ACLU!) It’s painful when the wool is removed from our eyes and we see the ugly truth. And according to Lofgren, there is a lot of ugly truth to see.


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Foreign Tongue: A Novel of Life & Love in Paris

Posted by nliakos on December 16, 2012

by Vanina Marsot (Harper 2009)

One of my favorite podcasts is The World in Words with Patrick Cox, a spin-off of the BBC/PRI/WGBH collaborative radio show The World. While listening to an archived episode, I heard an interview with Vanina Marsot about Foreign Tongue and was intrigued enough to note the name, although of course I couldn’t spell it properly (Venina? Marseault? Marsaut? Marson? . . . Anyway, thanks to Google’s “Did you mean…?”, I eventually found the correct spelling, and my public library had the book.)

Basically, it is about the narrator, Anna, half-French and half-American (like Marsot herself), who flees to Paris to escape the reminders of a failed love affair in Los Angeles, spends time with old friends, finds a new love interest, and takes a job translating an erotic novel by an anonymous author. The friends are wonderful, the love interest leads to more heartache for Anna, and the work raises all kinds of questions about the differences between French and English, the theory and ethics of literary translation, the difficulties of translation, as well as the mystery surrounding the identity of the author and the line between fiction and autobiography.

I loved the language references (I learned a lot I didn’t know, including some very basic things that I ought to have known, such as that eventuellement means not eventually but possibly), the Paris references (the places that Anna frequented kept reminding me of the time I lived in Paris, in what feels like another lifetime), the musings on biculturalism and bilingualism, and the story itself. One can’t help liking the hapless Anna and hoping she finds happiness.  The story ended with an unexpected twist which I won’t divulge here.

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Family Pictures

Posted by nliakos on December 6, 2012

by Sue Miller (Harper & Row, 1990)

Somebody gave me this book, and it’s been sitting on my shelf for years. Not having another book lined up after On Saudi Arabia, I picked it up last week.  It’s a novel about a family: dad David, a psychiatrist; mom Lainey; kids (in order) Lydia/Liddie, Macklin/Mack, Randall, Nina, Mary, and Sarah. The novel is set mostly in the fifties and sixties in Chicago as the children are growing up, with two chapters in the seventies at the end. Nina, the “family historian” and a photographer, narrates the first and last chapters as well as one chapter at the beginning of Part Two, and the remaining chapters are written in the third person, but each one focuses on just one person’s point of view. This was a little confusing at first; at first, I kept waiting to return to Nina’s first person point of view until I finally realized it wasn’t going to happen (not soon, anyway). I don’t really understand why Miller used the first person for Nina in these three chapters (she also has several third-person chapters), but I suppose they kind of link the other chapters together: a beginning, a middle, an end which, alone among the chapters, are not dated (and consist of Nina’s memories of things that happened within the scope of those thirty-plus years). Actually, I found the dates confusing, although they were generally in chronological order, and since Miller only rarely mentions the ages of the characters I was never quite sure how old they were. Maybe it just didn’t matter. I don’t believe she ever tells us their last name, either.

This family’s great tragedy is that their third child, Randall, is profoundly autistic, languageless and evidently severely mentally retarded. Randall’s condition affects everyone in the family. According to the “wisdom” of the day (shall we say, with hindsight, the stupidity of the day?), David blames Lainey, accusing her of not loving the baby enough. Lainey responds with a fierce love and protectiveness for Randall, as well as three more pregnancies to prove to her husband that she is, in fact, a good mother. The five neurotypical children, particularly the three youngest, grow up with the burden of needing to be perfect, to somehow compensate for their brother’s deficits. Naturally, this doesn’t work out, and Mack and Nina, in particular, have turbulent adolescences and young adulthoods, causing themselves and their parents endless grief.

The novel examines the changing relationship between David and Lainey, who are very different from each other and who react very differently to their handicapped son.  Their marriage goes through several different stages which I won’t describe here.

The one person whose point of view is never explored is Randall. At one point, Lainey tells David that Randall is who he is, and there is not another Randall, a neurotypical Randall, trapped inside him, wanting but unable to get out. Now, some autistic people are using technology such as iPads to express themselves, like Elizabeth Bonker, believed to be languageless but in fact a gifted writers and poet. So there could have been a thinking person trapped inside that body, with thoughts and feelings that he couldn’t express. The author could have devoted a chapter or two to him. Perhaps there was no way to know, in 1990, that people apparently without language were not necessarily without thought. Or perhaps there are people who truly have no inner life that we can imagine, at least not in words. As I was reading, I did wonder what Randall’s “take” on his parents and siblings was, if he indeed had a “take.” He is described as being mostly oblivious to human interaction, responding only to inanimate objects, sometimes with fascination and sometimes with an eye to destruction. But those who have read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime will wonder what was going through Randall’s strange, different mind as his parents and siblings lived their lives around him. As the minister says at Randall’s funeral, “Randall had lived always in a state of childhood, a state of grace, as it were. . . . He’d escaped time, lived untouched by the struggles that dominated our lives–the struggles of choice, of will, of love and hate. He was free. . .of human experience, which the rest of us must suffer, endure, and try to learn from.”  Maybe, and maybe not. I wonder.

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On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines–and Future

Posted by nliakos on December 1, 2012

by Karen Elliott House (Knopf, 2012)

For those who don’t know me, I teach English as a Second Language at the University of Maryland. For the past few years, I have had many Saudi students, from age seventeen to 43, in my classes in the Intensive English Program–sometimes accounting for 90 percent of the students in a given class (like last spring, when I had nine students, eight of whom were Saudi). So I was really motivated to read this book to better understand what makes Saudis tick. I found it extremely interesting, sometimes surprising, but also rather repetitive (I think 250 pages could have been cut down to 150 if everything was said just one time!).

Karen House spent five years on the research for this book. She interviewed a lot of people and spent a week with a Saudi family. She talked to princes (If she said it once, she probably said it 20 times: there are 7,000 Al Saud princes) and ordinary Saudis, housewives, businessmen, and government officials. I hope she got the country out of her system, because I don’t think they will allow her back into the country after they read the book. She does not sugarcoat Saudi reality as she sees it, and she sees it as dysfunctional. As she writes in the last paragraph:

So the Royal Saudi 747, richly appointed but mechanically flawed, flies on, its cockpit crowded with geriatric Al Saud pilots. Buffeted by mounting gales, the plane is losing altitude and gradually running out of fuel. On board, first class is crowded with princely passengers, while crammed behind in economy sit frustrated Saudi citizens. Among them are Islamic fundamentalists who want to turn the plane around, and also Islamic terrorists who aim to kill the pilots and hijack the plane to a destination unknown. Somewhere on board there may be a competent new flight team that could land the plane safely, but the prospect of a capable pilot getting a chance at the controls seems slim. And so the 747 flies on into the headwinds, perhaps to be hijacked, or ultimately to crash.

The entire book is about as optimistic as that. It doesn’t give the reader a sense that things are going to turn out all right.  I think House likes Saudis and perhaps counts some of them as friends, but she depicts them as lazy and “sullen” (she repeats this word over and over). For most of the population, reality consists of nearly 40 percent unemployment (for 20 to 24-year-olds, in a country where 60 percent of the population is under 20), failing schools and inadequate housing. The unemployment rate reflects not only a dearth of the cushy jobs Saudi citizens feel entitled to have (easy managerial work, lots of money) but a refusal on the part of Saudi citizens to consider either manual labor or service jobs; they see these as beneath them and fit only for foreign workers, who constitute the overworked and underpaid majority of the workforce in Saudi Arabia. (This kind of reminds me of Americans, so many of whom scorn the kinds of hard jobs immigrants are happy to have.) In truth, House says, most of the young male Saudi unemployed are completely unqualified for all of the jobs that they want and even many of those they don’t want.

For me, the most telling chapter is “Failing Grades,” which describes the Saudi education system. When one of my students wrote in an essay this semester that school buildings are in such short supply in his country that the government rents homes to use as schools, I could hardly believe it, yet House writes, “Nearly half of the kingdom’s schools are in run-down rented buildings.” (pp. 140-141) Schooling consists of religious education with a few other subjects mixed in, and the teaching method of choice is memorization. Thinking and questioning are not only not taught; they are forbidden. No wonder our young Saudi students have so little to say in their essays and presentations. No one has ever asked them to express their own ideas before.

Other chapters of particular interest were  Chapter 4, “The Social Labyrinth,” which describes the fragmentation of Saudi society and the convoluted rules the people must follow, making it simpler for them to shun the society of anyone but their own extended family, and Chapter 5, “Females and Fault Lines,” about women and the changes that are gradually coming about in their lives (but think one step forward, two steps back, as the king pushes for reforms but then is forced for one reason or another to hand power back to the zealots).

As described by Karen House, Saudi Arabia seems like some kind of dark fantasy world no one would ever want to live in, yet many if not most of my Saudi students profess to love their country and to miss it while in the United States. I wish they would read the book and tell me what they think about it.

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