Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for March, 2013

The Mind’s Eye

Posted by nliakos on March 30, 2013

by Oliver Sacks (Knopf, 2010)

Oliver Sacks doesn’t disappoint. I love his writing and try to read all his books, but somehow, I missed this one three years ago.

Most of the seven pieces that make up this book deal with vision in some way, such as what can go wrong with it (suddenly losing the ability to read, for example, or being unable to recognize faces) and how our brains react to its loss.  “Sight Reading” is about on alexia (inability to read) and alexia sine agraphia (inability to read without a corresponding inability to write). This can happen suddenly or gradually. The piece focuses on Lilian Kallir, a 67-year-old pianist who lost not only her ability to read books but also her ability to read music. Still, she managed to continue to teach at a music college and was able to learn and perform music from memory.

“Recalled to Life” recounts the story of a woman who suffered a hemorrhage in the brain which resulted in a loss of speech (aphasia). Although she did not regain her speech, Patricia H. learned to compensate for its loss in a variety of ways, eventually leading a full and joyful life after her hemorrhage.

“A Man of Letters” is about alexia; it describes how Howard Engel, creator of the detective Benny Cooperman, managed to resume his writing career despite his complete inability to read anything.

“Face-Blind,” perhaps my favorite piece in the book, is about prosopagnosia (inability to recognize faces)and its frequently co-morbid condition, topographical agnosia (inability to get around without getting lost). Oliver Sacks himself suffers from these conditions, so his descriptions are particularly empathetic. He tells several funny anecdotes about his problems with faces and places. The ability to distinguish faces and recognize places are apparently governed by a part of the brain called the “fusiform gyrus” (or the “fusiform face area”). This essay is full of interesting factoids, such as why all Asians (or Africans, or white people…) look alike to someone from a different culture (by three months, human infants are already narrowing their idea of faces to those they see most often, which raises the question: if American babies are exposed from birth to all kinds of faces, will they be able to differentiate the faces of all kinds of people when they grow up?).

“Stereo Sue” deals with stereopsis, or stereo vision. This is something I had always assumed one has, or doesn’t have, but I learned that some people (Sacks among them) have an unusually intense form of stereoscopy; that is, they perceive the world more clearly as being three-dimensional than do the rest of us. Other people, because of eye problems or the loss of sight in one eye, lack this ability to see in three dimensions; to them, the world seems flat. We read about the case of Sue Barry, a neurologist, who spent the first 40 years of her life without the benefit of stereo vision but was able to develop it in her late forties, thanks to vision therapy. She found her life changed by her new ability.

In “Stereo Sue,” Sacks describes his own acute stereo vision and his lifelong interest in stereoscopy.  (He actually belongs to the new York Stereoscopic Society! Who knew there was such a thing?) So the reader can feel his dismay when in “Persistence of Vision,” he describes a frightening brush with a melanoma in the eye which ultimately robs him of binocular vision. Much of this piece consists of the diary that he kept during the period of his diagnosis, treatment, and (partial) recovery. As with his earlier book, A Leg to Stand On, his frank treatment of his own experience makes very compelling reading.

The final essay, “The Mind’s Eye,” deals with blindness and how people respond to their loss of sight.  Sacks tells how the brain sometimes responds to the loss of external visual stimuli by ramping up the internal ones. Some blind people develop the ability to function almost as if they were sighted, relying on their other senses to navigate through the world with confidence. He tells about one blind man who fixed his roof by himself, another who fought in the French Resistance, another who learned to play sports and chess by using clicking noises, like a dolphin.

While some parts of the book were a bit too technical for me to understand completely, I found it a fascinating read.

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How to Be an American Housewife

Posted by nliakos on March 16, 2013

by Margaret Dilloway (Berkeley 2010)

Immediately after World War II, Japan is in tatters, and many Japanese take any opportunity to escape–among them young women who married American soldiers. Margaret Dilloway’s mother was one such woman, and so is the protagonist of this novel, Shoko. Shoko is beautiful, bright, and talented, but she risks her family’s good name by becoming involved with an Eta, a charming young man who belongs to a kind of untouchable caste. Shoko’s parents urge her to find an American GI to marry. She dates some soldiers, brings her father their photographs, and lets him select one. Then she asks the chosen one to marry her. He is willing, and she leaves Japan for the United States, already pregnant with her son Mike. Years later, she longs to return to Japan to make peace with her brother, from whom she has been alienated all those years, but a bad heart prevents her from traveling. She convinces her daughter Suiko (Sue) to make the trip for her, and Sue takes along her own daughter, 12-year-old Helena.  Sue actually finds Shoko’s brother Taro, who has become a Konkokyo priest, like their father. And she discovers in herself a love for her mother’s culture that she did not anticipate.

Shoko describes her relationships with her husband and children in the first part of the book, as she recounts the story of her first love, how she met and married her husband Charlie, and how she learned to survive in America.

In the second part of the book, Sue narrates the story of her and Helena’s trip to Japan to find her uncle.

It’s a great story and a fast read. I think high intermediate to advanced English language learners would enjoy it, especially if they are Japanese.

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

Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir

Posted by nliakos on March 6, 2013

by Marina Nemat (Free Press, 2007)

In 1982, when Marina Moradi-Bakht was fourteen years old, she was arrested and imprisoned in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison for having had the temerity to ask her calculus teacher to teach calculus; when the teacher ordered her to leave the classroom, her classmates followed her out, and soon her entire school was on strike. Imprisonment followed, and interrogations and beatings. She somehow found the strength to resist, and one of her interrogators, a man 14 years her senior named Ali, fell in love with her.  The other interrogator ordered her execution, but Ali was able to rescue her. Eventually, he proposed (although she was a devout Christian), and when she did not want to marry him, he persuaded her by promising to take revenge on her parents and on the young man she loved. She converted to Islam, and she married this man. But she was eventually able to return to her family, to marry her love Andre, and to emigrate to a “normal” life in Canada. She wrote this memoir to try and purge herself of the horrific memories of the two years of her imprisonment and forced marriage, and to bear witness to the things that happened to her and to the other people she knew and loved, many of whom did not survive.

It’s a pretty incredible story, but Marina Nemat tells it convincingly and honestly. She writes about her ambivalent feelings for Ali, her husband, and about the guilt she felt for having survived, and beyond that, for betraying herself and her friends by taking the ticket out of Evin that Ali was offering her.

It is awful to imagine that Evin is still probably filled, thirty years later. with innocent people. Many of the “political prisoners” Marina Nemat encountered during her incarceration there were just children. What kind of monsters believe that arresting, beating, and murdering children can ever be justified? And yet, strangely, Marina’s story of Ali reminds us that those we call monsters are sometimes just ordinary people like ourselves. While there are those who seek pleasure in overpowering and inflicting pain on those who are powerless against them (like Hamehd in this memoir), most are probably more like Ali, who despite his threats and his creepy obsession with Marina, really did treat her like a queen, even though she never hid the fact that she did not return his love.

An excellent book, short, which will expand a reader’s understanding of Iran both past and present.


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The Forgotten Affairs of Youth

Posted by nliakos on March 1, 2013

As I noted in my last post on an Isabel Dalhousie book (The Lost Art of Gratitude), I needed to catch up in this series. I’ve since looked for The Charming Quirks of Others on a couple of occasions, but it has never been on the shelf, and I confess I did not place a hold on it. Finally, last week I borrowed this one and the next (latest) one, The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds. I’m pretty obsessive about reading books in order but it just didn’t happen this time, and no reference was made in the book alluding to any momentous event in the last one, so I guess it doesn’t matter.

I started the book on the bus going to work this morning and finished it before dinner. It’s fairly innocuous. Isabel helps a fellow philosopher to find information about her birth parents, and Isabel and Jamie finally tie the knot at the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh. Isabel makes a killing on the stock market and gives it all away. Charlie, now 2 1/2, still has a taste for olives and now likes mashed sardines. It’s pleasant reading, but forgettable. Still, I read on.

I thought I had blogged about most of the books I’ve read since I started the blog in late 2006, but this series was launched in 2004 (and I didn’t read them right away), yet I find only one previous post.  Here’s a complete list. I’ve read them all except the aforementioned Charming Quirks. And I do like them–though not as much as The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series!

The Sunday Philosophy Club Series

also known as Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries


Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »