Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for November, 2014

The Brethren

Posted by nliakos on November 26, 2014

by John Grisham (Doubleday, 2000)

This is my first ever John Grisham novel; I guess they’re not my type. A friend lent it to me, so I read it (I needed something light after Mother Father Deaf!). It was a quick read. Basically it’s the story of a man running for President as a kind of front for the CIA (they want increased military spending and are happy to manipulate a lot of people to get it) who stumbles into a scam run by three “felonious judges” in a federal prison. The judges have placed an ad in a gay magazine; with it, they have snared a number of closeted older men and commenced blackmailing them in exchange for a promise of secrecy (which of course they do not keep). Aaron Lake, the candidate who was carefully vetted by the CIA and found to be squeaky clean, has taken the bait. The novel follows the CIA’s attempts to prevent a scandal from breaking.

What I didn’t like about the book is that all of the characters are dishonest, disreputable, mean, or stupid. There was not one that I would ever want to meet; that’s important for me in a novel. I want to read about people I can identify with. (This is the reason I did not like Gone with the Wind.)  Furthermore, the government workers (CIA director and employees as well as congressmen and senators) as well as prison personnel lawyers are all corrupt, lazy, or incompetent (or all three). People who read this book and who blur the line between fiction and fact (like the viewers of JFK who believed Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theory) would have a horrible impression of their government (as so many people do nowadays).

The plot was strong, however; I was never bored. Will I run right out to find another Grisham novel? No, but if one dropped into my lap I would probably read it.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »

Mother Father Deaf: Living Between Sound and Silence

Posted by nliakos on November 25, 2014

by Paul Preston (Harvard University Press, 1994)

Paul Preston is an anthropologist who also happens to be the hearing son of deaf parents. Interested in investigating the implications of this fact, he conducted an extensive study of other hearing adults who were raised by deaf parents. The resulting book reads a bit like a Ph.D. dissertation (perhaps it was), with numerous references to the research of others (although not much research has been conducted on exactly this topic–one of the reasons Preston felt compelled to do it, I suppose) and a chapter on methodology. For months, he drove around the country interviewing 150 subjects for the study. Many of the subjects only agreed to talk to him when they discovered that he was one of them; apparently, “Ooh, what was that like?” is a common response when one learns that someone grew up in a deaf household. There is a rather new organization, CODA (Children of Deaf Adults), which is forming a community of people whose parents were deaf, but for many of Preston’s subjects, it was the first time they had really reflected on the impact their parents’ deafness had on them and been asked to assign a meaning to it.

There were some surprises for me. For example, I assumed that anyone raised by deaf parents would be fluent in American Sign Language; but some deaf parents were not fluent signers themselves, and some refused to sign with their children, not wanting to compromise their entry into the hearing world, while other children depended on siblings to interpret for them. This reminded me of immigrants’ children who never become proficient in their parents’ language. One wonders at the impact the resulting lack of communication must have on parent-child relationships. I also learned that many deaf children acquire sign language at residential schools, where they also grow up away from their hearing parents and siblings, with a resulting lack of affect in some cases. And just as hearing parents may react with horror when told that their baby is deaf, deaf parents may expect and hope for a deaf child to inhabit their world with them and be disappointed when the child turns out to have normal hearing: “I thought, Oh, my God, she’s hearing! What am I going to do? . . . I don’t even know how to talk to her. . . . It never occurred to me that my child would be hearing. I was surprised. I was scared. . . . The Hearing world and the Deaf world are such separate worlds. I worried that we would never connect, or that we would drift apart.”

In the book, Preston distinguishes between deaf and Deafhearing and Hearing.  Many informants felt strongly that they were Deaf despite being hearing. One poignant quote is from someone whose father told him at age 18 that he belonged to the Hearing world. “I looked at him and [signs, ‘What do I know about the Hearing world? I hear, yes. I speak, yes. But I thought I was Deaf”]. My father smiled and said [signs, “true, you’re Deaf, but you’re Hearing too”].  I grew up Deaf. I guess now I’m Hearing. But some part of me still feels Deaf.”  From this and other quotes, the reader is able to enter the bicultural world of hearing people who grew up within the deaf community, which, for better or for worse, is isolated from the hearing community–even within an extended family, where deaf members may not participate fully in family life (at celebrations and holidays, for example, when extended families get together). Hearing children of deaf parents are often called upon to interpret or facilitate communication between their parents and hearing relatives or with the “outside world,” meaning that these children carry heavy responsibilities from a young age. As adults, Preston’s informants looked back on these unusual responsibilities, some matter-of-factly, some with resentment, and some with gratitude.

The book is academic and therefore somewhat dry, but it’s a fascinating topic and therefore I stuck with it.

Publisher’s website:

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

I Was Number 87: A Deaf Woman’s Ordeal of Misdiagnosis, Institutionalization, and Abuse

Posted by nliakos on November 12, 2014

by Anne M. Bolander and Adair N. Renning ( Gallaudet University Press 2000)

The title says it all. Anne Bolander’s mother died when she was three, and her father remarried. Anne’s stepmother was either wicked, or mentally deranged, or both. She sent five-year-old Anne to an institution in Virginia called the Stoutamyer School, but it was not a school in any sense of the word, as there were no classes, no books, and no learning outside of the constant need to follow unarticulated and unpredictable rules which, if broken, caused the child to be beaten, isolated, or otherwise punished. Margie, the director of this evil place, seemed to take pleasure in administering the punishments, and would fire any staff who dared to be kind to the children. The children were not allowed to own anything (toys and teddy bears were confiscated and destroyed), speak to anyone, touch anyone, or witness another child’s punishment, even inadvertently. Punishment for infractions was swift and long and calculated to do damage. Several children died during the five years that Anne spent there. It was a living hell–kind of a combination of maximum security prison and the worst kind of slavery, but really more like your worst nightmare.

Occasionally, Anne was taken home to her family, where the abuse continued, her stepmother seeming to take the same pleasure in punishment that Margie did, her father going along with it and her six brothers turning a blind eye to it.

When she was about eleven, Anne spent some time at a convent-run school for children with special needs where for the first time, she experienced kindness and love, and her hearing problem was finally diagnosed. However, her parents refused to believe that she was hard of hearing (for some reasons preferring the diagnosis of mental retardation) and would not let her use her hearing aid at home. The blissful months at St. Mary’s soon over, the family moved to another state and Anne was re-institutionalized. And so went her childhood and adolescence–a combination of special “schools” and living at home in a dysfunctional, loveless family. She eventually learned to lipread, sign, speak and get along well enough in the world to make her living (amazing), but her starvation for love and friendship led her to overlook warning signs that her “friends” were only using her. Not until her forties (with the support of therapy) was she able to muster the self-esteem to assert herself, and writing the book is one of the ways that she has done this.

One would guess that the injustice, abuse, and cruelty described in this book had taken place in some distant time, but no; it was here in America, in the second half of the 20th century.

Everyone should read this book.

(Intermediate to advanced English language learners could probably understand the book without much trouble, as the language is simple and straightforward. (The co-author “translated” Anne’s deaf-English into standard English.)

Posted in Autobiography, Biography, Memoir, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Bull of Mithros

Posted by nliakos on November 12, 2014

by Anne Zouroudi (Bloomsbury 2012)

The fat man is again to the rescue, figuring out who is responsible for the gruesome murder of a man stuck in a remote community with no papers, claiming the name of a well-known entertainer. Along the way he metes out justice to a variety of others, always politely but firmly, and always nattily dressed down to those polished white sneakers!

Posted in Fiction, Mystery | Leave a Comment »

Little Failure: A Memoir

Posted by nliakos on November 4, 2014

by Gary Shteyngart (Random House 2014)

After reading a review of this book in The Washington Post, I added it to my To Read list even though I had never heard of Gary Shteyngart nor read anything he had written. But I am fascinated by stories of immigration and cross-cultural adaptation, so it seemed like a good choice. In this case, my own family is similar to Shteyngart’s in that they were Jews who emigrated from the Russian Empire, although at a very different time (in the case of my year-old maternal grandmother, almost 100 years before the Shteyngarts arrived here in the late seventies).

I hope that my grandmother did not grow up in a family as dysfunctional as that described by Shteyngart. His “mismatched” parents fought throughout his childhood, and both of them seemed to delight in ridiculing their sickly, nerdy son (hence the moniker “Little Failure”, coined by his mother–it’s hard to believe a mother could say something so damaging to her child, but those of us who came of age in sixties America are aware of the terrible effect of negative words on a child’s self-esteem (especially from a parent!); obviously no such lessons were impressed on Russian Jewish parents of the seventies. And to judge from Shteyngart’s literary success, I would have to say it seems to have done no lasting damage, although in another sense the book chronicles the damage that was done by not only verbal but also physical and emotional abuse suffered at the hands of his parents–to say nothing of the bullying and teasing he suffered in the various schools he attended.

Even though the facts are sobering, they are described in a witty, ironic way (yet another non-native English writer with an astonishing command of the English language). As a former Russian major (who has now forgotten pretty much everything I ever learned), I enjoyed the transliterated (and translated) bits of Russian dialog sprinkled throughout the text. Perhaps someone else might have found it superfluous.

I enjoyed immigrant chronicles, a story that has been repeated millions of times during the history of the United States. I truly believe that America would not be such a great country without its immigrants, who arrive with their dreams of a better life and their willingness to do whatever it takes to assimilate enough to make the dreams come true–at least partly. In these days of unaccompanied minors pouring across our southern border, it is worthwhile reading the immigrant story from the point of view of a seven-year-old.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »