Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for March, 2015

Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor

Posted by nliakos on March 24, 2015

by Hali Felt (Henry Holt & Co. 2012; ISBN 987-0-8050-9215-8)

This was a serendipitous discovery I made when I was cruising along the Biography shelf in the library and just happened to notice this book, which has been on my To Read list ever since it was published. It did not disappoint!

Marie Tharp was instrumental in the acceptance of plate tectonics (then known as continental drift and disparaged by most of the world’s geologists). Tharp’s groundbreaking map of the Atlantic seafloor, based on soundings taken from ships crossing the ocean, clearly showed a ridge splitting the Mid-ocean Ridge (mountain range). Felt writes, She spent a lot of time looking closely at the ridge whose presence she’d confirmed, a wide bump where the ocean floor gained elevation. It was apparent on all six of the profiles, which meant that it was a range, not just one isolated mountain. And then something happened. ‘As I looked further at the detail, and tried to unravel it,’ she said, ‘I noticed that in each profile there was a deep notch near the crest of the ridge.’ A deep notch, a rift. This was something new. She kept studying it, checking the sounding records over and over again to make sure she hadn’t mis-plotted a depth. . . . They (Marie and her partner Bruce Heezen) both know that the existence of such a rift means continental drift. This was in 1952, when to espouse Alfred Wegener’s hypothesis that the earth’s crust was made up of giant pieces or plates that moved around on the earth’s surface was professional suicide. But what Marie saw could not be denied, and geology was changed by what she had found and brought to light with her map.

Still, for her entire career, Marie struggled against gender bias. She was marginalized and ignored by most of the people that she worked with and for. The fact that she never got her Ph.D. probably didn’t help, either. It is painful to read about how she struggled to get her work recognized by the scientific establishment. And when Bruce Heezen died unexpectedly at age 53, she lost not only a life partner but a longtime professional ally. Nevertheless, she soldiered on for about 30 years and managed to accomplish a great deal.

Marie Tharpe was unique. She made a remarkable achievement that has had enormous impact on both geology and cartography , and she did it against great odds. She was incredibly smart, talented, and stubborn. Like author Hali Felt, who is a living presence in the book and who at the end declares herself one of the “Tharpophiles”, I am very glad to know Marie’s extraordinary story. And if you are reading this post, you know it, too.


Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America

Posted by nliakos on March 17, 2015

by Firoozeh Dumas (Villard 2003)

Firoozeh Dumas has lived most of her life since the age of seven in California. Her memoir describes her and her family’s life as immigrants. She pokes fun at her extended family, in particular her father Kazem (who forbade her to use their real name in the book, and lucky for him, she complied), but really sparing no one, including herself. Clueless Americans are also a target. There is a lot that made me smile but little that made me want to laugh out loud. Still, I enjoyed the book, which is a mere 187 small pages.

One of my favorite parts, however, was not meant to provoke laughter. In the chapter “The Ham Amendment”, Dumas tells how she learned in religion class that people who ate pork products were destined to go to hell; this was during a two-year period that she and her family returned to Iran briefly before they emigrated. Her father used to take her with him on his forays to purchase canned ham. When she realized that this condemned him to hell, she confronted him. When he finished laughing, her father explained, It’s not what we eat or don’t eat that makes us good people; it’s how we treat one another. As you grow older, you’ll find that people of every religion think they’re the best, but that’s not true. There are good and bad people in every religion. Just because someone is Muslim, Jewish, or Christian doesn’t mean a thing. You have to look and see what’s in  their hearts. That’s the only thing that matters, and that’s the only detail God cares about. Dumas continues, I was six years old and I knew that I had just been made privy to something very big and important, something far larger than the jewels in the Shah’s crown, something larger than my little life in Abadan. My father’s words felt scandalous, yet utterly and completely true.

Fundamentalists everywhere, are you paying attention?

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | 2 Comments »

The Lost Wife

Posted by nliakos on March 14, 2015

by Alyson Richman (Berkley Books, 2011; ISBN 978-0-425-24413-5)

The Lost Wife is the story of Jozef and Lenka, Czech Jews who fall in love and marry in the months before Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. The book describes the descent into hell of the Czech Jews. Jozef and his family manage to flee the country, but Lenka refuses to leave her parents and younger sister; she is deported to Terezín and then to Auschwitz but ultimately survives because the Nazis want to use her skill as an artist. But Lenka, pregnant with Jozef’s child, believes that Jozef and his family all perished when their ship is torpedoed; while in New York, Jozef does not give up the hope that Lenka has somehow survived the Holocaust until he learns of her transfer to Auschwitz and probably demise in the gas chambers. Jozef eventually marries a fellow refugee and has two children, but memories of Lenka continue to haunt him. After the liberation of Auschwitz, Lenka marries an American soldier; they also have a child. Their children’s children eventually marry each other, and Jozef and Lenka, now in their eighties, meet again at the wedding. I am not spoiling anything for you; the book opens with this meeting and then flashes back to their separate stories.

Even though Jozef and Lenka are fictional characters, their story is the story of many innocent people going about their lives, until they couldn’t any more because of the Nazi evil (there is no other word for it). Several of the characters in the book really lived and died as described here, and Richman got the idea for her story when she heard about a chance meeting at a wedding of two real people who had been married before the war but thought they had lost each other, just like the protagonists in the story.

I cried a lot while reading this!

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »

How the García Girls Lost Their AccentsAlthough the bo

Posted by nliakos on March 14, 2015

by Julia Alvarez (original pub. by Algonquin Books, 1991; I read it on my phone, and I have no idea who published that)

This is essentially a book of short stories, all about four sisters (Carla, Sandi, Yolanda, and Sofia) from the Dominican Republic who immigrate to the United States with their parents to escape the Trujillo regime. At home in the Dominican Republic, they live lives of privilege, with numerous servants; in the U.S., they have to learn a new language and culture; they encounter the typical problems of immigrants, including prejudice. The book is divided into three sections: Part 3 concerns their life on the island prior to emigration (1956-1960); Part 2 focuses on their early post-immigrant lives in the U.S. (1960-1970); and in Part 1 they are grown up (1972-1989). As you can see, the book is arranged in reverse chronological order (like a blog?). Within each part, different stories are about different sisters; they are often narrated by the sisters themselves. Although the book is fictional, I suppose it is in some ways autobiographical, as the author’s life mirrors that of the García sisters in some ways. Though born in New York, she lived in the D.R. until the age of 10 and then returned to the U.S.

I enjoyed the stories, but reading an e-book is not my favorite thing. I feel like I am strapped into a car, speeding past different people and events, without the possibility to returning to where I have been to straighten things out in my mind. I know it’s possible to go back, but either it’s not convenient, or I haven’t figured out how to do it right; all I know is that when I am reading an e-book, I don’t go back, whereas when reading a regular book, I go back often to remind myself of details that have slipped my mind or that I didn’t pay enough attention to, not knowing I would need to remember them later.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book and was glad to have it when I was on the bus or in a waiting room without my book.

Advanced language learners, especially those from Caribbean or Hispanic countries, would probably enjoy this.

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

Climbing Mount Improbable

Posted by nliakos on March 12, 2015

by Richard Dawkins (Norton, 1996)

This book begins and ends with figs. There are over 900 different species of fig in the world (who knew?), only two of which people eat, apparently, but all of which depend on miniscule wasps to spread their pollen to other figs. The wasps, which live inside the figs themselves, depend entirely on the fig trees for their sustenance. In fact, some of them (the males) never leave the interior of the fig they are born in. Without the wasps, the figs would become extinct; without the figs, so would the wasps. The natural question one would ask is how this symbiosis came to be? Were the figs and the wasps somehow magically created together? Or can natural selection explain their total interdependence? Dawkins wrote the book to explain how it can, and does, explain this improbable symbiosis. Along the way, he also explains how natural selection can also account for animal flight, human vision, and more. This is kind of complicated stuff, but Dawkins explains it well (most of the time), even though I sometimes felt that he was writing for a disbelieving audience rather than someone like me who already agrees with him (without knowing all the details). It’s too bad the people who really need to read the book surely won’t.

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

Song Without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life

Posted by nliakos on March 10, 2015

by Gerald Shea (Merloyd Lawrence/Da Capo Press/Perseus Books Group, 2013)

Not only did Gerry Shea not realize that he was severely hearing impaired following a bout of scarlet fever when he was six; he persevered through prep school, Yale, and Columbia Law School and worked for years in corporate and international law. He was skilled enough at speechreading and using what he calls “lyricals”–bits of words gleaned from the vowels and few consonants that he could hear, which he played with and rhymed until he came to a word or phrase that made sense in the context–that he fooled not only himself but his family, his colleagues and clients, his friends and lovers, into thinking that he was perhaps eccentric but certainly not deaf. In fact, he actually thought his hearing was acute, because certain sounds were so painful to him. A chance medical exam for a new job finally uncovered the truth when he was 34 years old–after which he denied his deafness for a long time. Eventually, however, he accepted the truth and decided that continuing to practice law was too stressful. He resigned from his job and began to learn about deafness, deaf culture, audiology, linguistics, and the in-between world of the hearing-impaired–neither hearing nor Deaf. The result is this book. It was a fascinating read. I zipped through it in 2 days–I couldn’t stop.

Shea shares his “lyricals” with his readers by reporting verbatim conversations he had with people who did not realize that he could barely hear anything they said:

“It’s OK, Gerry. OK. Understand,” he said, “you do the best you can, utter her romances.

utter under



   moving shadows

   music in the night


   under the circumstances

Imagine having to go through that every time someone talked to you! Obviously, it was done lightning-fast, but I can’t imagine how he managed to keep up with the conversation. I suppose he was not always successful–but he was successful enough to have kept his disability “hidden” for 28 years.


In addition to his own story, Shea writes about other deaf and hearing-impaired people, such as Helen Keller, about whom I thought I knew, but he brings a whole new perspective to her story–how she was forced to give up her “native” language of sign, which was replaced by the awkward fingerspelling system taught to her by Anne Sullivan, and how she may never have published an original idea that did not actually come from her teacher. “If Helen had been given a teacher fluent in sign. . .,” writes Shea, “she could rapidly have developed and kept her own ideas. She would have become a writer with her own voice and perspective and a consummate speaker and listener, through touch, in her own language.” How tragic for Helen, and what a loss for the rest of us.

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