Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for May, 2015

The Story Hour

Posted by nliakos on May 23, 2015

by Thrity Umrigar (Harper Collins 2014; ISBN 978-0-06-225930-1)

I picked this novel up from the “New and Recommended” shelf at my local public library last week. Its subject was just what I like: the chronicle of a cross-cultural relationship. In this case, the two people are Maggie Bose, an African-American psychologist who is married to an Indian university professor, and Lakshmi Patel, an Indian immigrant from a poor family who is trapped in a loveless marriage. They meet after Lakshmi attempts to kill herself, and Maggie becomes Lakshmi’s therapist. Almost immediately, this professional relationship begins to change into something more personal, when Maggie spontaneously offers to work with Lakshmi for free following her discharge because there is something about the younger woman that appeals to her.

The professional lines become more and more blurred as Lakshmi begins working for the Boses and their friends and Maggie teaches her to drive. But both women harbor terrible secrets which, when they are revealed, bring about huge changes in the women’s lives. Some of the changes are positive, and others are devastating.

I don’t want to spoil the novel by being too specific! I will just say that if you like cross-cultural themes and novels about women’s friendships, you should read The Story Hour.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality

Posted by nliakos on May 14, 2015

by Jared Diamond (Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 1997; ISBN 0-465-03126-9)

In this very short (less than 200 pages) book in only seven chapters with titles like “The Animal with the Weirdest Sex Life,” “Why Don’t Men Breast-feed Their Babies? The Non-Evolution of Male Lactation,” and “What Are Men Good For? The Evolution of Men’s Roles”, Jared Diamond considers why human sexual behavior is so different from that of most (but not all!) other animal species, in that ovulation is concealed, intercourse is not limited to fertile periods, females experience menopause, and men’s penises are larger than they need to be. He considers where humans fit on the spectrum of promiscuity, monogamy, and harems. He discusses different strategies for fertilization in use throughout the animal world. He postulates that perhaps the reason for menopause is that it allows women some years unencumbered by childcare during which they can finish raising their own children and help raising their grandchildren, and function as knowledgeable elders in their family or tribe. Like a book that describes a reader’s native culture, allowing him or her to really notice it for the first time, this book helps readers to view human sexuality from a more objective vantage point and to wonder about how it came to be as it is. Diamond is just speculating, but he leads the reader to speculate with him; it’s interesting.

Posted in Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Still Alice

Posted by nliakos on May 14, 2015

by Lisa Genova (Gallery Books, 2007, 2009; ISBN 978-105011-0642-2)

I have not seen the movie, but I would venture to guess that the book, better than the movie, helps the reader to understand the gut-wrenching journey of Dr. Alice Howland, a linguist and professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard, as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease cripples her ability to remember, think, speak, understand, earn a living and generally function in the world. After all, when you watch a movie, you watch how someone behaves and listen to them speak, but you cannot enter their mind. Even though the novel is written in the third person, a reader understands Alice’s frustration and terror as if s/he were experiencing it first hand; at least I did. Rarely have I identified so quickly and completely with a character. During the three days that I was reading the book, I attributed every memory lapse I experienced to my Alzheimer’s, as if I and not Alice had received that diagnosis, or as if I were Alice. It was unsettling, to say the least.

As Alice’s condition deteriorates, her thoughts reflect her inability to realize that she has already said something (through repetition of the same utterance) and to identify the names of people with her (she refers to them as the man, the mother, the actress) or everyday things, like cream cheese (white butter). It’s very effective.

The novel also describes state-of-the-art treatments for Alzheimer’s disease as they were when Genova wrote it. It’s a good resource for caregivers and family members. Actual Alzheimer’s patients, especially those whose disease manifests itself early (in their 40s or 50s–Alice is 50 when she receives her diagnosis), will also find a hero in Alice as she feels her way down the dark corridor of Alzheimer’s.

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Posted by nliakos on May 3, 2015

by Laurie Halse Anderson (Penguin 1999; Premium Edition published 2006; ISBN 0-14-240732-1)

This young adult novel was made into a movie, which I saw recently with my daughter (who had read the book in a high school class). It is narrated by the protagonist, Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman in Syracuse, New York. The book is divided into four sections–one for each marking period; each ends with Melinda’s grades from that period, and the grades sink lower and lower as the year proceeds. The reason for this is that Melinda was raped by an older student at a party over the summer; she called 911 but was unable to speak when the dispatcher asked her what was wrong. Police were sent to the party, but Melinda ran away, unable to face them. As a result, everyone believed that she had called the police on purpose to get the party-goers in trouble, and she begins the academic year a despised outcast, still unable to tell anyone about what happened to her.

Obviously, the trauma of the rape is compounded by the social desert in which Melinda finds herself. She begins to sink into depression, and the only person who appears to care is her art teacher, who constantly goads and encourages her to express what she is feeling in her art. However, she remains mired in depression until at last she is confronted with the very real possibility that her former best friend will be harmed by the boy who raped her, and she must speak out to warn her friend, which triggers another attack.

The movie is quite faithful to the book, except that Melinda’s parents are less sympathetic characters in it. The “Platinum Edition” includes an interview with the author, who mentions that many young men wrote to her asking what the big deal was about. She says, “I realized that many young men are not being taught the impact that sexual assault has on a woman. They are inundated with sexual imagery in the media, and often come to the (incorrect) conclusion that having sex is not a big deal. This, no doubt, is why the number of sexual assaults is so high.” It’s something to ponder, anyway.

Upper intermediate and advanced ELLs could probably understand this book, though they should understand that the language register is informal/conversational. The book enables readers to enter the sometimes-cruel world of a large American high school as seen through the eyes of an unpopular, traumatized, and depressed teenage girl. The movie, which flashes back to the rape sooner than the book does (not until page 133, at the end of the third marking period), makes the reason for Melinda’s behavior clearer earlier in the story.


Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future

Posted by nliakos on May 1, 2015

by Marilu Henner with Lorin Henner (Gallery Books 2012; ISBN 978-1-4516-5121-8)

I don’t usually blog about books that I haven’t finished, but I thought I’d leave myself a reminder (!) that I started reading this one. I first heard about Marilu Henner on NPR. She’s one of only twelve people in the world who are recognized to have something called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM. In practice, this means that Henner remembers everything that’s happened to her since she was twelve, and a lot that happened before that: and not only what happened, but how she felt, what she wore, what the weather was like, etc. I can’t even imagine having enough time to remember stuff like that! I am on the other end of the autiographical memory spectrum. I think I would call mine HDAM, or Highly Deficient Autobiographical Memory. Whole swathes of my life are missing from my conscious memory. In general, if I don’t have a picture, I can’t remember. My best friend is always reminding me of stuff we did in college. I can barely remember which classes I took in college, let alone what else happened. So I was intrigued by someone who remembers literally everything she has experienced.

However, this isn’t really a book about Henner’s unusual memory, although she does mention it. Instead, it’s a kind of self-help book (I should have realized that from the title!). Henner, a life coach, teaches people how to be healthier, live better, and (yes) remember their lives better, and this book is her suggestions as to how to improve one’s autobiographical memory. This is all well and good, but it’s not really the book I was after when I picked it off the shelf, and I find myself skipping through the many “exercises” (e.g., Think about someone or something in your life you are about to confront. What would make you a more effective participant in that situation? Being calm? Fired up? More loving? Now, what sense-memory object would help you get into that state of being? . . .). So I’ve decided to return the book to the library tomorrow, and possibly resume it later with an eye toward actually doing the exercises and improving the memory.

In the meantime, I’ve already started Collapse by Jared Diamond.

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