Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for October, 2015

The Magician’s Nephew

Posted by nliakos on October 26, 2015

by C. S. Lewis (Macmillan 1955; ISBN 0-02-758360-0)

This is both the first and the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia; the prequel that Lewis wrote to explain how Narnia came into being, how the White Witch came to be there, and how the relationship between human children (“sons of Adam, daughters of Eve”) and that magic world started. (I wonder if the word “prequel” existed when Lewis wrote his prequel.)

Digory Kirk (who grew up to be Professor Kirk, whose house the famous Wardrobe stood in) and his friend Polly Plummer are sent by Digory’s evil uncle into a place between worlds, where they inadvertently free the witch from an enchanted slumber, escape with her back into their (our) world, and in their effort to rid the world of her, take her (and the hapless uncle) into Narnia as Aslan is creating it, thus ensuring future strife and eventual doom. Aslan keeps the Witch at bay with a magical tree; Digory cures his mother’s illness with an apple from that magical tree; and the wood from the tree that grew from the seeds of that apple was eventually made into the Wardrobe through which the Pevensie children go to Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (which Vicki rightly points out should be called The Wardrobe, the Witch, and the Lion, as that is the order in which they are introduced in the story).

If you have no idea what I am talking about, never mind!

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Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

Posted by nliakos on October 26, 2015

by Laurence Bergreen (William Morrow 2003; ISBN 0-06-621173-5)

I am embarrassed to admit how little I knew (or remembered) about Magellan’s famous voyage around the world. I knew Magellan was Portuguese (but did not know, or failed to remember, that he sailed for Spain), and I knew that he never made it back to where he started but was murdered somewhere in Asia (Mactan, in the present-day Philippines). That was pretty much it. Bergreen’s book fills in the details very well. In over 400 pages divided into three books, he describes the background and preparations (“In Search of Empire”), the voyage to the Spice Islands (“The Edge of the World”), and the harrowing return (“Back from the Dead”). Only eighteen men on one of the original five ships of the “Armada de Molucca” made it back to Seville in 1522. One of them, Antonio Pigafetta, was an Italian who traveled with Magellan as a passenger, keeping a detailed journal of all he saw and did during those three years. It is thanks to Pigafetta and to several other log-keepers and diarists who were aboard that historians can reconstruct the voyage in such detail (what one left out, another usually described).

The whole book was fascinating to me, but one of the most interesting parts was the description of the crew, the men’s various occupations, how they fit into the hierarchy, and why they risked their lives to accompany Magellan on his now-famous voyage (Chapter 4, “The Church of the Lawless”). Another favorite part, in the same chapter, was the description of life at sea. There were no beds and no toilets (not even buckets! Over the side, and mind you don’t fall overboard). There was a supply of “slowly rotting food” (usual staple when far from land: powdered hardtack flavored with rat waste) and contaminated water and wine. There were rats, rice, roaches, bedbugs, lice, and weevils. Reading this, one does not wish oneself on board one of the five ships of Magellan’s Armada! It’s incredible to think how difficult and dangerous it was to make that voyage. There were, of course, no accurate maps; mariners of that time could not even figure out their longitude; and they were frequently battered by huge storms.  They did not know how to prevent the dreaded scurvy, and it killed many of them. Only one ship, the Victoria, actually made the entire trip around the world (the San Antonio returned to Spain via the Atlantic under the command of a group of mutineers who proceeded to badmouth Magellan to the king of Spain and anyone else who would listen; the other three ships, for various reasons, did not make it, similar to most of the men).

Magellan is still seen as a hero by some, a villain by others. In his own time, Magellan was considered a traitor both by his fellow Portuguese (and spent much of the voyage trying to avoid Portuguese mariners who were chasing him) and by the Spanish who sponsored the Armada and who made up the majority of the multinational crew. It took years for people to appreciate the immensity of the task before Magellan and (according to Bergreen) how effectively he carried it out. Bergreen, like Pigafetta, is squarely in Magellan’s camp. He records the managerial challenges, poor decisions, and sometimes arrogant behavior, but notes that without Magellan’s genius and drive, the Armada would probably never have made it as far as it did.

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

A Lucky Life Interrupted: A Memoir of Hope

Posted by nliakos on October 18, 2015

by Tom Brokaw (Random House 2015; ISBN 978-1-4000-6969-9)

NBC news anchorman Tom Brokaw has chronicled the year that he was diagnosed with and treated for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells in the bone marrow. He describes the back pain that turned out to be compression fractures of the spine due to the cancer. While hiding his condition from the public and most of his friends and colleagues, Brokaw continued to accept projects for NBC even as he embarked on a year of  fatigue, pain, chemotherapy, and learning how to live his life with cancer (Myeloma is treatable, but it is not curable.).  He kept a journal which eventually became this book, which is divided into sections by season (summer 2013, fall 2013, winter 2013-2014, spring 2014, summer 2014, fall 2014). Interspersed among the descriptions of hospitalizations, doctors’ appointments, time spent with family, and professional projects accomplished during the treatment year are recollections of career high points, memorable interviews and encounters, and unforgettable news stories (such as September 11, 2001), with some name-dropping thrown in. (Brokaw, who grew up in the West, spends a lot of time fishing and hunting; sometimes it seemed incongruous to me that while fighting for his life against cancer, he suffered no qualms about depriving animals of their lives.) Eventually, of course, Brokaw can no longer hide his disease from the world; during the winter, he is “outed” by a digital news organization and finally admits publicly that he has cancer.

For me, this book held a special significance; a friend of mine is being treated for multiple myeloma, and Brokaw’s simple but clear descriptions and explanations helped me to understand what she is going through.

As the title indicates, Tom Brokaw has in some ways led a charmed life, and he frequently expresses his gratitude for his wonderful luck. But for all of us mortals, luck eventually runs out. Cancer, as he reminds us, becomes more and more likely the longer we live, and no one lives forever. Brokaw is also acutely aware of how lucky he is to have access to the best doctors and hospitals, to work for an organization that is supportive and has excellent benefits, to have enough financial resources to pay for whatever he needs, even to have a daughter who is a doctor and can participate in his treatment plan and interpret medicalese for him. So few people have all of these advantages in the fight against cancer or whatever disease is ravaging their body and/or mind.

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

A Spool of Blue Thread

Posted by nliakos on October 10, 2015

by Anne Tyler (Knopf 2015; ISBN 978-1-101-87427-1)

Set in Tyler’s hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, A Spool of Blue Thread tells the stories of Abby and Red Whitshank, their children, Jeannie, Amanda, Denny, and Stem, and Red’s parents, Junior and Linnie Mae.  The first and longest part of the book (214 of the 355 total pages) is titled “Can’t Leave Till the Dog Dies”. Here we see Red, Abby, and their adult children trying to cope with Abby’s decline; she experiences forgetfulness and blank moments when she appears to withdraw and sort of disappear. They try hiring a woman to help out, and when that doesn’t work, Stem and his family move in with Red and Abby, followed quickly by Denny, the “difficult” one, the unreliable one. Tension between Denny and Stem grows as each lays claim to his right to be the one to take responsibility. Then Abby meets with  an accident and is killed. Since Abby seemed to be the main character up to that point, I wondered where the novel would go from there. What happens is that Tyler wraps up that part of the story and begins another part.

Part Two, “What a World, What a World”, goes back in time to tell the story of Abby’s romance with Red.  Part Three, “A Bucket of Blue Paint”, goes back still farther to explore the unusual relationship between Red’s parents–Junior, a builder and carpenter, and Linnie Mae, and with Junior’s obsession with the house on Bouton Road that is the setting for all of the Whitshank stories. Part Four, “A Spool of Blue Thread”, is only 18 pages long and deals with the aftermath of Abby’s death and Red’s giving up the house on Bouton Road, as Denny prepares to leave Baltimore and return to New Jersey, unsure of what awaits him there.


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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (aka Millenium Trilogy)

Posted by nliakos on October 2, 2015

by Stieg Larsson (published in Swedish 2005-2007, in English 2008-2009)

My sister gave me her old Kindle with these books already on it, which is why I finally got around to reading them. After a somewhat slow start, I was really drawn into the story of progressive Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous Girl of the titles, hacker extraordinaire, possible Aspie, victim of many crimes and avenger of same.

Blomkvist is a pretty boring character, actually. He seems to be Larsson’s alter-ego, which could explain why he is so sought after as a lover by almost all the women in the novel! He romps through relationships, never committing himself–let his many lovers beware, they must not fall in love with him, while he loves them all–but is faithful to no one.

Lisbeth Salander is such a mix of good and bad, with a moral code all her own. Locked away in a mental hospital as a child, deprived of her civil rights, savagely abused by one who job it was to protect her and look out for her interests, she is completely fearless, incredibly smart and resourceful, and independent (the only people she depends on for help are her fellow hackers). I was rooting for her all the way, and she did not disappoint!

I read that Larsson actually wrote one immense manuscript, but his publisher decided to publish it as three separate books. I chose to read the three books as one (with an unsought hiatus when I couldn’t recharge the Kindle while I was in Greece this summer). I think they are best read this way, for they truly constitute one story. (Unfortunately, I stupidly read the books in the order I found them in on the Kindle (#1, #3, #2) instead of #1, #2, #3, which meant I was quite mystified by #3, which I then re-read as soon as I had finished #2, at which time it made a lot more sense! I think it’s a testament to the strength of the story that I even had the desire to re-read it.) I think a lot of sections that do not move the plot forward could have been edited out; perhaps Larsson’s death soon after he delivered the manuscript prevented the editor from being more ruthless with it.

The stories are also interesting as a window into Swedish culture (I think: are contemporary Swedish women really so forward about sex?). I was also surprised by the ethnic diversity of the Swedes in the novel, as shown by their surnames.



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Two more Narnia Chronicles

Posted by nliakos on October 2, 2015

by C. S. Lewis

(1) The Silver Chair – The Pevensies’ cousin Eustace and his school friend Jill Pole are drawn into Narnia to help find Prince Rilian, son of King Caspian (who is now very old) and heir to the throne of Narnia. Rilian disappeared ten years ago soon after his mother was killed by a strange serpent. Eustace and Jill, together with a peculiar Narnian being called a marsh-wiggle (neither human nor animal), follow Rilian’s trail under the ruined city of the giants and must battle an evil witch to set Rilian free of her enchantment.

(2) The Last Battle – Eustace and Jill are called (technically, blown) back to Narnia to participate in its a final battle for the soul of Narnia. A greedy ape and a simple donkey have been manipulated by the evil (dark-skinned) Calormenes into betraying Narnia. The Narnian King, Tirian, and his friend the unicorn Jewel join with Eustace and Jill and a few loyal Narnians to fight the Calormenes, but it is impossible to save Narnia. Aslan returns for a Day of Judgment where everyone gets his (or her) just deserts.

Did I really read these forty years ago? I barely remembered anything.

The stories are pretty simple, plot-wise, and the Christian references are fairly obvious (but according to this very interesting article by Meghan O’Rourke in Slate, not primary). I suspect some latent racism in the depiction of the evil Calormenes as dark-skinned–Lewis actually calls them Darkies! But the books still have an appeal, as O’Rourke says in her article. One more to go (the first: The Magician’s Nephew) before I complete my tour of all the Chronicles.

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