Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for December, 2015

Caleb’s Crossing

Posted by nliakos on December 29, 2015

by Geraldine Brooks (Viking 2011; ISBN 978-0-670-02104-8)

Geraldine Brooks is a master of historical fiction of the kind that zeroes in on someone or something you’ve never heard of and proceeds to make you care about him/her/it. I have already blogged about People of the Book and Year of Wonders. They were marvelous, but no more so than this novel based on the little that is known about Caleb Cheeshateaumauk, a Wampanoag (Wôpanâak) Indian who graduated from Harvard College in 1665, the first Native American to do so. Very little is known about him; Brooks summarizes it in two pages of an Afterword. What disposed him, the son of a chief, to learn English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, to study the Bible in its original form, to leave his home on Martha’s Vineyard and travel to Cambridge (not a nice place at the time) to attend a sort of prep school and then Harvard? Brooks’ fictional Bethia Mayfield narrates her own and Caleb’s stories and thus imagines some answers to these questions.

Bethia is insatiably curious and smart. More than anything, she wants the education her brother is given but cannot appreciate. She is a born feminist living in a culture that scorns women’s intellect. As a girl of fourteen and fifteen, she wanders away from her home on the island for a breath of privacy and meets Caleb, surprising him with her rudimentary knowledge of his language, which she has overheard her father trying to teach her slow-witted brother. They become secret friends. Eventually, Caleb decides that he can best help his people by learning the ways of the English, and he comes to live with Bethia’s family (her father is the preacher/missionary in their small community). Later, when Caleb and her brother Makepeace travel to Cambridge to continue their studies, Bethia accompanies them, as an indentured scullery maid for the preparatory school where they are enrolled. When they move to Harvard, so does she, lured by the possibility of listening in on the lectures she is forbidden to attend openly. The narrative then jumps to 1715, with Bethia now an old woman. She takes up the tale where she left off and tells how Caleb and his Wampanoag classmate Joel Iacoomis (also a real person) died young, soon after successfully completing their bachelor’s degrees at Harvard, and how she came to return to Martha’s Vineyard to live out her days.

Bethia is a wonderful character who believes in the fundamentalist teachings she was brought up with but cannot quite bring herself to accept her lot as a woman in that society without pushing the boundaries as much as possible. She and Caleb discuss theology and culture, and each has an effect on the other’s beliefs. After he shares the Wampanoag creation story with her, she writes, “Of course, I thought it all outlandish. But as I rode home that afternoon, it came to me that our story of a burning bush and a parted sea might also seem fabulous, to one not raised up knowing it was true.” (p. 35) Bethia even finds herself drawn to aspects of Caleb’s beliefs, and her guilt over this causes her to blame herself for her mother’s death, one of several tragedies in her life. Despite the title, I felt that the novel was more about Bethia than it was about Caleb, because the reader is treated to her inner thoughts and feelings, whereas we must guess as to his, much as Bethia herself must; Caleb does not openly share his emotions.

Brooks/Bethia has great sympathy for the Native characters in the book and Native Americans. She describes the hypocrisy of the English Christians who would convert the “salvages” but never fully accept them, who preached the gospel to them while stealing from and slaughtering them. The character of Tequamuck, Caleb’s uncle and the shaman of the tribe, predicts a future that the reader knows to be the truth: “his people reduced, no longer hunters but hunted. . . the dead stacked up like cordwood, and long lines of people. . . driven off from their familiar places.” He asks Bethia, “How should I worship your God, no matter how powerful, when I know what he will allow to befall us? Who would follow such a cruel god?” Who, indeed?

This is an absolutely wonderful book! I couldn’t put it down.

Posted in Fiction, History | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

Posted by nliakos on December 26, 2015

by Bich Minh Nguyen (Viking 2007; ISBN 987-0-670-03832-9)

Bich Minh Nguyen’s memoir of growing up as a Vietnamese American (with a Latina stepmother and stepsister) in Grand Rapids, Michigan is seen through the lens of the foods that represented the various cultures that surrounded her: Vietnamese rice cakes and cha gio; Mexican tacos and tamales; and every kind of American junk food I have ever heard of plus quite a few I have not. Food dominates even her recollections of favorite books read.

Among the descriptions of eating and obsessing about food, however, Nguyen describes a painfully shy child who longed to fit in but was awkward, nerdy, not as pretty or cool as her older sister, her stepsister, or her (mostly Dutch-American) neighbors and classmates, a child who completely bought into the pre-political correctness assumption that blond hair, white skin, blue eyes, and white bread sandwiches were automatically better than anything a blended refugee family could come up with. Her father and stepmother were not concerned with Bich’s self-esteem. Theirs was not a particularly happy marriage (in fact, for several years, they divorced but continued living in the same house), and their attitude toward child-raising was not what we would call enlightened. Still, when Nguyen visits Vietnam as an adult, as well as when she is finally reunited with her birth mother, she realizes that despite all their faults, her father and stepmother kept her safe, educated her, and gave her a better life than she might have had had she remained in Vietnam. It’s a reminder that children are pretty resilient; we can make a lot of mistakes, and they can still turn out all right.

This book shines a light on the inner life of a refugee child as she grows to womanhood. It’s a reminder that reaching the promised land, be it the United States, Germany, or some other place, is only the beginning. Growing up is challenging wherever and whoever we are; growing up in an alien place where we do not feel accepted for who we are is much harder.

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

A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story

Posted by nliakos on December 21, 2015

by Qais Akbar Omar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013; ISBN 978-0-374-15764-7)

This book has to be one of the most memorable I have ever read. Qais Akbar Omar tells the story of how he and most of his family somehow managed to survive thirty years of civil war in Afghanistan. But it was not easy. From the time he was barely eleven, Omar was exposed to danger and brutality that no child should ever face. He was captured, enslaved, and tortured by fighters of one or another of the warring factions. While still a child, he witnessed murders and rapes and saw dead bodies and pieces of bodies. But he also met many good people: the man who gave his family a place to live (the eponymous house of nine towers) after his grandfather’s house was destroyed; the kind person who offered the family hospitality while they were trying to escape abroad; the Buddhist hermit who lived in a Bamyan cave;  the Kuchi nomads with whom they lived and traveled for several months; the teacher-turned-baker who saved his life; and the Turkmen family whose deaf-mute daughter taught him to make the beautiful and unusual carpets that eventually permitted him to employ many neighborhood children, both boys and girls, to weave the carpets that lifted his family out of poverty. Although some of the events described in the book are truly horrific (after reading the part when Qais and his father are enslaved in a dark tunnel where unspeakable acts of cruelty take place, I was reluctant to go to sleep, afraid I would see nightmares), the family’s indomitable spirit is so inspiring I almost want to read it again. At the end, I learned that the book began as a kind of therapy to help Omar express the memories that were haunting him. On a page following the Epilogue, he writes: “I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart. Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.”

I hope I am strong enough.

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

Playing for Pizza

Posted by nliakos on December 18, 2015

by John Grisham ( (Doubleday 2007, ISBN 978-0-385-52500-8)

Playing for Pizza is a lightweight, pleasant novel which will appeal to football fans and people interested in multi-cultural themes. Guess which category I fit into! The protagonist, Rick Dockery, is a third-string quarterback who has been bounced around the NFL for several years, either not playing at all or playing badly. Most recently, he threw a pass to the opponents, singlehandedly losing what would have been a winning game for his team of the moment, the Cleveland Browns. Injured and unable to find another NFL team to take a chance on him, Rick winds up playing for the Parma Panthers (Yes! There really is an Italian football league and even an Italian Super Bowl.). The novel covers one season for the Panthers, during which Rick is gradually adjusts to living in a new culture (he even goes to the opera, learns how to drive with a manual shift, and somewhat reluctantly visits many galleries, churches, and castles with Livvie, his American girlfriend). He even comes to like living in Italy.

A mostly predictable, enjoyable read. If you don’t like or understand football, you will just ignore sequences like On the first play, Rick faked to Franco on a dive, then pump-faked to Fabrizio on a five-and-out. The corner, sniffing an early and dramatic interception, took the bait, and when Fabrizio spun upfield, he was wide open for a long second. Rick threw the ball much too hard, but Fabrizio knew what was coming. He took it with his fingers, absorbed it with his upper body, then clutched it just as the safety closed in for the kill. But the safety never caught him. Fabrizio spun again, hit the afterburners, and was soon strutting across the goal line. Seven–zip.  Say what?

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

A Paris Affair

Posted by nliakos on December 15, 2015

by Tatiana de Rosnay (translated from the French by Sam Taylor; English edition published by St. Martin’s Press, 2015; ISBN 978-1-250-06880-4)

This is a collection of eleven short stories about marital infidelity, all set in Paris. Usually it is the husband who cheats; sometimes the wife; sometimes both. There are many references to the ubiquity of unfaithful French husbands (how true this stereotype actually is, I could not say), yet the betrayed wives are uniformly shocked that their husbands would do such a monstrous thing. The stories held my interest, but none except the first (“Hotel Room”) really stuck in my mind. Sarah’s Key was much better.

ELLs at an intermediate reading level should be able to handle this translation; the sentences are not complex and tend to be short. (A basic familiarity with French culture would also help.)

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


Posted by nliakos on December 15, 2015

by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick (First Second 2011; ISBN 978-1-59643-259-8)

I’ve been a Richard Feynman fan since reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! many years ago, so when Ottaviani and Myrick’s Feynman came out a few years ago I decided I had to read it. It’s taken me a few years to get around to it, but recently, while cruising the biography shelves looking for (and not finding) Michael Faraday, I came upon this graphic biography and snapped it up. I was disappointed, however. There was not much that I had not already read in Surely You’re Joking…, What Do You Care What Other People Think? and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Anecdotes that had me laughing out loud when I read the original books seemed to be lifted directly from Feynman’s books into this one, but not entirely, with the action left in but the funny commentary missing, like the chapter on safe-cracking. Ottaviani (the writer) and Myrick (the illustrator) have organized the material chronologically, which is helpful, but otherwise I keep feeling that a Feynman aficionado would not learn anything new, whereas a reader new to Feynman would not be inspired to seek out Feynman’s own books and essays after reading this one. There simply was not enough room to include enough detail about Feynman’s funniest and most interesting escapades. They seemed a dull reflection of the originals (example: young Feynman cluelessly examining blueprints for the Oak Ridge TN nuclear plant and asking an inane question about something he doesn’t understand, prompting a horrified response from the engineers, who hurry off to redesign the offending part).

Ottaviani and Myrick finished off their book with an “(Almost Complete*) Bibliography and Early Sketches” section in which their affection for their subject shines through. The annotated bibliography of source materials written by and about Feynman and his fellow physicists lists several books, recordings, and collections that sound very worthwhile; I will put a few of those on my to-read list.

This is only the second graphic book I have read (the first being The Influencing Machine), and I must confess I don’t particularly like the format. In many cases, the illustrations obfuscate rather than clarify (I had a hard time figuring out who Feynman was in some illustrations, and all of the women look the same to me). Only the illustrations of physical principles are helpful, as in the sequence when Feynman is explaining his Nobel Prize-winning QED to a lay audience in New Zealand. (Nevertheless, I still did not understand QED.)  The graphic format may increase the appeal for younger and non-native speaking readers.

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

Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots

Posted by nliakos on December 8, 2015

by Deborah Feldman (Simon & Schuster, 2012; ISBN 978-1-4391-8700-5)

This book is a shocker. Deborah Feldman was raised by her father’s parents in the Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg (Brooklyn), New York after her mother left the community and her mentally-ill father was unable to care for her. The book describes Feldman’s feelings of alienation and her desire to experience the forbidden world outside the community beginning when she was a child. Reading forbidden books she borrowed or bought, Feldman learned just enough about the non-Hasidic world to know that there might be options available to her in the future. But a husband is found for her when she is just seventeen (and a newly minted English teacher at the local Satmar school). Her unsatisfactory relationship with her husband results in her dreaming of leaving the community, as her mother did; realizing that her son will soon be taken from her influence and brought up in the Hasidic way precipitates her flight. The memoir is her instrument of escape, enabling her to support herself and her son.

Despite being Jewish myself, and despite having read other books about Hasidic life (The Romance ReaderThe Marrying of Chani Kaufman), I was appalled by Feldman’s depiction of life among the Hasidim, who believe that God sent Hitler and the Holocaust to punish European Jews for assimilating and “being enlightened” and whose views of gender roles would please the Taliban. Feldman constantly questions whether God is really so petty as to demand that Hasidic women wear their clothes or hair in particular ways. But it takes time for her to discover that goyim do not all hate her, and there is a place for her in the secular world. Feldman does not mince words; she is brutally honest, even when honesty must have been very hard. But she somehow manages to separate her present self from her former self, as she writes about signing the contract to write this book: I sign a contract to write a memoir about a person who no longer exists…. My two identities have finally split apart, and I’ve killed the other one, murdered her brutally but justly. This book will be her last words. (pg. 244)

An amazing book.

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

Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain–for Life

Posted by nliakos on December 5, 2015

by David Perlmutter, M.D. with Kristin Loberg (Little, Brown & Co. 2015; ISBN 978-0-316-38010-2)

Dr. David Perlmutter is a Florida neurologist, and he believes that much of what is wrong with us can be solved by bringing our microbiome–the “bugs” or bacteria that inhabit our digestive tract–into balance and keeping it healthy. Our unnatural diet and toxic environment, he thinks, are responsible for our sick and unbalanced microbiomes.

In Part I, “Getting to Know Your Hundred Trillion Friends,” he explains about the microbes that live within us, digest our food for us, and determine how we feel, and how much we weigh. In addition, he explains “the new science of inflammation”–how inflammation within our bodies resulting from out-of-balance microbiota can make us sick–and the apparent relationship of a sick microbiome with autism.

Part II, “Trouble in Bugville,” focuses on how our gut microbiota get sick and unbalanced when exposed to too much fructose (like HFCS), gluten, antibiotics, environmental chemicals, and genetically modified foods such as corn and soy.

Part III, “Brain Maker Rehab,” Dr. Perlmutter explains how we can cure our sick microbiome through changing what we eat, taking certain supplements, and avoiding certain environmental hazards. For example, he recommends eating more fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, pickled vegetables and meats, and kombucha tea, and filtering drinking water. He recommends taking docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), turmeric, coconut oil, alpha-lipoic acid, and Vitamin D as well as the following five probiotics: Lactobacillus platarum, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus brevis, Bifidobacterium lactis, and Bifidobacterium longum. He includes a seven-day cleansing and eating program as an example, and offers recipes for recommended foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled sardines, fermented hard-boiled eggs, and kombucha tea. This was where he kind of lost me. I have been a vegetarian for over forty years, and I certainly do not intend to start eating meat or fish, fermented or not. And many of the recipes require sterilization of glass jars and lids. Never having canned anything, I have no experience with or equipment for sterilizing foods. It may be easy, but I worry that if I don’t do it properly, I could make myself sick.

I would prefer slowly decreasing certain foods and exposures while increasing others, but Dr. Perlmutter seems to want a complete makeover of lifestyle and diet. Perhaps he recommends this out of concern for his readers’ well-being; for me, it just makes it less likely that I will make changes at all. If one inflexibly implemented all of these changes, one could kiss eating out and entertaining friends goodbye.

Perlmutter’s claims seem logical and well-documented, although I am suspicious about any one thing that is held responsible for diabetes, autism, irritable bowel syndrome, Alzheimers, the common cold, and many more diseases and conditions. Furthermore, a quick Google search yielded this article from New York Magazine, which is scathingly critical of Perlmutter’s ideas. Caveat lector! (But read also the 70+ dissenting comments below the article.)

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