Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for January, 2016

The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2016

by Chen Guangcheng (Henry Holt, 2015; ISBN 978-0-8050-9805-1)

Do you remember hearing about Chen Guangcheng’s incredible escape from house arrest in China in 2012? I thought at the time, this is impossible…  a blind man with a broken foot–how could he have pulled this off? So I read the book to find out. It did not disappoint. The story of the escape was indeed amazing, but the story of Chen’s life as a person with a serious disability in rural China is even more amazing. Deprived of an education until he was well into his teens, and then expected to follow one of the few career paths open to the blind, Chen learned to read and write in Braille, then attended college to become a doctor of Chinese medicine, only to reject medicine for the law, which he taught himself so that he could advocate for himself and others with disabilities, and later for people who ran afoul of the One Child Policy. The sometimes violent resistance with which he was met did not frighten him. Even when he was imprisoned for seven years on a trumped-up charge, he never ceased demanding his rights and those of other people. But in China, people don’t really have any rights. There are laws, yes–Chen learned the laws and set about trying to right the wrongs that happened when they were not obeyed. But China is not a nation where everyone is equal under the law, far from it. As described in this book, China is a nation where Communist Party members–who are in charge of everything and everyone–can do pretty much whatever they want with impunity. As we know, power corrupts, and Chen saw rampant corruption in every aspect of his life. Over and over again, officials, cadres, and just plain thugs taunted Chen with his inability to force them to obey this or that law. But he never gave in, and he never stopped trying. What an inspiration!

When Chen was released from prison, he was taken straight to his village and put under a brutal house arrest for the following two years. He was forbidden from seeing or talking to anyone outside of his immediate family members, who were also harassed and oppressed because of their proximity to him. He was refused permission to see a doctor for his medical problems. He and his family could not work their land, and their few possessions were stolen. In the end, he felt that escape was his only option. Although he wanted to remain in China to continue his work, he was ultimately convinced that this would be impossible, and he and his family were able to emigrate to the United States, where he wrote this book.

I was kind of surprised at how Chen named the people (relatives, friends, neighbors, lawyers…) who assisted him in his escape, because those people are still in China and are vulnerable to reprisals by the thugs who made his life such a hell. (Similarly, I wondered that he escaped leaving his wife, his mother, and his young children behind to deal with the fury of the outwitted guards.) But really, I was mostly amazed at his courage, his integrity, and his ingenuity.



Posted in Autobiography, Memoir | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family

Posted by nliakos on January 27, 2016

by Josh Hanagarne (Gotham 2013; ISBN 978-1-59240-787-3)

This book sheds light on two worlds I have no experience with: the world of Tourette Syndrome and the world of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka the Mormon Church. Hanagarne grew up and lives in Utah, and he was raised as a Mormon. When he was still in elementary school, he began experiencing the tics that characterize Tourette’s, and as he grew older, they increased in severity and became more diverse. He dealt with them as best he could. He was also a nerdy kid who loved reading perhaps more than anything (although it took him many jobs and many years to discover his calling as a librarian).

Throughout the memoir, Hanagarne describes and explains, simply and clearly, aspects of his faith (including his doubts about it as well as how it was practiced in his family, his town, and his church); how it feels to tic and the many strategies he has tried to gain control of his Tourette’s (which he personifies and calls Misty); what it’s like to be a librarian working in a large public library; and his relationships with two women, Jennie and Janette, the second of whom he married. We experience his and Janette’s struggle to have children and his terror that their children could inherit his disorder. He is extremely open and honest, even when honesty must have been very difficult to achieve. He also writes about much of what he has experienced with disarming humor.

One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 10, in which Hanagarne writes about libraries and why they are essential; he is obviously in love with his job and his place of work. (I also love the way each chapter’s topics are listed according to the Dewey Decimal System, e.g., Chapter 6: 363.163 — Fraud, 613.71 — Bodybuilding, 808.5 — Voice–Social Aspects, 646.726  — Botulinum Toxin–Therapeutic Use. It reminds me of how Christopher numbers his chapters with prime numbers only in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Both books quietly stray from the traditional way of naming and numbering chapters.)

Another interesting thread is how he uses strength training as a way of controlling his tics (Strength). His relationship with his parents is also extraordinary (The Power of Family). It’s all there in the title, and I found it all fascinating. What a courageous, smart, amazing guy.


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

Cutting for Stone

Posted by nliakos on January 24, 2016

by Abraham Verghese (Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc., 2009; ISBN 978-0-375-71436-8)

Narrated by Dr. Marion Stone, this novel recounts the story of Marion’s families (his birth parents, whom he never knew; his adoptive parents Dr. Hemlatha and Dr. Ghosh, who raise him and his twin Shiva in a hospital compound in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; and Genet, his beloved, who lives with her mother Rosina in the hospital compound. It tells the dramatic story of the twins’ conception and birth; narrates their childhood and adolescence, marked by coups and civil war; and follows Marion to America where he flees probable arrest and death after a hijacking by Eritrean rebels. He interns as a surgeon at a small Catholic hospital in the Bronx, where he treats patients living in poverty and affected by violence. And one day, Marion becomes a patient in that hospital, so close to death that only a sacrifice from his twin, and the skill of his biological father, can save him.

Abraham Verghese is a surgeon himself, and a professor at Stanford’s School of Medicine, and he certainly shares his expertise with the reader, describing many surgical procedures and diseases in graphic detail. For example: Four families of vessels enter or leave the liver. First, the portal vein, which carries all the venous blood leaving the gut and hauls it to the liver, blood that after a meal is rich in fats and other nutrients for the factory to process. . . . (pg. 624)  I must confess I did not read these parts too closely.

He also has a great eye for detail and develops his characters wonderfully. I would love to know someone like Dr. Ghosh, who seems impossibly kind and wise, or Dr. Hemlatha, who brooks no nonsense from anyone but loves the twins more than anything. I learned a lot about Ethiopian culture and history from this book, as well; Verghese, like his narrator, was born to Indian parents in Addis Ababa, so he knows of what he speaks. I enjoyed the description of Marion’s culture shock upon arrival in the United States: The ritual of immigration and baggage claim went by so quickly I wondered if I’d missed it. Where were the armed soldiers? The dogs? The long lines? The body searches? Where were the tables where your luggage was laid open and a knife taken to the lining? (pg. 461) But a rude awakening comes when a fellow intern explains why American doctors in training are nowhere in evidence at their hospital, an “Ellis Island hospital”–they are all at the “Mayflower hospitals” which treat rich patients and harvest organs from the Ellis Island hospitals (Chapter 40). Can this be true? I hope it is not.

The significance of the title is never really explained. Is it a play on words (the family name Stone)?  The Hippocratic oath contains a reference to cutting for stone: a physician promises not to cut for (gall/kidney?) stones but to leave that task to one who specializes in it. But what this has to do with the story is a mystery to me. (Verghese answers a question about the title in this interview published in the Sacramento Bee.)

The book held my rapt attention from beginning to end.

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

Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America

Posted by nliakos on January 18, 2016

by Jason Goodwin (Henry Holt & Co., 2003; ISBN 0-8050-6407-9)

Greenback is about the history of the United States as seen through the lens of its money (or about the history of American money seen in the context of U.S. history). Most of it surprised me; much of it confused me. Money is something that seems so universal, so logical, so unchanging (except for inflation) that I never realized that the dollar was somehow different from the other currencies of the world, and that Americans’ attitudes toward money were (are) somehow fundamentally different from those of other peoples, but this is what Goodwin proposes. He emphasizes that money is just an idea, anyway. Whether it is gold, silver, dollars, or euros, “money is numbers, plus regulations, plus belief.” (p. 261) This is a difficult concept to come to terms with, although I know it to be true.

Goodwin also describes the chaos of American monetary policy in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was shocked at the untrustworthiness of the dollar, at the rampant greed of the bankers (although I guess that hasn’t changed much), and at the impact of technology on printing, counterfeiting, mining, banking, and every aspect of life in America.

I was also confused by history hitherto unknown to me, mixed with economic theory I don’t understand well. I could not remember from one page to the next what I had read, who had done what, who was a bimetallist, who a silverite, what Republicans and Democrats stood for at various times in our history, etc. I think I should probably read the book again, and take notes. (But I probably won’t.)

For anyone interested in economics or American history, this book is a fascinating read.

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

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Posted by nliakos on January 10, 2016

by Karen Joy Fowler (G. P. Putnam 2013; ISBN 978-0-399-16209-1)

It’s interesting to look at the suggested classifications for a novel on the copyright page. This one is classified as Families, Self-realization in women, Human-animal relationships, Life change events (all the preceding followed by –Fiction), Domestic fiction, and Psychological fiction. It kind of gives you a preview of what the book is about–but not really.

Rosemary Cooke is the woman who realizes who she is (and narrates the story). SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading here if you want the same reading experience I had–

That is, shock to discover in Chapter 5 that Rose’s missing sister is a chimpanzee. Fern came to live with Rose’s family when Rose was one month old and Fern about the same age. They were raised together for five years, after which Fern was taken away,and Rose was left to wonder what had happened. This event is central to Rose’s life and to her story. Her entire family was profoundly affected by Fern’s removal, and Rose’s whole life experience reflects an alienation from human society that she attributes to her closeness to Fern. She feels in some ways more like a chimpanzee than a “normal” human.

The book is full of memorable characters: Rose, her brother Lowell, whose life was even more affected by the loss of Fern than hers was, if that is possible; Rose and Lowell’s parents; Fern herself; and even the minor characters of her peculiar friend Harlow, her roommate Todd and his lawyer mother, and her apartment manager Ezra made a deep impression.

This is not just a novel; it is a crusade against psychological and medical research using animals, chimpanzees especially. It reminded me in many ways of Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats, in which the story is a thinly veiled diatribe against the meat industry. (Imagine my surprise to read in the Acknowledgments that the author gives thanks “most especially to the amazingly awesome Ruth Ozeki for her friendship and support”!

Highly recommended.

Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal

Posted by nliakos on January 8, 2016

by Hubert Wolf (translated from the German by Ruth Martin; English publisher Alfred A. Knopf, 2015; ISBN 978-0-385-35190-4)

Hubert Wolf is a professor of ecclesiastical history, and his book reads a bit like a very long Ph.D. dissertation (for 371 pages of text, there are 91 pages of notes and citations). The Franciscan convent of Sant’Ambrogio della Massima in Rome is the setting for a juicy scandal involving false saints, letters from the Virgin Mary, attempted murders, and heterosexual and homosexual sex. It was successfully covered up for over a century; only the opening of the archives in 1998 permitted researchers access to the files of the trial of the convent’s abbess, Maria Veronica Milza; its vicaress/novice mistress, Maria Luisa Ridolfi; and its two confessors,  Giuseppe Leziroli and Giuseppe Peters, for heresies and crimes against the Church.

Wolf presents us with an objective chronology of the events that led to the trial and of the trial itself and its aftermath, including what happened afterwards to all of the accused. In so doing, he includes a lot of Church history (that is, after all, his area of expertise) to put the scandal in its proper context. Some of that history was too dry for my taste, but for a full understanding of what happened and how it affected and was affected by the politics and theologies of the day, it is necessary. For example, one of the tensions roiling the Church at the time was that between those who easily believed in mysticism and visions and those who did not.

Sant’Ambrogio was founded in 1804 by a nun who was venerated as a saint by the nuns and priests who knew her during her lifetime and subsequently by newcomers to the convent, even though this had been strictly forbidden by the Inquisition in 1816. (The continuation of this cult of the mother founder was one of the crimes that the nuns and confessors were found guilty of.) Years later, in 1845, 13-year-old Maria Ridolfi entered the convent as a  young novice. She rose swiftly to positions of power, simultaneously serving as the vicaress (in charge of the running of the convent) and novice mistress (in charge of teaching the novices) by the time she was in her twenties. Physically very beautiful and apparently possessed of an extraordinary charisma, the young Sister Maria Luisa exerted an astonishing power over the convent, even controlling the election of the abbess. She claimed to have experienced many visions and religious ecstasies that caused the confessors and the nuns alike to begin to see her as a living saint. For example, she said she visited heaven during her visions and spoke with the Virgin Mary and Jesus.  She even received letters from the Virgin. Amazingly, many people (including the priests who were supposedly in charge) believed this nonsense, and even the nun who actually wrote the Virgin’s letters (according to Maria Luisa’s dictation) did not expose her.

When Maria Luisa was 27 years old, a German princess, Katharina von Hollenzollern, entered the convent of Sant’Ambrogio with the intention of taking her vows and remaining there as a nun. Unfortunately for her, Princess Katharina was a rich woman who had placed a lot of money in a convent fund. Maria Luisa, who wanted to found an offshoot of Sant’Ambrogio with herself as abbess, immediately began maneuvers to get the princess to use this money to found the new convent. For example, she had the Virgin Mary write a letter about it. But Maria Luisa had not counted on Katharina, who was older (in her 40s), well educated, and of a more scientific bent of mind than the more mystically-inclined padres and sisters. She saw through Maria Luisa’s feigned holiness pretty quickly; but in so doing, she put herself in grave danger. Maria Luisa was not above disposing of novices and nuns who did not support her, and accordingly, she began trying to poison the princess, who must have had an iron constitution, because she somehow survived ground glass, alum, opium, tartar emetic, varnish, and other substances mixed into medicines that she was taking. She managed to escape Sant’Ambrogio with the help of a cousin of hers who happened to be an Archbishop. She was encouraged to denounce Maria Luisa and her fellow perpetrators at the convent to the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition, represented by the investigating judge, Vincenzo Sallua. Katharina’s 1859 denunciation led to an investigation and trial that lasted several years. All of this history is reported in detail in the book.

I was amazed by the machinations of supposedly devout people, admiring of the thoroughness with which Sallua held his investigation but curious as to how he decided at what point to believe that the person he was questioning was telling the truth; all of them came to the truth through days of denial and lying. I was not surprised that the accused nun had a much worse time of it than the accused priests, who managed to do penance and then continue their careers pretty much undamaged by the scandal, especially, the Jesuit Joseph Kleutgen (aka Padre Giuseppe Peters), who went on to formulate Church doctrine, “including the new dogma of papal infallibility that remains binding for Catholics to this day.” (p. 362) Maria Luisa, meanwhile,was sentenced to twenty years of monastic imprisonment in solitary confinement, during which she lost her mind (assuming she was not already insane when she was scheming for power and influence at Sant’Ambrogio); she was eventually released and died in poverty and obscurity.

I enjoyed the occasional flippant comments by Wolf, for instance, his list of Dramatis Personae, which includes “PETER KREUZBURG: “The Americano.” Possessed by the devil (and by Maria Luisa)…. MARY: The mother of Jesus Christ, supernatural manifestation and correspondent.” There is also his wry comment on the inscription on Joseph Kleutgen’s gravestone: “It is questionable whether a priest convicted by the Inquisition of seduction in the confessional can really be lauded for his moral integrity. And a respected scholar perhaps shouldn’t have believed in letters from the Virgin Mary announcing the murder of a nun.” He is clearly scandalized by the wrongdoing exposed by these files and set out in this very interesting, well-researched book. (Apologies for the length of this post and congratulations to those who managed to read until the end!)

Link to the March 2015 Washington Post book review by Gerard DeGroot:



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

Say You’re One of Them

Posted by nliakos on January 4, 2016

by Uwem Akpan (Little, Brown 2008; Back Bay Books 2009; ISBN 978-0-316-08636-3)

This is a difficult book to read. It is a collection of five stories set in various African countries. The protagonists are children who find themselves in very difficult circumstances, who do what they must to survive despite poverty, cruelty, and war. For an American, the very idea that children must deal with grinding poverty, prostitution, child slavery, and unspeakable acts of violence reminds us of just how spoiled and fortunate we are.

“An Ex-Mas Feast” is narrated by Jigana, a young Kenyan boy whose family survives by sending the children out begging with their baby brother and by sniffing glue to ward off hunger. Jigana’s twelve-year-old sister Maisha opts for a life of prostitution rather than beg, and the ten-year-old Naema seems headed down the same road. At the end of the story, Jigana too gives up his hope of an education for a life on the streets of Nairobi. I was so depressed by this story I thought I might not read the others.

In “Fattening for Gabon”, ten-year-old Kotchikpa and his five-year-old sister Yewa are sent to live with their father’s brother, their Fofo (Uncle) Kpee, after both of their parents contract AIDS. Kpee is persuaded to sell the children into slavery, but as the time for their departure approaches, he is unable to do it and tries to flee with the children to their village. Kotchikpa and Yewa slowly realize the evil that they are being prepared for and draw on every resource available to them to escape their fate, but they are dealing with remorseless people who stop at nothing to deliver their human goods.

The dialog is a combination of English pidgin, French, and one or more African languages. I found myself wishing vainly for a translation or at least a glossary. In particular, what is the meaning of dey, which seems to insert itself into almost every sentence?

“What Language Is That?” is only about eleven pages long. Oddly, it is written in the second person, addressed to a five-year-old Christian girl in Ethiopia whose best friend Selam is a Muslim. As religious intolerance builds in the community, “you” and Selam are forbidden to see each other, though they cannot really understand or accept this.

“Luxurious Hearses” follows the flight of a Muslim teenager, Jubril, who has been betrayed by his own northern Nigerian community and is fleeing toward the south, where he was born to a Christian father. Most of the story takes place on a bus waiting to depart for the south as its driver scours the countryside for fuel. Jubril is trying to hide his Muslim identity from the Christian and animist passengers–avoiding speaking (because his Hausa accent would give him away), calling himself Gabriel, and hiding the fact that his right hand has been amputated, a sure sign of Sharia law being implemented for stealing. Everyone on the bus seems insane, and they are constantly switching allegiances. Jubril too is torn between his conservative Muslim faith (he cannot bear to watch TV or look at the female passengers) and the Christian identity that is his only hope of survival. As the bus finally travels southward, the televisions broadcast scenes of carnage in the south that rival those in the north. There seems to be no safe place to find refuge, no matter what religion one practices.

The final story, “My Parents’ Bedroom”, is the most horrific. It is set in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Nine-year-old Monique’s father is a Hutu; her mother is a Tutsi. Monique and her little brother Jean watch as their father is forced to kill their mother. They escape into the streets before a Tutsi mob burns down their house, oblivious of the Tutsi refugees hiding in the ceiling. One can’t help but feel that they will not survive very long. Unimaginable.

I hated these stories, but they are like the the naked, starving children, Ignorance and Want, in the Clive Donner version of “A Christmas Carol” (1984). They are hidden beneath the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. When Scrooge tells the Ghost that he doesn’t want to look at them, the Ghost obligingly covers them with his robes, but assures Scrooge that “they live” and represent doom for him and all those who refuse to acknowledge their existence. (The children were apparently screenwriter Roger O. Hirson’s invention; they do not appear in the original Dickens story.) Uwem Akpan’s children are like that. You don’t want to see them, but even if you manage to forget them, they live, and die, and may one day spell doom to us all, who did nothing to help them. Akpan says in a conversation with Cressida Leyshon (The New Yorker) at the end of the book, “I would like to see a book about how children are faring in these endless conflicts in Africa. The world is not looking. I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet. . . . I want their voices heard, their faces seen.”

Father Akpan, I have sat for a while with the children in your stories. I have heard their voices. I am looking.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Silkworm

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2016

by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling) (Mulholland Books / Little, Brown and Co. 2014; ISBN 978-0-316-20687-7)

This is the second murder mystery featuring Cormoran Strike, private detective; I have not read the first one. I like murder mysteries and have read many; I count those of P. D. James and Ellis Peters among my favorites. Patricia Cornwell is too grisly for my taste, and this one by the author of Harry Potter is pretty grisly. Grisly, but not violent in the sense that Dick Francis’ novels are violent, where the protagonist always finds himself in near-fatal, extremely painful circumstances which he must endure in order to prevail. No, in The Silkworm, Cormoran Strike is never really in danger, and the most pain he suffers is when his prosthetic lower leg rubs his swollen stump. This is undoubtedly very painful, but not scary.

Anyway, Strike is a nice guy (like Francis’ protagonists, very likable), and his assistant Robin Ellacott is a nice person, in contrast to the majority of the characters in the novel. They are all part of the world of publishing: authors, editors, agents, publishers, and associated staff. In keeping with this theme, each chapter begins with a quotation from a 16th or 17th century British author, such as Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, John Webster, John Lyly, William Shakespeare and others. I wondered how the author selected them. Other than to show off her erudition, I don’t think they were necessary. I wonder if many readers actually notice them.

The book was long, about 450 pages. About 3/4 of the way through, it occurred to me that I was wasting my time. This is not to say the book didn’t hold my attention. It’s what I would classify as a “beach read”–literary fluff. There are so many more worthy things to read out there, including all seven Harry Potter booksI felt the same way about Rowling’s first adult novel. It was okay, even good, but not memorable in the way the Harry Potter books are. I hope that Rowling will keep writing until she finds that magical combination of character and plot that made Harry Potter so special.

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