Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for March, 2016

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s

Posted by nliakos on March 31, 2016

by John Elder Robison (Crown 2007; ISBN 978-0-307-39598-6)

In the tradition of Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures and Emergence: Labeled Autistic and Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day (more here), John Elder Robison has written a fascinating account of his life. Robison’s Asperger Syndrome which was not diagnosed until he was forty years old, when a therapist friend gave him a book about Asperger’s because he felt that the book “fit [Robison] to a T.” In addition to coping with his very different way of being in the world, Robison and his younger brother, the writer Augusten Burroughs, had to deal with an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother. It wasn’t easy, to say the least. Somehow, Robison managed to make it to age sixteen, when he left home for good. He was a brilliant designer of sound and light systems, despite never finishing high school, and he managed to build a career as a sound engineer for rock bands (most notably KISS), a designer of electronic toys for Milton Bradley, and finally found his niche as a repairer and restorer of high-end automobiles in Amherst, Massachusetts. He married twice and has a son. He eventually forgave his parents and forged new relationships with them as an adult. He has obviously succeeded in his life, but it has been a struggle, which he describes in this fascinating book.

Robison’s directness and honesty are refreshing and give neuro-typical readers an opportunity to perceive the world from an autistic viewpoint. My favorite chapters are “Logic Vs. Small Talk”, where Robison explains his difficulty having conversations with neuro-typicals,  and “Married Life”, where he describes how he and his wife keep their marriage strong.

I’ve just put Robison’s new book, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening, on hold, and I can’t wait to read it!

Posted in Learning Disabilities, Memoir, Non-fiction | 2 Comments »

A God Who Hates: The Courageous Woman Who Inflamed the Muslim World Speaks Out Against the Evils of Islam

Posted by nliakos on March 26, 2016

by Wafa Sultan (St. Martin’s Press 2009; ISBN 978-0-312-53835-4)

I have never read a book quite like this one before. I am a cultural relativist who tries not to judge different cultures according to the standards of American culture, and I believe that people should be have freedom to worship (or not) as they please. Wafa Sultan was born and grew up in Syria and immigrated to the U.S. when she was in her thirties. She thinks that people like me are naive. She thinks that Islam is imbued with hate and violence and that Allah is an ogre who uses people’s fear to  control them. This is strong stuff. As I was reading, I alternated between feeling repelled by her negative stereotyping, e.g., “A Muslim man can see himself only in terms of his ability to pump out money and sperm” (pg. 131) and wondering about whether there is any basis in truth for her contention that Islam is a religion based on raiding and booty and has not changed in fourteen centuries.

Sultan claims that there are no full and accurate translations of the Quran into other languages (because this is forbidden), so even non-Arabic speaking Muslims do not understand the essential messages of the text, let alone non-Muslims; but that Muslims who study and memorize the text in its original form are constantly exposed to messages of hatred, fear, prejudice, and inequality (everyone in Muslim society plays the roles of slave and master at different times). Unlike Asra Q. Nomani, who found the strength in the Quran to stand up to the cultural mores in her local mosque (Standing Alone in Mecca), Sultan views the Quran as the source of evil in the Muslim world.

I most enjoyed the parts of the book in which Sultan tells her own story, especially Chapter 7, “First Step to Freedom,” where she describes her adaptation to American life. Of course, it makes me feel good to read how she was made to feel welcome when she first came here, and I am glad that she appreciates the opportunities that living in the U.S. has afforded her. However, I was very uncomfortable with her many statements that all Muslims are lying when they act friendly to Americans. Sultan herself, as well as her husband, clearly constitute exceptions to her rule that all true Muslims think this or do that (despite rejecting the teachings of Islam, she still considers herself to be Muslim and the product of a Muslim upbringing), so why does she accuse all other Arab Muslims of being potential terrorists? (Donald Trump must love her.) As I read, I thought to myself, in my forty-plus-year career as an ESL teacher, I taught numerous Muslims, and I really can’t believe that every one of them actually hated me and considered me as no better than a prostitute because I don’t cover my hair. I remembered specific students I have had who confided in me and sought guidance from me, and I don’t believe this slander of their characters. But what about a reader who has never met a Muslim, or an Arab? That reader would be more likely to accept Sultan’s claims at face value.

Sultan insists that she loves her adopted country, yet she cannot bring herself to espouse some of its most basic values. She was appalled at Colin Powell’s statement that there would be nothing wrong with electing a Muslim president of the U.S., saying, “Islam is not just a religion: It is a political doctrine that imposes itself by force, and we have to subject to microscopic scrutiny any Muslim in America who ascends to the heights of [the Presidency].” (pg. 240) She sounds like Ben Carson or Ted Cruz. (I hope she has also reconsidered her statement that “any American capable of being a presidential candidate is an American worthy of my trust” (pg. 238) in this day of Donald Trump.)

There were many moments when I wanted to stop reading, but I made myself read to the end because I think it’s important to be exposed to the opinions of others, even when they go against our own beliefs, so as to achieve a better understanding of where they are coming from. It’s not something I do often enough.

If any of my former Muslim students reads this post, I would very much like to know their opinions about it and about the book, if they read it.

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

Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution

Posted by nliakos on March 20, 2016

by Mona Eltahawy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2015; ISBN 978-0-86547-803-9)

This book is a manifesto, a declaration of independence, and an exhortation. It brought back memories of reading feminist writings in the 1970s, only the situation in which women and girls find themselves in the Middle East today is so much worse than the one in the U. S. back then. Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist, graphically describes the groping, beating, rape, harassment, genital mutilation, and legal infantilization endured by most girls and women in the Middle East, regardless of their level of education or their economic class.

The first chapter, “Why They Hate Us,” originally published separately as an essay in Foreign Policy in 2012, focuses on the hatred of women by men in the Middle East, where culture and religion combine to deprive female citizens of their most basic rights. This is followed by “Black Veil, White Flag,” which focuses on the issue of “dressing modestly” and wearing a hijab, niqab, or burqa. Eltahawy recounts her personal journey with veiling–why she first put on the veil while living with her parents in Saudi Arabia as a teenager, and why she shed it later–as well as delving into the history and geography of veiling in the Middle East and in Islam. She explains why she supports hijab or niqab bans, because the “choice” to cover up is not really a choice for the majority of women who veil; it is imposed on them by their society or community.

Chapter 3, “One Hand Against Women,” deals with sexual harassment (experienced by 99.3% of Egyptian women and girls, according to a 2013 U.N. Report–this removed any desire I ever had to visit Egypt), ranging from verbal assaults and groping to state-sanctioned rape in the guise of “virginity examinations” and gang-rapes during Arab Spring demonstrations in full view of the police. Again, Eltahawy includes her personal experience as well as reporting what has happened to other women in various countries.

Chapter 4, “The God of Virginity,” is focused on the “purity culture” of the Middle East and how many girls and women are made to suffer female genital mutilation (FGM) to achieve it. Chapter 5, “Home,” is about domestic abuse of wives and daughters, as well as the legal inequality found in most Middle Eastern countries. It’s about survivors of rape who are forced to marry their rapists to uphold their family’s honor and the forced marriages of little girls to grown men.

“Roads through the Desert” is about how many women in the region are prevented from playing sports, driving, and working outside the home. The final chapter, “Speak for Yourself,” is about sexuality: how it is repressed and getting in touch with it despite the overwhelming pressure not to. It includes some surprising examples of sexually explicit poetry written by Arab women many hundreds of years ago. And again, Eltahawy reveals her own personal journey, choosing to go public about very private matters because she is reaching out to other young women as a role model, showing them a way forward.

Mona Eltahawy is angry; her anger spills out of the pages of this book and infects the reader. I was sickened and horrified by what she has written. I hope that her words will reach many people around the world and that we will support Middle Eastern girls and women in their quest for freedoms–the freedom from sexist laws and domestic abuse and the freedom to pursue their dreams.

Posted in Non-fiction | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Mill River Recluse

Posted by nliakos on March 14, 2016

by Darcie Chan (Ballantine Books 2013; originally published in 2011 as an e-book. ISBN 978-0-553-39187-9; e-book ISBN 978-0-615-52377-4)

This is a fairly simple story set in rural Vermont in the 1940s and the present day. Severe social anxiety disorder has imprisoned Mary McAllister (the eponymous recluse) in her marble home overlooking her hometown of Mill River, Vermont. The parish priest is her only friend; the majority of the townspeople have never laid eyes on her. Some of them have demonized her, not realizing that she is the secret benefactor of their community.

Most of the characters are simply sketched, either good or evil. There are few surprises; the author spells everything out, either directly or with obvious hints. I was taken unawares by only one plot twist (which I found kind of hard to believe). The reader does not have to work hard to connect the dots here.

There is a message, and it is that people with disabilities are people first. We should relate to them as individuals, with compassion for their humanity. That’s a worthy message.

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

Microbe Hunters

Posted by nliakos on March 12, 2016

by Paul de Kruif (Blue Ribbon Books; © 1926 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.)

Did you look at the pub date? That’s right–1926. During the Great Depression; between the World Wars. There was no airline industry. There was no Internet. There was no Big Pharma. I don’t know if the book belonged to my mother (born in 1914) or my father (born in 1905–so more likely, I guess). I remember reading some of it, but not how old I was when I did. . . . perhaps 13 or 14? I remember reading about Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the microscope in the 18th century and was the very first human to see the microbial world, and Louis Pasteur, and Robert Koch. Lightly drawn checks on the Contents page indicate that I may also have read about Lazzaro Spallanzani, who proved that microbes were living things that begot more microbes; Émile Roux and Emil Behring, who made the serum that cured diphtheria; Theobald Smith, who was the first to show that microbial disease could be transmitted by another living thing, a tick; Ronald Ross and Battista Grassi, who discovered how malaria was carried by the mosquito Anopheles claviger; Walter Reed, who sought to prevent or cure yellow fever; and Paul Ehrlich, who invented a way to stain bacteria to make them easier to see. For no reason that I can remember, I apparently skipped the chapters about Élie Metchnikoff, who invented calomel ointment, which cured syphilis; and David Bruce, who solved the mysteries of nagana (or trypanosomiasis), a disease that killed Europeans’ horses and cattle) and sleeping sickness.

This time around, I read everything, and I saw things through a very different lens than I did as an adolescent. Then, I suppose I saw these men as heroes who saved mankind from terrible diseases. They were, and they did, but they also slaughtered untold numbers of innocent animals to achieve their goals (without benefit of any laws requiring humane care of the animals), used unsuspecting human beings in some of their research, made possible the human population explosion that plagues us now, and enabled a few European nations to divide Africa up into colonies, robbing native Africans of their birthright and leading to the destruction of African wildlife.

Of course, I would not want to die of yellow fever, rabies, malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, syphilis, smallpox, or any of the other diseases brought under control by medical science (although as we now know, the microbes are quite capable of evolving along with our so-called cures and vaccines, staying a step ahead of us–I am writing this soon after the terrible Ebola outbreak in West Africa and at the beginning of the frightening Zika epidemic that is spreading quickly through Latin America.). But after reading Jared Diamond, I can appreciate how the European powers’ conquest of Africa was delayed by trypanosomiasis and malaria; finding cures for these diseases and others made that conquest possible. As de Kruif wrote, “Bruce made the first step towards the opening up of Africa.” He saw that as a good thing, but in retrospect, I do not (for either the people or the animals that live there). In order to “open up” the continent, he advocated the extermination of native African wildlife. De Kruif was unsympathetic; of sleeping sickness, he wrote, “It was turning the most generous soil on earth back into an unproductive preserve for giraffes and hyenas.”

Furthermore, de Kruif was writing at a time when Africans could be called “darkies” and their children “pickaninnies,” and he sneered at Jews, the Japanese and the Portuguese, among others. His racist, Eurocentric  attitude is shocking to a modern reader. On the other hand, he was about to actually interview some of his subjects before they died, which seems amazing today. His writing style is peculiar to us–a mix of conversational/slangy and very formal styles. Ninety years can change a lot. However, despite these drawbacks, the book is still available today through Google Books, and from Barnes and Noble and Amazon, which will even deliver it wirelessly to your Kindle. Paul de Kruif would be astonished.

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

Dreams of Joy

Posted by nliakos on March 3, 2016

by Lisa See (Random House, 2011; ISBN 978-1-4000-6712-1)

My daughter Vicki borrowed this sequel to Shanghai Girls from the library for me. She figured I would want to read it, since I had read and enjoyed the other one. She was right! The book continues the story of Pearl Chin, her sister May, and their daughter Joy, who as the story opens in Los Angeles has just discovered that her Aunt May is actually her mother, while her mother Pearl is actually her aunt. Shocked to discover that she has been lied to, guilt-ridden over her role in Pearl’s husband’s suicide, and naively enthusiastic about the Communist takeover of China, Joy runs away to China, to find her biological father and to help build the new society. Pearl follows her there, and the chapters are narrated from either Joy’s or Pearl’s points of view.

In Shanghai, Joy finds her father, the artist Z. G., without any difficulty, and joins him on a trip to a rural village where he is supposed to give art lessons and learn to be politically correct from the peasants. Joy meets a handsome young peasant man to whom she is immediately attracted, makes friends in the village, and thinks she has finally found her place, although there are danger signs that she ignores. The work is hard and the amenities sorely lacking, but at least there is plenty to eat.

Pearl also makes it to Shanghai and finds a place for herself in her parents’ former home, where the family’s cook has become the person in charge of the residents there. She gets a menial job and settles in to wait for Z. G. and Joy to return to Shanghai, which they eventually do. She then sets about trying to re-establish trust between herself and Joy, with an eye toward persuading her to return to Los Angeles–which Joy refuses to do, being committed to building the Communist society. Joy is nothing if not headstrong, and she ends up marrying the handsome villager–much to her immediate regret.  Pearl eventually retreats to Shanghai, leaving Joy to deal with a husband who does not love her, a demanding mother-in-law, a large family, and extreme poverty. But that is nothing compared to what happens when Chairman Mao launches The Great Leap Forward, a four-year (1958-1962) initiative that resulted in a famine which killed many millions of Chinese. It will take all the characters’ intelligence and strength to rescue Joy and her baby girl from starvation and to escape from China. Along the way, Pearl finds love in an unexpected place, Z. G. discovers how to be a father to the child he never knew he had sired, and Joy finally realizes how much she is loved.

An excellent novel! I’d recommend reading Shanghai Girls first.

Posted in Fiction | Leave a Comment »