Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for April, 2016

The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned from a Remarkable Bird

Posted by nliakos on April 13, 2016

by Tom Michell (Ballantine 2015; ISBN 978-1-101-96741-6)

Tom Michell is an Englishman, about the same age as I am. During the 1970s, both of us traveled to a strange continent to live and work–the adventure of a lifetime. Michell has written about his adventure in this endearing account of a young man and his penguin. (Perhaps I should say of a penguin and his young man.) Michell was on holiday in Uruguay during a break from his teaching job outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, when he came upon an oil-soaked Magellan penguin on a beach strewn with the bodies of similarly oil-soaked Magellan penguins, all dead except for this one. Without considering the consequences, he captured the penguin (which turned out to be fiercely aggressive) and took it back to the apartment he was staying in to try to clean it up with dish detergent, shampoo, olive oil, and butter.

One of the most wondrous passages in the book concerns the penguin’s sudden transformation during this cleaning procedure. After the bird drew serious blood from Michell’s finger, he bound its feet together, its wings close to its body, and its beak shut, while he applied and then rinsed off the dish detergent. Michell writes, “Suddenly the exhausted penguin lay still. . . . Within moments of being a terrified, hostile, and resentful animal that was . . . determined to exact revenge on me, . . . it became a docile and cooperative partner in this cleanup operation. The transformation occurred as I washed off the first of the detergent. It was as if the bird had suddenly understood that I was trying to rid it of that disgusting oil rather than commit murder. . . .

Needing to travel back to Argentina the following day, Michell attempts to return the penguin to the sea, but it refuses to leave him, and he ends up trying to smuggle it into Argentina (getting caught and assuring the customs agent that it was an Argentine penguin, not a Uruguayan penguin, so he was just repatriating it). He takes it to the boarding school where he lives and teaches, where the penguin, which he calls Juan Salvado (aka Juan Salvador), is adopted by staff and students alike as a kind of mascot. They all take to visiting the penguin and baring their souls to it as it gazes into their eyes and seems to listen to and understand them perfectly.

Michell’s descriptions of Juan Salvado learning that a dead fish is still food, how to ascend and descend a staircase, and how to swim in a pool, are enchanting.

The reader is also treated to some wonderful descriptions of the places he traveled (without the penguin) and the people he encountered, some Argentine history and culture, and some interesting penguin lore. The book is ably illustrated by Neil Baker; unfortunately, the photographs Michell took of the penguin have been lost.

In the genre of amazing relationships between humans and animals, this book is a standout. It’s interesting, funny, and heart-breaking in turns.

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

2 Memoirs of Abuse: My Lobotomy and A Stolen Life

Posted by nliakos on April 11, 2016

My Lobotomy: A Memoir by Howard Dully and Charles Fleming (Crown 2007; ISBN 978-0-307-38126-2)

A Stolen Life: A Memoir by Jaycee Dugard (Simon & Schuster 2011; ISBN 978-1-4516-2918-7)

I sometimes circumvent my ever-lengthening To Read lists and just cruise the biography shelves at the public library. Dugard and Dully must have been next to each other on the shelf, so I picked them up together. Coincidentally, both describe the abuse suffered by the authors as children, abuse that in both cases lingered on into their adulthood. That is why I have chosen to blog about them together.

Jaycee Dugard is the more famous of the two. She was eleven when she was abducted on her way to school in 1991 and kept prisoner by her deranged abductor, Phillip Garrido, and his wife Nancy for eighteen years, during which she bore two daughters fathered by and delivered by Phillip Garrido. She describes her life living in two sheds and a tent in the Garridos’ back yard, alternating between narrating what happened to her and reflecting on the meaning of what happened, and why she reacted as she did (for example, why she did not try to escape when she had the opportunity). Her reflections are informed by the counseling she has received since her liberation. I was alternately appalled by her descriptions of sexual and psychological abuse and amazed by her refusal to let it fill her with hate. Although she describes herself as meek and compliant by nature, Jaycee Dugard is not a victim. She is a survivor.

As I was reading, I thought of the child brides and young girls sold into sexual slavery in many countries around the world. Like Jaycee Dugard, they are sexual objects for older men who repeatedly rape them. There is usually no escape (other than suicide), because the entire society in which they live assumes that they have no right to choose their sexual partners (or to decline to have any sexual partners). If Jaycee Dugard was lucky in any way, it is that when Phillip Garrido stupidly took his wife, Jaycee, and her two daughters on a visit to his parole officer and Jaycee was finally able to reveal her true identity–she had been forbidden to say or write her name during the 18 years of her captivity–her society and her family welcomed her back with open arms. In a society where girls are forced to marry their rapists to uphold their families’ honor, there is no rescue.

Howard Dully is a survivor of another kind of abuse. After his mother died when he was four, his father married a woman who took an active dislike to him. She withheld affection from him, verbally abused him, punished him frequently, and when he was twelve years old, lobbied hard for the controversial “treatment” championed by Dr. Walter Freeman–a transorbital lobotomy, in which Freeman inserted an icepick behind Howard’s eyeball and then stirred it around in his brain. Perhaps she was hoping that he would die (many did) or be transformed into a vegetable whom she could then institutionalize. Miraculously, Howard survived the lobotomy, changed but still functional. He spent the remainder of his adolescence at home at the mercy of his stepmother, in juvenile detention, in an insane asylum for adults, and in a boarding school for special education. Not surprisingly, he did not acquire the skills he needed to function as an independent adult in these places. He had always been a somewhat difficult child (he speculates that he probably had ADHD), and as a young adult, he continued a life of petty crime and refusal to take responsibility for his actions. He married, fathered a child, and raised a stepson. He abused drugs and alcohol. He separated from his first wife and through her, met another woman who was able to give him the love and support he needed to make something of his life. Despite all that he had been through, Howard Dully is basically a good person, and his second wife Barbara must have recognized that goodness. She encouraged him to return to school, to get a responsible job, and to raise his children responsibly.

Dully always wondered why his parents had given Dr. Freeman permission to perform the lobotomy. When he was in his forties, he realized that the people who might have the answers were getting older, and some, like his stepmother Lou, died, so he began to research Freeman’s career (the man kept voluminous records) and his own story, which eventually led him to Sound Portraits and NPR. In 2005, Dave Isay and Piya Kochhar made a radio documentary about Dully titled My Lobotomy. The book came out two years later.

Howard Dully could easily have titled his story A Stolen Life. His life (at least between the ages of four and fifty) was also stolen from him–by the stepmother who unaccountably despised him, by the father who would not protect him, by the doctor who mutilated his brain, and by the many people he encountered during his years of incarceration and petty crime who might have helped him but didn’t–no less than was Jaycee Dugard’s. Yet today, Dully harbors no hatred and claims that he is finally at peace, having discovered to his satisfaction that he never did anything so bad as to warrant the treatment he received. He and his wife live in San Jose, where he works as a bus driver. A victim of abuse and neglect for most of his childhood and adolescence, Howard Dully, too, is a survivor. His story shows how crucial it is for social workers and others who recognize child abuse to reach out to help its victims. Had the representatives of the state of California acted more responsibly in the case of Howard Dully, his rehabilitation could have taken place that much sooner.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

Trains and Lovers

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2016

by Alexander McCall Smith (Anchor Books 2012; ISBN 978-0-345-80581-2)

The always fertile mind of the author of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series has here braided together the love stories of four individuals traveling on a train from Edinburgh to London together. Two are middle-aged: David, an American, and Kay, an Australian. The other two are young men in their twenties: Andrew, a Scot, and Hugh, an Englishman. Andrew begins the conversation with a comment about a fishing boat to Kay, and they begin to talk; the other two are drawn in to the conversation. Each man recalls his love (for David, a closeted homo (or bi-) sexual, it is a story in his past; Hugh and Andrew are living their stories. Kay recounts the story of how her Scottish father emigrated to Australia and how he met and married her mother.

The book made for pleasant reading on my trip to and from Baltimore by bus and light rail (how relevant!), but it’s kind of lightweight. Easy to read, easy to forget.

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Even After All This Time: A Story of Love, Revolution, and Leaving Iran

Posted by nliakos on April 4, 2016

by Afschineh Latifi (ReganBooks 2005; ISBN 0-06-074533-9)

Afschineh Latifi’s story is both tragic and inspiring. Born into a well-to-do family in Teheran, whose father served in the last Shah’s army, she was ten years old when the Ayatollah Khomeini took over the Iranian government. Her father was suddenly an “enemy of God.” He was arrested, imprisoned, and finally executed. This fact transformed Latifi’s life in many ways. First of all, she adored her father, who was generous and loving with his wife and children. When she was finally able to visit his grave ten years later, she was completely undone by the emotion that it elicited. She was so devastated by his death and by his absence as she was growing up that she was unable to commit herself in marriage to a man whom she loved.

In addition, his death at the hands of the state changed the whole family’s position in their society. Eventually, they were forced to leave Iran, but this was done in stages. First, Afschineh and her older sister Afsaneh were sent to school in Austria and from there went on to the U.S., where they lived with their mother’s brother and were granted refugee status. Their mother and two younger brothers followed about eight years later. Forced to depend on themselves, living in an overcrowded home with relatives who did not really want them to be there, the sisters were forced to grow up quickly. The book describes their schooling, their social isolation, and their eventual independence from their uncle’s family when 18-year-old Afsaneh was granted guardianship of 16-year-old Afschineh. Somehow, they not only survived but flourished in their new country. All four children eventually graduated from college and graduate school and became professionals. What an inspiring story of survival and success!

It’s also very interesting to read what it was like to live through Iran’s revolution in 1979 and the repression that followed it. Like a work of fiction, the book permits us to experience the transformation of this westernized nation into a fundamentalist Islamic state. Though the Latifis are Muslims, the fundamentalist takeover was as shocking to them as it would be to a non-Muslim–incomprehensible, in fact. The father’s stubborn refusal to believe that he would be found guilty of anything led directly to his arrest and execution; they could have left the country, but did not until it was too late.

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

Between the World and Me

Posted by nliakos on April 2, 2016

by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau 2015; ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7)

In this three-part essay addressed to his 15-year-old son Samori, Ta-Nehisi Coates considers the condition of being African American in the modern age. His focus is on the physical vulnerability of blackness in a racist nation: how the American culture of violence, and especially violence against blacks, robs black people of their time and energy (spent trying to stay out of the way) but most of all, of their bodies, which can be taken from them (beaten, raped, killed) by “the people who believe themselves to be white” (and equate this with perfect), whom he dubs “the Dreamers”–but the American Dream, if that is what he means, is built on the dead bodies of black people, the plunder of our history.

The danger which haunts Coates is personified by the fate of his college friend, Prince Jones, who was followed by a plain-clothes Prince Georges County police officer (also African-American) through Washington, D.C., and into Virginia, where the officer fatally shot Jones, in  a case of mistaken identity. Jones was in his early twenties, engaged to be married. The officer was not charged with murder and was allowed to continue working as a police officer. In this era of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, African-American boys and men killed ostensibly because their killers felt threatened–in this era of Black Lives Matter, Coates details for us all what it actually feels like to grow up and live in the toxic atmosphere of American racism. He points out that race is just a fiction, anyway–an excuse to exploit, to kill, to discard. He comes back again and again to the killing of Prince Jones, as if he were trying to process it. Towards the end, he visits Jones’ mother, a doctor, a woman who clawed her way out of poverty to bring up her children in luxury and privilege–only to find that in the end, none of it mattered. The only thing that mattered was the color of their skin.

As a white person reading this book and feeling Coates’ justified rage, I felt chastened. I would have to agree with Toni Morrison’s comment: “This is required reading.”

(P.S. I wish someone would explain to me how Ta-Nehisi came to be pronounced as if it were spelled Ta-Nehasi.)


Posted in Autobiography, Children's and Young Adult, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »