Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for September, 2016

Davita’s Harp

Posted by nliakos on September 30, 2016

by Chaim Potok (Fawcett Crest/Ballantine, 1985; ISBN 0-449-20775-7)

Davita, or Ilana, or Ilana Davita, narrates this coming-of-age novel about a young girl living in New York in the 1930s as Hitler is coming to power in Europe. Her parents, Michael and Anne Chandal, are idealistic Communists who have forsaken their respective religions–his Christianity and her Judaism–and raised their daughter as an atheist and humanist. But living in close proximity to Anne’s Orthodox Jewish relatives has an unexpected effect: Davita feels inexplicably drawn to the music and ritual of her mother’s native faith, and she begins to attend shul and to teach herself Hebrew so that she can follow the service.

The Spanish Civil War is unfolding in Europe, and Michael, a journalist, travels to Spain several times to cover the war. A family friend, writer Jakob Daw, also goes to Spain and then to the United States, where he lives with the Chandals and tells Davita strange stories. Jakob Daw is in fragile health, having been gassed during the First World War. Predictably, Michael Chandal is killed in Spain while covering the horrific destruction of the Basque town of Guernica; later, Jakob Daw is deported and dies in France. With their deaths, Davita has lost the two men she loved the most.

Davita’s mother, like many American Party members, feels betrayed by Stalin’s signing of a non-aggression pact with Hitler. She leaves the Communist Party and sinks into depression, her life’s work suddenly meaningless. Her cousin Ezra Dinn, a devout Jew who has loved her for many years (member of the same community Davita worhsips with), finally persuades her to marry him and brings her slowly back into the faith. Davita attends the community’s yeshiva (school) along with Ezra’s son David, whom Davita has befriended. Both David and Davita are excellent students. One year, David is awarded the prestigious Talmud prize, and the following year, Davita is striving to win the equally prestigious Akiva Prize. However, despite the fact that she has the highest grades in her class, the prize is awarded to a boy–because to give it to a girl, to admit that a girl was the best student in a class that included boys would discredit the entire yeshiva: “What sort of future students of Torah would come out of a class where the best student was a girl? And how could a high academy of Torah learning accept any boy from such a class?” Davita has had a liberal upbringing, and she is devastated to realize that she has smacked into an immovable wall of tradition. Despite her parents’ protests, she has to settle for two lesser prizes instead of the coveted Akiva Prize. Afterwards, she broods, “I lay very still and felt the anger rising within me. How sweet it could have been! How proud I could have made my family! And it was mine, really mine. And it had been stolen from me for a reason I could not control: I was a girl. What else would they steal from me in the coming years? I would accomplish something, and they would tell me I couldn’t have it because I was a girl. I had made this community my home, and now I felt betrayed by it. . . . for the first time I began to understand how a single event could change a person’s life. . . .”

From this novel, I heard for the first time about the Centralia Massacre and the lynching of I.W.W. member Wesley Everest. I learned gruesome details about the Fascists’ destruction of Guernica. I read about the American Communist movement of the thirties. I liked Davita, the narrator and protagonist, and admired her sharp wit and her stubborn streak (all the while wondering at her innate feminism, which seemed unusual both for the time and for her young age). I enjoyed the other characters: Anne/Channah, Michael, Michael’s sister Sarah (who shows up from time to time to use her nursing skills to help the various characters), Jakob Daw, Ezra and David Dinn, and the Helfmans. Although I found the story somewhat less compelling than that of Reuven Malter* and Danny Saunders (in The Chosen and The Promise), the more I read, the more engaged in the story I became. Chaim Potok can really tell a good story, skillfully evoking a time his reader has not experienced.

*I appreciated Reuven’s cameo appearance as a student in Davita’s class competing for the Akiva prize!

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Persepolis

Posted by nliakos on September 25, 2016

by Marjane Satrapi (L’Association, Collection Ciboulette, combined edition published in 2007; ISBN 978-2844142405 [4 volumes originally published separately between 2000 and 2003])

Published in English in 2007 by Pantheon; ISBN 9780375714832.

I’ve seen this called a graphic novel, but it isn’t a novel. It’s a graphic autobiography, written by an Iranian woman in her twenties, telling the story of her life in pre- and  post-revolutionary Iran and also in Vienna, where her parents sent her to study for four years in high school because they were afraid her penchant for getting into trouble and her independent streak would end badly for her.

I read it in the original French, which was not difficult; the style is conversational but without too much slang. Perhaps the simple black and white illustrations (also by Satrapi, who studied art at university in Tehran) provided enough context to make guessing the meaning of the occasional unfamiliar word or expression easier.

Satrapi does not mince words, nor does she try to make herself look good. She includes her failed romances, unkindnesses, rudeness, and many cases of poor judgment on her part. Volume 3, which recounts the story of her wild years in Vienna, made me cringe in horror. She falls in with a wild crowd, smokes, drinks, takes drugs, sleeps around, lives on the streets and ends up in a hospital (without which, I think she would have died). Maybe not all that surprising for a rebellious teenage girl living on her own in a foreign country far from her parents, but scary. Only the Iran-Iraq war could have made her parents think she would be better off in Austria without supervision.

After Vienna, she returns to Tehran, depressed, and not surprisingly, has difficulty re-integrating into her native culture, which has been rendered schizophrenic by the Islamic revolution. She even tries to end her life, but her failed suicide attempt convinces her that she is meant to go on living. She finds a boyfriend, whom she eventually marries (but later divorces), enrolls at university, and reads widely. Eventually, she decides to leave Iran to live in France, realizing that she will never be able to control herself enough to stay out of trouble in Iran.

For those readers who have no idea about Iranian culture or history, this book is an excellent introduction as well as a great story. I know many Iranians; they were the first large group of students I had when I starting teaching ESL in the Washington area in 1974. I’ve also read a fair amount about Persian culture and know a little (but not much) about Persian history, so there was a lot that was not new to me in the book. However, I learned many new things–for example, that Reza Shah (father of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah I remember) was an illiterate army officer before the British used him to overthrow the Qajar emperor (from whom Marjane Satrapi is descended).

The thing that surprised me the most is that Satrapi’s parents and other relatives were not arrested following the publication of the book(s)! She goes into great detail about their politics.

Persepolis is really a coming-of-age story (Bildungsroman). It’s too bad Marjane had to suffer so much on the way to adulthood, and it must have taken enormous courage for her to write and draw her story for public consumption. Since she had the courage to write it, we should have the courage to read it, even though parts of it are difficult.

By the way, Persepolis was made into an animated film  in 2007, with Satrapi as co-director with Vincent Paronnaud. You can watch a trailer here. I think the story would be even more appealing with animation. I am not a fan of graphic books; I find the images rather distracting and not necessary. But I think I will enjoy the film.

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I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced

Posted by nliakos on September 13, 2016

by Nujood Ali, with Delphine Minoui; translated by Linda Coverdale (Broadway Paperbacks, 2010; ISBN 978-0-307-58967-5)

Nujood Ali was a child of 9 or 10 (she does not know her birthdate) in 2008, living in poverty in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Unable to feed his family, her underemployed, khat-chewing father arranged for her to marry a man from their ancestral village.  He claimed that the man (who was about 30 years old) had pledged “not to touch” her until a year after she got her period. This promise was quickly forgotten, and Nujood was brutally raped the night they arrived at her husband’s family home in the village, which was far from Sana’a and almost completely inaccessible. That night, and the next night, and the next. . . . despite her pleas and screams, despite her attempts to run away and hide from the man she began to call “the monster.” She was in constant pain and felt “dirty inside”. She thought of nothing but how to escape this horrible life and return to her family and her school.

Nujood got her chance on a rare visit to her family in Sana’a. She ran away and went to the courthouse, where she somehow managed to be seen by a sympathetic judge by the name of Abdo. Judge Abdo was appalled when he realized that this little pre-pubescent girl was married and suffering the worst kind of abuse. At that time in Yemen, girls could not legally marry before the age of fifteen; but according to the book, in rural Yemen, this law was frequently broken. Nujood’s case was not at all unusual. What was unusual is that Nujood refused to submit to her fate. She managed to escape; she found her way to the court (taking unfamiliar buses and a taxi), she insisted on seeing a judge, and she persisted until the divorce was granted. Following her historic divorce, the age of marriage in yemen was raised, other Yemeni girls found the courage to seek divorces from older and abusive husbands, and even an eight-year-old Saudi girl was granted a divorce. Nujood Ali is a role model and a hero for many women and girls. For herself, Nujood simply wanted to return to her family and to go back to school, where she was resumed her third-grade studies, but now with a specific career goal in mind: to become a lawyer like Shada Nasser, who represented her in court, helping other girls and women to win their rights. Fortunately, the income from this book has enabled her family to have a somewhat better life; at least, the children are no longer reduced to begging on the street.

Young adults and English language learners should be able to understand the fairly simple style and vocabulary in the book, and they will be inspired by the simple courage of this young child who refused to deny her humanity in order to follow the customs of her culture.

 

Posted in Autobiography, Children's and Young Adult, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Posted by nliakos on September 12, 2016

by Benjamin Franklin (Dover Thrift Editions, copyright 1996, ISBN 978-0-486-29073-7; originally published posthumously by J. P Lippincott, 1868)

I don’t remember having read Franklin’s Autobiography before, but it should be on all Americans’ required reading list. I bought my Dover Thrift Edition for a whopping $2 at the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Philadelphia earlier this summer (B&N and Amazon both list it at $3.60.). It has 136 pages of small, closely set type, and lacks the annotations that would have been helpful in establishing and explaining the context for the people and events described by Franklin, but even lacking these, it is fascinating reading and appeals even to a modern reader who has forgotten much (and never knew a lot to begin with).

The Autobiography began as a letter written to Franklin’s son with the aim of explaining how Franklin’s own success in life was achieved, in the hope that his descendants might “find some of [the ways he achieved success] suitable to their own situations, and therefore fit to be imitated.”  He describes his early life, how he became a printer, his escape from Boston to Philadelphia at the tender age of seventeen, and his rise to prominence in the colony of Pennsylvania. He does not omit behavior of which he was not proud; for example, he writes how when he went to England, he never wrote to his girlfriend, Miss Deborah Read; believing he had forgotten her (as he probably had), she married someone else, with whom she was unhappy. Later, after that marriage ended, she and Franklin became close again, and he married her in 1730. He wrote, “We throve together, and have ever mutually endeavor’d to make each other happy. Thus I corrected that great erratum as well as I could.” Later in life, Franklin, by then a kind of elder statesman, was persuaded to finish and update the autobiography. He then added Parts Three and Four, but was unable to finish them before he died, so the Revolutionary War and its aftermath are unfortunately not included.

It is astonishing to think of Franklin’s many achievements: Philadelphia’s fire department, public library, hospital, the academy that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society… He published a newspaper (the Pennsylvania Gazette) and almanac, printed paper money for the colony, served in the colony’s militia and supplied the British army with provisions during the French and Indian War, was Pennsylvania’s ambassador to England, transformed the American postal system, invented the Franklin stove, bifocals, counterfeit-proof paper money, and more…. The list goes on and on (not all of it included in the Autobiography, which he never managed to finish; see this timeline for a complete list). I was reminded of Ayla, the character in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series, who domesticated the first dog and horse, invented surgical stitches and a host of other things, and almost single-handedly created human civilization. Only Franklin was a real person; he actually did all those things.

Franklin considered himself an honest, hard-working man of integrity who never tried to profit from his position of influence–which is why, he claims, he was able to wield so much influence; people respected him and trusted his judgment. He worked hard at being a virtuous person. He avoided alcohol, meat, gambling and other vices. If you read his Autobiography, you will wish you could have met this extraordinary man.

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

About Alice

Posted by nliakos on September 8, 2016

by Calvin Trillin (Random House 2006; ISBN 978-1-4000-6615-5)

This is the first book I’ve read by Calvin Trillin; by 2006, he had written 24 of them, of which a number feature his wife, Alice. This tiny volume, only 78 pages long, is a tribute to Alice, who died in 2001, a victim of radiation therapy, which saved her from lung cancer in 1976 and permitted her to see her daughters grow up and get married, but ultimately destroyed her heart.  Alice was a beautiful person, inside and out, and Trillin’s tribute to her is very moving. It makes me want to read more of Trillin’s work, as well as Alice’s article, “Of Dragons and Garden Peas”, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1981 and is still a resource in some medical school courses.

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The Secret Garden

Posted by nliakos on September 6, 2016

by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Harper Trophy; originally published in 1911)

Vicki and I recently watched two movie versions of The Secret Garden; one from 1987, and the other from 1993. This made me curious as to which one was more faithful to the book, so I reread it.  I very much enjoyed revisiting the story of spoiled Mary Lennox, her equally-if-not-more-spoiled cousin Colin Craven, and the strange Dickon Sowerby, who can communicate with wild animals and seems to know everything about animals, gardening, and human nature.

When Mary is orphaned in a cholera epidemic in India, she is sent to live with her eccentric uncle Archibald Craven at Misselthwaite Manor, in Yorkshire. Mr. Craven is still grieving the death of his wife ten years before, is rarely at home, and does not wish to see Mary or anyone else even when he is there.

Mary is an obnoxious child who has been indulged, but never loved. When she follows the sound of crying to her hidden cousin’s room, she meets her match, and so does he. Mary is the first person to refuse to kowtow to Colin, and they become fast friends. Mary finds a way into the locked garden where Colin’s mother had the accident ten years previous that resulted in her death; Dickon helps the two younger children to restore the garden to its former beauty, and Colin finds a reason to live.

It’s a lovely story about the redemption of two lost souls by the eponymous garden. On the negative side is the implication that the climate in India can make people sickly, lazy, and stupid, whereas the climate in England restores them to good health and renders them energetic and clever.

I always wonder why film directors make gratuitous changes in the details (I understand about the changes they have to make to bring a story to the screen.). For example, in the book, Mary’s father was Mrs. Craven’s brother, but in the 1993 film, Mary’s mother was Mrs. Craven’s twin sister, and in the 1987 film, Mary’s father was Archibald Craven’s friend–they weren’t even related. Why not stick to the “facts” as written in cases such as this? Overall, the 1993 film is truer to the book; the 1987 film kills off Dickon in World War I and has Mary and Colin fall in love when they grow up!

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction | Leave a Comment »