Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for March, 2018

Follow My Leader

Posted by nliakos on March 21, 2018

by James B. Garfield (illustrated by Robert Greiner; Viking Press 1957)

This novel about a young boy who must learn to cope with blindness after a tragic accident was one of my favorite books when I was a child, and I have actually re-read it many times. It can still bring a chuckle to my lips and tears to my eyes. Eleven-year-old Jimmy Carter loses his sight when his friend Mike inadvertently tosses a lit firecracker in his direction. The book follows Jimmy’s progress as he learns to use a white cane, read and write using Braille, and finally gets a guide dog, whom he names Leader. Almost half of the book describes the training Jimmy does at the guide dog school, both before and after he gets the dog. Jimmy learns a lot from his fellow students as well as from the school staff about living as independently as possible. But possibly the most important lesson he learns is from his roommate, 28-year-old Mack. Mack helps Jimmy to realize that hating Mike is useless and toxic, and when he returns home, in addition to going back to school, getting an after-school job (a newspaper corner), and rejoining his Boy Scout troop, he finds a way to forgive his friend.

Along the way, Jimmy’s widowed mother, his younger sister Carolyn, his best friends Chuck and Art, and others, learn valuable lessons about how to act (and how not to act) around a blind person, and by extension, around anyone with a disability. I think this book may have been the first one I ever read which helped me to vicariously experience the life of a person living with a disability. Despite the tremendous changes we have gone through as a culture since the 1950s, I think children today can still benefit from reading Jimmy’s story.

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Posted in Children's and Young Adult | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

On My Own

Posted by nliakos on March 21, 2018

by Diane Rehm (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)

On My Own is a brutally honest look at a loving marriage that included some real cruelty as well as deep friendship and mutual caring, and its aftermath–the first year following the death of one of the partners. Diane Rehm is well known to millions for her thought-provoking nationally syndicated eponymous radio show, which originated right here at American University in the District of Columbia. Diane’s fans know her as a self-educated woman who daily probed her interviewees’ ideas and opinions in her unmistakable voice, speaking slowly and articulating every syllable (I used to recommend her show to my ESL students looking for accessible listening practice). She was well-read (I believe she always read a book completely before interviewing its author) and very insightful in her questions and comments. You couldn’t shake her; she always remained calm, no matter what the topic.

Her husband, John Rehm, died in 2014 of Parkinson’s disease. When it became too disabling, he decided it was time to end his life. His death was traumatic for him and his family because the law prevented his doctor from assisting him to die, and he was forced to starve himself to death over a period of two weeks. Diane Rehm spends several chapters of the book explaining her feelings about this, and the reasons why she has chosen to become a spokesperson for Compassion & Choices, an organization dedicated to patients’ rights, including the right to aid in dying when appropriate.

Other chapters consider being alone for the first time; coping with grief;  thinking about her future without her husband; sleeping in the center of the bed; communicating with her dead husband (several chapters are actually letters written to him after he died); her children and grandchildren; living through holidays; how other people she is close to have dealt with loss; and other topics. The book is very loosely chronologically organized up through the first anniversary of John’s death: an introspective journey through that first year of widowhood. I was amazed at how honest Diane was about her deepest feelings, even those she was not proud of, even when it meant admitting truths about her marriage she might have preferred to keep private. It could be wrenching to read, but it was also inspirational in its honesty and courage. I am grateful to her for sharing, and wish her the very best.

I also recommend Finding My Voice, Diane’s earlier memoir of her life as a radio host. I must have read it before I started this blog in 2006. And after she retired from WAMU-FM, she launched a podcast, “On My Mind,” which you can subscribe to here. I must confess I haven’t listened to it yet because I have limited time to listen to podcasts and limited space for them to stack up on my phone! But I want to, and I will. Whatever Diane Rehm cooks up is bound to be interesting to me.

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

Beethoven

Posted by nliakos on March 17, 2018

by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books 1977)

I’ve been wanting to read a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven for a long time; a friend lent me this one. Maynard Solomon divides the great composer’s life into four stages: his childhood and adolescence in Bonn; his early years in Vienna; his “heroic” period in Vienna, including the Napoleanic wars and his romance with Antonie Brentano, the “Immortal Beloved”; and the end of his life, post-Immortal Beloved.

Ludwig/Louis van Beethoven never had a real childhood. He was cruelly abused by his alcoholic father when he was very young; by the time he entered adolescence, he was the main breadwinner for the family and responsible for his two younger brothers.

In Vienna, where he went to study under Haydn, Beethoven was known to be eccentric, devoid of social skills, and lacking in normal manners, but his virtuosity at the pianoforte and later his skill as a composer enabled  people to overlook his many faults, and he became famous among musicians and the music-loving public. (This is not to say that everything he composed was marked by genius; he was not above appealing to the common concert-goer.) He seems to have been incapable of forming and maintaining a normal love relationship with a woman. He kept falling for unavailable women; Antonie Brantano, although she did love him in return, was married. Ending the affair forced Beethoven to recognize that he was never going to marry. Perhaps this is why he became so obsessed with wresting his nephew Karl from his mother’s care and acting as his parent (sadly, an abusive one; this was all he knew). It would be the closest he got to actual fatherhood.

The book is very detailed, meticulously researched and footnoted. However, Solomon tends to attribute emotions and motivations to Beethoven (and others) as if they were facts, rather than speculation. In some instances, he bases these pronouncements on the theories of Sigmund Freud, who may have been the God of psychoanalysis in the 1970s but has been largely discredited in the 21st century, making parts of the book seem dated (and less convincing that they probably were back when it was published). The dry, academic tone makes it slow going. I found The Teaching Company’s Great Masters: Beethoven–His Life and Music to be much more accessible and memorable. In fact, some of what I have said here may actually have come from this set of eight lectures taught by Prof. Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Greenberg refers often to the Solomon biography, and he credits him with being the first person to conclusively show that Antonie Brentano was the only woman who could have been the Immortal Beloved. But Greenberg takes the same material and presents it in a much more interesting way. Of course, it’s very helpful when one has the chance to listen to excerpts from the music being discussed, which a book cannot provide. Instead, Solomon finishes each of his four sections with a chapter titled “The Music”, in which he describes, analyzes, and gives the historical significance of the music Beethoven produced during that period. I found these chapters deadly boring. for the most part. I am not familiar with most of Beethoven’s oeuvre, and even when I know a piece well, I find it impossible to make sense of or appreciate a historical or musical analysis of it. I would much rather just listen to it. I don’t mind being told about the music (along with hearing it), but just reading about it is deadly. How glad I am that I did not major in music! I would have been forced to read stuff like that, and worse, write stuff like that.

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