Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for January, 2019

Gone Away Lake

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2019

by Elizabeth Enright (Harcourt 1957)

This is a simple story of some children who discover an abandoned community near their vacation home. Only two elderly siblings live there, but they are delighted with the children and they all become friends. At first, they keep it a secret, but soon the secret becomes impossible to keep. Nothing particularly exciting or spooky happens. It’s nice that the children and the old folks befriend one another. I was underwhelmed.

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

The Signature of All Things

Posted by nliakos on January 29, 2019

by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is the first of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novels that I have read, although I read and enjoyed both Eat, Pray, Love and CommittedThe story of Alma Whittaker consumed me for days; I loved it.  The story takes us from Alma’s birth in 1800s Philadelphia to self-made tycoon Henry Whittaker and his dour, no-nonsense Dutch wife, Beatrix (with a long detour to describe Henry’s childhood in England, his travels with Captain Cook, and his rise to wealth in the New World).

Alma is not a pretty girl, but she is exceptionally intelligent and blessed with a wonderful memory and a gift for taxonomy. She receives an excellent education and is encouraged to pursue her interest in botany. As she grows older, she becomes an indispensable part of the family business (botanicals, pharmaceuticals, etc.), but she is not lucky in love. She falls in love first with her friend and publisher, George Hawkes, but he marries her silly friend Retta. Then she falls in love again with botanical painter Ambrose Pike, who comes to stay and work at White Acre, the Whittakers’ sumptuous estate in Philadelphia. It seems as though Ambrose returns Alma’s affection, but not in the way she had hoped. With Ambrose banished to Tahiti, Alma struggles with grief and depression at White Acre, as her parents grow older and die, leaving everything to her. But her entire life is called into question by a family servant, Hanneke, who forces Alma to realize the sacrifices that were made for her by others. Alma decides to leave White Acre behind and to strike out on her own for Tahiti, leaving the estate and the business interests to her sister, to try to find the explanation for Ambrose’s behavior.

Tahiti is completely life-changing for Alma, who had never traveled farther than Trenton in her entire life. She learns there to let go of things and to relate to people in entirely new ways. She is about to give up her quest for answers when the person who can tell her what she needs to know suddenly appears before her. She then travels to Amsterdam, to her mother’s people. On the long voyage home, accompanied only by a mangy Tahitian stray dog, Alma begins to write down her theory of competitive alteration, but she is not entirely satisfied with it and is therefore reluctant to publish it. It is several years later that she hears about, and then reads, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. She realizes that she has lost her opportunity to publish her groundbreaking theory because she hesitated for so long. She feels a special kinship with Alfred Russel Wallace, who likewise came up independently with the idea that natural selection, as Darwin called it, is responsible for species differentiation.

Alma Whittaker is a memorable character, a woman of great intelligence, integrity, and passion, with the courage to confront her life, with its privileges and challenges, head on. By the end of the novel, I both admired and loved Alma. Other characters–Alma’s parents, her sister Prudence, Ambrose Pike, the Reverend Welles and his adopted son Tomorrow Morning, Alma’s uncle Dees van Devender, and others, come alive as one reads. In addition, reading this book is like reading a history of science in the 19th century. Fabulous.

My favorite chapter is the seventh, which describes how 16-year-old Alma discovers how to pleasure herself from a book in the White Acre library. The first time she locks herself in a closet to experiment is the day George Hawkes, the botanical publisher, and the insufferable Professor Peck are dinner guests. During the dinner, Alma finds it impossible to concentrate on the conversation, and Prudence joins it for the very first time, arguing coolly with the opinionated professor on the subject of racism. It is wonderfully funny.

A few favorite quotes:

On learning of Ambrose Pike’s death: The news hit Alma with all the force of an ax head striking granite: it clanged in her ears, shuddered her bones, and struck sparks before her eyes. It knocked a wedge of something out of her–a wedge of something terribly important–and that wedge was sent spinning into the air, never to be found again. If she had not been sitting, she would have fallen down. As it was, she collapsed forward onto her father’s desk, pressed her face against the Reverend F. P. Welles’s most kind and thoughtful letter, and wept like to pull down every cloud from the vaults of heaven.

On nearly drowning while in Tahiti: Then–in the seconds that remained before it would have been too late to reverse course at all–Alma suddenly knew something. She knew it with every scrap of her being, and it was not a negotiable bit of information: she knew that she, the daughter of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, had not been put on this earth to drown in five feet of water. She also knew this: if she had to kill somebody in order to save her own life,she would do so unhesitatingly. Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature–the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation–and it was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.

On composing her theory of competitive alteration: To tell this story–the story of species transmutation, as demonstrable through the gradual metastasis of mosses–Alma did not need notes, or access to the old library at White Acre, or her herbarium. She needed none of this, for a vast comprehension of moss taxonomy already existed within her head, filling every corner of her cranium with well-remembered facts and details. She also had at her fingertips (or, rather, at her mind’s fingertips) all the ideas that had already been written over the last century on the subject of species metamorphosis and geological evolution. Her mind was like a terrific repository of endless shelves, stacked with untold thousands of books and boxes, organized into infinite, alphabetized particulars. She did not need a library. She was a library.

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An Appetite for Violets

Posted by nliakos on January 17, 2019

by Martine Bailey (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2014)

This is a really fun read, full of interesting historical tidbits from the setting (England, France, and Italy in the 1770s). The narrator/main character is Biddy Leigh, under-cook at Mawton Hall, near the Welsh border. Biddy (short for Obedience) is a delightful character, bright, hardworking, loyal and passionate. The reader cannot help but like her and be drawn in to her story–and what a story!

After the master of Mawton, Sir Geoffrey, marries Lady Carinna Tyrone, who is Biddy’s age (early twenties) and at least 40 years younger than her husband, Biddy’s life is upended. Her intended marriage to the local heart-throb, Jem, must be postponed while she travels with Lady Carinna; Carinna’s snobbish and unfriendly lady’s maid Jesmire; her footman, the Batavian slave Mr Loveday; and Sir Geoffrey’s steward, Mr Pars to London, Paris, and finally Tuscany to Villa Ombrosa, Carinna’s uncle’s estate. Biddy quickly makes friends with Mr Loveday, but she mistrusts and/or dislikes her remaining traveling companions, although she feels somewhat sorry for the sickly Carinna and promises to help her out of a difficult situation. Helping Carinna involves impersonating her to the lecherous Count Carlo, which leads Biddy to Carlo’s cook, Renzo Cellini. Renzo and Biddy, both lovers of good food and cooking, have much in common, but Biddy is afraid to tell Renzo who and what she really is. . .  until she has no choice.

Each chapter includes a recipe, and I was fascinated and sometimes repelled by the dishes described, like Viperine wine (To make a potent brew to prolong life and promote vitality drown several vipers in your wine and drink as you require) and Manus Christi (First take your sugar clarified and melt it in water of roses. Seethe these two till the water be consumed and the sugar hard, put in four grains of crushed pearls and precious stones, made in fine powder, then lay it in cakes on a marble stone anointed with oil of roses and lay on your gold.)

In addition to Biddy’s chapters (supposedly from a journal she kept in an old book of recipes given to her before she left Mawton), there are third person chapters from the perspective of Mr Loveday, letters from Mr Pars to his brother, and one extraordinary chapter (the first) about Carinna’s brother’s fruitless search for his sister in Villa Ombrosa, reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s creepy wedding banquet in Great Expectations.  There are many unexpected twists and turns to the story, but everything gets sorted out in the end. I loved it.


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Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape

Posted by nliakos on January 14, 2019

by Emma Gingerich (Progressive Rising Phoenix Press, 2015)

I was watching random online videos the day before yesterday, and I came upon this Megyn Kelly interview of Emma Gingerich, who was raised in an ultra-conservative Swartzentruber Amish community in Ohio and Missouri but left the community at the age of eighteen. Gingerich had written a book about her experiences, and the e-book cost only $4.49! So I bought it and started reading immediately (what I love about e-books–the ultimate impulse buy!). It’s very short, only 132 pages, and not particularly well-written; but one can make allowances for this courageous young woman who never felt like she belonged in her family or her community, and who risked everything for the freedom to drive, to go to college, to listen to music, to think for herself and to make her own decisions about dating and marriage. After all, she never had to speak or write much English until she left her Amish life behind. She had to enroll in English classes like any international student. Of course, she had to get her GED before she could fulfill her college dream; Amish schools go only until the eighth grade. She had to get a job to support herself. She had to learn how to do everything, from shaving her legs to driving a car to being a student to applying for financial aid to saying no to people who asked her for money, and much much more.

She was raped but overcame her trauma and shame to go to the police and pressed charges against her rapist, which resulted in his incarceration and later deportation, though when it happened, she writes, “I did not even know what it was called. I did not know anything about sex, which made the horrific experience even more difficult to explain to anyone, even if I had wanted to.”

In the first part of the book, Gingerich describes her life in the Amish community, where “dating” consists of chastely sharing one’s bed with a young man; this is tolerated by the parents, although they do not tolerate their unmarried daughters engaging in conversation with young men. She describes the chores she had to do, the clothing she had to wear, the pranks she pulled, the trouble she was always getting into because she would not follow the strict rules of the community, and her large family, who never really communicated with one another, let alone showed one another love.

The last few chapters focus on Gingerich’s escape, aided by acquaintances who took her in and helped her with the immediate transition (a roof over her head, getting new clothes, learning about deodorant, etc.). Soon she relocated to southern Texas, where she focused on learning English and getting an education: first the GED, then a community college degree, then a Bachelor’s (followed by a Master’s, which was in progress when the book came out). In these chapters, Gingerich also tells about her relationship with her family after she left, which surprisingly (to me) was never cut off entirely. She visited them in Missouri several times, including attending her brother’s wedding. I would have thought visiting would be discouraged, and indeed it wasn’t easy, but it did happen, and her parents seem never to have given up hope that she would return to the fold–something Gingerich never wanted to do for a minute, despite all the challenges of life “outside”.


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

The Japanese Lover

Posted by nliakos on January 5, 2019

by Isabel Allende (Atria 2015)

I went to the library the other day and picked out three novels off my to-read list–really unusual for me. I needed to take a break from all the seriousness of The Color of Law and similar books. It’s interesting how no matter how awful truth is, it doesn’t make me cry, but I’m a sucker for tear-jerker fiction.

The Japanese Lover is about passion, friendship, racism, injustice, trauma and its lingering effects, Japanese internment camps during World War Two, sex trafficking and internet child pornography, homosexuality and AIDS, aging and death. Deep stuff. Alma Belasco, saved by her doomed parents who sent her out of Poland ahead of the Nazis, has two loves in her life: one, Ichimei Fukuda, is the son of her aunt and uncle’s gardener, while the other, Nathaniel Belasco, is her cousin. Her feelings for them are strong and deep, but very different. Irina Bazili, a young Moldovan fleeing an abusive past, comes to work in the nursing home where Alma has gone to live, to the dismay of her wealthy family. Alma’s devoted grandson Seth is immediately attracted to Irina, who holds him at arm’s length. These characters and others have their own chapters as Allende weaves together their individual stories into a tapestry that spans almost a century. For example, she follows the Fukuda family to a hastily converted race track where thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans and immigrants where held until the Topaz internment camp opened in the Nevada desert, where they spent the remainder of the war, having lost everything they had worked for in this most shameful episode in our history. Allende brings this history to life and makes us care about each character, even the minor ones.


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