Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

I Am No One

Posted by nliakos on June 28, 2017

by Patrick Flanery (Tim Duggan Books 2016)

I have never read a novel quite like this one. It is written in the first person; the narrator, Professor of 20th century German history Jeremy O’Keefe, is ostensibly telling the story of how he got to now (in longhand), including his belief that he is the object of (probably U.S.) surveillance (or is he losing his mind, as his daughter and son-in-law seem to think?). Someone (is it the young man he keeps bumping into, Michael Ramsey, who claims to have been his student more than a decade before, but whom he cannot remember?) has been sending him boxes of documents about himself: his web browsing history, past emails, bank records, etc. Why? Is it some kind of psychological torture, or is someone trying to warn him that he is under surveillance? He suspects that his affair with a former student during a ten-year period when he taught at Oxford University in England, which resulted in a child, is the reason he is being watched: his lover’s brother has ties to the Islamic State, and money he is sending her for his son’s support could be ending up in the hands of the brother (and the terrorist organization). But he insists that he is no one of interest to the government; he is only trying to do the right thing by the child he fathered, something he is both ashamed of and thrilled by. The specter of madness pursues him throughout the novel: is the man who is watching his apartment Michael Ramsey or someone else? Did he cancel that appointment with his student and then forget he had canceled it, or did someone else somehow send the email canceling the appointment from his account? How can he get his daughter and her husband (whom he does not trust) to believe his version of the strange events that keep happening to him?  Does Michael Ramsey wish him well or ill? The reader is kept in suspense, along with Jeremy himself, right up to the final pages of the novel. In fact, the ending was somewhat of a letdown for this reader (but I won’t spoil the story any more than I already have by revealing how it ends).

Flanery’s writing is elegant and skillful, but he has some real doozies of long sentences, like this one on pgs. 120-121: What is crazy is to imagine we are living private lives, or that a private life is a possibility any longer, and this is not just true for those of us who are living out our sentence in the developed world, but anyone anywhere, except perhaps those hidden underground, for the satellites we have launched into space and the aircraft, manned and unmanned, patrolling the air above the earth, gaze down upon us, producing finely detailed images of all our lives, watching us, or perhaps you could say we are merely watching ourselves, or at least the governments we allow to remain in power are watching us on our own behalf, as well as the corporations who do so only for their own behalf, even as they insist on the public service they claim to provide, and which we use, often for free, spending nothing to look at satellite images of our neighbors’ own backyards and roof terraces or street views of their front windows and doors, trading this free access to all knowledge of the world for the recording by such corporations of the habits of our activity and making ourselves susceptible not only to the collecting of this data and its potential monetization, that is to say its sale to other entities collecting their own kinds of data about us, but also to be bombarded with advertising that, however much we may struggle against it, inserts its messages deep into our thoughts, influencing us one way or another, even though I insist I am not receptive to advertisements for fast food establishments where I haven’t set foot since I was in my teens but nonetheless, and despite the fact I no longer eat meat, I look at those burgers and have to struggle against the desire their images produce.

Reading this 301-word sentence made me slightly queasy. I felt as though I were tottering on a tightrope, almost falling off at times as I attempted to follow the logic of the many  (uncounted) clauses. This one sentence contains a paragraph’s worth of thoughts about our loss of privacy and our apparent acceptance of this loss. Copying it down here, I realize that it does somehow hold together logically, describing as it does “the post-Snowden culture of surveillance” (Teddy Wayne, in a blurb on the back cover). I confess that I, too, have traded my privacy for the right to explore the Internet for free. I have justified my willingness to expose myself in emails (knowing that an email is no more private than a postcard) and on social media for the pleasure of feeling connected with friends, family, and others around the world by reassuring myself that no one would be interested in anything I write or post. I have an ordinary, even a boring (to other people anyway), life. As Jeremy O’Keefe puts it: I am no one. Why should anyone bother with surveilling me? This novel forces me to realize that interesting or not, my life is (or could be) an open book to someone with the capacity and the interest in reading it.

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All the Light We Cannot See

Posted by nliakos on June 14, 2017

by Anthony Doerr (Scribner 2014)

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. I practically inhaled it over several days. I was completely caught up in the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, the gifted German boy, set before, during, and after the Second World War. All of the characters, including Marie-Laure’s father and her great-uncle Etienne, who suffered from extreme anxiety or agoraphobia; Madame Manec, who worked for Etienne and cared for Marie-Laure as long as she could; Werner’s sister Jutta, who always knew what was right; Frau Elena, the kind and courageous director of the orphanage where Werner and Jutta grew up; Frank Volkheimer, the giant boy-man from the Hitler Youth School who served with Werner; even Von Rumpel, the German officer desperately seeking the legendary diamond known as the Sea of Flames, which he believes will save him from the cancer that has riddled his body–all of them are memorable and believable.

The chapters, arranged in fourteen sections, are extremely short, some as short as a page, few longer than three. They alternate among the characters, primarily Marie-Laure and Werner, but some of the others as well, from time to time. The time frame lurches back and forth: August 7, 1944; 1934;  November 1939; August 8, 1944; June 1940; back to August 8, 1944; and so on, ending in 1974 and then 2014 as we learn what happened to these characters whom we have bonded with. With Werner and Marie-Laure, we suffer through the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo. Sometimes you have to destroy something to liberate it.

Through it all, the cursed diamond holds the story of all these diverse characters, times, and places together, like a character in and of itself. A terrific read!

 

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The Birds Fall Down

Posted by nliakos on March 8, 2017

by Rebecca West (Viking 1966)

This was one of my mother’s books, many of which I rescued from her house in Hackensack, NJ before we sold it in 1984. It’s also the first Rebecca West I have read. She wrote not only novels (six up to and including this one), but also history, biography, criticism, and short stories.

Actually, I found The Birds Fall Down rather hard to get through. It tells a story of intrigue and betrayal among Russian expatriates and revolutionaries in the early part of the twentieth century, before the Russian Revolution. Eighteen-year-old Laura Rowan, English on her father’s side and aristocratic Russian on her mother’s, goes with her mother to visit her grandparents, Nikolai Nikolaievich and Sofia Andreievna Diakonov, who are living in Paris after Nikolai was framed and exiled by the Tsar. Leaving her mother and her ailing grandmother behind, Laura and Nikolai begin a journey by train to a place called Mures-sur-Mer. On the way, they are joined in their car by a former friend of Nikolai’s, now a revolutionary, Chubinov. Most of the novel is consumed by an endless “conversation” between Count Diakonov and Chubinov on the train, as Chubinov attempts to convince the Count that he wants to help him. (I put the word conversation in quotes because it is more a succession of interminable monologs than a real conversation. And that was the part that was the most arduous to read. It seemed to go on forever!)

Spoiler Alert! Eventually, Chubinov and Nikolai realize that they have both been betrayed by a double agent in the Count’s retinue, and the shock kills Nikolai. Laura is left to handle the situation on her own until her father arrives from London, which takes several days. Although she has been depending on her father to save her from the double agent, Laura realizes that she cannot trust him to protect. Ultimately, she relies on Chubinov to save her, but until the last moments, neither Laura nor the reader is really sure who the villain is.

Laura is not really important for the story, but she is the thread that holds it together, and we see the other characters and the action (such as it is) from her point of view. But I did not find her to be a very convincing character. She seemed too mature for an eighteen-year-old, and her reactions to some of the events in the novel seemed wooden to me. I couldn’t identify with her, and she didn’t seem like a real person to me.

The Birds Fall Down has some things in common with the great Russian novels: lots of characters who are known by several different names and a twisted plot. I found it rather tiresome to read, but I did finish it and (sort of) followed the plot! Dame Rebecca West notes in the Prologue that she based the story on an actual historical event, but Google was unable to help me find exactly what that could have been.

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The Love Letters

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House/a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2015)

I found a copy of this book at my local Little Free Library. Since I had enjoyed The Atonement and The Photograph, I traded Trains and Lovers for it. Like the others, it was an easy read (about a day); it kept me engaged without claiming to be great literature, and it taught me some things I didn’t know about the “Plain People” that we call the Amish.

There are multiple stories woven into the novel. There is Marlena Wenger of Mifflinburg, who is engaged to Nat Zimmerman. Marlena and Nat were brought up in an Old Order Amish community, but Marlena’s parents left that community to join the “Beachy  Amish-Mennonites“, and out of deference to her parents, Marlena has been worshiping in their church. Then Marlena is sent to spend the summer in Brownstown with her grandmother Janice, a “black-bumper Mennonite“, after the death of her grandfather, to provide company and assistance as the older woman gets used to her new reality. This sacrifice will delay Marlena’s marriage to Nat.

Then there are the Old Order Bitners, Janice’s neighbors: Roman and Ellie, and their children Dorcas, Julia, Sally, and Jake (“Small Jay”), who is small for his age (14) and has some disabilities (both mental and physical). Ellie and Marlena are quite close. Small Jay is unloved by his father for his disabilities, and Ellie’s heart breaks to see how much her son wants to help his father, who continually rejects him. Small Jay meets a homeless man, “Boston”, who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; he has no memory of who he is or where he comes from. But he treats Small Jay with respect and courtesy, earning his trust and affection.

Marlena has an older sister, Luella, who left their family and went “fancy”, marrying an “Englischer.” Tragically, Luella is severely injured in an automobile accident. Since her husband is serving in the military overseas and his parents are on a European vacation and are unreachable, Marlena is tasked to take care of her five-month-old niece, Angela Rose, until her parents can take her back. But Luella dies from her injuries, and then Gordon is missing in action and presumed dead. Marlena, who by now adores the baby, would like to keep her forever, but the presumption is that Gordon’s parents will take her. Nat is less than understanding of Marlena’s deep attachment to the baby; he wishes she would give her up so that he can court her properly when she returns from Brownstown. He is also unhappy that Marlena is attending her grandmother’s church, rather than Old Order prayer services with the Bitners. Marlena, however, is undergoing a spiritual transformation in the (slightly) more liberal faith communities of her grandmother and her friends the Masts. She persists in believing that Nat will come around, but he seems to be losing patience with her refusal to obey him.

The eponymous love letters are carried in a satchel by Boston, the mysterious homeless man. They seem to be from a devoted wife, Abigail, whom he insists is gone from him forever. Small Jay reads him a letter from time to time, becoming more and more curious about the man’s origins. (There are also letters between Marlena and Luke, but the love they express begins to lose ground to their spiritual disagreements.)

What will happen to Angela Rose? Will Nat come around and marry Marlena, while allowing her to worship in her New Order community? Will Roman ever accept his son and give him the love and trust he deserves? Will he relax his authority over his wife and daughters? And will Boston be reunited with his Abigail? These are the questions that kept me turning the pages.

The theme of the various Amish and Mennonite communities, and how they differ from one another, was very interesting. Clothing, colors, use of electricity, whether they drive traditional buggies or cars, style and language of prayer and relationship with the Divine, place of worship, presence or absence of missionary work-all these combine to keep the communities apart. Individuals like Roman Bitner and Nat Zimmerman, both Old Order Amishmen, refuse to socialize with (or even be friendly with) members of other Anabaptist sects (or to permit their womenfolk to do so). It’s the Sh’ia vs. the Sunni, the Protestants vs. the Catholics, the Orthodox vs. the Conservative or Reformed, all over again, but playing out in what is essentially one religion which has splintered over and over into many tiny communities that won’t talk to each other anymore. It’s quite sad, really.

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A Christmas Carol

Posted by nliakos on December 25, 2016

by Charles Dickens (edited by Jane Gordon; published by American Book Company in 1904)

Every year on Christmas Eve, my family and I watch the 1984 movie of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott–it’s our favorite of many versions. This year, after watching the movie, I decided to reread the original novella, which I have in the collection called Christmas Stories (from “Eclectic School Readings”). The book originally belonged to my great-aunt, who was a teacher. I suppose she may have read some of the stories aloud to her classes. Anyway, I was a bit disappointed to realize that the story was edited. (Here is one of several unedited versions I found on Google Books; I should read that!)

Anyway, I read the edited version, since that is what I have. It omits some scenes  (like Scrooge’s visit to the pawn-broker’s shop with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) which both the film and the original story include. But it’s still a wonderful story, a classic. Everyone should know it, whether by reading the story or watching one of the movies based on it.

Like Miracle on 34th StreetA Christmas Carol manages to be all about Christmas without ever mentioning Jesus, apart from Tiny Tim, who thought “it might be pleasant to [the people in church] to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

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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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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!

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Posted by nliakos on August 13, 2016

(Parts One and Two) by Jack Thorne, based on a story by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne (Scholastic 2016, ISBN 978-1-338-09913-3)

I’m not actually sure who wrote what here. J. K. Rowling never published the story on which Jack Thorne’s play is based. Did all three people conceive the story together? This is not clear to me. And if this is Parts One and Two, does that mean Parts Three and Four are coming later? Who knows?

Anyway, the book is supposedly the “Special Rehearsal Edition” of the play being performed in London; it is written in the form of a play, with minimal stage direction, so a lot is left to the reader’s imagination. I kept thinking I would rather be watching it than reading it. That said, it sort of satisfied my wish to return to Harry Potter’s world (especially the flashbacks to the story we already know of Harry’s time at Hogwarts and what preceded that, such as the murder of Harry’s parents by Voldemort).

This is the story of Harry’s younger son and youngest child, Albus Severus (named for Profs. Dumbledore and Snape). Albus hates being the son of the famous Harry Potter. He is sorted into Slytherin House instead of Gryffindor, where he befriends Draco Malfoy’s unhappy son Scorpius, who is more cautious and gentler by nature than the impulsive and reckless Albus, who is constantly hatching plans and attempting to execute them without thinking them through–which lands him and Scorpius, and the entire wizarding world, in big trouble, which Harry and his friends (which now include a somewhat reluctant Draco) must sort out.

I hope someone will make a movie of it soon!

English language learners who have read the previous books in the series will probably find this one easier to read because of the screenplay format.

 

Posted in Children's and Young Adult, Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | 1 Comment »

The Atonement

Posted by nliakos on June 26, 2016

by Beverly Lewis (Thorndike 2016; ISBN 9871410487605)

The Atonement is the story of Lucy Flaud, a young Amish woman who has flouted the conventions of her strict community by having an affair with an Outsider. The story is set in the Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, three years after Lucy lost the baby that resulted from this affair; the father declined to marry her when he realized that he would be expected to become “Plain” (Amish). Lucy’s grief over her lost love and the death of the fetus is unabated. Her guilt has also estranged her from her beloved father, Christian Flaud, who is likewise grieving the loss of his relationship with her. Christian begins attending a grief support group at a nearby (non-Amish) church, and he eventually persuades Lucy to attend as well. But Christian inexplicably befriends a young “English” man he meets there, exposing Lucy to the charms of yet another potential suitor who is not Amish. Lucy gives herself over to charitable work to fill her time, believing that she can never marry. When her longtime friend Tobe expresses his desire to court her, she rejects him, believing herself to be forever ineligible to marry a virtuous Amish man because of her past transgression.

Beverly Lewis grew up in Amish country, daughter of an Amish mother, so I think it is safe to say that her depiction of Amish home life, way of speaking, and beliefs is probably pretty accurate. I enjoyed the story (although the characters seemed too goody-goody to be real), but this glimpse into the religion and culture of the Amish was for me the best part of the book.

Two other novels by Lewis set in Amish country are The Shunning and The Brethren.

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Me Before You

Posted by nliakos on May 31, 2016

by Jojo Moyes (Penguin 2012; ISBN 978-0-14-310946-4)

Louisa Clark has just lost her job at a café in her English home town, and she’s desperate to find another. She finally lands a position as a companion/caregiver to a rich young quadriplegic, Will Traynor. At first, Will is sulky and rude, but over time, Louisa and Will’s relationship begins to develop into a kind of friendship. Inevitably, Louisa’s feelings for Will go beyond simple friendship. But Will is planning to end his life; in fact, hiring Louisa is a last-ditch effort by his parents to get him to change his mind. Louisa is so horrified that Will would contemplate such a thing and that his parents would let him do it that she quits the job, but is persuaded to return by Mrs. Traynor. Will Lou succeed in convincing Will that life is worth living? (I’m not telling.)

The right to die is central to this story, making it somewhat more thought-provoking than your average romance. Lou’s relationships with her parents, her sister, her boyfriend Patrick, Will, his parents, and his nurse, Nathan, are all explored in the novel (which is narrated mostly by Louisa, but occasionally by her sister, Will’s mother, and Nathan), as is the intellectual and personal growth Lou experiences through her relationship with Will. I could hardly put the book down, finishing it in 24 hours. I wonder if the movie is as riveting as the book! (It’s coming out this Friday. I just watched the trailer. Must see it!)

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