Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners’ Category

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 »

When Breath Becomes Air

Posted by nliakos on August 16, 2016

by Paul Kalanithi (Random House 2016; ISBN 9780812988406)

Paul Kalanithi was a 26-year-old neurosurgeon in his last year of residency, with a bright future ahead of him, when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. In the little time remaining, he worked until he was no longer able to do so, and he wrote this book. Abraham Verghese, who knew Kalanithi slightly, wrote the Foreword.

The first part, “In Perfect Health I Begin”, chronicles Kalanithi’s early life, his decision to become a doctor, his time in medical school, and his marriage to a fellow medical student. I like memoirs, and I’m interested in how people become doctors, so I liked this part. (But I still don’t get how they are transformed from naive first-years into residents performing operations.)

The second part, “Cease Not till Death”, describes Kalanithi’s experience as a patient in the same hospital where he works (then used to work). He explores his evolving understanding of life and death. As the cancer inexorably destroys his body, he examines his relationships with his doctors and with his wife, describes his changing states of mind, and shares the joy he experiences cuddling and playing with his daughter, born eight months before his death in 2014. There are plenty of lessons to gained in this part. In some ways it is similar to Tuesdays with Morrie and The Last Lecture of Randy Pausch. It is true that thoughtful people facing their own imminent death have much to tell those of us who can still pretend that we are immortal–at least, our own ends are likely far enough in the future that we need not confront them. We avoid thinking about death until we are forced to think about it.

Rounding out the book is an Epilogue written by Lucy Kalanithi, detailing her husband’s last weeks and days. That part made me cry.

Like Tuesdays with Morrie, this would be a good book to reread every so often as a reminder to cherish each day we are given and each loved one with whom we share our journey through life.

Advanced English language learners will enjoy this book, which is beautifully written and also quite short, as the author did not live to finish it.



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

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 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 »

The Mill River Recluse

Posted by nliakos on March 14, 2016

by Darcie Chan (Ballantine Books 2013; originally published in 2011 as an e-book. ISBN 978-0-553-39187-9; e-book ISBN 978-0-615-52377-4)

This is a fairly simple story set in rural Vermont in the 1940s and the present day. Severe social anxiety disorder has imprisoned Mary McAllister (the eponymous recluse) in her marble home overlooking her hometown of Mill River, Vermont. The parish priest is her only friend; the majority of the townspeople have never laid eyes on her. Some of them have demonized her, not realizing that she is the secret benefactor of their community.

Most of the characters are simply sketched, either good or evil. There are few surprises; the author spells everything out, either directly or with obvious hints. I was taken unawares by only one plot twist (which I found kind of hard to believe). The reader does not have to work hard to connect the dots here.

There is a message, and it is that people with disabilities are people first. We should relate to them as individuals, with compassion for their humanity. That’s a worthy message.

Posted in Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

A Paris Affair

Posted by nliakos on December 15, 2015

by Tatiana de Rosnay (translated from the French by Sam Taylor; English edition published by St. Martin’s Press, 2015; ISBN 978-1-250-06880-4)

This is a collection of eleven short stories about marital infidelity, all set in Paris. Usually it is the husband who cheats; sometimes the wife; sometimes both. There are many references to the ubiquity of unfaithful French husbands (how true this stereotype actually is, I could not say), yet the betrayed wives are uniformly shocked that their husbands would do such a monstrous thing. The stories held my interest, but none except the first (“Hotel Room”) really stuck in my mind. Sarah’s Key was much better.

ELLs at an intermediate reading level should be able to handle this translation; the sentences are not complex and tend to be short. (A basic familiarity with French culture would also help.)

Posted in Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Leave a Comment »


Posted by nliakos on December 15, 2015

by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick (First Second 2011; ISBN 978-1-59643-259-8)

I’ve been a Richard Feynman fan since reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! many years ago, so when Ottaviani and Myrick’s Feynman came out a few years ago I decided I had to read it. It’s taken me a few years to get around to it, but recently, while cruising the biography shelves looking for (and not finding) Michael Faraday, I came upon this graphic biography and snapped it up. I was disappointed, however. There was not much that I had not already read in Surely You’re Joking…, What Do You Care What Other People Think? and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Anecdotes that had me laughing out loud when I read the original books seemed to be lifted directly from Feynman’s books into this one, but not entirely, with the action left in but the funny commentary missing, like the chapter on safe-cracking. Ottaviani (the writer) and Myrick (the illustrator) have organized the material chronologically, which is helpful, but otherwise I keep feeling that a Feynman aficionado would not learn anything new, whereas a reader new to Feynman would not be inspired to seek out Feynman’s own books and essays after reading this one. There simply was not enough room to include enough detail about Feynman’s funniest and most interesting escapades. They seemed a dull reflection of the originals (example: young Feynman cluelessly examining blueprints for the Oak Ridge TN nuclear plant and asking an inane question about something he doesn’t understand, prompting a horrified response from the engineers, who hurry off to redesign the offending part).

Ottaviani and Myrick finished off their book with an “(Almost Complete*) Bibliography and Early Sketches” section in which their affection for their subject shines through. The annotated bibliography of source materials written by and about Feynman and his fellow physicists lists several books, recordings, and collections that sound very worthwhile; I will put a few of those on my to-read list.

This is only the second graphic book I have read (the first being The Influencing Machine), and I must confess I don’t particularly like the format. In many cases, the illustrations obfuscate rather than clarify (I had a hard time figuring out who Feynman was in some illustrations, and all of the women look the same to me). Only the illustrations of physical principles are helpful, as in the sequence when Feynman is explaining his Nobel Prize-winning QED to a lay audience in New Zealand. (Nevertheless, I still did not understand QED.)  The graphic format may increase the appeal for younger and non-native speaking readers.

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

Two more Narnia Chronicles

Posted by nliakos on October 2, 2015

by C. S. Lewis

(1) The Silver Chair – The Pevensies’ cousin Eustace and his school friend Jill Pole are drawn into Narnia to help find Prince Rilian, son of King Caspian (who is now very old) and heir to the throne of Narnia. Rilian disappeared ten years ago soon after his mother was killed by a strange serpent. Eustace and Jill, together with a peculiar Narnian being called a marsh-wiggle (neither human nor animal), follow Rilian’s trail under the ruined city of the giants and must battle an evil witch to set Rilian free of her enchantment.

(2) The Last Battle – Eustace and Jill are called (technically, blown) back to Narnia to participate in its a final battle for the soul of Narnia. A greedy ape and a simple donkey have been manipulated by the evil (dark-skinned) Calormenes into betraying Narnia. The Narnian King, Tirian, and his friend the unicorn Jewel join with Eustace and Jill and a few loyal Narnians to fight the Calormenes, but it is impossible to save Narnia. Aslan returns for a Day of Judgment where everyone gets his (or her) just deserts.

Did I really read these forty years ago? I barely remembered anything.

The stories are pretty simple, plot-wise, and the Christian references are fairly obvious (but according to this very interesting article by Meghan O’Rourke in Slate, not primary). I suspect some latent racism in the depiction of the evil Calormenes as dark-skinned–Lewis actually calls them Darkies! But the books still have an appeal, as O’Rourke says in her article. One more to go (the first: The Magician’s Nephew) before I complete my tour of all the Chronicles.

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

Three from the Chronicles of Narnia

Posted by nliakos on September 15, 2015

by C. S. Lewis (Harper Collins, 1951 – 1954)

When C. S. Lewis was writing the Narnia books, I was a child, but I never read them as a child; I discovered them as an adult. I don’t remember how, but it may have been after I read and enjoyed Out of the Silent Planet, which is still one of my favorite books (although I did not care for the two sequels in that trilogy). In any case, I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and followed that up with the remaining six in the series. Since then, I have re-read The Lion… and seen the movie a couple of times, but I never re-read the other books. Now that I am retired, I decided to revisit them.

I began with Book 3, The Horse and His Boy (published in 1954). This story of the boy Shasta (not his real name!) and the talking Narnian horse Bree takes place during the reign of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy as kings and queens of Narnia following the defeat of the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Having nothing to lose, Shasta sets out with Bree to escape his native country of Calormen. They join forces with the Princess Aravis and the talking mare Hwin, and together they have many adventures before ending up in Archenland, a country to the south of Narnia.

Next, I read Book 4, Prince Caspian (1951). This one takes place one year after the four children have returned to England, but in Narnia, hundreds of years have gone by, and Narnia is undergoing dark days again, having been conquered by the Telmarines, a human race. The talking animals and dwarves of “Old Narnia” have gone into hiding. Prince Caspian should by rights have succeeded his father Caspian IX as king, but his evil uncle Miraz has usurped the throne, and Caspian is forced to flee for his life. However, he is able to summon Peter and his siblings from England to help him defeat Miraz and restore Narnia to its magical subjects. The movie follows the plot pretty closely but is more violent than the book.

Book 5, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, was published in 1952. In this Odyssey-like voyage, Edmund and Lucy are drawn into Narnia with their annoying cousin Eustace, and all three accompany Caspian (now King of Narnia), the mouse Reepicheep, and other Narnians on a voyage to the end of the world. On the way, they explore a number of islands, where they encounter some extremely strange beings and situations. When they find themselves in really sticky situations, Aslan always rescues them. We are going to watch the movie on Friday.  Like the movie of Prince Caspian, the movie looks much more exciting than the book!

After reading these three of the Narnia chronicles, I am kind of underwhelmed. I remember them as better than I am finding them this time. They are OK, but there is little that is amazing.

English language learners who enjoy fantasy will not find these difficult to understand.


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


Posted by nliakos on May 3, 2015

by Laurie Halse Anderson (Penguin 1999; Premium Edition published 2006; ISBN 0-14-240732-1)

This young adult novel was made into a movie, which I saw recently with my daughter (who had read the book in a high school class). It is narrated by the protagonist, Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman in Syracuse, New York. The book is divided into four sections–one for each marking period; each ends with Melinda’s grades from that period, and the grades sink lower and lower as the year proceeds. The reason for this is that Melinda was raped by an older student at a party over the summer; she called 911 but was unable to speak when the dispatcher asked her what was wrong. Police were sent to the party, but Melinda ran away, unable to face them. As a result, everyone believed that she had called the police on purpose to get the party-goers in trouble, and she begins the academic year a despised outcast, still unable to tell anyone about what happened to her.

Obviously, the trauma of the rape is compounded by the social desert in which Melinda finds herself. She begins to sink into depression, and the only person who appears to care is her art teacher, who constantly goads and encourages her to express what she is feeling in her art. However, she remains mired in depression until at last she is confronted with the very real possibility that her former best friend will be harmed by the boy who raped her, and she must speak out to warn her friend, which triggers another attack.

The movie is quite faithful to the book, except that Melinda’s parents are less sympathetic characters in it. The “Platinum Edition” includes an interview with the author, who mentions that many young men wrote to her asking what the big deal was about. She says, “I realized that many young men are not being taught the impact that sexual assault has on a woman. They are inundated with sexual imagery in the media, and often come to the (incorrect) conclusion that having sex is not a big deal. This, no doubt, is why the number of sexual assaults is so high.” It’s something to ponder, anyway.

Upper intermediate and advanced ELLs could probably understand this book, though they should understand that the language register is informal/conversational. The book enables readers to enter the sometimes-cruel world of a large American high school as seen through the eyes of an unpopular, traumatized, and depressed teenage girl. The movie, which flashes back to the rape sooner than the book does (not until page 133, at the end of the third marking period), makes the reason for Melinda’s behavior clearer earlier in the story.


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