Nina's Reading Blog

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

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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 »

Laughing Without an Accent: The Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad

Posted by nliakos on April 11, 2015

by Firoozeh Dumas (Villard, 2008; ISBN 978-0-345-49956-1)

Having enjoyed Funny in Farsi, I was looking forward to Dumas’ second book, and it did not disappoint (nor was it very different from the first one). There are stories about her childhood in Iran, her college years in the U.S., her parents’ inevitable foibles (only this time she provides us with her family name, noting that “it took about twelve minutes for the average Iranian to figure out my last name”), and the challenges of crossing cultures, like celebrating a life instead of mourning a death and understanding why Carol Burnett’s Tarzan yell was funny to Americans.

The final chapters are not funny, but they are worth reading. The first is about delivering a commencement speech, including Dumas’ “top ten things [graduates] should know”, like avoiding television and credit cards and making sure to show your gratitude to people, always have a book handy, volunteer, and vote (and #10: brush and floss daily, because you have no idea how much it will cost you if you don’t!).

She mentions that my favorite part of Funny in Farsi, “The Ham Amendment”, was censored out of the Iranian translation of that book. I guess they don’t want anyone to think that being a good person might make up for not being a Muslim.

A quick, pleasant read.


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The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe

Posted by nliakos on April 1, 2015

by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon (Harper 2011; ISBN 978-0-06-173237-9)

Kamila Sidiqi had just graduated from a teacher training institute in Kabul, Afghanistan, when the Taliban took over and forbade women and girls to work or go to school. Trapped at home with her sisters and one brother after her father and second brother fled the city and then the country, Kamila started a dressmaking business out of her home. Her older sister Malika taught her to sew, and Kamila then taught her younger sisters. Before long, she was employing other girls and young women in her Kabul neighborhood of Khair Khana; she even started a school to teach them tailoring and sewing. Although the Taliban did not expressly forbid women to work out of their homes, going out to market her products to male shopkeepers was strictly forbidden, and Kamila risked everything each time she did this, even though her younger brother always escorted her as her mahram, or chaperone. Eventually, Kamila even went to work for the UN Habitat’s Community Forum, becoming an activist in her community (a big risk). Perhaps surprisingly, she is never arrested or beaten by the Amr bil-Maroof, religious fanatics who routinely beat up women whom they perceived as deviated from the rules they were supposed to follow. In fact, as told by Lemmon, Kamila’s story is relatively painless. She worries a lot, but nothing awful ever happens to them. Even learning to sew seems to take little time and effort. I suspect that the journey may have in fact been rougher than described here, but Kamila’s story is still inspiring and serves as a reminder of the suffering of Afghan people (especially women, but whole families as well) under the rule of the Taliban.

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

How the García Girls Lost Their AccentsAlthough the bo

Posted by nliakos on March 14, 2015

by Julia Alvarez (original pub. by Algonquin Books, 1991; I read it on my phone, and I have no idea who published that)

This is essentially a book of short stories, all about four sisters (Carla, Sandi, Yolanda, and Sofia) from the Dominican Republic who immigrate to the United States with their parents to escape the Trujillo regime. At home in the Dominican Republic, they live lives of privilege, with numerous servants; in the U.S., they have to learn a new language and culture; they encounter the typical problems of immigrants, including prejudice. The book is divided into three sections: Part 3 concerns their life on the island prior to emigration (1956-1960); Part 2 focuses on their early post-immigrant lives in the U.S. (1960-1970); and in Part 1 they are grown up (1972-1989). As you can see, the book is arranged in reverse chronological order (like a blog?). Within each part, different stories are about different sisters; they are often narrated by the sisters themselves. Although the book is fictional, I suppose it is in some ways autobiographical, as the author’s life mirrors that of the García sisters in some ways. Though born in New York, she lived in the D.R. until the age of 10 and then returned to the U.S.

I enjoyed the stories, but reading an e-book is not my favorite thing. I feel like I am strapped into a car, speeding past different people and events, without the possibility to returning to where I have been to straighten things out in my mind. I know it’s possible to go back, but either it’s not convenient, or I haven’t figured out how to do it right; all I know is that when I am reading an e-book, I don’t go back, whereas when reading a regular book, I go back often to remind myself of details that have slipped my mind or that I didn’t pay enough attention to, not knowing I would need to remember them later.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book and was glad to have it when I was on the bus or in a waiting room without my book.

Advanced language learners, especially those from Caribbean or Hispanic countries, would probably enjoy this.

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I Was Number 87: A Deaf Woman’s Ordeal of Misdiagnosis, Institutionalization, and Abuse

Posted by nliakos on November 12, 2014

by Anne M. Bolander and Adair N. Renning ( Gallaudet University Press 2000)

The title says it all. Anne Bolander’s mother died when she was three, and her father remarried. Anne’s stepmother was either wicked, or mentally deranged, or both. She sent five-year-old Anne to an institution in Virginia called the Stoutamyer School, but it was not a school in any sense of the word, as there were no classes, no books, and no learning outside of the constant need to follow unarticulated and unpredictable rules which, if broken, caused the child to be beaten, isolated, or otherwise punished. Margie, the director of this evil place, seemed to take pleasure in administering the punishments, and would fire any staff who dared to be kind to the children. The children were not allowed to own anything (toys and teddy bears were confiscated and destroyed), speak to anyone, touch anyone, or witness another child’s punishment, even inadvertently. Punishment for infractions was swift and long and calculated to do damage. Several children died during the five years that Anne spent there. It was a living hell–kind of a combination of maximum security prison and the worst kind of slavery, but really more like your worst nightmare.

Occasionally, Anne was taken home to her family, where the abuse continued, her stepmother seeming to take the same pleasure in punishment that Margie did, her father going along with it and her six brothers turning a blind eye to it.

When she was about eleven, Anne spent some time at a convent-run school for children with special needs where for the first time, she experienced kindness and love, and her hearing problem was finally diagnosed. However, her parents refused to believe that she was hard of hearing (for some reasons preferring the diagnosis of mental retardation) and would not let her use her hearing aid at home. The blissful months at St. Mary’s soon over, the family moved to another state and Anne was re-institutionalized. And so went her childhood and adolescence–a combination of special “schools” and living at home in a dysfunctional, loveless family. She eventually learned to lipread, sign, speak and get along well enough in the world to make her living (amazing), but her starvation for love and friendship led her to overlook warning signs that her “friends” were only using her. Not until her forties (with the support of therapy) was she able to muster the self-esteem to assert herself, and writing the book is one of the ways that she has done this.

One would guess that the injustice, abuse, and cruelty described in this book had taken place in some distant time, but no; it was here in America, in the second half of the 20th century.

Everyone should read this book.

(Intermediate to advanced English language learners could probably understand the book without much trouble, as the language is simple and straightforward. (The co-author “translated” Anne’s deaf-English into standard English.)

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

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah

Posted by nliakos on October 25, 2014

by Paula J. Freedman (Amulet Books 2013)

Thirteen-year-old Tara Feinstein narrates the story of preparing for her bat mitzvah. Tara’s mother is from India; she converted to Judaism (presumably) when she fell in love with Tara’s father. Tara’s Indian heritage is as important to her as her Jewish heritage, but managing the culture clashes among her relatives and friends isn’t always easy. And Tara’s best friend Ben-o (who happens to be male and Catholic) complicates matters by suddenly taking a more romantic interest in Tara, who does not feel ready for dating in general and is terrified of losing Ben-o’s friendship if it doesn’t work out. As you might expect, Tara successfully navigates the pitfalls of young love and preparing for her bat mitzvah even though she isn’t sure that she really believes in God.

This is a nice book for those interested in intercultural relationships (like me) and for ESL students.

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