Nina's Reading Blog

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Blanche on the Lam (Blanche White Series #1)

Posted by nliakos on May 20, 2020

by Barbara Neely (narrated by Lisa Marie Pitts) (originally published by St. Martin’s, 1992)

I used to love mysteries and detective novels, but I’ve kind of gotten away from those genres in the past few years. Life is beginning to look too short to read about people killing one another. But I was intrigued by the Blanche White series, as the sleuth is a “traditionally built” African American woman who works as a domestic–an ideal position for observing one’s employers’ behavior. I put a hold on the first in the series on Libby, and only later realized that I had inadvertently reserved an audiobook. So Blanche on the Lam was my first experience with an audiobook from Libby. I was pleasantly surprised. The technology was seamless and intuitive. The book sync’ed accurately between my tablet and my phone, so it didn’t matter which I listened to it on. If I didn’t hear something or my mind wandered, I could rewind a little bit with a simple left-to-right swipe on the “cover” and listen again. If I was listening to the book in bed, I could set it to turn itself off in 30 minutes. If I had wanted to, I could have speeded up the narration up to twice as fast (but I didn’t want to). My only complaint is that “View Title Details” did not yield pub date or publisher; I had to google those, and I still don’t know who published the narrated version.

The story is set in small town North Carolina, where Blanche is from, where her mother still lives, and where Blanche has brought her sister’s children after the death of her sister. She is free-lancing as a domestic worker but finds herself in court on a charge of bouncing checks. She is shocked when the judge sentences her to time in jail and takes advantage of an escape opportunity, then takes a job with a rich white family to lie low until she can leave the state. Her employers include Miz Grace, Grace’s husband Everett, her aunt Emmeline, and her cousin Mumsfield, who has Down’s Syndrome. Except for Mumsfield, nobody is quite what they seem; three people die in suspicious circumstances, and Blanche finds herself being pursued by a homicidal maniac. But all’s well that ends well (except for the ones who got murdered).

I enjoyed Blanche’s perspective for a change and appreciated her musings on white and black people. And I liked her earthiness. I’m not sure if I will seek out the three sequels (life being as short as it is), but in case I decide to, they are: #2: Blanche Among the Talented Tenth; 3: Blanche Cleans Up; and #4: Blanche Passes Go.

Favorite quotation: She tugged her panties into a more comfortable relationship with her crotch. (Now who among us hasn’t had to do that on occasion?)

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Posted by nliakos on August 31, 2018

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Borzoi/Knopf, 2013)

I bought this e-book to read while we were in Greece last year, but I never got round to reading it until recently. I loved it! In seven parts and 55 chapters, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze, soulmates and lovers, in their native Nigeria and in their adopted countries of the United States and the United Kingdom. Ifemelu, the eponymous Americanah, experiences culture shock in the U.S. as she adapts to her life first as an international student and then as an employee, and then re-entry shock when she returns, by choice, to Nigeria, giving up her popular blog on race and the experiences of non-American blacks (excerpts of which often end the chapters, making me wonder if the author had just such a blog). Obinze, in contrast, does not find success in the U.K. and is ultimately deported, to his extreme humiliation. The reader follows the adventures of these two individuals, hoping that they will somehow find each other and reconcile. Life, meanwhile, seems to keep them apart.

Reading about Nigerian (and Nigerian ex-pat) culture was interesting, but it did not make me want to experience it!

Adichie’s prose is exquisite, and the reader really comes to care about the characters, which to my mind is a necessity in fiction. (If I can’t identify with a character, if I have no affinity with at least one character, I don’t like the novel. The best example of this is Gone with the Wind, which I have never liked for precisely this reason.)



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Before I Fall

Posted by nliakos on February 10, 2018

by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins 2010)

I’m not sure how to categorize this novel about a high school student caught up in a time loop where, Groundhog-Day-like, she relives the day of her death seven times. It’s not a fantasy exactly, but it’s not realism either. Call it imaginings about death. (Roger Ebert called the 2017 film a “supernatural melodrama”.)

Samantha Kingston wakes up seven times on February 12, “Cupid Day” at her Connecticut high school. She interacts with her parents and sister, goes to school (or doesn’t) with her three best friends, attends a party at the home of a boy in her class who has been infatuated with her since third grade, and dies (or doesn’t) in a horrific car crash. Then she wakes up again on the same day and does it all over again, changing certain aspects of her behavior. She starts out trying to save her own life and finishes by saving the life of a despised, bullied classmate. Over the seven days, Sam is transformed from a shallow, feckless enabler to a (more) mature, much kinder person. She ends an unhealthy relationship with her boyfriend Rob and begins a beautiful relationship with her childhood friend, Kent–despite knowing that it cannot endure.

In a way, Before I Fall is a meditation on popularity, and the high price it exacts from Sam. When she was younger, she was the one with few friends, the one who was made fun of. Then, inexplicably, the most popular girl in the class, Lindsay Edgecombe, offers Sam friendship. But Lindsay has some ugly secrets, and she is not a kind person. Thrilled to be seen as part of Lindsay’s intimate circle, Sam looks the other way (or participates actively) when Lindsay is cruel to her former friend, Juliet. She also laughs off Lindsay’s mean remarks when they are directed at her, feeling secure in her role as one of the popular girls. But she learns, by living this fateful day over and over, that kindness trumps cruelty, and eventually she is able to stand up to Lindsay (although she never rejects her outright).

It’s an intriguing idea. I am left wondering which day will endure in the memories of Sam’s friends and family: only the last one?


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Nanjing Requiem

Posted by nliakos on November 18, 2017

by Ha Jin (Pantheon, 2011)

The publication of The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (1997) put the brutal Japanese occupation of China’s “Southern Capital” on my radar. I don’t believe I knew about it prior to that time. Reading the reviews of the book, I was appalled at the cruelty of the atrocities described. I couldn’t bring myself to read the book itself. But the events of 1937 and after stayed in my mind, like the genocides of Rwanda and Cambodia, as something I ought to educate myself about. When I saw Ha Jin’s novel about these events on the library shelf last week, I decided I would try a fictional account as a way to learn more. Fiction can be more difficult to digest than factual prose, since it puts the reader into the mind(s) of the characters as they struggle to survive against seemingly impossible odds, so I was cautious as I began to read the story of Minnie Vautrin, principal of Jinling (Ginling) College, and her heroic fight to protect the thousands of women and children who took refuge on the college campus in 1937, narrated by the (presumably) fictional Anling Gao. But I was not swept up in the story of men and women fighting against insurmountable odds. I felt like I did when I read the reviews of Iris Chang’s book: appalled, but not personally involved.

The novel reads like a diary. (Indeed, Ha Jin used diaries kept at the time as some of his sources.) Horrific events, like murder and rape, are relayed in the same dry tone as what everyone had for dinner. It’s terrible, but you don’t want to cry. Anling’s voice is cool and calm, whether she is describing the campus ponds polluted with dead bodies or meeting her half-Japanese grandson for the first and only time. The reader has to infer her pain; Jin does none of this work for you.

I also noted Jin’s odd use of American and English idioms, which also seemed awkward to me in Waiting and War Trash, two other Jin novels which I have read. The idioms often don’t seem to fit into the context he uses them in. I suppose he is trying to convey the use of colloquial Chinese expressions in at least some cases, but the expressions just don’t seem natural in his prose. They seem more like the tortured sentences my students used to write when told to use an idiom in a sentence–or when they tried to pack as many idioms into one sentence as possible, as in this instance from page 276: If they got on my nerves, I didn’t hesitate to give them a piece of my mind to let off some steam. I knew they would bad-mouth me behind my back, . . . . There is nothing actually wrong about these sentences, but for some reason, they seem more like a language learning exercise than natural prose. They stand out in a way that seems awkward. That said, Ha Jin is on a short list of major authors writing in a second language (others that come to mind being Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov), and I have enormous respect for his ability to do it at all.

In conclusion, I guess I am going to have to read The Rape of Nanking after all.

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Precious Bane

Posted by nliakos on July 12, 2017

by Mary Webb

I acquired a tablet recently, and the best thing about it is that I was able to install apps for both Nook and Kindle.  My Nook died a while back and I decided not to replace it, and although my second-hand, second-generation Kindle still works, the battery is weak and it doesn’t support a lot of the newer features e-readers have these days. With the tablet, I get access to the books I had on both of these devices, including this novel published in the 1930’s about a young woman living in rural England around 1812 (She refers to the Napoleonic Wars). Prudence Sarn lives with her parents and her older brother Gideon on a farm. She is “cursed” with a harelip, so everyone assumes that she will never be attractive to a young man or marry and raise a family, which makes her very sad. Some people go further and believe that she turns into a hare at night, or that she is a witch. But Prue is a good person, and she goes about her business, working hard to do her part in the household, until the day when Gideon stands up to their abusive father, which results in the father’s death from the fall, or a stroke. From that time on, Gideon becomes obsessed with becoming rich. He works his mother and sister as if they were slaves. He gets Prue to agree to this treatment and promises her that she will someday be a lady, living in a fine house in town, and that he will give her money to fix the harelip. Partly from sisterly obedience and partly from a desire to look prettier, Prue promises to work even harder than she already does, taking on many jobs that normally would be done by a man. In addition, Gideon decides that she should learn to read and write from a local “wizard” so that she can keep the books for the farm–a decision which will change everything.

But Prue has her own dreams. She falls hard for Kester Woodseaves, a traveling tailor, but she is too shy and mortified by her disfigurement to even let him see her. However, when the woman Gideon loves leaves the area to work as a dairymaid, Prue and Kester are assigned the task of writing the love letters between those two. Writing for her friend Jancis, Prue can say what she really feels to Kester, thinking he won’t realize it is she who is doing the writing. But Kester is cleverer than she thinks, and he is also capable of looking past her disfigured face to the character beneath. It’s a very satisfying love story. Love does conquer all!

The book is filled with interesting details about the culture of that time and place: a love-spinning, a bull-baiting, a funeral, a fair and a hiring fair are among the customs described by Prue, all in the dialect she would have spoken. Despite many words not found in a standard English dictionary today, a reader can generally figure out what she says (although I am still curious about ‘seestas’). The first time I read the book I listened to it on tape, which was a marvelous experience; I really wish I had it on CD! But reading it is also a great pleasure, even if it was the third time I read it.

Will Prue and Gideon each get in life what they truly deserve? You can bet on it! But the twists and turns of the story held my attention even though I knew how it turns out–a characteristic of a classic that pleases the reader over and over again. Yet most of my reading friends have never heard of the book. It is worth seeking out (and inexpensive to purchase, due to its age).

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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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The Photograph

Posted by nliakos on January 3, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (BethanyHouse 2015)

My daughter Vicki gave me this novel set in the Amish communities of Pennsylvania and Ohio, knowing that I had enjoyed The Atonement by the same author. It was a very quick read (just one day!), and the ending was obvious from Chapter Two, but I read on, keen to find out how that ending would be achieved.

Twenty-year-old Eva Esch’s younger sister Lily runs away from their Lancaster County community, intending to “go fancy”. Eva and her older sister Frona must deal not only with this crisis but also with their brother’s family’s impending move into their deceased parents’ home and farm, which will necessitate their finding another place to live. In a parallel plot line, Ohio Amishman Jed Stutzman travels to Pennsylvania by train to learn more about his trade; on the train, he finds a copy of Little Women, with many notations in the margins, and a photograph of a pretty Amish girl between the pages. Since the Amish do not permit personal photos which show their faces, it’s a bit of a mystery how the photo came to be, but Jed finds himself smitten by not only the lovely face but also by the sentiments in the notes. When he gets to Pennsylvania and sees Eva, he takes her for the girl in the picture, who is in fact Lily, the runaway sister. It takes a while to sort this misunderstanding out.

Eva finds herself drawn to Jed and he to her, and the rest of the book details how they manage to get together. As in The Atonement, I enjoyed the glimpse into this unique culture. I couldn’t help but wonder why they aren’t all obese, because they are always eating sweets (Eva sells the candy she makes in a little shop attached to her house, and the characters are constantly eating cookies, ice cream, pies, cakes, fudge, peanut butter balls, Butterfinger truffles. . . .)!  I suppose the fact that they are constantly walking or working might have something to do with it.

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The Autumn’s Brightness

Posted by nliakos on December 18, 2016

by Daisy Newman ( Macmillan 1954)

I’ve now read four novels set in the Quaker community of fictitious Kendal, Rhode Island: Indian Summer of the Heart; I Take Thee, Serenity; Diligence in Love, and now The Autumn’s Brightness. It seems I never blogged about Diligence in Love, which I read several months ago. That one was about an insufferably boring New Yorker, Vaughn Hill, who travels to Kendal for a work project and finds peace there, eventually moving there with her husband and teenaged children. Vaughn and her family appear briefly in The Autumn’s Brightness, although Oliver and Loveday (of Indian Summer of the Heart) do not.

Anyway, the protagonist of The Autumn’s Brightness is named Diligence, or Dilly, which confused me for a while, but Newman explains in the book that diligence in love is a Quaker concept referring to what is needed to sustain loving feelings during hard times in a relationship. The novel opens when Dilly, a widow  whose children have left home, travels to new York to visit her brainless, materialistic cousin Elmira and meets a man who makes a deep impression on her. Despite her determination to avoid a romantic entanglement, Dilly finds Mr. Durand Smith impossible to forget, and he seems equally smitten. But could he just be after her money?

A sweet story, which I finished in just one day. But my favorite is still Indian Summer of the Heart!

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Posted by nliakos on September 25, 2016

by Marjane Satrapi (L’Association, Collection Ciboulette, combined edition published in 2007; ISBN 978-2844142405 [4 volumes originally published separately between 2000 and 2003])

Published in English in 2007 by Pantheon; ISBN 9780375714832.

I’ve seen this called a graphic novel, but it isn’t a novel. It’s a graphic autobiography, written by an Iranian woman in her twenties, telling the story of her life in pre- and  post-revolutionary Iran and also in Vienna, where her parents sent her to study for four years in high school because they were afraid her penchant for getting into trouble and her independent streak would end badly for her.

I read it in the original French, which was not difficult; the style is conversational but without too much slang. Perhaps the simple black and white illustrations (also by Satrapi, who studied art at university in Tehran) provided enough context to make guessing the meaning of the occasional unfamiliar word or expression easier.

Satrapi does not mince words, nor does she try to make herself look good. She includes her failed romances, unkindnesses, rudeness, and many cases of poor judgment on her part. Volume 3, which recounts the story of her wild years in Vienna, made me cringe in horror. She falls in with a wild crowd, smokes, drinks, takes drugs, sleeps around, lives on the streets and ends up in a hospital (without which, I think she would have died). Maybe not all that surprising for a rebellious teenage girl living on her own in a foreign country far from her parents, but scary. Only the Iran-Iraq war could have made her parents think she would be better off in Austria without supervision.

After Vienna, she returns to Tehran, depressed, and not surprisingly, has difficulty re-integrating into her native culture, which has been rendered schizophrenic by the Islamic revolution. She even tries to end her life, but her failed suicide attempt convinces her that she is meant to go on living. She finds a boyfriend, whom she eventually marries (but later divorces), enrolls at university, and reads widely. Eventually, she decides to leave Iran to live in France, realizing that she will never be able to control herself enough to stay out of trouble in Iran.

For those readers who have no idea about Iranian culture or history, this book is an excellent introduction as well as a great story. I know many Iranians; they were the first large group of students I had when I starting teaching ESL in the Washington area in 1974. I’ve also read a fair amount about Persian culture and know a little (but not much) about Persian history, so there was a lot that was not new to me in the book. However, I learned many new things–for example, that Reza Shah (father of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah I remember) was an illiterate army officer before the British used him to overthrow the Qajar emperor (from whom Marjane Satrapi is descended).

The thing that surprised me the most is that Satrapi’s parents and other relatives were not arrested following the publication of the book(s)! She goes into great detail about their politics.

Persepolis is really a coming-of-age story (Bildungsroman). It’s too bad Marjane had to suffer so much on the way to adulthood, and it must have taken enormous courage for her to write and draw her story for public consumption. Since she had the courage to write it, we should have the courage to read it, even though parts of it are difficult.

By the way, Persepolis was made into an animated film  in 2007, with Satrapi as co-director with Vincent Paronnaud. You can watch a trailer here. I think the story would be even more appealing with animation. I am not a fan of graphic books; I find the images rather distracting and not necessary. But I think I will enjoy the film.

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I Take Thee, Serenity

Posted by nliakos on August 29, 2016

by Daisy Newman (Houghton Mifflin 1975; ISBN 0-395-20551-4)

I am not in the habit of reading abridged books (The Origin of Species being a notable exception!), but sometime in the 1980s, a Reader’s Digest volume containing two abridged novels came into my possession. One of the novels was Dick Francis’ Banker, which I duly read and then forgot so completely that during my Dick Francis phase, when I read everything Francis wrote (including his biography of jockey Lester Piggott), I reread Banker without realizing that I had already read it. The other one was a very sweet love story called Indian Summer of the Heart by Daisy Newman: Quaker farmer/writer Oliver Otis and feminist/college president  Loveday Mead find love together in their eighth decade. I was fascinated by the description of Quaker beliefs and lifestyle. Every so often, I would pick it up and reread it, or reread parts of it; and when I realized that it was actually the sequel to another book about Oliver and the  Quaker community in Kendal, R.I., I promised myself that I would read that, too. But then I would forget to look for I Take Thee, Serenity at the library or in bookstores–until this month, when I finally searched, came up with nothing (neither in the Montgomery County Public Libraries, nor in the University of Maryland’s libraries), and decided on an impulse to buy a used copy (it’s out of print) for $0.01 (plus shipping and handling of course). While I waited impatiently for it to arrive, I quickly reread Indian Summer of the Heart in its abridged version for the umpteenth time, and enjoyed it as much as ever.

In that book, Oliver is sharing his home, Firbank Farm, with his young cousin Serenity Holland, her husband Peter, and their toddler son Ross. I Take Thee, Serenity tells the story of how Serenity and Peter came to live at Firbank. It begins in their sophomore year at a small college in New York State, in the 1970s. They are in love and sleeping together, much to the dismay of Rennie’s parents, who urge them to marry, while Peter’s parents would prefer that they not marry while they are still in college. Rennie’s parents assume they will have a big wedding and start to plan it, but Rennie and Peter are reluctant. They become interested in the idea of a simple Quaker wedding, and the book opens with Rennie traveling to Kendal, Rhode Island to meet her father’s cousin Oliver Otis to ask him about the possibility of a Quaker ceremony. The encounter proves to be life-changing; Rennie is captivated by Firbank, by Oliver and his artist wife Daphne’s loving welcome, and by the simple friendliness of the entire Friends community in Kendal. But before the wedding can take place, both Rennie and Peter have a lot of growing up to do, over several years. Rennie especially is a childish know-it-all at the beginning of the novel; by the time she and Peter are man and wife, she has matured considerably. I didn’t like her at all in the first chapters, but had come round by the end.

And then I discovered that this novel is actually the third in The Kendal Trilogy! Now I have to find Diligence in Love and Dilly to complete the set.

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