Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

On My Own

Posted by nliakos on March 21, 2018

by Diane Rehm (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)

On My Own is a brutally honest look at a loving marriage that included some real cruelty as well as deep friendship and mutual caring, and its aftermath–the first year following the death of one of the partners. Diane Rehm is well known to millions for her thought-provoking nationally syndicated eponymous radio show, which originated right here at American University in the District of Columbia. Diane’s fans know her as a self-educated woman who daily probed her interviewees’ ideas and opinions in her unmistakable voice, speaking slowly and articulating every syllable (I used to recommend her show to my ESL students looking for accessible listening practice). She was well-read (I believe she always read a book completely before interviewing its author) and very insightful in her questions and comments. You couldn’t shake her; she always remained calm, no matter what the topic.

Her husband, John Rehm, died in 2014 of Parkinson’s disease. When it became too disabling, he decided it was time to end his life. His death was traumatic for him and his family because the law prevented his doctor from assisting him to die, and he was forced to starve himself to death over a period of two weeks. Diane Rehm spends several chapters of the book explaining her feelings about this, and the reasons why she has chosen to become a spokesperson for Compassion & Choices, an organization dedicated to patients’ rights, including the right to aid in dying when appropriate.

Other chapters consider being alone for the first time; coping with grief;  thinking about her future without her husband; sleeping in the center of the bed; communicating with her dead husband (several chapters are actually letters written to him after he died); her children and grandchildren; living through holidays; how other people she is close to have dealt with loss; and other topics. The book is very loosely chronologically organized up through the first anniversary of John’s death: an introspective journey through that first year of widowhood. I was amazed at how honest Diane was about her deepest feelings, even those she was not proud of, even when it meant admitting truths about her marriage she might have preferred to keep private. It could be wrenching to read, but it was also inspirational in its honesty and courage. I am grateful to her for sharing, and wish her the very best.

I also recommend Finding My Voice, Diane’s earlier memoir of her life as a radio host. I must have read it before I started this blog in 2006. And after she retired from WAMU-FM, she launched a podcast, “On My Mind,” which you can subscribe to here. I must confess I haven’t listened to it yet because I have limited time to listen to podcasts and limited space for them to stack up on my phone! But I want to, and I will. Whatever Diane Rehm cooks up is bound to be interesting to me.

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Beethoven

Posted by nliakos on March 17, 2018

by Maynard Solomon (Schirmer Books 1977)

I’ve been wanting to read a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven for a long time; a friend lent me this one. Maynard Solomon divides the great composer’s life into four stages: his childhood and adolescence in Bonn; his early years in Vienna; his “heroic” period in Vienna, including the Napoleanic wars and his romance with Antonie Brentano, the “Immortal Beloved”; and the end of his life, post-Immortal Beloved.

Ludwig/Louis van Beethoven never had a real childhood. He was cruelly abused by his alcoholic father when he was very young; by the time he entered adolescence, he was the main breadwinner for the family and responsible for his two younger brothers.

In Vienna, where he went to study under Haydn, Beethoven was known to be eccentric, devoid of social skills, and lacking in normal manners, but his virtuosity at the pianoforte and later his skill as a composer enabled  people to overlook his many faults, and he became famous among musicians and the music-loving public. (This is not to say that everything he composed was marked by genius; he was not above appealing to the common concert-goer.) He seems to have been incapable of forming and maintaining a normal love relationship with a woman. He kept falling for unavailable women; Antonie Brantano, although she did love him in return, was married. Ending the affair forced Beethoven to recognize that he was never going to marry. Perhaps this is why he became so obsessed with wresting his nephew Karl from his mother’s care and acting as his parent (sadly, an abusive one; this was all he knew). It would be the closest he got to actual fatherhood.

The book is very detailed, meticulously researched and footnoted. However, Solomon tends to attribute emotions and motivations to Beethoven (and others) as if they were facts, rather than speculation. In some instances, he bases these pronouncements on the theories of Sigmund Freud, who may have been the God of psychoanalysis in the 1970s but has been largely discredited in the 21st century, making parts of the book seem dated (and less convincing that they probably were back when it was published). The dry, academic tone makes it slow going. I found The Teaching Company’s Great Masters: Beethoven–His Life and Music to be much more accessible and memorable. In fact, some of what I have said here may actually have come from this set of eight lectures taught by Prof. Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Greenberg refers often to the Solomon biography, and he credits him with being the first person to conclusively show that Antonie Brentano was the only woman who could have been the Immortal Beloved. But Greenberg takes the same material and presents it in a much more interesting way. Of course, it’s very helpful when one has the chance to listen to excerpts from the music being discussed, which a book cannot provide. Instead, Solomon finishes each of his four sections with a chapter titled “The Music”, in which he describes, analyzes, and gives the historical significance of the music Beethoven produced during that period. I found these chapters deadly boring. for the most part. I am not familiar with most of Beethoven’s oeuvre, and even when I know a piece well, I find it impossible to make sense of or appreciate a historical or musical analysis of it. I would much rather just listen to it. I don’t mind being told about the music (along with hearing it), but just reading about it is deadly. How glad I am that I did not major in music! I would have been forced to read stuff like that, and worse, write stuff like that.

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Corridors of the Night

Posted by nliakos on February 21, 2018

by Anne Perry (Ballantine 2015)

This is my first encounter with Anne Perry, and the characters in this suspense novel–William Monk, head of the Thames River Police; his wife Hester, a nurse; their adopted son, Scuff (presumably a nickname); and various other people that play roles in the story–must all be familiar to most readers of this book. To me, they were not, so I was a little confused, but after several chapters I was on board and following the plot. The story is set in London in the nineteenth century, some time after the Crimean War, in which Hester served alongside the famed Florence Nightingale. There is a crazed chemist, enabled by his brother, a doctor, who is obsessed with finding a way to transfuse human blood from one person to another without killing the patient. The reader wants to shout, “BLOOD TYPES!”, but the discovery and understanding of these will not happen in the time frame of this novel.

The chemist, Hamilton Rand, has discovered some poor children whose blood does not cause patients to die (presumably they all have Type O blood). He purchases them from their father, who has no clue as to the use to which they will be put. Hester figures out what is being done just in time to be kidnapped and taken to a remote country house where she is expected to assist in the diabolical (but professionally intriguing) experiment. I assumed that her rescue would be the book’s climax, but it goes on for several chapters after Monk successfully rescues her and the three children–through two trials and two murders!

The story got me thinking about what a medical breakthrough safe blood transfusions were, and made me curious to read about how it actually happened here. (The discovery of blood types was not made until 1901 by the Austrian Karl Landsteiner, and much progress was made during the First World War.) So the story of Hamilton Rand and his diabolical experiment, set thirty  or forty years earlier, makes sense.

I liked Monk and Hester, and will perhaps seek out some of the earlier books in the series to find out how they met and fell in love. Thanks to my dear friend Carol for this book!

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The Trumpet of the Swan

Posted by nliakos on February 14, 2018

by E. B. White, illustrated by Edward Frascino (Harper & Row, 1970)

Although I’ve read Stuart Little  and am a huge fan of Charlotte’s Web, I had never read E. B. White’s third classic children’s book, so I have now corrected that error. While it does not compare with Charlotte’s Web, it is entertaining and sends a message that disabilities can be overcome with persistence and resourcefulness.

The principal human character in the story is Sam Beaver, a young boy who grows up as the story of Louis the swan unfolds. Sam loves nature and animals and is always ready to help Louis when asked. But his importance to the story is secondary to that of Louis, the Trumpeter Swan who is born mute (not a Mute Swan!). (He is described as having “a speech defect”.) Louis refuses to accept his fate as an outcast in Trumpeter Swan society, and his parents decide that he should learn to play a trumpet of his own. Louis gets Sam to help him attend school to learn to read and write, and little by little, he accumulates a slate, a piece of chalk, and a trumpet,  all of which he carries around his neck and uses to communicate with both humans and other swans. He has many adventures: he plays the trumpet for the Swan Boat at the Boston Public Garden, and in a Philadelphia night club, and he woos and wins his true love, Serena. With Sam’s help, Louis is able to return to his idyllic life in the wild (but he has to agree to occasionally sacrifice  a cygnet to the Philadelphia Zoo, which seems kind of harsh given that Louis himself refuses to stay there).

It’s weird that a swan would think and communicate in English, use the toilet in a hotel room, know how much to tip a waiter, and other oddities, but there are funny passages that made me laugh, and I guess I can say that I enjoyed the book (but it’s definitely not in the same league as Charlotte’s Web!).

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

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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Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection

Posted by nliakos on February 4, 2018

by Jacob Silverman (HarperCollins 2015)

Books on technology are often out of date by the time they are published. I read Terms of Service three years after its publication, yet I suspect it is still very relevant. The book is a searing indictment of social media. Do you know the saying, “If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product” (originally referring to TV viewers)? Silverman warns us that we (and our personal data) are the product of social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Twitter, and others, including some I had never heard of (like Klout and TaskRabbit). Our personal data are being sold to the highest bidder; that is where these social media giants earn their billions of dollars. They are all, in essence, advertising companies, and we happily hand over our precious personal information in exchange for a “free” place to express ourselves on the web. This is neither new nor surprising, but Silverman makes a detailed (if sometimes shrill) case. He also seems to think there is not a lot we can do about it, not only because we become addicted to social media sites (which is exactly what they want us to do), but because more and more, we need to participate in them if we are not to isolate ourselves in this social media era.

Chapter 1, “The Ideology of Social”, briefly summarizes the rise of Facebook, Google Plus, and other social media giants. Chapter 2, “Engineered to Like”,  is about the pressure to “Like” (which means “More, please”) and to stay on the platform. (At the time of publication, Facebook had not yet added “Love”, “Haha”, “Wow”, “Sad”, and “Angry” to “Like”.) Facebook’s tags (identifying how you are feeling, where you were, who you were with, etc. when you post) simplify the collection and quantification of your data for the company.

Chapter 3, “Pics or It Didn’t Happen”, examines why we feel the need to post details and photos about our personal lives, and why we “constantly tend” our social media profiles. Notifications and alerts keep us tethered to the site. We are disappointed if no one “Likes” or comments on our posts (I can attest to that!). But how many “Likes” are enough? Whatever we post soon vanishes in the fire hose of posts. We rarely revisit even our own old posts, let alone someone else’s. They are quickly forgotten, yet we keep churning them out, often including images as proof that we actually lived that moment, were in that place.

Chapter 4, “The Viral Dream”, is about “virality”–why it occurs and how it can impact people’s lives, often for the worse. “Viral fame quickly fades; that’s in its nature and the nature of the systems and culture we’ve created to enjoy it. But the hangover it produces can be long.” (pg. 67) It also considers “trending” and the data trail it produces, and points out that followers can be bought (or bot) by those who pursue notoriety or fame. It is the advertisers that actually benefit from trending topics and viral posts.

Chapter 5, “Churnalism and the Problem of Social News”, concerns “cheap, disposable content repurposed from press releases, news reports, viral media, social networks, and elsewhere, all of it practically out-of-date  and irrelevant as soon as someone clicks Publish”. Silverman considers how responsible journalism is affected by the drive to be first, which can pressure media outlets to publish without first confirming accuracy. He considers the weaknesses of Buzzfeed, the Huffington Post, and similar sites, and the pressure on journalists to be on social media all the time. He mentions “listicles” and quizzes, which he considers poor excuses for content.

Chapter 6, “To Watch and Be Watched”, focuses on surveillance, which is a constant of the social web. When we are online (and sometimes when we aren’t but just carrying our mobile devices around), we are constantly being watched, by Google, by Facebook, by the NSA, by everyone, and as they watch us, they are collecting information about us, often with the purpose of selling us a product (or an idea). We are being watched, and we are watching. We try to “manage our visibility”, but it is really out of our hands.

Chapter 7, “The War Against Identity”, is about identity vs. anonymity (which used to be a choice one could make on the web, but no longer!). Some of the things Silverman points out: Whereas social media sites used to allow people to use pseudonyms, more recently, we are required to use our real names and encouraged to sign up through other sites (like Facebook and Google Plus), which results in additional data about us being collected by the site. The fact that we may want to show different faces in different situations, as we do in real life, does not matter. We are forced to reveal just one self to the online world, whether we like it or not. Silverman considers how the choice to be anonymous can be beneficial, and opines that we should have that choice, whether we choose to exercise it or not.

Chapter 8, “The Reputation Racket”, concerns our reputation on social media, and how sites like Yelp, TaskRabbit, and Uber use ratings to judge both businesses (restaurants, drivers…) and people (consumers, riders); those who get poor ratings may be fired or may find it difficult to impossible to get a ride or a job. But the algorithms that determine our ratings are kept secret, so we can’t know what ours is or correct it if it is inaccurate.

Chapter 9, “Life and Work in the Sharing Economy”, concerns the crowdsourcing of work. Platforms such as TaskRabbit, which match individuals with low-paying work, enable companies to avoid hiring professional or full-time workers at decent wages with benefits. I was totally unaware of this trend in employment, which essentially enslaves an underclass of workers who are unable to get real jobs; they are forced to compete for lower and lower pay with others like themselves, while the companies claim that they are providing a means to earn extra cash for stay-at-home moms and those who need to supplement their income.

Chapter 10, “Digital Serfdom; or, We All Work for Facebook”, concerns how online companies use people to create content and do other work (test their products, read text that computers cannot read . . .) without compensation. It is not only web platforms that require us to work for what we want: we transport and put together IKEA furniture, scan our own purchases in stores, check ourselves in at the airport and out at the library, pump our own gasoline, etc. (It also mentions flanerie, or cyber-flanerie, where we move from one piece of content to the next, never stopping for long, forgetting soon afterward, “processing” each experience.)

Chapter 11, “The Myth of Privacy”, is about privacy, or the myth that we have any. Silverman points out that Facebook may allow us to control what other Facebook users know about us, but we cannot control what Facebook itself knows or can use or sell. If we want a modicum of control over our online selves, we must pay the platform owner, but most people don’t; we want a free platform, but the platform is never free; if we don’t pay with money, we pay with data. Sometimes, what we wanted to keep to ourselves (or to a particular audience) is unintentionally made public to the wrong audience. Silverman examines definitions and history of the concept of privacy and describes the reams of data Facebook collects about people (thousands of pages). Facebook, Google, and similar platforms track people not only online but in the real world, as we drive around and enter stores and restaurants, and they target us for ads. (I’d like to inject here that perhaps unlike most people, I am mostly oblivious to ads. I skip or zap them as soon as I am able and rarely notice them along the margins of text. If there are enough to be intrusive (e.g., on The Daily Kos) I tend to avoid the site altogether. On the other hand, I was kind of appalled yesterday when I looked at this blog from a reader’s viewpoint and saw the large number of ads flanking the post. But when I just revisited it now, the ads have vanished. ???) There are applications available to help us protext our privacy to some extent, but they are not used by many people. Most Facebook users never check their privacy settings, for example, and those privacy settings change frequently as Facebook makes it harder and harder for its users to elude its data collection.

Chapter 12, Big Data and the Informational Appetite”, considers the field of statistics known as Big Data. Data brokers “vacuum up” information about us, and the Facebooks of the world partner with these brokers (and sometimes merge with them), enabling them to better pressure us to click and buy. Silverman writes, “Surrounded by an abundance of content but willing to pay for little of it, we invite into our lives unceasing advertisements and like and follow brands so that they may offer us more.” (pg. 321) In so doing, we are complicit in our own enslavement. The platforms want us to think they are improving the world. In Silverman’s view, they aren’t. He advises, “Consumers need to educate themselves about these industries and think about how their data might be used to their disadvantage. But the onus shouldn’t lie there. We should be savvy enough, in this age of late capitalism, to be skeptical of any corporate power that claims to be our friend or acting in our best interests.” (pg. 326)

The final chapter, “Social Media Rebellion”, has a few tips for protecting onself (using photos of avatars or objects instead of actual photos; lying about our profile; avoiding tagging, checking in, hashtags, location services and notifications; removing apps you don’t use or don’t trust. . . .) but is mostly about people who go much further in their attempts to get the better of social media platforms, such as Vortex, CV Dazzle, F.A.T., Weird Twitter, and others, none of which I was aware of.

This book made me uncomfortable about my use of Facebook and Google products, even though I feel that I am less vulnerable to targeted ads than many folks. In the future, I hope I will be more respectful of people who choose not to use these sites. I’ve noticed that while reading it, I’ve posted to Facebook a bit less than usual, and avoided personal posts. I wonder how long it will last!

 

Posted in Non-fiction, Web Technology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide

Posted by nliakos on January 5, 2018

by Cass R. Sunstein (Harvard University Press 2017)

Constitutional law scholar Cass R. Sunstein has written a book about impeachment for everyone who is feeling the need to understand this process a little better as we head into 2018 after the tumultuous first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. Sunstein never mentions Trump by name, but it is very clear that he is thinking of him.

The book begins with a brief history of impeachment first in English and then in American jurisprudence. Sunstein summarizes the discussions among the framers of the Constitution concerning impeachment (which is front and center in Article 1, Section 2) and trial (Section 3) and then moves to the debate by those who ratified the Constitution in the different states, because those debates (unlike those of the framers) were public and thus representative of what citizens knew about impeachment.  He spends a lot of time examining the concepts of “high crimes and misdemeanors” and what those might be. He presents actual cases of impeachment (of presidents and judges), in particular the most recent cases of Nixon (never actually impeached because he resigned and was then pardoned before he could be indicted) and Clinton (whose impeachment was purely political) and then, in Chapter 7, “Twenty-One Cases,” he presents hypothetical cases of impeachment: first, two sets of “easy cases”, in which impeachment is obviously called for (first set of nine), or obviously not called for (second set of five). The final set of six consists of “harder cases” where the path is not clear, and reasonable people could disagree. In each case, Sunstein explains why the case is obvious or not. I found this chapter very enlightening.

The first easy case (“impeachable”), interestingly, seems very obviously to be based on Donald Trump’s behavior with Russia: A president has admiration and sympathy for a foreign nation that wishes to do harm to the United States. While in office, he reveals classified information to leaders of that nation, with the clear intention of strengthening it and of weakening his own country. The president can be impeached. He may have committed treason. . . . The only thing is that we cannot be sure of Trump’s intention when he shared highly classified information with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister in May 2016. His “admiration and sympathy for” Vladimir Putin was well known; but it is not clear whether he actually understands that Russia “wishes to do harm to the United States”, so his intent is unknowable (or so it would seem to me). (This is like trying to prove corrupt intent in a case of obstruction of justice. Not easy to do.)

There is also a chapter on the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides for the removal of the president from office, temporarily (as when he becomes too ill to do his job, perhaps during a hospitalization and surgery) or permanently, in the case of permanent disability, either physical or mental. The president can temporarily transfer his power to his Vice President; or if the President is incapacitated, his cabinet can transfer the power. Sunstein shows how the 25th amendment differs from impeachment in terms of when it would be applied.

Chapter 9 is a quick-and-dirty guide: “What Every American Should Know”. Some of the information here repeats that which has already been said, but in a more concise form. He also includes information that he has not already presented, such as Can federal courts–or the Supreme Court–stop an unconstitutional impeachment? (No) Must representatives impeach a president who has committed an impeachable offense, and must senators convict him? (Yes?) Can a president be sued for official acts? (No) Can s/he be sued for reasons other than official acts? (Yes) And so on.

It is not impossible that we will witness the impeachment and trial of Donald J. Trump during the next three years. While it is not likely that this will happen as long as the GOP retains control of the Congress, that situation could change; midterm elections are coming up in just over ten months, with the victors beginning their terms at the beginning of 2019. So it is a useful exercise to review the impeachment process, and Sunstein’s guide is a good place to start.

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Every Day I Fight

Posted by nliakos on January 2, 2018

by Stuart Scott with Larry Platt (Blue Rider Press 2015)

I can’t remember why I added this book to my To-Read list. I had never heard of Stuart Scott; I never watch ESPN, where he anchored the show SportsCenter. I am not interested in sports, and passages such as the following, common in this book, are unintelligible to me: In 1999, just before announcing that Vince Carter–Tar Heel!–was the runaway Rookie of the Year, I broke down a dunk by him that everyone had been calling a 360-degree throw-down. Only it wasn’t. “I gotta drop some knowledge,” I said, while footage of Vince’s slam played on the screen behind me. “Vince Carter’s late-season 360 dunk was not really a 360. let me show you.” At this, we played a clip of a recent Kobe 360. “Most guys do a true 360–they start to their right, complete the circle, slam it.” Now we played Vince’s. “Vince basically did, like, a 450–he started the other way, went all the way around before ripping the rim.”  Suffice it to say I got none of that. I have never heard of most of the names Scott drops (exceptions: Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan), did not get the sports references, and was befuddled by the African-American dialect he used on screen and sometimes in the narrative.

But Every Day I Fight is fundamentally a memoir of cancer. We get the back story, of how Scott worked his way up to his anchor position at ESPN, his first marriage, the birth of his daughters, and so on. But the focus of the book is his seven-year battle against appendiceal cancer. While undergoing chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, through clean scans and then new growths as the cancer kept coming back in new places, Scott continued to work when he was able and, incredibly, liked to follow bouts of chemotherapy with intense physical workouts, including mixed martial arts, a five-mile “Savage Race” and something called P90X. He insists that this made him feel better and gain weight. It’s not what most people would choose to do after chemo. Through it all, he was motivated by his love for his daughters, Taelor and Sydni. And he was able to bask in their presence as the cancer slowly destroyed his body–living in the now, not focusing on the future he would not have. I was crying as I read the final chapters.

I appreciated Scott’s insights into being a dad, a celebrity, a journalist, and in particular, a cancer patient. For example, he writes that once you have a cancer diagnosis, even if you are found to be “cancer-free”, your life is forever changed: My Buddy Brian wakes up feeling sore in the morning and thinks, “Man, this getting-old thing is a pain.” I wake up feeling sore and think, “Is that cancer? Is it back?”  Towards the end of the book, he writes, Well, when I started writing stuff down, I promised to keep it real, so I’ve gotta confess: I’m feeling that way (sick, tired, and depleted) now, with you. I’ve been filling up these pages with this cancer talk, and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t stand my own voice. I feel repetitive and pathetic and self-centered. . . .

When Scott writes about “keeping it real,” I am reminded of my friend Rhona Hall, who died of cancer in May of last year. Rhona often said to me, “That’s what I like about you, Nina–you always keep it real.”  I hope I will have the integrity and the courage to keep it real with my friends, my family, and myself in the coming years.

Posted in Autobiography, Memoir, Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

March

Posted by nliakos on December 27, 2017

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf Productions 2013 (Book One), 2015 (Book Two), and 20  (Book Three).

The three volumes together comprise this graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis, an icon of the Civil Rights movement. Book One opens in 2009 as the congressman prepares to attend the inauguration of the nation’s first black President. A woman brings her young sons to his office, and he begins to reminisce…. He recalls his childhood on his family’s farm in Alabama, going to school, hearing about the outcome of Brown Vs. Board of Education of Topeka and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the Montgomery bus boycott, enrolling in a seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, meeting Dr. King and others in the nascent civil rights movement, and learning about and practicing non-violent resistance in workshops which they then applied in lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville. They were arrested and jailed, but they were finally successful when Mayor West recommended the desegregation of the lunch counters in the city. This was in 1960.

Book Two picks up the story at the end of 1960 and takes it to the March on Washington in August, 1963, through sit-ins at Nashville cafeterias and fast food restaurants, non-violent attempts to integrate movie theaters, and the Freedom Rides of 1961. Lewis describes his involvement with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, which he was chosen to lead in 1963. He talks about Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who did not believe in non-violent resistance, as well as the leaders of the non-violent movement: Martin Luther King, Jr.; James Farmer; Diane Nash, and other well-known figures of that era. Of course, the racist southern politicians such as George Wallace and Bull Connor figure as well, and so do the Kennedys and federal agent John Siegenthaler, to whose memory this volume is dedicated.

During one of the Freedom Rides, Walter Bergman, a college professor,  was beaten so badly that he was paralyzed for the remainder of his life. Once, during a sit-in at a restaurant, the staff turned off the lights, locked the protesters inside, and fumigated the restaurant, as if they were exterminating bugs. Lewis writes simply, “We did not die that day, but it was not the last time I thought I saw death.” The courage it took to confront racist hatred, knowing that one could not meet violence with violence, is astonishing. Yet they kept going back for more, and Lewis played a major role in both protesting and in training the protesters.

The last pages of Book Two recall the cowardly bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four little girls, and Book Three (which, inexplicably and by itself, is this year’s First Year Book at the University of Maryland) opens in the chaos of the burning church (prologue) and then moves on to the other major events of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the fight for voting rights, culminating in “Bloody Sunday”, the terrible March 7 attack on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which the marchers  had to cross to continue on to their goal of the capital of Alabama, Montgomery; the symbolic march to the bridge on March 9; and finally the successful march from Selma to Montgomery, March 21-25 1965. The Voting Rights Act was signed into law less than six months later; the rest of the country was appalled at video of the vicious attacks on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators.

2017 is a strange vantage point from which to reflect on those long-ago events. Last year, the Voting Rights Act was essentially gutted by the Supreme Court, and Republican states have already implemented new laws which result in severe restrictions on the ability to vote for citizens of color. Did the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers offer their bodies to be beaten for this?

I guess that making this a graphic novel makes it more appealing to younger people, but frankly, I would have preferred a traditional prose memoir with photographs. I don’t have the patience to try and figure out what the pictures supposedly show. I couldn’t tell the various characters apart–not Lewis, not John Kennedy, not Martin Luther King, Jr. Nobody was recognizable to me, so it was hard to figure out who was speaking. The action wasn’t clear to me, either. For example, on page 121 (Book Two), did a pick-up truck actually hit a child during a protest at the swimming pool in Cairo, Illinois? (I had to google that one.) There are a lot of confusing scenes of mayhem and beating, fire hoses and billy clubs and guns, with onomatopoeia like KRAK, KLOP KLOP KLOP, CL-CLANK, VR_VRMMM, WHAP, KRUNCH, ERT, WHUMP, BLAM, VOOSH, SCREEEEEE, which I guess is appropriate for comic books (but I don’t understand why they have to mangle the spelling)I impatiently read through the text and hardly looked at the illustrations, which were mostly inscrutable to me anyway. I suppose had they been drawn differently, they might have supported the text more, but as it is, it just made me anxious to read Lewis’ more traditional memoir, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998) or Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America (2017). I assume that March may appeal more to younger readers who are unaccustomed to reading an actual book (how snarky of me).

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If I Stay

Posted by nliakos on December 26, 2017

by Gayle Forman (SPEAK/Penguin Group, 2009)

Vicki and I watched the movie of the same name that was based on this novel, which made both of us want to read it. I consumed it in a couple of days. Both the movie and the novel made me cry.

If I Stay is the story of 17-year-old Mia Hall, a promising young cellist living near Portland, OR. In her final year of high school, Mia is dating Adam, a young man a year older than she who is a guitarist in a punk band. She is very close to her parents, who also frequented the rock music scene–her father was the drummer in a well-regarded band–and her younger brother Teddy. She has applied to Julliard, which would mean moving across the country away from her family and Adam, but other than this her life seems quite charmed. . .  until the family is in a terrible accident on a snowy road. Mia’s mother is dead on the scene; her father and brother make it to the hospital but ultimately do not survive. Mia herself is gravely injured and comatose, but her spirit watches over the family in the hospital, including her own unresponsive body and the people who keep a vigil at the hospital: Adam, her best friend Kim, her grandparents and other relatives. Mia’s spirit is devastated by the loss of her family, and she dreads waking up without them. One of the nurses keeps telling her that whether she lives or dies is up to her, and that if she wants to live, she must decide to live. Mia seems reluctant and readies herself to die–but Adam refuses to let her go without a fight.

The novel does not proceed chronologically but consists of time snapshots of the day of the accident interspersed with flashbacks to Mia’s childhood and adolescence; these include scenes without her, such as her parents in their bedroom listening to a very young Mia practicing her cello obsessively late into the night. The flashbacks flesh out Mia and Adam’s loving relationship as well as Mia’s family life.

I must be showing my age, but I was kind of amazed that Mia and Adam quickly become intimate, and no one seems to think it strange for high school kids to be sleeping together. This is, after all, 2017 (well, 2009, when it was written)!

Music is integral to the story. In the edition I read, there is an addendum by the author explaining her choices of both popular and classical pieces that she wrote into the novel.

If I Stay is a love story, tender and passionate. Adam and Mia, like Romeo and Juliet, love deeply and intensely, despite their youth. But will their love be enough? You can probably guess the answer–but this book is followed by a sequel which I have not read, Where She Went, which takes place three years later. Apparently there is no happily ever after–at least not immediately.

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