Category Archives: Books I enjoy!

Saturday’s Book: “Waiting” by Ha Jin

Naomi’s Photos

“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu”.

That is the opening line of the book “Waiting”, which I encountered in the local library. I had not heard of the author nor had I heard of the book, but with an opening line like that, I was hooked.

The book is clever and unexpected.

For one thing, I wondered how long the author, Jin,  could keep up the main storyline of the book without becoming tiresome – it’s no spoiler to say that the hero is an army doctor, there is a nurse at the military hospital and a wife back in Goose Village.

Jin held my interest for all of the 308 pages.

The book was even more unexpected in the sense of how much background information about rural China (both historical and cultural) and social commentary Jin conveys in an indirect and subtle manner. There are no direct horror stories of “The Cultural Revolution”, nor does the quiet military doctor actively participate in any of the enterprising initiatives that open up later. But as the story unfolds, a clear picture of what it is like to live in an extremely controlled society, one in which you never seem to be truly alone, emerges as well.

Another example of a THANK YOU, LIBRARY” book – books that I find there when I stop looking for books I’ve heard about.

 

Belated Saturday’s Book: “A Place Called Peculiar” by Gallant

Who are you calling peculiar?! Naomi’s Photos

The complete title of the book is: “A Place Called Peculiar: Stories About Unusual American Place-Names”.

This is the kind of book that is fun to read parts of when you are with a group of people who can share your wonder, disbelief and a good laugh at the really unusual names of places one can find in the United States. Sadly, the rest of the time this book can sit, untouched, for years on a shelf. There’s a chapter for every state and frankly, there are only so many weird place names one can examine at a time.

When reading (or flipping through) this book you’ll encounter place names such as “Coin”, “Tea” or even one called “In Between”. And yes, there’s a town called “Peculiar” like the title of the book! Paradise (California) may (or may not) have inherited its name from a saloon called ” a pair o dice” , you can read about it (there are several other additional places called “Paradise” in the US, did you know that?).

My family and I actually visited “Chicken” Alaska and heard a slightly different version of the origin of the name. In the version we know,  the people who survived the harsh winter thanks to the ptarmigan, wanted to name the tiny TINY place in its honor. However, they couldn’t spell ptarmigan! But they could spell chicken…

Saturday’s Book: Musing On “A Tale of Love and Darkness” By Amos Oz

Naomi’s Photos

There was a report on the radio this morning, unsurprisingly, about the great writer Amos Oz who just passed away. A passage from his book ” A tale of Love and Darkness” was read. The reporter chose a passage describing the author’s meeting with Ben-Gurion.

It’s a great passage but not one I remember at all.

Other scenes from the book left strong impressions in my memory – memories not only of what was written but how I felt when reading them.

I remember the descriptions of the books, or rather the significant presence of BOOKS in Oz’s childhood. How much these books meant to his father, how painful it was for his father to part with them.

I remember the tragedy of his mother’s life and the complex relationship.

I remember how befriending children his age was complicated when growing up as an only child among angst, silences, great minds of the period and books.

I remember his struggle to forge his own way, his own identity.

I remember it took me a long time to read the book – it is not a quick, light read.

But I’m so glad I read it.

Note:

I was browsing my blog to see if I had reviewed this book in the past. I hadn’t because I began my blog in December 2010.

My blog turned eight this month and I had forgotten.

My mind is elsewhere this year – full of memories…

 

Saturday’s Book: “Just About Life” by Kevin Stein

A thoughtful moment
Naomi’s Photos

This is one of those times when I say; “Forget the students!”

I actually eagerly sat down at first to read Kevin Stein’s free book (PDF or Ebook) “Just About Life” because I did have students in mind at first. Kevin wrote this collection of short stories  (fiction) with controlled vocabulary and length, (as he explains in his post) and his intended audience is English language learners in Japan.  I’m currently particularly interested in different ways to bring vocabulary lists to life in meaningful context due to changes in the structure of our exams.

But all of that will come up in other kinds of posts. As I said, this post isn’t about teaching.

I found that I enjoyed reading the stories myself, not just as a teacher.

They were short, I read them quickly, but I find I am still thinking about some of the stories. The endings are thought-provoking, rather than your standard clear-cut, simple happy resolution style of stories.  I’m tempted to reread a few and see how I interpret some of the endings now.

I think I liked the one related to photography best – I guess that doesn’t sound surprising!

I was saddened by the silences between people in some of the stories, things left unsaid. I was wondering if that is more of a reflection of Japanese culture in these stories. I’ve watched several Japanese movies and this is an impression I have. However, I’ve never been to Japan, so please correct me if this is a misconception.

Oh, and do strawberries have a special significance?

It rocks when teachers can enjoy what was written for students!

Saturday’s Book: The Automobile Club of Egypt by Al Aswany

Naomi’s Photos

The cover states (I quote): “From the author of the million-copy selling       THE YACOUBIAN BUILDING”.

Not quite the way I would phrase it but I really did enjoy “The Yacoubian Building”!

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this one so much.

Sometimes a winning format doesn’t work when you are trying to repeat it. At least for me. It’s true that there are still a host of characters from different socio-economic statuses (people who would never interact with each other) who find their lives intertwined on a backdrop of a dramatic time in the history of Egypt. But there is too much repetition, the characters seemed “flatter” with certain qualities emphasized again and again.

Perhaps I would have found it more interesting if I hadn’t read the previous book, but the characters failed to hold my interest for the full 496 pages…

 

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin

Here comes the bride…
Naomi’s Photos

I chose my third and final audiobook for the year on an impulse.  “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life”, by Steve Martin is not similar to the usual kind of books that I read. Which is exactly why I chose it.  I felt I needed a break from the rather serious books I have recently been reading (more on that later) and thought that listening to a comedian read his own book would be taking full advantage of the medium of audiobooks. Frankly, I imagined that listening to this book would be somewhat like listening to Trevor Noah read “Born a Crime”, which I really enjoyed.

It’s an unfair comparison. Not only did Trevor Noah have a truly unusual childhood, but his book also does an amazing job of showing how people from different cultural backgrounds may perceive events from very different perspectives and what that can lead to.

That’s not Steve Martin’s goal. Once I settled down and began accepting the book for what it was (and to the fact that Martin doesn’t “act out” voices of characters) I rather enjoyed it.  Steve Martin realized early on, the hard way,  that if he waited to be “discovered” at some audition he would never get anywhere. There was none of this “instant stardom” some of my students seem to fantasize about.  He didn’t have any mentors to show him the way and he worked very hard at honing his profession.

In short, a tale of grit.

I also found it very interesting that a comedian “grew” out of a silent, rigid family setting.

I’m not a big fan of “slapstick” humor and mainly watched Martin in movies with my sons when they were younger, but it’s pretty amazing to learn about all that happens, or is needed, in order to seem to be “clowning around.”

Saturday’s Book: “The Woman who Smashed Codes” by Fagone

Take the long view…
Naomi’s Photos

The full title of the book is “The Woman who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies”.

This is a fascinating book about Elizabeth Smith Friedman, another extremely intelligent, gutsy woman who played an important role in American history, yet her story hadn’t been told.

I was somewhat apprehensive about reading the book since I’m not mathematically inclined. There are explanations about codes and discussions of codes as that was Elizabeth’s groundbreaking field of expertise. However, that wasn’t a problem at all.  The book is engaging and clear, presenting Elizabeth’s life as it intertwined with government and military history, actually the covert history of a substantial part of the 20th century.  I was particularly interested in the part about South America during World War ll.  I had known almost nothing about the “invisible war” going on there!

It never ceases to amaze me how dual feelings toward women could have existed in such a manner. On one hand, men in key roles and government and the military lined up to consult with Elizabeth, yet giving her due credit or equal pay – forget it…

A great book!

Saturday’s Book: “In Xanadu: A Quest” by William Dalrymple

 

Naomi’s Photos

Don’t read this book if you are easily offended.

However, despite the fact that Dalrymple is quite critical (or condescending!) of every place and culture he encounters on his incredible journey from Jerusalem to China, this book is a great read and I quite enjoyed it.

The book is actually a double form of time-traveling.  The author, and his formidable traveling companion, Laura, set out to recreate most of Marco Polo’s epic journey. They don’t begin in Italy but rather in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Marco Polo supposedly stopped to take some holy oil for the journey.  Dalrymple brings alive historical information about Marco Polo’s journey in a light, engaging,  and clearly knowledgeable manner. He particularly focuses on architecture and points out cross-cultural influences between Islamic and Christian architecture, as he relates anecdotes regarding the people he meets and their adventures along the way.

But the modern journey is itself a form of time-travel to a reader like myself, reading the book in 2018. The two students (the author was 22!!!) embarked on the journey in the early 1980s. Not only have the regions they passed through undergone changes or even upheavals since then, but the journey also took place in pre-Internet days. While Dalrymple is very knowledgeable about the past, he seems to have known very little of the current (1980s, that is) forces or news of the regions he was passing through in advance. I believe foreigners trekking through remote places was a much rarer phenomenon back then, which makes his tales even more interesting.

Naomi’s Photos

The young people certainly do not travel in style and do many a crazy thing to keep progressing towards their goal. Frankly,  I find it pretty amazing they made it to Xanadu at all. Side note: Dalrymple makes the whole journey but in India, Louisa replaces Laura for the last leg. Louisa was Dalrymple’s former girlfriend…

I have to admit that I’m a mother of 20 something-year-olds. Although I read the tales of these two young people’s travels through areas considered highly dangerous (where the two young people could have easily been murdered or thrown into a remote prison many times!), with a fair amount of equanimity, I got quite upset when I reached the part where Louisa became ill.  They were in an area where the health care was particularly appalling and she could have easily died!  Obviously, she did not but I identified strongly with their mothers’, who are briefly mentioned.

In short, despite its shortcomings, it’s an engaging book! I’m ready to read more of his books!

Saturday’s Book: “The Land of Decoration” by Grace McCleen

Naomi’s Photos

This book should have come with a personal trigger warning: Don’t read this book until you have recovered from reading “Educated” by Tara Westover. I found “Educated” to be a deeply disturbing book.

The fact that I could not stop reading the book even though I wanted to, is a testimony to how well the book is written. I had to see it through.

“The Land of Decoration”, like “Educated” is about a daughter in a family with extreme fundamentalist beliefs ***. In both books, I found the depths of the misery that such extremism lead to hard to read about. “In this book, the end of the world is at hand and life revolves around this fact. For motherless 10-year-old Judith, who lives with her father, there is no Christmas to celebrate. Birthdays aren’t celebrated either. Everything about her life sets her apart from the children at school, who bully her constantly. The neighborhood is derelict, the teacher at school has a drinking problem and there is a strike at the plant where her father works.

I wanted to airlift that child elsewhere, immediately.

But…

Judith is highly intelligent and blessed with a wonderful imagination. She created, out of odds and ends from what other people would call junk, an entire model of the town in which she lives. Judith called it “The land of decoration” and it is her escape from reality. It is she who narrates the tale,  a child struggling to reconcile the different realities she is faced with. Her “voice” is riveting!

When Judith begins to talk to God and make miracles with her “land”, what begins with snow literally “snowballs” into a lot of trouble.

The author really makes sure the reader sinks into depths of misery, along with that poor child before finally rescuing everyone. I’ve been known to abandon books but, as I said, I had to see it through.

I don’t know whether to recommend the book or not…

*** This book is a work of fiction. “Educated” is a memoir. 

Double Book Feature: “The Guests” and “Back from the Valley of Rephaim”

**Note: I am so behind with my book-posts that I’m resorting to a double feature!

** Another Note: I read both books in Hebrew. Books by both authors have already been translated into English so you may find these in the future as well.

Photo by Gil Epshtein

For me, both of these books are connected to language, words, books and how they are written.  Things I happen to be interested in…

In “The Guests” by Ofir Touche Gafla, the author takes a well-worn idiom literally (extremely literally!) and builds a whole unsettling new global reality with it. Everything is very realistic, “not sci-fi like” except that the people in the world, as we know it today, have to deal with the events of one highly unusual week and its aftermath.

Please concentrate a moment on the idiom ” Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes”. Now imagine that every adult in the world wakes up one morning to find a pair of his /her dream shoes, exactly the right size, and color, just begging to be tried on. That act causes people to become someone else for a week. Not just “any” someone else, but the person they hate the most…

Can you really imagine all of the ramifications of such an event? I think not. Don’t worry, Gafla has done the imagining for you. The book is an intriguing read, even though I believe that the book could have been a bit shorter.

Epstein Family Photos

In “Back from the Valley of Rephaim”, the author Haim Be’er captures our interest right away by presenting us with an intriguing situation, raising a host of questions.  A highly successful (fictional) writer, from an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish background, passes away and is buried in a Christian cemetery in the German Quarter of Jerusalem.

A young filmmaker and his friend from the radio peel back the layers of the surprising mysteries surrounding the writer’s life, death, and work, with the help of many colorful figures whose lives intersected with the that of the writer. It’s also a tale of different time periods and places. I really don’t want to give you any examples, that would be a real spoiler here.

The use of language in this book was delightful – such a rich use of expressions, idioms, and surprising metaphors! I admit I had to look up a few unfamiliar ones! Frankly, it seems a challenging book to translate – I sincerely hope someone will do it!

Enjoy!