Tuesday, February 28, 2012

JSF News

Well, my Facebook BFF, Jonathan Safran Foer, has just informed me that his new book is coming out on March 5!  Here is a link to a review.  You may recall that I mentioned just over a year ago that I had heard a rumor that he was working on a version of a Haggadah.  It appears that the rumors are true, and this new Haggadah will be out in time for Passover.  According to Wikipedia, a Haggadah is a Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder, and is read at the Seder table. 

A great book about a Haggadah is People of the Book by Geraldine March, which tells a fictionalized version of how the Sarajevo Haggadah (one of the oldest known to exist) may have survived through the ages.  Based on the review, JSF's book is not about a Haggadah, but is a Haggadah.

As a Presbyterian, I don't need to rush to get this book in time for Seder, but due to my devotion to JSF, I have added it to my TBR list.  Do you think that JSF announced that his book is coming out today as a special birthday present to me?  Somehow, I doubt that, but it is a strange coincidence . .  .

Thinking about reading a traditional text from another religion reminded me of the thought that crosses my mind from time to time that I should read the Koran.  I did some quick Googling, and found an online Koran reading group,  but of course, that took place last year.  I also found some Western Koran scholars who suggested that one cannot just pick up a Koran and read it without explanation. So, as an attempt to learn something about the Koran, without overwhelming myself, I have also added The Muslim Next Door:  The Qur'an, The Media, and That Veil Thing by Sumbul Ali-Karamali to my reading list.

Not that I'm considering making any spiritual changes in my life, but a little knowledge never hurt anyone.  Right?

Still Reading:  Emma by Jane Austen

Still Listening to:  Helen of Troy by Margaret George

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Not worth the Trip

I was excited to read Lulu in Marrakech by Diane Johnson, because I had read Le Divorce by Johnson, and liked it more than I expected.  Le Divorce is the story of an American tourist learning about life in Paris through the eyes of her sister, who is an American ex-pat.  The observations in terms of what the tourist expected and what the ex-pat had learned were so astute, that I found myself thinking back to the book while I was in Paris, a year or two after reading it.  I had hoped that Lulu would give me the same understanding of Marrakech, but that was not to be.

Lulu is the story of an American working as some sort of a spy while living with her boyfriend in Morocco.  As a spy, Lulu is incredibly bumbling, and not in an endearing way.  She allows herself to become involved in the lives of the people who she is reporting about to the extent that she hopes to marry one of them, her boyfriend, Ian.  Late in the story, when she fears Ian is cheating on her, instead of acting like a normal person, she just waits around as his house guest, while the suspected "other woman" moves in.  If that wouldn't blow her cover as a spy, I don't know what would.  Ultimately, she dismisses the mistress as being too "dumb" for Ian, which made me think that the mistress must be an absolute imbecile, if she is dumber than Lulu. 

Lulu is a book worth skipping, and I would not have finished it at all, if I hadn't read Le Divorce and expected more of Johnson.  I got it at The Typical Book Exchange, but I won't be saving it to re-exchange at this year's event.  I am on vacation in Florida right now, and think that I will leave Lulu behind in the rental home, for the next person who is desperate for something to read.  At least I have one more done for the Off the Shelf Challenge

Speaking of my vacation, as part of our trip we visited the Ringling Circus Museum a couple of days ago.  This got me thinking of Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen  and reminded me that I haven't seen that movie yet.  I'll have to check it out as soon as I get home.  If you are ever in the Sarasota area, the museum is worth seeing.

Next Up:  Emma by Jane Austen

On Vacation From Listening to:  Helen of Troy by Margaret George.  I finished 6 of the 25 discs before leaving on my vacation, and really wish that I had brought the rest with me.  George has a great way of making a long, historical story really interesting.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Friends Book Report - 4

The Friends Book Group met to discuss State of Wonder by Ann Patchett last night.  We all agreed that we were surprised that we liked the book as much as we did.  I mean really, who would expect a book about a scientist who is trying to develop a fertility treatment to be a page turner?  But it was. 

As always, we couldn't resist trying to diagnose the characters.  Some of us thought that Dr. Swenson had Asperger's.  Some of us thought that Marina was pregnant.  We actually spent quite a lot of time talking about whether Marina was pregnant or not, and then trying to figure out what the characters would do (after the book ended) if she was.  It had not occurred to me that Marina was going to have a baby, but it seemed totally obvious to others, and it would explain why Marina did something that I didn't quite understand toward the end of the book. 

Predictably, we talked a good deal about why someone would want to have kids at 70 years old.   We also wondered what the impact on the global population would be if this could be done.

We decided to read Following Atticus:  Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship  by Tom Ryan next.  However, some of us have already read that one.  The people who have are going to read a different dog book, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski instead.

Still Reading:  Lulu in Marrakech by Diane Johnson

Still Listening to:  Helen of Troy by Margaret George

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Theodosia, Really

When I read the NYT review of A Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker, I was curious, but cautious.  My family traveled to North Carolina's Outer Banks a couple of years ago, and really loved it, so I was interested in a book set there.  I also have really liked some books of historical fiction that I've read  that deal with obscure historical figures, like Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold.  However, the review is really not all that great, and I generally trust The Times.

A Watery Part of the World is the story of Theodosia Burr, intermixed with the story of two of her great, great, great granddaughters, Miss Whaley and Miss Maggie.  Theodosia Burr is a really interesting historical figure who I had never heard of before reading this book.  Apparently (in real life) she was the daughter of Aaron Burr (former US Vice President, better known for his role in a duel with Alexander Hamilton), and was married to a Governor of South Carolina, Joseph Alston.  On December 31, 1812, Theodosia was on a schooner which is believed to have sank near Cape Hatteras.  No one from that ship was ever heard from again.

Parker takes Theodosia's real life story as a starting off point, and imagines what could have happened if she had lived, but been trapped on a part of what we now call The Outer Banks.  This reminded me of I was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn, which took the known facts of Amelia Earhart's disappearance, and imagined how she and her navigator may have lived on a deserted island.

Through Miss Whaley and Miss Maggie, and their neighbor, Woodrow, Parker shows how Theodosia's descendants, and the descendant of the slave who her husband freed, may have made lives for themselves, up through the late twentieth century.  These three are living on a barrier island, and over time, they have become its only inhabitants.  This island regresses rather than progresses, as it loses power, bringing the residents back in time to an era before electricity was available.

I really liked this book, despite some pretty clear flaws.  There were times when I couldn't tell if I was in a flash back or not, and times when I couldn't tell whether a character was imagining or reporting what she really saw, despite multiple re-readings.  Early in the story, there are several references to  1970, implying that that is when Miss Whaley, Miss Maggie and Woodrow are living, but toward the end of the book, Woodrow references a time in the distant past, when he went back to the mainland to live in the 1960s.  I couldn't get a good grasp on when these islanders were supposed to be living, so I really couldn't gauge how likely it would be that an island in such a (now) popular area would fall to desertion.

I will probably recommend this to friends who are looking for a good quick read, especially if they are planning a visit to OBX.

This is another book down for the Support Your Library Challenge, leaving me with 19 to go.  This is also the first book that I checked out from my library on my Kindle.  Easy Breezy.  I will definitely do that again.

Next up:  Lulu in Marrakesh by Diane Johnson

Still Listening to:  Helen of Troy by Margaret George

Monday, February 13, 2012

Dyslexic Success

As a parent of a child who has dyslexia, I try to read a lot on the subject.  However, I have stopped buying every book about dyslexia that I see, as some are just not all that helpful.  As a result, I checked The Dyslexic Advantage:  Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by Brock Eide out from my library on audio book.  By the time I had reached the 3rd of the 7 discs, I had ordered the book from Amazon.

My daughter has struggled with dyslexia for years.  We were very lucky to have her diagnosed when she was in first grade.  Most dyslexic students are not diagnosed until third or fourth grade.  Since that time, we have worked with tutors, tried to find the best accommodations for her in public school, and most recently, moved her to a private school for children with learning disabilities.  In fact, it was my frustration with one of her teachers in the public school that set me off on a rant and got me blogging.  So in a way, I have to thank dyslexia for leading me to blog!

My frustration was that no matter what we tried for my daughter, she would master a certain skill, and then later, would completely forget it.  As an example, in preschool she could easily count to 20.  In kindergarten, she consistently omitted the number 14, as though it never existed.  Same thing with simple words that don't sound out, and math facts.  She would know them all, so her teachers would move on, only to realize a month later that she had forgotten what she once knew.  For 3 years we had her tutored at a reputable dyslexia center in our area.  In the end, she really hadn't made that much progress.  The tutor, who was in charge of the center and the most qualified person there, said that she had never before had a student who would grasp a concept and then lose it.  In exasperation, I have taken to referring to that place as "The Center for the Mildly Dyslexic" which is unfair and mean spirited of me, but whatever.  I was led to believe that my daughter is the only dyslexic person like this, and that it is probably something other than dyslexia that is causing her to forget. 

Imagine my surprise when Brock Eide mentioned in one of the very first chapters that a common type of dyslexic learner is just like my daughter, and has a hard time holding onto the concepts that he or she has apparently mastered.  This was only one of the insights that Eide shared which I had never heard before. 

I sort of expected The Dyslexic Advantage to be a list of successful people, with the generalized encouragement that your child too could succeed in these areas.  It is far more than that.  Eide does look at successful people, and uses them as examples, but his emphasis is not on what they have accomplished, but on what caused them to think in a way that allowed them to find success.  Eide explains that there are many different ways that people who have dyslexia think (it's not all the same!), and classifies them based on the ways that they can learn and solve problems.  He identifies four brain variations common among people with dyslexia, and discusses the challenges and strengths of each. 

What The Dyslexic Advantage  is not is a users' manual for parents.  It clarifies that dyslexia is not a "one size fits all" affliction, and that each individual needs to be analyzed to see how they learn best.  Most of the people in Eide's examples did not find success until they were well out of high school, and still struggling with different learning techniques.  When they were finally able to figure out what worked right for them, the success followed.  However, this was generally after years of trial and error.  There is not a prescription here for parents to follow, other than that we should be open minded, encourage our children's strengths, and see if those strengths can be leveraged into a learning advantage.

One issue that I have debated with myself over the years is whether I am actually helping my daughter by getting her help.  When we look at lists of successful people who have dyslexia, the common theme is that they struggled during their school years, and eventually overcame their challenges.  I worry that by getting my daughter accommodations I may be weakening her, and not forcing her to face her challenges.  This is sort of "what doesn't kill her will make her stronger" thinking, and I have chosen to take the opposite approach.  Eide explains throughout the book that dyslexia really can be an advantage in allowing the "afflicted" person to think in a way that is not obvious to others.  This allows them to see things in a different light, or think outside the box, without even trying.  However, Eide strongly recommends accommodations, and does not see them as impairing the dyslexic advantages, but only of giving those advantages a way to surface.

All told, The Dyslexic Advantage should join Overcoming Dyslexia:  A New and Complete Science- Based Program for Reading Problems at any Level  by Sally Shaywitz and From Emotions to Advocacy:  The Special Education Survival Guide by Pete Wright as required reading for the parents of any child with dyslexia.

This is one more down for the Support Your Library Challenge - 20 to go.

Next up on CD:  Helen of Troy by Margaret George.  This is 30 hours on 25 CDs!  I will be saying that I'm still listening to this one for at least the next month.

Still Reading:  A Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Speaking British

The London Train by Tessa Hadley is the story of the aftermath of an affair, told in an unusual order.  We start with the story of Paul, post affair, then learn about the affair, and then learn about Cora, post affair. 

Paul is a pretty unlikeable fellow, who seems to be interested in reliving his youth by leaving his family and moving in with his adult daughter.  He neglects to tell his wife where he is going, and in fact lies to her about his whereabouts so that she is left to wonder.  She, in turn, sees a new side to a friend of Paul's who she has always disliked.

Cora is a woman living in Cardiff, and trying to start a new life for herself as a librarian.  Though she claims to be trying to grow roots, something about her life seems transient and unsettled.

Most of the action in this story takes place in London and Cardiff.  Hadley is a British author through and through, and her choice of words is charming.  An American trying to write like a Brit would not have done it right.  Hadley uses British words on almost ever page, such as crockery (dishes), wind cheater (wind breaker), and flats (apartments), all through the normal course of conversation, making the American reader feel a little smug about being able to understand a "foreign" language. 

An interesting scene has Paul and his friend Gerald discussing emotions for which there are no words in English, such as the "reaction to a violation of a community norm", and "how one feels when one wants some things to happen and knows they cannot happen".  On the superficial level, I couldn't think of any words for these emotions, but can't think of why we wouldn't have them.  The closest that I came up with for the first was "schadenfreude",  but that word is (1) not quite right and (2) not quite English.  On the deeper level, Paul and Gerald were obviously not really discussing problems with the English language.

Hadley's use of British English gives me the opportunity to bring up something that has been annoying me.  Remember a while back when I wrote about The Lost City of Z by David Grann?  It was the story of a British explorer, Percy Fawcett, and his trips to the Amazon to find a city which he named "Z".  I listened to that book on CD, and the reader pronounced the name of the city as "Zee".  Wouldn't Fawcett have said "Zed"?  And if he didn't, if he truly did refer to it as "Zee", wouldn't he have spelled it that way?  Random meaningless thoughts.

One more down for the "Off the Shelf Challenge".  21 to go.

Next up:  The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker

Still listening to:  The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock Eide

Friday, February 3, 2012

Oscar Wao, Whatever That Means

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is probably most obviously described as the story of a family, the de Leons, and their struggle to defy a fucu or curse, that was put on the family during the Truijllo reign in the Dominican Republic.  Oscar is an awkward character, who is more comfortable with his science fiction books and action figures than with real life, but is constantly looking for a woman who will love him.

Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.  So, it is a book that has received a great deal of critical acclaim, but it's really not a favorite of mine.  The story is told from the perspective of an all knowing narrator, who is not identified until about half way through the book.  I won't tell you who the narrator is, because that would spoil a little of the story.    Like the narrator(s) in The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, the narrator in Oscar Wao references research and old photos as the basis of his (or her) knowledge.  The narrator is a very likable character, despite obvious flaws, who speaks with a truly distinctive voice.  Part of my problem with relating to Oscar Wao, however, is that the narrator slips in words in Spanish throughout his speech, to the extent that it limits the English reader's ability to understand the story.

I have helped my son with his Spanish vocabulary words for the past 6 years, but even with that (limited) Spanish knowledge, I was often feeling like there was an inside joke, and I was on the outside.  My hunch is, that even if I knew Spanish, I would be left wanting to know Dominican slang in order to truly understand the novel.  For instance, I was able to figure out based on context that the word "toto" referred to a woman's genitalia, and my guess is that it would translate closely to "pussy". However there were several times when the context did not give any clues to the Dominican meaning, such as when the character Jenni is introduced, and we are told that her friends call her "La Jablesse," with no indication as to what that means, or why they call her that.  Likewise, Oscar's last name is not really "Wao", it's de Leon.  The sentence where it is explained why Oscar's friends start calling him "Oscar Wao" offers few clues to the English reader as to why they would call him that.  In my perfect world, Oscar Wao would include a glossary in the back, so that when the reader thinks it's worth their effort, they can look up the word in question.

In the end, it is clear that the story in Oscar Wao is about more than defeating the fuku.  The narrator is ultimately more affected by his relationship with Oscar than he (or she) ever expected.  Looking for the lesson here, it seems that the moral is that sometimes being a friend to someone who is "different" is of greater value than a thousand easy relationships.

As for the challenges, this one is a double countsie.  It has been in my nightstand waiting for me to read it, so it counts for the Off the Shelf Challenge, but I listened to it on CDs which I checked out of my library.  So that's 3 down for the Support your Library Challenge, and 2 down for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  Lots more to go.

Next Up on CD:  The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by Brock Eide.  Now speaking of different learners . . .

Still Reading:  London Train  by Tessa Hadley

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Stranger than Fiction

There are two stories in the news lately that have me thinking of fiction.  The first is the story of a woman from Grosse Pointe Park, MI, who was found dead in her car, in Detroit.  Here is a link to that story that gives you the basics:  Jane Bashara Story.  Obviously, the story of an affluent husband hiring someone to kill his wife, which seems to be the police's current theory, has been written.  But did you notice where Jane Bashara lived?  Middlesex.  As in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex.

Jeffrey Eugenides set a large part of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel on Middlesex, specifically using his own former house, 741 Middlesex, and a neighbor's home, 567 Middlesex as the basis for his descriptions.  According to this site, several other houses on Middlesex belonged to Detroit Mafia and "Detroit Outfit" bosses.   Reportedly, the house at 701 Middlesex belonged to Pete Corrado, until his death, and then belonged to Anthony "The Bull" Corrado until 1988.  The house at 702 Middlesex belonged to Joseph "Uno" Zerilli, who was said to have been "the Godfather" of the Detroit Mafia for 40 years.  The house at 781 Middlesex is also said to have been owned by Mafia family members.  The tunnels that Eugenides mentioned in The Virgin Suicides just might actually exist on a street like that.

Jane Bashara lived at 552 Middlesex.  The story of her murder over the weekend is making national news, but at this point, her husband is only "a person of interest" and not a suspect.  We'll see how this one unfolds.  Regardless of what happens, it sounds like there are still lots of stories to be told on Middlesex.

The other story that has me thinking of fiction is that of the woman who left her toddler children in her car, and was found miles away hours later.  She can't remember how she got to where she was found, but believes that she walked there, even though she was found 12 miles from where she left her kids.  Here is a link to that story: Sarah Hatfield Story.  The doctors in her case are saying that she may suffer from "transient global amnesia", which causes her to forget how she got where she is, and apparently why she left where she was.  This had me thinking of Unnamed  by Joshua Ferris, where the main character, Tim, was unable to control his body's impulse to walk.  In that book, the disease was not named or known to any doctors, thus the title.  Tim felt that it was not a mental disorder but a bodily issue where his mind could not stop his body from walking.  I wonder if Sarah Hatfield has read Ferris' book.

That's all for my "breaking news" update for the day.  I'll keep you posted if twists in the real life stories start me thinking about other strange tales.

Still Reading:  London Train by Tessa Hadley

Still Listening to:  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
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