Thinking about Thanking

November 23, 2016

Recently I have been meeting weekly with an ESL student to give her practice speaking conversational English and increase her understanding of American culture. Naturally the subject of Thanksgiving has come up more than once.

The first time, she asked me what the word “thankful” meant. That surprised me, since this is not her first year in this country and her English vocabulary seems pretty good. I explained it meant “grateful,” which she did understand. (Which seems odd to me – I would have thought that the word thankful is used more often than grateful.)

(A Google search shows me that some people do distinguish between thankful and grateful, but there does not seem to be any consistency in how the two are distinguished, and other people use them interchangeably. It may be that, to some people, “thank you” is overused to the point of conveying less sense of genuine gratitude. Personally, I consider the two to be synonyms.) Read the rest of this entry »


Books: I Am Malala

October 1, 2016

The 2016 Reading Challenge I have been working on includes reading a political memoir. Several times I browsed the Biography shelves at the library, trying to find one that looked at least half-way interesting – and preferably fairly short. But all the volumes I saw with names I recognized from the political area looked quite hefty, and I found it unlikely that they had that much to say that would interest me. Looking through some online book reviews confirmed my suspicion that books of this genre tend to have little value or lasting appeal.

Fortunately I discovered that the same website that lists the Reading Challenge also lists books to read to meet the challenge. And in the political memoir category, the recommendation was I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. I vaguely remember news reports from 2012 when she was shot, and later in 2014 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but I had not really followed the stories much at that time.

This sounded much more interesting than reading about some politician taking advantage of temporary fame to publish a book, perhaps in the hope of not being forgotten quite as quickly as most. Besides, I always enjoy learning about other countries and their culture and history, and learning a different perspective on the world and life in general.

Malala’s story is very interesting. Some reviews criticize the quality of the writing, but all agree that the story makes the book well worth reading. We learn about Malala’s childhood, her family, and her father’s commitment to education for both boys and girls. We learn about the beauty of her homeland and about various traditions that shape the people’s lives. And of course, we learn about the coming of the Taliban and the way most people were too afraid to speak out against them, even while realizing that they were not the champions of righteousness that they initially appeared to be. Read the rest of this entry »


Books about WWII

July 30, 2016

I don’t know if there are more novels these days set in World War II, or if I just happen to be coming across them more, but I recently finished three of them, each told from a very different perspective.

Liberation Road: A Novel of World War II and the Red Ball Express, by David Robbins, follows the experiences of two American non-combatants from when they come ashore at Omaha Beach. Joe Amos Biggs is an African-American who left college to enlist and who longs to be able to fight alongside the white men. Ben Kahn is a chaplain who had fought in the trenches in World War I, whose son is a B-17 pilot shot down over France and now MIA, and who is motivated by desire for revenge on the Germans. Occasionally there are also passages told from the point of view of “White Dog,” an American pilot shot down over France, who prefers the comfortable life he has found as a black marketeer in occupied Paris to rejoining his comrades in arms.

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Books: Lisette’s List

September 9, 2015

Having enjoyed Susan Vreeland’s novel Clara and Mr. Tiffany, I decided to try another, Lisette’s List. It is interesting for its depiction of life in a rural village in southern France during the 1940’s, but it did not engage me emotionally nearly as much as Clara and Mr. Tiffany did.

I’m not sure how much that is because of the strong emphasis on art. In Clara and Mr. Tiffany, the art of creating masterpieces from pieces of glass was more about the characters and their love of their craft than it was about the art itself. In Lisette’s List, appreciation of art itself is a major theme.

Perhaps I just find it hard to share the extreme devotion Lisette has to painting and everything to do with it. Perhaps it is because the artists featured in this novel are some whose styles I have trouble appreciating.I don’t dislike the Impressionism of Pisarro but I am not as attracted to it as to some of the older styles. I like some of Cézanne’s Post-Impressionist landscapes but I am unmoved by his still lifes. Read the rest of this entry »


Books: The Kite Runner

August 14, 2015

I had for some time been meaning to read the novels by Khaled Hosseini, beginning with The Kite Runner, which members of my book club had highly praised. But I was hesitant to read a book described as “heart wrenching,” “devastating,” and “brutal,” even if it is also called “beautiful” and “inspiring.” I took it off the shelf in the library one day, started walking toward the check-out counter, then after a few steps returned and put it back, deciding I would wait until some time when I felt ready for that challenge.

I’m not sure just when I would have decided I was ready, but my son was assigned the novel as summer reading for his pre-AP Language and Literature class. I don’t generally read the books he is reading for school, but in this case I wanted to read it first, to know what he would be encountering in the novel and to help him deal with whatever difficult issues arose from it.

It is well-written, but I admit that I was having to push myself to read it in the early chapters. When I discovered it on CDs in the library, I decided that would be an ideal way to get through the book faster than my son would. (Not that he read it through quickly. There are so many more interesting things for a teenage boy to do during summer vacation.)

I knew from reviews I had read before purchasing the book that it contains a scene of homosexual rape, and I was not looking forward to that scene – though it was obvious from the first page when it would happen and I was sort of relieved to finally reach that point instead of continuing to anticipate it. It is awful, what happened, but at least once I had read it, I could stop worrying about how bad it would be.

I also was relieved that it is not a graphic description – in fact, my son did not recognize it for what it was at all. I had to explain later that no, Assef did not “beat up” Hassan. My son is sixteen, old enough now to learn that such things happen. But I also felt good, in a way, that such things were so outside his previous experience, even vicariously in books or movies, that the thought of such a thing did not occur to him from Hosseini’s spare description of the event.

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Books: A Cultural Handbook to the Bible

May 25, 2015

I first learned of John Pilch’s research into cultural aspects of the Bible when I was looking for resources to help me understand Luke 12:49. What did Jesus mean about wanting to “cast fire on the earth”? Is this the fire of divine wrath? Is it talking about the work of the Holy Spirit (associated with fire in verses such as Matthew 3:11 and Acts 2:3)? John J. Pilch explains that a better translation would be “light the earth-oven” , and that Jesus is referring to himself as a catalyst for conflict, much as salt acts as a catalyst in the earth-oven.

Pilch’s explanation gives a new meaning to Jesus’ teaching about his followers being the “salt of the earth,” which in the past I had always heard interpreted to refer to salt’s use either as a seasoning or a preservative. I was curious what insights on other passages I could gain from his work, and I decided his A Cultural Handbook to the Bible and decided it would be a good resource to have.

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Books: An Officer and a Spy

April 25, 2015

I was actually looking for a historical mystery by Tessa Harris, a book which I didn’t find on the library’s shelves because (I figured out later) I had not noticed that the catalog identified it as an ebook. But I quickly realized that the shelf did have several historical novels written by Robert Harris.

After looking at the flap copy (a useful term that has eluded me for some time) of a few of his books, I selected An Officer and a Spy. I vaguely remember learning about the Dreyfus Affair in some history class or other, but all I could remember was that it was a terrible miscarriage of justice. I didn’t remember how it turned out (for Dreyfus himself, though I knew he was shown to be innocent) – which made the novel more suspenseful than books based on history generally manage to be.

Unlike many (probably most) historical novels I have read, the main characters are all real people from history. Rather than using historic events as the backdrop for a fictional story, Harris is telling history from the point of view of one of the participants. Naturally he has to use his imagination to flesh out the character of Colonel Picquart, his thoughts and motivations and details of his daily activities.

I was quickly engrossed in the story. Picquart no doubt has some significant moral shortcomings (a long-time affair with a married woman, as well as prejudice toward Germans and Jews), and this review of the novel asserts that Harris has “mildly sanitised” the character of Picquart. But his dedication to his duty and to the pursuit of truth and justice, despite the dangers to his career and possibly his life, make him a heroic character.

Knowing the end of the story (that Dreyfus would be shown to be innocent), the officers involved in the cover-up seem foolish as well as corrupt. But of course cover-ups are as old as human history, and a quick review of recent history shows that they are as prevalent now as ever. Whether the motivation is preservation of personal power and reputation, or keeping in power a political bloc that one believes is truly better for the country, the same justifying excuses are made for (what is eventually seen as) blatant injustice.

Many years ago, I ended up buying The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus by Jean-Denis Bredin because I had forgotten to respond to a book club’s monthly selection. I decided it was, after all, a book worth having, and intended to read it someday. I never have yet, but perhaps now I will.