Monthly Archives: November 2019

** The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You weaves together a personal memoir of escaping Iran with accounts of other refugees, mostly from Iran, languishing or having languished in various camps, waiting for an acceptance from a host country.

The author’s escape and subsequent resettlement in Oklahoma City, with her Christian-convert mother and her younger brother (her Muslim father stayed in Iran, and eventually remarried) is told eloquently, even if the circumstances are quite different from those of other refugees, especially since her mother was an educated physician with more resources than most. She speaks movingly of the stress of the unknown, of the waiting, of the requirements to adapt to new rules and a new culture.

When it comes to other refugees, it’s more complicated. She makes a great point, similar to what Aayan Hirsi Ali makes, that creating a credible refugee “case” is virtually impossible for people fleeing persecution–and on the other hand the task of those who check the truth of persecution story is arduous. Since opening borders is not politically sustainable, we can’t just admit all who self-declare as refugees, and for that she has no practical suggestions.

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Filed under Non fiction

*** Semicolon by Cecelia Watson

Before I picked up Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, I was not aware that this, to me, innocuous and helpful punctuation mark could generate much passion. But the book opens with this quote, “The semicolon has become so hateful to me that I feel almost morally compromised when I use it.”  Really? Even when the mark is used properly? In any case, the author takes us through the creation, history, and usage of the semicolon, including some amusing examples of misplaced ones that created serious legal challenges. She also confesses that she once gave up using dashes for Lent. How’s that for punctuation passion?

It’s a fun, short, and spirited book. As a bonus, enjoy the wonderful woodcut illustrations that start each chapter.

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Filed under Non fiction

*** A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Virginia Hall, the heroin of A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, was a spirited, rich, well-educated woman who dreamt of a career in diplomacy. But barred from it by discrimination against women and the disabled (she had been amputated of a leg after a hunting accident), she instead launched a highly dangerous mission to help the French resistance against the Nazi occupants, and indeed the French government that collaborated with them. Under a flimsy cover as a journalist, she organized networks, befriended everyone, and coordinated shipments of money, weapons, and supplies. The author provides abundant documentation from archives and interviews, with the result a lively, even griping story. (It is a little puzzling that she gets the famous poem used to announce D-day slightly wrong,)

Virginia Hall would be treated callously after the war, as perhaps could be expected of smart women at that time. Shame!

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Filed under Non fiction

* The Disordered Mind by Eric Kandel

The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves reads more like a textbook than a non-fiction book (sample sentence: “excessive action of dopamine in the mesolimbic pathway, resulting from an overabundance of D2 receptors, could be the main cause of schizophrenia cognitive symptoms-because this pathway connects to the prefrontal cortex, the site of the cognitive symptoms.”). Kandel earned his Nobel prize, but no Pulitzer.

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Filed under New fiction

** A Better Man by Louise Penny

A Better Man takes us to Montreal, Quebec, where spring flooding may overwhelm the province, political intrigue swirls in the homicide department, and a man seems to have killed his pregnant wife, although no body has been recovered. The hero needs to solve the murder, get used to work for his son-in-law, and, as a side project, dynamite some ice dams so the province does not go entirely under water. It’s a bit too much, even if the intrigue is very twisted and the interactions between characters finely observed and rendered. It’s exciting but I found it best not to think too hard about the plot.

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Filed under Mystery

*** Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams

The author of Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race considers himself black, and certainly his father does (his mother is white) but has blond, blue-eyed children with his wife, also a white woman. And it makes him think about race, racism, and our perhaps unnecessary obsession with categorizing people in rigid categories.

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Filed under Non fiction

** Akin by Emma Donoghue

Through a series of unlikely coincidences, the octogenarian in Akin finds his back-to-his-roots vacation in Nice, France, transformed as he needs to take along a newly-discovered great-nephew who grew up in a poor and violent neighborhood. The relationship between the two is wonderfully captured as the two struggle to understand each other across the divide of age and background.

The trip is not just for fun, but to discover the mysterious activities of the elder’s mother during WWII, and this is where the story was not so enjoyable for me, as it felt over-rehearsed and researched. But I did love the many well-observed moments between the two protagonists.

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Filed under New fiction

*** A History of America in 100 Maps by Susan Schulten

A History of America in 100 Maps takes us from the inventive maps of the 15th century, some featuring a vast nothing in place of the Americas, to maps used by autonomous vehicles. Maps can be geographical but can also be used for propaganda, nation-building, emigration control, political representations, epidemiology, fighting crime, redlining, wasting girls’ time under the pretext of education, or planning wars. There are examples of all of those in the book,

I found both the maps themselves and the commentaries very rich sources of information and reflection.

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Filed under Non fiction

*** The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna

Do we need yet another family saga of Italian immigrants to the US? With The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, the answer is, surprisingly, yes! The heroine, Stella Fortuna, journeys from dirt-poor in Calabria to considerably less poor in the factories of Connecticut, but always in strong conflict with her brutal father, and various other brutal men around her. It’s a wonderful story of a woman who makes the best of what life gave her.

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Filed under New fiction