Tag Archives: travel

“Babel – Around the World in Twenty Languages” by Gaston Dorren

Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages

This book is so good I started to write about it when I was only halfway through! I’m not great about taking notes when reading for pleasure, and I didn’t want to forget some of the things that have made this book so much fun.

Gaston Dorren is not a native speaker of English. He lists Limburgish, the Dutch dialect of a province in Netherlands, as his first language. I remember that when I spent a summer in Netherlands, a friend described himself as a speaker of Sittardish, a dialect limited to a single city. For him, Dutch was a slightly formal language, studied in high school and used at the University and at work. Scientists, it seemed, spoke as much English as Dutch. I ended my months in the Netherlands with great affection for the people and their culture, and a tiny knowledge of (standard) Dutch.

In Babel, Dorren writes about twenty languages, use of which accounts for about fifty percent of the human population.  He starts by admitting there’s no way to count languages. How do you decide what is a dialect? We know (and regret) that languages have been lost. See my discussion of the indigenous western hemisphere language Potawatami, dated March 6, 2019.

But what else is going on? It is the nature of language to CHANGE! After all, this is a “blog”, a version of “social media”. Wouldn’t have made sense 20 years ago…

Dorren counts “second language speakers” when calculating which languages dominate the world scene. My life is full of second language speakers; both of my (native born) grandmothers, immigrants, students from overseas, friends from hither and yon. Each has learned English, and some have forgotten their original languages.

What I like best about this book is that, having chosen his twenty “big” languages, Dorren then discusses whatever interests him about each language – geography, politics, history, sociology, sounds, grammar…

He begins with Vietnamese, which has very few “second language” speakers. In other words, very few people study it. Despite his linguistic training, Dorren finds Vietnamese excruciatingly difficult!

Only one African language makes it into this book – Swahili. Dorren describes the African attitude towards language as very different from elsewhere. French, (British) English and (Mandarin) Chinese (to name a few) are very clearly defined by official bodies, and VERY resistant to change. Correct speech is valued. Not necessarily so in Africa! Almost anything goes! Most people speak several languages – mother tongue, a local language for school, maybe another for high school, a regional language, plus Swahili and/or a “world language”. Dorren describes Africans “storming the language barrier”, cheerfully using any common speech they can find, gesturing, shouting… Correctness falls aside.

This is a great book to broaden your horizons. But beware… the urge to travel may overcome you. The only problem will be choosing a destination. Bon voyage!

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“What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848” by Daniel W Howe, part of “The Oxford History of the United States”

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday I spent many hours in the car, driving to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then to a suburb of Washington DC and finally home to New Jersey. Recorded books make grueling trips bearable! My fellow traveler is working his way (selectively) through The Oxford History of the United States.

The Oxford History (conceived in the 1950s and published starting in 1982) will eventually consist of 12 volumes. They are not strictly sequential. (Some deal with a topic rather than a time period.) We are making no effort to read them in order. My husband began with The Republic for Which it Stands, covering 1865 to 1896 (Reconstruction and the “Gilded Age”). Then we jumped back in time to What Hath God Wrought.

Initially, this book was going to be titled Jacksonian America. Wow! I didn’t realize how much there is to hate about Andrew Jackson! His attitudes toward African Americans (enslaved or free) and native Americans were ugly. The rest of the world was turning it’s back on the “peculiar institution”. How would America move forward? The US was on shaky moral ground.

Taking a step back, the value of this book is that it shows how unprecedented and experimental the newborn United States was. The future success of our country was by no means assured.

Okay, I admit to having slept through a good deal of the recorded text, but it didn’t matter. What I learned was interesting! Consider, for example, the role of violence in civic life. Why so many riots? This book was published in 2007, but it has a remarkable amount to say about politics and behavior in 2018.

Three issues in this book that particularly engaged me were

  • the abolition movement
  • “Indian removal”, as in The Trail of Tears
  • women’s rights, especially suffrage

Sometimes supporters of these movements aided each other, and sometimes they found themselves at cross purposes.

When I’m on the road, I often need music or conversation, but well written history also makes the miles roll past. Previously I’ve read popular books about World War II. Shifting towards these more scholarly works has been worthwhile.

“The Fly Trap” by Fredrik Sjoberg, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

Published in 2004. Translated from Swedish in 2014 by Thomas Teal. Paperback by Vintage Books, 2014. 278 pages.

The Fly Trap by [Sjöberg, Fredrik]

This cheerful book delves into two of my amateur interests, entomology (the biology of insects) and art history (with emphasis on art theft and forgery). I hang out with entomologists, and visit art museums casually.

The Fly Trap is both memoir and biography. As Sjoberg’s personal memoir, it is the first volume of a trilogy. The next two books are The Art of Flight (2016) and The Raisin King. One reviewer suggests that these three books might also be categorized as travel, natural history, popular science or even poetry.

The “fly trap” of the title is a collecting device used by entomologists and called the Malaise trap. It is named after it’s inventor, Rene Malaise (1892 – 1978). According to Wikipedia, Malaise was an eccentric Renaissance man, and little was written about him before Sjoberg produced somewhat biographical this book.

Sjoberg is described (by Wikipedia) as

  • entomologist
  • literary and cultural critic
  • translator (If you are Swedish, do you have any choice?)
  • author

Malaise was

  • entomologist
  • explorer (Siberia)
  • art collector
  • inventor
  • geologist (one time defender of the Lost Continent of Atlantis)

With a mix like this, the book was bound to be interesting. It is enhanced by Sjoberg’s whimsical, non linear style. While studying Malaise, Sjoberg “caught” the art collecting passion, described in the book’s final chapter.

I pay attention to authors mentioning other authors. In one chapter (entitled “Slowness”), Sjoberg mentions (at least) three authors:

  • Lars Noren – Czech born French writer, still living
  • Milan Kundera – Swedish playwright, still living, best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • D H Lawrence – English, 1885-1930, best known for Lady Chatterly’s Lover

I recommend this book if you like the out of doors, natural history and/or bugs. Also books, art and travel.

“The Dawn Watch – Joseph Conrad in a Global World” by Maya Jasanoff, published 2017

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51L42gtzd6L._AC_US218_.jpg

This book surprised me. I expected it to be “heavy”. The scholarly notes run to 43 pages.

It was totally the opposite – brisk and entertaining. I had no problem at all reading 320 pages, even allowing for the fact that (woe is me) I haven’t actually read much of Conrad. When I dipped into Heart of Darkness and saw a movie version of Lord Jim years ago, I responded more to “atmosphere” than to plot. Jasansoff discusses only a few of Conrad’s many works, and she provides enough comprehensive information that my scanty exposure didn’t matter. I’m now planning to read Nostromo, Conrad’s only novel set in the western hemisphere.

To digest Conrad’s books and short stories, written roughly from 1886 to 1924, you have to ponder various “-isms”, like

  • racism,
  • imperialism,
  • colonialism and
  • militarism

Charges of racism have led some scholars to agitate against using Conrad in the classroom. I lean towards the argument that Conrad helps drag racism out into the open, for conversation and analysis, to everyone’s benefit. It’s good to know the history of the attitudes you want to change.

Conrad’s life was adventurous. Raised in landlocked, Russian-occupied Poland, he decided on a career in the merchant marine and left home at age 16 to pursue that goal. He sailed to Australia, many Asian ports and eventually to Africa, when Congo was first being explored and exploited by Europeans. Some critics consider Heart of Darkness, about Congo, to be his greatest work. He eventually settled in England and wrote in English.

Conrad was a “global thinker” well before that concept emerged. The college where I work has established “global awareness” as one of its four guiding principles. So… I will suggest The Dawn Watch as a common reading. One book is selected each year with the intention that

  • incoming students will read it before arriving on campus and
  • faculty will be encouraged (but not required) to incorporate it into a class in some fashion, especially in courses oriented towards Freshmen.

The author must be accessible for a guest lecture (in other words, not dead). Anyone can nominate a book. I’ve pitched several, with no luck so far. The Dawn Watch is probably too long and (cringe) “too academic”. But I would love to have Maya Jasanoff on campus for a visit!

“A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska – The Story of Hannah Breece” edited by Jane Jacobs

I was on vacation (in Alaska) and had promised myself I wouldn’t buy gifts for family and friends – I was trying to travel light. But when I saw this book, I had to have it! Memoirs about Alaska’s early days are numerous, but this one stood out because of the identity of the editor. Jane Jacobs is identified on the book cover as author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Yes, that Jane Jacobs! A Google search of her name yields 22 million hits! Okay, it’s a pretty common name, but I’ll bet the majority refer to the “American-Canadian journalist, author and activist” smiling out at me from Wikipedia (but modestly absent from the book). Hannah Breece, sadly, is not listed in Wikipedia. I hope this is remedied soon.

How did Jacobs-the-activist end up editing this 193-page memoir? In a sense, she inherited the job. Hannah Breece was Jane Jacobs’ aunt. Late in Ms. Breece’s life, when she had retired to Oregon, acquaintances urged her to write about her experiences teaching in Alaska from 1904 to 1918. She asked friends and relatives to return her letters, and used them to assemble a memoir. It was not published. Jane Jacobs admits she was put off by the racism, sexism and colonialism detectable in her Aunt’s writing, though they were merely a reflection of the times.

Hannah Breece died in 1940, and Jane Jacobs published the memoir in 1995! She added detailed commentary that tremendously enhances the value of Ms. Breece’s record. Under the heading of “Puzzles, Tangles, Clarifications”, she addresses the social and political climate of Alaska, its relation to the rest of the US and numerous omissions in the memoir. (In fact, Ms. Breece had left out a great deal.) Jacobs offers seven brief essays clarifying various points. My favorite was #6, entitled “Miraculous Rescues”.

Make no mistake, Hannah Breece was very fortunate to have survived her time in the wilderness. Any newcomer to Alaska had to be smart, strong and LUCKY to deal with the hazards of climate, wildlife, topography and lack of government. Ms. Breece recounts two experiences that “should” have killed her, for which no “rational” explanation of her survival can be offered. Jacobs doesn’t back off from this complex territory. She assigns one experience (a near drowning) to the category of “intuition”. Before crossing a frozen bay, Ms. Breece felt “irrational” fear that was readily explainable after the fact. The second experience was more complex. Perhaps, suffering from hypothermia, Ms. Breece hallucinated. She was helped by a person who wasn’t there. In her dire need, did she remember someone strong and competent from her childhood?

Now that I’ve read it, I’ll pass this book along to the intended recipient. It’s a good thing he likes used books!

Blue Colony Diner, Newtown, CT

A few weeks ago (January 2, 2017), I insulted the great State of Connecticut because it has so few diners. Then from the depths of memory this story surfaced…

Years ago I was on my way to Connecticut for a reunion of my high school class, accompanied by my husband and my high school BF Marian, who settled in New Jersey like me. We crossed into Connecticut, got on Route 84 and decided it was time for dinner. There’s not much between Danbury and Waterbury. We settled, by default, on the Blue Colony Diner, figuring a diner would have something for everyone. And it did – no problem accommodating the vegetarian in the group.

We knew absolutely nothing about the area, but our waitress, who had the appearance of a diner veteran, warned us that Friday night in Newton was high school football night, and pretty much the whole town was going to show up at the diner when the game ended. Okay.

During our meal, the waitress made a point of asking us to order coffee and dessert promptly. “I’m going to be busy!” People started to come in – recognizable types – a table full of jocks, parents, couples, single sex clusters… We thought things were getting busy, but suddenly the dam broke. Our waitress slapped down the check and yelled “Run for your lives!!” We fled, laughing, and gazed in astonishment at the traffic jam in the parking lot. So we got a good meal, and more fun than we expected. But honestly, I’ve only EVER seen one other diner in Connecticut, and it was pretty weird.

“Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon” by John Hemming

“Naturalists in Paradise”

https://nearctictraveller.wordpress.com/2015/08/

This highly enjoyable book was reviewed by another blogger (see link above), so I will limit my comments to the last chapter, where Hemming discusses the lives of the three explorers after their Amazon travels. In particular, he describes their books and other publications, some of which would be worth tracking down. The three scientists made amazing contributions to the advance of science. They also erred. “The greatest error made by…these observers…was to equate luxuriant tropical vegetation with rich soil.” Interesting! Many decades passed before the flaws in this logic were understood.

Hemming summarizes some of the work that the three explorers did outside the field of natural history. Most important were the observations they made pertaining to indigenous and isolated groups of people.

The three explorers knew and corresponded with most of the other great scientists of their time, including Charles Darwin.

Hemming, by the way, adds a few observations from his own contemporary travels in the countries visited. I appreciated this, though it would have interfered if he hadn’t been so restrained. I’m sure he has tales to tell!

This quotation from Richard Spruce clarifies the motivation of these scientists and expresses their passionate relationship to the natural world.

I look on plants as sentient beings, which live and enjoy their lives – which beautify the earth during life and after death may adorn my herbarium…(Even if they have no medicinal or commercial value to man) they are infinitely useful where God has placed them… They are at the least useful to and beautiful in themselves – surely the primary motive for every individual existence.

Emphasis added. Scientists are sometimes accused of cold detachment. This makes is clear that they may, in fact, pursue their work out of love.