Archive for the ‘travel’ Category

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Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

19 January 2010

I can’t entirely remember what prompted me to pick up this book. I actually haven’t read much of Forster’s fiction, and only vaguely recall reading some of his essays on art and culture during research for something else. But the title interested me, and though it took a little while to track down a copy it was worth the initial hunt.

Two Cheers for Democracy by E.M. Forster

To many readers, English writer E.M. Forster’s literary output might as well be synonymous with the Merchant-Ivory film studios. In a little less than a decade, Merchant-Ivory brought no fewer than three of Forster’s novels (Howards End, Room with a View, and Maurice) to the screen, and their Edwardian drawing-room settings and mostly upper-middle-class characters tend to reinforce the stereotype of Forster as a writer of quaint period pieces set in the early 20th century. Yet Forster’s writings also included a wide range of other works, including travel writing, biography, and literary criticism, and many of his essays and journalistic output have been collected into two volumes. The first, Abinger Harvest, consists of Forster’s shorter pieces from the turn of the century to the early 1930s. Two Cheers for Democracy — the subject of this Tuesday Book Review — picks up where the first left off and collects Forster’s writings from the mid-1930s through the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s.

Two Cheers for Democracy was published in 1951, and many of the pieces in this collection contain Forster’s reflections on the experiences of wartime and the profound psychological shock that two world wars in a generation had on people of his age and social class. Unsurprisingly, the opening section is titled ‘The Second Darkness’, and his writings are a strong reaction to pre-war anti-Semitism, wartime censorship, and the increasing brutality and mechanisation of warfare. Even his essay ‘What I Believe’, which contains the phrase that gives the volume its name, is ambivalent at best about current political thought: ‘So Two Cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give it three.‘ Forster dislikes democracy mainly because it tends to promote mediocrity, but because it is ‘less hateful’ than other contemporary forms of government, it deserves some amount of endorsement. Above all, the tone of the writings collected in Two Cheers for Democracy reflects Forster’s beliefs in humanism and the power of the individual spirit, best summarised by his statement that ‘…the greater the darkness, the brighter shine the little lights, reassuring one another, signalling: “Well, at all events, I’m still here. I don’t like it very much, but how are you?”

Although the first half of Two Cheers for Democracy reflects on current events and political musings, Forster’s literary and cultural criticism dominates the second half of the book. It includes a reprint of his 1941 Rede Lecture on Virginia Woolf; biographical sketches of individuals as diverse as fifteenth-century poet John Skelton, Indian poet and politician Sir Muhammad Iqbal, and social reformers Beatrice and Sidney Webb; and short notes on visits to the United States and other exotic locations. His melancholy lecture on English prose between the wars blends his political and literary thought as he attempts to assess the mindset of literature published between 1918 and 1939. Yet whether he is writing about the works of a once-popular but now mostly-forgotten author like French Nobel Prize laureate Romain Rolland, or musing on his experiences travelling in an India on the verge of independence from Britain, Forster’s light-hearted but thoughtful prose reveals more than it initially lets on. He had lived long enough to remember life before the Great War shattered aristocratic British complacency, and was a keen observer of the myriad ways in which two wars and an uncertain peace affected social, political, and literary culture. Two Cheers for Democracy records these observations, and gives contemporary readers a clear-eyed perspective on the changes wrought by the passing years both at home and abroad.

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English as a Global Language by David Crystal

16 June 2009

Cambridge University Press’s Canto imprint has published paperback editions of many excellent works, including several books reviewed on this blog. British linguist David Crystal has been writing and commenting on the English language for many years; two of his books, The Stories of English (2004) and The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left (2006), have shown up in previous To Bed With a Trollope reviews. English as a Global Language was written several years before these books — it was first published in 1997 — and focuses on a much narrow scope.

English as a Global Language by David Crystal

The spread of English as a language has prompted much handwringing from most anyone who cares to comment on the matter, whether in support of a still more global role for English or in concern about the effects that the widespread use of English has had on other languages. In the preface to English as a Global Language, David Crystal states that this idea for this book came about as a project for U.S. English, an organisation that campaigns to make English the official language of the United States. The organisation was interested in a short, factual (and politically unbiased) account of how English came to be such a commonly used language, and because Crystal could not find a book that suited this request he decided to research and write one himself. The book, as he puts it, poses and addresses the following three questions: (1) What makes a world language?; (2) Why is English the leading candidate? and (3) Will it continue to hold this position? Rather than immediately coming down on any particular side of the current debate over the promise (or threat) of English as a global language, Crystal chooses to present an overview of the debate, showing its origins and flashpoints, and expresses a few thoughts on the possible futures of English as it is spoken and written worldwide.

English as a Global Language‘s brief introduction to the concept of a ‘global language’ opens with a simple statement: the spread of language is directly linked to the political (and accompanying military and economic) power of those who speak a particular language. Different spoken and written languages have taken it in turn to become dominant in certain spheres of influence, such as Greek in the days of Alexander the Great, Latin from Roman times through the Renaissance, and Russian in many Eastern European countries during the Cold War. One only need look at the most commonly taught second languages in primary and secondary schools to gain an idea of what languages might be contending for dominance in a particular area at any given time. Crystal takes this introduction a step further by providing a basic history of the spread of the English language around the world, hand in hand with the British Empire, and includes a lengthy table of countries to show where English is spoken as either a first or second language. He also gives short histories of areas of international communication in which English plays a dominant role, such as the very basic, standardised English that air and maritime traffic controllers use to issue instructions and warnings to airplanes in flight and ships at sea; the prevalence of English translations on road signs and maps; and, of course, the vastness of the English-languages offerings available on the Internet. However, he points out that there is no particular linguistic reason why English should remain the global language — and that as the language evolves and gains more native and second-language speakers, the ‘global’ English that eventually may be spoken by people around the world may bear little resemblance to the English we hear today, requiring even native English speakers to be ‘bilingual’ in their own mother tongue.

Readers who might accuse Crystal of taking the easy way out by seemingly refusing to engage in the ongoing debate will be cheered to know that this book is by no means his only contribution to the discussion of the problems of English as a global language. His book Language Death (2002), also available under the Canto imprint, is far more urgent in its call for countries (and even individuals) to be proactive and think on a long-term basis about the kinds of language policies and programmes that are worth supporting in the name of maintaining linguistic diversity. English as a Global Language merely attempts to establish a base point for future discussion; it is by no means the only book that one should read to gain a better understanding of the complexities of English’s place in an international setting.

(Other works about English-language policies and language death reviewed on To Bed With a Trollope include Robert Phillipson’s English-Only Europe? and Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.)

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Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

7 October 2008

Falling a bit behind in my book reviews, mostly because my writing energies have been devoted to preparing for the Film & History conference at the end of this month. I’ll post new reviews when I can.

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

It began with an attempt to purchase a birthday present for less than $20. Nancy and Larry Goldstone had decided to limit the amount they would spend on birthday gifts for each other that year, and so when Nancy managed to acquire a good used copy of a fine edition of War and Peace for $10, she considered it a brilliant find. That edition of Tolstoy, however, opened the door to the world of used and rare books, and the Goldstones soon found themselves drawn back to local used book stores in search of replacements for other books in their collection that were falling apart. In time, they go from being people who had never thought of themselves as ‘collectors’ to eager bidders for a first edition of James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr Chips at a Swann Galleries auction in New York City.

Used and Rare, as its subtitle suggests, reads very much like a travelogue, focusing as it does on how the authors slowly branch out from the offerings of the used book stores in their small corner of New England. The Goldstones rarely go farther afield than Boston or New York City, constrained as they are (most of the time) by the need to find a reliable babysitter for their young daughter. The emphasis of their story is less on the books themselves and more on their gradual awakening to the small details of the book trade, from the initial sticker shock at the cost of a complete set of Charles Dickens’ works to…well, mostly the sticker shock at the prices of the books they come across along the way. One small sour moment in their otherwise pleasant experiences occurs when they attempt to view the rare books held in the Boston Public Library, and are brusquely turned away by the librarian for not having a letter of introduction or a specific reason for requesting to look at the books, apart from simply wanting to see them. (Considering that this happened in the mid-1990s, before the widespread availability of the Internet, the Goldstones might be forgiven for not knowing the standard access procedures for rare-book collections in libraries.) Otherwise, though, they find much to enjoy as they look for books that interest them, and learn a bit about the history of book-collecting and what drives people to build a collection of their own.

Overall, Used and Rare is a quick and easy read, relaxed and light without being overly fluffy. The Goldstones freely admit that they are amateurs in the book world, and make no pretensions of being more ‘in the know’ than they actually are. In its own way, this very amateurishness gives the book a refreshing quality, as it allows the reader to share in the sense of wide-eyed wonder that the authors feel with each new discovery and each successful foray into small, dusty shops filled with potential treasures.

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Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944

24 August 2008

I ought to have posted this shortly after I finished my review of the 1941 Home Guard Manual, or perhaps saved it for Remembrance Sunday, but I was flipping through it the other day and remembered how much I enjoyed it — so my review’s going up now.

Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944

In 1944, a new British Expeditionary Force was being assembled to make the first push into occupied France, and a writer on secondment from the Intelligence Corps to the French Section of the Political Warfare Executive was drafted to write a ‘little pamphlet’ which would be issued to troops preparing for the invasion. The little pamphlet serves as an introduction to France and the French people, and as an explanation of what the BEF soldiers should expect to find on the Continent — and as a result, it contains a good deal of advice and caveats about what kind of behaviour would and would not be appropriate. The Bodleian Library has reprinted the little pamphlet (as well as Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942, a similar set of instructions issued to American GIs stationed in England) in a serviceable green hardback booklet, and as historical documents they are both fascinating and deeply sobering.

The theme that is stressed most of all is the great suffering of the French people under the occupation and in the Vichy-governed territories. The pamphlet gives figures on the number of French civilians who have been deported to Germany for forced labour or imprisoned in concentration camps, and adds that at least 5,000 Frenchman are shot every year for active resistance — an average of one every two hours, it states. But it also states that even with the killings and the deportations and the general anti-British propaganda, ordinary French people still regard the British as allies and it is imperative for British soldiers to respond in kind:

We must always remember that we have twice fought together in this century on the soil of France: British cemetaries, if you see them, are a permanent reminder….We owe it to our self-respect as British soldiers to show ourselves really well-behaved in every way. But we, unlike the Germans, can be naturally friendly, seeing that the French are naturally our friends.

To that end, British soldiers are advised to remember that the French have been having an even more difficult time of it than the soldiers might have found at home. General warning is given to not take advantage of the meagre hospitality of the French people, and not to purchase things from French shops, because doing so might well mean that some poor French civilian must go without. Particular warning is given about proper conduct toward French women, and how it can affect the war effort: ‘If you should happen to imagine that the first pretty French girl who smiles at you intends to dance the can-can or take you to bed, you will risk stirring up a lot of trouble for yourself — and for our relations with the French.‘ Very sensible advice, that. The back of the book also includes a short phrasebook section, with phonetic (or near-phonetic) translations of French for a soldier’s general use. The pronounciations are a little wince-worthy for someone who has even a smattering of experience with the French language, but in a pinch the phrasebook likely would have served a very useful purpose.

This little book is commonsensical and plain-spoken, and does the best it can in the few words it provides. It would not be easy to determine what kind of impact these instructions might’ve had on the ordinary British soldier going over to fight in France, but it would be nice to think that it helped smooth the transition and possibly even prevented real problems in that crazy, uncertain time when all of Europe was turned upside-down.

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The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World by Mrs Mortimer (edited by Todd Pruzan)

16 December 2007

A bit of humour for this Sunday’s posting — not exactly social satire, unless you think that bad Victorian-era writing satirises itself. In this case, it might just qualify as such.

The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World by Mrs Mortimer (edited by Todd Pruzan)

The word ‘Victorian’ can be and is often used as something of a pejorative term, with the meaning ‘narrow-minded’ or ‘prudish’. It’s safe to say that there’s a good reason for doing so at times, especially in connection with clothing styles, moral instruction, or anything related to Oscar Wilde. Victorian cautionary tales for children are as grim and ghoulish as the more traditional fairy-tales, always reminding the young that death is an ever-present part of life and that wicked boys and girls are always punished severely (and good isn’t always rewarded in equal measure). So in that respect, it may not be so surprising that a Victorian children’s book that talks about the various peoples of the world would be long on criticism and short on pleasantness.

This is where Mrs Favell Lee Mortimer’s books come in: three books, to be precise, all written in the mid-nineteenth century. Each book purports to be a guide to the different countries of the world and the people who inhabit those countries (one book deals with Europe, one with Africa and Asia, and one with the Americas and Australia), and Mrs Mortimer manages to find some kind of fault with just about everything and everyone. Each description of a country comes complete with a slew of disapproving comments. Norway might be a beautiful country, with kind and good-hearted and honest people, but ‘The greatest fault of the Norwegians is drunkenness‘. Amsterdam is noteworthy mostly because ‘there is no city in which there is so much danger of being drowned, because it is full of canals‘. The Irish are (horror!) Roman Catholic, which is ‘a kind of Christian religion, but it is a very bad kind‘. When Greeks are unhappy, they are known to ‘scream like babies‘. Mrs Mortimer doesn’t even have many kind words for her own countrymen, though she does take pains to remind her young and impressionable readers of a very simple thing: ‘What country do you love best? Your own country. I know you do‘. Not surprising, considering her overwhelmingly negative opinions on the various bits of Europe that aren’t England proper.

The world outside of Europe is really far worse, though, in her eyes. Most of Africa can be written off as a land of ignorant savages, nasty cannibals, and Mohammedians who read a very wicked book that is made of evil stories and lies. Australia is full of convicts and colonists, of course. The people of Siam resemble the people of Burma, ‘but they are much worse-looking‘. The Chinese are elegant people, but are quite mad. In North America, Washington, DC, is ‘one of the most desolate cities in the world‘ — and most Americans keep slaves, which is an abominable sin. The list goes on and on, to the point where you almost can’t decide whether to laugh at her opinions or bang your head against a wall to get her prissy, disdainful tones out of your ears.

Why is this book worthy of a read-through, then? Well, for starters, Mrs Mortimer wrote the book without ever having left England and with only a limited knowledge of England itself. All of her opinions came from other works and from a mass of different sources — one look at her writings gives a hint as to how respectable Englishmen and Englishwomen of the day looked at other countries within the comforting blanket of the waxing British Empire. Her books went through several editions in her lifetime, and it’s safe to say that Mrs Mortimer’s bad-tempered guides to the Victorian world had a marked influence on young children’s first impressions of other lands and other people. Echoes of her sentiments appear even today in classical stereotypes of ‘foreigners’. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to go back and see where and how certain stereotypes have been reinforced over the years…and with Todd Pruzan’s careful editing of these mostly-forgotten children’s books, it’s possible to look at the world through a decidedly ‘Victorian’ lens.

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The First Guide to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union by Avram Shifrin

8 November 2007

I was looking for a suitable book to post to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the October Revolution, but it seems that I’ve already gone through and posted most of my previously written USSR-related book reviews…except for this one. And since I don’t have my copy of my perennial favourite title, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, with me at the moment, this book is the next obvious candidate.

A bit of backstory on how I acquired it: When one of my undergraduate history professors retired, he invited those of us who were taking his class on modern Russian history to come to his office and take anything we wanted off his bookshelves. He’d already gone through and cleared out all the books he had room for and wanted to keep, and he figured that it would be a lot easier for his students to clear off the shelves for him before he took the rest of the books to be recycled or donated….and no, I didn’t actually trample anyone in my haste to get to his office once the lecture had ended. That said, one of the books I made off with was this one.

The First Guide to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union by Avram Shifrin

As the title says, it’s a guidebook, first published by a Soviet dissident in the early 1980s. And by a guidebook, I mean that it gives general (and sometimes quite specific) locations of Soviet prisons and labour camps, the remaining substance of the gulag, broken down by area and region and type of prison. The guidebook even goes so far as to mention the type of labour that is done or thought to be done at each prison, whether in heavy industry or manufacturing…or the ‘special’ camps where prisoners worked to mine radioactive materials (without adequate shielding) or performed tasks that can only be described as murderous (such as cleaning the nozzles on nuclear submarines). Also included in the guidebook are the location of politico-psychiatric facilities where prisoners were often held, generally with no attempt made to separate political prisoners from the actually insane. And since the book is written and edited by a man who spent several years in the prison camp system, based on research he compiled with others who had fallen foul of the Soviet justice system, there’s an authenticity to it that has to be seen to be fully understood.

This book is almost certainly out of print, and probably only available in used bookshops if anywhere. I only managed to get my hands on a copy by chance. But it’s absolutely chilling to read, because it shows the depth and breadth of the prison camp system in the USSR years after Stalin’s death. When you look at the book and think that every little dot on the map represents anywhere from two dozen to several hundred human lives, many imprisoned for their dissenting opinions or even their well-meaning attempts to reform their political system…well, it wasn’t so long ago, historically speaking. Shifrin’s guidebook manages to bring home the reality of the gulag in a way that few purely academic texts can hope to emulate.

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Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley

23 October 2007

I was quite surprised to see the response to my last language-related post. I doubt I’ll get the same reaction for this one, but it’s as interesting a book as the other one was.

Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages by Mark Abley

Most books that deal with threatened or extinct languages set out from the start to demonise English. I’ve seen the words ‘parasitical’, ‘pernicious’, and ‘malignant’ used to describe the effect of the English language on other languages in the world. Mark Albey’s book does point to the spread and popularity of English as a significant factor in the decline of many languages, but instead of simply lamenting the loss of some of the world’s more complex tongues, he takes the time to go to places in the world where languages that were threatened with dying out have made a comeback, or are trying to make a comeback. And more importantly, he attempts to analyse the success stories, and see if there are ways that techniques used by revitalised language-speakers can be harnessed to save languages that have not been so fortunate in the past few decades.

In Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, Abley travels to remote villages in Australia and the American Southwest, to the Isle of Man and to the south of France and to the Caucasus mountains in search of languages that are struggling against extinction. As well as indigenous languages, he also explores the languages of immigrant communities, most notably when he interviews a group of Yiddish speakers in his native Canada. And arguably the best parts of the book are the parts where he speaks about the languages themselves, describing patterns of speech and turns of phrase that would sound unutterably alien to a native English speaker but which are extremely revealing about a language’s history and its ties to the culture in which the language developed.

All in all, Abley argues, it is the linguistic ties to culture that makes the preservation of languages so important. The subject-verb-object structure of English says quite a bit about the importance of the self/subject to an English speaker, but what can be inferred about culture from a language where the subject appears in the middle of the verb, or where verbs can exist without separate subjects, or where the concept of both subject and verb don’t really exist in that language? Spoken Here is a travel book and a linguistics book combined, and the combination works well enough to make it worth looking at.