The Last Lingua Franca: The Rise and Fall of World Languages – Nicholas Ostler

In the last two years I have started a new career as an ESL/EFL (English as a Second Language/English as a Foreign Language) teacher. I am currently living in China, previously I lived in Catalunya. This book is an excellent read for a person in my industry, it is a brief history of language, and how throughout human history different languages have held power. Currently English is the language that is the most powerful in the world. The ESL/EFL industry is a massive business, the company I work for has schools in over 150 countries, and is forever expanding. The Last Lingua Franca.jpeg

Ostler tells the history of languages, showing the reader how various languages have held influence, starting with Sanskrit, Aramaic, Arabic and Latin (and more), and progressing through to French, German and Spanish. Each of these languages has held sway for a period of time and have spread through invasion, commerce or conversion, but their influence declined over time. English however is the exception; yes, English was spread by the British Empire, but it has lasted longer than others because it has no competition, and more importantly, people are choosing to learn English. For me the most interesting aspect of this book is that Ostler theorises that the English that will be spoken in the future will be pronounced by non-native speakers in a way that a native speaker may not understand. English will change due to the sheer volume of people speaking it, accents will develop into dialects of English.

I enjoyed this book, but it was incredibly hard to read. Ostler is a linguist, not a story teller. The book is dense, and there is a lot of information being given to you. I would not recommend this as light reading before bed, it is a book that you should read with your coffee in the morning, just to wake you up.

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Future

I recently moved to China, and unlike Catalunya there is not an English language bookshop in my city – despite having 16 million inhabitants. Therefore I may not be able to keep this blog going as regularly as I have been, I will write when I finish books, but I don’t know how often this will be.

 

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire – Akala

Akala first came to my attention with his track Shakespeare from 2006; one of the best grime tracks made and still as relevant today as it was then. Throughout his career Akala has been one of the most intelligent rappers around, and in recent years he has become more and more involved in politics, especially concerning race, identity and poverty. If you search his name on YouTube you will find TED Talks and panel shows during which he is more eloquent than most elected politicians. He also works on bringing Shakespeare to more young people with The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company.Akala

Natives is a work that reflects Akala’s political beliefs whilst also being a biographical work. He avoids the autobiographical standard of telling a rags to riches story without real content, and I would definitely not categorise this book as solely biographical; Akala cleverly uses his experiences to make wider points about the nature of race and class in Britain.  Akala reflects upon his life, growing up in 1980s and 90s Britian as a mixed-race (Scottish Jamaican) boy and how this effected his education, his work prospects, and him in general. He talks of institutionalised racism, and his thoughts on whether this is being broken down. The wonderful thing about Akala’s writing is how well self-aware and succinct it is, no chapter seems out of place and his personal stories are used to make a wider point that he has clearly thought about for a long time.

This book is actually quite an uncomfortable read, even for someone like myself how does have a knowledge of Britain’s real colonial history. Akala tells a history of British Empire that opens eyes and may reveal to many people why Britain isn’t necessarily so ‘Great’ after all. As a fan of hip hop this book was great to understand where Akala has come from, but more important for me is the treatment that I have never experienced that Akala shows is the norm for many non-white members of my own community.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is a worldwide best seller, and with good reason, the book is a wonderful work, engaging and interesting, whilst also easy to understand and well written. Harari’s work is, like the title says, a brief history of ourselves. The book follows Homo Sapiens through history, using sociological, political and scientific to explain why we are how we are today. He divides his book up into four parts that he sees as the four major developments in the history of the world. It is a great book for the untrained person; it is accessible to all people, with good explanations of the world and comparisons of different stages of world history. Sapiens_A_Brief_History_of_Humankind

Harari starts with an outline of the ‘Cognitive Revolution’, when Sapiens evolve an imagination and are able to use this to develop such ideas as religion, money and nations. In Harari’s eyes we are only able to have these ideas as we have imagination and are able to believe in these shared imaginations. He goes on to explain that money and nationality are the same as religion, as they are based on the same imaginations that we share across our species.

The second part of the book is concerned with the ‘Agricultural Revolution’, the period when Sapiens developed skills to farm and domesticate animals; especially our use of wheat and cattle. Here Harari outlines these developments and the ways these have impacted on the environment as well as ourselves. He argues that we no longer have such a varied diet due to the way we have settled down into a new lifestyle, different to our previous hunter-gatherer traditions. This section also introduces a recurring theme; our treatment of animals and abuse of the planet.

In the third section Harari discusses the ‘Unification of Humankind’, essentially the development of politics and empire, as well as the interaction between different groups of Spaiens. Further to this Harari develops the idea that globalisation is leading to a global empire, driven by money and power.

This leads into his fourth section; ‘The Scientific Revolution’, a discussion of the world from around 1500AD until the present day. The final section discusses how the elites of the world started to use money and power to explore various ideas, essentially trying to rid themselves of ignorance. Harari believes that empire building came from this, imperialists were curious about the world and as such, explored as much as possible. He ends this section, and the book, with a discussion of the future of humanity and how science may cause us to evolve into a new species. By using modern technology we may develop into super-humans or as Harari says, ‘Gods’.

I think this book is excellent in many ways, but I do think it has its shortcomings. It is well written, each argument is well thought out and, most importantly, it is accessible. I would, however, argue that maybe it is too short. I wonder if each chapter could be a book in its own right. Writing this post I actually found it very interesting looking at comments from scholars, many of whom think this book is not worthy of the acclaim it has received. This made me wonder though, even if this is not perfect in the eyes of scholars, surely they must embrace its impact and be glad that more people are becoming interested in their field? I think that is what makes this book so great, its impact and the fact it has opened peoples eyes to a rather difficult subject.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

This novel has always been on my guilty list, the classic works that I have not yet read, and I finally read it this week. Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel concerned with censorship in a future American society. The title, we are told in the tagline, refers to the temperature at which books will burn. In Bradbury’s version of America, books have been banned and firemen are tasked with starting fires to burn them. As a former American literature student I saw Fahrenheir 451 as a comment on McCarthyism and the historical image of book-burning to suppress ideas in authoritarian regimes.

The main character is a fireman named Montag who becomes disillusioned with his role in society. Firemen have a key role as they burn books, therefore repressing any ideas that do not match those of the people in power. Montag himself starts to save books from burnings, and comes into contact with an old English professor named Faber with whom he communicates through an earpiece. When he reads poetry to his wife and her friends, he is denounced. His fire crew come to his house, his fire captain makes him start the fire to burn his own house, and the captain finds his earpiece. After this happens he turns the fire on his fire crew killing them. Montag is then on the run. Fahrenheit_451_

Montag is chased by The Hound, a robotic dog that is used by the firemen to find books and hunt those that have broken the anti-book laws. He visits Faber, who advises him to find other people in a similar situation as him, all of whom are intellectuals and have memorised books to be published after the regime has fallen. Montag evades The Hound and meets up with these men, and as a group they watch as a war starts. Later one member of the group describes the phoenix to Montag, pointing out that it is similar to humanity in the way that it constantly makes the same mistakes and emerges on the other side afresh, an obvious analogy for war.

As a classic I think this book stands the test of time, and sadly I think even today it can be used as a way of looking at the current political climate. We are being told not to trust the media by Trump and a right-wing group recently attacked a bookshop in London. This book is as important today as it was when published, and for any book lover it is important to read to help understand why we love and need literature so much.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

Seven Brief Lessons… is a very short book, as advertised, but it is also extremely good. I never really enjoyed science at school, and still am not that interested. This book, however, is one of those books that is engaging enough to alight an interest. I believe this book came from a series of articles written for a newspaper in Rovelli’s homeland, Italy, and none of the ‘lessons’ are much longer than a standard newspaper magazine article.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics - Carlo Rovelli

There is actually not a lot you can say about this book due to its brevity. It is good, it is interesting, and it is easy to read. Rovelli writes in a very simple manner, not often using subject-specific words unless truly necessary. He explains each of his seven subjects with care, knowing that his audience may not necessarily have ever read about this subject before. For myself the most important thing is that Rovelli admits to the fact scientists do not know everything, he explains to the reader that we have not found everything, and lets us know where we stand at the moment.

This book is great for anyone who wants to know a little more about physics. It is not a book for someone who is studying physics, it is too simple for that. I would recommend it, maybe from the library, to read a lesson a night for a week, and the one you find most interesting you can delve further into.

4 3 2 1 – Paul Auster

I studied Paul Auster at university, reading his classic The New York Trilogy and later Moon Palace. This novel is his latest, and considerably longer than both the books I have previously read by him. Last year it was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, however did not win.

4 3 2 1 is split into chapters, each chapter having four sections and each individually numbered like this; 1:1, 1:2, 1:3, 1:4, so the reader is able to tell which version of Ferguson they are reading about. This novel is excellent for both its imagination and its depth. This structure is very clever, as each chapter does follow a period of Ferguson’s life but with significant differences within the sections. It’s also fairly confusing as you may read about his mother’s wedding in one section, only to find that in another section she’s still married to Ferguson’s father, or read of Ferguson moving to France, and in the next section settling down in New York. 4321 Paul Auster

The novel is one of a number of recent novels that has played with traditional storytelling, there is a significant trend of switching viewpoints or non-linear timelines. Auster tells the story of Archibald Ferguson, well he tells of four Ferguson’s, each of whom is born to the same parents. That is where the similarities end.  The structure really gives Auster the freedom to explore Ferguson as a character, he is the same character but with four different lives each changed by one event. There is the Ferguson who loses a finger and thumb, the Ferguson who witnesses his friends death, the Ferguson who writes, and many more. They are all the same character just with differing lives.

I think this novel is also excellent for its use of context, Auster was born in 1947 and this is also the year of Ferguson’s birth. This means that Auster has drawn from a period that he lived through to develop the story. Through Ferguson’s life we see the Cold War, Vietnam War, JFK, Martin Luther King and many other significant events of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Auster also uses his extensive knowledge of both American and European literature to develop different versions of Ferguson; he quotes everyone from Shakespeare to Salinger, and one Ferguson translates classic French poetry.

Auster’s latest novel is a huge undertaking, and is significantly different from any of his others that I have read. Fans of Auster may, however, even recognise some characters from other books that make brief appearences. It’s a lovely book, brave and confusing, powerful and emotive. There is something for everyone in this novel, it is definitely a long book and does take some thought to follow, but that is what makes it so good.

Angels With Dirty Faces: The Footballing History of Argentina – Jonathan Wilson

2018 is a World Cup year and fittingly I have read another book about football, in this case a history of a country through its footballing history. Wilson combines interviews, footballing statistics, and socio-political commentary to form an exquisite overview of Argentina. Argentina has been a country mired in turmoil throughout the 20th century, however it has always had football as a source of joy and entertainment.

Angels With Dirty Faces- The Footballing History of ArgentinaAngels With Dirty Faces starts with Wilson discussing the impact of English football on Argentine society and how English-founded teams were the original teams in the country; fairly ironic considering the later animosity between the two nations. When English founded teams became less successful this coincided with the lessening of English influence on Argentine society. This book also looks at the development of an Argentine style of football; it is a nation renowned for talented footballers but also for many tough players. The author looks at the tactics of Argentine teams, especially the manner in which they developed, often distanced from European teams due to Perón’s withdrawal of the national team from 2 World Cups in 1950 and ’54.

As he progresses through the 20th century Wilson explores the relationships between politics and football – did you know that one President bought the television rights so that every Argentine could watch football for free? He also looks at the influence of the various dictatorships and military governments on the way football has been run in the country as a way to influence the population. Wilson later discusses how the economy of Argentina has influenced football, Argentine players are now synonymous with great European teams; Villa, Ardiles, Maradona, Veron, Tevez, Riquelme – all having to leave Argentina to earn money, and keep their teams in Argentina afloat. In the 21st century, Argentina is merely a supermarket for European, and to a lesser extent, Brazilian, clubs to buy young talent because without these sales Argentina’s top clubs would no longer exist.

Wilson considers many aspects of Argentine history to give an all-encompassing overview of Argentine football.  Due to its short sharp sentences it is an easy book to pick up and put down, perfect for me to read during the World Cup, Wilson explains small factors in the history of La Albaceleste (the white and sky-blues) and the Argentine league, and answers many questions, but the most impressive thing is that he shows his own passion for football. Whether you love Argentine football and footballers or not, this book is essential for any football lover.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka

One of the funniest, but saddest books I have read recently, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian tracks a woman’s relationships with her sister and her father when her father gets remarried. It also tells the story of their family before and during World War 2, then later as post-World War 2 immigrants in Britain. A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian.jpeg

Nadezhda and Vera are two sisters who were estranged shortly after the death of their mother, but they come together when their father, Nikolai, marries Valentina, a young Ukrainian divorcee. Valentina is a manipulative character with whom their father has fallen deep in love, only outsiders see that she is using him for money and British citizenship. The sisters unite by trying to extract their father from the relationship and opening his eyes to Valentina’s scam. They eventually succeed in getting him a divorce, and also write to the local immigration office to try and get her deported. Meanwhile their father, the man stuck in the toxic relationship, is quietly working on the history of tractors of the title, parts of which are interspersed throughout the novel. His work is a labour of love, telling his life story, and revealing family truths. His daughters also discuss the family and each reveal secrets about their parents lives.

This novel is amusing, and sad, it is a clever novel, but not overly convincing. Lewycka has captured family drama well and Valentina’s behaviour is a fine example of a manipulative person. Despite this in some places the novel is too complicated; bringing in unnecessary characters, especially the members of the Ukrainian community who side with either Valentina or Nikolai, but need not be included in the novel. On the other hand it can also be considered very simplistic; the descriptions of characters are cartoonish, especially Valentina’s “enormous breasts”. Although funny, I didn’t find it to be an interesting read and I don’t feel this novel was really worth my time (although it did only take me about 3 hours).

Burmese Days – George Orwell

As the first of Orwell’s novels, Burmese Days, is the first of many politically inclined novels. It was written during Britain’s rule over Burma, and reflects on the attitudes of British colonialists during the 1920s and 1930s. Through out the novel Orwell comments on British attitudes to the cultures they have occupied. Some of the novel is based on Orwell’s own experiences in Burma, he served as a police officer in the country for at least 5 years, however the novel wasn’t finished until he had left the country for good. Burmese Days

Set in Imperial Burma, Burmese Days follows the life of a small town named Kyauktada, based on a place where Orwell had served. The story starts with a Burmese Magistrate, U Po Kyin, plotting the downfall of a local Indian Doctor, Dr Veraswami, of whom he is jealous due to the doctors friendship with John Flory, a British member of society. Both the doctor and magistrate wish to be welcomed into the local European club, where the European citizens of Kyauktada congregate, seemingly in a perpetual haze of alcohol. The reader learns of the plot and watches how the magistrate orchestrates the doctors downfall by anonymously persuading the Europeans that the doctor holds anti-European views and is disloyal to the British Empire.

Meanwhile a new British woman, Elizabeth, arrives in the town. Flory falls in love with her and so begins another intrigue in the town; Flory is the main character of the novel, and this is the main story arc. John Flory is a wood merchant who only spends a little time in the town, his main friend is the doctor, he doesn’t join in with the other Europeans overtly racist comments about the Burmese, and he seems to value Burmese culture more than the others. However, when Elizabeth arrives, we learn that he actually values white women over Burmese. Flory is infatuated with Elizabeth, but it soon becomes apparent that they hold very different views and they may not be a compatible couple.

The novel is very interesting in its treatment of Burmese people and imperialism, Orwell has included a number of characters that reflect the various aspects of Burmese life in the 1920s; there are mixed-race characters, seriously racist characters, and those who are only in Burma for economic reasons, but value the culture. As this was Orwell’s first novel it is an important work, but it is less polished than others. Burmese Days has some parts that seem journalistic, and some that are allegorical, two aspects that Orwell does to much more affect in later works.