#readingissexy – Lingo

Languages! You speak one. Maybe you even speak more than one. I speak either two (English and German) or four (also Russian and French), depending on how generous your definition of “speak” is. I also like to dabble in bits of other languages whenever I can. Cheeky Swedish course? Check. Read some Harry Potter in Dutch? You betcha. So when I missed my bus home last winter and I was sheltering from the cold in Waterstones, this little fella caught my eye:

Languages scare English native speakers. I know, I know. I’m a trainee German teacher, and I am fully aware that a lot of people think that they “can’t do” foreign languages. Firstly, that’s not true at all. And secondly, I promise you don’t need any advanced linguistics training to read this book.

The writing is great. Sharp, funny, clear. And the book changes style from chapter to chapter – some of it is written in the style of a propaganda broadcast, some as a conversation between a woman and her doctor, and some are straight up explanations. Each chapter takes on a different language and examines a particular aspect of it, from crazy spelling to fast-talkin’ natives, including words that language has contributed to English – and some that we should think about adopting.

The book covers a good mix of languages – including ones I’d never heard of, like Galician and Sorbian; ones I’ve seen but know nothing about, like Hungarian and Scottish Gaelic; and everyone’s old favourites, like French and Spanish.

I haven’t been able to find all that much information on the author, but I believe English isn’t even his first language, which makes the writing doubly impressive. Seeing as you’re reading this, you can’t be opposed to a blog or two – and you can check out his blog, Language Writer, here. (Of als je wilt, de nederlandse versie.) And for my part – I think you should go and buy Lingo now.

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#readingissexy: The Nazis: A Warning From History

I studied German. Of course that meant translation class and a dictionary so big I once bruised myself with it, but we also had a huge choice of other modules, from medieval linguistics to contemporary politics. I focused mostly on 20th century history, so I read a thing or two about the Nazis. Feverishly prepping for one essay (“Mein Kampf reveals Hitler’s deep indebtedness to völkisch ideology.” Discuss), I tore through a few pages of something written by Laurence Rees. I liked his writing style, and the name stuck in my head, so when I came across this in a charity shop a few weeks ago, I decided to give it a go:

I hope I’m not inundating you with too much war – I know my last #readingissexy post featured a book partially set in Nazi-occupied Estonia. But readers, please forgive me and allow me another mid-century recommendation!

The thing that really struck me about this book was how accessible it is. History books can be heavy – physically and metaphorically – and long-winded. This isn’t. It’s quite clear and concise. It also doesn’t assume a vast amount of background knowledge, so no worries if you aren’t au fait with Social Darwinism. That said, the book still managed to be interesting to me – not that I’m a world expert, but I certainly know my way around the topic.

The focus is slightly different from a lot of books on this period of history. We start with the narrative of Hitler’s rise to power, then continue on to the structure of the Nazi party, before looking east to Poland and then to Russia. And a lot of the things we learn might be pretty surprising if the last time you read about National Socialism was at school: Hitler wasn’t in tight control of Nazi policy and the death camps weren’t planned from the start.

Another thing that makes this book a little different is how many interviews are included, with everyone from Communists to Jews to soldiers to ordinary people – including a few who admit to liking at least some aspects of the regime. This provides some really interesting insights, and it’s something that won’t be available to us forever – that generation of people are dying out.

The book was actually written in conjunction with a TV series of the same name. (Far be it from me to recommend watching anything illegally, but you could give it a Google.) I thought the book did a much better job of getting the information across, but the show has lots of footage, and of course you can actually see the people being interviewed.

Beevor it ain’t – no battles – but I still think is a really well-written, accessible history book focusing on one of the most intriguing political movements of the 20th century.

#readingissexy: When the Doves Disappeared

This June I had to take a trip to London, and I finished my book unexpectedly quickly. Lacking reading material for the long and unglamorous Megabus journey home, I ducked into a fancy-looking shop in Holland Park called Daunt Books. It took a few moments for me to realise that there was something rather special about the way the books here were arranged: they weren’t just alphabetical, they were laid out by country. So I visited Japan. I took a quick trip to west Africa. But finally, I ended up in a small corner of Europe, facing a title that seemed somehow familiar: When the Doves Disappeared, by Sofi Oksanen. It was only once I read the blurb that I realised why the title rung a bell: I’d read an article in the Guardian and decided that this was a book I’d like to read. And here it was in my hands – so off to the cash register I went. The book is set in Estonia, but cuts back and forth between the country during the  Nazi occupation and the Soviet Union. It’s so easy – especially for a Westerner like me – to forget how multinational the Soviet Union actually was – and how many of those people wanted their independence. That’s something that is clear from the very beginning of Oksanen’s book, and something she has made clear in her public statements and other fiction – take a look at that Guardian article for more background. image Sofi Oksanen is no stranger to literary prizes, and I liked her writing a lot. (Of course, I read it in English, so I also have to thank her translator, Lola M. Rogers.) The first thing that struck me were some unusual metaphors: on receiving a visitor, “Mother’s smile had shone like a greased skillet”; one of the characters picks a false name for himself that’s as “fine as a rayon shirt”. Not everything is described in detail – often, things are left unsaid, and as the story jumps between the 1940s and the 1960s, there are gaps to fill in. This cleverly interwoven plot also ratchets up some serious tension – it’s definitely the kind of story that can be difficult to put down. Just the next chapter, I have to know if he finds out about… Wait, but on the next page, she might realise that… Right now is an interesting time to be thinking about Russian colonialism, as Oksanen describes it. And her latest offering is a great place to start, giving the reader a window into the history of this corner of the world, while at the same time being a compelling and exciting story in its own right.