Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

Concluding remarks by George Murray Smith, the editor of The Cornhill Magazine, in which the installments of the unfinished novel Wives and Daughters were first published serially:

While you read any one of the last three books we have named [i.e, Wives and Daughters, Cousin Phillis, and Sylvia’s Lovers], you feel yourself caught out of an abominable wicked world, crawling with selfishness and reeking with base passions, into one where there is much weakness, many mistakes, sufferings long and bitter, but where it is possible for people to live calm and wholesome lives; and, what is more, you feel that this is at least as real a world as the other. The kindly spirit which thinks no ill looks out of her pages irradiate; and while we read them, we breathe the purer intelligence which prefers to deal with emotions and passions which have a living root in minds within the pale of salvation, and not with those which rot without it.

In other words, it is a book well worth reading. For more on what stood out, when and why I read it, and related works, see below.

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The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen

Andrew Keen’s rant, The Cult of the Amateur, is, like all rants, intellectually undermined by its angry tone. The book contains a substantial amount of scorn and Chicken Little–style alarmism, with, unsurprisingly, a dash of nostalgia for the good old days.

Nevertheless, the book has real polemical value insofar as it raises awareness of quality and the expertise required to achieve it.

If you want to hear more about this book from an expert reader (and amateur reviewer), keep reading.

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The Origins of Chinese Characters by Wang Hongyuan

Ever wondered what etymology is like in the Chinese language?

It’s like this.

origins-of-chinese-characters-interior

So, is Chinese ‘pictographic’?

Well, does the ‘zhōng’ in ‘Zhōngguó’ (‘China’) look like part of a sundial? Because that’s what it is.

Drawing of a pole with some decorative streamers. The pole was placed in the center of a circle or dial so that a shadow cast by the sun on a calibrated dial could measure solar time—much like the gnomon or style of a sundial.

So yeah, ‘zhōng’ means ‘middle’ (as in ‘middle kingdom’), but it’s not because the line passes through the middle of the box. Rather, it’s because the whole stick thing (which has lost its notably asymmetrical streamers) is in the middle of a sundial.

I don’t know enough Chinese to benefit much from this book, but here and there I found something interesting, and the whole things reinforces the idea that the Chinese writing system is old, old, old. Examining how the characters evolved is like looking back in time. Reading the book made me feel like an archaeologist holding up a burning torch to peer at mysterious lines scrawled on the walls of a cave. The oldest characters embody the basic concepts of the society in which they were invented: food and shelter, war, birth and life and death…

When and Why I Read It

It was a gift to me from my husband’s parents years ago (sometime between 2003 and 2005). At the time, it was even more over my head than it is now, so it just sat there.

Frankly, I’m shocked that it’s still in print. It’s even got three reviews on Amazon. And since it’s selling at at a moderate price and a 15% discount, it’s not one of those print-on-demand inventory items.

Genre: Non-fiction (language, Chinese)
Date started / date finished:  22-Mar-16 to 11-May-16
Length: 200 pages
ISBN: 7800522431 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1993
Amazon link: The Origins of Chinese Characters

A Complaint Free World by Will Bowen

A Complaint Free World claims it can change readers’ lives and make the world a better place. And maybe to some extent it can and it has. But I’ve heard this kind of claim before. Every other self-help book takes its mission just as seriously. No matter how successful any one book is, or even how much I agree with a book’s message, the claim always sounds overblown.

I guess the thing to keep in mind is that the real value of a self-help book is not just in the core ideas it contains but in the way those ideas are explained and embedded in a compelling story that speaks to you.

Did this book speak to me? In a word, no. It does have a couple of good ideas, but there were a lot of bad ideas in there, too. Read below to find out what parts of the book I saw as valuable and what parts were not suited to my taste.

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Two Travelogues by Guy Delisle

There’s a huge difference in style (as well as size) between the Guy Delisle book about Shenzhen and the Guy Delisle book about Jerusalem. In the Shenzhen book, the drawings are darker and fuzzier like pencil or charcoal sketches, whereas the drawings in the Jerusalem book are very clean, with splashes of color added.

I think part of the reason is the separation in time between the books. The Shenzhen book was published in 2006 about a trip in 1997, and the Jerusalem book was published in 2012 about a trip in 2008.

In terms of content, I think I enjoyed the Shenzhen book more. China feels frustrating and foreign… but you’d expect it to. Jerusalem feels if anything more frustrating, since in theory it’s less foreign. The ongoing conflicts there involve the political ideologies and religions of the West. In reading this book, I realized I know very little about those conflicts…

As always, I admire the artist’s nonchalance in the face of daunting situations, and his ability and willingness to transmit his experiences to us in words and pictures. Sometimes the episodes depicted are funny and sometimes they’re not, but they are eye-opening.

More on when and why I read the books below.

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The Three Circles of English edited by Edwin Thumboo

The Three Circles of English is a collection of conference papers published in Singapore on 2001.

The title refers to the varieties of English in the inner circle, outer circle and expanding circle of the “three circles” model invented by Braj Kachru.

I’m glad I read this book, though parts of it were eye-stabbingly inarticulate and other parts contained opinions that went all the way through defensive and out the other side…

I now have more sympathy for people who feel that although they have grown up speaking English, they can never really achieve a respectable level of English, simply because they weren’t born and educated in places where the local variety of English is automatically respected. I mean, how unfair is that? Especially since all our enshrined standards are nothing but historical accidents. I’m not saying that we don’t need standards, or even, necessarily, that they should change or multiply, just that it stinks if you’re on the receiving end of one, so to speak, through no fault of your own.

For a list of the papers and what I found interesting about them, keep reading. (TL;DR? Try this summary instead.)

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I was expecting Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar to be depressing, and it was—just not as depressing as I’d expected.

I don’t think I’d read anything by Sylvia Plath, but I had the impression that she was famous for poetry relating to depression and death, and that this famous book had some kind of morbid theme. I also had the impression that Plath was the author of “Resumé”, a memorable and oddly charming poem about suicide that turns out to be by Dorothy Parker.

The novel tells the story of Esther, a nineteen-year-old college student in the US who has been sent to work at the office of a New York City fashion magazine for one month. The story follows her anguished personal struggle with others’ expectations of her and with her own professional and romantic ambitions.

The novel did not impress me favorably overall, but I attribute that judgment to my personal taste for happier content.

For more about when and why I read the novel and what stood out (including a detailed plot summary in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat), see below.

Continue reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The mission of a dictionary

If you accept a ‘word’ such as ‘alright’ (which I consider to be a mistake) just because it’s in the dictionary, for consistency you will probably also have to accept ‘words’ that you consider to be mistakes. (How accepting do you feel towards nucular?)

Furthermore, if you accept any word that’s in the dictionary just because it’s in the dictionary, you are trapping yourself in an inescapable bit of circular logic.

I’m using it because it’s in the dictionary…
and it’s in the dictionary because I’m using it.

That’s because the mission of a dictionary (these days, anyway) is to document how people actually write, not to dictate how people should write.

Dictionaries are comprehensive. They’re not carved in stone and increasingly they include examples of anything and everything that’s statistically common enough to pass some minimum threshold. There’s no value judgment involved. In fact, descriptivism, the linguistic philosophy that motivates lexicographers, categorically prohibits interference from value judgments. The passing of judgment on any form of linguistic expression is termed ‘prescriptivism’ and is frowned on by academic linguists.

To my way of thinking, then, there’s a huge difference between the mission of dictionary writers and the mission of pretty much any other kind of writer. Writing is all about value judgment—writers must constantly choose what to say and how to say it to best communicate with the audience, for a given purpose, in a given context. Therefore, writers are constantly looking for and giving one another advice on appropriate forms and formulations.

There are many, many books out there that purport to contain well-considered recommendations for word use. They’re just not dictionaries.

Chinese for Dummies

I feel like my 2005 copy of Chinese for Dummies is a bit out of date, though apparently the 2013 edition also has a CD inside. (If you ask me, CDs were rightly mocked as obsolete by Nick in Zootopia.)

I’m a fan of the “for Dummies” series published by Wiley. I have dummies books on several topics, and in every case, the information inside is characterized by its simplicity and clarity. The dummies books are an easy first step into any topic, saving readers from needing to understand and evaluate a wide range of available reference books in an unfamiliar niche. Wiley’s got you covered.

This book’s tagline is “Speak Mandarin Chinese the fun and easy way”. Now, no matter how much I like and respect the dummies brand, I do not believe there is any book, or teacher, or class that can make Mandarin Chinese easy for a native speaker of English. That being said, a useful feature of this particular book is the Englishy spelling approximations (e.g., nee how) that are shown alongside the pinyin (e.g., nĭ hăo) to aid pronunciation.

Note that this book teaches readers how to speak Mandarin, not how to read or write it. That’s a totally different thing. This book has no Chinese characters in it anywhere.

Some things it does have:

  • a fascinating list of the different names for Chinese in Chinese and where and why they are used
  • a list of some Chinese proverbs
  • a cartoon for each part of the book
  • a verb list separate from the glossary
  • practice exercises and answers to them
  • bits of cultural knowledge and etiquette advice

Overall the book is fine, but it’s really for absolute beginners, and I’m not one.

Still, I suppose I should learn to say this sentence from page 162:

Wǒ zhēn xūyào liànxí.
I really need [to] practice.

Genre: Non-fiction (foreign language)
Date started / date finished:  10-Nov-15 to 22-Mar-16
Length: 314
ISBN:  047178897X
Originally published in: 2005
Amazon link: Chinese for Dummies

Find Your Strongest Life by Marcus Buckingham

Self-help, self-improvement, management and other advice books typically explain how you can fix the things that are wrong with you or improve the things that you are doing badly; few tell you that you’re already doing okay, actually, and not to worry, a message that may not sell a lot of books but that people nevertheless should hear more often.

What I loved about Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton was the positive, reassuring message that you should focus more on what you are good at rather than on your shortcomings.

I expected to hear more of that message in Find Your Strongest Life, but somehow it seems the book spent a lot of time describing in detail the problems of women who do not have their priorities straight: they are choosing to lead unfulfilling lives. And maybe you, reader, are one of those women! In fact, if you’re not doing this, that and the other thing, you probably are. If you identify more with this negative anecdote than this positive one, you definitely are, and you need to change.

That’s not a helpful message, actually; just more of the typical self-help snake oil: buy my book, follow my instructions, live a happy life. Don’t buy my book and follow my instructions, and you’ll be miserable.

Perhaps I’m not being totally fair.

The nine life roles Buckingham describes were interesting and useful to read about, and you can take a free Strong Life Test to see which role fits you best. The book also contains a lot of helpful tips on how to be more positive and shift your life towards your strengths.

The book just didn’t strike me as positive overall. Perhaps the underlying message still seems to be, “If you don’t do this, you’ll be unhappy… and you’ll deserve to be.”

What Stood Out

The metaphor that success isn’t like juggling (throwing lots of things away from you), but rather involves choosing which aspects of life to catch and bring closer to you (xviii).

The core insight that happiness often consists of time spent engaged in a challenging task of the specific kind that suits you (8).

The hypothesis that there is no universal karmic justice:

Life is not designed with anyone’s happiness in mind, and it has the disconcerting habit of not rewarding the good as much as we’d expect, of punishing the wicked less vigorously than we’d like, and even, on occasion, of getting the two completely mixed up (24).

The idea that yes, expertise takes practice, but that you’re more likely to practice things you like doing in the first place (164).

When and Why I Read It

Bought it very cheap at an atrium book sale in Singapore because I liked Now, Discover Your Strengths. which has apparently been superseded by Strengthsfinder 2.0.

Genre: non-fiction (self-improvement, business)
Date started / date finished:  20-Mar-16 to 22-Mar-16
Length: 263 pages
ISBN: 9781400202362 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 2009
Amazon link: Find Your Strongest Life