So while I’ve been away from this blog these past few months, I still have been reading. Not as much I would have liked or hoped, but enough to find some really enjoyable books in the process. Here’s some of the highlights from the last few months, reading wise:
Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Human Mind by Margalit Fox: I read this book way back in March and I really enjoyed it! Margalit is a New York Times reporter who has a background in linguistics. She manages to secure an amazing opportunity to travel with a group of Israeli linguistics to an isolated Bedouin community in Israel. The community is so isolated that intermarriage between the families of the village is common, and over the years this has produced an extraordinary high number of villagers being born death. This factor, combined with the remoteness of the village, has given rise to a unique phenomena that linguistics the world over dream of: the village has produced a sign language that is unrelated to any other language, sign or spoken. The book explores what makes the sign language of the village unique, the history of sign language itself, the linguist aspects of sign languages and how they are in fact real languages just like spoken ones, and the challenges facing the native sign language of the village as the deaf children are now bused to schools out of the village where they learn Israeli Sign Language, thus changing and influencing the native language they ‘speak’ at home.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this book. So many topics are covered in an engaging and lively way and the writing itself is great. We meet some of the villagers, talk to the Israeli linguistics who have over the years come to earn the trust of the village, explore their resulting research, and learn about what makes a language a language, and just learn SO MUCH about sign language in general. I thought how sign language is treated in the village was fascinating; not everyone ‘speaks’ it, but it is treated as a legitimate language and holds no social stigma. As someone who is interested in linguistics but doesn’t actually have the inclination to study it in depth, I found some of the information in here really cool. The sections on how sign language actually works, and how speakers encode grammar spatially and by the speed and direction of their signs blew my mind. There are also so many cool tidbits of facts in this book as well. Did you know that, because of a higher percentage of their population being born deaf than normal, residents of Martha’s Vineyard from the early 1700s through to the 1950s had their own sign language that they developed which eventually played a huge role in the development of American Sign Language? I didn’t! Hearing villagers would even sign to each other when there were no deaf people present. How cool is that!
I forgot how much I enjoyed this book, and how much I learned, before I started writing about it. If this book sounds at all interesting to you I would encourage you to pick it up– it’s really great!
This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust: This is a book that I have been meaning to seek out and read for forever. And I mean FOREVER. During the Civil War, around 620,000 soldiers died. I can’t stress how huge a number this is: adjusted for today’s population, that would be around 6 million Americans dying in the space of four years. It’s a crazy amount of people and it had a significant impact on American society and its relationship towards death. Faust is currently the president of Harvard, but she started her career as a historian of American history. She really knows her stuff and its obvious. For such a (relatively) short book, there is a ton of information here. The Civil War changed American religion, what it meant to have a ‘good death,’ and even how bodies were treated and transported. Faust also describes how after the war the federal government undertook the massive undertaking of digging up Union soldiers’ bodies that were buried in the South, attempted to identify them, and reburied them in newly created cemeteries across the country, and how women’s societies in the South did the same for Confederate casualties. I will say that this book did leave me wanting to know more though about a host of topics that I encountered here, but no matter how try I can seem to regard this development as a complaint 🙂 Again, this is a really enjoyable book about American history, religion, and society.
Another book that I’ve been meaning read forever that I finally got around to in the last few months is The Last of Celts by Marcus Tanner. While visiting his family’s ancestral village and graveyard in Wales, Tanner becomes aware of just how big the gulf between he and his Welsh-speaking ancestors is. He feels disconnected, out of place in someway, and can’t even read the inscriptions on his family’s tombstones, which are all in Welsh. Tanner eventually learns to speak Welsh and, in the course of the book, travels throughout the Celtic world, searching for those few places where Celtic languages and cultures still survive.
This book, I think, was actually quite depressing. Tanner travels to Scotland, Ireland, and Brittany, all places where native Celtic languages are still spoken, and finds them in great decline. The Irish Gaeltacht (regions where Irish is the predominant language) have largely failed, despite government funding and support. In France, in contrast, the Breton language has received virtually no support or funding but is quickly fading away as well. Scottish Gaelic is in a similar decline. The only Celtic language that Tanner sees surviving into the future as a living, breathing language is Welsh. So yes, this book was a bit sad, but it was also very interesting as well. Tanner also travels to areas where Celtic languages once existed, but are now extinct, like Cornwall and the Isle of Man. He also goes to Nova Scotia, where Scottish Gaelic was once spoken for some time but is no longer, and Patagonia, where Welsh settlers immigrated and built little, self-sustaining Welsh-speaking communities, which are also under grave threat of extinction. I thought this book was very engaging and thought-provoking, but it did leave me feeling very uneasy and a bit upset over how fast these languages are disappearing in my lifetime and how it seems, for the most part, that they are too far gone to resurrect or preserve in any meaningful way.
I won’t go into Harry Potter y el cáliz de fuego (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) by J.K. Rowling in any great detail because there’s no point since everyone knows what the book is about- or at least has some vague idea of what the book entails if you have somehow managed to survive the last few years without reading it or seeing the movie. I just want to mention it here and say that I finally read it! I was so scared of this one after I finished the third one in Spanish because this one was just so much longer. I bought the fourth one soon after I finished the third, I think, but I went so long between reading the two that I forgot that I had bought it so I accidentally bought it again! Oh well 🙂 Once I started, I quickly figured out that it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I did take me a while, but once I started it in earnest I finished it without really having any trouble. Also, I discovered that in this book that I don’t mind Hagrid nearly as much as I do in the English version! I have to confess that when I was younger and eagerly devouring this series for the first time, I found Hagrid really annoying for some reason. I remember, after finishing the seventh book for the first time, being distinctly disappointed that he hadn’t died! Maybe it’s because in the Spanish version Hagrid doesn’t have an accent like he does in the English version? I’m not declaring myself decidedly pro-Hagrid yet, but I’ll keep my eye on him in the next book and see how it goes.
Lastly, I want to mention Frankenstein by Mary Shelly very briefly. I read it towards the beginning of this month and it was a nice way to start off the fall season. I knew Shelly was young when she wrote the book but I didn’t realize just how young she was- 19! I also thought I knew the general plot of the book, and to some extent I was right, but I had no idea how much I was missing before I read this! The first couple of pages where quite a shock to me as I realized that I really didn’t know as much as I thought about the book and who is this Captain Walton person, and what are all these letters doing in this book, this isn’t an epistolary novel is it? Besides being a well written and very moving book that I very much enjoyed, Frankenstein was a good read for me because it reminded me to never assume to know what a book is about or like if I haven’t read it before. Plus, it was such a plain good story and very atmospheric, which I loved. It was perfect for this time of year when the leaves are turning and its starting to get cold. It’s a slim little book, but there’s a lot in it to think about. I felt sorry for both Frankenstein and his monster; his monster more, I think, because he didn’t ask to be made, and if Frankenstein didn’t constantly make such stupid decisions and if he had been able to express at least some amount of empathy towards his creation then things could have had the chance of at least turning out differently. Also, I wonder whatever happened to Frankenstein’s brother, Ernest? He must have been so confused, and so very lonely after the book ended. I really want to know what happened to him for some reason. This was really a wonderful little book to read as fall begins to descend in earnest and I can definitely see myself rereading it around this time of year in the future.
So those were the notables of what I read so far this year. I also read some chick lit (Meg Cabot, anyone?) which were enjoyable enough, but didn’t make enough of an impression to write about them in any length. I’m currently reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins which is just perfect and Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory which I am finding very funny, but not in the way I think Malory intended. Anyway, that’s enough of my rambling for one post.
What are you guys reading right now? What are some of the books you’ve read this year that have stood out?