February books and films

Published Categorised as Books, Films 3 Comments on February books and films

Not a great deal to report here, I haven’t read that much or seen many films because I’ve been busy doing unfun things. Less of that, please.


1) Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong- James W Loewen

This book made me really glad I had never had to study any of the school history courses featured. They seemed to be mainly focused on rote-learning dates and hero-worshipping (mostly white, male, dead) historical figures like George Washington. The textbooks seemed incredibly simplistic and boring, and intent on portraying American history as some kind of logical march towards glory.

I always enjoyed history class at school. We had a really good teacher who everyone liked, and the syllabus and textbook were pretty decent. They focused a lot on social history and change, which was good, and never pulled out the “we are the best country, look at all our heroic figures”angle. There was a lot of focus on things like how enclosing the fields screwed over the peasants, the terrible working conditions of the Industrial Revolution, slave trade etc. Basically how shitty things were for people at the bottom of society.

Our syllabus went something like this (there were probably other things too, but this is what I remember):
Yr 7 (ie aged 11-12)- Saxon England, Norman Conquest, Feudalism, Castles, Magna Carta, Crusades
Yr 8 – Tudors, Farming revolution/enclosures, Black Death, English Civil War, Commonwealth, Restoration
Yr 9– Industrial Revolution, Slave Trade, French Revolution, Napoleon, Poor Laws, Chartists and Suffragettes/Founding of the Labour Party, First and Second World War, Independence of various colonies
Yr 10&11– 20th Century Russian, German and American History 1917-1989 (This part was optional, but was a popular option)

2) My So-Called Freelance Life- Michelle Goodman

I read this when I visited Vicky and couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t very helpful. It was written in an annoying “You go girlfriend!!!” style, and the advice seemed very dated. Like for instance suggesting getting a website like it was a new thing. The finance/tax stuff was only suitable for the US, so the book wasn’t really much use for me.

3) Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything- David Bellos

I was really looking forward to this book, and then I hated it when I read it. The writer spends a lot of time going back over the same semantic analysis of “what is translation” again and again, from a very narrow and pedantic viewpoint, then tantalising you by going into an interesting topic like how simultaneous interpreting works or different approaches to translating jokes, then after a short paragraph going back into the same tired, dogmatic analysis again, so you don’t actually learn much about the practice of translation. The writing style is also dull and pedantic. I did Classics and Modern Languages as my BA, and I spent a lot of time doing translation/linguistics stuff. The book is too dry and technical for someone with a passing interest in the subject, but doesn’t teach you much you wouldn’t know already if you’d studied linguistics.

He was the English translator for an Albanian writer called Ismail Kadare, who is very popular and fêted translated into French (Bellos produced the English edition from the French, because he doesn’t speak Albanian), and Kadare gets shoe-horned into almost any topic as an example, like he’s trying to shill his own translation work. Kadare sounds like a really interesting writer (and has won the Booker Prize, and been nominated for a Nobel Prize), but the thought of reading anything else written by David Bellos fills me with horror. Translators have to be skillful writers in their own language to be any good. There are far too many painfully boring people who get into translation for some reason, and who shouldn’t be allowed near any writing that has some life in it. I was hoping for coverage of things like Anthea Bell‘s genius translations of Asterix or how the hell you translate something like Ulysses or Exercises in Style. It didn’t even mention English as She is Spoke.

I had to force myself to finish the book, and wouldn’t let myself start another book until I’d finish this one. I have this thing that I have to finish books, even if I don’t like them, in case there’s one interesting bit in a boring book and I miss it (thanks Pliny!). I knew if I didn’t finish it, I’d never go back to it. So that means the book has glared at me for a week, and I haven’t read anything else, and wish I had. I’m going to re-read something fun and short next: the Napoleon of Notting Hill.


I only saw one, Riot at the Rite , about the development and disastrous first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Of course to a modern audience 100 years down the line, the music and dance doesn’t seem shocking or unbearable at all, and certainly not something to make you riot in the theatre. The funny thing was that it horrified the cat. She loves watching tv, and nothing on the tv ever seems to bother her normally. When the music came on though, she leapt up and meowed really loudly, and then ran out of the room like she was going “No! I can’t bear this!”, and didn’t come back until the film was over. I guess she has an Edwardian mindset. She ran out of the room again when I was sorting out what video to include! (The other cat is fine, he is just sat there) I enjoyed the film, even if the cat didn’t.

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  1. I spent five years, got two degrees in history, and in that whole time I never took an American history course that wasn't half silly…even at a very high level.

    When it comes to America there's a lot of confusion, self loathing and absolute bald face denial, over exactly what this unwieldy creation is. I'm a Southerner. I don't give a fig about America but, to Americans, I am a shield that protects them from having to face who they really are.

    The same men that burned Atlanta, Georgia and Columbia South Carolina, Oxford and Meridian Mississippi are the same men that slaughtered the Plains Indians. The exact same men. The men they trained are the ones who “liberated” Cuba and Philippines with “rabbit hunts” and water cures. They bullied Central and South America…the Caribbean.

    Yet the history of America starts out with Washington, Jefferson, Madison…all stone cold Southerners in reality but, now safely turned into wooden toothed New England schoolmarms. Then the slaves are liberated from racist Southerners. No talk of the New England slave trade before the war or the occupation and pilfering of the South after the war. Then the workers are liberated from evil capitalists (where did those come from…they seem to pop up right after the war…is there a connection. Put your hand down and be quiet 🙂 ). Then we save the world from Nazis AND the British Empire and Colin Powell reminds everybody that America is a liberator that has never asked for anything but a little piece of dirt in which to bury their dead….etc., etc., and baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh.

    Sorry. Didn't mean to run on like that…just gets right up my nose.

    Rites of Spring. Are you familiar with Modris Ekstein's history of the First World War. It's called Rites of Spring and he makes the case that the war was actually a European cultural civil war. It begins with this opening night riot. It's worth a read.

    Sorry again for going on.

  2. I just find it bizarre that they still stick to the “great men and battle dates” system of teaching. It's seen as very outdated, and kind of creepy and jingoistic over here (except by our current education secretary, who is regarded as an idiot who knows zero about education)

    Do they honestly teach that the Americans ended the British Empire? I don't think the people of India or Kenya would be very happy to hear that one.

    I read the Ekstein book at school about 10 years ago. The theme of the dreaded “Literature in Context” paper of the English A-Level was the First World War. We had to read a variety of things like Sigefried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Vera Brittain etc, and then were given some hopefully unfamiliar texts sight unseen in the exam and had 3 hours to write a commentary on their historical/social/literary context. The set book for my German exam that year was also All Quiet on the Western Front, so I had a year of constant WW1.

    I wanted to re-read it after seeing the film, but it seems to be out of print over here at the moment, so I'll have to get a second hand copy.

    They were going to take the English classes over to Ypres, which is only 2 hours away from where I grew up, but there were some idiotic boys in the year who took English Lit, and they were worried about them doing something to dishonour the war graves or embarrass the teachers, so we didn't end up going. I don't even know why those boys were doing English Lit, because the school system here has no compulsory or required classes after 16.

  3. I reckon Fussel's Great War and Modern Memory was on the list? It sounds like we had the same reading schedule. Mine was for War and Revolution (section one).

    I'm being a little facetious about it but, in the context of the inevitability of AMERICAAAA! That's the pattern…that's the popular understanding.

    Except the bit about the British Empire…that's my own cranky interpretation on all the hoopla about America winning the Second World War not as conquerors but as liberators. There's always a bit about Roosevelt refusing to fight on behalf of imperial interests (excluding those of the US of course…which are never named as such).

    I avoided US history at all cost. I studied the British Empire.

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