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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