Calling it a day…

Do you have books that you have been sort-of-reading for ages? They are not really gripping and you read or skim a chapter here or there, but you never seem to make real progress and you don‘t want to DNF the book either?

This is the book that probably has been hanging out on my currently-reading shelf the longest — since September 2018!

The Culture Map (INTL ED): Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures
by Erin Meyer

A work colleague recommended this to me. I generally struggle with non-fiction, unless it is a topic that really, really interests me. Work-related literature is even worse. However, if you work in an international field and frequently deal with other countries and cultures, this book offers some eye-opening insights.

It‘s not just about your communication partner at the opposite end of the cultural scale, but also about recognizing yourself and understanding, how your own culture operates.

When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act. Before picking up the phone to negotiate with your suppliers in China, […] use all the available resources to understand how the cultural framework you are working with is different from your own—and only then react.

 “As with so many challenges related to cross-cultural collaboration, awareness and open communication go a long way toward defusing conflict.

Each chapter follows a very set structure. It starts with the chapter’s overarching topic and the author offers a memory of her own life, private or business, relating to it and thus explaining what specific issue the chapter tackles.

This is followed by an actual business example of one person dealing with the issue well and one person dealing with it in their own cultural context and failing. This might be combined with some historical references, showing why a certain culture behaves in a specific way. The reader is given views of different scales and where cultures land on that scale. Quiet interesting and probably a good reason to get this book in paper or to read it on a large display. Here is an example:

And…

This scale was explained via a business meeting with Germans and US Americans…

If you think of your Germanic European business associates as stolid, silent types, you may be surprised when a matter of controversy arises. You are likely to find them eager to jump into the fray, since they regard disagreement not as a matter of personal emotion, but rather as a valuable intellectual exercise from which truth emerges.

Oh yes, we will grill you from all angles in a very Spock-like manner! It doesn‘t mean that we don‘t like you, we just cherish debate and confrontation as a tool to find the best answers…

Still, this book generalizes with a broad brush and very wide strokes. Believe me, there are plenty of Germans that bruise easily and will take personal offense, if you disagree with their opinion. Or maybe you simply overshot your goal on that Disagreement Scale…

I have been picking up this book every now and then to finally write a short review and then DNF it. Instead I usually ended up reading or skimming another short chapter and finding worthwhile tips for my working life. But I am calling it a day now. Management books of this type are just too dry and feel too much like work. Maybe one of these days I will browse through the last 40% of this…

Dare to not finish that book…

Eating Animals — read during 2015 and 2016
by Jonathan Safran Foer

A book about the horrors of factory farming. The imagery is as puke-inducing as possible. When you read this, you never want to eat meat again. Choices are to not care, turn vegan or vegetarian, to eat less meat or make better choices and search for animals raised and slaughtered in a more sustainable way. I am currently going with the last two options. I like to occassionally eat meat. I can see myself becoming a vegetarian at some point in my life, but it’s not high on my list of things to do. Can’t see myself living a vegan life. But that’s neither here nor there, never say never. 

The real question should be if this is a good book or not. Considering that it languished on my currently-reading shelf for over a year, it is defintely not doing it for me. I feel preached at, horrified and bored at the same time. I don’t believe in absolutes and missionaries are not my kind of people, no matter if the topic is religious or nutritional. 

And how relevant is this book‘s perspective for me as a European? How different or similar are the food producing industries on either side of the pond? I am missing a global perspective.

Awareness is definitely important, people should know what they put into their mouth. Too many still don’t care, as long as it is cheap. Which really is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? The bizarre opposite of the equation is the hype of dry-aged beef and endless barbecue shows on TV.

Bottom line, I don’t like the tone of the book and only find it mildly informative, as I have learned many of these facts already from the Internet, documentaries, etc. As a story it holds little entertaining interest for me. The odd anecdote does not make up for the rest of the book and I am mostly bored. 

This is too much non-fiction with too little relevant information for me.

Why we talk the way we do…

The Story of Human Language
by John McWhorter

Rating: 4 out of 5.

With some recommendations I stumbled across this book on human language from The Great Courses. This is an audiobook, aka the lecture series by the author.

Here is what it‘s all about:

There are 6,000 languages in the world, in so much variety that many languages would leave English speakers wondering just how a human being could possibly learn and use them.

From the scope of the book / pdf supplement of the audio

The first two lectures were What Is Language? and When Language Began. By the sound of it this seem to be actual lectures. There are reactions from the audience and clapping. It makes for a different listening experience than listening to a professionally narrated book. The author, aka lecturer, is a proficient and coherent speaker. However, the experience is a bit more organic than usual.

The part about Chomsky in the second lecture was new to me and the notion that humans are somehow programmed to speak sounded logical to me. The other side of that argument is, that language develops based on external influences. Here we open the door to philosophical debate. I am benching that one for my next non-fiction book…

The basis of Chomsky’s linguistic theory lies in biolinguistics, the linguistic school that holds that the principles underpinning the structure of language are biologically preset in the human mind and hence genetically inherited.

Accordingly, Chomsky argues that language is a unique evolutionary development of the human species and distinguished from modes of communication used by any other animal species.

Wikipedia about Chomsky

Lecture 3: How Language Changes—Sound Change talks about the great vowel shift — I opened the pdf, that came with the audio. It‘s not the full text, more of a summary, but still… reading along and looking at some of the examples in writing is very helpful. Pretty cool, actually, how vowels and consonants changed over time. That word, „cool“, had a vowel shift, btw…

I won‘t bore you with summaries of every single lecture, suffice to say that the author covers a vast amount of linguistic topics. I spaced out a bit during the many chapters on dialects.

The author‘s casual dismissal of places and people outside of the US was a bit irritating at times. I think he was trying to be funny, with middling success. 

Lecture 26: Does Culture Drive Language Change? presents…

a hypothesis that our ways of processing the world are channeled by the structure of our language. This has been called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

That has always been a really fascinating concept for me. German, language of thinkers and poets, etc. Based on this audiobook course and other sources I looked at over time, this does not seem to hold true. The language you think in or the grammar you use do not seem to shape how you think and do not seem to be influenced by the culture you live in. Although it has never been proven, the idea doesn‘t seem to be going away.

In the chapters after that one we learned about Pidgin and Creole. There is a difference! I did not know that. And I learned a lot more about it that I really cared for. However, a lot of that was grounding for Lecture 32: What Is Black English?Fascinating connection to British English!

Everything was rounded off with a master class, to extrapolate on everything we learned throughout the course.

It was interesting, even with some bits in between that dragged a bit. The accompanying pdf was open most of the time, while I listened to the lectures and served a bit as a blackboard for the lecturer. Good enough to consider further offerings by The Great Courses.


Some of the recommended reading:


This was part of my #ReadPOC2021 challenge. The February prompt is „scientist“.

The March prompt is „A Work of Fiction“. These are on my want-to-read shelf and fit the prompt, in no particular order:

  • The Black Parade by Kyoko M., UF, reviews are mixed
  • The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson, horror/SF, novella
  • Jade City by Fonda Lee, UF
  • Rosewater by Tade Thompson, SF
  • David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa, UF
  • Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi, Fantasy/SF

About language, a small island and a brief hop to Africa…

Yesterday I posted about my current audiobook read, The Story of Human Language (Audible Audio). The pdf includes Essential Reading at the end of every chapter. And at the end of lecture 3, How Language Changes—Sound Change, to my surprise, a book is listed that I have actually read!

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
by Bill Bryson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In this hymn to the mother tongue Bill Bryson examines how a language treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants has now become the undisputed global language.

Written with his usual humour, Bill Bryson tells you everything you ever wanted to know about how the English language came to be what it is today. Funny and informative, but sometimes he gets a bit carried away. 17 pages on spelling is just a bit excessive.

Bryson is another author that I want to revisit.

Another book about the topics of the English language that has been lingering on my TBR pile for quite some time:

The Queen’s English: And How to Use It 
by Bernard C. Lamb

What is good English, and why do we need it? “The Queen’s English” shows how the English language, used properly, has great power to instruct, move and entertain people, but used incorrectly, can lead to a lack of clarity and confusion. This book informs in a light-hearted way, reminding readers how to use the basics of grammar, punctuation and spelling, as well as further teaching them new tips and tricks of style, rhetoric and vocabulary. The book also shows the perils of using language incorrectly, offering extremely (if unintentionally) humorous examples of where bad English can cause one thing to mean something entirely different!

From the book blurb

Maybe I will manage to get to this book in 2021! It‘s been on my shelf for nine years, which is the reason why I added it to my TBR Bingo card!


Talking about Bill Bryson, these are the two books of his that I have read… I could swear there was more, but I am not sure what book it was — maybe In a Sunburned Country?

Notes from a Small Island
by Bill Bryson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I laughed myself silly when I read this. Which was quite a while ago, in the mid-to-late 1990s, whilst living in London. Reading it on the tube quite often, no less… That‘s pretty much all I remember.

Bill Bryson’s African Diary
by Bill Bryson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Nice little book, a very brief read. The usual Bill Bryson humour shows through a little, but it’s really only a teensy-weensy bite in between.

First Line Fridays, #ReadPOC2021, Human Language

I decided to listen to another audiobook for my #ReadPOC2021 challenge. The prompt for February will be „scientist“. I posted about this already, it was really hard to find an author and book that interest me. However, with some recommendations I eventually stumbled across this book on human language from The Great Courses:

The Story of Human Language (Audible Audio)
by John McWhorter

Here is what it‘s all about:

There are 6,000 languages in the world, in so much variety that many languages would leave English speakers wondering just how a human being could possibly learn and use them.

From the scope of the book / pdf supplement of the audio

I listened to the first two lectures already, What Is Language? and When Language Began. By the sound of it this seem to be actual lectures, held by the author. There are reactions from the audience and clapping. It makes for a different listening experience than listening to a professionally narrated book. The author, aka lecturer, is a proficient and coherent speaker. However, the experience is a bit more organic than usual.

The part about Chomsky in the second lecture was new to me and the notion that humans are somehow programmed to speak makes sense to me.

The basis of Chomsky’s linguistic theory lies in biolinguistics, the linguistic school that holds that the principles underpinning the structure of language are biologically preset in the human mind and hence genetically inherited.

Accordingly, Chomsky argues that language is a unique evolutionary development of the human species and distinguished from modes of communication used by any other animal species.

Wikipedia about Chomsky

So far, so interesting. We‘ll see if I‘ll manage to work my way through 36 lectures.


First Line Friday is a meme created by Hoarding Books. Feel free to head over there, have a look around, grab a book and post its first line in the comments there and in your blog.

What is this #ReadPOC2021 challenge, you ask? My original post is here. For an explanation and the general rules please go to the actual webpage of the challenge, hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media.

#ReadPOC2021 — February: By a Scientist

So, finding something that interests me for February is going to be a tough one. Scientists that fit the bill are seriously under-represented. Or I am very oblivious, take your pick. I am leaning towards space and the universe at large, natural history, Earth‘s history, the oceans, … I suppose it could be a memoir or biography of a scientist falling under the BIPOC heading.

What is this challenge, you ask? My original post is here. For an explanation and the general rules please go to the actual webpage of the challenge, hosted by Lonely Cryptid Media.

Back to February. I have been meaning to read something by Neil deGrasse Tyson for a while. Or maybe get an audiobook. I would like to listen to him narrating it himself though, which does not give me a lot of options. It would mean reading either Astrophysics for People in a Hurry or Letters from an Astrophysicist. That one sounds like fun. They are both fairly short though.

In my search of other authors I came across this list: Finding My Climate-Conscious Tribe: Black Nature Lovers and Writers. PlanetWalker (2005) by environmentalist John Francis looks interesting. From the book blurb:

“When the struggle to save oil-soaked birds and restore blackened beaches left him feeling frustrated and helpless, John Francis decided to take a more fundamental and personal stand—he stopped using all forms of motorized transportation. Soon after embarking on this quest that would span two decades and two continents, the young man took a vow of silence that endured for 17 years. It began as a silent environmental protest, but as a young African-American man, walking across the country in the early 1970s, his idea of “the environment” expanded beyond concern about pollution and loss of habitat to include how we humans treat each other and how we can better communicate and work together to benefit the earth.“

Another interesting list: Celebrating Black Environmentalists during Black History Month. I ended up browsing cooking books though, which is not really what I was looking for… Still, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty sounds good. I am really tempted, after browsing through the preview. From the book blurb:

“Southern food is integral to the American culinary tradition, yet the question of who “owns” it is one of the most provocative touch points in our ongoing struggles over race. In this unique memoir, culinary historian Michael W. Twitty takes readers to the white-hot center of this fight, tracing the roots of his own family and the charged politics surrounding the origins of soul food, barbecue, and all Southern cuisine.“

And several other lists and blog posts lead me to Lauret Savoy and her book Trace. From the book blurb:

“Through personal journeys and historical inquiry, this PEN Literary Award finalist explores how America’s still unfolding history and ideas of “race” have marked its people and the land.“

“A provocative and powerful mosaic that ranges across a continent and across time, from twisted terrain within the San Andreas Fault zone to a South Carolina plantation, from national parks to burial grounds, from “Indian Territory” and the U.S.–Mexico Border to the U.S. capital, Trace grapples with a searing national history to reveal the often unvoiced presence of the past.“

Still, those three books are more memoirs and histories than something I would lump under the heading scientific non-finction. So, I am stumped. I am open to suggestions!


The prompt and page for January is here: Books by Women of Color to Read for #ReadPOC2021.

Miss Evolution at work…

Nachrichten aus einem unbekannten Universum: Eine Zeitreise durch die Meere
by Frank Schätzing

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Schätzing usually writes SciFi thrillers, so this non-fiction was a detour, albeit into the realm dealing with the universe at large. There is a speculative element in these „news from an unknown universe“. He takes us on a tour from the Big Bang to the near future. Schätzing calls this „Humans and the oceans, a peculiar relationship, marked by love, hate, ignorance and romanticism.“ He shows us how oceans work and life evolved and where all this water came from in the first place. Why evolution took the route it took. We get a look at the mechanics of the Gulf stream, the movements of tectonic plates, the structure of the world‘s oceans and their inhabitants, to the creation of waves, how our moon came to be, its effects on our planet, to the evolution of bacteria, plankton, bigger fish and whales and ultimately the struggles our seas are facing today. „Miss Evolution“ is the driving force in this book.

I am not a fan of Schätzing‘s flippant tone and his habit of anthropomorphising everything. I understand that he wants to make this entertaining and fun for the reader. But I found it annoying, his assigning of all kinds of human emotions and motives to sponges, fish and whatever appeared on the page, usually with a comical comment at the end of a paragraph or chapter. And Miss Evolution ticked me off.

The book is nicely done, with unusual page layouts and nice illustrations and photos. I struggled a bit with the odd black pages with white print. The contrast was crap and I had a hard time with the small and dense font already anyway.

I didn‘t learn a lot of new things, however this is a nice primer into our evolution, Earth‘s geological history and the development of life in the oceans. So, if you‘re looking for some pop-science with a funny writing style and don‘t mind the anthropomorphising, this might be for you.

As alien as it can get on this Earth

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness (Audible Audio)
by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Not what I expected, aka a somewhat amusing popscience piece about octopuses. Instead this started with a fairly thorough account of the Ediacaran era and biota, followed by the Cambrian Explosion. One of these days I might even manage to memorize the timeline! Fairly challenging stuff, when listening to an audiobook.

Then we cover different topics—the arms race between predators and their prey, the evolution of the eye, the question what signifies intelligence, and so on and so forth… The chapter about Inner Speech was fascinating. Making Colours was a very interesting chapter as well. I hadn‘t know that octopuses can‘t see colours the way we do. The last chapter, Octopolis, reminded me very strongly of Children of Ruin (Children of Time #2) by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Who took inspiration from this book, I believe.

As mentioned, this was not what I expected, namely a book strictly talking about the evolution of octopuses. I liked it, but at times it was off on unexpected tangents, instead of concentrating on my reason for reading this. If the scientific or philosophical discourse of the chapter I was in at any given point wasn‘t gripping me, I just bided my time until the main act made an appearance again. Nonetheless, I was entertained. And I learned new things.

The audiobook narration was done well. However, the more complicated parts of this narrative probably escaped me a bit. It would probably be worth getting a print version, to be able to go over parts of it more easily again. And I assume there are photos and illustrations… 

My review of Children of Ruin is here….

Hit or miss with Frank Schätzing

Limit
by Frank Schätzing

Rating: 1 out of 5.

I give up on Limit—my first cleaning act of 2021. I will toss the book into the flea market flap of my local library. I struggled (and skimmed) to page 73 and feel no interest in trying any further. I know that many readers will find it unfair that I am giving a rating after reading so little of this doorstopper, but what I read really annoyed me. I understand that very long books require a certain set-up of people and storylines, but I really couldn’t warm up to anything in these first 73 pages and had to constantly look up the eight-page register of people to be able to follow the red thread. The characters were all completely interchangeable.

Sorry, but I’d rather read three books of average length that I enjoy more. Pity, really. Because I liked this one well enough, when I read it in 2005 (or thereabouts):

Der Schwarm / The Swarm
by Frank Schätzing

A fisherman disappears near the coast of Peru. Without a trace. Norwegian oil drilling experts discover strange organisms, covering hundreds of square kilometers of sea floor. Whales along the coasts of British Columbia change their behaviour. None of this seems to be connected. But biologist Sigur Johanson does not believe in coincidences. And wale expert Leon Anawak draws disturbing conclusions. A catastrophy seems unavoidable. The search for the cause of all this becomes their worst nightmare.

Very long, very good – I liked the first part with the build-up of all the action better than the latter part, but won’t tell you why. I don’t want to give any of the storyline away. Would make a great blockbuster, a bit like “The Day After Tomorrow”, but this time animals strike instead of the weather… Creepy. Suspenseful.

I am currently also reading through this:

Nachrichten aus einem unbekannten Universum: Eine Zeitreise durch die Meere (Hardcover) / News from an Unknown Universe
by Frank Schätzing

I am not reading every word, but rather browse through the chapters, dipping in deeper here or there where something catches my interest.

I am not a fan of Schätzing‘s flippant tone and his habit of antropomorphizing everything. I understand that he wants to make this entertaining and fun for the reader. However, I am only 70 pages in and already rolling my eyes every time Miss Evolution shows up. WTF? 

50 classic German authors

50 Klassiker: Deutsche Schriftsteller von Grimmelshausen bis Grass
by Joachim Scholl

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I was at an open-air theater performance in Tübingen recently. The piece was from Hölderlin and I realized that I know virtually nothing about one of Germany‘s most important poets. So I got this reference book and a short biography about Hölderlin at the library. The biography I put down again pretty quickly. This collection of essays about important German authors was quite entertaining. Each author is covered in a biography of three to five pages, mixed up with portraits of the author, photos of his home or family, a few quotes and summary of the most important work. Each entry was finished with a one-pager for the hurried reader, boiling down the biography to the essentials, offering a short rating and further reading recommendations.

You know what is the most frustrating thing about this book referencing the 50 most important German authors? They are all men. In the introduction the author announces a separate edition for female authors. Why a separate edition? And where is it, 13 years after this one here was published?

Let me give you some examples of female German-language authors that did indeed have an impact on literature:

– Bettina von Arnim (*1785-1859)
– Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (*1797–1848)
– Ricarda Huch (*1864-1947 ), nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times
– Else Lasker-Schüler (*1869–1945)
– Anna Seghers (*1900-1983)
– Ingeborg Bachmann (*1926 in Austria-1973) 
– Christa Wolf (*1929-2011)

Further reading in German:
– Auch ein Land der Dichterinnen und Denkerinnen, https://www.54books.de/auch-ein-land-…

You are welcome!

Back to this book… informative, well-written. The one-pager was printed with black type on a red background, which made for bad contrast and was not easy to read. I am knocking off a star for that and another one for the male bias.


One of Hölderlin‘s most famous poems:

Hälfte des Lebens

Mit gelben Birnen hänget
Und voll mit wilden Rosen
Das Land in den See,
Ihr holden Schwäne,
Und trunken von Küssen
Tunkt ihr das Haupt
Ins heilignüchterne Wasser.

Weh mir, wo nehm´ ich, wenn
Es Winter ist, die Blumen, und wo
Den Sonnenschein,
Und Schatten der Erde ?
Die Mauern stehn
Sprachlos und kalt, im Winde
Klirren die Fahnen.

Half of Life

With its yellow pears
And wild roses everywhere
The shore hangs into the lake,
O gracious swans,
And drunk with kisses
You dip your heads
In the sobering holy water.

Ah, where will I find
Flowers, come winter,
And where the sunshine
And shade of the earth ?
Walls stand cold
And speechless, in the wind
The wheathervanes creak.

Hölderlin’s poems in English translation