9 languages for 90% of the world’s population

"To engage with all but a tiny fraction of people in the world, you definitely do not need to learn all their first languages. You need to learn all their vehicular languages – languages learned by nonnative speakers for the purpose of communicating with native speakers of a third tongue. There are about eighty languages used in this way in some part of the world. But because vehicular languages are also native to some (usually very large) groups, and because many people speak more than one vehicular language (of which one may or may not be native to them), you do not need to learn all eighty vehicular languages to communicate with most people on the planet. Knowing just nine of them – Chinese (with 1.3 billion users), Hindi (800 million), Arabic (530 million), Spanish (350 million), Russian (278 million), Urdu (180 million), French (175 million), Japanese (130 million), and English (somewhere between 800 million and 1.8 billion) – would permit effective everyday conversation, though probably not detailed negotation or serious intellectual debate, with at least 4.5 billion and maybe up to 5.5 billion people, that is to say, around 90 percent of the world’s population." (David Bellos, Is that a fish in your ear? Translation and the meaning of everything, p14)

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notable fiction and non-fiction of 2011

I’m kind of drawn by these Washington Post lists.



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the weight of stories

“His death story seemed very heavy to me, in whatever unit death stories get measured.” (Karen Russell, Swamplandia!, p126)

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Spaghetti Surprise!

“Spaghetti Surprise was a simple equation for indigestion, invented by Mom: Noodles tossed like a blond wig over all your leftovers.  Noodles as a culinary disguise for gross, inedible root vegetables: surprise!  In a trash can this dish was raccoon kryptonite; even Grandpa couldn’t finish it.” (Karen Russell, Swamplandia!, p117-118)

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audio book review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern (narrated by Jim Dale)

a fabulous fictional location in a pretty good story

A nocturnal circus is the venue for a contest between two magicians. The plot of this story is enjoyable but not exceptional. There is a love story which I found not to be compelling at all. There is a separate plot with a young man finding his way which took a while to find its way (but did, eventually). Again, these plots are enjoyable enough but not enough by themselves to recommend the book. Some characters are compelling (Celia, one of the magicians) while others remain flat (Marco, the other magician).

BUT the circus itself is fabulous. Not since the Cemetery of Lost Books (from Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game) have I encountered such an enchanting, exciting locale. The circus is only open at night, and new tents and wonders are continually added. This book is worth reading just for the circus, which is the main and by far the most intriguing character.

Jim Dale continues to be the best reader in the business for fantastical tales; if you don’t know what I’m talking about run (don’t walk) and listen to him reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Note on content: The book has exactly one swear word as well as I can remember (an f-word, right near the beginning). There is one intimate scene portrayed briefly and in very figurative terms (e.g., “he covered her body with kisses”).

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audio book review: The Magician King, by Lev Grossman

fun and creative and emotionally resonant

If you haven’t read The Magicians, go read that first.  Stop reading this review.  The Magician King is Lev Grossman’s excellent sequel. The book proceeds in parallel narratives, alternating by chapters, between King Quentin and his fellows king and queens in Fillery on the one hand, and the story of what happened to Julia, Quentin’s high-school crush, after she failed the entrance exam to Brakebills. The narratives come together in the final chapters. Quentin is still something of a sad sack, always hoping that the next adventure or quest will bring him happiness (guess how that works out), and his story starts a little slow given how familiar it seems to what we’ve seen before. But it picks up as the quest grows more dire, filled with plot twists, and as Quentin learns some invaluable lessons about heroism. (I really liked the ending of this book; it completely defied expectations and yet managed to be powerful and satisfying at the same time.)

Julia’s narrative is filled with desperation, as she tries to learn magic through an unregulated network of magicians with no formal training. Just as the first book managed to capture certain emotional processes wonderfully (such as betrayal), so this one captures obsession and desperation. There is also lots of humor, pop culture references, and endless creativity. (Occasionally Grossman fills a scene with so many creative ideas that it’s concentrated delight, as in the contest of swordsmanship competition in this book and the Brakebills entrance exam in the last.) I highly recommend this book. The reading in the unabridged audiobook is excellent.

Note on content: The book has strong language scattered throughout, some fantasy violence, and one harrowing scene of sexual violence.

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audio book review: The Battlefield of the Mind, by Joyce Meyer

good ideas and a good feeling

In this unabridged audiobook, Joyce Meyer shares a series of ideas about how to win the battle to maintain good, positive thoughts. Meyer is a Christian, and the book is filled with biblical verses and their applications to this topic. The principal message of the first half of the book is to fill your mind and heart with the word of God from the scriptures as a tool to keep control of your mind. Meyer practices what she preachers here: I was impressed at the breadth of biblical scriptures she draws on.

The second half of the book is dedicated to what Meyer calls “wilderness mentalities.” She relates how the Israelites, led by Moses, could have arrived at the Promised Land in a matter of days, but their lack of faith kept them in the wilderness for 40 years. She then shares from the Old Testament a series of scriptures showing thought processes exhibited by the Israelites in the story and elucidates how they apply to us. It’s a nice metaphor and I found it useful. At one point, she shares how, when tempted to engage in some unconstructive thinking, she asked herself, “Joyce, do you really want to circle that mountain one more time?” alluding to the Israelites circling again and again during their wandering in the wilderness. I have found that question useful in my own efforts.

I didn’t love everything about the book. Meyer is not very friendly to the use of reason (seeing it as often an enemy to faith), I wouldn’t totally rely on every fact (for example, she says that most scholars believe Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon, which I believe is not true), and – like many self-help books – the book provides lots of good ideas but no systematic program for improvement. Still, the ideas are helpful, and I had a good feeling as I listened to the audiobook version of this. I recommend it.

Note on content: Nothing objectionable, unless you’re offended by excessive quoting of Bible verses.

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