Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reviews. Show all posts

Friday, November 11, 2022

Book Review: Down and Out in Paradise by Charles Leerhsen

Down and Out in Paradise
It seems to be a trend. A celebrity dies, and within six months, half a dozen biographies are published. Most of them are subpar, and at worst paraphrased boilerplate from various websites.

This trend played out following the death of Anthony Bourdain in 2018. A handful of books were quickly released, most of which can be classified as hagiographic horseshit. With the release of Down and Out in Paradise: The Life of Anthony Bourdain by Charles Leerhsen, we finally have a legitimate biography. Leerhsen’s book is nuanced, well written and not afraid to offend Bourdain's fans and the people in his inner circle who can benefit financially from the work he left behind.

After reading the book, you may come to the conclusion that Bourdain evolved over time from a naive asshole to an entitled asshole ill-equipped to deal with the pressures that come with fame. If you accept one narrative presented in the book, Bourdain was a monstrously self-absorbed weakling who killed himself when the going got tough. After decades of attacking others and speaking about 'authenticity,' Bourdain was in reality shamelessly inauthentic. Or perhaps the simple, black and white assessment of others and the temptation to attribute motives to their actions and come up with half-baked, reductionist theories about their lives can't help but highlight them as hypocrites in the end. Regardless, after a careful reading of the book together with checking your own biases at the door, you will probably have more empathy for Bourdain and know more about his life.

Leerhsen details Bourdain's early years in Leonia, an upper middle-class neighbourhood in New Jersey. Thankfully, Leerhsen spares readers in-depth bios of Bourdain's parents and grandparents. It's de rigueur in most biographies, and many people may like that kind of completist rendering. But here we get just enough about Bourdain's parents and their back stories to understand how they came to their places in life before raising their two sons.

Bourdain is painted as a poser while growing up. He often walked around town in a trench coat with a sword or a pair of nunchucks hanging from his belt. Like many youngsters from middle-class homes, he likely didn't know how good he had it. It seems like one of his biggest grievances growing up was that he didn't have more tangible reasons to be angry at the world. He started to use drugs at a young age and never really stopped. We also learn that Bourdain's mother was somewhat domineering and, at times, a rather unpleasant person. On the other hand, Bourdain's father was more easygoing and probably happy to let his wife take the lead on many things. An anxious, doped-up individual who never learned to deal with problems—in a nutshell, that was Bourdain at a young age. The same problems plagued him for the rest of his life and ultimately contributed to his suicide.

Anecdotes from high-school friends and anonymous sources detail Bourdain’s rather pedestrian early years. We learn about his first experiments with drugs and an interest in edgy, angst-ridden musicians and writers. In some ways Bourdain never got over that adolescent phase. It seems he was forever trapped inside the black-and-white bohemian poster that hangs on every under-grad’s dorm-room wall.

The story then moves along into territory many readers are familiar with: Bourdain’s time at the Culinary Institute of America, his various jobs as a chef in New York and his addiction to drugs. Like many people, Bourdain engaged in myth-making about his own life, including those early years in Leonia and his time as a chef. Other people’s memories often don’t line up with Bourdain’s public pronouncements, but other times, they do. Leerhsen includes numerous quotes from friends and former classmates and contrasts those memories against Bourdain's previously recorded thoughts and observations about his early life.

Leerhsen details in a very believable way the slow-motion demise of Bourdain's marriage to his first wife, Nancy Putkoski. A relationship, if not founded on, then at least hardened and later petrified by mutual addiction and all its attendant dysfunction and destructiveness. When Kitchen Confidential hit, Bourdain's life started to change, and he wanted to embrace it all. But according to Leerhsen (and others) the celebrity lifestyle and related opportunities and travel did not appeal to Putkoski. And no doubt Bourdain pushed the relationship to its conclusion by his desire to sample everything that was on offer at the time. After Putkoski and Bourdain divorced in 2005, the remainder of his life would be dominated by two relationships with much younger women. Both were Italians of a more basic type, one generally good-natured, the other slithery, self-absorbed and the worst possible partner for someone like Bourdain. I get the feeling that Putkoski is probably one of the people who best understands Bourdain and maybe wasn't as surprised as others by his suicide. She seems a rather private person, though perhaps she may provide the final word on Bourdain's life one of these days.  

Though Bourdain tried to cultivate an image of himself as someone who always thought of the little guy, his actions don't always bear that out. In one of many anecdotes in the book, a former colleague of Bourdain's recounts how he, the former colleague, had fired another chef who worked alongside Bourdain. The fired chef went on to kill himself, an outcome the person who fired him had feared. Bourdain mocked the man who had taken his life as a weakling. 

In a similar vein, Bourdain seemed impressed by experiences with various tyrannical managers and restaurant owners who treated employees badly. They got what they wanted through manipulation and intimidation and that seemed to have a profound influence on Bourdain. Of course, Bourdain could have been both things at the same time: an admirer of honest, hard-working people, and someone who thought it was acceptable to step on others to get what you want. People are a mess of contradictions and our impressions are formed based on situational factors, when we knew the individual and many other things. Any person who has his life flayed open for public examination probably won't come out looking too good. The problem with Bourdain was that a big part of his schtick was judging others. Highlighted against that tendency, his hypocritical behaviour tends to turn people's guts more than it might otherwise.

That dichotomy between Bourdain's publicly cultivated image and the reality as witnessed by those around him dominates much of the book. It's the chronicling of a descent into near madness. The chasm between who Bourdain wanted to be seen as and who he really was became wider and wider until, hanging by his fingers on one side of the canyon and his toes on the other side, he could no longer perform the trick. It is pitiful, painful and, at times, repellent to read. The self-destructive behaviour and accompanying arrogance increased at a rapid clip as Bourdain inched closer to oblivion.

Probably the most frustrating aspect of Bourdain’s downfall was his attraction and warped fealty to Asia Argento. A pussy-whipped man elicits viscerally repugnant feelings in others. Maybe mostly in other men. Yes, it’s easy to judge. But, damn! That type of male weakling who is so incapable of eliciting admiration or respect is even more vomit-inducing at the age Bourdain was when he fell under the spell of that unremarkable, superficial, fame-obsessed woman. Worse, Bourdain seemed to know what a castrated, mewling fleck of weakness he had become. But he just couldn’t make the break.

Argento is one of the people credited with starting the #MeToo movement because of the treatment she suffered at the hands of Harvey Weinstein. Which makes the claims against her by a seventeen-year-old and the blackmail payoff  by Bourdain as  reported in the book, all the more repulsive. How much did Bourdain’s involvement in the sordid affair lead to his suicide? Impossible to say. As readers, we of course know where this story ends. That horrible final act by Bourdain is in the foreground throughout the book and further takes centre stage as the narrative nears its conclusion.

As an accomplished writer with many successful books under his belt, surely Leerhsen must understand the concept of giving important events a detailed rendering. In other words, major turning points and profound life situations deserve more words. So the fact the ending has a rushed feeling is  surprising. Bourdain's a corpse in a hotel room and then, not much else. We get some details of Bourdain's memorial that took place a few months after his death. But no real final ringing testament to Bourdain's life. Perhaps that was intentional. An attempt to show how pointless and depressing everything was near the end. And to show how there were very few people left whom he hadn't alienated. Still, I think it could have been handled better. There must be some people left who could have rhapsodized poetic about Bourdain's life and death. (To be fair, Leerhsen himself does pay tribute to Bourdain’s legacy throughout the book in some very memorable passages.)

On the other hand, at least Leerhsen didn't go too far in the other direction. He didn't give voice to the sentiment popular in the last few years that suicide is a contagion floating through the universe which latches onto people and turns them into automatons incapable of thought or free will. Bourdain ended his own life. He killed himself. He wrapped a belt around his neck, let himself fall forward and entered eternity. An unspeakable tragedy that nonetheless does not benefit anyone from being given the fairy tale treatment. I noticed that some other media outlets went with the traditional 'committed suicide' or 'killed himself' instead of the more politically correct phrasing that has gained traction recently. 

I don't want to suggest that suicide isn't one of the most horrible and destructive acts imaginable. The despair and terror  people experience before taking their own lives is real, and they deserve as much empathy as any human can muster. And the pain caused by suicide will haunt the people left behind for however many decades they continue to exist. But the trend in the past few years of elevating those who commit suicide to sainthood is quite dangerous. A pedestrian telling of the final hours and minutes, replete with the banal minutiae and existential dreariness of an anonymous hotel room, hopefully removes the romanticization often associated with that irreversible and horrific decision. Again, maybe that was Leerhsen's intention all along.

And, thankfully, Leerhsen avoids the selfish/not-selfish debate that often accompanies the aftermath of a suicide. Perhaps some anonymous sources in the book veer towards that tired discussion. But it is generally left unexplored by Leerhsen. Humans are selfish by their very nature, though everything is about degrees. Different people and actions can be ranked on a scale of selfishness. But I believe that suicide is usually an irrational act committed by someone in a state of overwhelming despair and mental exhaustion. A person's  state of mind at that moment is compounded by what they've done in their lives and what has been done to them. In Bourdain's case, like with many others, his brain had been corroded by a lifetime spent consuming drugs and alcohol. Perhaps he was sickened by what he had become and couldn't imagine mustering the energy to move on from his destructive relationship with Argento. As someone obsessed with crafting a public image, the fear of being found out for all his weaknesses may also have spurred him on. Or perhaps a moment of clarity and an inescapable world-weariness combined to form a toxic mix that pushed him forward. And so he performed the ultimate act of self-criticism and gave up any hope of ever again achieving peace of mind.

Leerhsen swats away any thoughts that Bourdain may have died of auto-erotica asphyxiation. The question is always raised when someone, especially high-profile, dies by hanging nowadays. It's a legitimate consideration. I'm not sure if Leerhsen's confidence in the absence of any evidence of auto-erotica asphyxiation is well founded. Since most people who die this way are also naked, the thinking goes, then someone fully clothed couldn't have died that way. I don't buy it. If there are enough freaks willing to get off in such a dangerous way, surely it's not a stretch to imagine an added kink of doing it while fully clothed. Or, more likely, being fully clothed might indicate the fear of dying and the (never-to-be experienced) embarrassment of otherwise being found naked. To be clear, there is no evidence, beyond the fact he hanged himself, that Bourdain died while engaged in such an activity. But the lack of critical thinking by Leerhsen on the matter is disappointing.

Since Bourdain was apparently a whore-monger, why not at least talk to some of the prostitutes he paid over the last few years of his life? Surely they could provide some insight into his kinks and whether he may have died in that most shameful and sordid way. Or even ask anyone in his life about whether he talked about that part of his life. Regardless, it's surprising that Leerhsen didn't at least track down some of the prostitutes for insight into Bourdain's overall state of mind. He doesn't pull many punches nor avoid any other seedy aspect of Bourdain's life, so why not explore that dingy avenue as well?

This is pure speculation, but perhaps Leerhsen agreed not to divulge or explore some aspects of Bourdain's life in exchange for information. A quid pro quo that might not make sense at first. If someone was willing to provide details about private matters related to Bourdain's final years, why would they want some aspects to remain secret? Who knows? People are complicated. But again, this is all speculation. Another 'lack' that may support the theory that the narrative was shaped to satisfy sources is the fact that the extent of Bourdain's estate is not discussed in any detail. Though Leerhsen does at least discount the belief, widely circulated after Bourdain's death, that he was only worth a million dollars or even less. Bourdain had probably accumulated far more than that.

Your opinion of this book well may be shaped by your opinion of Bourdain while he was alive. I read Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential shortly after it was released in 2000. It's a fantastic book. But he never wrote anything else that came close. I watched a handful of episodes from his travel shows over the years, but they didn't appeal. It's easy to say after the fact, and even easier because Leerhsen's book validates this claim, but I always thought Bourdain was a bit of a fraud regarding the image he presented to the world. This article I wrote over ten years ago at least demonstrates this isn't an opinion I came to recently. Perhaps it's because I've spent most of my adult life living in foreign countries. Bourdain's schtick may have appealed to people who will never travel to the locations featured in his travel shows. And in Kitchen Confidential, he wrote more than a few times about the 'rubes' who haven't got a clue. Bourdain was a person who loved to judge others but acted like a class-A asshole for much of his life, always justifying his behaviour. His justifications often came down to the same basic premise: he felt he was hipper and more sophisticated than the people he was treating like shit, so it was okay.

To be clear, this is not a book-length assault on Bourdain’s character. Far from it. Leerhsen praises Bourdain often regarding his accomplishments. He also gives plenty of space to people who have good things to say about Bourdain. The harshest reading of Bourdain near the end of his life is that he was a 61-year-old punk, and not the kind related to the music he often listened to. The truest kind of punk—the kind who thinks he knows more about the world and himself than he really does. But there was far more to Bourdain than his shortcomings, and Leerhsen, I think, allows those positive traits to come through in his telling.

What about the quality of writing in Down and Out in Paradise? Leerhsen has the tendency to write passages full of overly long sentences. As a result, there are more than a few garden-path sentences, too. But there are many other sections which really sing. Many memorable lines throughout. In this passage, Leerhsen writes about Bourdain and his life-long habit of being condescending and arrogant:

If you were charismatic enough, he had long since discovered, you could, if you were so disposed, conduct what was essentially a constant, low-grade hazing ritual that kept people discomfited while simultaneously making them feel like they were on the verge of being admitted to a very exclusive club. And people, being people, would love you for doing that to them.

To steal one of Leerhsen's own sentences (he was, of course, writing about Bourdain) and change it a bit: He (Leerhsen) is a very good, but not great, writer. 

I encountered about ten or more mistakes in the book, most of them of the missing-word variety. That comes from sloppy editing. By today's standards, it's not a badly edited book, but it's not well edited either.

Other so-called revelations hyped up before the release of Down and Out in Paradise actually receive very little attention in the book. Bourdain's supposed use of steroids was highlighted often in the pre-release publicity. But Leerhsen only mentions this habit, apparently acquired fairly late in Bourdain's life, a few times, almost in passing. When did he start using steroids? Where did he get them? What were the results of his steroid use? Did he talk about his decision with anyone? Did he suffer any side effects? Zero information appears in the book regarding any of those questions.

The fans who like their idols immortalized and any shortcomings air-brushed out of the picture won't appreciate Down and Out in Paradise. But they likely won't read it in the first place anyway. For the rest of us, Down and Out in Paradise provides more insight about Bourdain's life than any other book released since his death. An attempt at a tell-all that doesn't quite go far enough, but still gives us a believable glimpse into the life and death of Anthony Bourdain, a person whose remarkable final third of life was acted out on the public stage. When fame, money and the the shortcomings that haunted him all along ratcheted up the pressure beyond a level he was capable of dealing with, he checked out of life and journeyed into the unknown.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman: Controversial Book Stands the Test of Time

The Lives of John Lennon
If John Lennon had lived, October 9th, 2020 would have been his 80th birthday. December 8th, 2020 will mark the 40th anniversary of his murder in front of the Dakota building in New York. He has now been dead as long as he was alive. How time flies. I still remember that day in 1980 when the report came over the radio in the kitchen of my childhood home. 

John Lennon is one one of the most written about rock stars of the 20th century, and even the most ass-licking, sycophantic biographies paint him as a nasty piece of work. Violence against women was probably his worst sin. He assaulted most, if not all, of the women he was involved with during his life. He spoke openly about this fact.

And most people who've read even a modest amount about Lennon's life would classify him as a weakling when it came to his relationship with Yoko Ono. He seemed to accept the complete hold the fame-hungry Japanese woman held over him. 

While all serious books about Lennon touch on those aspects of his life to some degree, no other book has raised the ire of the Beatles' franchise and the band's legions of followers more than The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman. When released in 1988, it was immediately attacked as a complete fabrication. Paul McCartney, Ono and the rest of the heavy hitters tasked with keeping their own and Lennon's reputation as mythical and unsullied as possible railed against the book in uncommonly harsh terms.

The claim disputed the most in articles that followed the book's release was the suggestion by Goldman that Lennon had a homosexual affair with the Beatles' first manager, Brian Epstein. Rumours had long circulated about the two, and Lennon had made numerous cryptic comments over the years. But Goldman comes out and states it directly based on interviews with some people who had been close to the Beatles at the time. 

Goldman holds no punches and goes into the intimate details, claiming that the height of their intimacy was when Epstein "had given John a blow job." Goldman also claims that Lennon tried to rape Epstein and was only stopped when Epstein's mother walked in the room and then phoned the police. However, that episode rings less believable than the other details about Lennon and Epstein's involvement. Goldman repeats the claim about their affair as fact throughout the book.

Most biographers use all sorts of qualifying statements when writing about their subjects: "possible" "seems likely" "hard to confirm for certain." Writers straddle the line between rumour, speculation and fact under the guise of due diligence and being charitable. The more likely reason is to avoid lawsuits. Goldman doesn't waste time with such niceties. With six years of research and 1200 interviews (many done by his assistants), he puts together narratives about Lennon, makes bold claims and then hammers the points home repeatedly.

Another claim by Goldman: Lennon kicked original Beatles' bass player Stuart Sutcliffe in the head during a fight, and the kick may have led to Sutcliffe's death. Goldman states that Lennon continued for the rest of his life to blame himself for Sutcliffe's death. 

Many of the other facts included in the book have been written about by others. But Goldman provides plenty of new details and fleshes out periods of Lennon's life that would have otherwise remained relatively unknown. Others have stated we probably know more about Yoko Ono from The Lives of John Lennon than from any other source. 

John Lennon 80 years old

And what readers learn about Ono isn't pretty. According to Goldman, her shamelessness knew no bounds. Among the claims that Goldman makes about Yoko Ono: she was/is a talent-less hack whose only skill was conning people; she was a negligent mother, both abandoning her first child Kyoko, and leaving the raising of Sean Lennon to others; at various times in her life she seemed to prefer living in squalid conditions no matter how much money she had; before she was married (Lennon was her third) she had numerous abortions, essentially using the procedure as birth control; she suffered very little because of John Lennon's death and instead used it to profit; within six months or so of Lennon's death she remarried and had her new husband dress in Lennon's old clothes. Many of those claims have subsequently been corroborated over the years by other sources. But never recounted in such harsh terms.

And I suppose that's what really enrages so many fans and critics: the tone of Goldman's book. When he really gets going, you can't help but feel that he had a deep-seated, neurotic loathing of Lennon. He previously wrote a number of other biographies, including one of Elvis Presley and another of Lenny Bruce. The Elvis biography is considered by many to be the most comprehensive to this day. 

Goldman claimed that, just like the apparent viciousness in the Elvis bio, he never set out to do a hatchet-job on John Lennon. The interviews and other research simply led him to unavoidable conclusions. And so he runs with it, gleefully carving up Lennon at every turn.

Sometimes the claims are ludicrous and just plain mean-spirited, such as when Goldman speculates about what Lennon might have done on a supposed trip to Bangkok in October, 1976 (part of a 'mysterious' trip to Asia that Goldman writes about):

John's girls would be reluctant to do anything kinky but would be eager to whack him off, blow him, or have intercourse. The cost of the toss was about the price of a movie ticket. John might have also indulged himself with a Thai boy, who enjoys precisely the same reputation among sophisticated homosexuals as do the girls with straight men.

Not only is there no evidence for these specific suggestions (or fantasies on Goldman's part), but I can find no other indication that Lennon even set foot in Thailand (though it does seem likely that he travelled to Asia alone in 1976). An infamous massacre took place in Bangkok in October, 1976. I find it improbable that Lennon would have been there at exactly that time (or very close to it) and never have subsequently spoken of it. Not only that, but could a visit by someone like him have gone unreported in Bangkok (or indeed, could it have been kept secret)? Probably not. Though stranger things have happened.

But the book does not only assault Lennon's character. In numerous passages, Goldman also praises Lennon for his talent and hard work in the early years when the Beatles were playing clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg. Goldman also attempts to understand Lennon, and he often slips into lengthy passages of fawning empathy. For example, Goldman paints Lennon as a tortured soul who could never embrace his true self. But the sympathetic treatment rarely lasts for longer than a few pages at a time.

Perhaps most people are so used to the sycophantic style evident in a lot of music journalism that this type of biography rattles them. Just like mainstream media, those other, more polite books create an alternative reality absent the nastiness and harshness most people have experienced in their own lives. For many people, it seems, unpleasant things just aren't supposed to be talked or written about that way. So the 'public face' of the gritty side of life is often favoured by most writers and readers. Especially ones who like to elevate exceptional people to god-like status.

Regardless of Goldman's editorializing and tendency to be blunt, can his account of Lennon be believed? One fact weighs heavily in his favour. Despite the onslaught of criticism at the time of the book's release, no one sued him for libel. The excuse offered by Yoko Ono at the time—that her lawyers advised her not to sue because it would simply attract more attention— rings false. It's a corollary of the "I'm stepping aside to spend more time with my family" nugget of horse-shit offered up by every creep fleeing to the hills for all sorts of nefarious reasons. 

Instead of challenging the claims made by Goldman, Ono and all the remaining Beatles chose to let this massive volume stand for all time. A book they said was a complete fabrication. McCartney told people to boycott it. But no legal challenge was ever made. And so it remains, much of it unrefuted in any detailed or meaningful way. Some of the people interviewed for the book came out and tried to backtrack after the outrage exploded. But none of them launched a legal challenge either. Perhaps the interviewees were leaned on (or offered incentives) by the other side in exchange for their reversals.

The naysayers offer other arguments against many of the claims made by Goldman. One argument is the fact that some of the interviewees had previously fallen out with Lennon and therefore had reason to lie. This is a very flimsy argument. If accepted, it would cast doubt on the believability of anyone interviewed for any biography. Wouldn't someone who still had a strong relationship with Lennon have greater reason to lie with the intent of burying unpleasant truths? Perhaps someone with no ties left to a biographer's subject is the most believable of all.

Finally, the inevitable parsing of the facts and minutiae in any lengthy biography was undertaken by fans and critics. And yes, there are numerous factual errors; as many as a few dozen. These are mainly regarding mistaken names and dates. Any biography of any length will have such errors. They're impossible to avoid. People's memories are fallible and the writer will unintentionally insert errors by mixing up names and faces. All non-fiction writers strive for accuracy. But whether Lennon was wearing a plaid shirt or a black shirt on a particular day in 1969 doesn't cast doubt on every other, often well substantiated, claim.

Since the book's release in 1988, societal views have progressed a great deal. What about that rabid insistence that Lennon did most certainly not have an affair with Brian Epstein? The upstanding, honourable Yoko Ono, who would never shamelessly try to attract attention, came out in 2015 and said that Lennon indeed had a "desire to sleep with men." Isn't that interesting? Of course, she could hardly contradict her past denials and endorse the claims made by Goldman about Epstein. Even shamelessness, apparently, has its limits.

Many of the other claims in the book are irrefutably true, and Goldman simply provides more details, often from people who were directly involved. Lennon and Ono were indeed arrested for kidnapping Ono's daughter, Kyoko. Lennon and Ono were both junkies at various times, though Goldman suggests they were both hooked for much longer than has been reported elsewhere. 

Perhaps the willingness of a reader to entertain the claims or simply to enjoy The Lives of John Lennon is dependent on his view of the world. Some people embrace the hard, unflinching truth and see beauty in ugliness. Some are even willing to apply the same standards when thinking and writing about themselves. Others can't give credence to harsh claims about someone whose music may have been an important part of their lives for many years.

What about Goldman's writing style? He goes out of his way to choose unique phrasing over cliches. Invariably, writers who strive for a memorable writing style won't always hit the mark. Many claim he veered into purple prose in The Lives of John Lennon. I maintain a lot of so-called purple prose has its place and can often be entertaining. Perhaps some writers even write the occasional absurd sentence or two for effect. But then, the term "purple prose" is subjective. In my opinion, Goldman's writing works for the most part, and is even appropriate for the often freakish and voyeuristic subject matter.  

As the things Lennon admitted he did (such as violence against women) become more universally condemned, and the most neurotic and obsessed Beatles' fans slip into eternity, I believe Goldman's book may be one of the Lennon biographies that stands the test of time. When you near the end of The Lives of John Lennon, you're not even surprised when the chapter detailing Lennon's murder is entitled "Bang! Bang! You're Dead!" It's a long, informative, unsettling journey. And by the end, you feel just a tiny bit soiled and disenchanted about life, the world and John Lennon. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Book Review: North of South by Shiva Naipaul

North of South by Shiva Naipaul
Some things defy description. For example, an LSD trip or the inexplicably surreal atmosphere a first-time traveller to Africa encounters. Imagine travelling to Africa, dropping a hit of acid and then later trying to describe the experience to someone who has done neither? In fact, Shiva Naipaul's book, North of South: An African Journey, has nothing to do with drugs. But he does a good job of capturing the incomprehensible absurdities that inevitably rain down on the heads of visitors to the dark continent.

In 1977, Naipaul had the idea of traveling to East Africa and writing about countries which had shaken off the shackles of colonialism. How had the politics of the new regimes affected the people? Had colonialism actually been good for Africa? What did the blacks, whites and browns (Asians) in Africa think about the state of affairs? It was a broad-brush outline in advance of his journey, and his publishers and editors were as leery of the relative lack of focus as he was himself.

The result is one of the most cynical and relentlessly unsympathetic accounts of the doomed nations and people of Africa that has ever been written. In short, just the kind of book I enjoy. Naipaul has the ability to quickly size up people he meets on his journey and deftly bludgeon them into memorable caricatures. The descriptions are larded with sarcasm and vicious wit, but more often than not, the absurd contrast between people's words and the apparent reality of the situation is enough to do the job. Naipaul puts everyone he meets through the wringer, regardless of colour, creed or social standing. At the time, Naipaul's book garnered some negative reviews, and he was labeled a racist by more than a few people. But if  anyone of any literary accomplishment were to write a similar book today, it would result in a tsunami of criticism and calls for career-ending sanctions.

I spent a year in Africa a few decades ago, and have also subsequently spent many years in various third-world countries. And so the descriptions in the book ring true. The invincible dishonesty, shamelessness and short-sighted, self serving behaviour that drag people and nations into a cesspool (largely) of their own making. The bizarre feeling that the people are like a race of vicious children who are forever amazed that they can create reality anew with each new lie as they attempt to cheat other human beings. The desire to be led by others and the willingness to believe every ridiculous, head-up-the-ass lie they are told. To live in such a society is to know that if someone with power enters a room with chocolate cake smeared on his face, 99% of people present will act like nothing is out of the ordinary, and the other 1% will volunteer to lick the person's face clean in hopes of gaining some kind of benefit.

Naipaul begins his journey in Kenya and the ridiculous encounters begin immediately. Smirking, shamelessly corrupt immigration officials size up arriving passengers for potential bribes and offer cryptic answers to questions regarding visas and other regulations. Naipaul talks to expats who revel in mocking ignorant Africans, and has surreal run-ins with locals who try to cheat him. A running theme emerges: any relationship or interaction will necessarily provide one or both of the participants with the opportunity to lie, cheat or somehow take advantage, and the opportunity will rarely be passed up. Naipaul also offers some potted history of Kenya with references from books written by early colonialists as well as native writers. But the most entertaining parts of the book are the characters Naipaul describes. Here, he meets an African student:
So often when one is talking to Africans who seem thoroughly modern, something is said that suddenly jars; that brings one up short and makes one realize that not all is what it seems to be. I think, for instance, of the modishly dressed student who told me that he was "studying literature." I asked who his favourite writer was. He said he did not have one. 
"But," I said, "there must be some books, some kind of writing you particularly enjoy."
He shook his head. "I don't care much for reading," he said--not without pride.
Even in this day and age, 40 years after the book was written, the above passage rings true. Bizarro-world interactions like this are still part of life in third-world countries.

As with all non-fiction books, a reader will undoubtedly question the authenticity of the conversations Naipaul includes and the characters he meets. Are they mainly composite characters, or characters made up of whole cloth with the aim of constructing a certain kind of narrative? Almost without fail, the people are of a certain stock type, their absurdities seen clearly only by Naipaul. And yet, if real-life conversations were included in novels, they would be undreadable. So too, non-fiction dialogue is inevitably condensed and made more readable. It's impossible to know how many liberties Naipaul took, but at least he is consistent in ripping everyone he comes across. White settlers, black politicians, Asian shop keepers and white tourists all come in for a hardcore verbal kicking.

In this passage, he visits the British owners of a tea plantation in Kenya. After observing the way they exploit the locals for labour, Naipaul has this to say about their son:
Ralph did not have much to say for himself. He sat hunched over his food, head bent over his plate, masticating with noisy devotion. I watched him shovel meat and potatoes into his mouth. There was something degenerate, something savage about Ralph. In Africa, European civilization did not penetrate the second generation. 
Naipaul, an Indian from Trinidad and Tobago, returns repeatedly to the special loathing that many Africans seem to have for Asians. He meets an Indian family, the Mukerjees, during a trip to the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. The husband shares his views of himself with Naipaul and everyone else in the mini-bus:
"These people had never seen anything like it. They had no idea what to do with me--and I was wearing a dhoti, which confused them even more. Their trouble was that they didn't know the kind of man they were dealing with. They thought I was another spineless Asian who they could kick around like a football." He waved contemptuously at our Goan companions. "They must have thought I was like one of those. But I'm no Asian. Not by a long chalk. I'm an Indian national, and I showed them what a nasty customer I could be." He giggled. "I can be a very nasty man when I want to. I can turn very nasty indeed." 
For anyone who has travelled extensively, a certain strident, imperious, repellent type of individual comes to mind, and the belief that Naipual is being straight in his descriptions of characters and dialogue is strengthened.

But Naipaul reserves his greatest contempt for white tourists. If they happen to be female, his loathing reaches pathological and twisted levels. Here he describes a pair of young American women who share paid transport with him in the back of a pick-up truck:
I suspect, not without a certain amount of trepidation, that they regard me as a potential ally in their cold war with the others. They are hedged about with an aura of failure, of futility. I could see them being flung into jail on trumped-up charges, being swindled, being raped, even being murdered...nothing will ever go quite right for them.
From Tanzania, Naipaul makes his way down into Zambia before finally returning to Kenya. The characters he meets make this book well worth reading. But he also includes the requisite passages describing the awesome beauty of Africa. He also comments extensively on socialist government initiatives and the confused citizens who mouth the associated platitudes but never quite know where their countries are headed. He finishes the journey completely jaded and without hope for Africa:
Black and white deserved each other. Neither was worth the shedding of a single tear: both were rotten to the core. Each had been destroyed by contact with the other--though each had been destroyed in his own way.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I realize a certain type of commentary can grow wearing at times (a good lesson for many...), and perhaps would be more trying for other readers. And yet, the lack of niceties and the commitment to a book-length verbal assault on so many people and places is refreshing. I've never had the chance to read any of Shiva Naipaul's other books. He was the brother of the more famous writer, V.S. Naipaul, and yet, Shiva also produced a number of novels and non-fiction works in his relatively short life. In 1985, perhaps while gleefully hammering out more bilious descriptions of people and places on his typewriter, he slumped forward onto his desk and died of a heart attack. He was 40 years old.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Book Review: The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski
It's surprising that more people have not heard of Ryszard Kapuscinski. That's not to suggest that his books and essays are not well known. But he was such a skilled journalist and writer that he should be more widely read and celebrated.

Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist who arrived in Africa in the late 1950s to chronicle the political upheavals in numerous countries as colonialism started to unravel. Writing for Poland's state news agency, he would continue to visit Africa for extended periods and write about the invincible dysfunction in many of of the continent's most troubled locations for almost half a century. The Shadow of the Sun is a collection of his reportage and essays about Africa that span those nearly 50 years.

Translated from Polish, Kapuscinski's writing is at turns sparse, reflective and poetic. His detailed descriptions and shrewd insights highlight him as a keen observer capable of distilling the convoluted machinations of revolution and war into easy-to-follow accounts. The Shadow of the Sun is a great starting point for anyone wanting to learn about the culture and history of African countries. Or simply for anyone who enjoys beautifully written articles ('articles' is somehow too pedestrian a word--perhaps 'timeless accounts') about distant lands.

Because Kapuscinski was a journalist who wrote mainly about the politics of the places he visited, he isn't known as a travel writer. Yet his ability to vividly evoke a sense of place, bring characters to life, explain cultural habits and provide succinct, accurate historical background make his writing a must read for every novice travel writer. And, in fact, a number of the pieces in the book could qualify as travel writing, although some of them are preludes to subsequent pieces that focus on political strife.

Early on, Kapuscinski provides some unwitting advice to anyone who wants some quick insight into a place they are visiting:
In the morning I bought the local newspaper, Ashanti Pioneer, and set out in search of its editorial offices. Experience teaches that one can learn more passing an hour in such an office than in a week of walking around to see various institutions and notables. And so it was this time.
Readers who have traveled or lived in Africa, or in any third world country, will nod their heads in agreement at many of the observations. Here, Kapuscinski writes about a mini-bus driver and departure schedules:
"What do you mean, 'when'?" the astonished driver will reply. "It will leave when we find enough people to fill it up."
And in a related passage, he writes about punctuality in general:
In practical terms, this means that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon, but find no one at the appointed spot, asking, "When will the meeting take place?" makes no sense. You know the answer: "It will take place when people come."
Describing a bout of malaria:
The malaria attack is not merely painful, but like every pain also a mystical experience. We enter a realm about which a moment ago we knew nothing, though it now turns out that it had existed in us all the while, finally capturing and incorporating us: we discover within ourselves icy crevasses, chasms, and abysses, whose presence fills us with suffering and fear.
Probably the most prescient discussion about life in third world countries comes when  Kapuscinski relays the discussion he has with an Englishman in Ethiopia. The man talks about the culture of criticism that exists in Europe and laments the hypersensitivity of many people in Africa.
They consider all criticism to be a malevolent attack, a sign of discrimination, of racism, etc. Representatives of these cultures treat criticism as a personal insult, as a deliberate attempt to humiliate them, as a form of sadism even. If you tell them that the city is dirty, they treat this as if you said that they were dirty themselves, had dirty ears, or dirty nails. Instead of being self-critical, they are full of countless grudges, complexes, envies, peeves, manias. The effect of all this is that they are culturally, permanently, structurally incapable of progress, incapable of engendering within themselves the will to transform and evolve.
I've lived a good portion of my adult life in a third world country, and the above quoted passage perfectly sums up people's attitudes to criticism in this part of the world. Multiply that mentality times a thousand if an outsider dares to offer even mild criticism about his adopted home. I think this difference is also evident in humour. In Europe and North America, humour often revolves around mocking and ridiculing people with power. Here, humour is slapstick, men dressing up as women, and for the real connoisseurs, midgets.

Among Kapuscinski's detailed accounts of war and strife, the lengthy reportage on Rwanda and Liberia struck me as the most informative and memorable. Regarding the decades-old conflict in Rwanda that flared into holocaust numerous times, Kapuscinski evokes the physical setting, simply and eloquently describes the history and players and laments the hopelessness of it all.

The chapter about Liberia also provides some good history and describes the kind of surreal events that seem so commonplace in Africa. Kapuscinski reports on the fall of Liberian president, Samuel Doe in 1990. One of his former associates, Prince Johnson, puts together his own army and captures Doe. Johnson's followers videotape the macabre scene that plays out and Kapuscinski details the events that unfold in the video:
We see Johnson sitting and drinking beer. A woman stands next to him, fanning him and wiping the sweat from his brow. On the floor sits a bound Doe, dripping with blood. His face is so battered you barely see his eyes.
But Johnson just yells at Doe in a local creole dialect. It is impossible to understand most of what he says, except for one thing: he demands that Doe tell him his bank account number. Whenever a dictator is seized in Africa, the entire ensuing inquisition, the beatings, the tortures, will inevitably revolve around one thing: the number of his private bank account.
And sure enough, you can find the gruesome footage posted on YouTube (warning: not for the faint of heart).

A correspondent posted overseas in the same geographical region for many decades is almost a thing of the past. That's too bad, because the quality of insights and well-written accounts of people, their cultures and their political dramas that appear in The Shadow of the Sun is also becoming a relic of a bygone era.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Review—Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

I recently watched the strangely titled Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, a documentary about the life of Kurt Cobain, lead singer and guitar player of Nirvana. Dead for more than 20 years from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the head, Cobain still elicits a great deal of interest from those who grew up listening to Nirvana and younger fans who have fallen in love with his angsty music and associated image.

And what a perfect mix for ensuring that subsequent generations of teenagers become enchanted with Cobain's story: brooding good looks, heroin addiction, early death, and some catchy tunes made more memorable because of his distinctive voice: not a skilled singer by any means, but in possession of "a sound." I can hear the outrage from those who attach great meaning to song lyrics and elevate utterly pedestrian individuals to iconic status. How dare you label his music as "catchy"!

Kurt Cobain Montage of Heck

Film-maker Brett Morgen convinced the family of Cobain to provide access to old family films, audio recordings by Cobain, Cobain's notebooks, and unseen video footage of Nirvana. Morgen also interviewed a handful of family members and some other important people from Cobain's life, most notably, Courtney Love and bandmate Krist Novoselic.

I've often wondered how various journalists win over people they want to interview. Is it because of their past work? Or are they so persistent in their wheedling that people finally give in? Or is it the image they construct of the potential final result and the angle they claim they will present? And then, once access is gained, they start the slow, project-long back-pedaling and expectations management that allows them to say at the conclusion, "Yeah, well, it hasn't turned out exactly how I said it would at the outset..."

Three Distinct Impressions

For me, three distinct impressions of Cobain emerge from this film:

—Cobain was a person of very moderate intelligence and intellect.
—Cobain was obsessively self-absorbed.
—Cobain suffered from extreme anxiety and hypersensitivity.

I'll address each one of these impressions in more detail.

First, Cobain was a person of very moderate intelligence and intellect. Of course, he never made any claims otherwise. And why would anyone expect a pop singer  to be anything else? Why, in fact, is it even necessary to highlight this observation? Simply because the implication or outright claim in such documentaries, is that the subject is a genius, and their every utterance and bodily expulsion is worthy of detailed examination and inevitable praise. The very format of this film suggests exactly that. With access to a trove of Cobain's personal journals, Morgen filmed numerous pages of those journals that contained Cobain's song lyrics, ramblings, and drawings. He intersperses shot of those journal pages throughout the film.

Now, most people recognize that song lyrics are not the stuff of deep meaning and incredible insight. Though people who spend their lives obsessing over such things would no doubt object to this claim. And of course, lyrics absent the music are even more mundane. But Cobain's writing focuses on such basic, very often juvenile ideas, that a person can't help but burst out laughing at times when they see images of his scrawled words in this film. Also, some of the writing depicted here is not song lyrics but other half-baked ideas or musings. I don't doubt for a moment that Cobain worked hard and developed a talent for putting words together with simple guitar riffs and melodies and that is largely why his music was so popular. And probably why his personal journals were best left personal, even after his death.

Cobain was also a life-long doodler. Yes, a doodler. A worthy and enjoyable pastime for many people. And like many people who draw for enjoyment, Cobain created some "pieces." But he really did not have any talent as a visual artist. Or, more accurately, he clearly made no attempt to acquire any real skill in this area. While Cobain was no intellectual giant, I do feel that he was very self-aware, and I would be willing to bet that he would have cringed at the thought of having these journal pages presented for public consumption.

Finally, in interviews, Cobain offered nothing more than sullen, stock responses or attempts to be humorous in a quirky, alternative way that the image required of him. Again, nothing wrong or unexpected in this. And Cobain and his bandmates repeatedly stated that they were all about the music. They had no desire to lend credence to the idea that their songs were incredibly profound. Also, the absurd questions they faced from jumped-up fanboy interviewers completely justifies some of the droll, self-mocking, playing-to-type answers they provided. But Cobain certainly never gave any indication that in his short life he rose above his white-trash roots and acquired any real knowledge or wisdom about the world beyond his own narrow upbringing and tortured soul.

The second main impression I took away from this film is that Cobain was extremely self-absorbed. Many people are. To write the kind of inward-looking, anxiety-laced lyrics that he wrote, means he probably had to be. And his obsessive self-analysis and resulting rage at the world was, and still is, part of the appeal. I've long maintained that the more self-absorbed a person is, the more prone they are to one of the most destructive, gateway addictions that exists in the world: melodrama. The curse of melodrama thrives in every corner of the world and among all social classes, though it takes hold easier and results in a nastier strain in the lives of the low-bred masses.

Which comes first, the melodrama or the chemical addiction? Hard to say. But they are closely intertwined. The more one ratchets up, the worse the other becomes. And so, Cobain was drawn toward melodrama and heroin. More than a few times Cobain makes barely concealed admissions that he started using heroin so he could play the rock-star role to its extreme and with the idea that the melodrama that would flow would provide grist for further creative outbursts.

The final, and perhaps strongest impression I took away from this film, is that Cobain suffered from extreme anxiety and hypersensitivity. Combined with his self-absorbed, oddly naive nature, this was a formula for just the type of sad ending that he eventually chose for himself. People with this kind of personality need to learn healthy coping strategies early in life or they risk leading horrible, dysfunctional lives. Obviously, Cobain never did learn how to cope.

Establishing the Narrative of Cobain's Life

The film itself is enjoyable to watch. I didn't find the pages from Cobain's journal featuring his writing and banal drawings very interesting though others might. However, the interviews with people who were part of Cobain's life make up the bulk of the film.

But the interviews present viewers with the dilemma that all documentaries create. Who is believable? Who is engaging in revisionist history? Who is more interested in enlarging their role in the narrative as opposed to providing some kind objective insight about the subject of the film? Cobain's father is given a good bashing from Cobain's mother as she recounts how he was apparently a horrible parent. But the film-maker chooses to show only a few token grunts from Cobain's father in response. Perhaps he truly did have nothing of interest to say. Yet Cobain's dolled up, highly engaged mother certainly was given an extensive platform. And while she was being interviewed, it dawned on me for the first time: the blonde hair, garish make-up, and the ability to play up to the camera regardless of what is being discussed: she bears a strange resemblance in appearance and personality to Courtney Love.

As for Love, well, something about her elicits revulsion in many people, and I certainly share that reaction. A shameless and self-serving quality shines through her haggard facade and eclipses all other reactions when she is being interviewed. This perception is probably strengthened by reports regarding her behaviour during her pregnancy when she apparently injected heroin. Or maybe it is simply her controlling, melodramatic nastiness, obsessed with being in the spotlight regardless of what she has to do to accomplish that and without concern for any fallout that affects those around her.

Some of the most depressing, dreary, almost vomit-inducing footage is of Cobain and Love holed up in their dingy apartment high on drugs as Cobain's remaining life at that time was numbered in months. As a viewer, you cringe at the fact that their little daughter had to spend time with these pathetic, shameless and barely functioning individuals. The close-in camera angle of the two dope heads as they blunder around awkwardly and ramble incoherently highlights how they had lost touch with reality.

Many people have commented on the fact that former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl is not seen at all in this film. I thought it was odd as well, and thought the excuse from the film-maker rang a bit hollow. If only for the sake of completeness, why not make the effort to include him? It smacks of a quid pro quo with someone whose approval and consent were necessary to get the film made. It's not a stretch to believe that there are a number of people trying to exert control over Cobain's legacy as well as the spoils left behind. While there is blunt talk regarding Cobain's flaws throughout the film, there is nary a bad word said against him. Either everyone thought he was one swell individual, or there is some less than subtle massaging of the narrative going on here.

Alongside the supposedly fresh concert footage, there are also some very well done animated sequences that depict Cobain in various vignettes, some with the addition of his voice gleaned from audio tapes he left behind.

The end of Montage of Heck (the name was taken from a picture that Cobain drew and titled) takes viewers up to a few weeks before Cobain accessed the arsenal that seems to be part of most yank households and ventilated his own skull, ending his despair once and for all. I don't know if viewers will get a better sense of who Cobain was from watching this documentary, though they will probably have a more detailed understanding of how he affected those around him. However, as with most drug-related deaths, especially of young people whose own hard work and success facilitated the ability to access the drugs that spelled their demise, most people who watch this film will reiterate the tired lament: What a shame. What a waste.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Website Review: Grammar Advisor

Grammar Advisor bannerIn the internet era, when an almost unlimited number of free teaching resources exist in cyberspace, is there a place for a pay-to-join online grammar instruction/advisor program?

I was recently contacted by a representative who works for an organization that has designed and created Grammar Advisor. He e-mailed me for the purpose of requesting that I look at the program and potentially write a review on Tefl Spin. As someone who is constantly looking for fresh material and topics to write about, I agreed.

I think it is important to note that there was no quid pro quo of any kind for my agreeing to review this service. I have received no payment and would not accept any type of remuneration to favourably mention or endorse a product or service on this blog. On the other hand, I may at some point in the future accept banner advertising from those who are interested. Some people may question such a decision but that's a discussion that will take place another time.

The Audience

I looked at Grammar Advisor with some pre-conceived notions. First, it's not the type of service I would ever sign up for. I am one of those rare individuals who actually enjoys reading grammar books, essays on linguistics and other articles and websites related to language. There is so much free material out there that I would never be moved to pay for what I would have assumed would be relatively redundant information. The site is marketed as a support service for those who need help with grammar. So it probably won't appeal to those who are already comfortable with the subject or simply have the time and/or enjoy clarifying, through research, any questions or concerns they may have.

In fact, I have some doubts that it will even successfully reach the intended audience. My experience has been that those who are lacking in their knowledge of English grammar and have limited ability to teach it will shun any resources and avoid the necessary effort to improve. Unfortunately, it is possible to fake your way through many teaching contracts, especially in Asia. The laziest and most shamelessly bad teachers will be unlikely to make attempts to get better.

Most people have certain subject areas that, for them, contain no interest, inspire no sense of joy and fail to motivate them in any way. A grey, hazy blandness surrounds the very mention of anything to do with their most dreaded and avoided topic.

Content and Presentation

The site is slick and professional and the material is generally presented in an interesting and logical way. The program is broken down into various sections, including: words, sentences, tenses and teaching. Within each section there is a fair amount of content. There was obviously a huge effort made in producing the site and on first glance, the results are impressive.

The course goes over the basics and also includes, at least in some sections, more difficult material for those who might be interested in eventually studying applied linguistics. Some of the explanations are made in a conversational way using simple analogies and memory aids that avoid the language of deductive grammar and the accompanying jargon. Of course, the deductive explanations and all related terms are also included. The likely goal was to include traditional illustrations while also coming at things in different ways so as to cater to those whose eyes glaze over at the very mention of grammar.

I found some of the explanations a bit convoluted. For example:

One way to see if a word is a noun is to place a word in front of it that should go in front of a noun (an article and/or adjective) and check the sound. For example, try saying “the awesome” before any on the nouns previously used: the awesome dog, the awesome juice, the awesome beauty, the awesome belief, the awesome Marianne Rains, the awesome RiverCityCollege. Contrast the correct sound of this pattern (article-adjective-noun) with the wrong sound made by the awesome eaten (verb) or the awesome rapidly (adverb). The words that sound right and familiar in this pattern are nouns, so the pattern, article-adjective-noun, can help in labeling.
Others passages were more succinct and effective.

A nice touch is the inclusion of two sound clips on each page. They are delivered by clicking on a Miss Takesplay button that activates the voice and movement of animated characters. More than just a gimmick, each short blurb offers an interesting tidbit that gives some context to the other information as well as providing a nice break from the reading.

Another part of the site that I found quite enjoyable and useful was the "teaching" section. There are some very helpful articles that contain advice on integrating grammar points into lesson plans.

However, though there was in-depth material regarding some points throughout the website, I found many sections fairly lean in terms of the amount of information provided. It's true that that is usually all that is needed when covering a single grammar point. Many grammar books similarly offer up direct and to-the-point explanations that avoid complicating matters. But most of those books are padded out with numerous exercises. And many of them contain clarification regarding the niggling little exceptions to the rules that can prove to be the stumbling blocks for both language teachers and their students.

Grammar Advisor does include quizzes for most topics but they are very short and limited in scope.

While all major points are detailed in the various sections, I felt that they often didn't go beyond the basics. For example, while the present perfect verb tense was explained in a perfectly acceptable way, it didn't go into many of the subtleties and forms that are possible such as the use of "yet" and "just". In the sentences section, the subject-verb-object concept is introduced but I failed to find the intricacies and problems that arise regarding subject-verb agreement. That's an issue that plagues all learners of English as a second language.

In fact, many grammar books omit and gloss over certain elements while succeeding in other areas. And that is my major concern with a one-stop concept for learning grammar. My experience has always been an exercise in comparison. Various sources are consulted and they end up complementing each other. One website focuses on a detail that you happened to be looking for and another book outlines something in a way that makes it perfectly clear while yet another highlights an exception that you were trying to articulate.

This brings us to the one big intangible about Grammar Advisor. The "Ask the Advisor" feature is supposed to overcome any shortcomings and fulfill the tacit claim that no other sources are necessary.

Ask the Advisor

The nature of teaching English as a second language is that you will never be able to anticipate the myriad of questions and conundrums that arise. This is mainly due to the fact that your students are seeing English through the prism of their native language. Because of the nuances and differences from their language, you would probably never be able to anticipate the various angles and problems that will crop up. That's one of the intriguing and fun parts of teaching the English language. The old maxim is true that the best way to learn something is to teach it.

I see a number of possible pitfalls regarding "Ask the Advisor." Those who have signed up for full access are urged to first search the archives for the answer to their queries. Together with all the instructional content, there are a number of submissions and answers already provided though they have a certain canned feel to them.

The questions that actually come from students and stump the teachers, who will subsequently submit them to Grammar Advisor, are the types of queries that could be very challenging. Even explaining certain questions correctly takes a special touch. And then the response must avoid assumptions and express the information in a clear and concise way. The answer itself could very well create a new batch of dilemmas. I anticipate many frustrating exchanges with e-mails that begin along the lines of, "No, what I really mean is," "Yes, I understand that part but I actually wanted to know..."

Will these questions be dealt with in a timely manner? Will chronic question askers eventually start to get the brush off? Can those considering Grammar Advisor as an option be certain that all advisors on staff are going to give them thorough and accurate information? These and many more concerns surround this important element of the service. I suppose I could have sent in a tricky and obscure grammar query and gauged their response but, again, it wouldn't really replicate a real-life situation.

For me, the effectiveness and worth of Grammar Advisor as a paid service really hinge on many of these questions.

The Verdict

Grammar Advisor isn't for everyone. For the price of joining, a new teacher could purchase a few solid grammar books and supplement that information with dozens of free online sites. If the advisor feature proves to be timely, effective and something that is honoured throughout the duration of the membership, then the overall value is much higher. The hours saved in not searching numerous volumes and different websites for the answer to a question could make it just what many are looking for.

Also, as a fairly comprehensive stand-alone online instructional guide for those who want a very complete introduction to English grammar, it well may be an option worth considering. And to be fair, websites can be modified with little effort. In other words, more content may be added and certain things tweaked once they have received feedback.

Overall, Grammar Advisor is a fairly impressive entry in the still young and burgeoning world of online learning.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Language Software Review: LearnItLists Language Learning Widget

Vocabulary lists are the type of thing that make students' eyes glaze over. Without context or practice related to proper usage, their effectiveness is limited. Still, I have always tried to convince my students that there can be a great deal of benefit from incorporating some memorization into the overall language learning process. This may not fit in with the most common teaching practices of the day but I have personally used some rote learning with success in my attempts to acquire other languages.

I make this appeal to students as part of my overall campaign to convince them that language learning is a skill and only the most motivated will achieve the best results. I also give them a practical demonstration of the power of memorization by learning all their names in the first class of the semester.

We go through the usual introductions and I write all the pupils' nick-names (I could never manage the full Thai names in one day) on the board. I then move onto other first-day administrative duties such as advising them of exam dates, drop dates etc.

There is always time for an ice-breaker activity. This takes about 30 minutes. I instruct them what to do and then they mingle and ask each other questions.

It's during this time that I memorize the names that I had written down earlier. After we have discussed the answers from the ice-breaker, I wipe clean the white board and ask them if they believe that I can remember all their names.

I've managed to pull off this little feat without fail over the past six years with as many as 60 students in the class. It is limited in its benefit of course and can only be done with all students in the same seats. My retention for the following class isn't perfect but it is a great start and I'm certain I truly learn their names and faces much faster than other teachers who don't make the same kind of effort early on. And it usually has the desired effect of impressing them as well. has developed a clever program that combines language learning, routine and memorization. The end result is a downloadable widget that can be used on various social networking sites, google home pages and blogs.

You sign-up and enter the language you wish to learn and then you are taken to a page with the day's first list of ten words. Their English equivalents are in the opposite column. You can uncover each word as you go or see the word for the target language in the upper left corner as its English translation is highlighted in the list below. Another important feature gives you the part of speech for each word when you hover over it with your cursor.

They currently have 22 options that are loaded with 1000 of the most common words for each respective language.

The main benefit I see for language learners is that this could help them to build up a routine. With any task that increases a skill over time, the most important requirement is that daily practice takes place. In the first few weeks of any attempt to acquire a new ability or improve an existing one, it is incredibly easy to be knocked off stride. Establishing that pattern and seeing early results can convince a person that it really is doable. As part of a combined effort, Learnitlists has a lot of potential.

However, there are a few glitches. When I registered, I was advised that a message could not be sent to my e-mail address. I don't know if this will affect my ability to access subsequent sets of words. The convenience of having the new list there every day, whether you had thought of it or not, is what will make such a program work.

Another drawback is that it is somewhat limited in terms of the number of social networking sites you can download the widget to. They are apparently working on this. It would be ideal if a person could attach it to their browser's toolbar somehow.

The program is currently free to download, though there are certainly more than a few requests for donations and offers to buy shares in their company. Also, I had wanted to attach the widget to the sidebar of this blog for a few weeks but I was put off by the fact that it is bundled with advertising. I would encourage the developers to forego these ads until they have some more visibility and have taken it beyond the beta stage.

The success of something like this will largely depend on the distribution and marketing by the developers. I don't believe the software is especially advanced and I've no doubt that it will spark imitators (in fact, don't I know if this is the first of its kind.) The idea has many possibilities beyond language learning though that is definitely a logical starting point.

I urge those interested in learning a language to take a look. I will be utilizing learnitlists in the coming weeks and will report back on any improvements to functionality and whether I have made any progress in my language of choice.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Language Learning Software Review: Rosetta Stone Thai Level 1

Rosetta Stone Thai
Interactive software programs are becoming a popular way for people to improve their language skills. The appeal of using a computer program is that you can go at any speed you wish, repeat relevant sections as many times as you want and are not held back by dull-witted or uninterested classmates. Self-motivated students are the most successful in any context and no doubt they will benefit most from these language learning tools.

Rosetta Stone is probably one of the most well-known computer-based programs for learning a language. There has obviously been a great deal of investment in not only designing and producing their product but in advertising and marketing. I purchased their Thai Level One last year and have since worked my way through the entire course.

The appearance is slick and professional while functionality is smooth and easy to learn. The course is broken down into four skill sections: listening and reading, listening, reading, and speaking. There are four units, each with 11 chapters or levels. And each level contains four separate exercises. The presentation of the information may vary slightly from each use with a different ordering of pictures and questions to keep revision and practice somewhat fresh.

There is a great deal of content here. Working steadily, say an hour or so per evening, would take most people at least three months to effectively work through all the material.

Within each module, there is a tutorial and test section. Most learners will likely be drawn to the test section as it provides instant feedback as to whether you are progressing.

And what is actually taking place on your computer monitor and how do you interact with the program?

Most of the learning takes place by attempting to correctly match audio clips to pictures on the monitor. Four pictures appear and one voice clip is heard. In the reading section, of course, there are no audio clips. At first glimpse this may sound a bit simplistic to some people and I have heard just that criticism from others I have talked to.

However, there is an obvious logic to the progression. The intervals at which new vocabulary is repeated is based on proven research related to short- and long-term memory and language acquisition.

The speaking section was the most appealing for me. Thai is a tonal language and it can be very hard for foreigners to get the five pitches just right. The speaking section requires you to have a microphone, which you use to repeat back audio clips. Your voice is recorded and represented by a sound wave and you can see where you succeeded or failed in attaining the correct tone. Very impressive! I imagine the speaking practice for other language courses (for example, English) from Rosetta Stone would focus on aspects such as stress and word endings.

So, does the Rosetta Stone actually work?

Yes, to some degree. Obviously results will vary depending on the individual and the effort expended. I found myself coming to grips with some Thai grammar structure in most of the levels. It is all inductive here, with repeated and slightly varied forms offered up as each level proceeds. I started the course after I had been in Thailand for a few years and this obviously helped me a lot in making certain connections.

However, while a wide variety of topics were covered, I found the language selection somewhat archaic. Many of the words and types of sentences used on the program are ones I have never heard in everyday life in Thailand.

The price tag may be a bit off-putting as well. The last time I checked, Rosetta Stone Thai was selling for just under 200 dollars US on Amazon. Though when you break that down into the amount of usage you will get out of this program, it really isn't such a bad deal.

The novelty of using such a professional and well-designed course is a motivating factor in itself (at least in the early going.) As with any serious attempt to learn a new language, you should use this software in conjunction with a good "teach yourself Thai" book, a dictionary and as much practice as possible with native speakers. But for a good starting point, you could do a lot worse than Rosetta Stone.