Archive for October, 2010

Going over the Basics

Sunday, 24 October 2010

With all the discussion of rereading I’ve done, you know I can very much enjoy revisiting topics, ideas, and especially stories. At the same time, I’ve never been good at revising things I’ve learnt in a course. It does seem like a bit of a dichotomy. I think perhaps I don’t (and didn’t) mind reading a good book again, and I’m happy to see a new perspective on a known fact, so long as I do not have to pretend I don’t know it, but I really don’t like just going over stuff I already know without that involving going deeper (or broader) into it.

I really wish now that I’d realised this about myself explicitly all those years ago, because I’m sure my teachers, parents and local librarians would have been sympathetic and helpful to my finding (for example) alternate textbooks to read/look over as my ‘revision’, rather than always intending but rarely actually going over the notes I’d made in detail. (Thankfully my memory and original understanding tended to be pretty good, so I generally managed just fine in tests and exams anyhow. I’m sure I could have done better in many cases, however.) Since my DH was similar in many ways, we think it might be sensible to remember this as a strategy for when our own children have tests and exams to revise for! (As well as when we do again ourselves, of course, but that doesn’t come up as often any more.)

The two books I’m planning on discussing here and now fit this personal dichotomy well, as the first is a very readable book that I’m certainly coming back to for the second or third time, because as my experience of the topics discussed changes and grows, so does my perspective on them, and different parts of the book become more and less relevant, so that I can certainly get more out of it. The second, as a textbook that in absolute terms I’m beyond the level of, is one that I certainly wouldn’t reread, but since I’m intending doing a proper course in the topic in a few months, and I want to get the best possible value out of that (starting at as high a level as I can, and progressing as far as I can within the given timeframe), then absolutely solidifying my knowledge and understanding of the basics thereof is worth my while. (Particularly as we happened to have the book just sitting on the shelf… 😉 )

39. The Committed Marriage by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

The Committed Marriage by Esther Jungreis coverI reread this, in its entirety, on Yom Kippur (so about five weeks ago), when I was stuck at home (rather than being in the synagogue, where the services of the day include enough ‘extras’ that someone alone leaves out, that they take all day) and wanted something of meaning and some relevance that at the same time didn’t require too much concentration when I was fasting and trying to save my mental agility for the davening.

This is a fairly lightly written but still meaningful book, about the importance of the marriage relationship, coming from an orthodox Jewish perspective. It’s published by HarperCollins rather than a Jewish publisher, and does not assume a particular background of its readers, although all the example stories are of Jewish couples and families Rebbetzin Jungreis has been involved with or counselled, across the range of Jewish practice/religiosity, with many being secular. (I bought this book, and her previous one, The Committed Life, at a talk she gave that I attended a few years ago.)

This isn’t (in my opinion, not having read very many of them) a classic self-help book with specific solutions to specific problems, but more a philosophy of relationship building, aiming to promote, begin and strengthen strong marriages at the core of loving healthy families. (As I said, it’s written from an orthodox Jewish perspective.)

It’s probably the kind of book I have to be in the right frame of mind for, although it isn’t wishy-washy, but when I am it can be useful, if only in increasing my gratitude that the problems described just don’t apply to us, and hopefully never will! This is probably why Yom Kippur was a good time for me to reread it, to remind me to thank Hashem for the gift of a good marriage and to pray for it to always continue so, particularly as our family grows and changes.

40. Modern Hebrew by Harry Blumberg and Mordechai H. Lewittes

Modern Hebrew by Blumberg & LewittesThis is subtitled “A First-Year Course in Conversation, Reading and Grammar”, and is introductory (apart from assuming as ability to read the Hebrew script, although there is a brief reference guide to that at the back of the book). While there were several vocabulary items that were new to me, the grammatical instructions were revision, and even though this was a new text to me I didn’t bother writing out any of the exercises, just doing them all orally to myself. Since this book is intended as a classroom text, I had no means of feedback, but for review I didn’t need that to feel I was getting some benefit from reading through the book and getting some semi-formal Hebrew practice.

As a textbook it’s certainly of its time (first published 1946, with this 3rd edition apparently from 1963, and the copyright regularly renewed up to 1982) in its choice of texts and topics, as well (to a certain extent) in its stereotyping, so that I certainly wouldn’t expect to use it in a classroom today. However as a revision text for me to read it worked very well indeed.

Taking the principle of going over the absolute basics, but this time in a context where I can get feedback, and even push myself a bit, for the last week I’ve been doing the basic (free) Hebrew courses on LiveMocha.com. What’s available as lessons is very basic indeed, but I have picked up on some vocabulary (I’d never done the colours systematically before, for example), and even better, the writing prompts can be elaborated on much beyond what has been taught, with many/most of the Hebrew speaking site users happy to give good feedback based on what you’re actually producing, rather than the lesson level.

I actually realised the potential for this when correcting an English exercise for someone who’d made a story out of the (fairly boring) prompt. (The way the site works is that you tell it which languages you’re native and fluent in – for me English and French respectively – and which languages you want to learn, and then each person corrects what they are fluent in and is corrected by native/fluent users of what they’re learning. It seems to me so far a very good system.

So I now try to make stories from my written exercises too, as it pushes me to use vocabulary and grammar beyond that of the given lesson (obviously using that too) and gets me feedback that is actually useful to me. Personally I actually find it more interesting to help those trying to go beyond the course limits, and my impression is that I’m not the only one to feel this way. (I do still give appropriate feedback to those not going beyond, of course, but there’s often less of interest to say.)

While the speaking exercises I’ve done have all involved reading a given (short) text aloud, (the paid courses have more interactive speaking exercises) I’ve also had good feedback on my intonation, as well as the pronunciation of words I’d only seen in writing (without vowels) and had misinterpreted.

It seems like a very good site for both beginners (so long as you can read the script/alphabet for the given language – so I’m leaving aside Ukrainian, which would require better Cyrillic skills than I currently have, for now) and improvers. I’m not sure how advanced the paid courses get (the free ones are all pretty basic) and those are available in all languages at the moment, but the site certainly seems to me to have a lot to offer for those who do want to work on their language learning.

Coming out of hiding

Sunday, 17 October 2010

I should apologise for pretty much disappearing for over a month, but then you’ve probably got used to my doing so when I amn’t specifically challenging myself not to do so. Must do better. Again. Anyway, I just finished this book tonight, and thought I’d get straight to discussing it. I’ve even pre-drafted my post… (DH and I are temporarily sharing one computer at the moment, so I started writing it out by hand. I should warn you it got long.)

To Kill a Mockingbird

Image via Wikipedia

49. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I’m not sure I’ve read  To Kill a Mockingbird since doing so as a teenager, despite always being quite clear it’d be worthwhile, as this is a great book – deservedly a modern classic. I’m pretty sure it’s one we did in school, although I’d probably read it myself prior to that. I’m not sure did I see the film before or after first reading the book, but it was around the same time. Since this is a well known classic, I’ll be less wary about spoilers than I usually am, but won’t spoil things for the sake of it.

I remembered that it was about a court case, where the outcome was an unfair foregone conclusion, and ‘victory’ for truth and real justice was measured morally by the fact that the jury didn’t convict the Black defendant in under five minutes, but actually took several hours to do so, regardless of the fact that the evidence against him was tenuous (and circumstantial) at best, and obviously outright lies at worst.

I hadn’t remembered that the actual court scenes all take place in just one day, (and that the case and the individuals involved aren’t mentioned until a third of the way into the book, although it decidedly impacts all the rest of the story) while the book covers nearly three years in the lives of Scout, our young narrator, her older brother Jem, their father Atticus Finch (defence lawyer in the case above) and the sleepy town of Maycomb, Alabama between summer 1933 and spring 1936. Also, while Boo Radley, their reclusive neighbour, has a name which has entered popular culture, I hadn’t recalled how well the disparate storylines are tied together.

I suppose what I’m coming to on this reread of the book is the idea that it’s about justice in practice  and concept, and the importance of who is allowed to decide and enforce that. While the professional lawmakers and enforcers that we get to meet and know in this book are all honourable men whose intention is to do right by all (thinking here of Atticus, Judge Taylor and the county sheriff, Heck Tate) we are certainly shown some of their own prejudices and faults, as well as the severe problems of the judicial system all of them are sworn and see it as a core principle to uphold, particularly in the potential for mob rule taking over even the jury system.

In the end, a truer justice is portrayed by good men choosing to keep certain things out of the public judicial system, and yet it’s clear this can only work because this is a group of right-thinking people making a difficult choice. Previous instances of individuals, and especially groups, taking things into their own hands have had to be suffered or fended off by some of the most potentially vulnerable characters in the book, with varying degrees of success.

Harper Lee’s brilliance in using a child narrator for this story is shown in how the hypocrisy and prejudice of the adult society can be ignored, sidestepped, shown up or wilfully misunderstood by Scout and/or her contemporaries (particularly  Jem and their friend Dill, who as an outsider to the town (he comes to stay with his aunt each summer) can sometimes see through the attitudes even Scout has imbibed from the ether.

At the same time, the child’s propensity to see things in black and white is not ignored, and we see Scout’s growing understanding and appreciation for the subtleties of adult interaction, and her growing empathy for vulnerable people.

Ultimately, I suppose this book is the story of Scout’s growing comprehension of the social inequities that surround her, in a world that’s about to change in ways she can’t possibly guess. (The book was published in 1960, so Lee would have known her characters would go through World War II and the burgeoning African-American Civil Rights movement, and perhaps even the beginnings of Second-Wave Feminism.)