Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Book Review: So sind sie, die Amerikaner

Despite an extended illness and finishing up my latest Integrationskurs, I found lots of time in January to read. I actually read six books and finished a 7th! The one I'm about to review is more of a booklet, really, with only 100 pages of light reading. 

This book is part of a series, written in German, about people of other countries. The series also includes books about Brits, Islanders, the French, Swedes, and the Japanese, among others. Judging from the one about my Landsleute, I believe the intent is for the writers to be whimsical while relating their honest opinions and observations.

The word that came to my mind when I was about half-way through with the book (I read it within a few hours) was: Volltreffer!  From my point-of-view the writer pretty much hit the nail on the head, though I believe most Americans would be offended and defensive if they could read it. I went to Amazon.de to see what reviews were there, being almost certain one of my Landsleute would have commented, and sure enough. Just look here and click on the comment to wayways's 5-star review. ("Wow, somebody really hates Americans!!")

Admittedly the writer does not focus on the many positive aspects of Americans and life in America, probably because those aren't particularly amusing. But I don't see her as just complaining, either. If you want to be comfortable living in America as a foreigner, you need to try to understand what makes them tick and avoid hot spots.

This is a good book to read in preparation for a quick trip to the States, though of course there's no way to truly explain the people of any country in just 100 pages.

Section headings are, for instance:
 Nationalism & Identity
 Typical Qualities
 Sense of Humor
 Eating & Drinking
 Customs & Traditions
 Free time & Entertainment

The author begins with a warning: "Americans are like teenagers: loud, curious, unable to keep a secret, indelicate, and with a tendency toward embarrassing behavior in public. When one accepts their basically adolescent ways, one can also understand the rest of their culture."

Those are her first two sentences, and I'm pretty certain that most Americans would already be ready to fight.

She goes on to say, "Amerikaner sind freundlich, weil sie nicht anders können." (Americans are friendly, because they don't know how to be anything else.") She's talking about Americans' interactions with strangers, and of course comparing it to the way Germans tend to be.

The writer points out a well-known fact - that Americans are proud to be Americans, because the U.S. is the greatest country on earth. People from most countries believe that about their home, but we Americans have proof: so many people from everywhere in the world want to come to America, and many risk their lives to get here. What more proof is needed? (p. 11)

She also notes that just 40% of Americans own a passport (compared to 75% of Canadians and 80% of Brits, p. 7), but there's a reason for that, too. The U.S. is so huge that one can travel for weeks without ever leaving the Homeland. With most Americans preferring to stay home (or not being able to afford to travel), this leads to a lack of understanding of other lands and peoples and their ways of doing things. From thence comes another common stereotype of Americans: that we know very little about the rest of the world.

For most of the writer's observations, I can say I know an American (or several) who illustrates her point.
"Selbst wenn die Vorortbewohner abgesehen vom Haus ihrer Nachbarn auch jedes andere Ziel zu Fuß erreichen könnten, würden sie es trotzdem nicht tun." (p. 22) (Even if the suburb dwellers could reach not only their neighbor's house but every other destination by foot, they wouldn't do it.)   *The front door of a favorite restaurant is an 8-minute walk from the front door of my parents' house, and they drive there for meals. In their defense, they would have to walk along the side of a road to get there because there's no sidewalk.

"In den USA entspricht die Ehe oftmals eher einer Serie monogamer Beziehungen als einem Bund fürs Leben." (p. 31) (Marriage is often more a series of monogamous relationships than a bond for life.) *An American I once dated was described by his sister as "a serial monogamist."

"Mittelschichtseltern stellen fest, dass ihre Kinder nicht nur keine Ahnung haben, welche Gabel man wann bei einem förmlichen Dinner verwendet, sondern dass sie selten überhaupt eine Gabel benutzen." (p. 37) (Middle class parents say not only that their children wouldn't know which fork to use during a formal dinner, but that they seldom use a fork at all.)  *One of the students I took to Germany years ago on a class trip (16 years old) did not know how to cut her Schnitzel with a knife. She tried to cut the meat holding the knife as if she were stabbing something with it. Most kid-friendly meals in America (sandwiches, hamburgers, bagels, tacos...) are eaten with the hands.

The writer did miss out on two pretty significant points that I consider important for Germans to know about Americans before spending time with them.

  1. They are unable to look at themselves with a critical eye, and
  2. They are not looking for honesty when they ask for your opinion. "What do you think of my new...?" or "Oh! You've been to America? What did you think?!" They are looking for a compliment, not an honest answer, so it's best just to think of something nice to say.
Do you disagree with me? Well, you might not be able to, because although I'm writing this blog post, I'm doubting the wisdom of publishing it. Not because I am afraid readers will disagree with me (I'd enjoy a healthy discussion about this!) but rather because I might lose friends - if people I know see this - and be labeled an American-hater. Which kind of illustrates my points, ya know?

The writer does mention positive qualities of Americans: many spend time volunteering, we really know how to have fun, we are friendly, polite, and optimistic, and we see most problems as challenges to overcome.

On the other hand, Americans almost always push blame onto someone or something other than themselves (p. 83). If you doubt that, just reflect back on the recent government shut-down (Jan. 2018). And what is every American kid's answer when his or her parents ask why s/he is getting a bad grade in any class? "The teacher hates me!" I taught high school English and German for 16 and 14 years respectively, and I assure you, we teachers do not give bad grades because we hate a student. Students earn bad grades when their work sucks or when they don't bother to do it. "But I spent all night on this assignment [that you assigned us two weeks ago]!"  Blaming others is a big part of the American psyche, to the delight of the 1.2 million lawyers working in the U.S., and it starts early.

Do I hate Americans? Nope. But I can look at myself and my Landsleute with a critical eye and not lose anything while doing so, and that criticism equates to most Americans as hatred. We all have quirks, and I think Germans have an easier time recognizing and acknowledging their own than Americans do. If you point out a German quirk to a German, rather than get defensive, he's likely to think a moment and say, "Yeah, I see where you get that."

I'll end with one funny American quirk the writer mentions that I'll bet you've never thought about. We use the oddest things to measure distance and size. (p. 53) We describe the size of a shopping mall parking lot in football fields. We describe volume in terms of how many bathtubs the thing would fill. And when someone asks how far away something is, we tell them how long it takes to drive there. "How far is Madison from Sheboygan?" "Oh, about two hours."

What quirks do you notice about your own people?

Can you look at yourself and your Landsleute with a critical eye?

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Reading List 2018

I never read as many books in a year as I'd like to, which is one reason I don't set a goal on Goodreads. As a realist, I prefer to not set a goal rather than set one I won't achieve. I just read what I can and enjoy it as I go along. This post comes dangerously close to a reading goal, though, and I'm already feeling skeptical. But let's go with it and see what happens.

I don't like being "between books," which is why I generally read more than one book at a time. One of those needs to be small enough to fit in my purse for train rides and errands (yes, I have been know to whip out a book while waiting in the slow line at the Kasse), which my last novel of 2017 - Ken Follett's a Column of Fire - definitely was not.

In no particular order, here are the books with which I'm planning to start 2018 and how they found their way to my shelves. (X means I have since read/finished the book.)

Origin, by Dan Brown X

I have not read all of Brown's books, but the ones I've read were quite intriguing! Real discussion-starters. I learned he'd come out with a new one in 2017 and promptly put it on my birthday list. My kids ordered that one for me, along with a Column of Fire. I have no doubt I will like it, but it's not purse-size and won't be traveling with me. I'm not going anywhere until the second half of February, so this will probably be my January book.

Nachts ist es leise in Tehran, by Shida Bazyar  X

I heard about this one when I went to a book reading in Stuttgart about this book. There was a project in 2017 called "Stuttgart liest ein Buch" (Stuttgart reads a book), which encouraged people across the city to read a certain book and attend events at which they could then discuss it. The book they focused on was this one, and I decided to order it.

Moon Palace, by Paul Auster X

A teacher friend I met through the AATG (American Assoc. of Teachers of German) listserv who teaches English in a town not far from us gave me this book. Despite the fact that Auster is an American writer, I have never heard of him. Perhaps that's because all the writers I covered in American Lit were long deceased. My friend recommends the book, and I'm usually open to book recommendations!

Schwarzer Neckar, by Thilo Schuerer

Speaking of recommendations, this book has been loaned to me by one of M's employees (I'd also call him a friend of mine). There's a genre called Schwabenkrimis (Swabian crime novels), and this is one such book. I started reading it in the fall but couldn't quite get going - Krimis are not really my thing. It's the start of a series, though, and I really want to at least read this first one. If I like it as much as my friend did, maybe it will open a new genre for me. My challenge with such novels is to force myself not to browse the end when I feel like things are moving too slowly.

By the way, did you notice on my photo above that books printed in English-speaking countries have their titles facing left on the binding, and those printed in Germany face right? (The Auster book is English but was printed in Germany.) This could be really awful for people with OCD. In order for all the titles to face the same way, the German books would need to be shelved upside-down!

Ghostly Tales and Sinister Stories of Old Edinburgh, by Alan Wilson, et. al. X

My kids and son's girlfriend bought me this book while we were in Edinburgh together last June. This will be a good train book because it's a collection of short stories and a good size for a purse or backpack.

Scottish Folk Tales

The kids (they're adults, but you know how that goes) also bought me this book in Scotland, and since M and I are going there again this year, these two books will put me in the right frame of mind - as if I need books for that. If I haven't read this one by September, I'll take it with me.

the Darling, by Anton Chekhov

This was a gift from a student of mine from Russia, and I want to finally get to it! I'm familiar with Chekhov, but not this story. The book includes several other short stories as well and will be a good train read. I like to make sure I read at least one World Lit classic each year, so this will count for that as well.

Katherine of Aragon, by Alison Weir  X

My favorite genre is historical fiction, though putting this one on my list for 2018 is cheating a bit. I read most of it in 2017, but then abandoned it temporarily for a Column of Fire. This is not the first time I've spread a book over two years. Alison Weir is one of my favorite historical fiction writers, and I can already see myself reading all six in this series about Henry VIII's ill-fated wives (divorced-beheaded-died-divorced-beheaded-survived) as they come out. My son's girlfriend brought my attention to this series, and my Schwiegermutter already has the first two! The third is due out in May, 2018.

Pompeii, by Robert Harris  X

Don't you love it when you have a book on your shelf for so long that you don't remember how you heard of it or why you bought it? Hello, Pompeii! I don't know what to expect from this one except that, well, I know how it ends. I have another book by Harris - Enigma - but I couldn't get passed the first chapter. I don't know why I bought that one either, but I have higher hopes for Pompeii.

Coole Käuze, by Torsten Pröhl, et.al.  X

This book is fodder for my Steinkauz obsession. I bought this book to put under the Christmas tree for both M and me, but then my Schwiegermutter gave it to me for my birthday! It is chock-full of beautiful photos of Käuze (a type of owl) and information about their habits and way of life. I'll be taking notes for future blog posts about Alfred when I read this one.
Here I am wearing my
"OMG...I'm holding a Steinkauz!!" face.

Intriguing Owls, by Stan Tekiela  X

When my mom mentioned  our interest in owls to her cousin, he recommended this book. My mom passed the idea along to M for a Christmas gift, and thus it ended up under the tree. In this one also there is a lot of information about owls, wonderful pictures, and maps showing where in North America the various types of owls mainly reside. This one will be easier for me to read since it's in English, and it will be interesting to compare the information in the two books.

Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland, by Dorothy Wordsworth

This will probably be the most daunting of the books on my current plan. Dorothy was the sister of William Wordsworth, and the two of them took a tour together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge through Scotland in 1803. These are her diary entries and thoughts as well as accounts of their travels. I know I will revel in the old-fashioned writing style, but it's a big, heavy, hardcover book that I'll have to read at home. My Schwiegermutter gave this book to me last year for Christmas, but I haven't started it yet. This will be a good year for Scotland reads!

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

Here we have the winner of the "Not what I thought this book was about" Award. I'd put it on my Christmas list this year although I do not remember how I heard of it, and my kids bought it for me. It's much bigger/thicker than I was expecting (apparently I neglected to look at how many pages long it is), and the subject matter was a surprise as well. That makes me wonder, "What did I think the book was about?!" The beautifully-titled book is about the Great Migration in the 1930s of African-Americans from the South into the northern states. As I often do with a new book, I read the first few pages to get a taste, and I can say I am looking forward to reading more. I know I will learn a lot about something I hadn't spent much time on previously, and that is one of the main reasons I read!

We readers know what happens to our best-laid plans: new books slither across our radar, jump into our shopping carts, and demand our immediate attention. Most of the books I read in 2017 were unplanned, and quite a few had just been published that year! These are only thirteen books, which should leave room for interlopers along the way of the next twelve months, but several of them are intimidating in size. This is the closest I've ever come to setting a reading goal for [part of] a year, and if I fail miserably I'll probably never do it again. Just writing this post got me eager to get started, though!

Let the readings begin...