Thursday, 20 January 2011

11 Ways to Learn a Language

You've told yourself 2011's the year: you will definitely get round to brushing up your French. Or learn Spanish. But you can already see the end of January coming at you and still you haven't done much about it. Truth is, you're not sure where to start. "Learn a language" sounds impressive and virtuous, as a New Year's Resolution ought to. But how do you get there in practice?

1. Set a goal. You've probably heard of SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timetabled. How will you know, at the end of the year, if you have "learned Italian"? Difficult to quantify. But how about, this year I will complete all the exercises in "Colloquial Italian", or spend a week in Venice and strike up conversation with five strangers? You will know if you have done those things. You may then find it helpful to break it down into smaller steps.

2. Stay motivated. Yes, right now it's January, and you're feeling enthusiastic, but at some point it may feel harder going. Make a list of five reasons why learning the language you have chosen is a good idea, how it will improve your life. Return to your list when you feeling fed up.

3. Find a tutor. Most of us do not have the discipline to keep up self-study entirely by ourselves, long-term. You don't have to have a lesson every week, if time or funds don't allow it: even knowing that you will have a monthly "check up" and opportunity to ask questions can be enough. A good tutor will be able to advise you on learning materials, too, and activities that suit your learning style. For professionals teachers where you live, check the Language School Teachers website; there are also organizations like Armchair Languages who offer lessons by Skype, with all the added advantages of flexibility that brings.

4. Get a good textbook. Particularly at beginner level, a textbook will be invaluable to you, so that you can lay effective foundations and progress incrementally. For French, you can't do better than the Grammaire Progressive du Francais series, although it's possible you will find it a bit dry without something else to complement it. For a good, well-rounded approach, the Colloquial series is good, and you can buy those in a pack which include CDs, for listening practice.

5. Listen to Podcasts: you are, in all likelihood, busy. You don't have hours and hours to devote to this new endeavour. But you do, probably, sit in traffic or stand, squashed, on public transport for a substantial proportion of your week. Use the time to listen to one of the many podcasts available, like the Coffee Break series.

6. Read Books: At every stage of language learning, there are books that can work for you, help you to see how the grammar works for you. A good language bookshop such as Grant and Cutler will be able to advise you on Easy Readers, which are a series of simplifed, abbreviated novels especially designed for learners at various stages. as you progress, you might want to move on to children or young people's fiction, or to translations of classics that you know well already.

7. Read Magazines. As adults, we filter out enormous quantities of information that is not immediately relevant to us. But if we read something that is related to a topic of interest, we are more likely to remember it. If you are intermediate or above (B2+), browse the press shops next time you are on holiday and consider subscribing to a magazine in a topic that interests you. (Ask your tutor or your language bookshop for advice on specialised language learning magazines if you are a beginner, or lower-intermediate.)

8. Watch DVDs. Films and TV series are a great source of vocabulary and idioms, and subtitles are a fantastic resource. At the beginner stage, try watching in your native language (say, English) and read the subtitles in your target language (say, Spanish). Intermediates can watch in Spanish, with subtitles in English, and then finally subtitles in the Spanish, moving on to no subtitles at all. Choose wisely, though: you probably don't want to start with The Wire or The West Wing. Something visual like Friends can work well for this, especially because the episodes are short and the storylines are not too complex.

9. Speak to people! That is, after all, probably the point, isn't it? If you type in "Russian" and "London" to, you will find there are at least seven groups that you can join or visit where you will be able to practise your language skills.

10. Exchange emails. Remember Pen Pals, from the days of snail mail? helps you to find people with whom you can exchange email, and practise conversation that way.

11. Little and often is the key. Websites like will email or tweet you a new word or phrase each day in the language of your choice. (For those of us who still like using paper, you can also buy physical calendars.)

Then come back and let us know you get on!

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Writing and sacrifice: a (Christian) writer's dilemma

All the books on writing that I've read lately have said so, and my experience would certainly concur: if you really want to be a writer, it takes time. You will have to sacrifice hobbies. Other things may have to fall by the wayside. It's also been said many times that to be an expert at anything takes 10,000 hours: that's 10,000 hours spent not doing something else.

How does that work, when you believe your primary purpose on earth is to build the Church? If writing a novel really *did* take a year, or a few months, then maybe, maybe you could take a few months out of the teams you're serving on: after all, the Earth is the Lord's, and everything in it, and having quality fiction written by Christians is an important aspect of our being salt and light. But it doesn't take a year. It takes, like, forever, and during that forever, you eat, sleep and breathe it. And are you not making an idol of your writing if you put it first?

Or, and yes, I know you're all getting tired of the pregnancy analogy, but is it a "season of life" thing - stepping back for several years to give yourself to something worthwhile? Great. (Except that it's quite possibly not just a "season". You're probably a gonner forever.) But everyone understands that babies are important and time-consuming and take over your life. I think most non-writers don't really understand that novels also do that. That they almost have to, if they're going to be any good. Does it matter what others think, whether they understand? No, of course it doesn't - if you have rock-solid self-confidence and a mandate written across the sky. For the rest of us, it matters hugely.

If you have a baby, everyone understands that you are busy, not sleeping much, and that any conversation with you is going to involve the kind of minutiae that others, in particular non-parents, are not necessarily enthralled by. But can you really say, well, I'm taking time out from such-and-such for a few months while I get my novel written? Or, worse, I'm really sorry, I don't have much spare time to meet up, and I probably won't for the next few months, since whenever I have a chunk of uninterrupted time I sit down and write, and that's what I'm prioritising? I mean, it sounds so cold, so callous. Not to mention a little dysfunctional.

All the books give you permission to do that. More than permission - they seem to require it of you. But the problem is, writing is a less common occupation than having babies, so most people probably don't get it. So you risk offending people. You risk people thinking you don't care about their friendship. You risk people misunderstanding you, or judging you, or thinking that building Church is not supremely important to you. You risk worrying that yourself.

If you've met me in the last couple of years, you could be forgiven for thinking that I'm some kind of introverted hermit, uninterested in friendships, and obsessed with spending as much time at home with my West Wing DVDs as possible. But ask people who've lived with me: believe it or not, before I remembered I was a writer, I would panic at the thought of an evening in by myself. I would hang around at Church till the very last person had gone. I would meet up with as many people as possible for lunch and coffee and dinner.

It's just that my priorities are different for now. I don't know how that works long-term. I keep hoping for the rich husband or the lottery win that will enable me to quit my job, so I have time to write and be sociable and serve on all the teams I can shake a stick at and engage meaningfully wtih the country I live in and help my friend check his thesis for grammar errors, but short of that something has to give. And that something is not going to be, cannot be, my writing, not because it's an idol, but because it's what I was made for. To paraphrase Eric Liddle, God made me to love words, and I feel His pleasure when I write.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

On my bookshelf, 2011

So, last year I made it to sort-of 50 books. I'm not sure if I want to set a numeric goal for this year, because if I do I will never get round to reading Anna Karenina, Moby Dick or Gone with the Wind (although my motivation is a little on the low side for all of those anyway).

Who am I kidding? I'm far too competitive, even if it is only myself I am competing with. Full disclosure: this list (and last year's) includes book I finished this year, even if I started them last year. That said, there will be books I start this year that I don't finish until later, so it all comes out in the wash, or something.

1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer.

- 9/10. Difficult to know how this one can be topped. Oskar, the main character, is so very real and his story is haunting and heartbreaking, and I loved that it was long enough that you could really get into it - great book to take on holiday. It was a bit of a stretch that so much tragedy could have happened in just one family, but the story was so good, and so well-written, that I forgive it. I love how the different elements all tie up. I welled up several times at the end. Can't wait for J Safran Foer's next novel, and trying not to feel inferior about the fact that he's only a year older than me.

2. Cupid and Diana, by Christina Bartolomeo

- 7/10. I was looking for a book set in Washington DC, and this one is infused with its setting, so I wasn't disappointed. Yes, it's chick lit, and no, I don't read much of that particular genre, but it was funny and wry and there were some great observations on the life of an early-thirties woman trying to find love. The ending left me unconvinced, though - she had me rooting for a different one. I recommend this one for a poolside read in the summer.

3. Chapter after Chapter, by Heather Sellers

- 8/10 Inspirational and helpful, and tackles some questions that none of the (many) other books I've read about writing have answered. I liked the "nobody tells you" chapter - I feel better prepared for life as a writer now, though I still need to do the exercises!

4. Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

- 7/10 I enjoyed this, and he writes well. I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. It was a good read, though, and a scarily plausible prediction of America in the not too distant future.

5. The very thought of you, by Rosie Aliison

- 6/10. Not the sweet coming-of-age story implied by the title, the cover or the reviews. Still, I couldn't seem to stop reading, so there must have been something about this book that I liked, and towards the beginning especially I found it quite moving. I love that she structured her book how I plan to structure mine. And gold star for not one but two mentions of Belgium!

6. Catcher in the Rye, by J D Salinger

- 8/10. I found Holden's voice compelling and readable and I really liked him as a character with his wry observations, his recurring pet phrases and yes, even his negative outlook. The ending didn't feel very satisying, but I think the book was more an insight into a character than a story with a definite beginning and ending as such. I liked it a lot.

7. Dog Days, by Ana Marie Cox

- 6.5/10. Not a book I'd lend to my mum or recommend to my pastor, or even normally read myself, but it was really useful research for my novel: another DC-based book with a great "sense of place". I'm bemused by the title, though.

I was going to give it a lower rating so you could all admire my preference for literary fiction over chick lit, but the truth is, despite its mildly ridiculous yet oddly believable plot and language and erm, things, it was a bit of a page turner!

8. The American Future, by Simon Schama

- 8.5/10 I don't read much non-fiction, and I certainly don't read much history. I would read more if it was all like this, though it's a slow burner: you have to be awake and able to concentrate for good bit of a time!

Schama is a master storyteller, weaving together the strands of history, and shedding light on current issues by drawing lessons from past events, but never in an over-obvious way. He assumes an intelligent reader, and I like that. I also particularly liked that he admitted that he finds it hard to square certain very positive aspects of true Christianity with his own worldview.

Oh, and he likes the word pyrrhic. I love words with odd spellings, so that worked well for me.

9. Florence and Giles, by John Harding

- 6.5/10. I really only read this because I was doing a book review - but can't complain, there are worse ways to earn money! Not really my kind of book - it's aGothic novel, and possibly more of a YA novel too, but it made interesting use of language and that's always good to keep me reading. "Nothing prepares you for the chillingly ruthless finale," says one review, and that's about accurate.

10. Primary Colors, by Anonymous/Joe Klein

-8.5/10. I thoroughly enjoyed this - quality writing, a good story, a romantic subplot, and a genuinely unpredictable ending. I was a little confused by the many characters, though, particularly in the first third of the book.

Joe Klein's observations are astute, his writing is carefully crafted and a joy to read, with some great turns of phrase. There were too many characters for me to be able to keep track of all of them, but the ones I could felt so real. Aspiring writers could do a lot worse than study this writing. The main character had more than a hint of Josh Lyman about him, too: "politics, politics, politics... you're a stunted little man, you don't even have the courage to tell Daisy that you love her". The romantic subplot was beautifully done - subtle and realistic - though I admit that I did skip ahead to find out what was happening with that, in much the same way as you might "accidentally" Google Janel Moloney "just to check Donna doesn't die" and happen to find out (spoiler alert) that it all works out for Josh and Donna in the end. Anyway, I digress

11. Sammy's House, by Kristin Gore

- 8/10. I loved this! Sammy's Hill, which I read last year, was good, but this was a notch up from this. Sammy herself is fun and endearing and has lots of quirks I can identify with. I was really rooting for her and Charlie and I am normally quite scathing of happy endings, so Kristin Gore clearly worked her magic. Plus, you know, the whole DC thing.

I think I said this about Sammy's Hill, but it's basically Bridget Jones meets the West Wing. These are both very good things.

12. The me I want to be, by John Ortberg

- 7/10. Eminently readable, though I enjoyed it less (and got less immediate pratical application from it) than his other books. But maybe that says more about where I'm at right now than about his book.

13. The People's Choice, by Jeff Greenfield

- 7/10 This was, at times, an easy read, and at times I really needed to concentrate to understand the point he is making. And he is making a point: it's a lesson in the oddities of the American electoral system as much as it is a novel, and there were way too many characters for me to be able to keep with them all, but I enjoyed it, and the ending was more satisfying than I thought it would be. The style is idiosyncratic - the author is consicously talking to and educating readers. I liked that, though I'm not sure I'd want to read a hundred novels in this style.

14. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

- 9/10 Haunting, beautiful, enchanting, heartbreaking. 

15. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee

- 7.5/10 I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this. I hope the ending is deeply meaningful and somehow passed me by, because otherwise it's just weird.

16. I think I love you, by Allison Pearson

- 8/10 This book perfectly captures how it feels to be thirteen years old. I enjoyed the second half - the main character as an adult half - less, but it still gets 8/10 because some scenes were amazing, in particular the scene at the David Cassidy concert, which has haunted me, and there were times when I had to sit on the train platform after I'd got off because I couldn't bear to finish the chapter there and then.

17. Breakfast at Tiffany's, by Truman Capote

- 8.5/10 Beautiful, elegant, moving.

18. When a Woman Trusts God, by Sheila Walsh

- 6/10 To be honest, I always suspected I might not love this. I can't really tell you what the main point was, other than that of the full title - beautiful things happen when a woman trusts God. I keep hoping one of these days a book like this is going to tell me what it actually means practically to trust God, and how you square that with the fact that God is not predictable, but this wasn't the one! 

19. Living History, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

- 8/10 Learned so much through reading this. Inspiring and moving too. Only wish there were an afterword in which she became President!

(Later edit: I'm currently in a pro-Obama phase, and so I regret writing that. But those were the feelings the book stirred in me, and he was being a little weak at the time.)

20. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

- 9/10 This book epitomises what I love about literary fiction: lyrical, poetic, heart-breaking, deeply understanding of and full of compassion for humanity. The only thing I didn't like was the ending - it left too many unanswered questions. You go on this epic journey with this family and you get to the last page and want to say "and then what happened?" It's as if he leaves you in limbo.

21. The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook Guide to Getting Published

- 8/10 You wouldn't think, would you, that this would the kind of book you would curl up with in bed and read cover to cover? And yet Harry Bingham (doesn't he sound like a Jane Austen character?) writes so well,so informatively, and even so humorously at times, that's exactly what I did! I've learned so much about the publishing industry and the world of being a writer through this. It's also, for better or for worse, what introduced me to Authonomy - which may bear part of the blame for there being fewer books than I'd like on this list this year.

22. The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

- 6/10 There's no doubt the man can write, and I enjoyed it at first, but then it got darker, weirder, and more incomprehensible to those not versed in the intricacies of Judaism and the intellectual arguments for and against Zionism, and he lost me.

23. Wannabe a Writer We've Heard Of?

- 8/10 Packed full of useful tips, and an easy, fun read. A lot of is is probably most  useful to writers of commercial of issue-based fiction (for example, I highly doubt that I would get as much airtime on television for loving the West Wing or living in Belgium or being an expert on language learning as she does for talking about controversial aspects of relationships) but there was still more than enough material in here that I can use or adapt. Good stuff. Realistic, too, and very British in tone, which is useful when your market is the UK, and makes a change from all the (mostly very good) American stuff I've read about writing. 

24. Hostage in Havana, by Ann Somerhausen

- 8/10 A fascinating, elegantly written of a tumultuous year in Cuba in the early 1970s (complete with a kidnapping), as the American wife to the Belgian ambassador. If all memoir were like this, I would read a lot more of it! 

25. Know Doubt, by John Ortberg

- 8/10 Honest and helpful, though the main point for me was in chapter three, where he talks about different levels of belief - head, heart and core, and how your core beliefs are what affect your behaviour. After that, the rest kind of felt like filler - but that may just be because it was the part that I most needed to hear. 

26. Becoming George Sand, by Rosalind Brackenbury

- 8/10 This was an interesting one. The writing was beautiful in places, the descriptions wonderfully detailed: if it had just been about Maria's life in Edinburgh now, it might have been one of my top five books of the year. But there were sections I was sorely tempted to skip over - my heart sank whenever I arrived at a  "life of George Sand" section, and there were some tenuous links made between Maria and George, too.

27. Bird by Bird: Some instructions on writing and life, by Anne Lamott

8.5/10 I loved this - and not just because Bradley Whitford does too. I loved her refreshing honesty about, for example, jealousy towards other writers.The concept of a crappy first draft - just get it out there, it doesn't matter if it's bad, it probably should be bad - has of course been invaluable but has been quoted and requoted so much that I felt like I already knew that part. It made me want to read more of her stuff. Parts of it, though, baffled me, and after re-reading some paragraphs three times I had to admit defeat on them.

28. No Plot No Problem, by Chris Baty

7.5/10 I read this in preparation for NaNoWriMo, and would definitely recommend it to those getting ready for their first attempt. It was practical, funny, encouraging and easy to read - and was the first (and so far only) book I've read on my iPad.

29. Capitol Offence, by Barbara Mikulski

7/10 Enjoyed this, more for the DC and politics sides (which is why I was reading it in the first place) than the thriller part - but the fact that I made it through a thriller speaks volumes in and of itself, even though I was left frowning at the end of it, unsure of exactly what had happened.

30. The Audacity to Win, by David Plouffe

9/10 This is a remarkable book, particularly when you consider it was the author's first, and written fast. The quality of the writing was high enough to hold my interest, and it's packed full of insights - I did a lot of underlining! It was a great way to learn about Obama and the campaign, and really inspiring - I didn't know anything about American politics in 2008 and so I wasn't aware of the enormity of what was achieved. I have a better idea of that now, and of a campaign that was built on some great principles, valuing each member as part of the team and placing huge importance on grassroots support, innovating, always daring, always willing to step outside conventional wisdom. A campaign with the discipline to stick to its playbook, and I'm very glad it did. I loved the human moments, too - when David Plouffe goes home at the end, I could visualise that as a West Wing scene - though I was blown away by the sacrifices made by Mr Plouffe's wife, Olivia Morgan.

32. Helen of Pasadena, by Lian Dolan

8/10 The perfect travelling/can't-sleep-because-I'm-jetlagged-after-just-coming-back-from-Pasadena book. I'm calling it "high end commercial fiction" rather than chick lit, to assuage my intellectual guilt. I even cried  little bit. Fine, go ahead and judge me.

31. The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

7/10 This ties with The Finkler Question as the weirdest book I've read this year. There are some great observations and turns of phrase, but the religious element feels kind of false and exaggerated and a bit incoherent. Another one of those books that I started out thinking I would love and then frowned more and more as I turned each page.

32. The Whites of their Eyes: the Tea Party's revolution and the Battle over American history, by Jill Lepore

8/10 I read this for a book club meeting I went to while I was in Studio City, California. Well, actually, I only read the first third in time for the meeting, but I finished it later, and I liked it. It was thoughtfully structured, intelligently argued, thought provoking, informative, and provided plenty of "ha!" moments.

33. A Week in December, by Sebastian Faulks

6.5/10 I had high hopes for this book; I'd been saving it for months, to read at an appropriate point in the year. And maybe if it hadn't been so hyped I might have liked it more. Instead, my overwhelming emotion was "meh". There was a lot that was good about this book, but there was also a lot that was preachy, overly complex, and contrived (for example, it just happened that one particular character was reading the Koran, for no reason that was integral to the plot, so that he could comment on what was probably going on in the mind of another character, when their stories weren't interlinked.) I think it might have worked better as separate novels. Also, I know once you're published and famous you can do what you like, but I wanted to scribble helpful advice in the margins like "show don't tell!", "too much backstory up front!", "you are losing readers who don't know anything or want to know anything about the banking system"!

So there you have it - my reads of 2011. And since 33 is my age, I'm taking it to be a nice symbolic number. It was always the intention, of course. Cough. 

Saturday, 1 January 2011

2010: my five favourite books

1. Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.

Literary fiction at its best: I read it slowly, not because it didn't intrigue me and make me want to find out what happened - it did - but because I wanted to take in the beauty of the writing. He had me at the prologue, where even rubbish flying in the wind sounded like poetry.

Set against the backdrop of Philippe Petit's funambulist act in th 1970s, during which he walked across a wire between the newly built Twin Towers, it tells the story of a few interweaving lives across the spectrum of New York society. I can't recommend this highly enough.

2. The Song is You, by Arthur Phillips

Every once in while you stumble across a book that you hadn't heard of, and whose existence you then want to shout from the rooftops. This, for me, was one of those books. The characters were haunting, and it was so refreshing to find a love story that isn't boy-meets-girl-and-they-defeat-enemies-then-live-happily-ever-after. It was the perfect read for a person who has a tendency to fall in love with people at a distance, and for a writer whose novel is (hopefully) full of the same kind of angst.

This kind of book is exactly what I want to be known for - yes, it's romance, but there is nothing trite or easy about it, and the writing takes my breath away. He made the clicking of iPod wheels and the opening of emails into poetry. I want to write like this guy.

3. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaefer

I can't remember the last time I dreamed about a book and then woke up desperate to find out what happens next. I'm not normally one for jumping on bandwagons, but this book thoroughly deserves the acclaim it's received. The epistolary form is original, refreshing, and easy to read even when you're getting on and off tubes, and helps bring characters to life. The tone is light-hearted, generally, but that does not mean it shies away from more difficult aspects of life in and just after the War. I fell in love with this novel a few pages in, when the main character dumps her fiance after he removed her books from her shelves so he could put his sports awards there instead.

4. State by State - a Panoromic Portrait of America

This is a wonderful, wonderful introduction to a country whose diversity is brought to life by fifty different authors who, together, provide what is basically a road trip in book form. Some of the authors recall childhood memories, others talk about the geography, history of politics of their state, or the people who live there. There is a lot of beautiful writing here, too, and I found that it was a great place to start for discovering contemporary American authors, as well as their country itself.

5. The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama

It's not often that I pick up a book that is basically 100% policy. It's even less often that I am so inspired by it. Barack Obama writes clearly, eloquently, and convincingly. It's no coincidence that the heroine in my novel says, referring to this book, that he makes her heart sing. Mine too.

Also worthy of note are One Day, for its page-turner qualities, for Emma, the character I so identified with, and the originality of its structure; American Rust, for its elegant writing; Brooklyn, because you feel like you're right there with the heroine in her seasickness and homesickness and lovesickness, the Time Traveller's Wife, for doing romance well, and Plan B: What to do when God doesn't turn up the way you thought he would - no-nonsense, honest, helpful.

This year (with apologies to Jamie Cullum)

I have found myself humming a Jamie Cullum song for the last few days, with a few words changed. I'm hoping this can be the basis for a deep blog post on how this year is going to be different, but alas, I fear not.

This year
nothing's gonna change
I'm gonna read as many books
I'm gonna keep up with the news*
I'm still not really gonna cook
And I'll spend almost nothing on shoes

*If by news you mean the inner workings of American politics, not anything about the country I'm actually living in, or very much about the one in which I was born

I haven't done the whole "how 2010 was" deep thinking thing, mainly because, as far as I can tell, it was no different to 2009. Even the holidays I took were almost identical. I carried on working on my novel. I climbed one or two more rungs on the freelance journalism ladder. I still haven't met Bradley Whitford or Janel Moloney. I'm still watching the West Wing to an extent that may be considered unhealthy by some. I'm still a bit of a hermit, and still a little surprised at this. I'm still learning the oboe. I'm still having existential crises about how I really ought to have done more with my life by now. I'm still teaching languages. I'm still single. I'm still dreaming of DC. I'm still reading, reading, reading.

Some of those things are highly enjoyable. I'm not complaining, as such.

Where am I going with this? I'm not sure, and that's kind of the point. Part of me would like things to change this year, although since I don't like change much, I'm not even really sure about that. But I'd like to get to the end of this year and not think, as the Americans so eloquently put it, meh. Let's see...