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The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongue [Paperback]

Wendy Lesser

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Book Description

July 12 2005 1400033233 978-1400033232 Reprint
Fifteen outstanding writers answered editor Wendy Lesser’s call for original essays on the subject of language–the one they grew up with, and the English in which they write.Despite American assumptions about polite Chinese discourse, Amy Tan believes that there was nothing discreet about the Chinese language with which she grew up. Leonard Michaels spoke only Yiddish until he was five, and still found its traces in his English language writing. Belgian-born Luc Sante loved his French Tintin and his Sartre, but only in English could he find “words of one syllable” that evoke American bars and bus stops. And although Louis Begley writes novels in English and addresses family members in Polish, he still speaks French with his wife–the language of their courtship. As intimate as one’s dreams, as private as a secret identity, these essays examine and reveal the writers’ pride, pain, and pleasure in learning a new tongue, revisiting an old one, and reconciling the joys and frustrations of each.

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Review

"Intimate, entertaining and thoughtful. . . . It is impossible to do do justice to all of the outstanding essays in this volume." --San Francisco Chronicle

“Charming, moving and funny reflections on childhood, family, nationality, and ethnicity as well

as language. . . . Genuinely transporting” --The New York Sun

“Eloquently explores the links between childhood and language.” —Chicago Tribune

"Provides readers not just with a peak inside the heads of these dazzling writers, but a trip to each of their homelands, from Russia to Italy to Chile." --Condé Nast Traveler

“This delightful collection É vividly recounts the process that anyone who loves words goes through: the process of falling under the spell of language’s seemingly infinite potential.” --Publishers Weekly

“Intimate, entertaining and thoughtful É this volume provides fascinating insight into the way that grappling with language is a way people also grapple with life.” --San Francisco Chronicle

“This is a collection that should heighten anyone’s awareness of the potential and the limitation of the English language.” --San Jose Mercury News

“Ms. Lesser’s contemporary Conrads — writers who write in English though it’s not their first language — have delivered charming, moving and funny reflections on childhood, family, nationality, and ethnicity as well as language.” --New York Sun

“I laughed and cried over this collection of stories embracing the English language. {One of the 25 best books of 2004}.” --Seattle Times and Post- Intelligencer

“A rich and surprising book brimming with love of culture and respect of language.” --Tucson Citizen

“Powerful for their brevity É the richness and the range of the collection make this a valuable anthology.” --Kliatt (Massachusetts)

“This collection of essays is fascinating.” – Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times

From the Back Cover

"Intimate, entertaining and thoughtful. . . . It is impossible to do do justice to all of the outstanding essays in this volume." --San Francisco Chronicle

“Charming, moving and funny reflections on childhood, family, nationality, and ethnicity as well

as language. . . . Genuinely transporting” --The New York Sun

“Eloquently explores the links between childhood and language.” —Chicago Tribune

"Provides readers not just with a peak inside the heads of these dazzling writers, but a trip to each of their homelands, from Russia to Italy to Chile." --Condé Nast Traveler

“This delightful collection É vividly recounts the process that anyone who loves words goes through: the process of falling under the spell of language’s seemingly infinite potential.” --Publishers Weekly

“Intimate, entertaining and thoughtful É this volume provides fascinating insight into the way that grappling with language is a way people also grapple with life.” --San Francisco Chronicle

“This is a collection that should heighten anyone’s awareness of the potential and the limitation of the English language.” --San Jose Mercury News

“Ms. Lesser’s contemporary Conrads — writers who write in English though it’s not their first language — have delivered charming, moving and funny reflections on childhood, family, nationality, and ethnicity as well as language.” --New York Sun

“I laughed and cried over this collection of stories embracing the English language. {One of the 25 best books of 2004}.” --Seattle Times and Post- Intelligencer

“A rich and surprising book brimming with love of culture and respect of language.” --Tucson Citizen

“Powerful for their brevity É the richness and the range of the collection make this a valuable anthology.” --Kliatt (Massachusetts)

“This collection of essays is fascinating.” – Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars This anthology is as unique as it is interesting to read. Oct. 15 2005
By fdoamerica - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
All fifteen authors have one thing in common: they love words. All of them were drop-shipped, via their parent's fiat, to worlds where their mother tongue was no longer heard. These are the stories of how they lived, learned, spoke and eventual wrote English. Initially, their minds were full of ideas, but the words to express them were no longer understood outside of their family. The need to communicate burned inside of them and drove them to English, and maybe drove to the unencumbered freedom found in writing.

If you are looking for a work in the field of linguistics, keep looking, for this book is a `niche' book that gives one an unusual vista on the joys of words via quasi-autobiographies. This anthology is as unique as it is interesting to read. Strongly recommended
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Reading! Nov. 5 2005
By W. Harwood - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Wonderful collection of essays by first-rank writers on the transition from the native language to our American version of English. Starting of course with the example of Joseph Conrad they offer insights into their intial contact with English in their childhoods and how this shaped their perceptions of the US and ease their entry into our society. Since I have first hand experience with most of the languages and cultures described (living in Bangladesh, Poland, and Russia, Scottish grandmother), this rang true. Useful for linguists to see how their theories work, something I don't quite understand, but which they do as perceptive writers. The brief essays are well-crafted and easy to understand, much more accessible than their own writings may be or a sociological analysis of the transitions they outline.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Freshmen view on The Genius of Language Dec 1 2013
By Siu Hon Li - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Wendy Lesser gathered 15 writers reflecting on their mother tongue language. All 15 different languages comparing with English and writers’ auto- ethnography. A lot of foreign students in the United States can relate to these writers because we have come here to study and English is essential for us to communicate on a daily basis. All the authors have a hard time finding a connection with their natives because their English level has exceed their mother tongue.
I personally can related to this, I was born in Hong Kong, China. Having to live in Qatar for 6 years and now in Tampa, Florida. The difference in culture is a great lot. I can relate mostly to the chapter “Yes and No” by Amy Tan. It shows differences between Chinese and English in “Yes and No”. In Chinese saying yes to the last piece of food on the table is bad. No matter how much I will like to eat it I always have to ask if anyone wants it and insist on giving it to the other person. In American culture, we fight for the last chicken wing on the platter. “Chinese people evolved into a mild-mannered lot because the language only allowed them to hobble forth with minced words…” We Chinese don’t want another person to lose face so we need to make it look like we are humbly accepting something. When we receive a present we say thank you then afterwards we have to give compliments to that person or our parents will give us a big slap on the head.
A lot of cultural references, translations, similarities and difficulties adapting from one culture to another. We can see a lot are lost in translation, there are phrases and words which don’t have a similar or exact meaning in English. All writers who learned English after their mother tongue or other languages encounter these problems all the time. What native English speaker might see as an “easy task” comparing with ESL (English as Second Language) speakers is seen to be a challenging and almost impossible task.
These 15 authors explores the idea of “lost in translation”, flash back memories of each author, cultural tales and their observation of the English speaking cultures. They are all 15 different short stories. Starting off anywhere from the book is fine. There isn't really a chronological order for the chapters. Great for readers who are interested in literature and culture, ESL speakers and people who have lived in more than one country. Also good read for short story lovers, they might all be comparing English with their mother tongue but the ideas each author have is different.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We are what we speak Oct. 8 2012
By Simon Barrett - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Modestly squeezed within the neat format of an old-fashioned Penguin book, thin austerity-feel paper and all (I don't have the hardback, obviously!) these fifteen essays on life with two languages - arranged, quite simply, by language, from Bangla to the inevitable Yiddish - attain a uniformly (and improbably) high standard. All were specially commissioned, not often a good sign; how on earth did Lesser know to pick the contributors, were there rejects and how firm an editorial hand was required? What a roster! Even the Greek piece, not among the best IMHO, is immensely rich, with some great cross-purpose dialogue(p120), an American Crystal Palace (in Astoria, Queens!), some Canadian local colour and some choice Greek swear-words. Louis Begley (of the stunning Warlime Lies) also diappoints, and Ariel Dorfman was altogether too tricksy, but it was an unexpected pleasure to come across John Campbell, whose back-page JC column is the main reason for reading the TLS, in this company, while Gary Shteyngart's winning piece sent me scurrying straight to my bookshelves. Wendy, sit down; I think I love you

Neither Turkish nor Arabic (nor Hebrew, come to that) make the cut. For some future edition the Turkish-American Murat Nemet-Nejat might be worth a punt; in his eccentric Questions of Accent (Exquisite Corpse 43) he says things like 'Zukovsky, a foreigner, teaches Creeley, the Puritan, English as a foreign language, a structure of power Creeley does not completely own' and seeks to show that since American English is mongrel no American poet 'is writing in his or her mother tongue'(!) but his more personal musings might be evocative
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Language is more that just the words Dec 1 2013
By Alina Sadritdinova - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I am Uzbek, Russian and a little bit Ukrainian. Therefore English is far from being my first language. I love how each of the writers in this book made me relate in many of the situations that they went through as the non-English speakers. Being a foreigner may have lots of difficulties. And of them is learning about a different culture, customs and of course trying to speak, read and write in other language. The book "The Genius of Language" is both intellectual and pleasurable to read. Wend Lesser, the author of this work, brought together such a brilliant collection or writers that let us as their readers, to enter some of the private and intimate aspects of their lives. It is like a global tour of not just the language people are speaking but also the deepest thoughts and anxieties of their being.
Each of the essay is well written although a little challenging for a non-native speakers with an insufficient experience of reading in a different language. One of the other greatest things about this book is that it's brimming with respect for language and it's culture. All authors basically open up to us as their audience and remind how unlimited the beauty of language can be.

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