a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Surveying genius: “Charles Dickens A Life” by Claire Tomalin

Posted on the January 26th, 2013

Cover of “Charles Dickens A Life” by Claire Tomalin (Penguin Books)

Just finished reading Claire Tomalin‘s lengthy biography “Charles Dickens A Life” (2011). Much recommended for anyone interested in learning more about the work, ideas, passions and human frailties of the great English novelist.

I particularly appreciated the hyper-abundance of details Tomalin lays out about the personal, professional and creative aspects of Dickens’ life. This mass of details of events great and small allows the reader to form his or her own view of Dickens, as well as receiving the particular perspective offered by the biographer.

From 417 pages, plus almost 100 more of Notes and extras, a vivid portrait-photograph emerges. It reveals a blazingly unique human being, passionate, compassionate, often generous and, at times, less than saintly in his relationships.

Click on the video screenshot below to see a short interview with Tomalin about the book.


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Books I read: “In Defence of Dogs” (John Bradshaw)

Posted on the March 10th, 2012

Our dog Amica


Why did I choose this book?

Although I love our dog in a way that keeps her front and center of my world much of the time, I knew very little about her world — the world as seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and “felt” by dogs. So a book written by a biologist offering to share with ordinary dog owners a bundle of recent scientific information and insight about that world was a must-read.

One backcover blurb:

Every dog lover, dog owner or prospective dog buyer should read this book. It will change how you feel about dogs and, likely enough, how you treat them too … sparkles with explanations of canine behaviour … Bradshaw denies that his book is a manual, but you’ll find more advice on training here than in most guides.” (James McConnachie, Sunday Times)

Did I learn what I hoped to learn?

Eleven years ago, come September, Amica came into our lives. Our neighbor’s little boy brought her to us after he found her dumped into the community trash bins down the road from our house. Not much bigger than a cereal bowl, with jetblack glossy fur and so sad dark brown eyes, she was a study in sweet and irresistible cuteness.

Initially terrified of everyone, when approached Amica squealed and scrambled away to hide under the hedge. Given that she was still making nursing movements with her mouth, I judged her to be no more than five weeks old. This could account for the fear, I knew, as that is much too early for a puppy to be separated from its mother. But the brutal mystery of how she came to end up thrown into a garbage bin no doubt also played a key role in the origin of her hysteria.

With time, gentle care and much affection, we slowly gained Amica’s trust. In maturity she displayed the appearance, behavior and intelligence of a herding dog. The usual comments we hear from those encountering her here in Italy are “E’ un Belga?” (Is she a Belgian Shepherd?) or — often from children — “Un lupo!“(A wolf!). The characteristically lowered head and John Wayne style sidle account for the latter, I think.

Amica’s fears, though ever there, have subsided. And, thankfully, she doesn’t exhibit cowering behavior. At any moment, though, she appears to expect to be the object of disapproval and of being abandoned. No amount of reassurance, it seems, will ever put back together what was shattered in those early formative weeks of her life.

But one of Amica’s great fears never wanes. In fact, over time it has deepened. It’s her dread of loud noises, especially the sound of fireworks and thunderstorms. Long before we hear the thunderclap, with her greater hearing, she begins to tremble. Scurrying from one room of the house to another, she searches for any refuge. Our efforts to calm her or comfort her fail. She continues to hyperventilate and the shaking intensifies.

All this to say, that while there was much I was hoping to learn from John Bradshaw’s “In Defence of Dogs,” what most drew me was the possibility of gaining some insight into Amica’s suffering, the mystery of its intransigence and, perhaps, some advice on how to ease it a bit if possible.

Bradshaw doesn’t disappoint. A primary purpose in writing the book, he stresses, was to help owners help their dogs in the most informed way possible.

In particular, I gained understanding about Amica’s fear of noises. And while it was disappointing to find that there’s little we can do to relieve her distress, I learned that many dogs suffer this problem. And at least I know now how to avoid making it worse. (Important note: Bradshaw does describe a training for young dogs that can prevent the development of this fear.)

An excerpt:

Up to half the dogs in Britain react fearfully to fireworks, gunfire and so on. Although some dogs probably habituate quickly to loud noises… many instead become sensitized. It is perfectly natural for a dog to be fearful of a loud noise that happens without warning and with no identifiable source or cause. Yet this very unpredictability is what makes it difficult for the dog to know how to react, and usually whatever it does will be only partly effective; hiding behind the sofa may provide a feeling of protection, but does not serve to reduce the volume of the next bang very much…

Dogs limited capacity for emotional self-control can therefore have real consequences for their welfare. Dogs cannot ‘pull themselves together”. Their instincts tell them to be frightened of sudden, novel events, and when they find such events incomprehensible… they are not capable of dismissing the event as irrelevant. On the contrary, some dogs become more and more frightened every time.

Notwithstanding my own narrow focus in scouring the book for help with Amica’s fears, Bradshaw provides a comprehensive overview of all things dog. And his core message is revolutionary. If we truly care about our dogs, he admonishes, we must change the way we understand and direct the care of them.

Bradshaw discusses in depth the recent studies that have led to a definitive “discrediting of the wolf-pack idea” as a model for dog behavior. Specifically, this is the longheld, still widespread belief that our dogs are all secretly plotting to become the Saddam Husseins of their households, always furtively seeking a chance to dominate us.

On the contrary, new evidence now proves, writes Bradshaw, that dogs are cooperative by nature and family-oriented. They respond best, therefore, when treated lovingly and with rewards for good behavior, rather than with punishment, in particular violent punishment.

There is so much information in this book that any caring dog owner will be engaged by the content. And, it seems to me, also grateful. Depending on your attention span, you can devour every word of the 288 pages, or skip through various chapters to extract only what you feel you need.

I learned not only what I hoped to learn from this book, but much more.

Favorite quote from the book:

…when it comes to the simpler self-conscious emotions, such as jealousy, can we be sure that dogs possess only those that we humans have, and can put a name to? While I am reasonably confident that dogs do not feel guilt… it does not necessarily follow that their emotional lives are any less rich than ours, just different. For instance, since they are such social animals, perhaps they compensate for their less sophisticated cognitive abilities by having more fine-grained emotions? If the Inuit can have fifteen words for snow, maybe dogs can experience fifteen kinds of love.

Who wrote this book?

John Bradshaw is a biologist. He founded and directs the Anthrozoology Institute, at the University of Bristol (England). He has studied domestic dogs and their behavior for over twenty-five years.

A word about the title:

Depending on where you are, Bradshaw’s book has different titles. In the US, it’s “Dog-Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet” (link here). In the UK, it’s “In Defence of Dogs: Why Dogs Need Our Understanding” (link here). And in Italy, it’s La naturale superiorità del cane sull’uomo (link qui).

Note: For Speck ‘N U fans, I did a cartoon related to Bradshaw’s book… link here.


My Q&A with author John Bradshaw

March 1, 2012


Q:  Dog owners in modern societies reportedly are spending more on clothes for their dogs to wear, especially in cold or rainy weather. Do dogs need such cold weather wear, or is this primarily an example of what you describe as “anthropomorphism” by which people ascribe human characteristics to their dogs?

A:  While thick-coated, cold-adapted dogs like Huskies will happily fall asleep on the snow, small breeds with short coats can become chilled very quickly and will benefit from a cold-weather coat, especially if their normal environment is a centrally-heated apartment.  Provided the coat is comfortable, it doesn’t seem to matter much to the dog what it looks like, since dogs are probably incapable of feeling “embarrassed”.  Therefore in general, dressing dogs up is usually a harmless expression of anthropomorphism.  More serious for the dog is the anthropomorphic error that they are capable of feeling “guilty”, and therefore will understand why they’re being punished for a misdemeanour committed a few minutes or hours previously.

Q:  Some dog owners insist that it’s best to feed a dog only once a  day and others say it’s better (kinder, perhaps), instead, to feed a dog twice daily. What is your opinion?

A:  Dogs are carnivores, and as such they are adapted to eating rather infrequent, large meals, as would happen when a wolf pack made a “kill”.  One meal a day is a reasonable approximation to this, and there’s no evidence that a healthy dog will be happier if the same amount of food is split into two or more meals each day.

Q:  In the preface to your book, you wrote this: “Having studied the behaviour of dogs for twenty years… I felt it was time that someone stood up for dogdom…”  It would be interesting to know if there was a particular event or moment or situation that you remember serving as a catalyst in your decision to do this.

A:  Many years ago I owned a Labrador, Bruno, who suffered terribly from separation anxiety, and this inspired me to start a research programme into this disorder that ran for over a decade and made many advances in its diagnosis, prediction and treatment.  Yet despite everything we had discovered, we seemed to have made little difference to the average owner’s appreciation of just how important (and straightforward) it is to prevent their dog from developing separation anxiety.  At the same time, I realised that owners also knew very little about any of the new canine science that was emerging from other universities around the world.  I guessed that many would actually enjoy finding out about this, and that it might also help them to appreciate their dogs better, hence I set about writing the book.


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SPECK ‘N U: 23 (“In Defence of Dogs” – John Bradshaw)

Posted on the March 1st, 2012
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Books I read: “Somebody Else’s Century…” (Patrick Smith)

Posted on the February 20th, 2012

“Somebody Else’s Century/East and West in a Post-Western World” by Patrick Smith (2010)


Why did I choose this book?

I wanted to learn more about Asia, something beyond the usual news articles and television programs that only focus on politics and financial news. From such narrow reporting, it isn’t possible to have more than a vague idea about the countries and people and cultures in Asia.

I didn’t even know precisely which countries are East and why. I wanted to learn more about the distinctions between the Japanese, Chinese and Korean people.

And a blurb on the back cover of the book also sparked interest:

This thoughtful and highly original meditation on the future of Asian societies should be required reading for anyone interested in where our planet is heading. (Chalmers Johnson)

Finally, it was the credibility of the author. Patrick Smith is a journalist who has been a foreign correspondent in Asia since 1981.

Did I learn what I hoped to learn?

Yes, and much much more. The depth and detail of reporting in this book transformed my views of Asia. An unexpected reaction was the anger I felt that our traditional news media does not offer such comprehensive reporting in its daily coverage.  Smith brilliantly demonstrates what a journalist can do if given the chance.

Choosing a perspective from the inside out, Smith writes about the complex reasons a defeated and humiliated Japan (post-World War II) embraced and imitated the priorities and culture of those who conquered it. He traces the historical relationship between China and Japan. He discusses the attitudes of the people in each toward each other. And Smith analyzes a crucial aspect of India and its people that makes the country and culture markedly different from China and Japan.

Most interestingly, he reviews the arbitrary line that divides East from West, questioning exactly what it is and whether it has any validity. Excerpt:

Herodotus concluded that the business of East and West was ‘imaginary.’ The line he referred to was drawn by humans. For a long time we have simply lost track of this. We have erred in thinking the divide is eternal — ever there, ever to be there, somehow (and somewhere) etched into the earth. Now we enter a time when we can see from another perspective and see the truth of things and of ourselves.

Favorite quote from the book:

“The past is made of every moment up to the one we live in, the moment we know as ‘now.’ Each speck of our past is part of what makes us who we are… We honor tradition only when we add to it. The rest is mere convention, unalive.”

Who wrote this book?

Patrick Smith is an American journalist who has written for major publications including the International Herald Tribune, The New Yorker, The Nation, Business Week, and The Economist.  He is also the author of the award-winning book, “The Nippon Challenge and Japan: A Reinterpretation.”


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What do we mean by language? (Madalena Cruz-Ferreira and Sunita Anne Abraham)

Posted on the September 6th, 2011


If someone asked you, “Do you know what the pro in pronoun stands for?” would you know the answer?

Or, perhaps, “What is the most irregular verb in English?”

Or maybe, “Do you know why (with exceptions, of course) we can add er or est to some adjectives for purposes of comparison but we must use more or most with others. As in:

largest country
most populous country

The answers are nestled in “The Language of Language” (2011), a compact work by two linguistics scholars, Madalena Cruz Ferreira and Sunita Anne Abraham. The origin of the book, according to the preface, was a series of lectures by Cruz-Ferreira to university undergrads.

But as the book assumes no familiarity with linguistics, it’s also an illuminating read for language enthusiasts or the randomly curious. Some samplings: What are the nuts and bolts of how language itself – any language, not just English – is built and developed by its expert caretakers, the professional linguists, and by users themselves? Why do some languages live and others die? What distinguishes one language from another?

The three questions I posed in the opening above offer more examples of the many explored in the book. What is especially fun — works great as a word game — are the dozens of boxed questions running through the chapters. Some are riddles:

The owner of a restaurant, fed up with regular customers asking for meals on credit, one day put up this sign:

Free meals tomorrow only

Can you explain why his customers first became all excited and then very disappointed?

Here’s another:

Can you explain the language play in this dialogue?

Speaker A: Time flies!

Speaker B: I can’t, they fly too fast!

Hint: the play has to do with nouns and verbs.

For those tired of the usual car travel games with restless children, these boxed riddles offer a wonderful and painlessly-instructive alternative.

The most enjoyable features of the book, though, for me are the “Food for thought” sections at the end of each chapter. Here the authors include famous, scholarly and funny quotes about language, and poems on wordplay and pronunciation quandaries.


“We sometimes take English for granted
But if we examine its paradoxes we find that
Quicksand takes you down slowly
Boxing rings are square
And a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

If writers write, how come fingers don’t fing?
If the plural of tooth is teeth
Shouldn’t the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?
If the teacher taught,
Why didn’t the preacher praught?”

But lest I mislead by highlighting  the book’s entertaining content, it’s important to emphasize that “The Language of Language” is a substantive scholarly work. In the authors’ own words from the Preface:

Our main purpose in this book is to explore the nature of language, both as a social phenomenon and a human cognitive ability. Our goal is to encourage informed thinking about issues relating to language structure and use, by discussing as broad a sample as possible, in a book of this size, of the kinds of activities that linguists busy themselves with.

Finally, for those who are still stumped by the questions at the top of this post, I offer the answers to the first two, as provided by Cruz-Ferreira and Abraham: The pro in pronoun stands for proxy (as in substitute). And the most irregular verb in English is to be – it can appear in eight different forms: “am, are, is, was, were, being, been and be itself!”

But for question three, I opt to refer you to the book. The first reason being that the answer is rather complex and lengthy (hint – see page 58). And the second reason being that I highly recommend that language lovers and parents of young children buy this book (linguists have to eat too, you know).

Cybershoppers can find the book here.

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The superrich and robbery in plain sight (“Winner-Take-All Politics”)

Posted on the May 25th, 2011

A Book Review

That the superrich across the globe are in the process of stealing most of the world’s wealth and resources from the rest of us is by now common knowledge among those who aren’t persisting in turning a blind eye. That superrich defined is the top 1 percent approximately (or 0.01 percent more accurately).

But for those who still don’t know about this mindboggling raid on the human planet and its population, I hope you will take a look at two recent sources of information that describe the process chapter and verse.

The first, thoroughly documented and alarming, is the book “Winner-Take-All Politics” – the authors are two political science professors in American universities (Yale and UC Berkeley), Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson.

As an example of what they are writing about, here’s a 1954 quote they cite from President Dwight Eisenhower (Republican):

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt…, a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

Unfortunately, as Hacker and Pierson demonstrate over and over in their book, Eisenhower was wrong about his central point. One of the two US major political parties (and the other one also to a huge extent) is persisting in doing just what he described as impossible, and that party is very much still part of political history in the making.

A second source of information about the superrich and their grand theft of all there is to have is a recent article in the UK’s Guardian“Anxiety keeps the super-rich safe from middle-class rage” by Peter Wilby (May 18, 2011).


That is the most important point about what has happened to incomes in Britain and America during the neoliberal era: the very rich are soaring ahead, leaving behind not only manual workers – now a diminishing minority – but also the middle-class masses, including doctors, teachers, academics, solicitors, architects, Whitehall civil servants and, indeed, many CEOs who don’t run FTSE 100 companies, to say nothing of the marketing, purchasing, personnel, sales and production executives below them.

Neither Hacker and Pierson in their book nor Wilby in his Guardian article play favorites with political labels. The superrich driving this ruthless and barbaric raid on the planet and their fellow human beings evidently don’t care whether you call yourself a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Socialist, Communist, Anarchist or general apolitical layabout. To paraphrase the pop song, they just want your money, honey, they don’t need your love.

Again, I highly recommend reading these two exposès. What you choose to do once you are aware of the real state of affairs is, of course, your choice. But this is not the time to stand silently by on the sidelines.


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