The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

August 24, 2007

Book review: Series offers guide to international travel

‘Culture Smart’

We have recently added about 40 titles from the “Culture Smart” series. These are small guides to customs and etiquette in countries around the world designed to help travelers, whether for business or pleasure, to get the most out of their trip.

Unlike most travel books, these are not sightseeing guides and give only a few pages of information on places to go and things to see. The books are generally organized into chapters on “Land and People” (geography, history, language, politics, etc.), “Values and Attitudes” (gender roles, attitudes toward foreigners, social mores, religious tolerance, etc.), “Customs and Traditions,” “At Home” (lifestyles, education, acceptable conduct), “Socializing” (dining out, entertaining), “Time Out” (the sightseeing bits), “Food and Drink,” “Business Briefing” (negotiating, business customs), and “Communicating.”

The books are packed with interesting information and tidbits. For example, it is customary in many Swedish homes to remove your shoes when you enter, so make sure you don’t have holes in your socks if you visit there. Poles tend to say “yes” to avoid confrontation, so maybe the answer is really “no.” Also in Poland, even numbers of flowers are reserved for funerals, so if you take a hostess a gift, make sure it’s an odd number (and not chrysanthemums, which are also funeral flowers!)

Jaywalking is much frowned upon in Germany, and don’t casually use “We should do lunch” or similar phrases. Germans take such words seriously, and will be quite offended if you don’t follow up. There’s a handy guide to the various types of beers widely drunk in Germany, too. In China, leave the room to blow your nose, and bare feet are frowned upon. If you wear sandals in China, wear socks with them to avoid offending people. Avoid stretching or yawning in public in Brazil, and definitely don’t make the “OK” sign with the thumb and forefinger making a circle. That’s an obscene gesture there. If you’re planning a trip, or are just curious about the manners and mores in different countries, I recommend these books to you.

‘American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds’

By James Maguire

“American Bee” is mostly about the Scripps bee, but also contains a history of spelling bees in general and a section on English spelling, and why it’s so weird.

The weirdness is pointed out in the fact that English is the only language that seems to have spelling contests. Most languages are so tightly controlled that if you are fluent and hear a word, you know how to spell it, or if you see a word, you know how to pronounce it. None of this “gh” is silent, or an “f” sound, or maybe a “g” sound, and so on. At any rate, I was drawn to this book owing to my annual Memorial Day week viewing of the National Spelling Bee.

I ran across it accidentally some years ago (it’s been broadcast on ESPN since 1994) and stopped merely to note how stupid it is to televise a spelling bee. Boy, what could be duller? Well, that was the same reaction I initially had to curling, and now I keep my eyes peeled for any broadcast of that peculiar sport. So, it may say more about me than it says about the fascination of spelling bees, but I was hooked.

Most of the book does, in fact, focus on the National Bee, held since 1925, except for a three-year hiatus during World War II. Initially sponsored by the Louisville Courier, since 1941 it’s been in the capable hands of the Scripps publishing organization.

The majority of the book covers the leading contenders for 2004 and the run-up to the 2005 championship. For anyone who has watched the bee and wondered about some of the competitors (or the rules and history of the bee), this makes for some interesting reading. For word lovers in general, it’s also likely to be of interest. Ah, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.

Linda Cannon is the collection development librarian at Joplin Public Library.