Art of summary without distortion
Patrick Bailey admires four short and pithy resumes of different lands for key stage 3. It is difficult if not impossible to encapsulate the most significant features of a nation's geography, history and culture into 48 pages of text and illustrations; or for that matter into an equivalent series of short lessons, which is what teachers constantly have to attempt.
These four books, from a series of 14, are useful and up-to-date essays in the art of summary without distortion. They offer concise and sometimes thought-provoking resumes of vast amounts of information and they succeed in conveying some idea of what it means to be French, or German, or Russian or Japanese in 1995. They are based on first-hand experience, of clearly varied depth.
Teachers of key stage 3 geography will find them useful enlargements of the standard texts. Language teachers will find them useful background reading for their classes; so will those who arrange teacher and pupil exchanges with the four countries.
The books are constructed to a standard format, with variations appropriate to each country. Each begins with a summary of basic locational, topographical and demographic facts and a simple map. Then follow sections on history, mainly recent; rural life and farming; industry and towns; government and elementary politics; and daily life. Finally there is a glossary of terms, suggestions for further reading and an index.
Page layout is somewhat strange because of the large type-face, which is almost a waste of space. The language level is adult. Illustrations are large and clear and include some good teaching pictures. A good feature is the inclusion of quotations which help to bring the atmosphere of each country to life.
Mick Dunford's France is very good indeed. Information and ideas of many kinds are woven together to produce a fascinating study of Frenchness. Besides giving an account of the country's basic geography, the book includes sections on France's withdrawal from colonialism (with insufficient credit to de Gaulle) and a well crafted account of the Paris conurbation, that dominates so many aspects of French life, work and culture.
In writing Germany, Patrick Burke faced the problem of how to deal with the National Socialist era. His treatment is balanced and restrained, perhaps too restrained for a system which laid most of Europe waste and killed millions of people, including Germans. There is no swastika in any illustration. Accounts of recent political developments in Germany, with the fall of the Soviet-backed GDR and the symbolic removal of the Berlin wall occupy a dominant position in the book as they do in German thought. Sections on modern industry and the "guest worker problem" are good.
Russia presented chronic problems of information-getting in the Soviet era because of secrecy and it still does because of sheer confusion. David Cummings's Russia is essentially an impression of the country in post-Soviet transition, backed up with explanations and valuable comments. Its colour photographs make Russia look much more attractive and comfortable than it is.
With Japan, Lesley Downer faced the problem of what to say about Japanese history since the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853, culminating in the Second World War, with all its disasters. She manages to do this remarkably well in four pages and three illustrations.
It is incorrect, however, to say that Tokyo was reduced to ashes and the skeletons of ruined buildings by American air raids. In fact, central Tokyo was almost undamaged, being deliberately reserved as accommodation for the occupying forces.
The main parts of the book describe the sheer strength and resilience of post-war Japan, the rise of its industries so carefully selected for development, its educational and social systems and the customs of its unique people. For those who can locate a copy, Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1947) will add illumination to the reading list.