Compelling Conversations: Questions & Quotations On Timeless Topics, by Eric H. Roth and Toni Aberson
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by the author in exchange for an honest review.]
As it happens, the lead author of this work was once a college professor of mine who tried to teach me how to write less densely complicated sentences in a classroom full of engineering students who were for the most part also ESL students. While I’m not sure Mr. Roth was successful at encouraging me to craft less wordy sentences with fewer than three subordinate clauses on a regular basis, he did manage to create in Compelling Conversations a work that ought to provide useful instruction to advanced foreign language speakers who want to be able to engage in intelligent and witty conversations. As someone who enjoys witty and intelligent conversations, I found this book full of thought provoking questions for myself, and I’m sure it would be a worthy challenge for many who speak English as a first language.
This particular book, about 150 pages in length (and the first of three volumes I will be reviewing by the author, all of them about the same related subject of teaching conversational English to immigrants through the use of questions and quotations to spur thought and response), is organized into four parts and 45 chapters. The chapters form a very broad examination of many aspects of life, including some controversial or personal areas of life (politics, crime & punishment, disagreement, family, music, movies, books, travel, food, education, work, life in California, heroes, gambling, stress, beauty, and the like) in four sections: your life, free time, modern times, and civic life. The various topics of chapters themselves are chosen to reflect a life that is balanced and devoted not only to private pleasure but also to civic involvement.
Each of the chapters, moreover, is divided into various sections, including questions, proverbs culled from a diverse array of sources ranging from the Talmud to East Asia, more questions to spur even more conversation, and quotations that are designed to humor and to provoke thoughtful debate and discussion. The pages are full of copious wide margins for notes, as well as additional sidebar quotations and comments and tables (like genres of movies, for example). The author appears to share my love of having conversations that are full of witty and personal questions designed to probe deeper and to build a certain level of trust and both intellectual understanding and emotional intimacy between the people involved in the conversation. This is a daring choice, and it represents an apparent desire by the authors to help the readers and students who use these books to become accepted within American society as thoughtful citizens or at least witty resident aliens. This is a noble and a worthy goal, if not a surprising one from the son of a Jewish immigrant and someone who he considers like a “mom” to him.
As a student of foreign languages myself , and as someone who has been a friend as well as teacher of my fair share of ESL students (the author manages to thoughtfully discuss the shades of difference between different types of foreign English learners in the introduction), this is the sort of book I would reserve for those who were fairly advanced English speakers already. For example, those former students of mine who translated my somewhat challenging sermons  into Thai and Burmese could have used this particular book as a better way of understanding my intensely inquisitive way of thinking and conversing, which tends to spur me into analysis as well as research. Those who read this particular book well will be well-equipped to think deeply and speak colorfully about a wide variety of subjects, which ought to be the goal of both teachers and students of English as a second language. In helping with that goal, this book does excellent work, and I look forward to reading and reviewing the other two books by these authors on the subject.
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