12/05/2012

The Education of Hyman Kaplan (by Leonard Q Ross)

Leonard Q Ross - or Leo Rosten - was a Polish-American Jew born near the beginning of the 20th century. I first read his three humorous books, which my parents had on their shelves, when I was in my teens.  I must have re-read a couple of times while still at home, and then once again about fifteen years ago.

So I was delighted when I discovered that 'The Education of Hyman Kaplan' (or H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n, as he calls himself) had been reprinted recently and was available at the Book Depository. This book is about a (fictional) adult education class for foreigners wanting to learn English, set in the US in 1937.

The long-suffering and idealistic Mr Parkhill has a passion for teaching, and loves seeing his students (such as the shy Miss Mitnick) picking up the language well. He worries about the sighs and troubles of Mrs Moskowitz... but most of all is bewildered  - and sometimes amused - by the larger-than-life Mr Hyman Kaplan, who sits in the front row with a beaming smile, and never misses a class.

While other students are nervous, reluctant to read their assignments or write on the board, Mr Kaplan always rises to the occasion with great aplomb.  He is outgoing, confident - and usually wrong. However his mistakes are not just related to his own language, and are certainly not due to being unintelligent. Instead, he has his own kind of logic which he applies to English.. only to be amazed when it doesn't work.  Some of the students like him, others find him annoying... and Mr Parkhill really doesn't know what to do with him.

This book was written in the days before anyone thought of political correctness. I can imagine that some people might find this offensive; it pokes fun not just at the English language, but at the foibles of those attempting to learn it.  It's full of cultural stereotypes. But it's not meant to be offensive or demeaning. Mr Kaplan is a generous, hard-working man.  Moreover, the book is intended as a light-hearted romp, with some very amusing sections.

My only slight disappointment is that I found that I could remember clearly a lot of the funniest parts of the book. That meant that it didn't seem quite so hilarious as it did the first time I read it.. although I still chuckled a few times.

Recommended for anyone who doesn't mind cultural caricatures and stereotypes.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 12th May 2012

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