Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
By Helen Simonsen

I had no business taking as long as I did to finish this novel and this novel had no business being as good as it ended up being.

First, I'm sorry for the extended time lapse between books. I may have been excused had it been a 1000 page opus or something by Thomas Pynchon but alas, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a solidly average 360 pages and not terribly difficult to understand. I'd like to say I've been busy but the fact is, July and August are my slowest months at work and I've had heaps of time to read. I felt like I was reading my usual amount but it never seemed as if I was getting anywhere in this book.

Anyway, I'm done now, so let's see what's what.

Part of the blame for my slow read is that I initially despised this book. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is, loosely, the story of a retired British major named (you guessed it!) Pettigrew. Major Pettigrew is a widower who lives modestly in a seaside English village in Sussex. He is a stereotype of the colonial variety. Stiff upper lip, rigid spine and calculated remarks ("Good show, old chap! Hup, hup!"). He dislikes much of modern society and diminutives. The rest of the characters in the novel (Major Pettigrew's fellow villagers) didn't seem any less simplified. Characters from a bygone age of honor, title and Empire. Characters with ridiculously outdated notions propriety as they mindlessly live out their orderly lives in bigoted conceit.

Superimposed over the village is a community of modern British citizens of Pakistani descent and more recent immigrant arrivals from the subcontinent (all the same to the English-born villagers, of course). These two communities have developed a symbiotic working relationship (a mutual respect for distance) in town but don't much mix. Despite their differences, the two communities have much in common but interaction between the two communities remains nothing more than an updated version of the colonial system in British India (where Major Pettigrew's father served). The relationship is understood... that is until Major Pettigrew falls for the lovely Mrs. Jasmina Ali, owner of a downtown shop.

As I read, it was precisely the things I disliked about the book, the oversimplified characters, the impossibly elitist antagonists, the over-the-top snobbishness and the sheer pretentiousness of it all that finally sucked me in. Once I found my bearings in this novel and realized that Helen Simonsen was taking the Major about as seriously as I was, I began to fall for him. It was a riot reading about how ultra-traditional colonial era English townspeople would handle the complex problems of modern society, specifically the risks undertaken by individuals in the face of tradition and family.

What's interesting is the way in which Simonsen compares the fierce traditional values of a Muslim family with those of a traditional English family. Despite the fact that we tend to identify one culture as free and democratic and the other as oppressive, at their hearts both traditions have the ability to stifle and suppress. There is a correct way in which to deal with specific situations and rarely does one stray from these social expectations.

What's more, once I got suckered into these characters I found myself sympathizing with them more often than not. Turns out these crown and country folk (well, the Major in particular) have a lot to say and much of it makes a lot of sense. I especially enjoyed the relationship between the Major and his hopelessly modern son Roger (another juxtaposition of culture: generational) who seems to think he knows exactly what is good for his elderly father. I particularly love the way in which Simonsen sets up her characters for their comeuppance. If you are going to write stereotype, make sure they are treated as such.

At its heart, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a wonderful comedy of manners in the style of P.G. Wodehouse and Noel Coward. There are enough slapstick antics throughout to appease Oscar Wilde (or Basil Faulty) himself. Although the tone finds a more serious track in the final third of the novel where the realities of the dysfunctional Muslim family infiltrate the narrative with more force, Simonsen never loses sight of her comedic objectives and maintains enough humor and dry wit to counterbalance the shifting tone. It's the literary equivalent of walking the edge of the chalk cliffs of Sussex. In lesser hands I fear that the story might have slipped and lost its footing.

As it turns out Ms. Simonsen has as much stiff upper lip as the Major.

Good show!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Gathering Darkness

Gathering Darkness
By Chris Allinotte

(Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this book by the author who also happens to be an old university buddy).

It seems to me that Chris Allinotte is writing in the wrong era.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that Mr. Allinotte will be unsuccessful in our own age, but his stories, collected in anthology form, are reminiscent of the sort that populated the golden age of science fiction and horror magazines. One can picture a wide eyed little boy reading these tales under the covers of his bed with a flashlight circa 1948. In fact most, if not all of Allinotte's stories would look right at home in magazines such as Amazing Stories! or Weird Tales. While I'm certain that comparable magazine exist today in the form of e-zines (I'm positive in fact, since a lot of Allinotte's work has been published in such places)

In fact, it's not too difficult to trace the inspiration for Allinotte's anthology of 28 spooky, gory and, often hilarious tales back to the sort of campfire stories we used to tell each other around the campfire when we were kids. Many of the tales in this book reminded me so much of those found a little book I have loved and lost more time than I can count: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. So much so, that I kept turning the page, hoping to see one of Stephen Gammell's highly disturbing illustrations (I didn't, but it would have been cool).

From there I can only guess that, like me, Allinotte grew up on a solid diet of campy 70s and 80s horror and slasher films. Anything from Sleepaway Camp, Evil Dead II and Return of the Living Dead (or any other combination of low-budget horror goodness). While my tastes tended to gravitate toward the work of George Romero and Lucio Fulci, Allinotte seems to have taken a wider approach to horror. Inspiration ranging from Stephen King to Sam Raimi is evidenced in his work which has made for a more eclectic and diversified collection. Within this collection there are aliens, monsters, giant insects, ghosts, zombies, Satan, and any number of other demonic concoctions. It's a veritable cornucopia of horror traditions.

As with any collection of short horror stories (and like the horror magazines of the 1950s and 60s), Gathering Darkness is hit and miss. Given the length of some the stories, it doesn't much matter because if a mutant killer built by the military isn't your thing, the next story isn't far away. Some of the highlights for me included "Postage Due, Pandora", a story about a mysterious box that houses all sorts of madness and "The Cabin Sleeps", a traditional-style urban legend that would be perfect for a recitation around a campfire.

What I liked most about this collection is Allinotte's playful style. What a lot of horror writers of the Creepshow variety tend to forget is that horror in this style doesn't work well without comedy. Gathering Darkness exudes a playful cheekiness that dares the readers to simultaneously gasp in disgust and squeal in delight. The sort of of campiness that has been lost on the current generation of horror writers (though, admittedly, I don't read as much horror as I used to, so I might be entirely wrong with that assumption).

Throughout the collection the characters and setting remain of the two-dimensional variety that all horror junkies understand. There's no sense in broad characterization and setting. It's a waste of time. Why bother when it's a good bet that character will be eaten by a puss oozing blob of goo in three pages. Keep to the essentials and keep the pace lively. The readers can for the blood and Allinotte delivers quickly and efficiently.

I also liked the short interludes between stories. The collection has several centerpiece stories peppered with short shots that are often tongue-in-cheek shots at the horror genre as a whole. I thought these brief interludes added to the collection by breaking it up and jolting the reader away from traditional pacing.

While I enjoyed the collection as a whole I did have a few reservations. Some of the stories do fall off the rails a bit. One in particular, "Devil's Night", tries to throw every possible horror convention at the reader in the span of a few dozen pages and left me a little perplexed as to what had happened. But that, I suppose, is the plight of the horror writer. Throw your ideas at the wall and see what sticks.

Another thing that I felt was missing (and perhaps this is my own problem rather than the author's) was the absence of that one scare that keeps me awake at night. One story, "Kittens for Sale" came very close (and I will probably carry that particular story around for a while) and "Tempting Morsels" did remind me of the very real scare I suffered the first time I read Stephen King's short story "The Jaunt." But the scare never did occur, but I was ever hopeful throughout my reading.

Overall, however, Gathering Darkness is a strong collection of short horror and worthy of a look. If you are a fan of horror fiction, especially of the camp variety, keep an eye out for Chris Allinotte. His brand of horror may be reminiscent of a bygone era of magazines but horror is timeless and we all need a good, rollicking scare from time to time. I'm looking forward to reading his next work.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Second Person Singular

Second Person Singular
By Sayed Kashua

I ran across this title only a few months back over as The Boston Bibliophile. It was among a pile of books she has received and the cover caught my eye. How could it not? Look at that masterpiece! The designer should win some sort of award for that cover. Given the narrative, even more so. Upon reading the blurb, I was intrigued enough to put it near the top of my Kindle purchase list. And now I have finished reading it and have begun writing my blogpost on it.... but that's first person singular.


The story begins with an Arab lawyer (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) living in Jerusalem. He's got a perfect life with a sickeningly perfect family. He does his best to assimilate into Israel's fractured society and spends an inordinate amount of time cultivating his intellectual image via books, and cultural exchanges. He is determined not to look the fool in front of his peers and therefore visits his local bookstore regularly in order to consume the literature that he things a man of his stature should read not for any personal reason, but simply in order to say he has read them. Shallow depth, if I may coin a phrase.

It is on one of these visits to the bookstore that the lawyer purchases a used book only to find a note in his wife's handwriting inside the book. The note reads vaguely like a love letter and it is not addressed to the lawyer. The book was previously owned by someone named Yonatan (Jewish). What follows is a very personal account (and a very odd detective story) of how the note ended up in that novel, the lawyer's irrational reactions to the note and a very honest depiction of the human condition under stress.

But before we get into the thematic deconstruction, what struck me most about this novel was its depiction of life in Israel and the relationship between Jews and Arabs as well as the relationships between the ethnicities, gender and age groups. Kashua paints a fascinating picture of everyday life in Jerusalem. It is a Jerusalem populated by educated lawyers, preoccupied professors and ironic art students, none of which harbor any particular ill-will toward each other. While I cannot say for certain whether it is an accurate depiction of modern Jerusalem, it is the only novel I have to go on and I'll assume it is correct until I'm told otherwise. Kashua treats the reader to a surprisingly (to me, anyway) cohesive society which displays far more tolerance and acceptance than I could have ever expected. While religious fervor is hinted at in reference to those living in the Strip and the settlements, Jerusalem is depicted as a cosmopolitan city rife with cultural nuance. For this reason alone, Second Person Singular is worth a look.

Kashua's prose is versatile, shifting between two diametrically opposed voices with each a as well as skillfully oscillating his tone in reference to the lawyer who, as the novel progresses, increasingly falls off the emotional and psychological rails. Furthermore, Kashua toys with the chronological order of events within the narrative. While many readers find this tactic to be needlessly ambiguous, it adds a certain idiosyncratic appeal that places the reader square within the midst of the swirling narrative. The novel becomes an interactive experience whereby the reader is constantly reassessing their position, never allowed to find a comfortable place within the story.

Admittedly, Second Person Singular is not an easy read. It drags the reader through some serious emotional themes including the nature of apathy and the disappearance of the self. But the emotional theme that seems to tie the entire novel together (especially within the narrative concerning the lawyer) is the way in which jealousy can compromise a person's entire belief structure. Throughout the novel the lawyer struggles to maintain his well-crafted system of beliefs in the face of his jealousy. Principles and personal politics seem to fall by the wayside as the story progresses, leaving the reader to question how firm the lawyer is in his convictions and how much is simply a construct of his image. In fact, the lawyer's narrative often borders on the absurd.

This theme in particular was difficult for me since I have a profound lack of sympathy or empathy for those who suffer from jealous rages (no offense intended if you are one of those sufferers, but I just don't get it). For the record, I'm not a sociopath. I do, in fact, experience the full gamut of emotions, but I've never understood jealousy so I found it extremely difficult to identify with the lawyer's irrational and ofttimes inexplicable behavior in relation to the note. I do understand that jealousy, to a certain extent, is cultural. In Taiwan for example, jealousy is often seen as a visual display of love and devotion. One often sees men or women fly into jealous rages (sometimes in public) in order to express their love. Conversely, a lack of jealousy is often perceived as emotional ambivalence and often leads to behavior expressly designed to generate jealousy, which can only end badly, of course. I can only ascertain that Arab culture must have a similar relationship with jealousy given the lawyer's behavior throughout the novel.

Second Person Singular has a lot going for it. As a piece of literary fiction coming out of Israel it has a certain cultural currency for those who enjoy armchair tourism into worlds they may never visit. Furthermore, the intimate nature of the narrative allows the reader access to the psychological core of Jewish and Arab culture in Israel, which is worth something, I suspect. Is Second Person Singular worth the effort? Yes. Should you be rushing out to find a version in hardcover for your personal library? Probably not. Unless you, like me, really get suckered in by cool covers.

It really is a cool cover.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Postmistress

The Postmistress
By Sarah Blake

Disclaimer: Forgive this review... Despite the fact that I understand that The Postmistress is a well written novel and a fine example of what a good book should be, I actually had very little feeling for this book. I think it shows in this review. Not my best showing.

If a reviewer is allowed to get away with one word reviews, my review for the Postmistress would be thus: Good.

Good. In all its mundane glory. Good. Not "great" or "fabulous" or, as the bloggers say: "awesome sauce." Just plain, workman-style, meat-and-potatoes "good." So let's see if I can elaborate a bit on its all-around goodness...

The Postmistress is Sarah Blake's second novel (that's Sarah Blake the writer not Sarah Blake the porn actress... I should have been a bit more specific when I did my Google search... I truly... didn't.... know). The Postmistress is a well-paced, interlocking tale of personal tragedy and perserverence in the years preceding America's entrance in World War Two. Although there is no shortage of novels set during the Second World War, I have read very few that concern themselves with America during that inter rum period following the outset of war and America's entrance. Few people realize that America remained neutral for a long while after the beginning of the war and opinion was very much divided about whether America had an obligation to get involved. This division is adequately emphasized in Blake's narrative.

Historical quirks aside, The Postmistress is the concurrent story of three American women, two living in Franklin, Massachusetts (Emma and Iris) and one, a war correspondent based in London (Frankie). All three are loosely connected through various degrees of separation and their lives invariably collapse upon each other.

Through the eyes of Frankie, Blake is able capture the migratory chaos in Europe in the early years of the war, prior to the sealing off of the European coastline. Blake's descriptions of Blitz-torn London and war-torn France is well-done. Through Frankie, the reader gets a series of snapshots from across Europe as Jews from all over were frantically attempting to get off the continent. Thousands of people migrating toward the ports of Lisbon and Bordeaux in the hopes of gaining access to the dwindling number of ships en route to anywhere not under fascist rule. Frankie serves as both the ears and the conscience of the novel. Also, I couldn't help read her bits with a hard-boiled, transatlantic accent a la Jennifer Jason Leigh in the Hudsucker Proxy. I liked that.

Emma, the wife of Franklin's young doctor is frail and uncertain. She seemed to me to perpetuate the stereotypical young wife of the pre-war era (or perhaps Sarah Blake as a novelist?). When Emma loses contact with her husband who has volunteered to serve as a doctor in Blitz-ridden London, Emma stays behind and seems to progressively disappear once contact with her husband ceases (I'm skirting perilously close to spoilers here, so I'll pull back). In my mind's eye Emma has wide, staring eyes and finds spaghetti and meatballs to be exotic cuisine. I liked that, too.

The lynchpin of the story is Iris, the postmaster of Franklin's post office who stands at the center as the stories in the novel weave in and out of her hands via letters and visits to the post office. As postmaster (America does not make any gender-based distinction for the title therefore the title of the novel gains a certain irony), she performs with the diligence and attention of a bygone era, something that always makes me smile. I love characters that take their work seriously and perform their tasks with weight. It's a quality you so rarely find in anyone these days, outside of books. She also probably wears turtle necks and drinks copious amounts of Earl Grey tea.

A series of interesting secondary characters (including a fictionalized Edward R. Murrow) colors the novel in nicely. While this is not going to make any of my year end lists (best of or worst of) it is a very competent novel that had me locked in from the earliest pages. My only complaint is the title. While there's nothing wrong with The Postmistress per se, it felt like there needed to be some sort of relation tacked on the end such as The Postmistress's Daughter or Cousin or Accountant or some such thing. Perhaps I'm a littler jaded by all those similar titles that have over-populared bookstore shelves for far too long.

Regardless of my sarcasm, If you are looking for something nice for your late-summer reading, you could do a lot worse than pick up a copy of The Postmistress. Blake's narrative is satisfactory. While it rarely takes any great leaps or chances, it holds its ground like a steady bass line. Blake allows the story unfold with the patience of a much older, more experienced author. She avoids the temptation of surging through scenes that deserve careful attention, she savors each scene as a pristine moment in history. These are the habits of an effective fiction writer and she executes well. Through her three main characters she serves up a neat slice of life on the Atlantic Rim circa 1941.

Like I said, it's good. Is it worth reading? Sure. Could you pass it by? OK. Would you be missing anything? Maybe. It's interesting that The Postmistress is often compared to Kathryn Stockett's The Help. Neither book offended me but both will be long forgotten by this time next year. But, if nothing else, this novel has me intrigued about what Sarah Blake might have to offer over the next few years. She has certainly stakes a certain claim on the literary landscape, despite my sardonic take on The Postmistress and its characters.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles
By Madeline Miller

Where to start concerning Madeline Miller's Orange Prize winning novel, The Song of Achilles. Well, I guess I should begin by saying that I enjoyed this novel. I say that because the rest of this blogpost is going to sound like I didn't enjoy it because I have a bit of a bone to pick with it. But rest assured, it was a thought-provoking novel that deserved award consideration (I can't say it deserved to win the Orange Prize since I have not read the other nominees nor have I read a large enough cross-section of 2012 novels to say anything otherwise). And since it seems to be getting universal acclaim (deservedly, I suppose) I thought I'd concentrate on the negatives for a change.

The Song of Achilles is very much an updated version of Homer's epic poem, The Iliad. Written in the same vein as the classic novel by Mary Renault, The King Must Die (about Theseus and the Minotaur), Miller has taken a well-known Greek myth, humanized it, personalized it and then turned the myth on its head.

In the original Iliad, it is the death of Patroclus (although a minor character in the actual poem, he is described as Achilles's most beloved companion) at the hands of Hector that rouses Achilles from his vain refusal to go into battle into a maelstrom of rage and despair that culminates in the slaying of Hector, Achilles dragging Hector's body around the walls of Troy for several days and the ultimate demise of the "greatest of all heroes" by the bow of Paris. But what was so special about Patroclus that would send a professional warrior into a blind rage so intense that he performs atrocities that even his compatriots and the gods find excessive and repulsive. Warriors watch their friends fall on a daily basis. What of Patroclus? In The Song of Achilles, Miller supposes that Achilles maintains a lifelong homosexual love affair with his Patroclus.

In an election year that sees gay marriage as a major talking point, it's no surprise that this novel has gotten a lot of media exposure. Gay issues are fashionable and a book depicting a popular literary character as gay was bound to cause a stir. But the notion of homosexual relationships among Greek (and Roman, and Persian) warriors is hardly anything new. Homosexual affairs are alluded to throughout the Iliad and Odyssey and mention of homosexual love is rife throughout Greek and Roman history from the Sacred Band of Thebes to the inhabitants of the island of Lesbos. While the most common form of homosexual relationship was pederasty (what is commonly referred to today as pedophilia), homosexuality enjoyed far more acceptance in the Athenian agora than it does in the modern western world. Hell, all of these words (homosexual, pedophilia, lesbian, etc...) descend to the modern English language from ancient Greek. It should hardly come as a surprise that the Greeks were tolerant of same-sex relations in all their various colors.

Which gets me to my first problem with The Song of Achilles. While Achilles and Patroclus don't face any overt persecution for their relationship, there exists an undercurrent of shame and secrecy about their relationship from the start. Achilles mother, the goddess Thetis is openly disgusted with the relationship (OK, she's a goddess and his mother so perhaps we can go easy on her) and more than one character tries to reason with Achilles to cut such nonsense out. Only Odysseus hints at the historical acceptance of homosexuality in the military when he notes that it is customary for young boys to take on a male lover during adolescents. But, he adds, once men come of age, they should not engage in such activities.

The hell?

As far as I knew, homosexuality was not only accepted in the Greek military it was actually condoned. Many armies (Thebes for example) encouraged homosexuality as a morale booster among their troops. And since the Trojan War dragged on for ten years even with the spoils of war one has to wonder whether Achilles was the only Greek king who maintained a relationship with another man. Sure Achilles was a beautifully vain mommy's boy and dressed in drag and had a retinue of girl besties (all in the novel, I'm afraid), but stereotypes hurt us all. Just because he fits a certain demographic doesn't me he should be centered out. There's no reason not to think that Menelaus or Ajax or Diomedes weren't into shopping for designer armor, gossiping about how Agamemnon is such a slut and sashaying down the front lines. I highly doubt Achilles and Patroclus were the only soldiers sharing a bed.

OK, sorry. I got carried away there.

My second problem with this novel is Patroclus himself. He's such an dependent, needy git. The guy can't spend a single moment out from under Achilles's shadow without threatening suicide. A weekend apart once in a while can be revitalizing to a relationship. C'mon dude! Achilles might be the son of a goddess but he's still human. Let's not put the guy up on such a pedestal. You studied with Chiron. You must have learned that all Greek heroes possess a fatal flaw. Unless of course Patroclus is, in his own way, a Greek hero and his fatal flaw is abject blindness to the bleeding obvious. Patroclus is the Bella Swan of Ancient Greek myth.

I hoped that by humanizing these characters, Miller might provide a little light as to why Achilles acted the way he did. While the Iliad remains one of my favorite stories of all time, there are more than a few moments in the story where I questioned the decision-making logic of the characters. I thought The Song of Achilles might shed so light on some of the quirkier moments in the narrative. Alas, I finished the novel as confused about the decision making process of both Achilles and Patroclus. Oh, sure, one might simply dismiss these decisions as the meddling of the Fates, but that seems like the easy way out, especially since the Fates aren't even established as characters in the novel.

But I digress. Like I said at the top, I actually really enjoyed this novel. Much like The Coen Brother's take on The Odyssey via O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Song of Achilles a fresh and innovative retelling of an old story. Don't let my overly critical, armchair intellectual curmudgeonliness hold you back. Madeline Miller can write.

By the way: If you liked The Song of Achilles, pick up a copy of Mary Renault's classic novel The King Must Die. You will not be disappointed.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
By Amy Chua

Ah, the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Reminds me of a story...

One Christmas during elementary school my parents bought me a guitar. I was ecstatic! My mother signed me up for lessons at a place downtown called Hi-Note and I hauled my new guitar in a pillowcase down there week after week to get private lessons with a teacher there. Problem was, I hated, hated, HATED my teacher. She scared me and didn't really inspire me to play. I was too embarrassed to tell my mom that my teacher scared me so I simply told her I wanted to quit.

She let me.

To this day, it is one of my greatest regrets. I wish I had had the vocabulary to express that it wasn't the guitar I wanted to quit but rather the teacher. But there is a part of me that also wishes that my mother had forced me to continue. I would have done so kicking and screaming, but it would have worked out in the end (or at least I imagine it would have). Long story short, with all due respect to my mum, I suspect that there are advantages to having a tiger mother.

I heard about this book about a year ago when the media circus surrounding Amy Chua's "defense of the Chinese parenting technique" sent Western parents into a feeding frenzy of contempt and scorn. Having spent the past decade living in Taiwan and dealing with parents of Chinese decent (Taiwan is 98% ethnically Chinese), I was more than a little intrigued about what Chua had to say and was curious to see how close she was to what I see from the parents of my students. More on that in a moment.

First, the nuts and bolts of this book have been discussed to death in the media and on blogs all over the Internet and I have no intention of summarizing the book here. The crux of Chua's argument (at least in the first two thirds of the book) is that, by and large, what she calls the "Chinese Parent" is far superior to the Western parent in producing math whizzes, musical prodigies and all-around model children. In the beginning, Chua lays out the checklist of things Chinese parents simply never allow their children to do:

  • Attend a sleepover
  • Have a play date
  • Be in a school play
  • Complain about being in a school play
  • Watch TV or play computer games
  • Choose their own extracurricular activities
  • Get a Grade less than an A
  • Not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • Play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • Not play the piano or violin

I can say with a degree of certainty that the above checklist describes a good number (though not all) Chinese parental expectations in Taiwan. So if anyone out there who doesn't live in or near a Chinese (or Taiwanese or Korean or Japanese) society and is appalled at that list, check yourself at the door. She's right. It's true. This is not tongue in cheek humor. This is very much the expectation for all Asian parents, more or less. Deal with that and let's move on. 

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a very interesting and often thought-provoking memoir about Chua's experiences as a Chinese-American mother raising her children (Sophia and Lulu) in the traditional Chinese fashion. Sophia and Lulu were brought up in a strict, no nonsense environment that stressed excellence and achievement over all else (happiness included). This included five to six hours of piano (or violin) per day, every day, even when they went on vacation and a strict and unbendable academic schedule that allowed the children absolutely no time for social engagements.

But one must remember that it is a memoir. A humorous memoir. A humorous memoir about parenting.  Sure, it's a humorous memoir rife with the sort of family tumult and turbulence that one only sees in the most dysfunctional families in film. But it is humor and it is a memoir. Furthermore, the last third of the book is an open admission that the Chinese parenting model isn't necessarily the best (I am a firm believer that theoretical models, especially those of the social science variety are best left in textbooks and classrooms. They never work in practice. See: communism, Chinese and Soviet application of, but I digress). It is not a guide on how to raise your child in the Chinese fashion no matter what .

Despite what so many media hounds and angry soccer moms seem to think, Chua's book, while often pretentious and snobby, isn't a validation of the Chinese model nor is it a crusade against Western methods. Rather it is one woman's experience as a mother. Chua started out with a particular goal for her children and dedicated herself and her children's childhood to achieving that goal and I believe her when she says that she did it all for her children. I know because I see it every day with the parents of my students. 

That being said, I think Chua went overboard, even by Chinese standards. I'm not vilifying her, I'm just expressing what I think based on what I've seen. While I have absolutely no doubts that Amy Chua is not even close to the most ambitious Tiger Mother in the world (the worst example most definitely lives somewhere in Mainland China and I would never, ever want to meet her or her mutant, freaky children) she is not a typical example of a Chinese mother, either. The checklist above is most certainly standard fare among Chinese parents, however I have never met a parent during my decade in Taiwan that took excellence, achievement and perfection so seriously or so far. Nor have I ever met any parent that has dedicated so much time, effort and money toward their children's education.

What Chua fails to mention is the aloofness that Chinese parents often have for their children. Succeed, yes. Parents will give children the resources in which to achieve that success. But children must do it by themselves. Parents are busy. They have jobs working for bosses that couldn't give a damn about Junior's piano recitals and I don't think I have to explain that Asians tend to work longer hours and take less vacations (if any). This system works because of the ingrained system of shame inherent in Asian cultures (guangxi). Parents push their children because they don't want to lose face among their friends and neighbors (also because until recently, there was no notion of pension in Asian countries and children were seen as insurance policies for aging parents. Push the children into high paying jobs so that the parents can live in relative comfort in their old age. Furthermore, children lose their hair and become suicidal while studying because they do not want to shame their parents or lose face among their peers. Simply put, Lulu (Chua's second, rebellious daughter) wouldn't exist in a traditional Chinese society. Lulu is a product of the west. And that's OK.

Although I have never seen a parent as involved as Chua, during my years in Taiwan I have seen glimpses of what she describes. Parents in Taiwan have the capacity to drive their children to levels of excellence that one rarely sees in Western children of the same age (especially in math, science and classical music). Much of this is rote learning, something that is very much shunned in the West in favor of making learning fun. As well, Taiwanese parents view their children as an investment for the future and therefore spend lavishly on their education. Parents enroll their children in endless after-school programs (cram schools) to give them a leg up among their classmates in everything from English, science and math to music, sports and logic. Due to this over-emphasis on study many Taiwanese children lack basic social skills and have trouble thinking critically, but that's a rant for another book.

But for every overachieving child prodigy I meet and teach in Taiwan there are dozens and dozens of entirely mediocre students. And beyond that there are just as many lazy, incompetent students who would rather sleep through class, flip the bird to their teachers and waste time until they can get home and play online games until they die in front of their computer screen at the age of 26. I would even hazard a guess that the proportion of overachievers, regular achievers and slackers is virtually the same in Asia as it is in the West. We often forget that China, alone, has over a billion people. It is over four times larger than America alone. Add Japan, Taiwan and Singapore to that mix and the numbers are staggering. Of course it produces more prodigies. It's a simple numbers game.

So I'm not sure whether Chua is entirely correct in her assertion that she raised her children in the traditional Chinese way. It is a Chinese way, but not the only way. There are variations. I would hazard a guess that what she has mistaken as the Chinese method is in actuality an immigrant method or a lower-class method. A section of parents who whether for geographical or social reasons feel the need to horse whip their children toward greatness in an attempt to drag their families from what they perceive as the margins of society into the limelight. I don't know. I'm not a social scientist, but I do know that I've never met a tiger mother of Chua proportions anywhere in Taiwan and there's more Chinese people here than anywhere in America.

But I liked this book and I learned a lot. And despite the fact that I am not the product of a tiger mother (far from it) nor do I see either myself or my (Taiwanese) wife being tiger parents I have taken a lesson or two from this book and intend to implement them, namely choosing their extracurricular activities and not allowing them to quit simply on a whim. A little pressure and a little coercion never hurt anyone and acquiring a skill is an invaluable asset later in life whether it's violin, tennis or flower arranging.

But if there is one single lesson I learned after finally reading Amy Chua's parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother it is that Americans (especially those in the news media industry) seem to have problems with reading comprehension, nuance and irony. The shit storm and fallout that pulsed, radiated and mutated from the pages of Tiger Mother seem so unwarranted and completely fabricated once you actually read the entire book (which leads me to assume that a good amount of people who did raise a fuss about this book didn't finish it). Chua's memoir is an truthful account of how she raised her children and she should be commended not only for her candid honestly but also for her ability to change gears mid-race. Furthermore, it is not a vilification of Western parents. I suspect that much of the furor this book garnered has more to do with Western fears about China than it does about Chinese parenting and that's a different issue altogether. If Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother had been written by Amitava Battacharya, it would not have generated the volume of bad press Chua's book did.

Toward the end of the book Chua seems to be obsessed with finding a  way in which to conclude, but I figure that her conclusion is embedded in the narrative. Aside from the fact that the book must have been a therapeutic exercise for Chua and her daughters, whether she intended it or not, Chua seems to suggest that parenting cannot be boiled down to models or tradition or theories. I couldn't agree more. Parenting (I imagine) is an organic process and it's fundamentally uneven, unjust and unscientific. You can impose certain ideals, but in the end each experience, each ordeal is going to be entirely different from the last. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has little to do with raising children the Chinese way and far more to do with the human adaptability, acceptance and love.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tears of the Giraffe

Tears of the Giraffe
By Alexander McCall Smith

For anyone unfamiliar with this title, it is the second in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series written by Rhodesian-born, Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. Smith spent a significant portion of his life teaching at the University of Botswana and subsequently immortalized the overwhelming quaintness of the southern African nation in this series of novels. There are twelve of these novels now with a thirteenth installment expected this year, so I'm terribly far behind in my reading. My apologies to those who like their book blogs to be up to date. As of press time, I've only seen the first three in town.

For those unfamiliar with the first novel, the series centers around Mma Precious Ramotswe, a middle-aged woman who, upon the death of her father, sells the family cattle and sets up the only private detection agency run by a woman in all of Gaborone. The first book in the series used a mixture of episodes (individual mysteries) and flashbacks woven into a larger, over-arching mystery about human body parts and witch doctors. It was a great introduction to one of modern literature's great detectives.

The second novel strays from the episodic tone of the first and concentrates more on the development of characters introduced in the first, namely Mma Ramotswe's impossibly wonderful fiancĂ©, Rra J. B. L. Matekoni,  and Mma Makutsi, the overachieving secretary at the agency (who gets the promotion she has always craved). A host of new characters are also introduced which will, no doubt, become reoccurring characters in the subsequent novels (If you've read the subsequent, forgive me if I'm wrong and it turns out that Mma Ramotswe sells the agency to become Botswana's No. 1 Ladies cricket batsman or something).

While there are still cases to be solved, unlike the first novel, each of them weave themselves into a larger, more developed plot line. Each of the main characters (Mma Ramotswe, J.B.L. Matekoni and Mma Makutsi) follows their own narratives which connect and diverge throughout the novel. I suppose this was a calculated tactic used by Smith to expand his fictional world in Gaborone. I suppose it was a good idea since had he concentrated entirely on Mma Ramotswe he would have accomplished little else than creating an African version of Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple.

what I liked about both the first novel and Tears of the Giraffe is the extraordinarily simple English used in the narrative. I can totally understand why someone might find this sort of language use grating and borderline insulting toward the people of Botswana, it has a certain folksy charm that reminds me a whole lot of Mark Twain (that is, if his frog jumping contest occurred in Molepolole rather than Calaveras County). I always tell my advanced students to write in their own voice and Smith's voice is so much his own I could identify it from a hundred paces.

My only qualm about this novel is an offshoot of it's strength. In an effort to be quaint, Smith rarely puts his characters in the face of any real danger. Perhaps it is a purposeful attempt to over-state the traditional values and peaceful demeanor of Batswana, but I never really felt like any of the main characters were confronted with anything resembling a real conflict. The greatest threat to Mma Ramotswe's position as the No. 1 Lady Detective is foiled before she ever finds out about it. Both J. B. L. Matekoni and Mma Makutsi's conflicts resolve is similarly unremarkable fashion.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not asking for a shootout at the Okavango Delta or anything, but dialing up the drama just a little wouldn't compromise the quaintness of the story. I got the impression (and will continue to believe so going into book three) that the sun shines out these people's asses.

Overall, I dig this series. I have used book one with my more advanced novel study students in Taiwan and they always like it (plus, it goes a long way toward dispelling a billion, trillion myths that Taiwanese people seem to have about Africa). My issues with the series are minor and, who knows, perhaps things will heat up on the Kalahari in books three through thirteen. I'm sure to find out. I'm entirely sucked into this series at this point.

Just what I need.

Another series.