Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Could you be a tiger mom?

After reading tons of articles about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and hearing all the pros and cons and rebuttals about Amy Chua's book on the Chinese way of parenting, I read it fully expecting to get her humor and fall in love with Amy Chua.  Amy was quoted again and again saying that no one understood her and that the WSJ (the publication that first reported on her book) only pulled out the most salacious parts of her book and no one got that she was humbled in the end.  In interviews she kept talking about how funny the book was meant to be.

But I must say I have never read a memoir where I so thoroughly detested the narrator and even when she got her comeuppance and realized the error of her ways she still contended that her way is better and the rest of us western parents are just stupid.  So even after she was humbled she still acted like she was superior.  There were, perhaps, two spots in the narrative where I thought I detected a bit of humorous hyperbole, but it was really overshadowed by her horrible personality.

That being said, this is a well written book with a completely different perspective on culture and parenting and is worth reading simply to have that perspective.  I found Chua's tale to be incredibly riveting and her voice to be clear and compelling.   I don't think I have ever read anything that so concisely summed up the differences between east and west.  It was simply unusual to have such an unsympathetic narrator.

Sad to say, I could never, even in my wildest dreams be a tiger mother.  Poor Miss T will really miss that part of her heritage (though I tend to doubt it).  A better summation of this method of parenting is that it is the best parenting method for raising violin or piano prodigies.  However, if you want your kids to have a sweet carefree child hood where kids can play and discover and create and make friends and learn to navigate the real world, Western parenting seems to be the better route--with some modifications perhaps.

The whole story kept me wondering about three things: 1) Not every kid can be number one.  Pity the kids who have more than one tiger mom in the same town or small school.  2)  How will her kids parent their kids one day?  I may have to wait a few years for Sophia's and Lulu's memoirs.  3)  How munch money will they have to spend on therapy to erase years of stress and psychological abuse heaped upon them by their mother?

There were also a couple of interesting stories within the memoir that were only hinted upon.   Amy's sister makes an appearance at the end. She is very ill and perhaps dying of cancer.  She is also the parent of two small children.  Is she a tiger mom as well?  And in one totally fascinating aspect of the tiger mom phenomenon, Amy's mother, the original tiger mom,  manages to love and raise a Down's Syndrome child (in China disabled children are often killed or abandoned.  It is very un-chinese to show any care or attention to a handicapped child.)  The Down's Syndrome child plays piano!  No doubt owed to the tireless efforts of this method and the mother.  Perhaps in some weird way, this method does show love.

Though I guess I will continue to show my love by taking family hikes and trying my best not to be a yeller and letting my kids choose their hobbies and interests.

How about you?  Love to hear from people who are Tiger Parents...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Cinderella ate My Daughter

I don't particularly care for parenting how-to books.  They always leave me feeling really inadequate.  Amy Chua's Tiger Mother and Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella were both on the hot reads list this winter and surprise! Both were parenting books of sorts.

I'll save Amy Chua for another day, but I just managed to read Orenstein's new book about the princess and pink craze that is sweeping through girlhood these days.  Of course I have an interest in this topic as I am raising a daughter myself and upon finding out that I would be raising a girl, I proclaimed that I would raise her to be a warrior princess.

I was thinking of the idea that it was okay to be a girlie-girl but that she would also be strong and tough and fight battles.  You know, like princess Leia.

Orenstein does a great job of dissecting the new girlie-girl culture of princesses and pinkness and as these girls get older, the whole tween slut craze. Her book is a journalist's account of the troubles of consumer culture for girls.  By the end, any parent raising a girl will be damned if they do and damned if they don't.  Celebrate girl culture and you are reinforcing stereotypes like the mermaid who gives up her voice to be with the prince or the princess who waits around to be kissed and saved.  Blah!  But if we come down to hard against the feminine play, we tell our girls it's bad to be girls--reject what is feminine.  That really isn't great either.

After a thorough examination of horrendous role models for girls, the pink toy craze, the disney princess phenomenon and the dearth of female superheroes, Ms Orenstein concludes it is basically best to turn off the TV and go outside and take a walk with your daughters.

I think Miss T and I will take our light sabers.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

the memory palace by Mira Bartok

At sixteen, I vow to hold onto beauty, no matter  what--to sitting in a rich carpet of grass, a concert hall, a museum full of art--in a place that has nothing to do with the unbearable glare of grief.  --Mira Bartok

Mira Bartok struggles with her memory after a car accident so she tells her story using a series of memories about paintings.  Each painting hangs in a different room of her memory palace and represents a different time from the author's childhood and adult life.

Ms Bartok's life has centered around her schizophrenic mother, and the actions she and her sister must take to preserve their own sanity and lives.  The memories she shares range from a childhood in Cleveland, to escaping the craziness for college, and eventually abandoning their mother in order to have normal lives and careers.  Their mother Norma will call them non-stop or come to their door steps screaming about rape or pregnancy.  There is no way to have a calm, sane existence if Norma knows where they are.  Throughout this memoir the author takes us through each room in her palace--every room tied to a memory of her life with or without her mother.

I loved the unique concept for drawing us into her life story.  The story is sad but because the author was able to escape her mother it felt hopeful.  While at the same time I never doubted her love for her mother,  and I always understood her guilt but the need for complete separation.  Imagine corresponding with your mother through a series of PO Boxes never really knowing where the other is.

In between chapters and memories, the author includes excerpts from her mother's journals which she kept throughout the years. These excerpts of her mother's life were probably the most original part of this story, especially since for many of the years the diaries were written, the author had no idea where her mother was.  She could only guess based on examining diaries years later.  The treasure trove of artifacts and art that her mother left behind really drew me into the work in a very tangible way. 

Of the many memoirs of growing up in a household with mental illness this rates as one of the most original.  I loved the author and respected and understood her choices.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On writing to writers

I frequently track down authors of books that I enjoy reading and email them and let them know what I enjoyed. Often my emails will ask follow up questions of the author, things I wish I knew but weren't included in the book. I have been doing this for years, even before the advent of email. I did not really know how to find a writer then, so I sent a letter to the author's publisher, figuring someone at the publishing company would know how to reach the author. I did not hear back from too many writer's in the era of snail mail. (I did get a nice letter from Gloria Steinem once. Very cool.)  Email responses are a different ball game. I would guess I hear back from 90% of the people I write.

Once a Muslim writer I complimented, wrote me and asked me if I would invite him to my Unitarian Church while he was on book tour, (I did even though I was on spring break and could not go myself.),   I get put on writer's mailing lists, get my questions answered and feel like I learn something new every time.  My biggest disappointment was Malcolm Gladwell, whose writing I adore.  He wrote me back after about 6 months and then just thanked me.  He did not answer my questions or even address anything I said.  Just, "Thanks for writing."

Last month when reading an early review book called Sometimes I feel Like a Nut by Jill Kargman, I was confronted with the need to write the author.  She wrote about a character in a TV series that she did not like and I had just finished a memoir by the very actress who played that character.  The actress's memoir reminded me a lot of Jill (both funny women) and it seemed uncanny that Jill would write about the actress at about the same moment that I was reading her memoir.  So I wrote Jill (we are on a first name basis now, best buds.) and mentioned this book and this actress and suggested she might like it.

Jill wrote me back within a few hours and thanked me and was amazed that I had her book already.  (I surmise that the publisher is trying to get her more of a midwestern following and thus we early reviewers from the heartland got first dibs on her funny funny book.)

Kudos to Ms. Kargman for writing me back quickly and maybe even taking the time to pick up the book that I recommended.  I have a secret fantasy now that the actress and Jill will become BFF's based on my reading suggestions.  They will reminisce that their friendship got started by this weirdo from Indiana who send them emails.  They won't remember my name though but they will laugh every time.

Check out this funny funny book.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A week at the Airport by Alain be Botton

"The stock market could never put an accurate price on thousands of moments of beauty and interest that occurred around the world every day under an airline's banner:  it could not describe the site of Nova Scotia from the air, it had no room in its optics for the camaraderie enjoyed by employees in the Hong Kong ticket office, it had no means of quantifying the adrenalin thrill of take-off."  from A Week at the Airport by Alain be Botton.

Veteran writer Alain de Botton, who has written prolifically on questions of home, life, travel and friendship, was asked to be the writer-in-residence at Heathrow International Airport for one week.  The airport paid to put him up and put no restrictions on what he could write.  They only asked that he spend the whole week within the confines of the airport.  They even gave him a desk in a public space near terminal 5 where he could sit and write and talk to people.

He produced a really fabulous essay, almost a work of prose poetry, on all aspects of the airport:  departure, arrival, food (from the elite lounges to the food courts), baggage claim, ticket desk, shopping.  He met pilots and employees and baggage handlers and many many travelers and stopped to ask them their stories.

This little book was filled with pictures of the variety of scenes one encounters at the airport like the beauty of the engineering of the airport terminal, the airplanes lined up on the tarmac in the breaking morning sun, meals bring prepared en masse by hairnetted Filipino women, businessmen working in the airport lounge and bags rolling off the conveyer belt.

His stay at the airport produced a love letter to Heathrow, a wide-eyed wondering of the marvels of modern day travel and the people that live the stories under the fabric of the terminal.  It made me wonder about possible companion positions like writer-in-residence at the mall, Disney or the hospital.   It is not a learn-everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-inner-workings-of-the-airport piece, it was just a lazy stroll and a week of ideas about how the terminal--much hated, little noticed is a profound place in our modern age.  Less than 100 pages and chock full of pictures, it reads like a long poem.  Think Virgil for the airport.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Walk in the Woods: Bill Bryson Love Part II

A lovely stroll along the Appalachian trail:  wit, middle-aged men doing the mid-life thing, history, friendship, sadness, environment, botany, biology and some southern states all in one easy to read travel memoir.  I can't believe it took me this long to discover this author.

I requested this book from my local library, waited at least 6 weeks to get it, and was delighted to get to read a very dog eared and much loved copy.  Has there been a waitlist for this book since its publication date of 1998?

I commented to my husband that the book seemed eerily pre-9/11.  Travel memoirs read with more suspicion and more snark in this era of travel.  No pat-downs or criminal background checks to get on the trail in 1998.

The book is dedicated to Katz.  I must say, I loved his travel companion Katz more than I can possibly say.   I breathed a heavy sigh when I finished the book and went back and read the dedication.  If you haven't already read this one it is worth an afternoon.

Reading this made me know, deep down in my heart, that I will never ever aspire to hike the Appalachian Trail. Not even in my wildest fantasies.  I am glad Bill Bryson did.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Waiting for Daisy and other Writings of Infertility

Perhaps it is my age or my station in life, but suddenly everyone seems to be talking about infertility.  This past monthI was mesmerized both by this memoir of infertility and this account of an alternative family formed by surrogacy and donor eggs in the NY times magazine.  A good friend of mine has been undergoing fertility treatments for sometime and I had the opportunity to be in her company for a few days last summer.  When she talked with another friend on the phone about the procedures it felt to me like she was speaking a foreign language.

This book was fascinating in the "I can't look away" way.   I really am tired of knowing and hearing all about the intricacies and worries of mechanized baby making, but at the same time, I waited around to hear the good news at the end.  Ms Orenstein's story touches on all aspects of the quest to start a family late in life: adoption, new age techniques, cancer treatment getting in the way, and good old fashioned IVF.    I could never picture myself headed down this particular road of infertility treatment and all its heartache, but understand that everyone pictures their life differently than how it actually turns out.  This is why we read stories.

Before I read this, I did now know how little regulated the infertility treatment industry is. There are a lot of substandard practices out there.  Also,  there is a Japanese infant adoption program.  I had not realized that the Japanese had babies to adopt but this family was offered not one but two different Japanese babies.  Who knew?!  Also there are great chapters on the Hiroshima Maidens and an orthodox Jewish family who has...fifteen children.  Good Stuff!

The comments at the end of the NY times article are a must read.  People have a wide variety of very strong opinions about going to great extent to have babies.   I was a little taken aback at how many people thought the NY times couple was just plain wrong.  The world would be a less interesting place without the varied and intriguing ways we choose to live our lives.