Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book review omnibus

Book club had me reading The Bone Cage by Angie Abdou for the March meet-up. It was picked for CBC's Canada Reads but let me divest you of any ideas you might have about it's literary rewards based on that introduction. The book was apparently kicked off pretty early (I don't know - I don't listen to the CBC) and as my friend JJ said, "this is the first book we've read where I thought 'I could have written that'" - which pretty much says it all. It's about two athletes, one a swimmer, one a wrestler, training to compete in the 1996 Olympics or some shiz. I didn't pay attention, because if there's one thing I hate more than nationalism, it's when nationalism overlaps with sports. That there is a venn diagram illustrating how to make Lagerfeld annoyed beyond measure. Anyway, the book was the WORST. All about trying to make amateur athletes all noble and shiz (hey, newsflash: no one ASKED you to do this!) and building a flimsy narrative around epic descriptions of swim practices. BORING!

I also read Emma Donoghue's Room, which recently won the Man Booker prize. The narrator is a 5 year old named Jack, who has spent his entire life living in an 11x11 foot room with his mother, who was kidnapped 6 or 7 years prior to the events of the story. It was floated as a possible book club title, but in the end, the other women in the club (who are all moms save 1) found the subject matter a little discomforting for their liking. Note: once you have a kid - stories of kidnapping and kids dying will affect you A LOT more than you would have thought possible. I didn't think this would be true, but it totally is the case. The fact that the story is told through Jack's perspective actually mitigates the inherent grossness of the premise - Jack's mom has taken pains to shield him from the reality of his situation and you don't get the sense that he's some feral child or that he's aware of what he's missing beyond the four walls that make up his world. Room is touted as being one of the most "beautiful, radiant, and expressive renditions of maternal love" ever (I pulled that from the publisher's website) but I personally found it a little irritating. I know, I'm a monster. Conceptually the book is interesting - but I thought that was all there was to it - it was just the concept. I also found Jack as a character pretty annoying. I didn't find him cute or precocious or endearing (I tend not to like children characters because they're always getting themselves into situations that adults have to compromise their own interests to rescue them from) (I know, I'm a monster). Once I got beyond the narrative conceit of imagining what your perspective would be if you'd been kept from the world at large and had only your mother as your social outlet the interest in the book ran out for me. But I suspect that I'm in the minority on this one, so by all means, go and read it and tell me what you think.

Finally, our next book club pick is Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother which has generated a minor furor in almost every major publication of the intelligentsia (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly) and become a cultural phenomenon. You'd have to be living under a rock to miss the whole debate that's STILL GOING. As a by-product of a weirdly bastardized version of Chinese parenting and as a feminist and cultural studies scholar with strong opinions on child-rearing and the ills of modern society, I was intensely interested in reading this. It at once disappointed and exceeded my expectations. First of all, it's imperative to know going in that the majority of people commenting on the phenomena haven't read the book, but are basing their opinions on the cleverly marketed and out-of-context excerpts posted in the original Wall Street Journal piece. Chua is actually much more tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating, and self-aware than the reductive dichotomizing between "Western/Chinese" parenting styles would have you believe. It's a slim little memoir and you can read it in a couple of hours. The Dotytron devoured it while waiting for our car's oil change and tire switch.

I think that what's so great about this book is the fact that it's become such a lightning rod amongst a certain segment of society - as JJ said, "who knew motherhood was such a hot button topic?" It's been fascinating discussing it with the Dotytron, who came from a fairly "Western" style upbringing, is a music scholar, is now a pedagogue, and is someone who has come into contact with Chinese culture on a more intimate level than some. He actually wants to crash book club but the idea was kiboshed by some of the other ladies.

Ultimately, I thought the discourse on the issue was misdirected. Chua isn't "mean" or "cruel" and she's not living through her children. If anything, it's just a different outlet for the general anxieties that most privileged, educated, liberal parents put on their kids - instead of sports and helicopter parenting and testing kids of ADD or ADHD or fretting about "self esteem," Chua's approach funnels all that money, energy, and parenting work into making her kids master extremely difficult instruments. To be the best that they can possibly be. To instill a sense that excellence and mastery does not come easily or without hours and hours of sweat equity. Chua isn't off the hook - her practice notes for her daughters are as inspiring as they are frightening in their intensity and commitment to detail. Maybe my admiration for her approach is self-serving, as I'm in possession of precisely the same kind of borderline OCD-nitpicky taskmaster personality traits (for example, today I threw myself on the bed while the Dotytron was getting to work and started fretting about the work we have to do to get the house ready for Tpat's visit. I told the Dotytron, "I expect you to clean the basement thoroughly!" and when he replied with mild outrage that he ALWAYS cleans the basement thoroughly, I replied, "That's not true. I know for a FACT there's a pile of cat vomit down there that I've been sitting on." At which point he said, "first of all, if there IS a pile of Smudge vomit still there, it's because I didn't see it'; second of all, WHAT KIND OF A PERSON 'SITS ON' VOMIT?!??!! You're insane." *insert lots of incredulous eyes and lots of dramatic finger quotes around "sits on")

I will say, that when people wonder at my cooking abilities - these are skills that could ONLY have been gleaned through the trial by fire that is 5 years spent working in professional kitchens. The rote, mindless, drudgery of endless repetition is the only way to master a craft and give you the mental agility and muscle memory to do something well.

It cannot be denied that there is a fountain of love there (in Battle Hymn) and a belief that your kids deserve the best, even if it means driving 9 hours and spending mountains of money to get them a shot at learning with one of the best piano teachers in the country. The book details parental and child sacrifices, which is what got lost in a lot of the talk on the topic - which is very telling, I think, of the state of Western parenting, when there is only one way to show love for your child, and that is the super-soft, namby-pamby, coddling, self-esteem boosting kind that actually in the ends sets the bar so low, that it does the exact opposite and robs kids of their opportunity to build real self esteem.

I'm interested in hearing what other people who've read the book think.

Tonight is our first Wednesday night dodgeball game of the season - woot!

For dinner I made us chorizo and potato stuffed cubanelle peppers with aged cheddar cheese melted on top. Served with "Mexican-style" black beans and rice.


1 comment:

Najah said...

Read Battle Hymn, which led me to The Narcisissm Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Amy Chua was spot on!