Thursday, March 24, 2011

And now, one of my favorite authors

My book club is set to discuss Jose Saramago's Blindness this Saturday. It's not my favorite Saramago, but, like all his other works, it's a good read nonetheless.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hear this mother roar

Amy Chua was courting controversy when she wrote Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Her non-fiction book focused on how she raised her two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, on the traditional Chinese way. This means no sleepovers, no playdates, no TV or computer games, no grades less than A, and piano and violin lessons every day.

Of course, Chua is quick to inform the reader that she's using the term"Chinese mothers" quite loosely, saying that she's also observed very strict parenting among other ethnicities such as Koreans, Japanese, Indians, and, yes, even white Americans. Still, and even though this may sound very stereotypical, it is the Chinese who are able to raise math wizards and music prodigies.

Chua's alarmingly honest account of how she raised her daughters is both cringe inducing and terribly funny. She has no qualms with calling her older daughter "garbage" and even recounts this story at a party. One party guest even had to leave in tears because of this story. Chua, however, remains unapologetic. After all, that name calling did work for her daughter, who becomes an overachiever just like Chua.

Chua compares the Chinese mother with Western mothers, who more or less allow their children to choose the things that they want to do. The Chinese mother, according to Chua, wants nothing less than obedience. One can only laugh or be horrified by what the Chinese mother believes:
  1. Schoolwork always comes first.
  2. An A-minus is a bad grade.
  3. Your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math
  4. You must never compliment your children in public.
  5. If your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher of coach.
  6. The only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually with a medal.
  7. That medal must be gold.
I think it's best to read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother as a memoir rather as an inspiration or motivational book. It is the story of Chua after all. The book is so rich in detail that you can imagine being in the unfortunate shoes of any one of Chua's daughters. I think I'll go crazy if ever my 13-year-old self would go through this itinerary every weekend:
1 hour drive (at 8:00 a.m.) to Norwalk, CT
3 hour orchestra practice
1 hour drive back to New Haven
1-2 hours violin practice
1 hour family fun activity (optional)
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is one very entertaining read. You'll be amazed how Chua sees everything in black and white. There has to be no room for failure or second place. If you come home with an A- in your report card, you'll get the scolding of your life. If you get a B, you might as well not come home.

The book's thesis at the start makes you feel that Chinese parenting is definitely superior to the contemporary Western way of raising children. However, at the book's end, Chua is forced to admit that this strict parenting may not work for every one. Chua's second daughter Lulu constantly rebelled against her, and it was only when Chua allowed her to take up tennis does Lulu become truly happy. However, this didn't stop Chua from sending text messages to her daughter's tennis coach and giving the occasional advice every now and then: Don't move your right foot on your kick serve!

Read this book if:
  1. You have very overbearing parents.
  2. You've been scolded for coming in second place.
  3. You've been forced by your parents to take up something you really hate.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The perfect English gentleman goes to war

Well, not to fight of course, but to serve as a war correspondent for an English daily called The Beast. And so we have the premise of Evelyn Waugh's very funny novel entitled Scoop.

Scoop starts off as a comedy of errors actually. A famous young novelist named John Courteney Boot solicits the help of a British socialite to become a war correspondent in Ishmaelia, an obscure African country. The socialite talks to the head of the newspaper who then mistakenly assigns the correspondent position to one William Boot.

If you know William Boot, you'd know that he's the last person that should get the post. He's much too reserved and naive. And the only journalistic experience that he has is that he writes a column for The Beast entitled Lush Places, where he talks about rodents, badgers, birds, and what-have-yous in the British countryside. Boot and war seem a combination for disaster. Add to the fact that no one seems to know what the war in Ishmaelia is about, if indeed there is a war.

Scoop is Waugh at one of his comic best. Instead of the novel heading to become a predictable screwball comedy, Waugh takes it even further. He presents the quirks of journalists when they're in a foreign territory, doing everything to outdo each other for that elusive headline story. Even the romance between William Boot and a German lady is hilarious, with the lady taking full advantage of the love-stricken Boot, who finds love in the most unusual places.

Waugh is one of my all-time favorite novelists. The way he writes dialogue demonstrates he's a deft writer. Scoop is pure comic genius. What else can you expect from a writer who married a woman also named Evelyn. One should have a twisted sense of humor to do so.

Read this book if:
  1. You'll read anything by Waugh.
  2. You want a good laugh.
  3. You like characters named Corker, Shumble, Whelper, and Pigge.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Don't mess with these gods

Neil Gaiman is a born storyteller, I think. His works of fiction, including his young adult novels and graphic novels, have straightforward narratives. If one is looking for a good story, especially one with lots of fantastic elements, then he or she can't go wrong with picking up a Gaiman novel.

Having read most of his novels and a few of the Sandman series, I believe that his storytelling gift is at its best in American Gods. It's a doorstop of a novel with elements of everything -- horror, fantasy, mythology, romance, adventure, and even a murder mystery. The novel does have something for everyone, and I think that very few readers would finish it unsatisfied.

American Gods focuses on Shadow, an ex-con who's hired by a mysterious character named Wednesday to do errands for him. Later on, we get to know that Wednesday is actually the Norse god Odin. Wednesday has taken it upon himself to rally the gods of the old world to band together against the new gods, who have declared war against these forgotten old world gods. There are no Christan gods in the novel. Gaiman has decided to focus on lesser-known mythological characters from different cultures such as those worshipped by Indian, Native American, Japanese, and Irish peoples, just to name a few.

It's difficult not to like Shadow. Gaiman has created a protagonist who is flawed, but one that is flawed in all the right places. Shadow is a huge guy, but he is gentle. Shadow may appear crass, but he can quote lines from the classic book Herodotus. He comes off as someone who'll play a trick on you, but he never goes against his word. There were times in the novel that Shadow's actions seem too predictable. Fortunately, Gaiman's storyline is always surprising. And the way Gaiman presents his other characters, most especially the gods, is a delight. I felt that I had to Google a particular mythological character just to have enough context regarding him or her.

I used to think that The Graveyard Book was Gaiman's best work. Now, I believe that it is actually American Gods. The story is rich and wonderfully detailed, the characters are multi-dimensional, and the writing is clear and tight.

Read this book if:
  1. You love mythology.
  2. You believe that gods do walk among us.
  3. You'll read anything by Gaiman.