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Archive for May, 2011

Lessons in English

Not exactly what I’d expect in an Ed McBain.

Every now and then, I like to punctuate non-fiction with fiction. Preferably a mystery. Sometimes with a detective. And that’s how, after reading about widowhood and a massacre, oh, and also about tiger mothers, I picked up an Ed McBain. In my ignorance, I thought all Ed McBains were 87th precinct novels. I didn’t know that he’d also created a lawyer-detective, well, just lawyer actually, called Matthew Hope. And so the Matthew Hope series is a marriage of courtroom drama and police procedural, with some detection going on in the background. Nice.

And so I learnt my lessons.

Lesson 1:

Have you noticed that in our mad rush to construct a language that will accommodate ridiculous feminist demands, we’ve taken to using ungrammatical constructions? ‘Everyone has their own favorite symphony’, a radio announcer will say. In an attempt to avoid the correct ‘Everyone has his own favorite symphony,’ which God forfend might be considered sexist.

Lesson 2:

…in America, boring has only one meaning, “uninteresting” or “dull”, as in “The play was so boring, I left after the first act,” or “His speech was so boring, it put me to sleep” In England, however … the word can also mean “bothersome” or”annoying”, as in “I’ve got a run in my stocking, how boring!”

Well, you learn something new everyday.

And the book? Mary, Mary is sort of a twisted take on the nursery rhyme…

Mary, Mary quite contrary

how does your garden grow?

With cockle shells and silver bells

and pretty maids all in a row.

…where the ‘pretty maids’ are, well, dead girls. I found the character development to be incomplete and unsatisfying, but I love my courtroom dramas. And now, I can go back to the massacre.

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A Widow’s Story

I spent these past two weeks on two books that are apparently in great demand at the local library (they are 2-week books, instead of the regular 4-week reading period). I went in to pick up Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and saw A Widow’s Story prominently placed on the 2-week shelf. And I picked that up as well (so what if I had three unread books waiting for me at home). I believe that one should not read books that one finds too hard to read, so hard that reading is no longer fun, that reading is a chore. And so I feel a little less guilty about not being to ever finish (or go beyond page 44) of Catch-22, after trying many many times. Sometimes, I just don’t get a book, and I let that be.

JCO’s book, I got. What I didn’t quite get is this review on NY times.

A Widow’s Story is precisely that, a fairly personal memoir of the time immediately following (and preceding) Joyce Carol Oates’ husband’s entirely unexpected death. JCO certainly rambles on quite a bit, but her ramblings are very readable – she describes her anguish and depression throughout the book, an emotion that certainly dominates the book. But this is a memoir of grief, so how can one say that this emotion was overused? Yes, there are other memoirs of grief that are witty, funny even, shorter, more to-the-point, but that doesn’t necessarily make one less or more readable than the other. Or one experience less or more painful than the other.

In high school, my favorite work of fiction was Jane Eyre. I was completely taken in by the dynamics between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester, and played their conversations in my head many, many times. In one such scene, when Jane and a blind Edward have been re-united, Jane says to Edward:

“…I thought anger would be better than grief…”

And the statement immediately resonated with me. So, it was this passage from Jane Eyre I thought of, when I read JCO say:

“Better to be angry, than to be depressed.”

“I am thinking with envy how much healthier, how much more exhilerating, such emotions [anger and rage] would be, than the heavyheartedness of grief like a sodden overcoat the widow must wear.”

Very true.

The NY Times review takes issue with the fact that JCO doesn’t inform her readers about her impending engagement or second marriage (she does ‘hint’ about it in the very last page). And that the book doesn’t really talk  about the ‘dynamics’ of her first marriage or give the impression that JCO and Ray Smith were affectionate or close. In fact, JCO does delve quite a bit into aspects that Ray and she did not know about each other, and now never will. However, I do get the impression of a quiet intimacy, which may not sound exciting enough to some, but seems real enough to me.

Well. The book is about widowhood, and about Joyce Carol Oates as a widow, Ray Smith’s widow. I agree with her that details of her second marriage don’t really have a place in this memoir, and that the absence of this revelation does not make this work dishonest. Though, I admit, I think that JCO’s widowhood is hardly typical and might not reflect how other people feel or deal with their losses. For one, JCO has a lot of well-meaning friends, who not only send beautiful notes of sympathy (and rejected sympathy baskets), but do help her physically and mentally with the many death duties, driving her around, giving her legal advice, inviting her to dinners, and just being there for her. JCO also has a house, and a job, both of which, and especially the latter, help her through the days. And not many widows and widowers find love within a year of their loss. So, I think that JCO story is painful, but perhaps not typical.

JCO shares many of the condolence letters she received during the period. Many of these are very thoughtful and touching, though I’m not sure how much they help a grieving person. JCO herself relies a lot on the kindness and love of close friends, though she speaks of her

“Fear of draining friends’ capacity for sympathy”

Well, life goes on. Painful or not. And it’s time for me to move to a cheerful book or two. Or even one that makes me angry. But not sad. No, not sad.

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Tiger Mother

“Chua’s voice is that of a jovial, erudite serial killer – think Hannibal Lecter – who’s explaining how he is going to fillet his next victim, as though it’s the most self-evidently normal behavior” – Maureen Corrigan on Amy Chua’s memoir, yes the one that everyone is/was talking about.

Being Asian, more specifically Indian, and from a culture and community that (over)emphasizes education,and perhaps obedience (in girls), I am not especially shocked by the overall philosophy described in the memoir (not the specifics, but the expectations, such as an A minus is not good enough, the pride that the parent feels when his/her child ranks first amidst rabid competition from like-minded kids with like-minded parents). But, there are one or two aspects that are, well, strange? Jarring?

For this approach, as far as I have seen, seems to belong to the struggling. It would make sense in first generation immigrant families, to whom education represents the ticket to all the privileges that have eluded them so far. Education, discipline, focus and relentless hard work, often (if not always) means they can own a home, a car or two, send their kids to the best schools, and generally be considered a success. However, they are hardly noticed for their elegance, and may in fact be mocked for their effortless lack of it.

But the privileged? Really? The privileged kids are cool and sophisticated, as Sophia and Lulu are. They own pianos and violins, have the opportunity for ivy league education, have often traveled the world, and have enough fashion sense to wear a “charcoal satin floor-length gown from Barneys, New York” for their Carnegie Hall debut. I don’t see these kids not have sleepovers, not have playdates, not watch TV or play computer games, and listen to what mommy says. That too, in present day USA. Kids talk with each other, you see.

What was the motivation behind the memoir, I wonder. Chua writes:

…I once did the same thing to Sophia, calling her garbage in English when she acted extremely disrespectfully toward me. When I mentioned I had done this at a dinner party, I was immediately ostracized.

Publishing a book is like hosting a dinner party to the entire world. Surely, Ms. Chua expected some strong reactions, if not to make it to TIME’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Unlike my Western friends, I can never say, “As much as it kills me, I just have to let my kids make their choices and follow their hearts. It’s the hardest thing in the world, but I’m going my best to hold back”. Then they get to have a glass of wine and go to a yoga class, whereas I have to stay home and scream and have my kids hate me.

(Sadly?), pushing kids to the point of exhaustion often pays well. For the kids. Even if they do end up not being enthusiastically affectionate or thankful towards their parents. Sophia is certainly a ‘success’. As was Agassi. Is this true of all math whizzes and music prodigies? But Chua does well to point out that this parenting approach (call it Chinese, or ancient, or whatever) can fail.

No one had ever accused me of trying to keep things fun.

It may outrage you, but it (or parts of it – even her disdain for average achieving kids) will make you laugh. Chua on her parenting adventures – Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

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 Kevin begged us to give him water or juice, but the doctors said it would only make him worse. He repeatedly asked to swim in his turtle – a pool we used at home. Kevin finally convinced us to give him a sponge bath and, as soon as the washcloth came near his mouth, he grabbed it, bit down on it and sucked the water out of it. It broke our hearts.

– From Kevin’s story. Kevin was 2 and a half when he died of an E.Coli infection.

You might will remember Kevin from Food, inc. Kevin is always somewhere on the front of my mind. I picture this sick child cleverly (a tragic cleverness), getting his parents to give him a sponge bath, all along scheming ( a tragic scheming) to quench his thirst. Very few images are more heartbreaking.

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His crystal meth revelation made a lot of buzz, as did his confession about his hairpiece. But I think that his book caused a lot of hits to a particular video on YouTube. This one.

More from the book:

The temperature rises dramatically as we near the door to the court. The buzzing is now deafening. Bhagdatis bursts through first. He knows how much attention my retirement has been getting. He reads the papers. He expects to play the villain tonight. He thinks he’s prepared. I let him go, let him hear the buzzing turn to cheers. I let him think the crowd is cheering for both of us. Then I walk out. Now the cheers triple. Bhagdatis turns and realized the first cheer was for him, but this cheer is mine, all mine, which forces him to revise his expectations and reconsider what’s in store. Without hitting a single ball I’ve caused a major swing in his sense of well-being. A trick of the trade An old’timer’s trick.

Agassi won, of course.

Open is ultimately a tennis autobiography, and so there is a lot of tennis in there, but there is enough about family dynamics, teenage rebellion, broken relationships, great friendships, and determined wooing aside from the tennis talk. A lot of pride (some might say conceit), a lot of anger, a lot of pain and a lot of happiness. Plus strange revelations such as about his paternal grandmother who, he says, lived with them.

She makes my father miserable, she bosses me and my siblings around, and she engages in a strange competition with my mother. My mother tells me that when I was a baby, she walked into the kitchen and found Grandma breastfeeding me. Things have been awkward between the two women ever since.

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