• What is the one thing you always return to?

    I’m curious.

    What is that thing for you? The thing you love most, never tire of, that is is never a chore or a drag for you?

    Books in the Douglasville, Georgia Borders store.

    Books in the Douglasville, Georgia Borders store. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    For me, it’s reading. I take books anywhere (I’m old-school, don’t believe in e-books, although I’m the biggest smartphone addict ever). I will read on public transport. In the toilet. During the ads, if I’m watching TV in real time. While stirring the pot for dinner. Even while walking, sometimes.

    Reading requires nothing of me, just the energy to focus my eyes, hold a book up, turn the pages.

    I never DON’T want to read, although sometimes I may not have the time for it, or am just too tired.

    T can’t fall asleep without having the TV on. I like to doze off with my nose in a book.

    Books are my first love.

    What about you?

  • The slow reading movement

    Jadavpur university bookstore

    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    I like the idea of the slow food movement. I’ve always loved to eat. But for a long time, I revelled in my inability to cook. I think I had a twisted notion that it enhanced my uniqueness somehow, along with the fact I played electric and listened to grunge (a girl who can’t cook! And in a post-feminist world, that’s okay!).

    Then I decided I loved food too much to hold back. I’ve a long way to go to catch T, who’s been watching Food TV forever and has that instinct about pairing flavours and textures and ingredients. But I’m gettin’ there.

    And deliberate, conscious choices in food consumption, I think, should be celebrated and applauded. I’m still very much price-conscious, but quality is incredibly important to me, and really, who doesn’t love to spend a lazy Saturday morning at the farmer’s market?

    But I digress. What I wanted to talk about was this: a slow-books manifesto.

    Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

    (What does that sound like? Michael Pollan, you say? You’d be right. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”)

    That’s a big call, I say. I reckon my literary split is about 50/50. Of course, the classics take me alot longer to plough through, so it feels more like 90/10.

    Classics are hard work. I do enjoy them, most of the time. They’re demanding, yes, but often proportionately more rewarding.

    But I need to break them up with lighter material that’s less taxing. There’s also the fact that the heavier material is usually more, erm, depressing. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with reading fluffier stuff at all. I didn’t personally feel any need to branch out from YA and blockbusters until a couple of years ago. Whatever your taste is, I just think it’s awesome that you are an adult reader, because too many people give up books after school.

    Reading should be celebrated and encouraged (though I think the memoirs of reality stars are about as bookish as those foul fruit rollups are foodish).

    How would you describe your literary tastes?

  • Review: The Complete Stories – Franz Kafka

    There are three parts to The Complete Stories.

    The two openers, Before the Law and The Imperial Message, which I *think* are about patience and perseverance and I especially liked.

    The main body, including his seminal The Metamorphosis and other stories. Kafka’s gothic dark humour really shines through. He seems to have a thing about imperial rule/animals/death/imprisonment and of course, the human condition. Prime example: the true-to-life, packed with allusions, The Hunger Artist.

    Some were deathly dull. The Burrow, I didn’t even read. Some are just bewildering: Description of a Struggle (WTF was going on there? Please enlighten me if you’ve read it), Wedding Preparations in the Country.

    His most famous work was, of course, The Metamorphosis – very Greek tragic, beautifully haunting.

    But my favourite was a very, very dark one, In the Penal Colony, featuring an unthinkable machine of torture. Simultaneously absurd and horrifying, you have to wonder what was going through his mind.

    And then the shorter vignettes of the final section, some just a couple of paragraphs long. A few shiners, but overall more unpolished diamonds than gems, in my view.

    No doubt these are stories that get better with multiple readings – I just don’t want to put in the time.

  • Review: Socialpunk (plus Q&A with author Monica Leonelle O’Brien)

    I recently had the chance to interview Monica Leonelle, a Chicago-based writer, and review her latest e-book, Socialpunk (the first in a trilogy). Read on for some of her insights, and scroll down for my book review!


    Many authors find writing a creative outlet from an otherwise uncreative job. Can you talk about balancing writing a novel (a creative pursuit) with a marketing career (also a rather creative pursuit) and keeping those juices constantly fresh?

    I would go crazy if I just did one or the other. I like that marketing is all about strategy, and that I’m able to provide a ton of value to would-be writers. For example, I have free email consultations that are killer—they are getting really popular, actually. One allows you to ask three questions about writing, publishing, and/or marketing a book. I send back detailed answers. The other is for writers with a manuscript—they can upload their first 1000 words and received detailed feedback on how to make their book more hooking.

    Novel writing is what I do for fun, but it also ties into my business nicely, I suppose. I am working on a better balance between the two at the moment, and considering doing more serialized fiction so I can get my fiction out and into the world faster. I spend a lot more of my time on my writing consults and editing services, at this time.

    Tell me about the differences between writing a novel and business/nonfiction – the process, how you approach it?

    They aren’t that different for me. I use Scrivener to do detailed outlines, regardless of what I’m writing. And in both, I try to create lots of tension. Though, I guess with non-fiction I really try to give detailed information, which isn’t always tension-based.

    What was the inspiration for Socialpunk and what message do you hope to deliver through it?

    I don’t do messages, really. I can’t honestly understand authors who try to give a message. I prefer to present the world through my viewpoint and let people decide what they believe for themselves. As for inspiration, the book is inspired by Chicago winters, technology and digital media, and the Terminator series. James Cameron continues to be a huge inspiration for me as a writer.

    The book publishing industry is going through some massive upheaval and very fundamental changes – what are your thoughts on the future of publishing?

    I don’t know that books will really be around, to be honest (in the far future). In the Socialpunk universe, people don’t have books anymore. All media is interactive and visual. Text isn’t needed as much because thoughts are communicated without words.

    Tell me about your book marketing strategy – did you start blogging first to build a fan base? Are other authors adopting a similar strategy?

    I don’t believe in blogging to build an audience, at least not in its typical form. I’m still building a fan base for my novels, but one of the ways I do so is via an email list. I have about 500 people who are willing to hear about my new releases… of course, the more the better. I haven’t launched a campaign to increase this number, but I’m definitely thinking about how to do so.

    Your one piece of advice for would-be authors?

    Patience! It’s not just for would-be authors, but also for authors. And also for myself :). I want to speed things along whenever I can, but books are a slow business.

    REVIEW

    Socialpunk – Monica Leonelle O’Brien

    A little bit YA, a little bit sci-fi, Socialpunk follows a teenaged Ima living in a post-apocalyptic America. The novel opens as she, along with her best friend/something more Dash, sneaks out under her abusive father’s nose to a rave in the city. Her night begins to unravel as Dash abandons her to hook up with beautiful, catty Lia (urk. Granted, sci-fi isn’t always strong on characterisation), and takes a definite turn for the worse when the entire club blows up.

    And thus, she learns her entire universe – The Dome – is a lie. Along with the mysterious Nahum and VR “tester” Vaughn – who’s just as surprised to discover that real people exist in this dimension as Ima is to realise that her Chicago isn’t all it seems to be – she travels beyond the boundaries of her train line to a place where the line between human and machine is blurred; the currency of choice is Clout (does anybody else now find it strange to see the word spelled correctly?); and art and creatives rule. I particularly liked that.

    As Ima plunges into the real Chicago, she must piece together a puzzle much larger than she could ever have imagined. It’s a world where, in order to survive, she has to undergo a Terminator-style makeover to fit in, emerging bigger, faster, stronger (it’s a bit Bella in Breaking Dawn post turning – and yes, I read all those books). On the plus side, in this new phase of her life, she has not one but two guys vying for her affection – every awkward teenage girl’s dream.

    While slow to start, the author does eventually pick up the pace and from then on it’s all action action action. Admittedly, some parts are clunky and unpolished, and from about halfway through small grammatical errors and typos start creeping in. And personally, I think it would have been stronger without the very last chapter. But I think the key question is: would I read the sequels? The answer is yes.

    Want to win stuff? There’re giveaways going on around Socialpunk’s release – click here for more details.

    Are you much of a sci-fi fan? An aspiring novelist? (I bet a fair few of you are – I used to want to write a YA novel, but now I think I’d be more likely to write something non-fiction. Can non-famous people write memoirs?)

  • Review: Don’t Breathe a Word

    Don’t Breathe a Word – Jennifer McMahon

    This was my first brush with McMahon; I picked this book up off the library’s ‘recently returned’ shelf on a whim.

    The cover is creepy – one bug-eyed child with the edges of her face blurred – and let me assure you, the text is equally creepy.

    The story is based on a simple and not particularly original premise: that of a lost little girl. Little Lisa went missing in the woods, possibly into the world of fairies, and her family has never quite been the same since. Fast forward to today, and Phoebe is dating Sam, Lisa’s younger brother, when mysterious overtures are made to them from someone claiming to be Lisa returned to the human world.

    The narrative is linear, but divided between two timelines – that of the present, in which Phoebe and Sam race to uncover just what the hell is going on – and that of the summer leading up to Lisa’s disappearance. Both storylines gallop along. McMahon’s pacing is perfect and masterful. I dare you to try and put this book down. In the past, secrets are hinted at, as we learn that Sam and Lisa’s apparently lovely rural childhood was perhaps not so serene as it appeared to outsiders. In the current, Sam and Phoebe are tormented by somebody playing games with them – could it really be Teilo, the king of the fairies? Or is there a more reasonable, sane explanation for the mindf***s that are happening…the mysterious characters showing up, the break-ins, the notes?

    A particularly interesting aspect, I thought, was the fact protagonist Phoebe was in a relationship with a dude 10 years younger, from a different social and intellectual class. I kind of thought that was going somewhere, and it could – but McMahon, despite making more than a few references to this, chose not to explore that path any further.

    Toward the third section of the book, it starts to unravel a little. Not just in terms of the mystery, but in terms of McMahon’s writing. It’s a little rushed (thankfully, it wasn’t quite The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake) and while the ending itself, I think, was a more than valid way to go, it certainly felt that the author ran out of steam and bashed out the final chapters without much thought.

    Nonetheless, a full four stars from me. Don’t Breathe a Word is truly haunting, and best of all, while it deals with the fantastic it’s very much grounded in reality.

  • Books I’ve enjoyed recently, via Mindy Kaling and Caitlin Moran

    I recently lapped up the memoirs of two very funny, very intelligent women.

    You should read them.

    Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? – Mindy Kaling

    Like me, a daughter of immigrants. Asian. And (not like me) deliciously witty. She is my hero.

    Oh, and I want to be her friend. That is all.

    “I wish there was a song called ‘Nguyen and Ari’, a little ditty about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandmother’s old-age home, and they meet after school at Princeton Review. They help each other study for the SATs and different AP courses, and then after months of studying the news that they both got into their top college choices. This is a song teens need to inadvertently memorise. Now there’s a song I’d request… The chorus of “Jack and Diane” is: Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone. Are you kidding me? The thrill of living was high school? Come on, Mr. Cougar Mellencamp. Get a life.”

    “There is no sunrise so beautiful that it is worth waking me up to see it.”

    “Teenage girls, please don’t worry about being super popular in high school, or being the best actress in high school, or the best athlete. Not only do people not care about any of that the second you graduate, but when you get older, if you reference your successes in high school too much, it actually makes you look kind of pitiful, like some babbling old Tennessee Williams character with nothing else going on in her current life. What I’ve noticed is that almost no one who was a big star in high school is also big star later in life. For us overlooked kids, it’s so wonderfully fair.”

    How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran

    I am a feminist.

    I don’t understand women who don’t consider themselves one. It irks – no, PAINS me – when women start a sentence with: “I’m not a feminist, BUT…”

    I understand the term has a bad rap.

    But as Moran puts it:

    “You might be asking yourself, ‘Am I a feminist? I might not be. I don’t know! I still don’t know what it is! I’m too knackered and confused to work it out. That curtain pole really still isn’t up. I don’t have time to work out if I am a women’s libber! There seems to be a lot to it. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?’
    I understand.
    So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist. Put your hand in your pants.
    a) Do you have a vagina? and
    b) Do you want to be in charge of it?
    If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.

    Because we need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29 per cent of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42 per cent of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’, by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF SURVEY?

    These days, however, I am much calmer – since I realised that it’s technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism. Without feminism, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate on a woman’s place in society. You’d be too busy giving birth on the kitchen floor – biting down on a wooden spoon, so as not to disturb the men’s card game – before going back to quick-liming the dunny.

    I can only hope this strikes a chord with readers of the “I’m not a feminist but…” ilk.

    Because really. What part of modern life as a woman do you not appreciate? The right to work, and in an industry of your choosing? The right to choose to marry, and who, and whether to change your name? To have children, and how many, or not at all? The right to own property?

    Look, I have never read any classic feminism texts. I read this because I love a good memoir and Moran is a writer I look up to. We don’t have much in common. She grew up poor, I didn’t. She grew up fast; I was a late bloomer. She started out as a music journalist; I quickly ditched that idea when I realised I don’t like most of today’s music.

    But literally, almost every word in this book resonated with me; I found myself agreeing with almost everything she verbalised. (Not everything; I don’t think there can truly be any experience like parenthood; I’m not sure about her pole dancing > lap dancing argument and while I admire Lady Gaga’s trailblazing and ability to pen perfect pop songs, she certainly does do a hell of a lot with her clothes off.)

    Behold:

    “I have a rule of thumb that allows me to judge … whether sexist bullshit is afoot. … It’s asking this question: ‘Are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is that taking up the men’s time? Are the men told not to do this, as it’s ‘letting the side down’? Are the men having to write bloody books about this exasperating, retarded, time-wasting bullshit? Is this making Jeremy Clarkson feel insecure?'”

    “Recently, it has behooved modish magazines to print interviews with young women, who explain that their career as strippers is paying their way through university… If women are having to strip to get an education — in a way that male teenage students are really notably not — then that’s a gigantic political issue, not a reason to keep strip clubs going …what are strip clubs if not ‘light entertainment’ versions of the entire history of misogyny?”

    “I cannot understand anti-abortion arguments that centre on the sanctity of life. As a species, we’ve fairly comprehensively demonstrated that we don’t believe in the sanctity of life. The shrugging acceptance of war, famine, epidemic, pain and life-long, grinding poverty show us that, whatever we tell ourselves, we’ve made only the most feeble of efforts to really treat human life as sacred.”

    BRILLIANT.

    Hence, why I devoured this in a day.

    I enjoyed greatly her chapters on birth (the first is terrifying, the second redeeming. Power to those who want uber natural births. However, for most of history childbirth has been lethal for women. I want hospitals, doctors, and all the drugs thanks). On lambasting the ridiculousness of fashion. And her intriguing hypothesis of pop culture as an indicator of the shift in power towards women. Although if Beyonce is the best we can do, please bring on the 22nd century, when hopefully females can actually run the world rather than assault our eardrums with songs about running the world while dancing suggestively in skimpy clothing. (I haven’t seen that particular music video, though I have seen the Glee version. Forgive me if the video is not actually like that; however, all of her others are, so I feel pretty safe in generalising here).

    When I was in high school, my father told me soccer wasn’t a sport for girls. For years, I silently (never out loud, I’m Asian) shouted “Fuck you, Dad” in my head whenever I recalled that moment.

    Now I simply hold that memory in my head as a reminder. My daughters will never hear that from their parents, and hopefully, never from any human being at all.

  • Review: The Bronze Horseman trilogy

    (I was going through my drafts folder recently and realised I never published this post – even though I wrote this back in 2010. Whoops. Anyway, here it is!)

    Review: The Bronze Horseman trilogy - NZ MuseI’m always a bit late to the party. The Bronze Horseman, after all, is nearly a good 10 years old. But then again, this isn’t the kind of book a 12-year-old would appreciate, so I’m glad I waited.

    I devoured all three books within a week. The gods MUST have been shining down on me. Upon finishing The Bronze Horseman, I decided I absolutely couldn’t start Sophie’s Choice. One, it sounded way too depressing. Two, I ABSOFREAKINGLYLUTELY had to find out what happened to the characters. I mean, I knew they both survived and managed to live. The existence of the trilogy and a little Googling told me that much. But I had to read the story for myself.

    I haven’t come across anyone in real life who hasn’t gushed about The Bronze Horseman, and now I understand why. While I struggled to make it through Paullina Simons’ other most well-known novel, The Girl in Times Square, I stayed up all hours of the night, unable to tear myself away from this.

    As for the two sequels…if you’ve fallen in love with Tatiana and Alexander, then read them. The second I found infinitely more brutal in its depiction of war, and the third – set in free America, as they try to build a life from the ground up – verged on tedious at times. I felt like the story could have ended easily after either the first or second book, but I was glad to be able to follow them through until the very end.

    The Bronze Horseman

    A girl sits on a bench, eating ice cream. Across the road, a soldier watches Tatiana in her white dress with red roses. He is Alexander Belov – or in a previous life, Alexander Barrington, a major in the Red Army. Thus begins their story. Against all odds – the cold, the hunger, the bombs – they take turns saving each other’s lives and attempt to find a way out of hell. A sister who loves the same man she does, a coward determined to bring Alexander down – there is nothing they can’t survive. He brings her food, walks her home from the factory where she now makes weapons and trucks, and gives her a reason to cling on even as her family disintegrates.

    While at times I found her prose overly flowery – especially the parts written from Alexander’s point of view – it was a minor flaw. I also found Tatiana’s stubborness and selflessness incredibly frustrating. It was almost as if she didn’t want happiness for herself. But I think a lot of that has to do with the Russian family structure, and because the strength of the bond between her and Dasha is only hinted at, it was hard to understand her motives.  Despite that, it’s one of the most heartbreaking novels I’ve read in a long time. To me, it epitomised everything a great book should have. Great love and great sacrifice.

    Tatiana and Alexander / The Bridge to Holy Cross

    While TBH is very much Tatiana’s book – the story of her family, her love, her survival – the opposite is true of TBTHC. Alexander is a young American boy thrust into the heart of communist Russia, forced to grow up far too quickly and to fight just to live. From his very first days in the Soviet Union, through to his very last, we learn what made him who he is. In between these flashbacks, we read about his ordeals in battle following straight on from the first book, and later, in various concentration camps.

    Meanwhile, Tatiana is in America, working as a nurse and having given birth to a son named after his father. For much of the book, she doesn’t even know if he’s still alive. She tries to build a new life in New York, and puzzles over the last words he said to her. But once she finds out for sure, she packs her bags and heads back to bring him home. From there, it’s a knuckle-biter right up until the very last page.

    I flew through this one – it wasn’t an easy read and I didn’t want to linger on it. The thought of of a countryside where millions of bodies lie buried in shallow graves just below the ground… Simons writes as one not far removed from this reality.

    The Summer Garden

    I was apprehensive going into this – there were so many bad reviews, and honestly, it didn’t sound like the most enticing of plots. The jacket blurb is downright cringeworthy. It’s a far cry from the first two; Tatiana and Alexander are not in a war zone anymore, but they are dealing with their baggage and memories, and trying to adjust to living a ‘normal’ life and fighting over mundane things as well as the big issues – like his war-torn body and inability to forget the atrocities of the Gulag. The inability of these two, who’ve lived through the most unimaginable atrocities, to be unable to communicate about the simplest of things is beyond frustrating. And if you loved Alexander in the first two like I did, he will break your heart in this.

    Pacewise, TSG is very slow and suffers from poor editing. At 800-plus pages, there ‘s plenty that could have been cut. I loved reading about their travels and efforts to settle in America, but it simply got repetitive after a few chapters. Flashbacks to Tatiana’s childhood offer more insight into her personality, but left me wondering just how much of a purpose they served.

    One review suggested reading to the end of the Vietnam section, then skipping ahead to the last chapter.  (Yes, of course there’s war in this book, too! I have learned more about 20th century conflict this week than I ever retained in three years of taking history as a subject. It is insane how willing people are to die for a cause…and how many more died unwillingly as a result. Reading about real historical events – even if fictionalised – is somehow different from, say, reading Brave New World or 1984. Burning books. Throwing away mirrors. Leaving the dead on the streets. Ears of the state everywhere. All powerful state. Eating sawdust.) And it’s not a bad idea. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that there’s a thoroughly misplaced chapter devoted to Cold War debate that simply does not belong in the book. Thankfully, of course they do – eventually – manage to heal and to give us the happy ending we want.

    And handily enough, you can buy the whole trilogy as a set!

  • Chewing over: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

    This has got to be the most notorious book of the past year. You might recall seeing an extract from it in the WSJ, after which a gigantic firestorm erupted, with battle lines drawn between author Amy Chua’s supporters and detractors.

    Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

    Image via Wikipedia

    In a nutshell, this is a memoir about parenting, revolving largely around Chua’s quest to constantly push her daughters to excel at piano and violin respectively. There are no days off, even on holidays. There are no sleepovers, no other extracurriculars, no boys, definitely. A traditionally strict Chinese “tiger mother”, Chua’s methods work well on older daughter Sophia, a piano prodigy of sorts who goes on to play at Carnegie Hall. Younger daughter Lulu, however, is not as easy to mould. And it’s clear that if something doesn’t change in their relationship, she will lose Lulu forever.

    As she writes:

    “This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.”

    And she concludes:

    “When Chinese parenting succeeds, there’s nothing like it. But it doesn’t always succeed.”

    Not since My Wedding and Other Secrets (which I cried in) have I had so much fun contemplating cross-cultural differences. I love her writing style; it’s clear, concise, immediately engaging, kind of self-deprecating.

    Here are some of my favourite passages:

    “By the time Sophia was three, she was reading Sartre, doing simple set theory, and could recognise 100 Chinese characters. (Jed’s translation: She recognised the words “no exit”, could draw two overlapping circles, and okay maybe on the Chinese characters).”

    “A tiny part of me regrets that I didn’t marry another Chinese person and worries that i am letting down 4000 years of civilisation.”

    “Jed’s parents gave him choices … and thought of him as a human being with views.”

    “Like every Asian American woman in her late twenties, I had the idea of writing an epic novel about mother-daughter relationships spanning several generations, based loosely on my own family’s story.”

    Chapter 5, On Generational Decline, struck a particular chord with me. There goes a common pattern: the first immigrant generation is the hardest working, building lives from the ground up. The second generation, aka Chua’s and mine (although in my case, technically still a first generation immigrant as I wasn’t born here) will typically go on to be high achieving professionals, less frugal than their parents, and often marry a white person (tick tick tick). The third generation – because of the hard work of their ancestors – will be born into middle class comforts, be surrounded by wealthy friends, expect all the trappings of middle class life, much more westernised and be more likely to disobey their parents.

    I know I definitely worry about this – I can’t imagine anything worse than raising a spoilt, entitled child. I don’t want my kids to be as petrified/cowed of me as I was by my parents for most of my life, but I would hope to instil a basic level of respect from the beginning. I want to encourage confidence and individualism, without allowing them to get away with anything they want.

    Let me be upfront about where I’m coming from. I didn’t have an Amy Chua for a mother. But mine was certainly more tiger than Western. I never ever nagged them for anything, never ever talked back, never ever challenged my parents, even if I knew I had reason to.

    Well, until I did. It was a battle of wills. They pushed, I pushed. I won. I moved out of home while still at high school, went on to win a full scholarship, got my degree, entered the working world. For the first few years, yeah, I kind of hated my parents. The conflict pushed me away, much like Chua’s own father distanced himself from his family. As Chua learns, every child is different. Having the flexibility to adapt is key.

    As Chua points out, Asian parents don’t generally blanch at comparing their offspring. This can be tough, especially when siblings are close in age, and one is clearly the more talented/driven. I was aware that I was that sibling, and my own mother expected more of me (which she articulated).

    I was a good daughter. I didn’t drink, do drugs, have sex (not that I was exactly awash in temptation even if I wanted to, being a total nerd). Was that ever appreciated? Nope, I only got exhorted to compare myself to those above me, rather than all those slack white kids. Sophia’s diatribe towards the end runs exactly along these lines – railing against that inescapable push to always aim higher, that nothing is ever sufficient.

    That said, personally, I’m a Chua supporter.  Unlike my family, she knew when to stop, although she very nearly didn’t. I think her methods were extreme – the screams, the threats, the spending every waking hour outside of school practising music. But her daughters do not actually hate her for that; they’re grateful. They achieved amazing things as a result. The same might not work for other families, but as we know, one size does not fit all.

    What I didn’t like about her? She comes across as a bit of a snob. Law and medicine were her only acceptable career paths – typical. She and husband Jed are well off by any standards – law professors who both have books to their name, who travel a lot and take multiple holidays a year. Not all of us can afford to live such a cultured lifestyle by her definition. (Sure, I wish my parents had taken us travelling more. We never went on holidays, domestic or otherwise. And yet, can I really blame them? I found myself perusing the specials board at the fish and chip shop the other day; a family pack was $20, and if our kids inherit our appetites, $30 is probably a more realistic figure. That’s Friday night dinner. And with bread nearly $2 a loaf and milk nearly $4 for two litres, even my dad’s so-called “simple meals” don’t cost what they used to.)

    Also, she slammed guitar and drums. (!!!) Granted, neither are as subtle or, perhaps, sophisticated as piano or violin. (I’ll speak as a 6-year dilettante school violinist who never even approached the bar of ‘adequate’. The fretless fingerboard, the bow, the awkward chin resting – it’s got to be one of the hardest instruments to conquer.) But do you know how much hard graft, coordination and rhythm a kickass drummer needs? Are you aware just how many techniques there are to be learned, across different kinds of drums, sticks, genres? And as a guitarist, I will also defend six-stringers. Music theory applies here, too – chords, scales – plus the huge variety offered by alternate tunings, and of course, learning to use sound effects effectively. Different does not have to mean inferior.

    Contemplating my future children

    This all got me thinking about what kind of a parent I want to be.

    I have always maintained I would not make the same mistake my parents did. But I also hope I don’t go too far in the other direction.

    Like Amy’s (white, Jewish) husband, T was raised in a totally opposite environment. And personally – I hate conflict. I like being liked. I’m stubborn, but not that stubborn. I am not a high energy person. And most of all, I do not want to fight my children.

    Ultimately, Battle Hymn is about a struggle for control. Chua decides her children must play a classical instrument. She chooses one for each, and sets out on a path to turn her daughters into stars.

    I disagree with this. And I personally see no reason to push my children into pursuing any activity professionally. That takes serious money (which we mostly likely won’t have) and time (which I simply am not prepared to give) – the exacting attention devoted to studying her daughters’ technique, the detailed practice notes she’d write, the office hours lost shuttling the girls to lessons, the hours of driving to another city to see their out-of-town music teacher every weekend. Of course, if they were to be truly amazing at something and wanted to do that of their own accord, that would be a different story.

    I also disagree with the notion that children owe their parents everything and personally I don’t subscribe to the whole filial piety thing (as I always used to shout at my father in my head “respect is earned!”).

    But I do believe in the quest for excellence and a strong work ethic – because it’s 90 percent hard work and 10 percent talent. It’s that tension, really, between helping your kids find what they like and exhorting them to stick with it. I fully agree with Chua that most things are not fun unless you’re good at them, which takes practice (and passion), which in turn often requires external motivation.

    Thinking back, I do sometimes wish my parents had pushed me more in a couple of regards – to continue with swimming (I can’t swim more than a stroke or two now), to get braces – or rather, stick with them through a second round – learning another language, even.  I wouldn’t call myself a quitter, but I do go through bursts and spurts of interest. Phases, if you like. Piano,  tennis,  violin and guitar (which I’ve gotten back into); songwriting. writing my great teen novel. While I am motivated enough to keep going with things that are truly important to me, I could’ve used a an extra push sometimes.

  • From contemporary to classic

    I have long had a difficult relationship with two genres: nonfiction and the classics.

    The former, I’ve come to like in certain guises. Memoirs and biographies, because I’m fascinated by people. Also, more prosaic books on trends, business and society, if for no other reason that I occasionally review them for my job.

    Meanwhile, I’ve always turned my nose up at anything written, well, before my lifetime. When told we needed to include one classic on our reading list in a high school English class, I asked if VC Andrews counted. Worryingly, I seem to recall that the answer was affirmative.

    Last year I ventured into some of the most challenging reading territory I’ve ever tackled. Atlas Shrugged. Madame Bovary. Love in the Time of Cholera. The Master and Margarita.

    And in the last month, I went back even further to the English literary greats. Three of them, to be precise.

    I started with Great Expectations. Now, I’m pretty sure I missed a lot of the second-layer meanings, especially around Havisham and her creepy old house. English was always my best subject, but I never particularly cared for diving into deep literary analysis. I just wanted to be left alone to read what I wanted.

    Nonetheless, I found it a true-blue page turner and tore through it in a couple of days. Dickens’ prose was clear and spare and Pip immediately stole my heart, as did Joe. While a lot of it was predictable, for sure, and many coincidences too tidy by far for my liking, I really couldn’t find much fault with the storytelling or the plot itself.

    By contrast, Jane Austen’s Emma was laborious, to say the least. The endless exposition! My word. The obsession with class and marriage, the inane dialogue, the lack of any real depth to the characters and their lives, I could understand. There may not have been much of a plot as such, but I quite enjoyed the characters with all their flaws, and seeing just where they all ended up. It’s Gossip Girl, really, set in a different time.

    The actual narrative, though, was so fussy, so overwrought I could not help but revert to skimming of the worst degree (a friend suggested Austen by Twitter might agree with me more. Sounds like a fantastic idea, actually). And I don’t think I missed much in doing so.

    Ditto for Jane Eyre. My complaint about Charlotte Bronte is similar; I loved the story itself. I do like a heroine with a backbone and while sad misfit Jane starts out a bit of a wimpy child, she’s quite the iron woman by the time she’s, well, my age. Forget Mills and Boon, this is a romance for the thinking woman.

    Again, though, while an enjoyable tale of love, life and hardship, the prose was a real slog to get through at times. I’ll admit, I don’t have much patience for long-windedness. When younger, I hated reading books that had no illustrations at all. Today, I don’t require pictures in my novels, but I do prefer at least some dialogue on every double page spread. When it comes to beautiful prose, less is more in my view – it stands out more that way.

    What are some of your favourite classics?

  • Review: The Help

    The Help – Kathryn Stockett

    If you were to ask me what I liked about this book, my first response would be something like: The heroine has the best name ever. Skeeter Phelan? It’s just godawful. And hence insanely great.

    She’s an ugly duckling with a rich family and big dreams, which endeared her to me even more. While those around her immediately settle into their roles in southern society life, dropping out to get married and organising fundraisers for poor African children while refusing to share their bathrooms with their African-American maids, Skeeter has the balls to buck the trend and look beyond the uniforms, seeing “the help” as what they are. Real people.

    Getting friendly with the help, however, doesn’t endear her to her snotty bridge club friends. And what would they do if they knew she – gasp – wanted to write a book detailing the experiences of local maids at the hands of their white mistresses? Fraternising with blacks can only lead to serious doo-doo in the sixties. Cue tiptoeing around as Skeeter leads a double life, telling her mother she’s going to church every night when she’s actually holed up in the home of her best friend’s maid, frantically transcribing the life stories of various local housekeepers (and even hiding it from her rich boyfriend. After all, you can’t trust anyone; apparently being an equal-rights sympathiser is akin to being a communist).

    Inevitably, a project like this leads to learning things about your friends and neighbours you didn’t want to know (and begs the question of why Skeeter is friends with them in the first place). And what happened to her childhood housekeeper, the servant Constantine who practically raised her?

    Aibileen and Minny, the two maids who make up the other two narrators in The Help, also make for gripping reading. Aibileen is a far better mother to toddler Mae Mobley than her cold, disaffected biological one – and while white children inevitably grow up to turn against the help, she does her best to instil a sense of decency and love in the child. Meanwhile, sharp-tongued, brassy Minny (who is, disappointingly, married to an alcoholic abuser) forms a surprising bond with her new mistress, the endearing white-trash Celia Foote who’s out of her depth in upper-class Jackson, Mississippi.

    Stockett is brave, perhaps, attempting to write in a black voice. I’d like to think she does so elegantly and respectfully. Around the edge of the main story, she sketches out the horrendous things humans inflict upon each other in the name of hate – a man beaten and blinded for using a public toilet not specifically marked for blacks. Within that inner circle, she details both the cruelty of cold households, and the genuine affection that goes on behind closed doors in others.

    My sole gripe is with an ill mother storyline that seemed to go nowhere. Otherwise, Stockett’s unfussy style and strong characterisation through speech and straightforward narrative gets the thumbs up from me.