Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay: Growing up in New Brunswick

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay: FictionThe Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay, by Beverly Jensen
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I should have learned my lesson by now. The first (fantastic!) review I wrote about this book vanished into thin air when I hit "publish" on blogger. This oddity has happened to me often enough that I should know better and draft my posts on Notepad (like this one, which I did). Grr!!

This book drew me in because of its story about sisters and setting in New Brunswick, Canada, where my mother's ancestors lived.

Idella and Avis Hillock live on a hardscabble farm on the edge of a cliff that overlooks the ocean. The story begins with the young girls searching for mayflowers to give to their mother on Mother's day. Tragically, their mother never made it to Mother's Day, because she died soon after giving birth to their youngest sister, Emma. In addition to Idella and Avis, she left behind her husband, "Wild Bill" Hillock, a rough, hard-drinking farmer, and their son Dalton, who escapes their difficult home life by retreating to his lobster boat.

As soon as they are old enough, Idella and Avis leave Canada to move south to the U.S. The book follows their lives, loves, and losses over the next 60 to 70 years in a variety of locations, from Maine and Boston back to New Brunswick. Straitlaced, traditional Idella marries a philandering husband and has four girls. Wild Avis ends up with a series of men, none of which she really loves, and serves a few years of time in prison.

I loved the character development in this novel, as well as the beautiful descriptions of the land and environment, especially in New Brunswick. I also enjoyed reading how the small Canadian community supported each other in a crisis. The sisters, although dramatically different in personality and values, were the one constant in each other's lives. Even though their lives were difficult, they shared a few laughs, such as attending the opera or drinking cherry cider in the back of Avis' boyfriend's car.

It's easy to see that this novel was written as a series of short stories, as its one weakness was the disconnectedness of many of the chapters. Some characters lived large in certain chapters, only to then disappear during the rest of the book (such as the French-Canadian maid, Maddie).

The author, Beverly Jensen, wrote The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay while she was taking care of her children, and then she died from pancreatic cancer. Her husband, Jay Silverman (English professor at Nassau Community College), published her work posthumously. Jensen's death is especially poignant considering the fact that these characters' lives were so shaped by their mother's death.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

New tiger in town

Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, elder daughter of the now-famous "tiger mom," whose book I recently read, has become a writer in her own stead. She's started a blog, "New Tiger in Town," and it's fabulous! I love her combination of intelligence, wit, sarcasm, and young spirit. Recently she posted about their recent photo shoot with live tigers for Time magazine. (Amy Chua was recently named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People. She's certainly garned a lot of fame and fortune from her recent book, along with the death threats!

I must say I love young Sophie's take on the recent publicity and her defense of her mom and dad...clearly she adores them. I'll be adding it to my blogs to read.

Friday, April 22, 2011

In Stitches: Journey to becoming a doctor (giveaway!)

In StitchesIn Stitches by Anthony Youn and Alan Eisenstock
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

(Book giveaway details at the bottom)

I continued on my Asian tour by reading this memoir by plastic surgeon Anthony Youn and Alan Eisenstock. Told with a huge dose of humor, Youn shares his experiences growing up Korean-American in the Midwest, with strict Korean parents who always expected him to get straight As and become a doctor. There was no other career path possible.

It turned out that Youn had an affinity for the medical field, and he got through college and medical school fairly easily. He must have had spectacular grades and MCAT scores to get the highly coveted residency he wanted.

I enjoyed this book much more than I though I would...mostly because of the accessible, funny writing style...and I'm always a sucker for an Asian backdrop. I had to chuckle at the obsessiveness over finding a girlfriend throughout college and med school. My girlfriends and I loved hanging out together on Saturday nights, while Youn and his friends felt like losers if they didn't have dates. I'm thinking the constant obsession with sex might be a male thing. :) And also, his stories of desperation in trying to find a woman were pretty hilarious.

I would have liked to know more about Youn's experience in residency--the book ends when he lands his residency. During his pediatric rotation, Youn met a plastic surgeon who was about to rebuild the face of an 8-month-old baby whose mother had left him alone in a trailer with a pet raccoon. The raccoon ate his face. After floundering and not knowing which specialty to choose, he decided to pursue plastic surgery. I found this story to be so deeply affecting that I couldn't understand why Youn decided to focus on celebrity facelifts and breast reconstruction instead of pediatric plastic surgery. Guess that's where the money and fame are--Youn is a frequent guest on Rachael Ray.

When Youn's traditional Korean dad breaks down in tears a few times (when his mother was having open heart surgery, and other times when he was deeply proud of Youn), I shed a few tears.

I probably would have liked this book even more if I didn't have such mixed opinions about plastic surgery: 
  • On one hand, I benefited tremendously from plastic surgery because of my cleft lip (and palate). I had multiple surgeries throughout my childhood and adolescence to correct both defects. They were followed by two jaw surgeries in my late teens. (Youn too had jaw surgery as a late teen.) I know all too well how lucky I was to have been born when I was, where I was, and am grateful for plastic surgery and other types of restorative medicine. As we know, children born in developing countries are not as lucky. I still remember the name of my childhood plastic surgeon, Dr. Lindgren, and I am grateful for his care.
  • On the other hand, I find it highly disturbing to note the billions of dollars spent on plastic surgery in the developed world. I can understand certain forms of plastic surgery, such as breast reduction, or even liposuction or nose jobs. But the plastic surgery that bothers me most is the type done to attempt to find the fountain of youth. If someone wants to spend money that way, it's his or her choice. But to think of all the money spent, combined, and all the money used for advertising plastic surgery, it's shameful to me. What greater use could that money have gone to? I love More magazine for many of its great articles and book recommendations, but every single month its emphasis on plastic surgery is disturbing. Why can't we age gracefully and spend our money on travel or philanthropy instead? Why do Americans waste so much money on vanity?
Anyone who has been through medical school would enjoy this book; in fact, I plan to give it to my physician sister! Would you like to win a copy of this book? All you have to do is like the In Stitches Facebook page and leave your Facebook URL in the comments section of this post. (You must live in the U.S. or Canada to enter.)

Here's Anthony Youn talking about his childhood and book, in which you get a good feel for his sense of humor:

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Three cups of tea, gone rancid (cross-post)

I just wrote a long post on Every Day Is a Miracle about Jon Krakauer's investigation into Greg Mortenson. Krakauer's piece is excellent and convinced me.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Cross Post: Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson's integrity being questioned

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a TimeYesterday I wrote about the upcoming 60 Minutes episode about Greg Mortenson on my other blog, Every Day Is a Miracle. I am truly hoping that the claims that he fabricated stories are not true!

A couple of things give me pause to wonder: where has this supposed close friend (who said that Mortenson didn't in fact wander into a Pakistani village after his failed K2 climb) been all these years, and why has he never spoken up before? And it's clear, reading Three Cups of Tea, that Mortenson is not the type to be anal about keeping receipts and accounts in order. On the other hand, one would think that with a multi-million $ nonprofit, he could hire people to help him. As a friend noted, General Stanley McCrystal himself has lauded Greg Mortenson and worked in partnership with him. Why have these claims, if true, never come out before?

It must be said that Mortenson has done amazing work in Pakistan and Afghanistan and I've long admired him as a brave, philanthropist hero, regardless of whether these recent claims are true.

But I will be disappointed in him if they are...and they will cast a dark shadow on what he's done.

Girl in Translation: Chinese immigrant girl student by day, sweatshop worker by night

Girl in TranslationGirl in Translation, by Jean Kwok
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I moved from affluent Chinese mother writing a memoir about Chinese parenting to this wonderful novel, which is a more heartwarming story of Asian parental love. It was a terrifically quick read, too, and highly compelling.

Kimberly Chang leaves Hong Kong to move to Brooklyn, New York, with her mother, and neither of them speak a word of English. They, like so many other immigrants, expect to find a wonderful land of promise waiting for them. Instead they find themselves buried in debt (owed to Kimberly's aunt and uncle), living in a roach- and rat-filled hovel without any heat, and working night and day--for pennies--in a sweatshop.

Kimberly is determined to escape, and she focuses all of her energies on learning English so that she can get back to being an outstanding student as she was in China. After she's finished with school, she goes to the sweatshop to work side by side with her mother, who had been a gifted music teacher back in Hong Kong.

Because of Kimberly's determination and innate intelligence, she is able to win a scholarship to an elite private high school. While there she constantly struggles with fitting in and managing to keep all the balls in the air. In the meantime, her mother struggles to learn English and has to work constantly to keep a filthy roof over their heads.

As Kimberly becomes a young woman, she falls in love with a young man, Matt, who also works in the factory. She's faced with a terrible choice between love or ambition.

Much of this novel is based on Jean Kwok's own experiences--she too was an immigrant from Hong Kong whose family ended up working in a sweatshop. Her family lived in a filthy, heatless, vermin-infested apartment. She too relied on her smarts to get her out of that difficult environment. Here is a video of Jean Kwok speaking about the novel:


Many reviewers have commented that they did not like the ending. I'm guessing that they believe Kim should have chosen love instead of continuing to follow her path of pulling her family out of deep poverty. At the beginning of the book, I was concerned that she would have forsaken her ambitious dreams. What Kim only alludes to at the end is that she would not have made Matt happy.

This is a feminist novel to me, because the protagonist makes choices for her own independence. Never again does she want to have to rely on someone else (as she and her mother have been indebted and abused by her aunt and uncle). She is determined to change her life and give her mother the life she deserves. Matt is one of those traditional Asian men who would never abide his wife making more money than he does. I agree that it is sad that he never knows about her son...and sad also that Kimberly ends up alone...but I think it would have been far sadder had she given up her dreams.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: An experiment in Chinese parenting

Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherBattle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I first heard about this book back in January when it lit up the blogosphere after an excerpt in the Washington Post titled "Why Chinese mothers are superior." As you can imagine, mothers came out of the woodwork, fiercely attacking her and defending their own parenting approaches. As much as I can understand their perspective, I also find it amusing when people attack each other's parenting styles. What they didn't quite understand about the book was that Chua meant it to be a parody of this parenting style. The front of the book says: "This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. 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 13-year-old."

Chua, who arrived in the U.S. as a very young child, was raised here by her immigrant parents, and she was convinced that her daughters would be far more successful (and happy) if she made all the choices for them. For example, they were never allowed to do the following things:
  • Attend a sleepover
  • Have a playdate
  • Be in a school play
  • Complain about not being in a school play
  • Watch TV or play computer games
  • Choose their own extracurricular activities
  • Get any grade less than an A
  • Not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • Play any instrument other tan the piano or violin
  • Not play the piano or violin
Chua, a Yale law professor and writer married to a Jewish law professor, makes a bargain with her husband. They would raise the kids in the Jewish faith if she could apply Chinese parenting principles. Honestly, the man must be a saint. I don't know how he put up with it. She is far stricter, demanding, and (in my opinion) cruel than her parents were with her.

Her two long-suffering daughters could not have gotten much enjoyment out of their childhoods. They were too busy studying, learning Chinese, and practicing violin or piano. She hires a Chinese tutor for them (even though Chua herself does not speak Chinese). She comes across as a complete snob, telling her kids that other children (who are able to go to slumber parties or do not have to practice 4 to 5 hours a day) come from bad families. Anything less than the top performance is not acceptable. She rejects birthday cards her daughters make for her and tells them to do them over again.

A friend who lives in Maryland tells me that half of the kids in her children's school live like this. Their parents constantly pressure the schools to accelerate the curriculum well beyond the usual grade levels.

It's hard to tell, at times, whether Chua is making fun of herself or if she really believes what she did is right. For example, she calls her daughter "garbage" when Sophia acts disrespectfully toward her. When she mentions this conversation later at a dinner party, the other adults ostracize her. One guest breaks down in tears and has to leave early. So she must have known, on some level, the kind of reaction this book would get. Chua says that this approach worked "great" with her daughter. She speaks with admiration of the Chinese (or other) cultural more of insulting their children--for example, saying to an overweight child, "Hey fatty--lose some weight." In contrast, "Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of 'health" and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image."

She goes on to recount ONE anecdote of hearing a "western" father toasting his adult daughter by calling her "beautiful and incredibly competent," and the daughter later telling Chua that it made her "feel like garbage." I do not know anyone who would feel like garbage upon being told they were beautiful and incredibly competent. Chua likes to spout one-off anecdotes to defend her actions. Another one is the fact that her husband had been asked if he wanted to play the violin as a child, and he said no...and now he always regrets it. Hence, it's okay to FORCE your child to play the violin.

Each time Chua forces her daughters (often the younger, more defiant one, Lulu) to do something unreasonable, and hours of angry fights ensue, the daughters eventually cave in to Chua's ridiculous demands. She considers these triumphs as her rightful due as a mother, and feels justified in her methods.

Chua perhaps unintentionally pits Asian parenting styles against "western" parenting styles. She consistently puts down the latter. She writes "There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids' true interests." I find this comment pretty hilarious, because this is the best-known book about Asian mothers, and it does just that!

She truly believes that only she knows what would make her children happy--in the case of Lulu, "I wanted her to be the best violinist in the state--and that was for starters. I knew that was the only way Lulu could be happy."

I think Chua is a little bit crazy, actually. In the midst of her incredibly high-stress life (teaching law, writing books, going on lecture tours, on top of screaming and shouting at her daughters to practice all hours of the day), she decides to get a puppy. She chooses a Samoyed, and then begins to focus her competitive energy on her dog! As if one unruly puppy wasn't enough (she ended up doing all the dog walking and care on top of her other responsibilities), later she decides to get a second one.

During the course of the book's time period, she loses her mother-in-law, a vibrant, independent woman, and comes close to losing her beloved younger sister, Katrin, to leukemia. You would think that these experiences might prompt her to think more about her family's quality of life and her daughters' happiness. It can't have been fun or relaxing to live in a household constantly fraught by fights (usually about practicing the violin, and sometimes the piano). Why doesn't she realize how short her time with her daughters would be (while they were young) and make the most of it? Well, she says it herself: "The truth is I'm not good at enjoying life. It's not one of my strengths...I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest for the future. Florence (her mother-in-law) always wanted just one full day to spend with each girl--she begged me for that. But I never had a full day for them to spare. The girls barely had time as it was to do their homework, speak Chinese with their tutor, and practice their instruments." So Florence died without getting to spend a full day with her granddaughters. How sad is that??? Especially because Chua doesn't realize that it is sad.

When their beloved grandmother dies, Chua forces her grief-stricken adolescent daughters to give eulogies. When they protest, Chua demands it and pours on the guilt. She then rejects Sophia's first draft as totally unacceptable and calls her selfish. Both girls come through in the end, but it shocks me to think of how callous and unfeeling she was to demand that they speak at the funeral.

Chua writes about some of the arguments she had with her long-suffering husband, Jed, but for the most part he lingers in the background. In one argument, he accuses her of making crazy overgeneralizations about "westerners" and "Chinese people" and asks her to stop insulting people all the time. "I know you think you do people a huge favor by criticizing them, so that they can improve themselves, but have you ever considered that you just make people feel bad?" When he points out how wrong it is to praise Sophia in front of Lulu, she completely refuses to see his point, claiming that Lulu doesn't "need affirmative action."

The fights continue when she hosts a 50th birthday party for Jed. She demands, again, that Sophia and Lulu give speeches, and Lulu refuses. It is the first of many battles Chua loses, and she accuses Lulu of dishonoring the family. After Lulu hacks off all her hair after Chua tells her they don't have time for her to get a haircut, you'd think she might consider backing off...but no.

The simmering hostility begins bubbling and finally explodes when the family travels to Russia. Chua tries to force Lulu to sample caviar and calls her a juvenile delinquent and a barbarian when she refuses. Lulu throws a temper tantrum in the middle of the restaurant and tells her mother she hates her, her life, and her family. Chua tells her she's a terrible daughter. Finally, Chua realizes she must change.

She allows Lulu to give up the violin and take up tennis. But it's clear at the end of the book that she doesn't have any regrets and feels good about the way she has raised her daughters. That's why I'm not sure it's a parody. Everyone around her--her husband, daughters, parents-in-law, and even her own strict Chinese parents--tell her to chill out and back off, that she's going too far, but she refuses until Lulu ultimately explodes. She's extremely lucky that she didn't alienate her children forever.

Even though Chua and her husband are law professors, I wondered how they could afford their extravagant lifestyle. Full-time Chinese tutors (at least in early childhood), expensive piano and violin lessons, trips all around the world, constant dining out, and when Sophia performs at Carnegie Hall, a truly extravagant reception to which Sophia's entire class is bussed into the City?

In summary, this book was compulsively readable and a welcome break after The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which took me weeks to finish. I admire Chua's honesty--she does expose herself to heaps of criticism. But I truly feel sorry for Chua's daughters and husband. She admits that her family is not the type who has intimate conversations about their feelings. She believes that her daughters are happy and well adjusted, but how would she know what they really feel about her? (After I wrote this review, a Facebook friend sent me this link to a letter written by Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, which defends her mother and says how much she loves her. Chua apparently has received death threats, so I understand why she wanted to defend her mom.)

Yes, she realizes she couldn't win, continuing the way she was going, but her closing pages smack of the kind of person who realizes, deep down, that she was right all along.

Here's a very serious PBS interview with Amy Chua:

Watch the full episode. See more Need To Know.

And a very silly interview on Steven Colbert (in which he constantly talks over her, but you see her lighter side):

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet: Disappointing

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A NovelThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I had this book on hold at the library for ages and had been looking forward to reading it. It takes place in a reclusive Japan circa 1799. The Dutch are the only Europeans who trade with the Japanese, in the island port of Dejima (just outside of Nagasaki), imperial Japan's only entry and exit to the outside world. Jacob De Zoet is a Dutch clerk, who has five years to earn his fortune before returning to The Netherlands to marry his love, Anna. He forms a tenuous friendship with an interpreter, Uzaemon.

Then he meets Orito Aibagawa, a bright young midwife and daughter of a samurai, who has a disfiguring burn on her face. Jacob cannot get Orito out of his mind. Any hope of a relationship between them, though, is doomed. Soon Orito's fortunes change for the worse and she ends up being sold to a Buddhist convent with shocking secret habits. It turns out that Uzaemon was also in love with Orito, but he was forced to marry another woman. Soon Uzaemon plots a rescue attempt.

This novel contains much, much more than this basic plot, but these were the most compelling, multidimensional characters and the most interesting part of the book. As you'll see if you read through the reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, many readers find the first and third parts of the book to be deadly boring. The middle of the book, with the attempted rescue of Orito off the mountain, was the most compelling. Then she vanished off the pages and it got back to Dutch trading.

Clearly, Mitchell meticulously researched this novel. But I found the vast number of characters and subplots, not to mention the lack of depth of so many of the characters, to be tiresome. The page after page about Dutch trading and backstabbing got to be painful, and at the end, I found myself scanning the pages. As one Amazon reviewer wrote, "A thousand autumns is nine hundred ninety nine too long."

Nearly all of the characters were evil, untrustworthy, or unethical, or simply lazy and only out for themselves. Even though Jacob De Zoet did feature throughout the novel, I never felt that I really understood him. I didn't care what happened to most of the characters. Those that I did care about (the mountain herbalist, for example) just disappeared.

I know this book is packed with metaphor and symbolism, and perhaps Mitchell's brilliance is just beyond me. I've never read his other books, so I don't have any mode of comparison.

Historical fiction set in Japan is usually my cup of tea. But after those months of waiting, I was disappointed in most of this book. I was relieved to be done with it, and that's not a good sign!