Thursday, January 20, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

What happens when an irresistible force encounters an immovable object?  This book.

The kerfuffle over Amy Chua is starting to die out, as the actual book is available.  It is now obvious that "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" is not a parenting advice book, but more of a memoir and there is a degree to which Amy Chua "gets" that some of her parenting decisions were--how do we say this--not the Best Choices.  Arguably, some of her more obvious excesses might be excused as being her "sense of humor," which is admittedly dry.  Dry, like the topsoil of the Dust Bowl.  So dry as to have shriveled up and blown away without a trace.  Dry to the point of being not actually funny at all.

Clearly the woman is nuts, and as you read her accounts of her battles with her strong-willed daughter, you have to wonder if she likes to run head-first into brick walls as a hobby, because Sister!  She sure resists learning anything from her own experiences! 

The signs are obvious early on.  Amy Chua wants to introduce her younger daughter, Lulu, to piano when Lulu is about two years old.  Amy puts one finger on one key, plays the note three times, and then asks Lulu to do the same.  Lulu splays her hands as wide as she can, hits as many different keys as hard as she can, as fast as she can, as long as she can until Amy physically removes her from the piano.  At that point, Lulu begins thrashing and screaming and flailing.

So Amy "decides" (not clear that she's actually using any higher brain functioning at this point, but there's no word for that) to put Lulu outside into the cold to shock her into obedience.  Lulu is put outside into 20 degree weather with only light indoor clothing on. And then--did you see this coming?--refuses to come back inside, forcing her mother to self-flagellate about the fact that her tiny daughter is outside in inappropriate clothing.

At this point, it is apparent to me that the whole "Chinese mother/Western mother" thing is a distraction.  What we have is the same battle almost every family faces--when a strong-willed parent is confronted with an equally strong-willed child.  One of them is supposed to be the adult.

But Amy Chua doesn't want to learn this lesson.  As self-reported, she has a theory about the "best way to parent" and she's not going to let actual failure dissuade her from her pet theory.  Geez, this is the kind of towering intellect we want to encourage--the facts don't fit the theory, so we ignore the facts and just scream the theory louder.

Actually, that might be exactly what makes for a successful law professor at Yale Law School.

Things escalate until the inevitable moment when the child figures out the exact Perfect Storm of circumstances to humiliate her parent.  After all, the odds are in the kid's favor, since the mom has to win every argument, and the kid only has to win one.  Chua never figures out this math either.  So the stage is set for a horrible show-down in a restaurant in Moscow.  Amy orders caviar and Lulu refuses to eat any.  This is not a fight Amy can win, and most parents I know have figured this out well before our child reaches the age of 13.  In fact, this is a lesson that is often learned during the struggle to potty train.  Your kid has more control over excretion than you do.  Same with food.

So Amy tries to make Lulu eat caviar.  She orders, she threatens, she shames, and nothing works.  She stakes her entire parental authority on making Lulu eat one egg.  Who think this is ever going to work?  Only someone caught up in her need for control would fail to recognize the way she has created a zero sum situation over a single caviar egg--something that is literally the size of a pin head.  Amy is hissing at her daughter, and makes the classic novice blunder.  "People are looking at us."

Well, you might as well turn the gun on yourself and pull the trigger at that point, because if you let your kid know that you don't want people to look at you, you have given her a powerful and deadly weapon.  Which Lulu uses.  She starts to scream.  "I HATE you and I HATE being Chinese and I HATE this family and I HATE violin and if you don't leave me alone I'm going to smash this glass."  If people weren't looking before, they certainly are now.

At this point, I am trying to figure out how to get into a poker game against Amy Chua, because this woman will raise the stakes with nothing in her hand.  Because when Lulu threatens to start smashing restaurant glassware, Amy Chua says "I dare you."

So Lulu does.

And Amy Chua is the one who runs out of the restaurant in humiliation.  As she should have.  Because what she was doing wasn't parenting, it was brinksmanship, it was posturing, it was a desperate struggle for supremacy.  With a child.

Most appallingly, Amy Chua learned nothing from this experience.  Sure, she let Lulu cut back on her violin commitments and take up tennis instead, but once Lulu showed any aptitude for tennis, she started back in on her over-investedness.  And then she published this book, in which she once again exposed her bad parenting in public, and failed to realize that people would look at her and judge her, just as they did in that Moscow restaurant.  Since the publication of the excerpt in the WSJ, Amy Chua has gotten a great deal of pushback--bloggers, op-ed writers, Chinese-American parents and children, have pointed out many different ways in which Chua has perpetuated racial stereotypes and failed her children.  Apparently, she has been surprised by this.  Really?

The Mommy-sphere is a tightly wound and exquisitely sensitive environment, full of smart, articulate, successful women who worry that whatever we do is never Good Enough.  Take that group of conscientious and worried women, and surround them with contradictory and harping media about what they "should" be doing: pre-natal foreign language, Baby Einstein, breast vs bottle, cloth vs. disposable, homeschool vs. public vs. private school, daycare vs. staying at home.  Every decision, every purchase, every life choice is potentially damaging to your child's future!

Then throw in a "Tiger Mother" who comes roaring out of the pages of the WSJ to deliver a verbal bitchslap and declare her way is The Only Way.  Face it--who reads articles like this?  People (usually mothers) who care about doing a good job.  Who are then both assaulted and battered by Amy Chua's broad smear of all their efforts.  She doesn't even acknowledge that they have even tried to do right by their children.   Once again, Amy Chua has set up the perfect ingredients to create a temper tantrum.  We don't like Amy Chua and her dictums.  We don't want to be part of her family, we don't want to be like her, and we take glee in finding her weak spots and errors and tearing down her so-called "successes."

Her daughter played at Carneige Hall.  My daughter (definitely NOT raised by a Tiger Mother) has sung a requiem at Carneige Hall.  Did you know that Carneige Hall can be rented as well?

Guests at her home listened to her daughter play piano and gushed about her talent.  Well, quelle surprise!  They then went home and rolled their eyes when telling the story of the pushy woman who trotted her daughter out to perform for dinner guests.

"Tiger Mother" is not a scalable program.  If your girls were in a classroom with 20 children of Tiger Mothers, they could not all be the top of the class.

What's the logic behind pushing the music--and the dismissal of drama and gym?  Why should "be the best in everything" exclude being "the best" at a sport?  Especially since sports have things like tournaments where who is "the best" can actually be determined?

How many college applicants already have perfect GPAs and perfect SATs?  If you want your girls to actually get accepted in many of the "most elite" colleges, then they have to stand out from all the other "perfect GPA/perfect SAT" applicants.  Oh wait.  They'll get into Yale, because both their parents work there.  So I guess the whole "best in their class" thing doesn't really matter.  Cf. George W. Bush.  Legacy happens.

It's not clear to me what Amy Chua thought she was doing when she wrote this book, and what sort of reception she expected it to have.  Again, it's not clear that "thinking" is what she does.  Instead, the book reads like childbirth triggered some irrational impulse that she followed with only minimal consideration; a pattern that she repeated when she got the idea that writing it all down would be a good thing to do.  You know what Amy Chua needs?  A chill pill, and a Sassy Gay Friend.

After all, the book is selling.  But not to me.  I made the specific point of going to a bookstore and reading this specifically so there would be no financial benefit to anybody associated with this.  Plus, I'm not going to buy her husband's books either.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Laughter of Dead Kings, by Elizabeth Peters

 Elizabeth Peters is justly best-known for the Amelia Peabody mysteries--a series based around a husband and wife team of archeologists who work in Egypt during the golden age of archeology, from the 1880s to the discovery of Tutanhkamun's tomb in 1922.  Despite all indications, this book is not from that series.

Instead, it is one of a series of contemporary mysteries staring a character named "Vicky Bliss" who is some sort of art historian, who also solves mysteries, usually involving some form of art theft.  Sadly, this book is not as well crafted as the Amelia Peabody series--Vicky Bliss doesn't have a personality so much as she has either an eating disorder or a tape-worm.  Many many scenes are of people sitting around chewing over plot developments (or lack thereof) while being fed. It's the go-to solution for ending a scene: "I'm starving. Where shall we eat?"  "We can discuss what to do next while drinking beer!"

The plot: somebody has stolen the mummified body of Tutanhkamun from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and Vicky's boyfriend (and former art thief) John Tregarth is the leading suspect. The two of them, plus Vicky's boss Schmidt and their Egyptian friend Feisal set out to discover the thieves and retrieve the body. There is a lot of running around Europe finding nothing before they set off for Luxor, where they still find nothing.

Eventually, however, even these clumsy characters have to stumble over some sort of clues, but for the most part they believe they have to keep their deductions secret from each other so they literally end up stalking each other until they finally all end up in the same room with the criminal.  Who turns out to be a minor, off-stage character with a long-simmering resentment of John Tregarth and so planned the whole thing to look like something John would have done.  Not sure why that was satisfying in any way, but whatever.

The best part of the book is clearly the setting in Egypt, and the best part of that is the scene in the temple of Luxor at night.  While the "detectives" can't seem to keep track of who they are following, the image of the colossal columns and statues seen by moonlight is irresistible.  In the end, the book is mostly notable for being competently written, and having an interesting enough plot to highlight the exotic location.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell

I'm sure this is a great book, but frankly, I didn't like it much. Like a bad wax museum, the book poses life-like figures in attitudes of historical verisimilitude but utterly fails to give the scene life. I struggled to get through this book. It was literally work.

Jacob de Zoet is a young clerk newly arrived in Japan in 1799, with plans to work for six years to earn enough to marry the girl back home in the Netherlands. At this time, Japan remains closed to the Western world. Somehow, the Dutch East India Company has managed to arrange a single trading port outside Nagasaki--the artificial island of Dejima.

Roughly the first third of the book sets up the characters and protocols of Dejima: the company directors, the clerks, the slaves and servants, the interpreters, the Japanese magistrates and functionaries, the hangers-on. Technically, only Dutch are allowed on Dejima, but the Company takes anybody it can get, and the Japanese can't really tell Irish from Prussians from Dutch. All the Europeans are crude, obnoxious, corrupt and angling to maximize their profit from the Company by whatever means they can find. Poor Jacob de Zoet is hired to reconcile the accounts and root out the rampant embezzlement, which means everybody hates him and he is totally going to get set up to take a fall.  So, the score thus far: Decency--1; Manipulation and Venality--Everybody else.

There is probably a lot of meaning and nuance in this section, but frankly, I couldn't tell most of the characters apart from each other, and their shifting alliances and crude self interest meant that I never cared to make much of an effort. Lots of bad people, trying to outmaneuver the Japanese who don't like them anyway.  And the Japanese are racist and controlling and equally corrupt.  The sheer amount of payola that passes in each transaction--plus the all the fictional accounting entries--it's no wonder the Dutch East India Company goes bankrupt.

So, there's really nobody to root for on either side of the Dejima trades.  Jacob de Zoet is criminally naive, and so he stands out from everybody else who is trying to use him to advance their own financial crimes.  There is the Japanese midwife, Aibagawa Orito, who is at least doing something other than trying to make a fortune in trade.  So of course Jacob falls in love with her, and spends a great deal of (boring) time wrestling with the (boring) complications of cross cultural infatuation. There is also an orangutan named William Pitt.  Don't ask.

The middle section of the book takes an abrupt turn from turgid discussions about freight costs and interest on loans, and becomes schlock melodrama.  Or speculative fiction, if you are being charitable.  Poor little Aibagawa Orito. she has a burn on the side of her face after a childhood accident, and is officially considered unmarriageable.  Even so, Jacob wants to "marry" her, in the traditional way of Europeans taking "Dejima brides" and then abandoning them when they return to Europe.  Jacob is too conflicted or naive oridealistic or racist or shy or something, so he never asks.  Anyway, her family was too high status and wouldn't have allowed it.  There is also a young (Japanese) interpreter wants to marry her, but his family forbids it.  When Orito's father dies, it turns out that he was in significant debt to the Abbot Enomoto, and so Orito is sold to his monastery and spirited away to a mountain shrine which has a Terrible Secret!

Mitchell tries to heighten the mystery of the Terrible Secret by dribbling out the facts, but they are pretty easy to guess.  Fifty monks and twelve nuns live in the compound.  Two of the sisters are "chosen" each month for "engifting," meaning five to ten different monks come over five nights and try to impregnate them.  The subsequent infants are taken away, ostensibly to be given to foster families.  Instead, they are killed to allow the monks to drink their essence and live forever.  There is much Maguffin-ing around the fact that the sisters serve for 20 years, and then are allowed to descend the mountain and live with their children.  The graveyard of unmarked stones just downhill is not really a surprise, is it?  Also, there is some monk whose job it is to write annual letters that purport to be from the babies as they grow.  Orito discovers all this during her escape attempt, conveniently stumbling on the forged letters and then overhearing a particularly damning conversation, and then discovering the Top Secret Shrine of Death as well!

Plus, she escapes the monastery, but then voluntarily returns because (what a coincidence!) also that night her friend goes into labor with twins--a certain death sentence without a trained midwife.  Really, it's kind of a creepy Japanese Death Cult/Vampire story crossed with a Bruce Willis movie, and a far cry from the stultifying financial plot of the first third of the book.

Which is not to say that this section does not itself suffer from being over-written.  Orito's escape laboriously winds through nearly every room of the entire monastic compound before she gets over the wall.  Simultaneously, the poor rejected interpreter/suitor from the first third of the book is informed of the abominations at the monastery, so he too mounts a rescue mission with his old martial arts master and 10 masterless samurai.  This gives Mitchell a chance to be boring about each of the different bridges between Nagasaki and the mountain, to detail each minute alteration to the flora and fauna of the terrain, and generally make a midnight ninja raid on a Temple of Doom into a boring lecture on natural sciences.

As a sign of Mitchell's resolute insistence on making everything tedious and unexciting--just before he enters the temple to rescue the fair maiden and claim her as his bride, the poor schmuck takes a drink that turns out to be drugged, and he wakes up to find all his samurai and his old dojo master were in the Abbot's pay all along.  So there was not actually any rescue mission, there was no fight, there was no triumphal entry. . .just a drowsy little man who gets killed for his pains, and even that scene takes place off stage.

So, two thirds of the way through the book we have--venal back-stabbing and gossip on Dejima, leading to nobody actually making any money or getting off the island.  We have Japanese Creepy Secrets which are all related second hand.  We have an action sequence that isn't.  If the vulgar inhabitants of Dejima were to review this book, they'd assume that the author had difficulty sustaining his manhood--all build up, no climax.

De Zoet is still toiling away in unappreciated honesty in lonely Dejima.  Orito is still stuck up on the mountain.  The interpreter is dead.  So what the book clearly needs now is a gouty British ship's captain with delusions of forcing open Japan to British trade.  Done!

All of De Zoet's financial hygiene has resulted in only one person getting caught and removed from Dejima--a foul insect named Snitker.  Snitker has managed to worm his way into the notice of this delusional British captain, and convinced him to sail (with only one small ship) to Dejima.  By flying a Dutch flag, he can take advantage of the fact that Dejima doesn't know that the Dutch East India Company has dissolved into bankruptcy.  The ship can enter the harbor, commandeer the shipload of copper that is bound to be anchored there, and declare Japan for England.

There is much tedium about the causes and effects and treatment of gout in 1800, the specifics of which sails get raised and lowered in which order, and other boring details of ship's life.  Nobody on board the ship is particularly likable either--they are all gunning for glory or riches in one form or another, and are basically as unlikeable and venal as the Dutch and Japanese we have met so far, but with fewer syllables to their names.

Seriously, that's about the only difference.

But once the ship gets to Dejima, there is no copper to commandeer.  The negotiations with the Japanese have broken down, and the Company never sent a ship to carry it anyway.  So there is a desultory bombardment of Dejima, and some bad feeling between Snitker and all the rest of Dejima, and then the British go away and Jacob De Zoet ends up in charge of the port.  Again--lots of build up, but no pay-off.

Except!  The magistrate of Nagasaki has been humiliated by the British encroachment and prepares for is ritual suicide.  He asks the Abbot Enomoto to assist him, then cleverly poisons himself, his chamberlain, the Abbot and the Abbot's acolyte as his judgment on the Abominations at the Temple of Doom!  And they all slump to the floor while monologuing about the justice of their positions!  And thus the temple will be brought down!  And the women freed!  And immortality no longer bought at the price of murdered babies!

 Then we get some epilogues.  Jacob spends another eleven years as the head of Dejima, but since there is no trade, it's not clear what he does other than father a son and eventually meet Orito again and apologize.  Eventually he gets banished from Dejima and he goes back to the Netherlands, marries some nice girl and dies an old man the end.

To be fair to Mitchell (and I loved Cloud Atlas, so I want to find merit in this book) there are some potentially nifty metaphors that are played out in parallel.  Orito is isolated in her monastery just as Jacob is isolated on Dejima.  The secrets of the monastery are eventually made public, just as Japan has to be opened to the rest of the world.  Enomoto might be 600 years old, but the cost of keeping him alive is not worth it--just as the culture of Japan cannot be preserved because the costs of that preservation are not sustainable.

It's a novel of ideas, perhaps, and an impressive recreation of a time and place that are not well known.  It was carefully observed and the writing was well-crafted.  It was just so much work to get through this book, and I didn't enjoy it, and even in retrospect I can't endorse it.  The pain-to-pleasure ratio is way out of whack.  If you want to know about the history of Japan from 1799-1800, get a history book.  If you are looking for a ripping good read, get Mitchell's book Cloud Atlas instead.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Naked Once More, by Elizabeth Peters

I listened to this* because I love Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series--fun mysteries steeped in the the minutiae of archeology and Egyptian history.  This is the first book of a different series, featuring former librarian turned novelist Jacqueline Kirby, and it's just not as good.  The mystery is entirely reliant on the arcane feuds of authors and agents, and is set in a rather loosely sketched contemporary "small Southern town" it lacks the exoticism of location and time that Amelia Peabody books have going for them.

The plot starts with the discovery of a car accident crime scene in this small Southern town, and the missing body of an author named Kathleen Darcy.  Darcy wrote a best selling debut novel called "Naked on the Ice"--a sort of "Clan of the Cave Bear."  After seven years,Darcy is declared legally dead and a sequel is authorized by her heirs.  Jacqueline Kirby is chosen over several other authors considered for the job, and she moves to Pine Ridge (or whatever it's called) to research Darcy's remaining papers and to start the writing process.  Things start going badly: anonymous threats, break-ins, and clumsy attempts on Jacqueline's life.  When a book seller is found dead under a toppled book shelf, Kirby finds she has to solve the murder and the mystery of  what happened to Darcy seven years ago.

Peters assembles a large cast of characters, or as they are known in the business, "suspects."  Before we even get the the question of the author, we are introduced to Jacqueline Kirby, her old agent Christopher, her new agent Bouton (or "Bootsy" as she calls him), the subordinate assigned to Kirby named Sarah, the other four authors who are competing to write the sequel, and Patrick O'Brien, a cop and former lover of Kirby's.  There are the Darcys--Mom, who has gone completely potty; Kathleen's siblings St. John, Sherry and Laurie, and Laurie's husband and three kids; as well as the the family's lawyers--three generations of Craigs.   There are Tom and Paul, the models for the rival hunks in "Naked on the Ice."  Tom and his wife Molly run the inn where Jacqueline stays, Kevin the busboy, Mrs. Sheridan annoying deaf woman who is a "regular" at the inn, and a few townspeople with walk-on roles.  None of them ever snaps into focus as a real character, so there's really no reason to try to guess whodunit--they are all fungible.

Approximately two-thirds of the book goes by before there is any sense of urgency or plot.  Jacqueline has to get selected, do publicity, move to Pine Ridge, read through Kathleen Darcy's papers, begin to draft a book outline, and meet all the characters/suspects.  Sure, there is something fishy about Kathleen Darcy's disappearance, which has been ruled a suicide, but Kirby's too busy meeting deadlines and fending off unwanted dinner invitations to look into it.  There is also a lot of ink devoted to the logistics of how she will get her mail without tipping off media about her location--this is just as boring as it sounds.

Things don't actually get going until poor Jan Wilson, the book store owner, is found dead.  The bookcase on top of her body was heavy enough to have killed her, but it had been secured into the floor with three inch bolts.  And Paul calls her "Kathleen."  Yes, there is reason to believe that Kathleen isn't dead--or wasn't until this happened.  And Kirby has to figure out who tried to kill Kathleen seven years ago in order to solve this murder and keep anybody else from being killed.

This is where the esoterica of publishing gets to be important.  Kathleen Darcy left a will, made two weeks before her "death" with elaborate instructions for how a sequel should be pursued, and something about the percentages of sales constitutes a motive to kill her before she wrote the sequel. It turns out that Kathleen planned her own disappearance and planned to be the writer who was chosen to write her own sequel.  But since her new identity as an author didn't use Bootsy as her agent, she got tricked out of the assignment.  So she was mad and wrote threatening letters to those who manipulated the process.  So, it turns out that Bootsy was the one who tried to kill her back in the day because she had warned him she was going to fire him as her agent.  So he cooked up some elaborate plan (?) to kill her before she fired him (?) so he could keep getting his percentage of her book sales (?) and then use one of his own writers to develop a sequel.  But for some reason he panicked and thought the book store owner was actually Kathleen Darcy so he killed her before she could reveal what he had done?

I don't know--I was hoping it was the ditzy, pregnant inn-keeper's wife who would turn out to have been jealous of the successful writer who had used her husband as the model for her Main Hunky Character.  That would have been more interesting in my opinion.

Competently written, with some interesting insights into the workings of literary business, the book suffers from an abrasive main character, few memorable characters, and a meandering plot where pages go by but little seems to happen.  Not Peters' best work.
I wouldn't endorse this book, but I can endorse another Jacqueline Kirby book: The Murders of Richard III.  That one was fun.
*See how I did that?  Got it from, read by Barbara Rosenblatt, who is generally delightful and has been known to improve a book with her gifted acted.  Can't say she succeeded this time, however.