Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
Published back in 2011 when I was pushing through the last semester of my Bachelor’s degree, I vaguely recall hearing controversial discussions of this book on the radio. Something about how intense Chinese mothers are.
“That sounds interesting,” I thought to myself, “maybe I’ll read it when I’m not so saturated.”
Three years later my friend Geneva recommended it to me and within minutes I had it downloaded to my phone. Two days later I emerged and immediately opened my laptop to write this post. I wanted to remember all my thoughts before I fell asleep.
This book was, and is, very controversial. Back when I first heard about it on the radio I must have misunderstood, thinking it was written from the perspective of a Chinese daughter about her fanatical mother. I was surprised to find it was actually the other way around: a fanatical mother’s recollections of raising her daughters the “Chinese” way. So be prepared for that.
First, the positive: I found it well-written and engaging, and I didn’t want to put it down. (Though I do believe that “can’t put it down” feeling was a bit of a tease, as the majority of the book built up to some sort of tragedy that never actually happened [although, playing devil's advocate, I suppose some might argue that the ending was tragic for the author...but certainly not by any normal parent's standards, i.e. death of a child or loss of a spouse.])
Another positive: it helped me weed out at least one style of parenting (the mean kind) I’d like to avoid while raising my child. Since having Hutch I find myself reading every article and book I come across on childrearing: handling temper tantrums, giving children what they need, unplugging, being present. I confess I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by it all: To spank or not to spank? Time outs or time ins or time aways (these are all different and each has the potential to ruin your child, it seems)? Allowance or chore charts or both? How to make sure he doesn’t get addicted to porn? The decisions seem endless and for once it’s refreshing to identify a style of parenting I absolutely do *not* want to consider using on my own child.
And now for the negatives:
• Chua foreshadows so freely and ominously throughout the chapters that I was certain the book would end in some sort of tragedy, presumably with the suicide or accidental death of her youngest daughter (the one she butted heads with to an astonishing degree), which would lead Chua to realize how silly her obsession (pushing her daughters to excel at music) had been all those years. SPOILER ALERT: That didn’t happen. The “tragedy” at the end was actually that the youngest daughter rebelled so violently that Chua finally agreed to let her quit violin in pursuit of…no, not drugs or the slave trade, like the tone would have you believe…but tennis. Tennis. An admirable pastime. How anticlimactic. Like I said above, I suppose from Chua’s perspective this was quite tragic, as she ended up allowing her daughter to quit just like all the “lazy American parents” she’d so viciously berated. But in the grand scheme of things tennis is not so bad.
• I was very annoyed to realize that Chua did not attend any of her daughter’s tennis matches until quite some time later, despite having dedicated hundreds of hours to carting that same daughter around to violin lessons two hours away, and sitting with her during practices daily. In my opinion a parent’s job is to support the child in that child’s (positive) pursuits, even if those pursuits aren’t necessarily the parent’s first choice. So your kid wants to quite violin to play tennis. So you’re mad about it. You’re still her parent. Go freaking represent.
• Throughout the book I kept thinking, “This is ridiculous. She is wasting so much time fighting with her daughters about practicing their music that she has no time left over to enjoy just being with them.” Again, I suppose it’s all about perspective. For Chua, the enjoyment comes when seeing her daughters perform flawlessly onstage. For me, I’d take a flawed performance and quality family time any day.
• Because I read the e-version of the book, I got to read an afterword written by Chua six months after the initial publication of the book. In it, she explains her surprise at the horrible outlash the book caused in the States, and goes on about how it was really meant to be funny and self deprecating. I was shocked. Throughout the entire book I never laughed a single time, and never picked up on even the remotest sense of self deprecation. The author seemed haughty, smug, and satisfied that her way of parenting was the best. Even at the end when she conceded to her younger daughter, she still attributed her daughter’s success with tennis largely to the way she’d been taught the violin. Perhaps on a second reading I might be able to find that sense of humour Chua insists was there, but it’s my firm opinion that if humour has to be searched for then it’s really not that funny. The fact that no one took the book as a joke (even the people who like it seem to approve of its accuracy and successful child-rearing techniques, not because of its witty satire) tells me that she probably needed a better editor if “satire” was her goal.
• The story she tells of refusing to let her daughters take off practicing their instruments for even one day to spend time with their grandmother, who was begging to see them, makes me want to curl up and cry. It’s just so sad.
Not necessarily negative but noteworthy:
• The excerpts of media reviews on this book’s Amazon page are all notably lacking any real praise. When normally you might see “Amazing! An insightful work that brought tears to my eyes!” or “Chua’s voice is a revelation!” on the back of a book cover, instead the “praise” for the book read more like facts: “Brutally honest,” “thought-provoking,” and “resonant” are all there, but none of them actually say it’s a good read. So there’s that.
• I was reminded while reading that I was actually born in the Year of the Tiger myself, technically making me a Tiger mother, too. I hope that doesn’t bode ill for poor Hutchy.
Final Score: 6/10 (Not less because it actually was an interesting read and thought-provoking, but not more because it certainly wasn’t a life-changing or even remotely appealing lifestyle.)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
This book was recommended to me by a co-student in my Creative Writing class, again back in my senior year of college. The guy who told me about it said that something I’d shared in class reminded him of this book, which immediately made me feel like I would one day be a great and published writer.
I put it on my list of books to read, but finals overtook my life, followed by a trip to Europe that I never finished blogging about, followed by getting a job and feeling too tired to read ever again.
But now that I’m reading again I remembered it, and thank goodness. I really enjoyed it.
• There were a couple of sex scenes; not too graphic, but graphic enough that it is slightly awkward for me to recommend this book to others. I don’t know why I have that hang-up—it’s not like I was the one writing sex scenes—but for some reason just knowing that someone is going to read a sex scene that they’ll know I read makes me feel weird. The annoying thing about sex scenes is that they are almost always irrelevant to the story, whether in book or film. Except for cases like Atonement, where the sex scene is literally the whole reason there is a conflict at all, I think they are just a distraction. It’s almost like authors include them because they feel it’s not great literature unless there’s sex. And of course because sex sells. It’s too bad, really. I hate sex.
• This is definitely an artsy book, another reason why I can’t necessarily recommend it to all my friends without hesitation. Me, I spent years pouring over just such works and analyzing them to pieces, so I’m both used to and fond of artsy literature. For people who prefer a more straightforward read, however, I can’t say to read it. It will probably drive you crazy.
• I was a sophomore in high school (Grade 10, Canadians) during the September 11 attacks. I was so clueless. I remember feeling like, “Bummer,” about it, but my main concern was that we would end up going to war and all my high school guy friends would get drafted and probably die. Which was a valid concern, I suppose, but looking back it seems so very trite. I had no idea what so many Americans suffered—and still suffer—because of those four hijacked planes. Even years later, as I matured and understood a bit more what it was all about, I still never fully grasped the extent of that day. Reading this book changed that for me. The minute I finished it, I opened my laptop and researched it for hours. I had no clue, for example, that there are actually conspiracy theories that claim the attacks were promoted by the U.S. Government. I had no clue that the total casualty count was 3,000. I had no idea how truly horrifying those last moments must have been for the people trapped in the towers. I was just so clueless. In that way, I can say without doubt that reading this book changed my life. I am ashamed of how clueless I was for so long, and I am glad that I finally took it upon myself to learn about such a horrifying piece of my country’s—and my own—history. (Obviously, a less-clueless reader might not have quite such an eye-opening experience of this book, but I think you’ll find it’s a moving story all the same.)
• The ending was unsatisfying. But I realized that that’s exactly how so many Americans—even beyond Americans, as there were many people from other countries working and visiting the towers that day—feel about their lost loved ones, and somehow that makes it quite fitting and ultimately satisfying in its own way.
• I loved that the narrative was so fractured and out of order. For me, it reflected the chaos of those days and months, and I found myself thinking of some of the Modernist literature I studied in school. Modernism, both in art and in literature, came out of the post-war (World War 1) era, and some generally accepted themes of the time are chaos and fractured-ness. The jumbled paintings of Picasso reflect this especially, and in literature books like Generals Die in Bed, All Quiet on the Western Front, and A Farewell to Arms utilize this same kind of chaotic narrative. Many theorists attribute this style to the confusion and disillusionment so many felt in the wake of World War 1. The whole time I was reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, all I could think about was how the fractured, confusing narrative was just as reflective of the times as Modernism was of 1915 on. In other words, reading this book made me feel smart. Double plus.
Final Score: 9/10 (Not less because of above life-changingness, and minus one point for unnecessary sex scenes.)
As it turns out May was a big month for my literary intake! I also read:
The Selection by Kiera Cass
The Elite by Kiera Cass
The One by Kiera Cass
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
All New Square Foot Gardening, Second Edition by Mel Bartholemew
The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis
In the interest of time and not boring whatever few readers I might have left, I have decided to review only the books from the above list that anyone specifically asks me to review. I have lots to say about all of them, so don’t feel bad for making me work if you want to hear my reports. It’ll be good for me, probably.