Tag Archives: music

It’s Humor, Folks!: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

cover image of audiobookThere were so many excerpts from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother audiobook by Amy Chua that I wanted someone else to listen to, that I was sorry I didn’t listen to this when it came out (in 2011) and everyone else was reading and talking about it. If I had known it was funny, I would have tried to get to it sooner. Whether it was marketing that pushed it as a parenting book, reviewers who got the wrong end of the stick, or just my being misled by the shocked uproar over this book, but I didn’t know it was intended to be humorous.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a memoir of parenting, but in the way that essays by David Sedaris are memoirs about his own experiences. Pretty nearly everything is exaggerated to the extreme for effect. So, even though readers know 1.) that Amy Chua’s two girls never called Child Services on her; 2.) that the author is a highly respected lawyer married to a highly respected law professor; and 3.) that many arguments can be hugely funny later even though seemingly serious at the time – there were still so many readers posting catty commentary like “What was Jed Rubenfeld doing while wife Amy Chua was calling their children garbage and threatening to burn their stuffed animals?” (Daily Beast) or readers worried about the mental well-being of the two daughters, that I thought the book was intended to be a serious espousal of strict parenting. (From what I can tell, BTW, the two daughters are more than able to handle their mother. And, anyway, she’s given away her parenting secrets now.)

If you have trouble seeing the humor in, for example, The Grinch who Stole Christmas TV show because you feel so sorry for Max the dog even though you know that in the end all will be well, the Grinch’s heart grows several sizes, and, after the story ends, the Grinch might even publish a best-selling book about his personal growth as a dog-owner and Who-advocate – then this book with its epic, knock-down-drag-out battles between mother Amy and daughter Lulu over violin practice and older daughter Sophia’s scorned efforts at peacemaking is not for you. Like the original Grinch TV show, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a sharply worded, cleverly constructed cartoon.

The author narrates the audiobook, which lends it authenticity, and she does an excellent job of it, although you may notice her being extra careful to enunciate at times, something that isn’t usually obvious with professional audiobook narrators. Listen to an excerpt from Penguin Audio here.

For a balanced take on the distinctions between “Western” parenting and “Asian” parenting made in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I like this Telegraph article, The Discipline of a Chinese Mother from UK novelist Allison Pearson, author of I Don’t Know How She Does It.

Here’s one infamous scene from one of Lulu’s refusals to practice her violin, described in Chapter 11:
She punched, kicked. She grabbed the music score and tore it to shreds. I taped the score back together and encased it in a plastic shield so that it could never be destroyed again. Then I hauled Lulu’s dollhouse to the car and told her I’d donate it to the Salvation Army piece by piece if she didn’t have The Little White Donkey perfect by the next day. When Lulu said, “I thought you were going to the Salvation Army. Why are you still here?” I threatened her with no lunch, no dinner, no Christmas or Hanukkah presents, no birthday parties for two, three, four years. When she still kept playing it wrong I told her she was purposely working herself into a frenzy because she was secretly afraid she couldn’t do it. I told her to stop being lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent, and pathetic.
Jed took me aside. He told me to stop insulting Lulu – which I wasn’t even doing, I was just motivating her…

The book had a little too much about music practice for me (Amy Chua is clearly a classical music lover.) and a little too much about the family pet Samoyed, but I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s journey through a hellish period of motherhood to come out the other side a little older, wiser, and not so over-confident.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Chua, Amy, author & narrator
Penguin Audio, 2011
6 hours, 5 CDs

Disclosure: I borrowed this audiobook through my public library system.

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Decade of Decay: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

Cover image of The Lola QuartetIf it’s true that your twenties are the “Defining Decade” – the crucial, formative years that determine how the rest of your life will go – then the troubled young adults in Emily St. John Mandel’s third novel, The Lola Quartet, are definitely screwed. Their lives have all gone off the rails, somewhere along the line. Depression and decay lurk everywhere in the oppressive heat of Sebastian, Florida, the town where they grew up and to which they eventually return.

The third novel by Canadian-American author Emily St. John Mandel, The Lola Quartet is composed of vignettes, whose order at first appears random and tangential, before their connections and intersections gradually become apparent. Ten years after high school graduation, when they dissolved the Lola Quartet and went their separate ways, the four former members of the prize-winning high school jazz ensemble – Gavin, Daniel, Sasha, and Jack – are brought back into tangential contact with each other through their connection to Sasha’s younger half-sister – the tough, vulnerable, and elusive Anna.

The novel’s structure and style seems inspired by the style of quick-shifting gypsy jazz music, as performed by the real-life master guitarist Django Reinhart, who is idolized by Liam Deval, one of the many musicians in the novel. Here’s the description, from early in the book, of Liam Deval’s jazz guitar duo that Gavin is listening to after his life has imploded. Gavin has a sense that these performances he is witnessing are momentous, but doesn’t know that Liam Deval plays another role in his story, as well:

Arthur Morelli was older, an unsmiling man in his late thirties or early forties who played with a heavy swing. In his solos he wheeled out into wild tangents, he pushed the music to the edge before he came back to the rhythm. Liam Deval looked about Gavin’s age, late twenties or early thirties, the star of the show: a perfect counterpoint to Morelli, all shimmering arpeggios and light sharp tones. Gavin had never seen anyone’s hands move so quickly. His skill was astonishing. Jazz slipped into gypsy music and back again, a thrilling hybrid form. Gavin knew it wasn’t new, what they were doing, but it was the first time he’d encountered it live.

The Lola Quartet’s structure of intersecting stories building atmospheric tension reminded me of Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply. If you liked Await Your Reply, you should definitely add The Lola Quartet to your to-read list. (Just keep in mind the description of Await Your Reply in The New York Times Sunday Book Review: “ambitious, gripping and unrelentingly bleak.”)


A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I thought I was so behind in reading this novel or collection of linked short stories that reviewers have been raving about but when I finally got around to it, I realized that three of the first four chapters had been published as short stories in The New Yorker, so I wasn’t as behind as I had thought. Anyway, the feeling of being behind is a good way to come to the book, which is all about the passage of time — growing up, growing old, gaining perspective, losing your touch, falling behind, looking ahead.

You probably heard that A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan won the National Book Critics Circle Award this month.  If you haven’t read it already, why not?

In case your reasons for not reading it yet are the same as mine, here’s why they shouldn’t keep you from making the same mistake as me, i.e. not reading this right away:

  1. The title: If I had known that A Visit from the Goon Squad was a reference to an Elvis Costello song, the title would have been more appealing. Instead it made me think Mafia, and put me off.
  2. The theme: A Visit from the Goon Squad was described as about the “music industry“, a “rock and roll novel“, and as having lots of references to songs and artists that I figured I wouldn’t get. I probably did miss a lot of musical references but that’s OK. The story was about a lot more than music. And I did happen to grow up in the same musical era as the author, which was nice.
  3. The cover: i.e. a picture of a guitar. See #2 above.
  4. The form: Since the author herself admits in interviews that a novel’s being described as experimental doesn’t make her want to run out and read it immediately, I don’t feel so bad that I didn’t put A Visit from the Goon Squad at the top of my list because it was referred to as experimental so often.

Some other bloggers’ recent opinions:
Books I Done Read

Hungry Like the Woolf

The New York Times review of A Visit from the Goon Squad
The Washington Post review of A Visit from the Goon Squad