Monday, 16 July 2012

Ironic Read 1: P.S. I Love You by Ceclia Ahern

I am one of those readers that normally strays away from books that are being devoured by the general public, particularly non-bookworms. So, I had no intention of reading Ceclia Ahern's P.S. I Love You- an international bestseller. I knew it had been made into a feature film, but I had also heard rave reviews from the aforementioned non-readers around me. Why I turn away from such crowd-pleasing novels is a whole other story. That being said, I must explain why I picked up this book. Long story short: I have been reading books in the virtual form far too long. And let's face it;e-books DO NOT have the charm of paper and ink. I read this book out of necessity. Indeed, my collection of digital tomes is at an all time low and I just came back from visiting book-phobic relatives who happen to have a threateningly low number of leisure-reading books and very many weight-enhancing albeit tasty food items. So, as you must have surmised, P.S. I Love You happened to be in their book collection (it was a gift I was told that only one member of the family has read so far). A real, mouthwatering, paperback- I couldn’t say no!

This story starts with a sobbing widow Holly Kennedy. It has been over a month since the death of her childhood sweetheart and soul mate Gerry. In midst of her heartbreak, confusion, and trauma she picks up a call from her mother who tells her Gerry had left a packet addressed to Holly. Holly finally makes it out of her house to claim her packet which turns out to contain ten letters, one for each of the remaining months of the year, which Gerry had written on his deathbed. These letters all dictate one thing Holly must do that month. Along with her closest friends and kind, big family, Holly makes it through the year. She even makes new friends, one who almost becomes more than just a friend. She overcomes fears and does things that bring back painful memories of Gerry. She becomes a stronger person.

The book is well written, but I cannot help but think it doesn’t send out the best message. Holly’s pain is understandable. She keeps lapsing into long phases of despair and hopelessness. She cannot bring herself to be happy for the good news in her friends’ lives, and she feels guilty for this. These are all things that are expected for a person who just lost a loved one, but Holly’s solution to all of this inevitably seems to be drinking and partying. I mean, fine, Gerry indirectly encourages this behavior through his monthly requests, and yes, they are Irish (stereotypes, stereotypes...), but overall, it all seems quite insensitive. I think Ahern could have aimed for a better route to recovery. When Holly isn’t whining and pining over Gerry or ignoring the people who care for her, she’s getting drunk! Not that Gerry’s plan doesn’t work. Holly manages to start to pull herself, her finances, and life together by the end of the year, but it seems haphazard. This book didn’t cut it for me. I could read through it without getting bored, indeed I did stay up till 3 A.M. to finish it, but I stand by my previous statement. This highly popular book is indeed overrated. The best reason I could think of for reading this book is that I got it in paperback form!

Rating: 2/5 Stars

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Memoir Junkie 2: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Disclaimer: This is part review and part reflection on my behalf…kindly bear with me!

Having been raised as an Asian in America, I was immediately intrigued and attracted to this memoir by Yale law professor Amy Chua. Indeed, it sat on my virtual reading shelf for quite some time, till last week when I finally got down to it, and I must say it was worth the anticipation. My first reaction to this personal account was that it was funny and depressing at the same time. Now this may seem impossible, but I have my reasons.

Amy Chua’s book is a clear self-parody about her parenting style. The title itself describes her as a “tiger mother”, where “tiger” refers to her Chinese zodiac sign and, incidentally, her personality. The book is divided into three parts and each part starts with a quote dictating the personality traits of people of the year of the tiger. Overall, Battle Hymn is a collection of anecdotes about Chua’s two daughters, Sophia and Lulu, and memories of her own childhood and parents. It is an explanation as to why, despite being a second generation Chinese American herself, she chose to stick to the “Chinese parenting model” and about why it worked with Sophia, but was a devastating failure with Lulu.

Tiger Mom Amy Chua with her cubs (Sophia (L) and Lulu(R))
The book mostly revolves around Chua’s strenuous and endless practice sessions with Sophia and Lulu and their respective instruments, piano and violin. She explains that excelling in classical instruments may be only path to escaping her worst fear: generational decline! So, what makes this funny instead of boring? This is the easy part of my explanation; it is always funny to witness the struggle of a parent to get their kids to obey. And though many people may deny that this is a laughable matter (I quote my mother “wait till it’s your turn”), everyone laughs. The things Chua does to force her girls to give their best and keep succeeding is to most Westerners: appalling and to all Asian Americans: obvious. These things include (in no particular order): never complimenting the kids in public, always taking the teacher’s side if there is ever a conflict between teacher and student, never giving in to complaints and signs of weakness or loss of confidence, worrying about the child’s feelings and dreams for themselves, etc. In short, it makes tiger parents seem like the cruel stepparents of Disney princesses. But whereas in Disney movies the princesses waltz away with a prince, all Asian parents know there is no such thing as princes and fairytales, there is only hard work and practice. The book is a page-turner; as a reader we always want to know if Sophia won the competition or what new tantrum Lulu will throw to outdo her-and I quote Lulu here- “Voldemort” mother. The only lagging passages for me were those that went into detail about the technicalities of a certain piano or violin piece, and this was probably because I am not a pianist or violinist.

It has been scientifically proven that playing a musical instrument enhances mathematical abilities. Chua has proven that it builds character, disciplines children, and gets them into top universities. Now only if my father would have read that article about how Einstein played violin earlier (a flaw in my upbringing or an explanation as to why I could never integrate numbers and variables?). I only played flute in the 7th grade and didn’t do so well in my higher mathematics classes. I should note that Sophia studied piano since she was three, played at Carnegie Hall at 14, and is now in Harvard.

Various covers of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Of course, there are different types of strict parents; at least Chua’s children achieved quite a few amazing goals. She pushed them beyond their limits (are there any such things?) and instilled in them confidence, discipline, and flawless, Ivy-worthy college applications. This is where the depression comes into picture. Reading about the successes that these two girls achieved at such a young age, I, as an Asian American of sorts, couldn’t help but think what Chua did wasn’t entirely wrong. She got somewhere with all the, for lack of better term, “harassment”. Whereas, with me, well, let’s just say I got quite a lot of higher education and bitterness towards “the system” and that’s about it. This book, no doubt, evoked many childhood memories. I vividly remember the times I had to make weird excuses as to why I couldn’t attend a sleepover even though my friends could see I clearly wanted to join the party. Being an Asian kid isn’t easy and the top grades come with a price. In case of the common “sleepover incidence”, it puts us in an awkward position: 1) either lie to your best friend (you have to go out with your family that day (to the library to get more Math practice books), don’t want to come because you need rest (fat chance, how about finishing that AP Bio lab and English essay?), etc.) or 2) admit you have overprotective parents who think any time away from textbooks is time wasted.

Take Case 1: The worst that can happen is that your dear friends will desert you and this fear will forever nag you.

Take Case 2: In this incidence many exponentially disastrous situations can result. If your friend tells her mom, the following may ensue: a) her mom may call yours to “talk things over and ensure that it’s all just good fun” (you’re busted), b) her mom may take offense and blatantly accuse yours of not trusting her: “Asian parents think they are so great and we are irresponsible” (busted again), c) if your friend’s mom is hyperactive, she may do what comes to most Westerners’ thoughts when they get a hint that a stranger’s child is in slight discomfort due to their parents: call Child Services (you are dead).
I didn’t want to know what would happen if I asked my father if I could go to the sleepover. Indeed, to this day, I don’t know what would have happened, but I have a feeling I would have had some rather sleepless nights and endless lectures of how I wasn’t “serious”.

See how it’s foolproof on the parent’s side? I have now become an objective scientist (I am absolutely squirming as l use this terminology) that can analyze any situation using the scientific method. I have set up an experiment using you, the reader, as a “test”: if you couldn’t handle reading the above paragraph, this book isn’t for you! For everyone else, dig in. Chua invites you into her life and while I don’t recommend adopting all her tricks, there is a lot to be learned about extremism and how things can backfire, even on a “tiger mother”.

Overall, I think this book is a fun read for anyone who has ever wanted to peek inside the home of overachieving Asian Americans. Now, if only there was a book on how Western parents turn out the most Nobel laureates. I’m waiting…


Friday, 11 May 2012

Book Review: The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

Our society today has this morbid fascination of dark, cannibalistic creatures that prowl the night and pounce on the nearest unsuspecting human. These creatures, more often than not, possess excessive strength accompanied by an excessive physical beauty which makes them all the more attractive to the eyes of their prey. You are sorely mistaken if you think you will find such brazenly beautiful and lustful predators in ‘The Monstrumologist’. But what you will find will blow your socks off!

Hardcover|434 pages|Published September 22nd 2009 by Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers|Edition language: English

Our narrator, William James Henry, dies at an old age home alone and without an heir. He leaves behind a few journals which seem more like a figment of his imagination than a real life diary. In it he claims he was born in the year 1876, which makes him 131 years old at the time of his death. If that is not unreal enough, he describes bizarre events that apparently occurred when he was an apprentice of a certain Dr. Pellinore Warthrop who is described as being a “monstrumologist”. He claims that the recalcitrant, singularly curious doctor discovered the existence of a seemingly mythical species known as the Anthropophagi – hideous, headless creatures with maws equipped with rows upon rows of shark-like teeth and large black, orb-like eyes set in their shoulders; their food of choice being Homo sapiens.

A twelve year old Will Henry, orphaned in a terrible fire that left him homeless and alone, is taken in by the Monstrumologist; who was also the employer of Will Henry’s father. Although they do not share a bond of love, the doctor and his assistant find a reluctant companion in each other. Everything takes a turn for the worse when a grave robber arrives at midnight on the doctor’s doorstep with an appalling cargo – a dead Anthropophagus wrapped around the corpse of a young girl in a sick imitation of an embrace. That is where the real adventure starts! Can Will Henry and his whimsical guardian overcome the infestation that has been brought to the shores of their town? And an even more unnerving question still remains – did the events described in the old man’s journal really occur, or is it a figment of his imagination?

The novel was pretty gripping, a sure page-turner. The character of Dr. Warthrop was equal parts whimsical, intelligent, sensitive and intractable. You cannot help but sympathize with his need for approval from a father who’s long been dead; a father who never loved him as a child. His intimacy issues are what make him a flawed character with a certain depth. And it is quite evident that he is carrying forward his father’s legacy, both in Monstrumology as well as when it comes to raising a child. He never treats Will Henry cruelly, mind you. But he never treats him as a child either. According to the doctor, “Will Henry’s services are indispensable” to him. His services mind, and not Will Henry himself; though I hardly expected the reclusive doctor to admit to it in the first few pages.

As for Will Henry (our narrator), he could have run away long before the gory events in the spring of 1888. But he sticks by the doctor’s side through it all. Answers to all his “Snap to’s” and “Will Henreeeee’s” without a complaint. He feels responsible for the doctor somehow. Maybe because his father felt the same way; or because, deep in his heart, he knows his father died serving the doctor. And he does not want to disappoint his father. Like the doctor, he too is striving hard for the approval that would never come.

The doctor is apparently unresponsive to Will’s demands at first. But as the plot progresses, and the mystery of the anthropophagi’s appearance in New Jerusalem starts to unravel, does the doctor start showing his lesser-known sensitive side. The character of John Kearns aka Richard Cory aka John J. J. Schmidt is a total treat! I don’t really know why I liked him so much; he was probably the most flawed character in the book. But he brings a brand of dark humor into the plot that the serious, strong-willed doctor could never have. He is pretty despicable, yes, but he is still the most interesting character in the story. And he is also responsible for the most gore aside from the anthropophagi. Wits and violence, I likey!

I must warn you though; there is a lot of graphic description of gore in this book. If you are not comfortable with that, you should not pick this as your next read. But if you are like me, meaning if you do not mind stories about blood and cannibalism, jump right in! I assure you, you won’t be disappointed. On the contrary, this is a fresh take on urban-fantasy-meets-historical-fiction.

Verdict: Don’t miss this for the WORLD!
Book Rating

Memoir Junkie 1: "Bossypants" by Tina Fey and "Seriously...I’m Kidding" by Ellen DeGeneres

Let me start by saying I’m innately NOT a funny person. I rarely can make people smile, let alone laugh, giggle, guffaw, cackle, chuckle, chortle, snicker, snigger, hee-haw, cachinnate, or make any other similar sound. So don’t blame me later if you came to this page and expected to physically  get rid of stress by expelling large amounts of air (mostly CO2 and mostly from your mouth) whilst making comical sounds. Now, don’t misinterpret this; I do have a sense of humor, everyone does. And it’s not nonexistent (I do know people whose sense of humor is nonexistent and, yes, I inevitably question their humanity). So, why am I declaring my level of funniness? I just want to put it out there that on the rare occasion I make someone laugh, I secretly glow inside…and this is NOT something I generally share with folks. But as I most probably can’t see or hear you, I would have no clue you read this, and perhaps made one of the aforementioned sounds; please leave a comment to let me know if you did and tweet me the sound…it would make my day! Now, in order to make up for broody people like me, the world also hosts funny people who try as they may can’t make people not laugh. Some of these people are women, who wrote books to share their stories, that (surprise!), made me laugh!
Before I divulge my thoughts and opinions about these two books I’d just like to mention that prior to reading them I had only occasionally watched Saturday Night Live and had only heard of 30 Rock, but never watched it. Also, Mean Girls is an awesome flick! As for Ellen, she really is one of the best talk show hosts in the business, and I have many a times become victim to her YouTube clips. (Doesn’t everyone keep tabs of how many times she’s scared Taylor Swift? No? Moving on then…) The general structures of both ladies’ books is similar. Both women make many references to their childhoods, claim that their books are for “all types of readers”, give tips on how to become a cover girl (Fey) or a CoverGirl (Ellen), dole out information about how a woman can survive in modern society, talk at length about homosexuality, etc. In short, they have the basics and magic words to keep the contemporary reader glued. Who doesn’t like to read about a woman trying to make it on the cover of a LGBT magazine in a man’s world using her childhood experiences? The length of both books is similar, but while I found Fey’s debut book gripping and funny throughout, Ellen’s style of humor and writing made me weary and was, at times, even irritable.
Fey allows the reader to visit her past and, as memoirs go, she takes us on a journey through her life, from her “employee stage” (community theater, stand-up, SNL) to her “bossypants stage” (marriage, 30 Rock, motherhood). Her writing is introspective and direct, which I loved. The reader is never distracted by the jokes and sarcasm, and you’ll find yourself wishing she was older just so she would have more anecdotes and memories to write about! (Miss Fey, if you ever read this, I most certainly would never wish premature aging on any lady, so please, take it as a compliment, or better yet, write another book in a few years!)
Ellen’s book is also funny (like I mentioned before, inherently funny people just can’t help it), but I was not a fan of the haphazard arrangement of content. I know what you’re thinking- memoirs don’t have to be chronological. But that’s not really the problem. The book starts out great with very typical “Ellen jokes and sarcasm”. At this point I never suspected that I was being lead right into an onslaught of over-the-top nonsensical, repetitive bad jokes! It’s towards the middle that the “random chapters” become too much to bear, even resulting in boredom. (The worst chapter is “The Longest Chapter”, which incidentally is not the longest and for which I recommend the reader should take half of Ellen’s advice and “skip ahead”, but do not return to it…you won’t be missing anything!)   
Overall, Fey comes across as the great storyteller she is and sticks to the first-person point-of-view (POV), which is expected for an autobiographical sketch. Meanwhile, Ellen takes a stab at involving the reader more and, in my opinion, makes a mess by alternating the first- and second-person POVs. She basically seems to be trying too hard to be her usual random, hilarious self and “talk” through the book as if it’s just another episode of her show. Unfortunately, this is a failed attempt!  
What I found most ironic was that I expected to like Ellen’s book more because she was someone who I had watched frequently, but ended up reading Bossypants twice. I wasn’t really familiar with Fey’s work and admittedly picked up the book because I’m attracted to memoirs and needed a laugh (hence choosing a book by a comedian). Nevertheless, I’m glad to have read both books by these inspiring women. So if you feel you are in need of anything between a twitter and a horselaugh (no these are not social networking sites), I highly recommend these hilarious, tear-jerking-in-a-good-way books!
Note: I am a firm believer of “listening to audiobooks is cheating and not reading”, but these are the exception to this thumb rule. They are simply funnier in the authors’ voices (I listened to Bossypants after my first read when I acquired the audio version). Alternatively, you can read them in your mind in the respective author’s voice (I did this for Ellen’s book without initially even realizing it).


Seriously…I’m Kidding:

Thursday, 10 May 2012

We Launch This FRIDAY!!

The 2 Hashtags will officially be in session from Friday- 11th May, 2012. #SeeYouAllThen :D