Enchanting Elephant Girl

06.3.11

Jane Devin has written a book. It is without a doubt the best book I’ve read in at least a year. I’ve not read the ending so I wouldn’t be able to tell you if it’s one of my top five, but assuming that Jane nailed the ending it will be.

You see, I can’t finish the book slowly enough, let me explain.

In January I came across a post titled Snooki Makes Me Want to Off Myself: My Rant About Simon & Schuster Dipping Into the Celebrity Cesspool. I’m reasonably certain that Annika or Nina shared it with me, and this post made me fall in love with the author’s writing style. I went through her archives and sent her a note begging to be one of the people who could read her book when it was done. I might have even connected her with an agent, but I don’t think that worked out all that well. Too bad for the agent.

Several weeks ago Jane sent me a zip file with her book in it. Because I don’t pay very close attention I started reading it, got a hundred pages in on day one, and sent her an email saying, “My gawd, you really do punish the protagonist.”

Jane replied to me, “It’s a memoir.”

I gasped, because I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading, but I couldn’t not believe it. I’m totally engrossed in the story and Elephant Girl has made me believe in the goodness of people while making me wonder if evil fills vacuums.

The writing is mesmerizing and the path is glorious filled with small victories and larger defeats, but somehow makes me feel alive and empowered. One of my favorite books of all time is The Color of Water, and Elephant Girl reminds me of this so much both in that it’s hopeful without being silly and because of that I’m unwilling to finish the book.

When I read James McBride’s memoir (and tribute to his mother) I stopped reading about thirty pages from the end and started reading a page a day. This way I was able to make the book last longer. I’m 30 pages from the end of Elephant Girl and I absolutely refuse to finish it in a timely manner. I’ll be reading a page a day for the next month. I’m not ready to put it down.

So Jane, this is my apology to you. I’m sorry that I can’t hurry and give you feedback about your book. Thus far it is magnificent and I love it about a thousand times more than I could ever love your blog. I found one typo, but the execution is flawless. Offering you writing tips would be as outrageous as tidying up a Picasso.

 

Amy Chua: Tiger Mother Without a Plan

01.17.11

My inbox has exploded with links to articles about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Everyone was asking me what I thought of Amy Chua’s controversial new book.

Amy Chua is a marketing genius.

I wanted to pop off about the posted excerpts of her book. I wanted to talk about how miserable her daughters must be, how lonely and socially inept that sort of child must be. My instinct was to question the manliness of her husband, and wonder how she had time for a career. I found that press was more than willing to make those leaps for me. No one seems to want to print the full text of the front cover:

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 thirteen-year-old.

The book is good. It’s mostly well written and I was able to read it in a day. It’s extremely uncomfortable to read. The lack of perspective is unnerving. As Amy Chua talks about her relationships with her daughters in a matter of fact tone, I was waiting for love and tenderness to peek through. It is only in the occasional line that Ms. Chua talks about loving her daughters. It is a strange read for this Western Mother.

It is clear through Amy Chua’s incredible actions and her unwavering focus that she loves her daughters. It is just as clear to me that this isn’t the sort of love I’d like to pepper on my two children.

According to the book, the Chua-Rubenfeld household decided before the children were born that they would be raised the Chinese way. In the many swipes Chua takes at the Rubenfeld family we learn that her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, was raised in a very permissive American home. Every time she writes about his psychologist parents with her trademark unemotional tone the reader winces. Sometimes I was left wondering how this marriage could last, and other times imagining how my husband would explode were I to treat the children he loved in such a callous manner. The reader is left to wonder if Rubenfeld ever could have understood just what Chinese parenting meant to Chua.

The book is good until page 222. It is an engaging light read about a mother who is driven to ensure that her children succeed. As you turn each and every page Chua’s unreasonableness escalates, and just as it’s about to hit a crescendo she has glimmers of self awareness, and moments where she realizes that her daughters (and the rest of the world) do not like her. These chinks in her armor are all that keep the reader’s blood from running cold. For a moment Chua self reflects and you think there is hope, but then she gets back into gear and becomes the brutal taskmaster for her daughters once again.

When I started writing I asked a screenwriter friend of mine what the secrets were to crafting a good story. He told me this:

Your outline is everything. It’s a map to the story you want to tell. When you draft your outline you are essentially creating a map as you would for a trip, only it has to have every single detail on it. If you have to go to the bathroom after four hours you need to know exactly where you’ll stop. If you chose the wrong offramp there’s a very good chance that you will never get back on track. Most writers have a difficult time ending their books, not because they don’t tell a good story, but because they didn’t have a good plan. They wanted to go from Los Angeles to New York, but they didn’t know that they were going to have to drive through Pennsylvania.

Amy Chua knew she wanted to raise her daughters the Chinese way. Amy Chua believed in her heart that it was the best way her girls to be raised. One daughter played Carnegie Hall while in the eighth grade, and then had the unusual insight to write an essay that included the phrase, “Carnegie Hall. It didn’t seem right. This was supposed to be the unattainable goal, the carrot of false hope that would keep me practicing for an entire lifetime.” Sophia Chua shows more intuition in her three sentences than her mother shows in 229 pages.

Amy Chua’s book and her mothering share some undeniable traits. They are void of outward loving emotion, but incredibly passionate. Her book, like her mothering is laborious and tidy, it is the perfection she is striving for, but careens out of control. She is unable to write a good chapter to end her otherwise well written book, just as she is unable to control her teenage daughter.

On page 223 the chapter entitled Coda begins. A Coda is the concluding section of a musical composition. This chapter is awkward at every turn. There’s an uncomfortable family photograph, and a confession that the bulk of the book had been written in just eight weeks. She mentions that her husband and her daughters had helped her edit the stories, and that is why we see so little of her husband.

After reading about Sophia and Lulu and the childhood they were denied, I was looking for a chapter that would pay tribute to them and to their talents. What I got instead were a few words about the family loving her in the awkward way we’d glimpsed throughout the book.

Our children love us because we are their parents and we needn’t be anything more than Mom and Dad to get that adoration. They look up to us and work for praise, love and hugs. I have always believed that childhood is worth sanctifying, and that play is the work of children.

Today I asked my son what he wanted to be when he grows up. “You always ask me that.” He said. As he sighed and put his hand to his forehead, he looked up at me and asked me, “What do you want me to be when I grow up?”

“A good father and a good husband.” Was my only reply.