The Happiest Refugee

…by Anh Do.

Australian comedian Anh Do nearly didn’t make it to Australia. Born in Vietnam, Anh left with his family as a toddler on a boat. To some place. Met by pirates on the way and a treacherous journey altogether, they eventually got accepted as refugees to Australia. Anh talks about the initial good times the whole family had despite struggling with finances. His parents went on to get divorced. After their father walked out on them, Anh and his siblings Khoa and Tram lived with their mother who sewed to try and make ends meet. Anh and his brother had a part-scholarship to study at St. Aloysius College at Milson’s Point but the financial pressures were at the back of his mind. He also describes his post-school years and his journey through university and TAFE and meeting the love of his life Suzie at uni. And of course, how he became a comedian and his journey till now.

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while. And I’m so glad I did. I like Anh Do as a comedian. And it was interesting to read his journey from a toddler till today. It was a heart warming read about the struggles he and his family went through as refugees and how they saw the silver lining in most things and made the best that they could with what they had. Most importantly, given the brouhaha we have been having here lately about ‘boat-people’, Anh’s story is a great reminder of how the stupid right-wing people are so black-and-white about their views of refugees. Or ‘boat-people’ as they like to call them. It also gives somewhat of an insight as to why someone would want to make the dangerous journey on a boat to another country. It is also lovely to see how the family embraced Australia and love the country. I identified with the love for Australia being an immigrant myself {albeit, not a refugee}.

I found myself laughing out loud in several places and crying silent tears in some others. Both of happiness and sorrow. I’ll leave you with some excerpts from the book before rating it:

Talking about his girlfriend Amanda:

Amanda also had one other problem that wasn’t technically a relationship breaker, but definitely something that was a little bit odd. She couldn’t say ‘Vietnamese’. She would say Viet-man-nese, over and over again.

‘It’s not that hard’, I told her. ‘Sound it out: Viet-na-mese.’

‘VIET-MAN-NESE.’

‘Viet-man-nese? What the hell is that? Like some refugee superhero or something? I am Viet-Man! I will fly over to your house and save your dinner with the softest hot bread rolls.’

On the journey by boat:

There was nothing but flat, blue water in every direction. The heat of the tropical afternoon sun clung to our skin and shoulders, and people tried to shield their eyes from the glare as the boat skidded along the frothy wave.

All in all, Anh shows us how fortunate he is to be where his life is at currently. And that resonated deeply with me. We forget all the things we have in this lovely country. We whinge and complain about everything without realising all the benefits we have. Like Anh Do, I know how lucky I am to be here.

And that’s what I loved about this book. I give it a rating of 4.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Note: This post originally appeared on my personal blog, Over Cups of Coffee.

Adrift – A Junket Junkie in Europe

— by Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu

Before beginning the review, I have to say that this is my very first travel journal. I have read travel anecdotes and accounts on blogs all over the internet, but I had not read such an extensive journal till date.

My first reaction after reading this book was simple awe and a decided kinship! It is amazing that this author can pack up her bags and leave to the most favored destinations of the world trusting a shoestring budget and a bunch of relatives & friends. I am yet to go alone on a trip anywhere! And she managed most of Europe on her own. She is living my dream and I have to applaud her for this.

I started this book not knowing what to expect, but the author has managed to move me with detailed accounts of all her destinations. She has devoted a chapter each to significant places of visit. Mostly following a pattern, she begins by introducing her hosts in that place, all of them old friends or relatives. She then briefly describes her accommodation conditions and then launches into an extensive narration of the history, nuances, culture, people and cuisine of each of the places. And being a self-professed foodie, she describes the culinary delights of the place with mouth-watering descriptions! She effectively captures the core attraction of the place through her experience of it and feelings towards it.

As much as the book is about Europe, it is also about the author. Her personality and preferences shine through her words. Without being too narcissistic, she manages to balance the information and her own personal feelings towards these destinations. We gather from her journal that she is a seasoned traveller and not a mere tourist. It is not her job to go to catalogued places and take pictures , live in expensive resorts and wind up a trip. She is determined to soak in the experience of a particular place. By meeting its people, by eating the signature dishes, participating in the local events and in general by enjoying herself thoroughly!
The journey through Europe for Puneet starts by the discovery of a ticket that was gifted to her long time ago. Some rummaging around found her a couple of relatives in Germany and UK. So she gathers her essentials, scrapes some money together and sets off on the trip. With her determination to not delegate herself to being a tourist, our happy traveller sets a few ground rules for herself. She does break a few of them but under pressing circumstances. Her wit and humour are a part of her writing too. She also manages to sufficiently convey her sympathy when she visits places with unfortunate history like the house where Anne Frank’s family hid from the Gestapo. She parties hard and fully exploits the delights of places like Amsterdam. She finds the best of eateries in Paris, bicycles through the plains of Sweden and even manages to travel on a train in Paris without a ticket! Though not many misadventures, except a near escape from a customs officer and a bad movie experience, her other happenings are thrilling enough for somebody who truly would love to go to Europe!

I was a bit put off by some of the writing though. Though I do applaud her vocabulary, the book consisted of one too many unnecessary words. Also some of the complex sentences were not well formed and it is real hindrance to read a sentence multiple times, distracting the reader from the real intent of the book. Also, I was amused to find British influences in her writing. The trip really seems to have had an impact on her! Looking over other aspects of presentations, I have to say, the cover art of the book really did its job by capturing the mood.

All in all the book is an excellent ride through Europe. I thoroughly envy the author for her spirit and independence. Still I hope she goes to more places and documents more of her travels for me to read!

My Rating 4/5
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Summer at Tiffany

…by Marjorie Hart.

Set in the mid 1940s, this book is the author’s memoir of the summer she spent in New York City working as the first every female page in the famous Tiffany and Co. along with her best friend. She chronicles how she and her friend, girls from Iowa move to NYC, and spend their time there first looking for a job, then finding one and moving on to exploring so much that the city has to offer once they have a steady income.

As the author writes about her best summer ever, the reader gets a glimpse at the charming city of New York back in those days, the insides of Tiffany and Co., and the sweet bond of friendship the girls share.  The writing is simple and the flow of the book is fine enough to have the reader’s attention. Unlike any other memoir that I’ve read, the storyline of this book is on the light; it’s on the easy-to-read side of the spectrum.

It has bit of Chic Lit flavor to it; so the fact that I took up reading this after a couple of serious books made me appreciate it more. Reading this in between two heart-wrenching stories made for a good transition…not sure if I would’ve enjoyed it just as much had that not been the case because, in parts, it felt dull.

Overall, a quick read, if you are looking for one.

My rating: 3*.

*for the rating scale, click here.

Running with Scissors

‘Running with Scissors’ is a memoir by Augusten Burroughs about his crazy childhood and adolescence years with his dysfunctional family. His mother is a struggling writer who suffers from some form of mental illness (possibly bipolar or a personality disorder) and his father is a functional alcoholic who works as a university professor. Augusten’s older brother is John Elder Robison who wrote his own autobiography about growing up without a diagnosis. However, due to the age difference between the two, John is featured minimally as he had already moved out of home when Augusten started his memoirs. Augusten’s parents constantly bicker and fight to the point where he thought they would definitely kill one another.

In order to save their marriage, they saw a psychiatrist, Dr Finch, one who his mother had been seeing individually. However, his parents did end up getting divorced. Some years after that, he began living with Dr Finch and his own dysfunctional family. Apparently, Dr Finch opened up his home to his patients and that included a paedophile who became Augusten’s lover, a woman with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and of course, Augusten. Dr Finch’s household is quite different from Augusten’s own volatile one where there still were rules and regulations. In Dr Finch’s house, once a person reached the age of 13, they were free to do as they pleased. Hence, if it meant dating an adult, it was fine. If a child didn’t want to go to school, that too was fine. If Dr Finch wanted to sleep around with other ‘wives’, that too was acceptable.

Running with Scissors is a witty look into what could be perceived as being a horrible chlidhood. Yet, Burroughs looks at it through dark humour and not self-pity as some memoirs do. He doesn’t look at himself as a victim but looks at his life through curious lenses. Just as an outsider would. However, at the same time, you can see just how messed up everyone is. He does seem to realise at one point that despite all the freedom in Dr Finch’s house, there can be something as too much freedom. It seems to reach a point where no one cares. He takes us through his trouble with school, his sexual escapades, understanding his sexual orientation, his relationship with the paedophile, his trysts with drugs and alcohol and of course, dealing with a parent with mental health problems.

He has changed the names of the characters in the book and I think that’s understandable given that they are all so messed up. It probably wouldn’t be fair to them especially if they have started families of their own to be known in such a manner. Dr Finch is a weird character and I was very surprised that he wasn’t monitored by the medical association as he was quite dodgy in terms of his practice. While Augusten did have his ups and downs, I think the main thing he seems to say is that he is still managing. Despite his messed up childhood, he can manage. He’s not perfect. But he is living a decent reasonable life.

If you do read it, be prepared to be shocked. I give this book a rating of 3.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Battle hymn of the tiger mother

‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger mother’ is a book by Amy Chua on what she calls Chinese parenting versus Western parenting. Let me just say, I didn’t pick up this book by choice; rather it was a decision made by the book club I’m part of given that the other members are all parents and I work with children and thereby have an understanding of parenting. It is a memoir of her journey parenting her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu) the Chinese way along with her husband, a white Jewish American, Jed.

Amy’s parents were migrants to America making her a first generation immigrant. She and her sisters were brought up the ‘Chinese way’ and she believes this to be far superior to the Western way of bringing up children. She does admit that the Chinese form of parenting is emulated by other cultures such as Indian, Korean or Ghanian among others. Basically, she asserts that unlike Western parenting, Chinese parents believe the following:

1. Schoolwork always comes first

2. An A-minus is a bad grade

3. Your children must be 2 years ahead of their classmates in maths

4. You must never compliment your child in public

5. If you child ever disagrees with a teacher or a coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach

6. The only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal

7. That medal must be gold

Yes, and that’s exactly what she brought up her two daughters with.

She also states what Sophia and Lulu were never allowed to do: attend sleepovers, have playdates, be in a school play, watch tv or play computer games, choose their own extra-curricular activities, get grades less than an A, and not play piano or violin.

In her book she talks about how she brought up her two daughters with the above messages. Never letting them go on playdates. Having about 4 to 6 hours of violin (for Lulu) and piano (for Sophia) practice. Doing extra school work. She pushed them to work on their music and their academics. While Sophia rarely resisted, Lulu on the other hand rebelled eventually especially upon reaching 13. Amy talks about how Sophia ended up playing at Carnegie Hall (thanks to her pushing) and Lulu attempted to get into Julliard’s pre-college course. Currently the girls are 19 and 16.

My take on all of it — this woman is crazy! Nuts! Messed up!

While I agree with kids needing to pushed a certain amount, I do not agree with a one-dimensional life that revolves solely around success in academics and music. I found myself reading the book with shock. Some of her tactics border on child abuse. She talks about instances where she wouldn’t let her kids take a bathroom break in between practising especially if they were opposing her. Another incident she mentioned was when 4 year old Lulu and 7 year old Sophia gave her handmade birthday cards for her birthday and she verbally put them down saying the cards weren’t good enough and they hadn’t put enough thought and effort into it. She went on to tell them about how much effort she puts into hosting their birthdays and asked them to re-make the cards! Tell me that’s not crazy!

There is an undertone of her bragging throughout the book — about the amount of money they have, the big house, the talented daughters, the parties she hosts, the people she know. You wonder whether the pushing of her children to the nth degree is in order for her to be able to brag. Ultimately, it’s her black and white view of Chinese v/s Western parenting that irks me. Her condescending attitude to ‘western’ parenting is hard to handle as is her superiority complex about Chinese parenting. And while it may have worked with her older daughter thanks to a passive temperament, it screws up a lot more kids than she realises. It’s scary to see a book like this out there. It almost justifies this form of parenting to those parents that already espouse to it. When in fact, it’s these very children that hide mental health problems from their parents or rebel or are so anxious and perfectionistic themselves as adults that they struggle with any form of failure.

I won’t deny that this form of parenting might work with some kids. But it won’t work with all. More importantly, if all you want for your child is success, success and more success, then her methods probably will work. But if you want your child to build relationships, to have friends and well, to have a childhood, a middle road is what is important. A positive parenting style coupled with encouragement is what will most likely work.

My rating for this book: 1. If you have to read it, borrow it from a library and learn how not to parent your kid. By that, I don’t mean doing the exact opposite but finding the middle road.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

The Glass Castle

…by Jeannette Walls.

Alcoholic father. Irrational mother. Dysfunctional family. A nomadic life. That is only the big picture of the author’s childhood. This memoir details her and her siblings’ growing years in a not-so-stable home with parents who lived in their own little worlds. The author writes of the adverse conditions that she had to live through – starvation, no proper personal hygiene, etc. – and shows how she merged out it all as a success and made a life of her own.

The mother doesn’t seem concerned when the author mentions to her the episode of how her uncle tried to sexually abuse her; she (the mother) dismisses it with a “he’s just lonely” comment. The father almost pushes the author to prostitution in his drunken state. The mother refuses welfare even though the family has no stable income coming in and saves chocolates for herself when the children are left to starve for days. The father has visions of making it big in the world with his inventions, and thus doesn’t stay in a job even when his family is in utter need for that income. And the children, as they grow up, find ways to bring in money and save enough so that they can get out of the house after finishing high school.

Some of the incidents seemed too harsh to be true. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that parents can be so negligent. But even amid all that abuse around, the author doesn’t forget to shine light upon the nicer side of her parents. She talks fondly of her father’s brilliant mind – educating her on many topics, planning to build a glass castle. She discusses the optimistic side of her mother. She says stories of how she shared a special bond with her father. She shares memories of her mother’s art. But the negativity that the parents brought into the children’s lives take over whatever the few positive characteristics they might have had.

So, it came as a big relief, to me as a reader, when the children broke free and got away from home one after the other as soon as they finished school to try and make something of their futures. It was brave of them to have gone through so much and to get motivated to build a better life for themselves.

One thing I couldn’t understand was how the author could bring herself to forgive her parents for all that they’d done. Abuse, coming from anyone is still abuse, right? So, seeing her patch things up with her parents left me in with mixed feelings – on one hand I applaud at her kind heart to be able to move forward without minding the dreaded past, but on the other hand I am also left wondering if that is the right thing to do. Had I been in her situation, I would’ve turned my back on my parents as soon as I got out of the house.

Overall, this extremely heart wrenching, depressing story of children who grew up in a dysfunctional family is definitely worth the read.

My rating: 4*.

*for the rating scale, click here.

Swallow the Ocean

…by Laura Flynn.

This book is a memoir written by a person who grew up with a mother with paranoid schizophrenia. The author details the years of her and her siblings growing up in the household with a sick mother, of her seeing her father leave and then understanding his point of view, of her maintaining a strong relationship with him even after he separates from her mother, of her eventually moving from her mother’s place to her father’s and finally of the dynamics of her present day relationships with her parents and siblings. In short, her life story.

When I first read the back cover of the book, I knew I wanted to read the story. I wanted to know a child’s perspective of growing up with a parent who was mentally ill. I wanted to learn more about the illness itself and see how it changed / influenced relationships. While the book lived up to my expectations as a whole, there were parts that I didn’t quite enjoy. There were many seemingly unnecessary details here and there, or at least that’s what I felt. And then there were times where I eagerly waited to read more about an occurrence or so, while the author completely drifted off to discuss something else altogether. So, as much as I enjoyed the book as a whole,  there were instances where I was a little disappointed.

The ending of the book is what I liked the most. It’s sad, for sure, and the pain stayed with me for days. Having a mother around, yet finding yourself in a helpless situation when it comes to making her an important part of your life must be hard, I can imagine…and I think that’s what pulled a chord from deep within me.

The writing is fluent, making the book a very easy and engrossing read. The prose is honest, no exaggerations whatsoever, which helps the readers connect with the characters / story and evokes the right emotions at the right time. Some of the details and specifics the author puts forth are sure to leave a mark in the readers’ minds.

Overall, this heart-wrenching tale of patience, survival and love is worth a read.

My rating: 3*.

*for the rating scale, click here.