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.

A Fortunate Life

…by A. B. Facey.

Albert Barnett Facey was born in 1894 in a small town in Victoria. When aged 2, his father died as a result of typhoid and two years later, his mother left Albert and his younger siblings in the care of their grandmother to be with her older children in Western Australia. When Albert was 5 and his Grandma was finding it difficult to make ends meet, she took Albert and his three older siblings Eric, Myra and Roy to Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. Once there, they lived with their aunt and uncle as their mother had remarried and only took Myra with her.

Albert began working from the age of 8 and this involved him living with different families on their properties in rural W.A. He hardly ever lived with his family since then. During his time working, Albert was physically abused by one of the families to the point where he nearly died. The physical scars of this remained for the rest of his life and although Albert eventually escaped and reported this to the police, the abuser never came to justice. He spent a few years with decent families and earned his keep. As he grew older, his mother made contact but it appeared to be more for money. Albert had several jobs on farms, railways, ships and factories. He was also a professional boxer and a star shooter. Eventually, he went to fight in World War I at Gallipoli. Here, he lost two of his brothers Roy and Joseph and he himself was injured by a bomb exploding near him and was sent home to Australia severely ill.

Back in Australia, he met Evelyn Gibson and married her. They had 7 children and were married for 60 years until Evelyn died. During this time, Albert battled his illnesses, had jobs with the Tramway, learnt to read and write (as he had never had any formal schooling during his childhood), set up his own farm and also ran for MP and was part of unions. He also campaigned for improved conditions for returned servicemen. During World War II, Albert and Evelyn lost their oldest son.

I read the book as part of my book club but I must admit, the title always left me intrigued to want to read it when I saw it at the bookshop. This is one of the first autobiographies I’ve read that is not about someone I know and not a cricketer. And I must say, it was an interesting read.

It has been written in very simple language and has to be commended given that the author learnt to read and write only as an adult. While I did think initially, there were pages that dragged on and information that was not necessarily required, it still kept me going. I was fascinated by this man who led a bloody hard life and yet, was able to see how fortunate he was. Today, we have so much more than what he did and yet, all we do is whinge about what we don’t have. If anything, this book and his life give you insight into how to live. It is the relationships that matter. And despite having hard times, these do not necessarily determine your life. Facey could have complained about a zillion things. And yet, in the end, he talks about how fortunate he was. And that, is commendable.

I give it a rating of 3.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Note: This has been cross-posted on my personal blog.

Night

…by Elie Wiesel. (translation by Marion Wiesel)

Narrated by the author, this book takes the reader along the journey of the author’s life when he and his family members were taken from their home in the town of Sighet, Transylvania to the concentration camp in Auschwitz.

I don’t know where to begin to write about this book. I’ve read quite a few books in the past months, yet for all those I didn’t feel this urge to write a post right away. And here I am now, trying hard to gather words to describe what an impact this book has made…a story so haunting that I had to finish reading in one sitting.

I have a special place in my heart for books that tell tales set in this particular time period. I go through an outburst of different emotions after reading a piece of work from this era. And in that, this book is no exception. But the fact that this piece of work is non-fiction, that the author lived through all that horror, that he put words on these pages by leafing through his memory – makes it all the more powerful and painful.

It’s now hours after I’ve read the book…I’ve had a good night’s sleep after I read the last page, last word. Yet, I am unable to move on…I can’t seem to open another book with that eagerness to dive into a different world. Word after word of brutal truth about the worst kind of cruelty brought unending tears. My heart is still echoing the words that I read last night; my mind is still playing and replaying the gory images of torment that the author (and so many others) had to live through. When I feel so much pain only through the words that I read, I can’t even begin to imagine all that the victims of Holocaust have had to live through. WHY, is all I find myself asking over and over.

Let me leave you with some quotes from the book –

To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.

His cold eyes stared at me. At last, he said wearily: “I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.”

One more stab to the heart, one more reason to hate. One less reason to live.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.

Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to life as long as God himself.

Never.

Overall, an emotionally provoking tale that must be read.

My rating: 5*.

*for the rating scale, click here.

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.

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.

One Step Ahead of Hitler: A Jewish Child’s Journey Through France

…by Fred Gross.

As the title suggests, this is a true story of the author and his family’s struggle to escape Hitler’s regime. The journey begins in 1940, when Fred is only about three years old – his family flees Belgium when they learn that the German army is approaching the area. And in the course of the next few years they continue to move from one place to another as and when they learn of German troops approaching that particular area, escaping just in time every time, with a few of close call situations when they end up spending time in a concentration camp and then managing to escape the captivity. After spending years in France moving here and there, the family enters Switzerland, where they get separated for a long period, come together only after the end of WWII, migrate to the USA and start a new life.

That’s only the gist of the story – one needs to read through the book to understand the constant danger the family was facing, the never ending train of pain they go through, the never wracking journey from one place to another to keep themselves safe.

Fred Gross does a great job of putting together the story by recollecting what little he remembers from his early childhood and by having his family (mother and two brothers) jog their memories to recall of their lives back then. The detail with which the author chronicles his family’s journey and about the cruelty his family had to endure won’t fail to bring out a few tears. Like any other story set in that era, this narrative of a family’s struggle against Hitler’s army is heartrending, but this is one of the very few stories that end with the family’s escape, so the reader is given a chance to rejoice their victory. Hitler’s atrocity will appall the reader, but the family’s escape will leave the reader feeling glad for the them.

Overall, a tale of strength, luck and hope, this book will leave make you both sad and happy. A must read.

My rating: 5*.

*for the rating scale, click here.