Sunday, February 27, 2011

Surviving A Shark Attack (On Land) by Dr. Laura Schlessinger

"Betrayal seems to be a universal and eternal reality of the nature of human beings."

Unlike my previous nonfiction sampling, I have nothing but praise for Schlessinger's book Surviving A Shark Attack (On Land). Overcoming Betrayal and Dealing with Revenge.
Laura Schlessinger wrote this book based on a betrayal she experienced from a trusted friend. This friend was a man she had an affair with when she was younger and was living a life typical of the late 1960's and the 1970's. Schlessinger had an affair with a married man, who took nude photos of her during the affair. This man was a trusted mentor in radio to twenty-something Laura at this time. Years later in 1999, this man wishing to restart media awareness of him, sold these pictures to Hustler magazine. They remain today on the Internet. The fallout was quick and severe especially since Schlessinger is a conservative radio talk show host known for her politically incorrect viewpoint. As Schlessinger writes, "the betrayal was deep, yet there was nothing I could do about it except defend myself and my reputation."

Schlessinger wrote Surviving A Shark Attack to help people deal with betrayal and thoughts of revenge. Like Dr. Laura I too love revenge. One of my all time favourite books is The Count of Monte Cristo. In this book, written by Alexander Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, a young Frenchman is thrown into prison unjustly and his fiance, thinking he is dead, marries his rival. The young man eventually after some time succeeds in escaping the island fortress and with the help of an old man's fortune, spends much of his life planning an elaborate scheme of revenge which wreaks havoc on many people. In the end, the revenge is as bitter as the initial betrayal. Revenge like betrayal is poisonous.

"Betrayals are a breach of trust to a code or a person, including acts of dishonesty, lying, cheating, or stealing, double-crossing, deception, gossiping, duplicity, unfaithfulness, treason, leading astray, undermining, selling out... to name only a few faces of betrayal."

So one must learn to cope with betrayal,seek healing and move on to live life fully. This is the main message Schlessinger has for readers in her book. If readers want to read about other people's experience of betrayal they will be disappointed. Instead Schlessinger writes about the nature of betrayal, about vengeance and revenge.

"Direct revenge feeds people who basically live off the emotional upset of others."

In her chapter on the Philosophical Approach to Revenge she writes that there are better ways to deal with betrayal than to take revenge, that it's best to disengage from the situation and refocus.There are obvious tips like living well as the best revenge. To this end that last two chapters are the best and most helpful, in my opinion. These deal with life after betrayal and how betrayal can sometimes be a blessing in disguise - opening new doors and opportunities where none existed before. This latter situation has been my exact experience with a major betrayal in my own life by someone who took a vow to be with me through the best and worst of life. Blindsided by such evil, it's taken me a few years and then some to work through the anger, pity, hate to a better me and a new life. And that's what Dr. Schlessinger message is to all who have suffered likewise.

Book Details:
Surviving A Shark Attack (On Land) Overcoming Betrayal and Dealing with Revenge. by Dr. Laura Schlessinger

New York: Harper Collins 2011

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

"I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn't let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house because a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling..."

Unfortunately, I began to dislike Amy Chua as early as page 8 of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua's byline is that "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."

What I found instead, was that this was really a book about a highly educated woman who used emotional and verbal abuse, manipulation and fear to coerce her two young daughters into over achievement until one of them snapped. A clash of cultures? Not really since Amy Chua's style of parenting is something not common even in China today. Instead, "only children" are more often coddled instead pushed to achieve. Many are not abused as Chua's children were. Her daughter didn't rebel because she wanted to be Western. She rebelled because Chua broke her spirit and she'd had enough of the abuse. If this had been the story of a low_income, uneducated family you can bet they would have lost their children to social services. What is even more saddening, is that her husband and the rest of the adults in these two young girls lives looked on and did virtually nothing to stop the abuse, even while they could see it taking their toll on the children. And that makes me angry.
Instead, we see a picture of a dysfunctional wealthy family whose purpose in life is over achievement.

Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld are Yale University professors and parents to two daughters, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu). From the beginning of the book, Chua pontificates on how American parents (read mothers) are lax and over concerned with their children's self-esteem while placing little emphasis on academic achievement. "The vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be the best students, that "academic achievement reflects successful parenting". Filled with generalizations, the first chapter is full of these kinds of statements about both Western and "Chinese" parents.

Her premise is that "Chinese" mothers are superior because they "have higher dreams for their children" and greater expectations. They don't believe in playdates and sleepovers (I don't either but for different reasons) and they alone choose every activity their child participates in.

I quite agree that in North American society, there has been a long-standing problem with mediocrity in academics - all levels. This problem existed when I was in high school 30 years ago. I was a keen student and loved to learn. My parents valued education since they were unable to complete their high school education. They encouraged us and in elementary school drilled basic skills such as multiplication and spelling.

The high school I attended had many Asian students from overseas, many of whom (but not all) excelled at their studies, particularly math.Some of my Asian friends noted that Canadian students were content to get a mark of 60% or even to just pass. I agreed with them that this was definitely a characteristic of many of my fellow students. But there is a large segment of North American parents who do want their children to do well. Many of these parents have abandoned the public schools for homeschooling because they can motivate their children to achieve in a balanced manner while excelling at other activities as well. Many parents are not as well educated as some of the Chinese immigrants and therefore do not have the skills to help their children achieve. And yes for many parents, academic achievement is not a priority.

What Chua appears to be offering at the beginning of her book is that the "Chinese" way of parenting leads to success and creates high achieving children and successful adults. It is superior to North American parenting because the "Chinese" parent believes their child is strong enough emotionally to take the abuse and manipulation, the constant nagging and emotional abuse and that the parent chooses the activities for their child and that the child must do these activities whether or not they enjoy them.

I would like to go through a number of examples from the book. I would also like to mention that I am the parent of FOUR children, all of whom studied music. One of my children, is an emerging classical pianist who studied both Suzuki violin and Royal Conservatory of Music piano. She regularly competes against Asian musicians and wins (much to their chagrin).

What is evident from many of the situations Chua describes is that she lacks a basic understanding of child development and she also does not understand the effect her actions have on others. She comes across as excessive, bloody-minded, and cruel. After her 7 year old daughter would have a 3 hour lesson block with Suzuki violin, Chua would try to "sneak in an extra postlesson practice session".
"I admit that this schedule might sound a little intense."

A little intense? Amy Chua might be an authority on democratization and ethnicity. She might even know a little about Debussy and Mozart. But she is woefully deficient in understanding the nuances of the Suzuki method and the theory behind it. She knows about parents attending every music lesson and taking notes. This would have been ideal for her control-freak nature - micro manage everything. But she forgot about a major component of the Suzuki method - nurture and love. From the Suzuki website:

"The Suzuki Method is based on the principle that all children possess ability and that this ability can be developed and enhanced through a nurturing environment."

Chua's home environment was anything but nurturing. She told Sophia that she was getting worse and "If the next time's not PERFECT, I'm going to TAKE ALL YOUR STUFFED ANIMALS AND BURN THEM!" Shinichi Suzuki would have been horrified.

It's also obvious, as one continues through Battle Hymn, that Sophia and Lulu had no choice over anything in their lives. "I wanted her (Lulu) to become concertmaster of the best youth be the best violinist in the state - and that was for starters. I knew that was the only way Lulu could be happy."

"At Crystal Lake, Florence (Chua's mother-in-law) felt that her granddaughters should be able to swim, walk, and explore wherever they pleased. By contrast, I told them that if they stepped off our front porch, kidnappers would get them. I also told them that the deep parts of the lake had ferocious biting fish. I may have gone overboard, but sometimes being carefree means being careless....
The truth is I'm not good at enjoying life...."

Unfortunately, Chua needs to understand that things must be done in moderation. One's view of childhood depends in part on one's view of life - the purpose of life. It appears that Chua's view of life is that success, no matter how it is achieved is the only thing that matters. But to many people, living a good moral life by being kind to others (including our children), taking time to worship God (most likely a big waste of time in Chua's strictly timed lifestyle) and helping others are very important.

When Chua returns Lulu's birthday card because it doesn't measure up, the entire scenario seemed immature and ridiculous. The entire event is related in an angry tone, "'I don't want this,' I said. 'I want a better one - one that you've put some thought and effort into.... I work so hard to give you good birthdays! I deserve better than this. So I reject this.' I threw the card back."

The fault was not her daughter's for making a poor card, although by this time in the book it is apparent that Chua is an expert on finding the faults of others and blaming everyone but herself. Did either of Lulu's parents show her how to make a birthday card or in their highly overscheduled lives as Yale professors running amok between music lessons, concerts and dress fittings, did they just tell her to do it and expect she would come up with something amazing? Did they ever sit down with either of their girls with pencil crayons and scissors or look at craft books showing how to make pop-up cards or write fancy letters? Probably not.

While she berated "Western" parents for being coddling and not being focused on the right (according to her) aspects of childhood, Chua now appears surprisingly similar to her lax and inferior "Western" counterparts. She admits to being a parent who hires magicians and grand slides for her daughter's birthday party, who "purchases high ice cream cakes shaped like penguins", and who spends half her salary "on stupid sticker and eraser party favors". Many Western parents can't afford these things. I know I couldn't and didn't. Birthdays were always kept simple so as to remind my children that they have a great deal compared to most other children in the world.

It was disturbing to read descriptions of Chua's insane and ridiculous schedule of racing from her job as a Yale professor to Lulu's school and lessons. This demonstrated the frenetic and dysfunctional lifestyle foisted on a young girl andher family by a woman whose god is achievement and success.

Eventually, Chua's domineering parenting style finally breaks Lulu who abandons both the violin and piano. It was at this point in the book that I felt very badly for Lulu mainly because the book details an episode in a young girl's life that is not of her own making and that is humiliating and will be read by millions.

In a masterful way, Lulu takes control of her life. I think this young girl understands very well the dynamic that exists within her family. With Sophia as the "good daughter" who does everything her mother wants, Amy Chua doesn't "need" Lulu to succeed. And as Sophia astutely recognizes, Lulu is the heroine. She was able to stand up to their mother in a way that Sophia likely can't or won't.

By page 171 I was not only fed up with Amy Chua but in some ways more angry with her husband Jed who seemed disengaged (except for brief moments of guilt) and who allowed Chua to run the family and abuse his daughters on many levels. When Lulu rebels, what does Harvard educated Chua do? "I told her I was thinking of adopting a third child from China, one who would practice when I told her to, and maybe even play the cello in addition to the violin and piano."

Ultimately Chua's book does not achieve it's aim. There's no real conclusion (which she admits to) and we are left wondering if Amy Chua learned anything at all. Her attempts to put things in perspective in a humorous manner and to demonstrate that she has changed and learned from all this felt flat and insincere. One gets that feeling that she gave in only because she knew she lost. In writing this book after these events Chua repeated refers to decisions that "sealed her fate". And early in the book she mentions how she knows now that "parental favoritism" is "bad and poisonous" but then goes on to describe how certain forms CAN be useful.

Why the story of her adopting two dogs was included is puzzling - perhaps Chua wanted us to see that she was human. It seemed to me that the dogs were treated better than her own daughters. At any rate, this was a distraction from the real story here.

Read this book if only to learn how not to parent. And definitely read it if you are the parent of a gifted non-Asian musician. You will understand why so many Asian children who study music burn out in their teens.

Book Details:

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
New York: The Penguin Press 2011
229 pp.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Mourning Wars. Born a Puritan Raised a Mohawk by Karen Steinmetz

The Mourning Wars is a fictional account of the Mohawk raid on the village of Deerfield, Massachusetts on the night of February 29, 1704. During this raid, many of the Puritan settlers were captured and taken north into Canada. Mourning Wars retells the story of Eunice Williams, who was captured along with her father, mother, brothers Samuel, Warham and Stephen and her sister Esther and forced to march to the Mohawk village of Kahnawake. In Kahnawake, 7 year-old Eunice is adopted by Atironta and Kenniontie who lost their only daughter Gannestenawi the previous year to smallpox. Eunice is given a special place within the Mohawk tribe and is renamed A'onote. A'onote is "planted in their hearts".

Soon after arriving in Kahnawake, Eunice meets a Jesuit missionary Achiendase from Montreal, Quebec who tells her that the French Governor Vaudreil, known as Onnontio to the Mohawks, will not free her but allow Kenniotie to keep her. Although the French often bought English children from the Indians and sold them back to their families, they also often would not interfere with the practice of the Indians taking English captives. This was in part due to the alliance between the Mohawk and the French during the French-English war.

Eventually A'onote/Eunice adapts to her Mohawk life, becoming a Catholic and studying the ways of her adopted people.

In one respect, I found it difficult to accept Eunice/A'onote's choice to remain with her captors when she was young especially so in light of what we know today about the psychological stress kidnapped individuals undergo during their captivity. It's quite possible that Eunice likely developed Stockholm syndrome in order to cope with living under circumstances so different from what she was accustomed to and also to the threat of imminent harm if she did not cooperate. The latter would have been evident because she also knew that these same Indians murdered her brother John and 6 week old sister Jerusha at Deerfield and killed her mother after she fell into river during the march north. She likely knew she was totally dependent upon them for her survival in the bush during the winter months.

Although Eunice had extensive contact with the Jesuit missionaries from the beginning the decision to stay or return to her English family was left up to her when she was older. However, when Eunice was first with the Mohawks, Kenniontie refused Onnontio's wife's offer to redeem A'oronte. They often refused to allow A'oronte to meet with the English, thus preventing her the opportunity to make a real choise. Steinmetz tells us in her afterword, that many English women and children chose to remain with their captors. "The choice to remain with their adoptive families must have been influenced by various factors, but I imagine that, in addition to being converted to Catholicism, they also came to appreciate a world where children were indulged and women were acknowledged to have power and allowed to play important roles in all realms of life."
Steinmetz suggests that as a child, Eunice would have found life with the Catholic Mohawk in sharp contrast to her rigorous and strict Puritan upbringing.

Steinmetz has crafted a well written fictional account of what Eunice's life might have been like after her capture and her eventual assimilation into the Mohawk tribe. A list of characters in this story would have been helpful as well as a map showing the location of Deerfield and the Kahnawake village.

Book Details:
The Mourning Wars. Born a Puritan Raised a Mohawk by Karen Steinmetz
Roaring Brook Press   2010

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Good Daughter. A Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Life by Jasmin Darznik

Iranian born Jasmin Darznik came to America when she was three years old. The daughter of a German father and Iranian mother, all she wanted was to fit into American culture. She dump her cucumbers and quince fruit into the trash before school. Her father, an alcoholic was unable to cope with American life and it was her mother who ran their motel in California. Her mother Lili admonished her to make something of herself and Jasmin did becoming an attorney and receiving her PHD in English from Princeton. But all through the years of growing up in America, her mother would tell her about the Good Daughter - the Iranian daughters who were polite, quiet and obedient. The Good Daughter was the one who "heeded her mother's words". Jasmin did not want to be her mother's Good Daughter.

As it turned out, five weeks after the death of her German father, while going through her father's belongings, Jasmin discovered a photograph of her mother, Lili, as a young bride, married to a man who is not her father. It was a photograph that "had survived revolution, war, exile, and something else besides: my mother's will to forget the past." When Jasmin asked her mother about the picture, she refused to talk about it. However, months later Lili began sending her daughter tapes, 10 in all, which tell the story of her past. A past that began before the photograph and a past that was very different from the one Jasmin had been led to believe.

What Jasmin discovered about her mother's life led her reconsider her relationship with her mother and her heritage. And that led to the desire to write her mother Lili's story. Lili's story begins with the story of Pargol Amini, Jasmin's great-grandmother, and the birth of her ninth child, Kobra who was Lili's mother. Kobra was Pargol's favourite child and the only child she was able to personally name. Kobra's life is altered forever when she is married to an older man by her brother to pay off his gambling debts. Kobra and Sohrab have a daughter Lili who is married off at 13 to an abusive man. When Lili realizes that she might eventually die at the hands of her husband, she leaves the marriage, giving up her daughter Sarah to be raised by her husband's mother. Lili is eventually able to forge a new life through sheer grit and determination as well as bringing home a damad farangi (foreign groom) from her time studying in Germany.

Kobra and Lili's story is one common to many Middle Eastern women. Both women had difficult lives filled with abuse and sadness but also with much support from other women. They were resourceful, intelligent women who struggled against circumstance and tragedy to make a life for themselves and for their children. What impressed me most was that they still retained the courage to love and live. Lili's story changed Jasmin's perspective of her mother - she was not the Good Daughter. She had a past from which she remade herself - an almost impossible feat considering the culture she came from.

Darznik's family story is gripping, poignant and filled with power. It is a story that women of most cultures can relate too.

Book Details:
The Good Daughter by Jasmin Darznik
New York: Grand Central Publishing 2011
324 pp.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Line in the Sand. Canadians at War in Kandahar by Captain Ray Wiss, M.D.

In A Line in the Sand, Captain Ray Wiss recounts in journal form, his return to Canada's FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) in Afghanistan in 2009. Wiss who is also an Emergency Physician at Sudbury Regional Hospital is a Medical Officer for the Second Battalion, Irish Regiment of Canada. This regiment is a reserve infantry regiment based in Sudbury, Ontario.

Wiss spent a little under 4 months, from May 31 to September 29, 2009 in Afghanistan rotating through 3 FOBs; Wilson, MA'Sum and Sperman Ghar in the area around Kandahar City providing medical treatment to both soldiers, local Afghans and even suspected Taliban insurgents.

Unlike his first book, FOB Doc, A Line in the Sand is much more personal and engaging. Because it is a personal journal, the topics discussed are varied and interesting. There are plenty of entries about combat missions by Canadian soldiers as well as separate entries where Wiss describes the special talents and gifts of some of Canada's top soldiers he had the opportunity of serving with. Some entries discuss little known items of interest about CF (Canadian Forces). For example, the entry for July 11 talks about the "Quiet Ones", soldiers who are exceptionally trained and on par with the American Green Berets or the SEALS and who are not assigned to any particular FOB. Instead they take on special assignments throughout Afghanistan.

There are also entries on suicide bombers, the political history of the region which was fascinating, the loss of Canadian soldiers and how difficult it is for even highly trained soldiers to come to terms with the death of a comrade, strategies in war, the ANA (Afghan National Army) and on a more personal note, the impact serving overseas has on his adopted daughter Michelle. As well Wiss discusses why he believes Canada should continue on in its mission in Afghanistan - something I tend to agree with.

The August 21 entry is one that should be required reading for all Canadians especially since it deals with biased reporting by the media, in particular CBC. It is altogether not surprising that Canadians are being fed biased reports of events in Afghanistan including how deaths are reported, in order to undermine support for the mission. This biased reporting, not unknown to CBC, does great dishonour to those who serve Canada in our military and who are currently risking their lives overseas.

There are numerous colour photographs throughout the book, allowing the reader to get a sense of the topography of the province of Kandahar, to see our men and women soldiers whom Wiss writes about, to see the inside of the UMS (Unit Medic Station) and so forth.

The book ends on somewhat low note understandably due to the death of Private Jonathan Couturier from an IED on what was Ray Wiss's last day at FOB Sperwan Ghar. Couturier's death affected all the soldiers terribly because he was only six days away from leaving and on what should have been his last mission. It was only days later while on decompression that Wiss was able to grieve fully.

There is a glossary of abbreviations at the back of the book as well as a gallery of photos of the fallen Canadian soldiers during his time overseas in Afghanistan.

Dr. Wiss is well known for pioneering the use of ultrasound at medic stations to help determine the existence of unknown injuries in wounded soldiers.

A Line in the Sand is a well written account of Canada's mission in Afghanistan. At times Wiss is strongly opinionated but true to what he believes in. I highly recommend this book for every patriotic Canadian and supporter of our troops overseas, whether you support the mission in Afghanistan or not.

Sudbury Lifestyle News article

Book Details:
A Line in the Sand. Canadians at War in Kandahar. by Captain Ray Wiss, M.D.
Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre 2010
389 pp.