Review | Listen to the Squawking Chicken, Elaine Lui

18339631Not just anybody can call their mother a squawking chicken and get away with it; then again, from her memoir, Elaine Lui (Lainey Gossip) has a pretty distinctive mother. “As soon as you hear her, you’ll never forget her,” Lui promises, revealing that “Squawking Chicken” is actually a nickname her mother earned when growing up in Hong Kong because of her “wailing siren” of a voice. We don’t literally hear the Squawking Chicken’s voice and Listen to the Squawking Chicken is ostensibly more about the author’s relationship with her mother rather than the mother herself, but indeed it is the character of the mother that dominates this book and leaves a lasting impression on the reader’s mind.

A quote often used in the book’s publicity, and it captures the feel of the book perfectly:

Most people think I’m exaggerating at first when I talk about the Chinese Squawking Chicken. But once they actually spend some time with her, they understand. They get it. Right away. She’s Chinese, she squawks like a chicken, she is totally nuts, and I am totally dependent on her.

With such a title, Lui faces the risk of turning her own mother into a caricature, yet her obvious affection for the woman shines through, and even at her most “wailing siren” moments, Lui’s mother still retains the complexity and tenderness that makes her such a memorable figure.

The Squawking Chicken is at times a harsh mother, her love for her daughter expressed by making sure her daughter is well equipped for life’s disappointments. On the subject of Miss Hong Kong, she immediately dismisses her daughter’s chances, saying that her daughter didn’t inherit her good looks enough to be a contender for the title. When asked why she tells her daughter ghost stories rather than fairy tales in bed, she quite reasonably points out that it is the hard times that we should prepare for, not the good things that will happen. And when her daughter gets a bit too proud of a high mark in class, the Squawking Chicken loudly and publicly bemoans her arrogance given such an inconsequential achievement. In a world and at a time when children are routinely praised just for trying, it may be difficult to appreciate this somewhat harsher form of parenting, yet underlying it all is such an obvious desire for her daughter to be prepared for life.

Lui also gives us insight into her mother’s story, which reveals much about why she may have adopted such a parenting style. The image of the demure Chinese woman is a completely outdated stereotype, yet Lui’s mother does challenge the traditional Chinese adage about not airing dirty laundry in public. She is fearless in taking any family member’s dirty laundry to public eye, and in one of my favourite scenes, loudly and publicly confronts the mistress of one of her friends’ husband. The reason for this becomes clear as we learn more about her childhood, and the incident that tips her over and forces her to unleash her voice is horrific and somewhat inspiring, a superhero-level epic origin story that transforms an ordinary, nice woman into a remarkable figure.

Lui’s mother is fearless, because she has to be, and she teaches her daughter this same fearlessness. She is a dominant figure in her daughter’s life, and certainly after this book, she will also be a dominant figure in our imaginations. Peppered throughout the book as well are some useful life lessons — don’t cut bangs after thirty, eat a papaya a day (but for Lui’s husband, it must be a banana instead, because reasons) and don’t be “low classy”. Likely, nothing will happen if you don’t obey, and anything that does happen is likely just self-fulfilling prophecy. But, just in case, it can’t hurt to eat that papaya, can it?


Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Geek’s Guide to Dating, Eric Smith

17568806Calling all geeks! Ever wonder how to catch the eye of that gorgeous fellow geek? In this hilarious guide to dating, Eric Smith takes the geeky reader through the various stages of getting the date then beginning a relationship (or, reality check: possibly moving on) after that date.

The chapter titles are given geeky titles, mapping the dating landscape like an old school 1980s video game with some fun Star Trek and Star Wars references thrown in. “Engage, Player One” sets the ball rolling, and “Do or Do Not: There is No Try” gives tips on how to screw up the courage to ask someone out.

The book offers some pretty common sense tips on dating: start a conversation rather than a debate, clean out the junk in your car before picking your date up, put some effort into your outfit, and so on. There’s even a primer on how to kiss someone, though Smith cautions: “This isn’t the Konami code here, and trying to make out according to these directions (Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right) would only make things weird.”

Still, what sets this book apart, and makes it so much fun, is that all the tips are couched in geeky language — video game terms and science fiction references. A section on choosing the right wingman, for example, accords a number of points per option: a “Sharp Eye for Style” gets him “+250 to Armor”. A list of scenarios with tips on how to deal with them includes meeting someone at a video game store, or improving your online dating profile. I admit some of the references completely went over my head (what’s a “Kolinahr”?), but Googling them just added to the fun.

Minor complaint is that the book is completely geared to male geek readers. Smith does address this in the beginning of the book, and explains that while the text is ostensibly directed at males, a lot of the tips are equally applicable to female geeks. Fair enough, but as a female geek, I would have loved to see at least a gender neutral geek guide to dating, and if the tips are applicable to both genders anyway, why not write them as such? Or perhaps add some chapters dedicated to challenges particular to geeks from each gender. Or, on that note, someone please write a female geek’s guide to dating. Given how many books and publications on geekdom are already geared towards male geeks, it would be nice to have one written with a female geek audience in mind. Any female geek humourists up to the challenge?


Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King

9780385666091Ross King’s Leonardo and The Last Supper is a solid historical work on the artist and one of his most famous paintings. King does a good job setting the stage, by writing about the historical context in which da Vinci creates, as well as examining details of da Vinci’s distinct style and how it fit in within the larger context of art history.

The Last Supper has been the subject of many other art works, and yet da Vinci’s version became iconic long before Dan Brown launched a new generation of conspiracy theorists. King does a good job in examining what set da Vinci’s version apart from all others, in terms of technique, form and treatment of subject matter.

It is also interesting to get to know a bit of the man behind the work. Da Vinci has become such a cultural icon that it’s difficult to separate him from the mythos around him. King keeps the book firmly on the ground, and contextualizes da Vinci within his time, as well as paints a portrait of a man who is much more flawed than his “genius” moniker suggests.

My only concern with this book is that despite the rich history it explores, the writing itself is very dry. The beginning seemed a bit slow, and snippets of really interesting observations seemed almost lost within paragraphs of detail. I wanted to love the book, and I did learn some interesting tidbits throughout, but unfortunately, it was just very, very slow-going for me.


Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Sex and the Citadel, Shereen El Feki

13152722How does one explore their sexuality in a society where open discussion of the subject is taboo? In Shereen El Feki’s Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab Worldthe author explores various aspects of the sexual lives of men and woman in Arab society. She writes with an engaging style, using first-person accounts and historical research to create a compelling portrait of a society’s attitudes towards sex.

In one humorous anecdote for example, she tries to explain a vibrator to a group of women who had never seen one. Trying to find the right Arabic word, she comes up with one that means “a thing that makes fast movements,” but then realizes that could equally apply to a hand mixer.

El Feki uses this and other such anecdotes to reveal a world that many Western readers may find difficult to imagine. She doesn’t present her subjects as exotic, but rather presents them with warmth, empathy and humour. As with the vibrator anecdote above, the similarity between a sex toy and a kitchen tool is funny, but also reveals the rather radical misunderstandings that can occur in a society where it is forbidden to speak of the subject in public.

Through the lens of sexuality, El Feki examines various aspects of Arab life. She speaks about the struggle for female empowerment, attitudes towards marriage and the single life, and other such topics. Particularly striking to me is an interview with a man fighting for LGBTQ rights in the Middle East. Unlike much of the Western world, this man desires to be seen as equal but is staunchly against same sex marriage, because this goes against his religious beliefs. El Feki therefore presents an alternative perspective even to subjects that Western readers may initially find familiar. More significantly, she presents dissenting views within the society, thereby preventing any impulse to generalize.

I grew up in the Philippines, where religious and political institutions have long suppressed a certain form of discourse around sexuality. A recent political battle has brought this struggle to the public eye, and while major steps have been taken to open this discussion, and many more continue to be taken on the level of the individual, there is much work left to do, and this indeed impacts upon many other aspects of society — women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and general perceptions of equality to name a few.

El Feki tackles an important subject and presents a wonderfully frank view of an aspect of Arab life. The book makes real the human beings behind movements and issues we may have only heard of, and therefore makes us care even more deeply. There is a fine balance between respect for custom and propagating institutional ignorance, and El Feki makes a compelling case about the dangers of the latter, and reveals how current events may, in fact, already be turning the tide.


Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg

16071764I’ve had Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In on my Books to Read list for a long time. I believe passionately in her argument that women shouldn’t be afraid to “lean in” and go after what they want. I also saw a tweet from the Lean In organization which posited the question: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” This was from Sandberg’s book, as well as an aphorism on her office wall. I also just learned that Lean In has begun using this as a campaign. It’s a great question, a very powerful one, and one that I believe we all need to ask ourselves more often.

Sandberg acknowledges that there are many factors that prevent women from achieving equality in the workplace — social structures, unjust legislation, etc. Yet she also argues that part of what holds women back is internal, and since this is something we can change in ourselves, this is what she chooses to focus on. Her book makes some really interesting observations on how we (perhaps unconsciously) hold ourselves back. For example, after giving a talk on gender equality, Sandberg is approached by a young woman who says she learned from the talk not to put her hand down. Near the end of the talk, Sandberg said she had time for only two more questions — all the women with their hands raised immediately put them down, whereas the men kept theirs raised, and so were called on. Sandberg was horrified that she, even given the topic of her talk, hadn’t noticed the gender disparity at the end. More importantly, however, she uses this example as a call to action for women: keep your hand raised, because even a manager attuned to gender issues may not notice you if you don’t.

The book is filled with many similar examples. As a woman, I found myself realizing how many of these behaviours I am guilty of myself. She makes the case for women needing to lean in more at the corporate table and for men needing to lean in more at the kitchen table — certainly a gender double standard that is slowly shifting, and yet still has a long way to go. She also notes the disparity in gender attitudes towards work, where women are more likely than men to hold themselves back on the off-chance that a higher position would interfere with future child-caring responsibilities.

Some of what she writes is good advice for the workplace in general. For example, she talks about the importance of mentors. She writes about how many young women have asked her to be their mentor, and how when giving a talk to a graduating class, a couple of male students asked about company strategy and a couple of female students asked about more personal things, including how to find a mentor. Sandberg cautions against looking for a mentor as if looking for Prince Charming. Women, she says, are taught from a young age to await rescue, and this is an attitude that needs to change. She does give a few tips on how to go about finding a mentor, but ultimately, it shouldn’t be seen through the lens of a Disney Princess.

Sandberg advocates for setting your own limits for a work-life balance. She gives the example of a company whose employees quit because they felt burned out, and yet the boss later noticed that all of these burned out employees had unused vacation days. As that boss told Sandberg, the company will always make demands of you; it’s the employee’s responsibility to set the limits on how much they are willing to do. Granted, that’s rather naive, particularly when needing to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, but it’s still advice worth heeding.

I only wish Sandberg had delved deeper. Her arguments are primarily anecdotal, and therefore limited. Even her examples usually focus on public figures or people she knows personally, who are inevitably CEOs or other people in power. She acknowledges her privilege and admits that for women not in power, it may be more difficult to do the things she suggests. I agree with her argument that even with those circumstances, a drive to “lean in” may still be helpful; I only wish she’d included stories and anecdotes from women who haven’t yet achieved the top of the corporate ladder.

The book as well focused only on the challenges women with children faced. As a single woman without a desire to start a family anytime soon, I wish Sandberg had gone beyond arguing that a family life and a successful career aren’t mutually exclusive. What about the issues single women without children face in the workplace? I understand that this book is primarily anecdotal, but when coaching women to “lean in,” I expected some discussion about a wider range of circumstances that prevent women from doing so.

Sandberg does give one example on this subject, with a woman complaining that she has to pick up the slack because her co-workers’ time with their children takes precedence over her own free time. Unfortunately, that woman then continues by saying that her going to a party is just as important as her co-workers’ spending time with their kids, because it’s by going to parties that she can meet a man and then start her own family. In principle, I agree that her right to go to a party should be given as much respect as her co-worker’s right to attend a child’s soccer game. But again, why does the right to go to a party have to be justified by the desire to start a family?

Even when Sandberg tries to be inclusive, she maintains a very narrow view, and I can’t help but think of all the different voices that were left unheard. Single women, women of colour, women from a lower income bracket, and so on. Understandably, no one book can hope to encompass the full range of issues women face in the workplace. However, the core of Sandberg’s message is so powerful, and so important I think for women to heed, that I really wish she’d made more of an effort to represent more of women’s voices.

Review | Smile at Strangers, Susan Schorn

I remember the first time I tried karate. I have never been athletic, and admittedly, one of the appeals of karate class was the rather low-key way the teacher introduced me to the drills. I may not be able to do a jumping, spinning, flying back kick, but even unathletic, uncoordinated me is still perfectly capable of forming a fist and throwing a punch. And the kiai? I thought I could at least mask the wobbliness of my kicks with a karate yell loud enough to rattle windows.

Here’s the thing about karate: you stick at it long enough, you work at it hard enough, and you eventually realize that your body is actually beginning to change. And I don’t mean just getting fitter. Your moves actually get sharper — and more importantly, you’re aware of just how sharp they are and just how much sharper they ought to be. You become in tune with your body, aware of the slightest movements and aware of the slightest shifts in balance. There’s a line in Susan Schorn’s Smile at Strangers where she talks about a black belt’s unconscious grace. I don’t think I ever quite achieved that grace (alas, my natural klutziness has no cure), but I did have a taste of what she meant. And even now, when I see karateka perform, I marvel at the fluidity of movement, the sharpness of force, as beautiful as it can be deadly.

9780547774336Susan Schorn’s Smile at Strangers is a personal memoir of her life in karate. More than just a retelling of stories however, she organizes her book into kowa, Zen proverbs. Fall down seven times, get up eight. If you want to feel safe, be prepared to feel uncomfortable. You’re doing it all wrong, and that’s perfect. The best part about karate isn’t the physicality, but rather the mental preparedness the training instills. Schorn writes about her experiences in the dojo, but primarily to support what she has learned for life outside karate.

In the beginning of the book, Schorn wonders about the math behind “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” If you fall down only seven times, how can you be down an eighth in order to get up again? She eventually interprets it as an added emphasis on defiance. No matter what crap life throws at her, she is going to leap up fighting — and leap up fighting one extra time just for good measure. Later on, however, something happens that makes her realize that, while she was prepared for a battle in her own backyard, the real danger happened elsewhere, far beyond her control, and she was left to wonder what, exactly, she was readying herself to battle for.

As Schorn writes about her karate journey, and how karate classes have helped her deal with personal challenges, we see her progression, from a frightened, outwardly defiant person to a calmer, more confident one much more useful for battle. This isn’t to say that karate transformed her completely — as with my natural klutziness, Schorn still cannot escape certain fears and insecurities. But she does learn a lot, and she takes us on this journey with her.

I read this book from the perspective of someone who has learned quite a bit about karate. So when Schorn writes about how karate has better equipped her to deal with life, I completely understood. Her karate experience differed greatly from mine — she studied Kyokushin (a close fighting, full contact style) and at a women’s only dojo with a focus on self-defence. I started with Shotokan (long-range, point sparring), which is probably the furthest from Kyokushin stylistically, and even though I eventually ended up with a more mid-range style, it was still very different from Kyokushin. So I loved reading about her school’s approach to teaching karate.

Will this book resonate as much with someone who has never studied karate? I don’t know. But there is an especially striking scene that I think most of us, even non-karateka, can relate to. As part of their self-defence training, Schorn and her classmates were paired off, and one had to make a series of requests while the other could only say “No.”

“No,” I told her. “No. No. No. No. No. No.”

This would have been boring if the embarrassment weren’t so agonizing. “I hate this,” I thought; “I hate it so much I can feel it physically.” The sensation of saying “no” to another person’s face made me writhe internally, and it took all my energy not to squirm…

It occurred to me, somewhere around my twentieth “no,” that I had probably said the word more times in the preceding half-minute than I had in the preceding month. I thought back over all the times I could have said “no” and didn’t…

Repeated over and over, without explanation, without placating gestures, without apology, it formed an unassailable verbal wall made of just one brick, one tiny word: no. [pp 15 – 16]

How often have you wanted to say no but then acquiesced to be polite? We’re ingrained to want to please people, and there are people who take advantage. The mere training then, of developing the confidence to say “no,” is something I think many of us will find useful. And you don’t need a black belt to learn it.


Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Joy of X, Steven Strogatz

13356649I’m a nerd. The idea that math can be used to explain everything, including (from the book jacket) whether or not O.J. Simpson did it, or how many people it is optimal to date before settling down, appeals to me. I love patterns, and I love the idea that numbers can be applied in the most esoteric situations in real life.

So Steven Strogatz’s The Joy of X instantly appealed to me. Life, the universe and everything… How can math play a role in understanding all that? And while I’m sure mathematicians can give me various answers, I looked forward to reading about it as written for a layperson’s perspective, and to understanding just a bit of the wonder that math can present.

Unfortunately, this book made the joy of X even more of a mystery to me. Strogatz begins with fairly basic arithmetic, and uses images like rocks and dots to explain addition and subtraction. He writes: “This side of arithmetic is important, practical, and–for many people–joyless. The playful side of arithmetic is a lot less familiar, unless you were trained in the ways of advanced mathematics.” I presume then, that the Tetris-style patterns with rocks represents this more playful side, which appears to be minor tricks with basic functions.

On one hand, I see what he’s trying to do — by presenting even the most basic arithmetic functions in new ways, he’s prepping us for the way he’ll present the (presumably) more fun, more advanced mathematics, such as how to calculate O.J.’s guilt, later on. The problem is, even the first few chapters gave me a headache. The four basic functions are math we as adults are already familiar with, and quite frankly, the struggle to see it from Strogatz’s new, supposedly more playful, perspective, just doesn’t seem worth it.

The book began as a series of columns, and possibly because of this, each chapter is a minor topic in itself, barely leading on to the next one. The result is a fairly shallow overview of various math concepts, and Strogatz seems to try too hard to make the math interesting. He explains the concepts well enough, though I personally think he either overcomplicates or underexplains his topics, yet never quite answers the question: so what? And when each chapter is its own topic, and each chapter begins a new attempt to present an aspect of math in a new light, the repeated sense of “so what?” becomes frustrating.

I remember starting Brian Greene’s The Hidden Realityabout parallel universes. I still haven’t finished it, mostly because it started getting really complicated, and honestly I think I need to start from the beginning to make sense of it all again. But unlike Strogatz’s book, Hidden Reality shows a progression — Greene begins with a really simple, accessible example of parallel universes, then slowly delves deeper into the subject, and explores further into scientific concepts. It’s not an easy read, but the payoff will be worth it — Greene tackles a complex subject and gently takes the reader deeper and deeper into it.

In contrast, Strogatz sounds like the high school teacher desperately trying to convince his bored students that math is fun (cue big grin and exclamation point). I’m not saying that the math he covers is simple — on the contrary, I’m sure most of it, particularly in the later part of the book, is over my head. But I do want to understand, and I feel Strogatz’s approach keeps one firmly in the elementary level of understanding. I’m sure this wasn’t the author’s intention, but I generally found his tone condescending — no way we readers could understand these concepts, so here’s a funny little story to convince you that it’s F-U-N!

I didn’t finish the book, so I don’t know whether or not math says O.J. did it. I did see the chapter about how many people one should date before settling down. It all boils down to a formula, and despite Strogatz beginning with a concrete example, it still ends up being really abstract. By the end of the chapter, I have a general idea of the solution (spoiler alert: it’s nothing you couldn’t have guessed without math), and still no idea of how to calculate it or why I should even bother.

A mostly joyless, shallow exercise, this book is hardly worth the effort.


Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.