It seems that of late, all I can offer is my weekly column:
I have learned a valuable lesson: never judge a book by its blurbs. Case in point: I just finished reading Elaine Liu’s “sort of” (her words) memoir called enigmatically “Listen to the Squawking Chicken.” I loved the book. I could not put it down. Loosely it is about her life and the effect that her mother has on that life. Very loosely. But I will get into more of that later.
On the back of the book, titled Praise for “Listen to the Squawking Chicken”, were these words from the magazine HELLO! Canada: “If you’re a fan of dry wit, self-deprecation and unintentionally touching mother-daughter moments, then this book is for you. I pretty much spit my coffee out laughing through the entire thing. And it makes you want to hug your mother a little bit tighter.” My first bone to pick with this quote is that it used the pronoun “I” yet there was no name attached to the quote—so are we to determine that a magazine can talk? But that is just me being finicky. I also did not find the book funny. Not at all. If I were drinking coffee, I would not have spit it out in laughter.
CBC Books also had a quote that was not attributed to a particular person. And the quote also called the book “A laugh-out-loud, surprisingly sentimental, self-proclaimed ‘sort-of memoir’ that is a loving ode to Lui’s loud, no-nonsense and always-right mother.” I did not laugh-out-loud. I did not find the book funny.
Jan Wong from The Chronicle Herald called it “A funny, new Chinese-Canadian memoir….” Again I did not find the book funny. Perhaps my funny bone is located in a much different place than the reviewers quoted on the back of the book. The Winnipeg Free Press also called it “funny”, and author Kevin Kwan said that the book “had me laughing till I rolled off the bed.” I know this is getting repetitive, but I did not fall off the bed laughing; I did not spit out my coffee laughing; and, I did not find it funny.
What is funny? Perhaps my definition is too narrow. Funny to me is light-hearted. And this book was not all that light-hearted—though in the writing of it, the author, in her truth, did not spare any detail—whether it be unflattering or not.
Now there are a lot of things in the blurbs that I agreed with. Author Jenny Lawson said that she “devoured the book in one sitting…. alternately cheering, laughing, cringing and gasping in horror.” I think she wrapped the book up quite succinctly in her assessment and I agree with all but one of her observations (and I bet you can guess which one). The Winnipeg Free Press, besides finding the book funny, also found it “honest, fearless…..smart, wise and irreverent”. The book was all that and more. The more is explained by Jan Wong in the rest of her quote: “Blending explanations of feng shui and filial piety (family loyalty) with frequent-flying f-bombs, the memoir offers counterintuitive, yet wise, parenting advice. Regardless of cultural background, anyone—parent or adult child—can glean lessons.”
Memoir is such a gentle sounding word. One conjures up memories of everyone sitting happily around the dinner table at Sunday suppers, going to Christmas concerts and applauding the efforts of those on stage, standing on the sidelines at soccer games with orange slices at the ready for snack time, and generally all “the feel good” moments of life. But a true memoir includes all the grit and grimness of everyday life, as well as the good stuff. And this book is a true memoir. It does not hide behind sentimentality, and when it is sentimental—it seems so by accident.
I appreciated this book, and felt the same as Kevin Kwan did at the end. When he composed himself (after falling off the bed laughing) he said that he rearranged his “living room furniture in a panic at 3:00 a.m. to achieve proper feng shui” and called his mother “out of pure guilt.” He said, quite rightly that “The Squawking Chicken (as Lui’s mother is monikered) could eat any Tiger Mom for lunch.”
So my hypothesis at the beginning of this column is flawed. You can judge a book by its blurbs, but keep in mind that what others think is “funny” may not be what you think is funny. This book is entertaining, enlightening, shocking, and makes you think about your own parenting techniques, but it is not funny!
What is your idea of funny?