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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Love, Nina: Dispatches From Family Life

Posted: 03 Mar 2014 03:00 PM PST

A book of letters from the author to her sister.

THE premise of Love, Nina: Despatches From Family Life is simple: the entire book consists of letters Stibbe wrote to her sister, Victoria.

Why would we want to read the letters written by an unknown writer living and working in London to her sister in Leicestershire? It's the people Stibbe is working for that makes the exchange of information and ideas interesting.

In the introduction, Stibbe lets us know that at the age of 20 she left her family home in Leicestershire in 1982 to live and work as a nanny in London. The family that Stibbe ends up with is not your ordinary working family: the matriarch of the household is Mary-Kay Wilmers, who was then deputy editor of theLondon Review Of Books. (Wilmers has been editor of the London Review Of Books since 1992.) The two boys that Stibbe is nanny to are Sam and Will Frears, whose father is the acclaimed film director Stephen Frears. Playwright, writer (of novels and screenplays) and occasional actor Alan Bennett (referred to throughout the memoir as AB) is a neighbour who, for some unexplained reason, seems to come to the Wilmers household almost daily for dinner. This is certainly not your average, run-of-the-mill household.

With the celebrities that litter London and occasionally stop by the Wilmers household, one would expect salacious tales of the popular figures of the early 1980s. Sadly, apart from Bennett's entertaining musings over the dinner table, Stibbe does not share any such stories with her readers. A prime example is the fleeting appearance of Stephen Frears, who was mentioned only twice in the entire memoir, despite the fact that he is the ex-husband of Wilmers and father to Sam and Will.

Bennett aside, the only other celebrity run-in that Stibbe shares is when she runs into comedian Rik Mayall in the supermarket. "Rik Mayall had done something with Stephen [Frears] and he came around to the house once. But when we met by accident in the supermarket, he did not seem recognise who I was. He bought cream crackers," Stibbe wrote to her sister. While it may be exciting for her sister to read that Stibbe ran into Mayall in a supermarket of all places, the excitement does not translate well some 20 years later. Her anecdote of meeting the alternative comedian seems flat and uninteresting.

The people who feature greatly in her memoir are Sam and Will, the two boys Stibbe looks after. From her letters, it is obvious that Stibbe had a solid bond with the two boys. (Though she mentions it in scant detail, Sam suffers from an extremely rare genetic disorder affecting only Ashkenazi Jews; though Wilmers and Frears were told that he would only live up to the age of five, Sam celebrated his 41st birthday in 2013.)

Like most families with two pre-pubescent boys, swear words and talk of football and anatomy (male and female) litter the kitchen, where Stibbe spends most of her time trying to improvise on various recipes given to her by Victoria and even Bennett. It is her letters to Victoria detailing the gastronomic likes and dislikes of the two boys and their conversations around the dinner table that gets the laughter going. Through Stibbe's writings, readers get a glimpse into the lives of two witty and sharp minded boys.

The memoir is broken into two parts: the first part covers 1982-1984, when Stibbe lived and worked full-time for Wilmers, and the second part covers 1984-1987, when Stibbe moved to the other end of London, to attend Thames Polytechnic.

Despite no longer being a full-time staff post-1984, Stibbe still comes around to the Wilmers household to have chats with Mary-Kay and hang out with Sam and Will.

Though the Wilmers household is the place that Stibbe goes to frequently, the second part of her memoir has Stibbe describing her lectures and fellow students, and trying to impress a lecturer. It is at this juncture that her memoir becomes more despatches from student life than family life. Though interesting, parts of her letters here seem draggy and long-winded, without much point.

Love, Nina: Despatches From Family Life is a mixed bag. The first part of the memoir does live up to its title – it is entertaining to read about life in a somewhat famous household in the early 1980s, and the almost-permanent fixture of Bennett at the dinner table. (Admittedly, at the start of the book, this reviewer felt that Alan Bennett came across as pretentiously aloof; however, as the memoir progresses, Bennett turns out to be witty, if still somewhat pretentious. His "fight" with Stibbe over who had the best salad during a dinner party is frightfully hilarious.)

The one-sided conversation can become a tad monotonous – particularly in the second part of the memoir, where Stibbe seemed to be whinging about fellow students and her crush. Three years' worth of university life summed up in whinging letters to Victoria can get on readers' nerves.

Another down-turn is that Stibbe does not share the social, political or economic landscape of Britain of the 1980s; throughout her memoir, Stibbe seems to place her existence in a bubble, untouched by the outside world. Readers can only imagine what life must have been like in Thatcherite Britain and wonder about the cringe-worthy fashion of the times.

The negatives aside, Stibbe is a funny writer and her book is readable. Her tales of having to compete with a part-time Spanish housekeeper are hilarious; it is just sad that such entertainment did not emerge from her university life.

Love, Nina: Despatches From Family Life would not appeal to everyone. Those who either fancy reading about the minute details of everyday family life or wish to have a laugh at a book that has essentially no plot would find some comfort in it. Those that prefer something with more direction would be disappointed, I think.

Acts of Union and Disunion

Posted: 03 Mar 2014 03:00 PM PST

A look at the country that colonised much of this part of the world, and how it is faring in the troubled 21st century.

WITH Scotland's referendum on independence looming (Sept 18 this year), this is a timely study of a country whose unwieldy title – emblazoned on my passport – betrays its disunity.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is neither united (the North-South divide and the class system being two of its many of its centrifugal forces), nor is it a kingdom, at least at present. Arguably, nor is it "great", as Russian leader Vladimir Putin brusquely opined to British reporters last year in Moscow.

It's said that the "Great" qualifier is to differentiate Britain from the France's Brittany, a rationale that's hard to buy for some. Nevertheless, for centuries the country has punched above its weight on the global stage.

Prof Linda Colley has penned a lively and topical tract that consists of 15 thought-provoking essays. And through these, she examines both the ties and narratives that bind the United Kingdom and also its many glaring fissures.

Colley's last book to deliver so abundantly was the excellent Britons: Forging The Nation, 1707-1837, which came out in 1992. Her approach here, as it was in that well-received work, is to focus more on cultural and social history rather than on political or military dimensions, in order to illuminate her topic of expertise.

Acts Of Union And Disunion is a broad canvas filled-in with incisive portraits of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, and the impact of the country being surrounded by the sea, and its ties with – and ambivalence over – other English-speaking countries and Europe, and much more.

With well-chosen examples, notably Shakespeare's Richard II and a speech the late Margaret Thatcher made in 1979, Colley deciphers this perplexing land, from its earliest beginnings though to the country's uncertain – and possibly fractured – future.

This work is particularly revealing on the weeping wound of the North-South divide, which long predated the late Margaret Thatcher's cynically divisive policies. We learn here, among other surprises, that the first university in the north, Durham, was built in 1832, hundreds of years after Oxford and Cambridge.

The Chester-born Colley speaks writes warmly about the north of England, a region she observes as enjoying more cohesion, grit in the face of adversity, and community spirit, than the more affluent and "prissy" south.

As for Scotland, Colley tries to correct what she sees as a historical misinterpretation.

"Scotland has never been a colony. It was never conquered or forced to submit to waves of alien settlers as Ireland was."

She also points out that the Scots were joint oppressors of the Irish and very active in the colonies. Even here in Malaya: The most infamous instance of such oppression occurred in 1948, when a platoon of Scots Guards was responsible for a massacre of civilians in Batang Kali, Selangor.

Colley is less impressive on the monarchy. She blandly asserts that it is venerated because it promises and delivers continuity. But at a time when British "poverty-porn" TV shows like Benefits Street are causing a nationwide media stir (and going viral on YouTube), the paradox that generations of one family surnamed the Windsors can live on state financial support while proles who do the same are jeered at is not addressed.

Another weakness: insufficient space is devoted to persons of colour. Indeed, Africans marched in Roman battalions across the country's green fields long before England even became an entity. And, nearly 2,000 years later, soldiers of both colour and courage fought for Britain in two world wars.

In an age when Chicken Tikka Masala is "the national dish" (as it was dubbed by a British cabinet minister some years ago), Colley's book is largely hued "a lighter shade of pale", when it should contain a multiplicity of shades.

Additionally, the fact that Colley does not speculate on the impact of Scottish independence – should it pan out – on Welsh and Northern Irish perceptions of their own place in the country is a strange omission.

Despite these shortcomings, for a current take on that curious country that once ruled lands with names like the Straits Settlements and Ceylon, as well as vast tracts on other continents, Acts Of Union And Disunionprovides compelling reading by a lucid voice on what it means to be British today, and the complexities of a nation that, in the 21st century, is populated by subjects rather than citizens.

The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain The Rise And Fall Of Cultural Groups In America

Posted: 01 Mar 2014 08:00 AM PST

ASIANS and Asian-Americans constitute more than 50% of the students at America's prestigious Juilliard School of Music, and 19% at Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities; and Indian Americans have the highest median household income of any ethnic group in the United States.

These and other similar statistics, as provided by the authors of the Triple Package, are the basis of this book, which attempts to discover why certain ethnic groups are more successful in specific aspects of American life. Why are so many Mormons prominent businessmen? Why are there so many Nobel prize winners who are Jews? Why are there more Chinese and Korean classical musicians?

Of course, the moment anyone starts grouping people into ethnicities or races for whatever reason, everyone gets prickly. But then, this is not the first time authors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld are facing criticism. Or rather, Chua, specifically, isn't new to getting brickbats.

She shot to fame in 2011 when she wrote a piece entitled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior in the Wall Street Journal. That led to a book entitled Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother that further stoked fires among Western mothers (and many Asian ones as well), whom she criticised for allowing children to have sleepovers and be praised simply to raise their self-esteem.

She teamed up with husband and fellow author Rubenfeld (he writes murder mysteries when not teaching law at Yale) for this book that looks into the lives of the five most successful ethnic groups in the United States: Chinese, Iranian, Lebanese, Indian and Jews, along with two prominent outliers, Nigerians and Cuban exiles.

The constant emphasis on how these groups have had to endure much misery to become successful eventually might make white Americans sound like bullies, but actually, I feel that this book has a moreCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-sort of agenda: it indirectly criticises white American culture by demonstrating that other cultures are better at creating successful citizens.

What Chua and Rubenfeld argue is that a "triple package" of a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control is what promotes the upward mobility of a group of people.

By "superiority complex", they mean one group that collectively feels it is better than other groups; and these groups raise their children to think in this manner.

They point out that Jews grow up with the notion that they are the "chosen people", a feeling their faith instils in them; Mormons, too, subscribe to a religion based on the idea of "chosenness".

To be fair, the authors also mention the exception to their rule: the Amish people have the same sort of "chosen people" faith but in their case, it has relegated them to the fringes of modern America.

The second item of their package, "insecurity", is presented in a slightly more solid manner and discusses issues of scorn, fear and family. One example cited are Iranians: they choose to be identified as Persians rather than Arabs, tying themselves to the ancient great power that was Persia. When the 9/11 terror attacks took place in the United States in 2001, anti-Iranian hostility resurfaced, further reinforcing the appeal of being identified as Persian rather than Arab.

Of course, 9/11 also made life difficult for any group remotely associated with the Middle East. And this is a good thing – according to the authors, fear within individuals remains the prime motivator among successful artistes and CEOs. Here, the American idea of "learning to love yourself" is shot down because the authors believe that there needs to be a painful spur for an individual to be driven.

The last factor, impulse control, has long been a favourite topic among sociologists and psychologists who decry that fact that people these days want instant gratification. In this chapter, the authors revisit something that Chua had written about in Battle Hymn Of A Tiger Mother: how the Chinese take pride in the ability to endure hardship (though this time, it is mentioned that the Taiwanese and Koreans share the same values).

Though this book provides more substantial evidence in terms of data and examples compared with Chua'sBattle Hymn, the authors admit that some data are dubious – for instance, they write that "getting a statistical fix on Mormon income and wealth is notoriously difficult...". What I conclude from this admission is that there could be a bias towards proving their cultural supremacy theory.

Aside from the stories of high-flying successes and the creme de la creme of these communities, Chua and Rubenfeld do point out the flip side of their triple package: Success comes at a high price, the authors write, pointing to possible suicides among Asian Americans and drug abuse increasingly in play.

You could argue that this book encourages racism. But you could also see the positive side of these stories that say success is possible even if you come from the slums; in other words, Triple Package could be deemed motivational.

I feel, however, that apart from the testimonies of high-flying CEOs or professors, Chua and Rubenfeld would have added much more depth to the book if they had also spoken to ordinary white-collar workers in each of these groups to find out what they think about the success attributed to their community.

Overall, Triple Package is still an interesting read, offering as it does a mix of history, academic studies and anecdotal evidence. The authors have made their personal experience matter by taking it to a level higher.


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