Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Listen to the Squawking Chicken / Elaine Lui

3 out of 5 stars
As the 800,000+ U.S. fans of Elaine Lui’s site know, her mother, aka The Squawking Chicken, is a huge factor in Elaine’s life. She pulls no punches, especially with her only child. “Where’s my money?” she asks every time she sees Elaine. “You’ll never be Miss Hong Kong,” she informed her daughter when she was a girl. Listen to the Squawking Chicken lays bare the playbook of unusual advice, warnings, and unwavering love that has guided Elaine throughout her life. Using the nine principles that her mother used to raise her, Elaine tells us the story of the Squawking Chicken’s life—in which she walked an unusual path to parent with tough love, humor, and, through it all, a mother’s unyielding devotion to her daughter. This is a love letter to mothers everywhere.

This book made me miss my mother. I wish I could phone her. I wish I could get her to read this book and tell me what she thinks of it. I just wish I could hear her voice once more—something that I haven’t heard for eighteen years.

Now let me be clear—my mother was nothing like Elaine Lui’s mother, the Squawking Chicken. She had a happy childhood, a good marriage, and I think the normal desire to see her children do well. The Sqawking Chicken had a brutal childhood (her parents contemplated letting her die because she, as the oldest child, knew details about their lives that they would rather cover up), a husband who lost her for ten years when he refused to stand up to his family for her, and a child who she pushed hard to be successful. A tiger mother before such things were spoken of, a mother like that would have been a disaster for a quiet, introverted little girl such as me. Lui, however, seems to have survived and thrived.

Not that my mother was a quiet, submissive woman—far from it. She was a writer and I remember falling asleep in the evening to the sound of the typewriter as she worked on the latest project. She was a farm wife and she ran the household and garden, preserved the produce, managed the budget, did the taxes, and let us all know what we could and could not afford. When harvest time came, she added livestock care to her daily duties, while Dad swathed, combined and moved grain until after dark when the dampness of the evening would decrease the quality of the grain. It was expected that I would go out to the farm each fall to help her dig potatoes, carrots, and turnips. She used to tell me that Dad was too impatient—he ended up chopping into potatoes, which would then rot during storage. “You’re patient enough, you dig carefully, you wipe off the dirt, and you leave them out to dry properly. I’d much rather work with you.” She did me the favour of asking me each year, but I never turned her down. The only time I did turn her down was the spring that she decided that she was going to get chickens. “This fall, you and I can process chickens too,” she told me. Now, I know that I cannot wield the axe that kills the chickens, the smell of wet feathers during plucking makes me nauseous, and that I cannot cut up a chicken from the store, let alone cut into a recently deceased chicken and remove its internal organs. I had to regretfully tell me mother that if she bought chickens, she would be on her own when it came time to deal with them. And although she was capable of doing immense amounts of work without complaint, I noticed that she didn’t buy chickens that spring.

But what I enjoyed most was how much my mother enjoyed reading and discussing what she read. When she finished a book, it was often handed over to me. “Read it and tell me what you think,” she’d say. I remember her reading aloud vast portions of A Prayer for Owen Meany, and the two of us laughing hysterically at the ridiculous voice that she had chosen to use for Owen’s dialog. I remember passionate debates about which Canadian Margaret was the best writer—Margaret Laurence was her choice, Margaret Atwood was mine. I would drive home on a Friday evening and she would have a pot of coffee waiting—we would drink the coffee, talk about what we had been reading, watch the news, and go to bed. I never remember the caffeine keeping me awake. Like The End of Your Life Book Club, we talked about so many important personal matters by talking about books.

I’m glad for Ms. Lui’s sake that she still has her mother. But, not for the first time, I wish I could discuss books with my mother just one more time.

I’m sorry, this review tells you almost nothing about the book and probably way too much about me.

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