Friday, November 21, 2008

Mother on Fire by Sandra Tsing Loh

Have you spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about where your child will go to kindergarten? Sandra Tsing Loh dedicates a year of her life to working out that problem. Reading this book will make you grateful for the choices you have and that you don’t live in LA. Or, at least that is how I felt.

The author’s tumultuous year includes being fired from NPR for saying an obscenity on air as well as trying to get her daughter into various schools. She almost gets her daughter into a private, religious school, but then the school decides her daughter should do another year of preschool. She lucks into a very exclusive school that costs more than $20,000 a year and deals with that stress of deciding whether to do that. And, of course, there is a confusing lottery system to get into magnet schools as well as the public school possibility located three blocks from their house.

This memoir is funny, mainly because the author lets you in her head. Loh’s husband is delegated to be in charge of finding a kindergarten. However, when she finds a preschool flier sitting in the van for an informational meeting that night she springs into action. The informational meeting, pre-registration required, is directly after the Spring Fund-Raising Committee meeting, both of which the same person happens to be directing. Here’s how Loh finagles her way into the meeting:

" 'Hey Joan! I’m just leaving twenty dollars for our two Spring Fund-Raising Jamboree tickets and—Hey is there still room to volunteer on the committee? The fund-raising committee! Love to be on that!'
'YOU want to be on the committee?' Joan’s glazed look turns into one of incredulity.
Feeling a little stung to be found out, here I actually attempt to rewrite—or at least re-interpret—my conspicuously non-committee-volunteering-mother history, all in one mangled run-on sentence. I fabricate something about a big writing deadline I have had, for several years, which all at once I am abruptly clear of, and so of course now will return to my original plan of TOTAL CO-OP PRESCHOOL INVOLVEMENT."

So, Loh, after all the extra volunteering efforts, ends up at the meeting where frantic parents discuss all the drawbacks of the LA public schools. This does not help her peace of mind.

Besides the kindergarten issues, the author has a meltdown while giving what is supposed to be an inspiring talk to Marymount College students. She is the college writer in residence, but the students are surprised to hear that she is not the huge success they imagine.

“ 'Each of the books I’ve published were at some point deemed a failure by some twenty-two-year-old publicist in New York named Jennifer. They were all named Jennifer. All my Jennifers —they’re a bit like my discarded wives. My Jennifers were all graduates of Brown, they deserved so much better than me as an author, they had such beautiful hair, beautiful educations… They’d been groomed to have much bigger successes. But I and my incorrigably midlist work destroyed them.
Somewhere, in some hip bar in Manhattan, are my Jennifers, about thirty-three now, still cutting great figures in the dark, but with hard lines around their mouths. It is my career that put them there.' "

You can imagine how her somewhat bitter comments go over with enthusiastic twenty-year-olds.

Loh has a somewhat manic style with lots of exclamation points and words in all caps. She is not shy about her takes on her friends, her Chinese father, and her husband among others. She adds in crazy hand drawn graphs and timelines. Mother on Fire is subtitled A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting. It is a good, quick read and, since I can’t imagine any search for kindergarten being more dramatic, will make you feel more relaxed about any upcoming school decisions you may have.


Aria said...

This sounds really interesting, and entertaining!

Catherine Jasper said...

Oh my. Suddenly I feel very sane. I keep seeing this book and thought it was more a general momoir. Sounds crazy.

Melissa said...

Makes me feel grateful for this year's jump to junior high in our family. The boy who chased my 8th grade daughter at the bus stop with a lawnmower and the 9th graders with facial hair and...desires...seem so manageable now. Thank goodness those early school decisions are a thing of the past! Can't wait to read this one.

Cheryl M. said...

Melissa - You're scaring me - a kindergarten decision seems so innocent compared to sending kids off to junior high.

Sandra Hamlett said...

I've always gotten a kick out of Sandra on NPR. I went through a bit of that preschool madness when I lived in NYC. I knew people who hired consultants to get them into the "right" school. Now I'm living out in the country with my preschooler who can identify deer, dog, and bear poop. I defy any expensive exclusive preschool to top that.

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