Book Report: Tan on Tan

51fTaQ5dljL._SY346_It seems Amy Tan has been trying to write her story for years. The ghosts of her past inhabit all her novels and each one discloses a bit more of herself. Quite literally. In Where the Past Begins though, she gives readers the actual stories as she sifts through boxes of documents and photos—archives of her life and her parents’ emigration. Diplomas. Letters. Journals. A forbidden love story. The children and the cruel husband her mother left behind in China. The tragic deaths of her brother and father from brain tumors within six months of each other when Amy was a teenager.

Amy tries to understand the motives of her parents and where certain of her own personality traits originated—chief among them persistence and curiosity.

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Amy with her family in 1959.

The most enlightening chapter for me as a writer and longtime reader of her fiction is the one in which she shares emails exchanged with her editor as she was writing (and rewriting) The Valley of Amazement. She’d written a story that wasn’t holding together as it should.  That novel did contain a lot of detours and rabbit trails as I mentioned in this review a few years ago. Nevertheless, the fact that even Amy Tan needed help to turn this story into a novel made me feel better. Hopeful even.  Not to mention confirmation that writing is hard.

Here is a sampling of Amy’s eloquent and insightful prose.

On memory and the amygdala:

“Memory, in fact, gives you no choices over which moments you can erase, and it is annoyingly persistent in retaining the most painful ones. It is extraordinary faithful in recording the most hideous details, and it will recall them for you in the future with moments that are even only vaguely similar.”

“…without conscious choice on my part, my brain has let a lot of moments slide over the cliff.”

“I want to find those moments that my subconscious has hidden. I am more than curious—and it’s not because I’m a fiction writer who seeks a good story to write about. What’s in there is what made me a fiction writer, someone who has an insatiable need to know the reasons why things happened. In the amygdala are vast stores of disappointments and devastations, pain and wreckage. But I also want to know what the amygdala kept, because therein lies thousands of stories of how I became me.”

On the work of writing:

“But in writing fiction, the truth I seek is not a factual or scientific truth. It has to do with human nature. It is about those things that are not apparent on the surface. When I set out to write a story, I am feeling my way through a question, often a moral one, and attempting to find a way to capture all its facets and conundrums. I don’t want an absolute answer. When writing fiction, I am trying to put down what feels true.”

“The best metaphors appear unexpectedly out of the deep blue by means of intuition and my infatuation with nuance.”

“The actual writing will still be daunting. It gets harder with each novel. I will have to relearn my craft, overcome the same doubts, untangle the narrative from long detours, or take whichever detour is the story I should tell.”

On the fickleness of acclaim:

“Praise, I had learned, was temporary, what someone else controlled and doled out to you, and if you accepted it and depended on it for happiness, you would become an emotional beggar and suffer later when it was withdrawn.”

“The moon is more admired when it was full that when it was a sliver, and yet it is the same moon even when the perspective of others had changed.”

On her own fiction-writing mind:

“It is curious and open to anything. It is nonjudgmental and thus nothing it imagines is wrong. It is not bound to logic or facts. It is quick to follow any clues, but it can also be easily diverted to another direction, especially if it detects a secret or a contradiction.”

“If there is indeed a universal consciousness, it makes sense that mine would conjoin with it when the doors of imagination are flung wide open and all possibilities are allowed.”

Insight into the life and writing process of one of my favorite authors was enough to entice me to read this memoir. I’m more that glad I did and happily recommend it. Actually, I’d recommend anything written by Amy Tan. Probably even her shopping list.61qxtsbLAHL._UX250_

 

 

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Book Report: Can you make room for hope, faith, and opportunity?

tiger drive

Three cheers for Carson City, Nevada author, Teri Case on her debut novel! I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift from a friend.

Teri gets deep and personal in this family drama set in a trailer park very similar to the one in which she and her siblings were raised. The voices of the mother, father, sister, and brother are both vibrant and heartbreaking. Each character demonstrates the damage that poverty, abuse, and addiction can wreak on human beings. To protect themselves, they inflict further damage by keeping secrets from one another. While readers may not like the characters, they will find it hard not to empathize.

“Do you ever think we all would just be happier if everyone worked together and supported each other? I feel like my parents…and my older siblings only take care of themselves. It’s like my family doesn’t think there is enough of a good thing to go around, so they all scrap for the best of the worst, climb over each other, fight over rations, and then boom…they vanish when someone needs them. And that leaves me no better than them and looking out for myself…”

The author successfully paints each character into a corner, where neither they nor the reader can see any way out. Could these characters ever find redemption? Each of them will need to find resilience and the fierce drive of a tiger if they are to survive much less succeed.

More importantly, I believe Tiger Drive reinforces one of the reasons I read–to experience lives outside my own. The characters’ desperate lives and blistering responses to the chaos swirling around them are so foreign to my own life, that I was at first taken aback. Their struggles caused me to reflect on the assumptions and judgments I may have made when I encountered troubled children and families not only in my teaching career, but also in my life. I hope I have at least been kind. As a human being, kindness and compassion should be my first response. My prime directive. It costs us nothing to “make room for hope, faith, and opportunity” in our hearts. Having one person believe in us can make all the difference.

Thanks for a compelling read and the lesson, Teri.

Teri case
Author, Teri Case

Book report: Pat Conroy sends great love

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“The choices I didn’t make are almost as ruinous as the ones I did.”

What a lovely gift my good friend Linda gave me for Christmas. A Lowcountry Heart is a fine collection of the last bits of writing by Pat Conroy, who died in the spring of 2016. His friends and family gathered a few of his blog posts, speeches, and letters and put them together in a lovely tribute to this big-hearted, story-loving, low-country man. Since it’s Pat Conroy, and I can’t ever hope to match his words, I’ve just picked a few quotes to share with you.

On teaching:

“Though I’ve never met a teacher who was not happy in retirement, I rarely meet one who thinks that their teaching life was not a grand way to spend a human life.”
“Teaching remains a heroic act to me, and teachers live a necessary and all-important life. We are killing their spirit with unnecessary pressure and expectations that seem forced and destructive to me. Long ago I was one of them. I still regret I was forced to leave them. My entire body of work is because of men and women like them.”
“No one warned me that a teacher could fall so completely in love with his students that graduation seemed like the death of a small civilization.”

On writing:

“…a novel is always a long dream that lives in me for years before I know where to go to hunt it out.”
“It is not long life I wish for—it is to complete what I have to say about the world I found around me from boyhood to old age.”
“It was at the writing desk that I would be made or broken. In every biography of every writer, that was the secret to our kingdom of words. No other measurement counted for anything at all.”

On the veracity of his memoirs:

”None of them will be true word-for-word…It’s some version of the truth, even though I’m telling you right now it’s probably not going to be yours.”
“If a story is not told, it’s the silence around the untold story that ends up killing people. The story can open a secret up to the light.”

He is generous in his praise for other authors and the act of reading widely. Aspiring writers should take note.

On books:

“A great book took me into worlds where I was never supposed to go. I met men whose lives I wished to make my own and men whom I would cheerfully kill. Great writers introduced me to women I wanted to marry and women who would make me run for my life.”

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Conroy’s troubled early life, schooling, and profound sense of place provided all the material he needed to make a career as a novelist. Like many readers, I’m sad there won’t be any more books by him. I really don’t think you can go wrong with any of his books, but these are my favorites. Which ones have you liked best?

Book report: If you love a curmudgeon, read this book

51dQBC7HcaL._SY346_A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman has been on my cyber nightstand for a long time. Then the Swedish movie popped up on Netflix. When I finished My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by the same author, it showed up as a recommended next read. Finally, the stars aligned and the Kindle version became available at Overdrive from my local library.

Ove (pronounced “Oova”) is a cranky old man, recently widowed and forced into retirement. Throughout the book we see the world through his eyes. Life is bleak and the changing world is filled with idiots. No one knows how to do anything anymore.

Here’s a sample of Ove’s worldview:

“Should one really have a driver’s license if one can’t drive a real car rather than some Japanese robot vehicle, he wonders. Ove doubts whether someone who can’t park a car properly should even be allowed to vote.”

“People didn’t know how to…brew some proper coffee. In the same way as nowadays nobody could write with a pen. Because now it was all computers and espresso machines. And where was the world going if people couldn’t even write or brew a pot of coffee?”

 “People said he was bitter. Maybe they were right. He’d never reflected much on it. People also called him antisocial. Ove assumed this meant he wasn’t overly keen on people. And in this instance he could totally agree with them. More often than not people were out of their minds.”

As the book progresses, we learn Ove’s story is one of sadness, almost from the beginning. Nevertheless, the book is far from depressing because we meet Ove’s neighbors and the Cat Annoyance and see them interact in human and quite humorous ways. We feel empathy for the old grump.

This is a charming book, with many laugh-out-loud moments. I highly recommend you read Ove’s story. Then watch the subtitled movie, perhaps with the curmudgeon you love.

Book Report: Two books that matter

51XL0AHlIvL._SY346_The Book that Matters Most

If, like me, you belong to book club, this book will appeal to you. It centers on a year in which the club’s theme is “The Book that Matters Most.” The members contribute the titles that matter most to them. Although they realize “it’s impossible to pick such a book. When you read a book, and who you are when you read it, makes it matter or not,” they find ten such books. The author cheated; she got to pick ten books that matter to the ten members of the club. Our book club is asked to do the same. How can I choose just one?

Ava, the main character, is facing mid-life after her husband’s affair and their recent divorce.  Her friend Cate invites her to join her book club, she accepts.

“She needed most of all, the comfort of people who wanted nothing more than to sit together and talk about books.

Ava immediately knows which book mattered most to her. It’s one she read as a child, just after her mother died.  The trouble is, it’s been out of print for years. No one can find it. Moreover, Ava has promised an appearance by the author who has disappeared. Or perhaps she never even existed. Then Ava’s troubled twenty-something daughter, Maggie, goes missing in Europe.

Those two compelling mysteries pull the reader through the story.

Perhaps the plot relies a little too much on coincidence for its resolution, but it was certainly enjoyable and worth recommending, if only for the discussion of the books. I’ve read two others by Ann Hood, The Red Thread and The Knitting Circle. I loved both, so I’m adding Hood to my collection of favorite authors named Ann: Ann Patchett, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, and Anna Quindlen.

If you had to choose the book that matters most, what would it be? Please comment below.

51Q+SOKe+PL._SY346_My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

Aaah, where to start. I LOVED this one. Elsa, the seven (almost 8) year-old narrator is the very definition of precocious. And I think author, Fredrik Backman gets her voice just right. While Elsa is adept at looking things up on the Internet and has read a mountain of “quality literature,” her comprehension is still that of a seven-year-old.  For example, her mother is pregnant with a baby who will be Elsa’s half-brother or sister. Until it is explained to her, she believes the baby will be–somehow–half a person. When “gender roles” are mentioned, she thinks they mean “gender trolls.”

Elsa and her Granny live in an apartment house, along with Elsa’s pregnant mom, mom’s boyfriend, and a host of unique, colorful and well-drawn characters who each play a part in the unfolding of this tale. Granny weaves a world of stories to help Elsa navigate the real world. But some question Granny’s suitability as a companion. When we first meet Elsa and her Granny, they are being apprehended by police in the middle of the night after breaking into the zoo.  This happens after they have escaped the hospital where Granny is a patient.  Granny has also been known to deter unwanted visitors by shooting them with a paintball gun from her balcony while wearing only a dressing gown.

Nonetheless, Granny understands the power of stories and what they teach us about real life and real dangers. She tries to prepare Elsa for what is to come.

Some of Granny’s lessons:

“Only different people change the world,” Granny used to say. “No one normal has ever changed a crapping thing.”

“…not all monsters were monsters in the beginning. Some are monsters born of sorrow.”

 “…the real trick of life was that almost no one is entirely a shit and almost no one is entirely not a shit. The hard part of life is keeping as much of the not-a-shit side as one can.”

And what stories teach us:

 “…if there is a dragon at the beginning of the story, the dragon will turn up again before the story is done. She knows everything has to become darker and more horrible before everything works out just fine at the end. Because that is how all of the best stories go.”

“People have to tell their stories…Or they suffocate.”

And the power of chocolate:

“…you can be upset while you’re eating chocolate Santas. But it’s much, much more difficult.”

Since I’m the grandmother to a super-smart seven (almost eight) year-old girl, this one went right to my heart. It’s warm, funny, wisecrack-y, sad, a little dark and scary at times, but ultimately triumphant. I can’t recommend it enough.

If the author sounds familiar, he also wrote A Man Called Ove, which has been on my TBR (To Be read) shelf for months. It may have just moved up. There is a Swedish movie of the book and an American remake in the works starring Tom Hanks.51dQBC7HcaL._SY346_

Book report: Do you really want to know?

TruthOn its surface, this is a coming of age story. It’s told in the lively and distinct voices of three women–Willa and  Jottie Romeyn and Layla Beck–during the sultry summer of 1938 in the small town of Macedonia, West Virginia. Annie Barrows’ makes readers swelter and seek one cool spot in the days before air conditioning.  We sit on the screened porch in creaking wicker chairs in the evening.  We feel the relief offered by the tiniest breeze and sweating glasses of iced tea.

In other ways though, The Truth According to Us is the story of how we all come to terms with the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts. Sometimes the truth hurts, even when those we love try to protect us.

Young Willa Romeyn introduces the story, almost as Scout does in To Kill a Mockingbird.

 “Everything that was to heave itself free of its foundations over the course of the summer began to rattle lightly on the morning of the parade. That was when I first heard of Layla Beck, when I began to wonder about my father, and when I noticed I was being lied to and decided to leave my childhood behind.”

At twelve, Willa is a voracious reader and has grown suspicious of her mysterious father’s frequent absences and the secrets being kept from her.

“If you’re going to unearth hidden truths, keen observing is your shovel.”

“It seemed so hard that I had to work out the answers on my own, but that’s what I had to do. I had to keep at it, finding out, guessing what would happen next, fighting for the right ending, trying to save them all.”

Willa’s Aunt Jottie is her surrogate mother. Jottie knows—or thinks she knows–the secrets and tries to protect Willa and her little sister Bird from them.  She tries to instill in them the Macedonian virtues of “ferocity and devotion.”

“If only Willa could have what I had, Jottie mourned. If only she could be so certain and proud. It was an illusion every child should have. And Willa was losing it, right before her eyes.”

Pretty, spoiled Layla Beck, a  Senator’s daughter, is sent here to grow up and earn her keep during the WPA era. She is tasked with writing the history of Macedonia for its upcoming sesquicentennial. She is soon confronted with conflicting versions of events and comes to a conclusion about history in general.

“A successful history is one that captures the living heat of opinion and imagination and ancient grudge.”

Those short weeks in West Virginia reveal “truths” about the town’s founder, the Civil War, bootleggers, the tragic death of young man years ago, and the price of family loyalty. Some of those lessons take a toll, especially on young Willa.

“I didn’t want to know everything anymore; I didn’t want to know anything.”

Nonetheless, the truth is I’d love to have sat on the Romeyn’s front porch sipping iced tea with the colorful residents of Macedonia that summer. Even in the heat.  I was sorry to say good-bye.