Tag Archives: best writing

The Amazing Amy Tan

The Valley of Amazement

The Valley of Amazement: A Novel by Amy Tan (HarperCollins, $16.99, 608 pages)

“…the night is always brighter than the day.” Bob Dylan (“Seven Days”)

Amy Tan’s seventh adult novel, The Valley of Amazement, is a triumph. In Valley, Tan, most noted for her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, comes back with a vengeance after an eight-year hiatus.

As the story opens in 1905, main character Violet Minturn is a petulant child living with her mother, Lulu Mimi, who runs the courtesan house Hidden Jade Path. The title is rife with meaning and comes from a mysterious painting, the origins of which are revealed at the end of the story. It is Violet’s prized memory of her mother, who is coerced into abandoning Violet for her home country of America by corrupt Chinese gangsters.

As a result, Violet is forced into the courtesan lifestyle, losing her freedom and dignity. She becomes hardened
when her first love does not work out. She goes on to experience love again, only to endure more unthinkable tragedy. Only the most optimistic of sorts could hope for a happy ending after this, through there is closure.

In the bizarre reality of the courtesan culture, at least according to this novel, these women consider themselves noble with a higher status than ordinary prostitutes. Perhaps this is because they sign long-term contracts with one man, who, of course, possesses other courtesans in addition to his wife. Perhaps it is because they live a relatively comfortable lifestyle or can aspire to become a second or third wife. Most of them eventually do end up as prostitutes in their early 20s, at which point they are considered to be “old.” It’s not too difficult to make sense of it when one considers that Chinese women had to train their feet – through binding – to be not too big; something that was thought to be unattractive. Obviously, the culture was highly oppressive to women.

Chapter Four, in which Violet is trained in the nuances of her profession, is entitled “Etiquette for Beauties of Boudoir.” It reads like “Proverb for Courtesans,” which would have been highly interesting if it wasn’t seemingly so demented.

There are many examples of outstanding writing throughout the book. One example: “Those were the reasons we both know how deep love was, the shared pain that would outlast any pain we caused each other.” Tan is a master storyteller who, in this unique, troubling and amazing novel, lives up to her billing.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an educator, a sometime musician, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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A Perfect Read

Perfect Reader

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Anchor; $14.95; 288 pages)

“Now the distance leads me farther on/ Though the reasons I once had are gone/ With my maps and my faith in the distance/ Moving farther on…”   Jackson Browne (“Farther On”)

Maggie Pouncey is bringing back language, slow and careful language.   It’s the type of language that began to disappear in the 1960s.   The language that the daughter of a college president might have grown up hearing.

One gave the dog a sop, not a treat or bite; one woke not at dawn but at sparrow fart, and wore not party clothes but finery.   Now it was like speaking Yiddish, or some other dying language; soon there would be nobody around to talk to.

Perfect Reader is a story of a not-so-young 28-year-old woman who returns to her home town after her father’s death.   The town is Darwin, Massachusetts which daughter Flora Dempsey has returned to from, presumably, Boston.   Flora’s father was the president of Darwin College (as the author’s father was the president of Amherst College), and also a noted literary critic, professor and sometime poet.

Flora is a rootless person who has not yet decided what to do with her self, her life.   She’s disoriented coming back to the small college town built on “liberal well-meaningness”; it’s a town more than a bit reminiscent of Davis, California.   But then she felt no more at home working in the city.

Flora’s parents had been divorced many years before and she had made a career out of avoiding contact with her father.   Now the time for avoidance has passed.   She must handle his funeral arrangements, and everything her father owned – his home, his writings, his books – has been left to her.   This is not the least of things, as Flora learns that her dad had a lover, a female instructor from the college.   The woman wants to be close to Flora, but Flora just wants to isolate herself; she wants people to leave her alone while she ponders her next steps.   In a strange way she envies her father’s escape from the people who trouble you:  “The dead left you alone, but it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

Flora felt her life shrinking.   The smallness of the table provided a good metaphor.   No room for other people.   Soon her life would cease to be a table; it wouldn’t even be a cocktail table.   It would be a solitary chair, hardbacked and wooden…

This likely sounds depressing but in the telling – a careful and precise telling – it is not.   The Boston Globe called it, “(An) exquisitely observed drama.”   This is because it comes down to the words, the language, which makes the reader feel like he or she has picked up a novel from the wrong decade, if not century.

It is, however, slow.   This is something that some readers will likely have a problem with but it is deliberately slow.   The author has said that, “so many of the books I love are slow.”   If and when the novel is made into a film, there will be no car chases, no gun battles, no slaps or loud confrontations.   It will be a moody movie (like The Hours) that will be loved or hated.

I loved this very contemplative story set around a basic theme.   Does a child, even an adult child, grow up by escaping her past or embracing it?   Whose life is it anyway and, presuming it’s your own, why do we pay such a high price for not fulfilling the expectations of others?

Although Flora’s father has passed (and Flora hates that people will use any word in the English language but dead) she must nevertheless battle her mother’s expectations, and the fact that she fails to heed her mother’s advice.   In one prime scene, Flora’s mom suggests that she volunteer somewhere in order to provide “some structure” to her life.   “How wonderfully helpful, Mom.   How sage…” responds Flora who is tired and “regressing, moving backward, growing down.”

Yes, our protagonist is not someone who everyone will like or relate to.   She’s brittle and angry and exhausted but, two years short of her third decade on this world, she’s reached the point of decision-making.   Who and what is she going to be in her life?

Perfect Reader is not for everyone.   For me, it was close to a perfect read.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Perfect Reader Pouncey

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   “Maggie Pouncey’s Perfect Reader is wry, vivid, loving and exuberantly BOOKISH.   I enjoyed it tremendously.”   Meg Wolitzer, author of The Uncoupling: A Novel.  

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Our Book Ratings System

As you may notice in visiting this site, we do not rank or score books with letter grades or numbers or stars – either white or gold ones.   We simply recommend books, of whatever genre, or do not recommend them.   The most precious resource we have in life is time, and so we attempt to make a determination here as to whether a particular book is worth your time.

If you don’t see a recommendation at the end of the review, the book in question is not recommended.   When we do recommend a book it will fall into one of three categories, as follows.

Recommended – This is a book, fiction or non-fiction, which may contain up to four or five writing flaws which were not corrected in the editing process.   However, it is clear on the whole (and by a margin that clearly exceeds 51%) that this is a book that will justify the time you devote to it.

Well Recommended – A book in this category may contain two or three flaws or editing omissions, but it’s exemplary and likely to rank in the top quartile (top 25%) of books on the market.

Highly Recommended – Books like these are likely in the top 10% of those released in the current and prior calendar year.   They may contain one or two errors but are nevertheless close to perfection in both content and presentation.

Some books will fall into the Recommended or Well Recommended category because they are well written, but Highly Recommended books tend to require a junction of great writing with a great theme and near-flawless execution.   Finally, we are considering adding a new category, Essential.   Essential books are novels or non-fiction books released in prior years that should be a part of any well-rounded reader’s experience.   Two examples that immediately come to mind are In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Independence Day by Richard Ford.   The latter was the winner of both The Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.   (“It is difficult to imagine a better American novel appearing this year.”   Publishers Weekly, 1995)

Independence Day was reviewed on this site on October 30, 2009 (“American Tune”).

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