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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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Spinning Wheel

Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer by Peter Elkind (Portfolio)

“(Elliot was) a muscular populist who wasn’t afraid to confront business institutions by punching them in the nose.   The MO was to keep things under wraps, announce them in a big way, then work with the press.   You lay out all the appalling facts, and they’re dead, because they’re in the market.  …When he really had the facts on somebody, it was like something out of Wild Kingdom.”

This is the story of the brisk rise and brutal fall of the Sheriff of Wall Street; the man who might have been the first Jewish President of the United States.   It is also a true morality play and what Spitzer himself called a Greek Tragedy.   In the end, it is a story about human strengths and weaknesses.

Elkind’s account (he was the co-author of The Smartest Guys in the Room) starts off promisingly, but he attempts to set up an odd comparison between Spitzer and John Kennedy.   It seems that Spitzer grew up under a demanding wealthy father who made his sons discuss major issues around the dinner table.   The elder Spitzer is made to sound like the second coming of Joe Kennedy.   But there are no signs that Spitzer was an intellectual like JFK (Spitzer made the law review at Harvard through a writing competition rather than on his grades).   If Elkind had called it correctly – and he never does in this account – he would have seen that Spitzer was the 2.0 version of Robert Kennedy.

RFK was the original liberal populist sheriff out to smash organized crime and tough in a manner that remains unusual for Democrat politicians.   Bobby Kennedy was always convinced of the moral rightness of his causes, something that appeared to be true also for Spitzer:  “We did not investigate Wall Street because we were troubled by large institutions making a lot of money.   We took action to stop a blatant fraud that was ripping off small investors.”

But one cannot write a quasi-biography of a subject’s life without giving the reader a sense of the subject’s flesh and blood.   Except for his sexual proclivities, Elkind fails to deliver here in presenting a portrait of Spitzer the man – for better or worse.   Instead, we have a newspaper reporter’s-style telling of Spitzer’s youth, education, unlikely political rise and early exit from the world of politics.   It is a shame and a major missed opportunity, as Elkind was perhaps the first person to get Spitzer to sit down for an interview after his short period of enforced exile.   But Spitzer made it clear that he is not a contemplative person, and saw little use in attempting to explain his actions to the author.

At the conclusion of Rough Justice, the reader is left with the same question posed by Lloyd Constantine, an aide and friend who had been with Spitzer from the start of his professional life, “I kept on feeling: what is wrong with this guy?   Who is he?”   Asked but not answered.

Take Away:   Elliot Spitzer comes off as a cardboard figure in this flawed account of a flawed man.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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