Amy Tan’s family history and her changing perception of China

Tan, Amy pic
Amy Tan – Photo Credit: Rick Smolan/Against All Odds Productions

Here’s an interesting interview from The New York Times in which Amy Tan discusses her family history in China, connections she did not know about until she was 16. When her father died, Tan’s mother revealed she had been married before, in China, and had three daughters. In the article, Tan talks about her own changing perception of China, of her mother’s unhappy life there and the daughters her mother left behind. Click here for the full article.

I’m busy reading Tan’s most recent book, The Valley of Amazement. In addition to the story of the courtesan life in Shanghai, Tan focuses on the relationships between mothers and daughters, and on the pain of separation and abandonment, no doubt influenced by her own family’s experiences.

Check back soon for my review and thanks for visiting!

When I Found You by Catherine Ryan Hyde

When I Found YouWhen I Found You
by
Catherine Ryan Hyde

Rating:

Nathan and Flora McCann have no children. That was their arrangement. But when Nathan goes duck hunting and finds an abandoned baby boy in the woods, his life changes in unimaginable ways.

“I want to adopt that boy,” says Nathan.

“Don’t be absurd. Neither one of us is very fond of kids. We made up our minds against them,” she replies.

“No, you made up your mind against them. You decided for both of us.”

Nathan keeps the next thought to himself: “You simply didn’t say, to the person who has shared her life with you, that her company was not enough to fulfill you.” These thoughts foreshadow an awakened drive in Nathan to do something meaningful with his life.

The custody decision is made without Nathan and his wife when Ertha Bates, the grandmother, claims the baby. Despite the closure, Nathan feels an inexpressible connection and makes her promise to one day introduce the boy to him. He tells her, “I want him to know me…I want you to introduce me, and say to him, ‘This is the man who found you in the woods.’” Ertha reluctantly agrees and, in a weak tribute to Nathan, names the baby “Nat.”

Fifteen years later, the grandmother has had enough and turns the boy, now a difficult teenager, over to Nathan. Nathan promises to never give up on the boy, despite a series of inconceivable challenges.

I enjoyed this book very much, which takes many unpredictable turns. Catherine Ryan Hyde hasn’t just written a story about endurance. She has created Nathan McCann, a symbol of patience, careful words and steadfast loyalty to a promise. But this book isn’t just about Nathan. The author also does a great job showing Nat’s point of view and highlighting the contrast between his bad choices and his need to be loved.

Hyde has a plain and refreshing writing style. She introduces her characters through dialogue and simple activity, with a few teaser physical descriptions, as if to highlight instead the importance of their words and actions. In addition to a message about commitments, she includes lessons about self-worth, being truthful and pursuing dreams. Nathan says some very wise things:

The value of your life is your own choosing.

I feel that the truth is simply the truth. And that to shield someone from it is only a manner of treating that person with a lack of respect.

You can’t tell someone to pursue their dream only if it’s a good match for your own.”

When I Found You is a touching and refreshing change. It is appropriate for a Young Adult reader, but its appeal extends into a wider group, proof of quality writing.  Hyde has written a great many books and I’m looking forward to picking out another!

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Friday Fiction Jessica Ch 3 A Photo and a Letter

Friday Fiction

Jessica

Thank you for visiting Book Club Mom’s Friday Fiction. Below is Chapter 3 of Jessica, a story about a nineteen-year-old woman who is trying break the pattern of loss and unhappiness that has defined her childhood. What Jessica wants most is to build a life with her boyfriend, Jimmy, but Jimmy is trapped in a dangerous family dynamic. When Jessica learns the truth about Jimmy, it’s up to her to save him. To do this, she must turn to the one person who has hurt her the most, her father. A series of events pushes Jessica beyond anything she can imagine and forces her to define happiness and love in a different way, and at a heartbreaking price.

Chapter 3 – A Photo and a Letter

I keep a picture of our family, the way it used to be, in my dresser drawer. I had turned eight the summer Dad surprised us and rented us a house for a week at the Jersey shore. The days were hot and we spent them playing on the beach and swimming in the ocean. Mom and Dad sat in their chairs on the beach while Stevie and I dug in the sand and rode our rafts in the surf. Their chairs were close together and sometimes they would talk or laugh and sometimes I would see Mom’s hand drop between the chairs and play with the sand in her fingertips. At night we walked the boardwalk and played miniature golf, went on the rides, shopped and ate ice cream. We were doing the things that every family around us was doing and sometimes I would catch the eye of a young girl or boy walking along in another family and I felt connected. I felt like I belonged to a larger group and that we all understood this same thing about belonging.

Mom and Dad were so happy on that trip and Dad kept surprising us with things to do. One morning we rented a surrey to ride up and down the boardwalk, Mom and Dad in the front and Stevie and me in back, the striped awning covering us. I was laughing and Stevie was teasing me. But in the front Mom and Dad were laughing over something private. They would pedal and laugh and then I think I was mostly laughing out of the pure joy of seeing them that way. I felt safe.

We rode to the end of the boardwalk and then we all got out to look at the ocean. Mom had always been the one in our family to say, “Here, let’s get a picture of us,” but this time Dad said it and we laughed because that was our inside joke the four of us shared and I felt good being in on something. Mom and Stevie and I sat on the bench with our backs to the ocean and Dad snapped the picture.

I pulled that picture out of one of our photo albums after Dad left. I had been trying to figure out what had happened to us and when I looked at that picture the first time, my throat felt tight as I stared at the three of us. Dad was not in the picture, but he was just as much a part of the moment because I knew Mom was looking right at Dad. Her smile was broad and open and her blue eyes were gleaming. Stevie and I were giggling and we looked just the way we had felt that day. I swore we were happy then and I felt raw with anger when I realized that the moment in the picture had been long gone and I had not noticed.

Mom threw herself into house cleaning after Dad left. I couldn’t understand. I wanted to ask why, but Mom was closed to Stevie and me. I felt helpless. I was sure that if I could do something, it would help. If I could reverse the time, maybe I could do something different so he wouldn’t leave. Mom didn’t talk. She only cleaned.

I told Stevie I wanted to get Dad to come back and he laughed. “Jes, why do you want to go back to those days? Dad got out of here when he had the chance and he’s not coming back. Why would he want to?”

I tried to shout at Stevie, but when I opened my mouth I could only say, “Because we’re still here. He forgot us.” I said it in a string of choked-out words, and they hung there waiting for Stevie to do something to make me feel wanted.

“He didn’t forget us, stupid. He doesn’t want us. You or Mom or me or any other part of what we have here. Forget about him. He’s gone.”

Mom went on cleaning until there was nothing left to clean and Stevie and I went to school and acted like there was nothing different about us. Then Mom got a job in a bank and made Stevie and me house keys so we could let ourselves in after school and I learned to cook dinner.

I used to jump when the phone rang during those days, still hoping it was Dad. And when the mail came, I was the first to look through the letters, hoping for something from Dad. My heart raced the first time I saw the envelope, addressed to Mom and written in Dad’s handwriting. No return address, but the postmark was from New Jersey and, in a wild fantasy I thought that maybe Dad got us a house in New Jersey and was writing to us to tell us to come there so we could start over.

Mom was still at work and I wanted so much to see her open the letter and was sure she would tell us the amazing news about moving or Dad saying he was sorry or just something good that I could hold onto. I made an extra nice dinner for us that night, thinking it was a night to celebrate and I put Dad’s letter on the top of the mail pile in the letter basket we used so Mom would see it right away. I thought about putting it on her dinner plate, like it was an award or a present or something because I was sure she would open it and smile and tell us something wonderful and then we would laugh and eat and talk about our new life and what it was going to be like.

Mom came home from work and I looked for her to see the letter at the top of the pile and she saw it but didn’t even open it right away. She went upstairs to change and I thought, well, she wants to get out of her work clothes so she can enjoy the letter and so I waited and I wasn’t worried. I just thought she was doing things her way because she wasn’t a kid anymore.

She smiled when she came down and saw the nice dinner I had made and I thought maybe she’d open the letter then, but she didn’t. We ate our dinner and it was nice and Stevie sat with us a little longer than usual. He had seen the letter from Dad and maybe he was hoping too that there was good news from Dad inside and maybe he was excited about Mom opening the letter and telling us something good.

Mom acted in no hurry and I couldn’t stand it any longer so I finally said, “Mom, are you going to open the letter from Dad?” I almost burst out more of what I had been thinking and I would have if I hadn’t looked up at Mom just then and seen her face. She looked sad even though we were sitting at a nice dinner and had been talking about nice things. And she smiled a smile, but it wasn’t a happy one, I’m not sure it was even a smile except that her mouth was formed the right way, arcing up. She made that strange face at me and said, “I’ll open it later, Jessica. It can wait.”

I wanted so much for Mom to open that letter in front of us, but I know now I was stupid. I should have known then that she wanted to do it when she was alone because the letter wasn’t good news. It was barely a letter at all, I realized because most of what was inside was what came every month from that day on, without celebration and mostly with resigned sadness.

I asked Stevie about it later that night. I wanted so much for Stevie and me to be joined together so he could help me survive whatever this was that we were going through and I never learned during those years when Stevie was still home that he had nothing to offer me except the ugly truth about our lives, how we were never going to be anything other than three separate people that used to be a family of four.

Stevie said to me later, “That wasn’t a letter from Dad. Is that what you thought? Jes, you are so stupid. That was a check, child support. He has to send us money. He doesn’t care about us anymore. Get over it.”

I couldn’t get over it. I didn’t want to believe that Dad would only send us money because he had to. I thought, well, maybe he’s getting settled and maybe he’s sending us money to help us pack up and go to him.

It took me a long time to realize that the checks that came every month meant nothing else except that Dad was sending them because he had to. I waited for them and held them up to the light, straining to see if there was a note inside, but always, it was a thin letter and if I shook it, I could hear only the check sliding back and forth inside, hitting one side of the envelope and then the other and if I shook it the right way I could make the check slide back and forth and make a sound, a click-click sound that almost ticked at the same beat as the clock in our kitchen, marking the time as it passed through our lives.

Thank you for reading.  All comments are welcome.

Click below to check out earlier chapters.

Chapter 1 – Jimmy
Chapter 2 – Stevie

© All rights reserved.  All material on this blog is the property of Book Club Mom. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Friday Fiction: Jessica Ch 2 Stevie

Friday Fiction

Jessica

Thank you for visiting Book Club Mom’s Friday Fiction. Below is Chapter 2 of Jessica, a story about a nineteen-year-old woman who is trying break the pattern of loss and unhappiness that has defined her childhood. What Jessica wants most is to build a life with her boyfriend, Jimmy, but Jimmy is trapped in a dangerous family dynamic. When Jessica learns the truth about Jimmy, it’s up to her to save him. To do this, she must turn to the one person who has hurt her the most, her father. A series of events pushes Jessica beyond anything she can imagine and forces her to define happiness and love in a different way, and at a heartbreaking price.

Chapter 2 – Stevie

Stevie ran when he left us. He didn’t look back except to say to me, “Hang in there Jes, your time will come.” I watched his figure leave through the kitchen door, and saw his dark eyes and bitter face turn to me one last time, his hair hanging in front so I couldn’t see the whole Stevie. I wondered what would become of me. I didn’t get the chance to say to him, “Take me with you. I’ll go wherever you go.”

Something changed in Stevie as we grew. Like a slowly moving iceberg that’s broken away from land, it was a distinct separation from me and from Mom and Dad. And, it was permanent. As I got older and felt some of my own desire to break away, I still did not fully understand the fierceness with which he left me and Mom and the anger that had somehow built up in him until he exploded out of our house.

Stevie’s anger started with Dad, I think, for trying to make Stevie into something he wasn’t, but it took them both years before they knew Dad’s vision wasn’t going to happen. Maybe Dad saw a younger part of himself in Stevie and couldn’t help but think he could form his son to be the same. Tall and muscular, Dad was the ultimate athlete, always moving or posing in an assertion. His high school career boasted three letter sports and he could have played any one of those sports in college, he told us, but he made it clear to us that it was his choice. “I needed to concentrate on school,” he said, “so I could start making money for you guys.” But the way he talked about sports so much and how he’d sometimes say, “If I’d played football in college, the Eagles would have been after me come draft time,” it made me wonder if that was true or if my father felt safe bragging about something we could never confirm.

It didn’t matter much to me because Dad’s focus was on Stevie and I just watched. Make the boy into the man. Teach him how to throw and catch. Teach him how to compete. If Dad had looked a little closer, he might have noticed that I had a ball in my hand.

In the beginning, Stevie went along with Dad. They played in the back yard. Dad signed him up for teams. He played football, basketball, baseball. “Just like your old man,” Dad would say.

Stevie went along with the plan at first, but by the time he was in middle school, he started to withdraw. He didn’t want to do the same things anymore and Dad couldn’t find a way to connect with him. The harder Dad tried, the worse it got, until one day I heard him loading all the gloves, the bats, the footballs, the basketballs, the nets and cleats into the trunk of his car. He drove off with that gear in his trunk and came back acting as if nothing big had happened. I knew it had and I snuck out later and opened Dad’s trunk. When I saw the empty space, I knew I wouldn’t be using that bat or ball either. The magic link between father and son was broken, but there still wasn’t room for anyone else. I was still on the outside.

And then we all just moved on as if it didn’t matter.

By then, Stevie spent most of his time out of the house or up in his room. Dad worked more. If he couldn’t build his son into something, he would just build something else, by himself.

But he still postured himself and talked about his company’s softball league like it was the World Series or about his new passion, racquetball, a sport he told us was the perfect place to make business contacts. I was still a girl then and bought into what he said. I sat and listened to him talk and hoped he’d ask me about my softball team and how we were doing.

Once Dad left, Mom had to handle Stevie on her own. But Mom wasn’t assertive or a good fighter. Stevie knew it and he enjoyed going head-to-head with her. He knew he would win. They went days without talking after a blow-up and Stevie didn’t seem to care. He’d stand in the kitchen where Mom was making dinner and he’d jut out his chin and flip his long and scraggly hair out of his face when he looked at her. But it wasn’t to see her face. It was an act of aggression, a statement of war. He would watch her cook dinner and just when it was time to eat, he’d grab his keys and say he was going out. Mom couldn’t fight like that and she couldn’t pretend it didn’t bother her. I’d look at her and could see her face dropping, her eyes growing dark. Maybe she was lost in thought, but she did not know how to turn him around.

She tried to break him by refusing to cook for him. But Stevie didn’t break. He came banging home, challenging her with his noise, throwing his keys on the table. And he grabbed the things from the pantry like he owned them. He sat at the kitchen table and ate cereal and peanut butter sandwiches, eating quickly, staring across the table into an empty space, daring anyone to look at him or to speak. And then he bolted out of the house.  Mom wanted him back in our fold so bad that she kept the pantry full of things he could grab, just like Stevie knew she would. And so the pattern formed. That’s how Stevie knew he had the upper hand.

Their arguments were always about control. “You can’t stay out all night, Stevie,” Mom would say. And Stevie would answer, with a disgusting snort, “Watch me.” With the naïve and false clarity of someone who didn’t understand the struggle was about more than a curfew, I wanted to say to Mom to just tell Stevie that if he stayed out late, she would take away his car keys. Mom argued weakly with a passive strategy that consistently handed away the victory and Stevie took it.

I felt empty and helpless during these times and jumped whenever Stevie raised his voice. I wanted Stevie to apologize to Mom for being so aggressive with her. How could he think that Mom, who was a foot shorter and had a tiny frame and who cowered when he was around, how could he think she could match what he had? I wanted to ask him that, in my wildest fantasy of talking about what was really going on in our family. But I knew the answer was that Stevie just wanted to crush someone with the force of an undefined anger and Mom was the perfect victim.

And I wanted Mom to see his side. Maybe she did remember that he was once a little boy with freckles and shaggy hair, who had only in the last few years begun to tower over Mom and me. Maybe he was still the same, but just in a different size and harder to reach. Maybe he had problems he didn’t talk about. I wanted Mom to consider these things. I wanted our small family to stay together. I didn’t think Mom was as mad as she was hurt and I didn’t think Stevie was as mad as he was misunderstood.

“You know Mom is buying that food in the pantry so you’ll have something to eat,” I told him one day.

“Yeah, so what?” Stevie answered, not looking at me, but listening, I hoped.

“Just that she’s doing it for you, Stevie.”

“Well, I didn’t ask her to do that and I don’t care either way, Jes. Stay out of it, okay?”

Sometimes I tried to talk to Mom. “I think Stevie likes that you’re putting food in the pantry. Maybe he wants to eat dinner with us tonight,” I said.

Mom’s face lifted at the suggestion and her blue eyes brightened and for a minute it looked like she was planning a dinner he might like. Then her face fell into sags. Maybe she was remembering the empty dinner tables before Dad left for good.

“No, that would mean I’m giving in to him and that’s not what I want to do.”  I didn’t know how to break the pattern. I wanted Stevie with us. I was afraid of what was happening to our family.

And then he left for good and I was lonely for the brother I used to have, before he grew and broke from us. I wanted him to come in the door one more time to say, “Jes, I came back to get you. I forgot that you would want to come too.”

But Stevie never called and I hadn’t seen him since that first Christmas when he showed up. Maybe he came back then because he was homesick, but he was drunk and high when he blasted through the door. I was sitting in the kitchen and he said, “Hey Jes, kiddo,” like he had just seen me that morning. Mom came in the kitchen. “Stevie,” she croaked, emotions jumping out of nowhere.

For the six months Stevie had been gone Mom still made sure there was food for him in case he came back. And in the beginning she left his room the way it was, like he’d be right back. After he’d been gone a week, she changed the sheets and made up the bed, maybe hoping he’d know there were fresh sheets waiting for him.

She never talked to me about this change, never spoke Stevie’s name or acted like he had ever even lived here. I wanted her to explain to me why we were the only ones left in this house.

When Mom heard Stevie come in that Christmas, she walked into the kitchen and said, “Hello, Stephen. Are you home for Christmas?” And Stevie, pumped up with anger and pride, looked straight at Mom and, instead of saying, “Merry Christmas” all he said was, “I just came back for some of the stuff I left in my room.”

My stomach dropped because I, too had thought like Mom, that maybe Stevie was coming back to stay, even for a little while and that maybe we could somehow pull ourselves into a small group, even if it was without Dad.

But Stevie walked past me as I sat at the kitchen table, and towards Mom as she stood in the doorway. He had not said the right thing, but I still had hope.   Instead, Stevie brushed right past her, half stumbling, half pushing, showing a force that was telling Mom to stay away. Fear passed over Mom’s face as she felt the violence of his movement past her. Stevie turned to look at her and saw her reach for the door frame to steady herself and he smirked at how easy it was to rankle her. He walked back through the living room and up the stairs and we listened while he banged his way around his room and stuffed things into a bag.

Stevie was gone fifteen minutes later and afterwards I wondered if he had even been there. I looked in his room and I saw a mess. He had pulled the covers off his bed and the sheets were thrown in a messy pile on the floor. The mattress was exposed in its hideous flowery pattern. It was bare and Stevie was gone. He ripped off those covers just to show Mom he didn’t care what she did to his room because it didn’t matter, he wasn’t coming back.

I went into Stevie’s room and I closed the door so Mom wouldn’t see and I took those sheets and covers and I made Stevie’s bed up just the way Mom had done. Maybe I hoped too that Stevie would come back. Or

Thank you for reading.  All comments are welcome.

Click below to check out what happened in Chapter 1.

Chapter 1 – Jimmy

© All rights reserved.  All material on this blog is the property of Book Club Mom. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Book Review: We Are Water by Wally Lamb

We Are Water
by
Wally Lamb

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Wally Lamb has written an ambitious book about abuse and how, over time and generations, the range of effects widens like the circles from a pebble in the pond. We Are Water is a novel with many characters and many themes in a rotating narrative, told from the points of view of the main players in the book.

Simply put, the story is about fifty-something Annie Oh, an angry artist who has left her husband, Orion, to marry Viveca, another woman. But this story is anything but simple. As Orion and their three grown children react and adjust to this development, a dense array of secrets and family dysfunction emerges and the story becomes a massive and painful tale in which each character struggles to find happiness.  There is also a bit of a thriller and suspense element and that keeps the story moving.

In addition to abuse, it’s a story with a multitude of themes: art and expression, family, gay marriage, prejudice and acceptance, religion, relationships, desertion, anger, family heritage, alcoholism, a little political commentary, and, of course water. The water theme begins with the devastating events surrounding the actual Norwich, Connecticut flood of 1963, in which the dam at Norwich’s largest park collapsed and flooded four square miles, killing six people.

But as the plot develops, We Are Water’s main focus becomes verbal, physical and sexual abuse and their far-reaching effects. Lamb’s characters attempt to explain and justify what they do in the wake of this abuse. Annie uses art as a release and her creations result in violent displays of things and people. Her art has been recently discovered and is highly valued, but most likely misunderstood. She becomes a cyclone during her creative efforts, but her family has suffered, especially her son, Andrew, who has borne the brunt of her suppressed anger.

I like stories about families and conflict. Because of that, I like many things about this book, but not everything. Some of Lamb’s characters are very difficult to like and that makes their narrations less appealing. For example, Annie’s adult character is difficult to know. She’s self-centered and it’s hard to know why she’s about to marry Viveca. Yet young Annie is sweet and charming and you want to protect her. Similarly, but with a much more uncomfortable reader experience, Kent Kelly’s story begins innocently. He’s a victim first and then he’s a hero in the flood. By showing Kent as a boy, Lamb tries to explain, but not justify, Kent’s teenage and adult behavior. Personally, I’m not interested in getting into Kent’s head. It’s not a matter of how he came to be a monster. It’s a matter of the damage he creates. I think this section is overdeveloped and over-explained. It’s more than rough to read and it’s too sympathetic of the character. That said, maybe Lamb is accurate in describing someone like Kent, a sick charmer who ultimately pays the price.

I like Orion’s character the best. He’s certainly the most likeable. It’s easy to sympathize with him because he’s misunderstood and he tries to do the right thing. He’s also the most realistic character.  Not always, however, because sometimes I think his conversations with the adult Marissa, Andrew and Ariane are overly open and unrealistic. Just sayin’.

Here are some other things I like about We Are Water:

  • Lamb’s storytelling style. His characters take turns giving part of the story, introducing facts and events, then another character cycles back to include more details.
  • The section about the flood is the strongest part of the book.
  • I like stories about old houses and the things that are hidden inside.
  • Characters who try to make sense of the bad things in the world. Ruth Fletcher, a flawed character, but one with surprising depth, says,

I’m down on my knees now, asking God why, if He’s merciful, He had to put so much meanness in the world He made. Weasels pounce, snakes bite, dams break, men kill other men. And why would a merciful God let a little child’s mother die?

Despite the dark subject, Lamb tries to end on a hopeful note. The ending reminds me of movies with tragic events, in which the survivors, beaten down, but not quite finished, look towards a hopeful future.  Orion has adjusted to his future, but Andrew faces a difficult decision. As Andrew’s tattoo suggests, “Love wins,” and Orion answers, “No matter which way our lives turn out. Right?”

This is my fourth Wally Lamb book. All in all, a mixed bag, with some good spots.  Have you read We Are Water?  What did you think?  I have always enjoyed Lamb’s books, but this one leaves me puzzled.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!