Archive for the Category ◊ Book Reviews ◊

• Friday, December 14th, 2018

Amy Tan was born in 1952 and grew up in Oakland, North California, USA. She is the second of three siblings born to Chinese immigrant parents. Her father was an electrical engineer educated in Beijing and a Baptist minister and her mother was from a high-class family in Shanghai.

Tan first attended Marian A. Peterson high school in Sunnyvale California for one year. After her father and elder brother both died of brain tumours within six months of each other in 1966, Tan moved to Europe with her mother and younger brother. She finished high school at the Institut Monte Rosa in Montreux, Switzerland.

She studied English and linguistics at San Jose State University and the University of California, Berkeley from which she received a B.A. Degree in 1973 and an M.A. Degree in 1974. In 1987 she also worked successfully as a freelance business writer.

After her father’s and brother’s demise, Tan was told about her mother’s former marriage in Shanghai to a Chinese man and having had twin daughters from him who were left behind when she emigrated to the USA. In 1987, Tan travelled with her mother to China to see her twin half-sisters for the first time.

This event inspired the last chapter in Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989, which received the Los Angeles Times Book Award and was translated into several languages. It was also made into a film, directed by Wayne Wang and released in 1993.

Tan has written several novels, children’s books and non-fiction books and has received many awards. She lives with her husband in San Francisco.

After emigrating from China to San Francisco in 1949, Suyuan Woo, one of the main protagonists of the novel, remembers her idea of a Joy Luck Club from the days of her first marriage in Kweilin, before escaping the advancing Japanese troupes during the second world war. With the help of three Chinese ladies in San Francisco, she creates the American version of the Kweilin Joy Luck Club of Mah Jong.

The four ladies, all first-generation Chinese immigrants, meet in each other’s homes. They play Mah Jong for money as well as unleash some nostalgic, preciously accumulated memories from their native land, brought with them to exile after fleeing either the Japanese invasion of the second world war or the later Chinese communist revolutionary, Mao Zedong.

In their pleasurable meetings, the ladies enjoy gossiping about their children, while gorging on elaborate home-made Chinese food, prepared with great care and thought by their hostess. Later the club expands to include the husbands, represented in the novel as inept fathers as well as husbands and no better than the daughters’ American scheming partners.

The story begins with Jing-Mei Woo, who is asked by her father to be the fourth corner at The Joy Luck Club as a replacement for her mother who died two months earlier.

The novel consists of four parts; like the four hands that each Mah Jong player plays in turn; two parts (the first and the fourth) dedicated to the mothers and the two other parts (the second and the third) to the daughters. Each part is divided into four to keep the Mah Jong symmetry going and all these parts together form sixteen connected chapters, narrated by the voice of the character to whom the chapter is assigned.

The author moves back and forth between the lives of the four mothers and the lives of their four daughters, as well as alternating the mother’s present existence in the USA in juxtaposition to their pre-nineteen forty-nine lives in China with its good days and difficult, turbulent times before their exile.

The story is funny in parts and moving in others. It is written in parallels and from a feminist standpoint, between Chinese born mothers and their complicated relationships with their Chinese-American daughters. These mothers have carried with them all the traditions and superstitions they grew-up with to the new world.

They are always hoping to be able to instil their Chinese culture and beliefs into their daughters while disregarding their daughters’ different mentality, education and affinity to their surroundings and the country they have grown up in, which creates the conflicts between the two generations. The mothers being adamant that: “Chinese thinking is best” and wise and the daughters, who want to break free from their parents stifling insular customs and commence a carefree American life, unconstrained by old Chinese practices and traditions.

Nevertheless, the Chinese mothers are finally proven correct as referred t o in the last chapter: A Pair Of Tickets, when Jing-Mei Woo mentions what her mother told her when she was in her teens, revolting against her Chinese origins, she remembers her mother saying to her: “Once you are born Chinese, you cannot help but feel and think Chinese. Someday you will see, it is in your blood, waiting to be let go”.

When, after her mother’s demise, the thirty-six-year-old Jing-Mei Woo goes to China with her seventy-two-year-old father to meet her half-twin sisters for the first time, she realises how Chinese she is. She says: “the minute our train leaves the Hong Kong border and enters Shenzhen, China, I feel different. I can feel the skin on my forehead tingling, my blood rushing through a new course, my bones aching with a familiar old pain. And I think, my mother was right, I am becoming Chinese”.

In her novel, the author is addressing the problems and dilemmas of the first-born generation of immigrant parents, depicting how they feel torn between two cultures with different values, conflicting outlooks and different habits and customs. A masterfully well written and narrated novel, weaving some stories told by the author’s mother with some fictional ones.

The book is dedicated to the author’s mother and in memory of her grandmother. Amy Tan writes in her dedication: “You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more”. That sums it all up.

• Friday, October 26th, 2018

Christina Baker Kline was born and raised in 1964 in Cambridge, England and later in the American south and Maine. Her father was born in Georgia, USA and gained a PhD from Cambridge to become a British labour historian (a sub-discipline of social history) while her mother came from a long lineage of educators in North Carolina.

Despite their different backgrounds, both her southerner parents shared a love of literature and both were professors at the University of Maine.

Kline graduated from Cambridge, Yale and the University of Virginia and taught fiction and non-fiction writing, poetry, English literature, literary theory and women’s studies at Yale, New York University and the University of Virginia. She has been a Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University for four years. Christina Baker Kline lives with her husband in Montclair, New Jersey and they have three sons. She also often goes to South West Harbor, Maine where she owns a house.

A Piece Of The World, published in 2017, is Kline’s sixth novel. It was awarded the 2018 New England Prize for Fiction, the 2018 Maine Literary Award and a Silver Nautilus Award.

A Piece Of The World is fiction based on a true story about Christina Olson (1893-1968), who suffered from an incurable neuromuscular disease, gradually losing the ability to walk and use her hands and about her relationship with Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), one of the most renowned United States painters of the twentieth century.

Wyeth’s favourite subject was painting landscapes, people and things around him. His style and subjects were mundane occurrences permeated with rhythm, beauty and intrigue.

Andrew Wyeth’s iconic 1948 painting named “Christina’s World”, which is beautifully described by Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth by the author in the last chapter of the book, depicts the back of a woman in a pink dress, dragging her body across a barren field of tawny grass wanting to return home. He substantially expanded the size of the field compared to his model size in order to intensify the dramatic scenic moment. Also illustrated is how it represents the entire world for Christina Olson. This artwork is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In his painting of Christina’s World, the painter wanted to evoke the positive rather than the negative – juxtaposing the vastness of the field to Christina’s admirable courage and determination to overcome – in order to reach her target, namely her remote farm representing her very own small piece of the world.

Talking about his famous painting, Christina’s World, the artist, says: “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless. If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out to do”.

The story begins in 1939 with forty-six-year-old Christina Olson who lives with her Brother Alvaro or Al in their family’s isolated farmhouse in the little coastal town of South Cushing, Maine. Christina, who is disabled with a gradually progressive neuromuscular disease, is sitting in the kitchen looking out of the window toward the cove when she sees young Betsy James – who later will become Andrew Wyeth’s wife – getting out of her station wagon.

Betsy is accompanied by a new acquaintance, the twenty-two-year-old Andrew, the son of the famous illustrator N. C. Wyeth, who is also an artist like his father. The relationship between Andrew Wyeth and Christina Olson starts on that day and continues until her death.

After this brief introduction, the author moves back to Christina’s childhood when she was three years old in 1896. We learn that Christina’s father is a Swedish immigrant and that her mother’s family moved from Salem, Massachusetts to Maine long ago. The author introduces the reader to Christina’s parents, brothers and Grandmother Mamey, followed by the first symptoms of Christina’s illness as well as her complicated relationship with her family.

We commiserate with Christina’s suffering when her only opportunity of happiness, love and “normal” life is shattered in her twenties by young Walton Hall, who abandons her never to be married.

A movingly sad story, depicting a woman’s exceptional perseverance in the face of adversity. She was disabled, taken out of school at the age of twelve despite being very bright, to look after her family and her unfulfilled love and only hope for happiness.

A Piece Of The World also recounts the story of a talented artist who is touchingly overwhelmed by the courage and perseverance of his muse. He is able, with compassionate brushstrokes, subtle shades and colours to reproduce and immortalise her tenacious spirit for wanting to challenge and conquer life, fighting her fate to the end.

In her story Kline brings the characters and the setting to life, illustrating Maine countryside lifestyle in the last few years of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. She has researched all the historical facts about Christina Olson and Andrew Wyeth. She has read all the books she could find about them, visited the Olson House museum and interviewed tour guides of the museum, members of the Olson and Wyeth families and people who knew them. Kline wanted to engulf herself in Christina’s authentic world before writing her novel.

Christina Baker Kline, who cleverly manages to interlace fact with fiction, says about her book: “I liked the idea of taking a real historical moment of some significance and filling in the details, illuminating stories that have been unnoticed or obscured.” She says in one of her interviews: “I tried as much as possible to follow the true-life story of Andrew Wyeth, Christina Olson and their relationship — but also Christina’s life before he came into it”.