A Backrub Book Review: Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement

Valley of Amazement

I adore Amy Tan. There. I said it. Call me biased, but there isn’t a word she has written that I don’t just love. And in case you doubted her coolness ratio, she’s also in a rock band!

Her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement was a Christmas gift from my husband, Barry. We were lounging in bed when I finished reading it, so I rubbed his back and talked about the book. I giggled and said I had just given a “backrub book review.” Alas, Dear Reader, I have no backrubs to offer just now, but I will gladly tell you what I told him.

As always, Tan wraps her readers immediately in a nimbly crafted world. She is a story teller bar none. Her prose is dainty and well conceived, but also rather invisible, as it should be. Her threads are silken, fine. While a large part of Tan’s appeal is the exotic nature of her tales, happily she addresses the universal.

Set partially in Shanghai in the early 1900’s, the book was particularly charming to read because I will be visiting Shanghai (accompanying my business-traveling husband) this year.

The main character, Violet Minturn, is brought up in her mother’s high class courtesan house, until circumstances cause Violet to be separated from her mother and forced to become a courtesan herself. (I can’t say too much more about how they become separated.) Violet, half Chinese, learns to embrace that newly discovered side of herself in order to survive the horrors of her life.

In this story of tragedy, misplaced trust, and, finally, quiet hope, Tan gives Violet a substitute mother, Magic Gourd, a woman Violet’s mother kicked out. Violet ends up at the house where Magic Gourd has gone, and the woman takes her under her wing, making her a well-sought after courtesan.

The story is nicely paced, beginning with a first person section in which we hear from a young Violet. This shifts to a clever second-person POV chapter titled “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir.” It gives us all of the background information we would like about courtesans and their ilk without info dumping or trying to artificially fit it into dialog.

I must admit there was one spot where I stopped and shook my head a few times and asked Barry if he thought it was fair of Tan to reintroduce Violet’s mother after page 400 and tell us her backstory. For a few pages I fought it, but soon I was immersed in her story, and was rather sad to leave it to return to Violet.

I was also concerned that with only about two hundred pages left, Tan wouldn’t be able to satisfy her reader if she wandered away from Violet, but she did. I should never have doubted her.

Although he appears to be a shadow of a character in this book, I am more than a little interested in the artist Lu Shing. So forgive me if I shift now from a traditional review that you could get anywhere into a meditation on Lu Shing.

Violet’s father (a man Violet knows virtually nothing of), Lu Shing, is a second-rate artist who basically copies the work of masters and adds a detail or two, often at his customer’s request. Violet, having come into possession of two of his paintings, doesn’t like his work, but Magic Gourd keeps rescuing the paintings.

He figures into the story when Violet’s mother, Lucia, at the age of 16, falls in love with him in the United States, seduces him, and follows him back to China, while he protests continually that though he loves her, he will never be able to marry her or be with her.

Here’s the thing: Tan’s women are strong. They survive the grossest indignities, but they are their own worst enemies when it comes to loving men. They love unreservedly and ill-advisedly. In fact, their greatest passion in life seems centered around men, and it always causes them and those they love immeasurable pain.

In fact, these women often fall in love much more so of the idea of these men than the men themselves. That’s the case with Lucia and Lu Shing. We know before Lu Shing ever tells Lucia that his passion is for art, and that his passion even for that is pale.

The book’s title comes from one of Lu Shing’s paintings. The painting makes Violet feel uneasy when she finds it: “I felt certain now that the painting meant you were walking into the valley, not leaving it.” What she doesn’t know is that Lu Shing paints this same scene again and again, altering it at the whim of customers. She also doesn’t know that while the painting is a copy of an old master, the place is real, and it is a place she will visit and will have to escape.

Lu Shing seems muted, even when he paints. The women in the book ultimately take on this same muted quality when they are older. True, they survive. But they do so at the cost of vibrant feeling.

When Lu Shing is still in the United States he is asked “How do we capture the emotion in art?” His answer is telling: “The moment is altered as soon as I try to capture it, so for me, it’s impossible.” It’s also telling that he comes to the States as a young man to study with a landscape artist. There’s a stark, uninvolved, observer quality at work here that is, nevertheless, not without its own beauty.

There is no easy, happy ending to this book. Reunions happen, but not rosy, tearful ones. The strong women remain adamantine, and because of that, emotion is not something that they can afford to spare.

Just as Lu Shing has only walks through a life of shame at his weakness, so the women survive, but their connections seem both strong and tenuous. They are fiercely independent and yet devoted to the idea of one another. While we believe they stay in touch, the infrequent nature of their contact makes us believe they would survive just as well without one another. And yet this is a novel well worthy of a second read. What better message than that while we are connected, we are also strong enough to survive on our own?

Did you happen to catch the short story “The Frog Prince” by Robert Coover in last week’s New Yorker? What he writes toward the end of the story is true of this novel: “…and they found a certain contentment, living more or less happily ever after, which is what ‘now’ is while one’s in it.” I couldn’t sum it — or life — up better myself.

There is so much more to this book. I wholeheartedly recommend it. In fact, perhaps it’s time I read it again. Have you read it yet? Do you intend to read it? What else of Tan’s have you read?

P.S. I anticipate revisiting this book once I am back from China, so look for an update then.

Published, but not in a “flash”!

When I first became a student with the Spalding MFA in Creative Writing program, I quickly became enamored of flash fiction. It seemed to fit my terse, plain style, and I liked that there was no room in it for over explaining.

About my writing: I had never really written a short story until I took a creative writing course during my second round of college. Before then I had plunged right in and written two pretty bad novels. What made me think I could write a novel, I don’t know. I like to call those early efforts starter novels.

Once I discovered flash fiction I wrote maybe three stories. One of them turned into a novel which shrank to a novella. One of them was accused of being poetry(!) during a Spalding workshop. The third is a piece called “Drinking Ghosts.” I read it at our local university’s poetry reading a few years ago. (It’s not poetry. It’s not! It was just the shortest piece I had available.)

I have spent maybe three years sending “Drinking Ghosts” out to various publications. I have, alas, expanded it at the request of readers who thought I didn’t say enough. I have mentioned that darn fork three times, and yes, specified that it was plastic, lol. (I personally liked the ambiguity of the piece as it was, but maybe that’s just me.) One editor asked me just what that woman was doing alone in the office. Uh, has she never been asked to “hold down the fort”?

While in Italy with Spalding’s program I spent some early morning hours before a computer in a darkened room sending that blessed story out, sure at core there was something in it to be heard.

So when I was notified today that Yahoo accepted this story for publication, I was elated. It’s not a perfect flash fiction piece (re-reading it makes me wish I had tightened it back up), but it’s mine, and, thanks be, it has finally been published. Check one more thing off my writing goals list.

What’s that, you’d like to read it? Please do, here: http://voices.yahoo.com/drinking-ghosts-flash-fiction-12490386.html

Feel free to comment, either here or at Yahoo. Or both!:-) halloween2011_crop

Unmasking the Sprezzatura of Writing: What’s Under My Bed?

Ireland 2013 220

If sprezzatura means to express art in such a manner as to convey a supposed effortlessness, then let’s unmask that, at least in regards to my writing. (I say this with much tongue-in-cheekedness; I am not saying my writing is that good, but hey, how else am I gonna work up to what I really want to talk about: what I found under my bed this morning?)

(Note of interest: I took the above photo of Vermeer’s “Lady Writing Letter With Her Maid” in Dublin this past summer.)

While my goal is to one day get writer friends of mine to share honestly with us what’s under their beds, I guess I will have to show you mine first, so here goes:

This morning while cleaning the bedroom (it started with cleaning my writing room and spread from there), I decided to duck under the bed and pull out everything on my side. I am not going to share what I found under my husband’s side. Not because it’s so bad, but because I am respecting his privacy. NB: My dear husband said this could make one think many things if one reads it. All I mean is that while his side looked much like mine, I will let him choose to reveal or not any clutter there may or may not have been under his bed. 🙂

What was lurking under my side? Plenty of Kleenex that had missed its mark, I am sorry to say. Two issues of Poets and Writers. Two art books. Three library books, two of them wholly untouched and likely to remain so — they grow stale, don’t you find? Several paperbacks. A Woman’s Health. A pair of headphones. Three pair of socks. A marked-up manuscript of my novella. A printed copy of a topic that once interested me but now does not. Toss! A filled journal.

A sprezzatura is, again, supposed to hide, not reveal, the sludge of creativity such as what I found under my bed. In the painting above, we see a carefully staged scene. We don’t see the lady worrying because she can’t find the “mot juste” for her letter. Do we want to see our writers struggling for just the right word?

If you happened to have read and enjoyed any of my stories, know that all of those things (and more!) hiding under my bed go into making up one of my stories. The books are self explanatory. The socks merely keep my feet warm — I can’t stand being cold, and I often am. 😦 The filled journal is deceptive — I am probably the worst journal entry writer ever. I record petty, mundane activities or I rant. I unload the mind. I am not trying to impress. I read the journals of famous people, of those with great minds, and I flinch. Still, my journal entries work for me — if I didn’t empty my mind, there would be no room for anything else.

There might have been a few other odds and ends under the bed that I’ve forgotten: I think there was a hanger, and maybe a neck pillow. Oh and a plastic bag. Neither the hanger nor the plastic bag aided my writing, though: they were just part of the flotsam and jetsam that whatever creative creature lives under my bed pulls in. (Maybe you’re getting the impression that I’m not tidy. Well I’m not. I’m not a slob, but faced with the choice between writing or cleaning, guess which I’ll choose, every time? Ok, almost every time.)

So, who’s first? What’s lurking under your bed? And if you’re a creative type, how does it contribute to your art? Go!

The Golden Notebook: Organize Your Writing in 2014

If you want more “gold” from your writing in 2014 (be it money or just the satisfaction of seeing more of your ideas captured instead of left to wander off), try using your “golden notebook.”

(Disclaimer: I once owned Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook but got rid of it without having read it because it was copy I bought at the library’s book sale that was too musty and yellowed to keep. So if I totally misused the title, Lessing fans please forgive me. I really do want to read it.)

I have a writing organization system that works great for me – if I use it! So read the above title as a command to myself. Let me explain my system, in case you need one that you, too, can put into place and promptly ignore.

Because I have ideas for every category of writing you can think of (articles, essays, poems, novels, short stories, plays, movies, hints, blog posts and more!), I recently decided to go back to a system I used years ago. I bought two boxes (I am not kidding) of cheap spiral bound notebooks. My goal (seldom achieved) is to carry one with me AT ALL TIMES. No joke. Beside my side of the sofa (what, you don’t have a side?), in the kitchen, on my bedside table, everywhere.

Here’s where guilt has kept me from pursuing this method in the past: I write JUST ONE IDEA PER PAGE! Yup. Why? Because I have binders for these categories and I put the ideas in each binder. Well, that’s what’s supposed to happen so that when the well runs dry on story ideas (Okay, I actually pin that list to my office wall!)I know just where to go to find one. But I feel so guilty wasting paper. Yeah, there’s the tree killing aspect, for sure, but when I was young a notebook was such a precious thing that I have a hard time not filling every line. After reading Nora Ephron’s essay on revision in which she said she would often go through three to four HUNDRED sheets of paper in the course of writing one article, I don’t feel nearly so guilty.

The most important part of the system is writing the idea down. I have persuaded myself that as long as I write the idea down, I can always get my assistant (I’m getting one in 2014, right? Ha!) to file them as long as I include at the top what category the idea falls into. Just in case I have to be the one to wrangle these ideas, I do it anyway.

Except sometimes an idea really fits into multiple categories. Recently I ran across an idea that I classified as a blog post idea, children’s story, and blues song idea. I don’t generally write blues songs, but if someone needs some lyrics, evidently I have some just itching to be birthed. Sometime. The point is that when this happens, I really should write the idea multiple times and label it for each separate category.

You’re going to ask why I don’t just write these ideas and save them as separate computer files. I’ve tried. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t work for me. In this day of Dropbox (which I use all the time to back up my files), you’d think I’d have adequate access to my ideas no matter where I am.

Ah, but my ideas seldom come to me when I’m in front of a computer. They usually come to me when I’m reading, or driving, or running. Or watching TV or… If I waited to turn on the computer and write a new idea down, it could well be gone by the time I entered my password.

Also, looking at a list of ideas just overwhelms me. I prefer to flip through my ideas and see them one at a time. For one thing, it allows me to remember the circumstances in which I first wrote them, which usually makes me smile, and who doesn’t want a reason to smile?

I look at my list with a pen in hand. Here’s where having just one idea per page is very useful: I write down any ideas I have for that idea, maybe a rough outline, sources to contact, and markets for it, if any. That wouldn’t be possible if I had ten ideas per page. This way my ideas are more likely to be used.

About the paper: I use good ol’ spiral bound (Ugh, with those horrible leftover hangy things. Inelegant, I know.) notebooks. I have toyed with using a binder with paper in it, but it’s not as friendly — I like to fold the cover over and really get into contact with the paper as I write…it helps me empty the idea from my mind better. A binder creates a more formal distance and is not as tactile. Maybe it’s just me.

I have tried legal tablets, but alas, no holes, and I get so aggravated when I flip the page and can’t properly write on the top of the opposite side.

I have also tried beautiful journals, but they’re way too pretty to tear pages from, and they aren’t as conducive to writing my ideas as large as I like to. Those spiral bound notebooks really do have it all. 🙂

(By the way: That list of short story ideas on my wall? It works because they are all ideas for a single collection. Otherwise, forget about it!)

My challenge with this system is going back through and marking when I use an idea so that I don’t reuse it. It’s fine to reuse your ideas, but not for the same market. (Confession time: recently I went to submit a story to a publisher, only, thankfully, taking a moment to look at what else I had out on Submittable. Yup, I’d already sent the same story to this market four months before. At least I know I should be hearing back soon.)

Another downside to this method of organization is that you really do need to periodically go through your notebooks and place these papers into the appropriately labeled binders. Hey, here’s the beauty of creativity: just touching these papers and reading them can often jog more ideas. Which must be written down. Which must be filed. Arggh…! Here’s where I reveal the obvious: I despise filing things. I have three or four bags of papers ready to be filed into our household filing cabinet. I’ll get to it. Someday. But at least my ideas are different: none of them seems a burden. Each is like a gift from my mind or spirit to me, even those I think I will never ever use.

Do I think I will ever use all of my ideas? No way. Writing them down and saving them is just a way of honoring them and a way to amuse myself when I later look back and ask myself how I could have possibly thought that was a good idea. Yet maybe there really does need to be a musical written about Van Gogh. Joking…that doesn’t happen to be one of my ideas. Although, where’s my notebook?

The plus side of having so many ideas? If you ever find yourself fresh out of ideas, just give me a shout. I may not have great ideas (although at the time that I write them they are always “the best,”) but I certainly have enough to share.

How do you organize your writing (or other creative pursuits)? I’d love to know! I’m quite sure there are better and more effective systems out there. Wait, let me get my notebook first. There. Now, shoot.