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25. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

 


I read this book for three reasons: first of all, after all that fantasy, I needed a palate cleanser. Second, every semester I make my students read an essay by Amy Tan called "Mother Tongue" in which she talks about her reasons for making certain choices as she wrote this novel, and I thought it would be a good idea for me to have read the novel under discussion. Third, I occasionally get the feeling that I should be reading more widely than I do, and this leads me to check out titles on the "What's Good in Literary Fiction in the Past Twenty Years" list.  (Not that this is an actual list… it's more of one I keep in my head as I pay attention to what's supposed to be good as I proceed to not read it and read something off the fantasy shelves instead.)  Anyway, The Joy Luck Club was one of the books on this list.

 

I'm glad I read it.  It would be easy to say that this book is about "the Chinese American immigrant experience," or about assimilation, generation gaps, or the clash of two cultures, and all of these descriptions would be correct, but I think they would fail to capture something important that can't be nicely boxed up like that.

 

One of the really unique things about this book is that it has eight different narrators – four mothers and four daughters.  They are far apart in terms of culture and experience, and we see the mothers through their daughters' eyes, and the daughters through their mothers', and only after reading what each of them have been through does the whole picture come into focus. What might seem to a daughter to be cruelty or stubbornness in her mother is seen by the reader (who knows the mother as the daughter can't – she doesn't know the story) as fear or an unshaken sense of self.

 

The mothers are all women who lived through extraordinary events—some of them terribly sad, but they hold that sadness close as they raise their daughters, and the daughters cannot know that these old women who seem backward and set in their ways were once little girls who were afraid or alone or smart or brave (or all of these things). So, this is also a book about the distance between parents and children, between China and America, but it is not a story without hope.  The book ends with a story of reunion between two sisters, not a separation.

 

26. Modern Ireland: a Very Short Introduction by Senia Paseta

 


So… I'll admit that I picked this up in an effort to better understand Tom Branson on Downton Abbey.  (And to a lesser extent, Fiona Glenanne…)  Also, I wanted to avoid looking like an uneducated American in a fandom filled with smart British and Irish people. My understanding of this period of Irish history upon getting entirely obsessed with DA was as follows: 1.) There was some sort of armed rebellion, probably around Easter, in the early 20th century.  This did not go well. (Most of this was gleaned from the Young Indiana Jones episode…) 2.) There are two Irelands now, one part of the U.K, one not. This is a development of the 20th century. 3.) Lots of the tension has to do with the Protestant/Catholic divide, and even within my lifetime, there has been sectarian violence.

 

And there, my knowledge ended. I had bits and pieces floating around about some earlier stuff like the Irish immigrant experience in America and the Potato Famine (we visited a house in the country near Galway that had a painfully frank exhibit about it..), but that's about it.

 

This book let me start to fill in the gaps a little. For instance, I now have a clearer picture of why there was so much internal strife about whether or not Ireland should be independent, and exactly how that would work. I hadn't realized there were so many different ideas about what independence meant and how it should be accomplished. I had known, of course, that religious divisions were a huge factor, but I hadn't known that they were the reason that attempts to unify Protestants and Catholics by appealing to common concerns failed on a broader, popular level over and over again.  I suppose that the fear that when one religious group has a majority, it will impose its will on the minority, is an understandable one.

 

The other thing this book did for me is let me know how much I don't know.  Very Short Introductions are generally very good about letting people into a topic in a fairly rigorous way without losing them completely.  Still… I felt like the student with her hand in the air going, "Wait a second… can you back up and explain that term/name you just dropped?"  I think, though, that having read it, I'm starting to develop a passing familiarity with the big names, movements, and political parties that were central to the period.


 

27. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

 


This was another of the books on the "What's Good in Literary Fiction in the Past Twenty Years" list. I had heard a lot about this book when it was published, and I knew it was narrated by an intersex character, but I didn't know much else.  I've learned a lot about people who don't fit into neat gender/biological sex boxes recently, so that alone was enough to make me interested.

 

And yes, this story is about Callie, who becomes Cal, but it's also about his grandparents who immigrated from a Greek enclave in Turkey and his parents who grew up as the children of immigrants as the 20th century progresses, and about being foreign in America and trying to fit in, and what it is to be a woman, and later, a man.

 

And it is about being intersex.  Cal, as an older man, narrates the story, likening himself to the seer Tiresias who lived as both a man and a woman, with the knowledge of what it's like to be both sexes.  How Cal treats his past, female self is fascinating.  Sometimes, he distances himself from the events that feature her, calling his female self "Callie," as he narrates, sometimes slipping comfortably into "I" and owning this particular story of his past as a girl.  There's a paper in there somewhere about how and when he does one, and when he does the other.  And if someone hasn't written it already… someone should get on that.

 

Fascinating book.  Not at all what I expected, but I'm glad to have read it.


 

28. The Easter Rising: Revolution and Irish Nationalism by Alan J. Ward

 


This is another book I read for Tom Branson (so I could get him, and so I could write him well if the urge ever hit me). I almost didn't read this one after looking it up on amazon and seeing several reviewers criticizing it as a work of revisionist history that didn't put enough of a critical eye on the British actions that led to the unrest. (In other words, the reviewers were saying that it favors the British and whitewashes their actions.)

 

I read it anyway, mostly because it was one of the only books in the V.C. library that looked like it concentrated solely on the Rising.  Actually, the actual events of the Rising occupy a relatively small portion of the book. The bulk of it is an examination of the years leading up to and directly following 1916. Basically, it's a book-length cause-and-effect essay. 

 

I see now what reviewers on amazon were talking about. The author's view of certain British actions is that they were more tolerable and less heavy-handed than other sources have suggested, though I am in no place to judge whether or not this stance on the author's part was even-handed fairness or a rewriting of the facts that glossed over the ugly truth.

 

Still, I'm glad I read it.  It explained some things that had confused me after reading the Very Short Introduction (like the very specific differences between Republicans, Constitutional Nationalists, and Revolutionary Nationalists).  Also, it expanded my familiarity with names and events that are probably second nature to anyone raised in Ireland.  (American kids get George Washington and Thomas Jefferson every year from the time they're five… good people to know about, but it puts me at a disadvantage when working in certain fandoms.)

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