When Amy Tan was a girl, her mother warned her to stay away from boys. “She said, Don’t let a boy kiss you because maybe you can’t stop. And then you’re gonna have a baby.” Her mother went on to enumerate all of the terrible things that happen to a girl when she has a baby, ending with, “You want to kiss a boy? You might as well just kill yourself right now!”
“And I thought, What was so good about it that you couldn’t stop?” Tan said.
It was a funny story, but one tinged with darkness, as were so many of the stories that Tan told on Wednesday night at Talk of the Stacks at the Central Library in Minneapolis. “When she told me this, I didn’t know that had had a first husband,” Tan said. “I didn’t know that she had three daughters living in China.”
Self-deprecating, elegant and fascinating, Tan mesmerized the crowd with her stories of family drama. And it was a true crowd, for sure--Pohlad Auditorium was filled, and guests packed into two overflow rooms, where they watched her on movie screens, and a handful more stood out in the atrium, listening to her on the speakers. Nearly 450 people showed up, one of the biggest crowds yet for the library’s popular program.
Tan read only briefly from her new book, “The Valley of Amazement,” and instead told stories about her mother and her grandmother--familiar figures to anyone who has read her novels. Her new book travels from China to the United States, following the lives of a courtesan and her daughter in the first half of the 20th century
While writing “Valley,” Tan kept two photographs on her desk: One of her mother, and one of her grandmother. Her mother left Shanghai in 1942 on a student visa, leaving behind an abusive husband and their three daughters. Tan never knew if her mother meant to abandon her children, but she was not allowed to return to China for 30 years. “My mother was impetuous, and passionate, and suicidal,” Tan said. “She taught me that I must always be independent.”
Tan’s grandmother was, she said, “a tragic figure. Spoiled. She married late, at 24, and her husband died in the 1919 Pandemic.” According to Chinese culture, she was supposed to remain a widow the rest of her life, but one night, when visiting a friend, she awoke to find a man in her bed. “There are two versions to the story,” Tan said. In one version, the man holds a knife to her grandmother’s throat and says, “If you don’t marry me, I will kill you.” In the other version, he holds a knife to his own throat and says, “If you don’t marry me, I will kill myself.”
Tan’s grandmother married him and worked out a deal: If she bore him a son, he would buy her a house in Shanghai. She bore him a son, he reneged on his part of the bargain, and she killed herself, leaving behind Tan’s mother, who was then 9 years old.
When writing “Valley,” Tan said, she entered the world of her grandmother, but the book is not about her grandmother. “It does have a lot to do with the themes in my family--betrayal, abandonment, passionate women, suicidal women, impetuous women, and love, love, love.”
“Valley” is her first novel in eight years, and Tan joked that “the best thing about finishing it is people no longer ask when’s your book going to come out. The worst thing is they ask why it took so long.”
Over the last few weeks, news has dribbled out about the authors who are coming to town for the state's most significant writers series: Talking Volumes; Talk of the Stacks; Good Thunder: Pen Pals; and Club Book.This doesn't even include the lineup for the Rain Taxi Review Twin Cities Book Festival, which will be announced next week. (They did announce today that Nicholson Baker will be one of the guests.)
All of the lineups are so impressive that it seems worth recapping them for you. There's a little overlap--Tracy K. Smith, for instance, will be here twice, once for the Good Thunder Writing Series in Mankato, and once for Pen Pals in Hopkins. And Luis Alberto Urrea will be here twice as well -- again, once for Good Thunder, and once for Pen Pals. But it's an impressive list just the same, with novelists, poets and masters of creative nonfiction.
A person could go to an event nearly every week between now and spring--and sometimes twice in one evening--and that doesn't include the impressive lineup coming to indie bookstores (including, I hear, Jhumpa Lahiri in October) or the University of Minnesota (Bonnie Jo Campbell and Katherine Boo later on this fall).
Talk of the Stacks, Good Thunder, the Twin Cities Book Festival and Club Book are all free.
Pen Pals and Talking Volumes require tickets. Both offer tickets for the entire series, and individual tickets. (For Talking Volumes, series tickets are available now, and individual tickets will go on sale tomorrow. Call 651-290-1200 or visit the Fitzgerald Theater Website. Individual tickets are $25.) (For Pen Pals, individual tickets will go on sale Aug. 12. Call 612-543-8112 or download a form from www.supporthclib.org/ Individual tickets are $40.)
So here's the list:
Aug. 17, Will Alexander, Club Book.
Sept. 12: Larry Watson and Jon Pineda, in conversation with Milkweed Editions publisher Daniel Slager, Talk of the Stacks
May 8-9: Tracy K. Smith, Pen Pals
Good Thunder events are held at the Minnesota State University at Mankato.
Club Book events are held at various venues around the metropolitan area; check the Web for specific locations.
Talking Volumes is held at the Fitzgerald Theatre in downtown St. Paul.
Pen Pals is held at the Hopkins Center for the Arts in Hopkins.
Aren't you glad you live here?
Novelist Amy Tan and poet Nikki Giovanni headline a series that also includes Minnesota writer/singer/songwriter/rapper Dessa and two winners of the Milkweed Fiction Prize, Larry Watson and Jon Pineda.
Here's the lineup:
Sept. 12: Larry Watson ("Let Him Go") and Jon Pineda ("Apology"), in conversation with Milkweed Editions publisher Daniel Slager.
Oct. 25: Dessa, in conversation with Rain Taxi Review editor Eric Lorberer. They'll be discussing her new, as yet untitled chapbook of poetry.
Nov. 13: Amy Tan, discussing "The Valley of Amazement," her first new novel in nearly 10 years.
Dec. 12: Nikki Giovanni, reading from "Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid," her upcoming collection of poetry.
Talk of the Stacks is a free reading series of the Friends of the Hennepin County Library. All events will be held in Pohlad Hall of the Central Library on the Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis. Doors open at 6:15 p.m. and talks begin at 7 p.m. and are followed by book signings.
We probably don't call attention often enough to the outstanding lineup of writers the public libraries bring in. Sometimes you have to look at the whole list at once to be impressed.
So let's get impressed:
Club Book will bring fiction writer and memoirist Pam Houston ("Cowboys Are My Weakness" "Waltzing the Cat") to Maplewood tomorrow. She'll read from her new book, "Contents May Have Shifted," at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Maplewood Library, 3025 Southlawn Drive.
Later in February, local favorite Lorna Landvik ("Patty Jane's House of Curls") will be in Prior Lake. She'll make a return performance in April at the Chanhassen Library. (Dates are: 7 p.m. Feb. 28, Prior Lake Library, 16210 Eagle Creek Av., and 2 p.m. April 21, Chanhassen Library, 7711 Kerber Blvd.)
Landvik, the author of nine novels, many of them best-sellers, is trying something new with her latest book: She self-published "The Mayor of the Universe."
The Club Book lineup continues through the spring with Arthur Phillips (whose parents still live in the Cities), Cheryl Strayed, John Sandford, Brenda Langton, Benjamin Percy (now teaching in Minnesota), and poet Li-Young Lee.
Meanwhile, the Pen Pals lecture series--the only library series that carries a ticket charge--is bringing in cartoonist Roz Chast, writer Dennis Lehane, and Armistead Maupin. And Talk of the Stacks--held at the downtown Minneapolis library--is bringing in the Smitten Kitchen writer, Deb Perelman; best-selling memoirist ("Look Me In the Eye") John Robison (and watch for a Q&A with him in an upcoming Variety section of your Strib); and New Orleans-by-way-of-Romania poet Andrei Codrescu.
Shall we go on? Because we can.
Chris Niskanen (today, at the Osseo Library); Connie Brockway (Feb. 11, Edina Library); Larry Millet, Feb. 16, Nokomis Library; cookbook authors Phyllis Louise Harris and Raghavan Iyer, Feb. 16, Maple Grove Library); Mary DesJarlais, March 9, Rogers Library; Atina Diffley, March 16, Nokomis Library; Peter Geye, March 18, Ridgedale Library; Erin Hart, March 26, St. Anthony Library; and Brian Leehan, March 26, Brookdale Library.
Impressed yet? I am. Our tax dollars at work.
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