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.”
When last we blogged, Cambridge, Mass., writer Katherine A. Powers had tried to donate a copy of her new book, "Suitable Accommodations," to her hometown library and had been refused. Why do we care? Because her book is a collection of letters written by her father, Minnesota writer (and National Book Award winner) J.F. Powers.
Powers had noticed that the library system she had patronized for 40 years didn't own a copy--other Massachusetts library systems had the book in their collections, including Boston, but not Cambridge. So she brought a copy down to the library and offered it to them.
And they said no.
The reason, they said, was that they only accept donations of books that are on the New York Times best-seller list, and while the Powers book had been published by FSG and had been widely reviewed, it was not a best-seller.
The library director was out of town when all of this happened, and Monday was a holiday, and it wasn't until yesterday that the whole thing was resolved--more or less.
Powers and the director met, the director said that refusing the book had been a mistake, and that the staff member who had rejected the book had made a mistake. (But the library policy apparently says otherwise.)
In any case, the director agreed to now accept the donation of the book, but it was too late; Powers had already donated the book to a more willing library, the one in nearby Maiden, Mass.
So will the Cambridge library now pay to add a copy to its collection? Stay tuned for a possible Chapter Three...
Oh, gosh, it is brown out there. (But at least it's no longer white.) (Sorry, Owatonna.) But this weekend marks Gustavus Adolphus Library Associate's annual Books in Bloom exhibit at the college in St. Peter, Minn., which features 30 floral arrangements designed to compliment 30 books.
The exhibit will be open all weekend (hours: Friday, 3-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.) with a book signing from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. (Not all writers will be at the book signing. For example, Victor Hugo almost certainly will not make it.)
Some of the titles, such as Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus," or Faith Sullivan's "Gardenias," seem as though they would lend themselves to fabulous and exotic displays. Not easy, but maybe a bit less of a challenge than, say, "Philosophical Investigations" by Ludwig Wittgenstein, or ""The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West," by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Go, florists!
Here are this year's featured titles:
"Minnesota's Outdoor Wonders," by Jim Gilbert
"Little Wolves," by Thomas Maltman
"The Night Birds," by Thomas Maltman
"Because of Winn Dixie," by Kate DiCamillo
"On Three Continents" and "Mimbo Ma Ki Kriso," by Ruth Nelson Johnson
"Les Miserables," by Victor Hugo
"The Disappearing Spoon," by Sam Kean
"The Hunger Games Trilogy," by Suzanne Collins
"Sophie's Choice," by William Styron
"The Hobbit," by J.R.R. Tolkien
"The Lighthouse Road," by Peter Geye
"Planting a Rainbow," by Lois Ehlert
"Black and Bold," by Bruce Gray
"Elizabeth the Queen," by Sally Bedell Smith
"On His Watch," by Dennis Johnson
"The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake," by Aimee Bender
"Downton Abbey," by Julian Fellowes
"The Round House," by Louise Erdrich
"Wicked," by Gregory Maguire
"Yes, Chef," by Marcus Samuelsson
"Team of Rivals," by Doris Kearns Goodwin
"The Night Circus," by Erin Morgenstern
"Olivia," by Ian Falconer
"The Legacy of Conquest," by Patricia Nelson Limerick
"Gardenias," by Faith Sullivan
"Philosophical Investigations," by Ludwig Wittgenstein
"Travels with Charley," by John Steinbeck
"The Boy in the Suitcase," by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis
"Supper with the Savior," by Barbara Sartorius-Bjelland
"The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters," by Elizabeth Robinson.
This year's Books in Bloom, which is at the Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library, is dedicated to the memory of Marlys Johnson, one of the event's founders, who died last month after a short illness.
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.
Over the next five months, Club Book will bring eight writers to metro libraries, including New York Times best-selling authors Cheryl Strayed, John Sandford, Arthur Phillips and Pam Houston.
Club Book is a program of the Metropolitan Library Service Agency, funded in part through Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. All events are free and open to the public.
Here’s the lineup:
Pam Houston: 7 p.m. Feb. 5, Maplewood Library, 3025 Southlawn Dr., Maplewood. Houston, author of “Cowboys Are My Weakness” and “Waltzing the Cat,” is a novelist, essayist, editor and teacher. Her new novel is “Contents May Have Shifted.”
Lorna Landvik: 7 p.m. Feb. 28, Prior Lake Library, 16210 Eagle Creek Av., Prior Lake, and 2 p.m. April 21, Chanhassen Library, 7711 Kerber Blvd., Chanhassen. Landvik, who lives in the Twin Cities, is the best-selling author of “Patty Jane’s House of Curl,” “Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons” and other novels.
Li-Young Lee: 7 p.m. March 18, St. Anthony Park Library, 2245 Como Av., St. Paul. Li-Young Lee is a poet and memoirist, the author of “Behind My Eyes” and “The City in Which I Love You,” winner of the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection. His memoir, “The Winged Seed,” won an American Book Award.
Cheryl Strayed: 7 p.m. March 19, Central Park Amphitheater, 8595 Central Park Pl., Woodbury, and 7 p.m. March 20, Galaxie Library, 14955 Galaxie Av., Apple Valley. Strayed, who grew up near McGregor, Minn., and attended the University of Minnesota, is the author of “Wild,” a memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The book was an Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection and has been optioned for film. She is also the author of “Tiny Beautiful Things” and “Torch.”
Arthur Phillips: 7 p.m. April 18, Stillwater Public Library, 224 3rd St. N., Stillwater. Phillips was born in Minneapolis and is the author of five novels, including “Egyptologist,” “Prague” and “The Song Is You.” His most recent novel is “The Tragedy of Arthur,” about the supposed discovery of a lost Shakespeare play.
Brenda Langton: 7 p.m. April 24, Hennepin County Library-Southdale, 7001 York Av. S., Edina. Restaurateur Langton established and ran Cafe Kardamena and Cafe Brenda and now operates Spoonriver, all specializing in local and organic cuisine. Langton is the author of “The Spoonriver Cookbook,” and has been a judge for the James Beard Foundation’s annual cookbook awards.
John Sandford: 7 p.m. May 8, Rum River Library, 4201 6th Av., Anoka. As a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, John Camp (pen name: John Sandford) won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories about a farm in crisis. Now a fiction writer, he is the author of the “Prey” series and the series featuring Virgil Flowers. His newest book is “Silken Prey.”
Benjamin Percy: 7 p.m. May 29, Hennepin County Library-Southdale, 7001 York Av. S., Edina. Percy is a novelist and essayist, author of “The Wilding” and, forthcoming in May, “Red Moon,” as well as two collections of short stories, “Refresh, Refresh” and “The Language of Elk.” He is a regular contributor to Esquire and is writer-in-residence at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
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