An examined life recalled with wisdom and grace.

THE OPPOSITE OF FATE

A BOOK OF MUSINGS

Novelist Tan (The Bonesetter’s Daughter, 2001, etc.) offers a wry but bracing take on life and writing in this collection of her nonfiction, some previously published.

Although the author recalls some painful subjects—a friend’s murder, her mother's dementia, her own battle with long-undiagnosed Lyme disease—her prose is thoughtful, never maudlin or self-pitying. Tan writes as easily and unpretentiously about herself as about others. She is equally balanced in her treatment of such contentious subjects as multiculturalism—she believes in an inclusive, truly American literature—and human rights in China, which are more complicated, she argues, than it seems from a US perspective. (She cites as an example her own banning from the country after a misunderstanding about fundraising for orphans in need of surgery.) The author also offers pertinent advice, originally delivered at a commencement address, on how to write; on the perils of translation, particularly in conveying social context; and on the challenge of writing a second novel after a bestselling first. But the heart of this collection concerns Tan’s mother, who left the children of her first marriage in China and immigrated to the US to marry Amy’s father, whom she had met and fallen in love with in China. Tu Ching Tan taught her daughter about the permutations of fate, but equally defended the strength of hope. The author suspects that her mother’s many threats to kill herself reflected underlying depression: at nine Tu Ching had seen her own mother commit suicide; she endured an abusive first marriage and then saw her second husband and elder son die, within months, of brain tumors, deaths that led her to flee with Amy and her younger son to Europe. Tan writes lovingly and perceptively of this woman who could exasperate with constant advice and criticism, but who was also her daughter’s strongest defender, bragging that she always knew Amy would be a writer, though she had as adamantly believed Tan would be a doctor.

An examined life recalled with wisdom and grace.

Pub Date: Nov. 3, 2003

ISBN: 0-399-15074-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2003

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IN MY PLACE

From the national correspondent for PBS's MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour: a moving memoir of her youth in the Deep South and her role in desegregating the Univ. of Georgia. The eldest daughter of an army chaplain, Hunter-Gault was born in what she calls the ``first of many places that I would call `my place' ''—the small village of Due West, tucked away in a remote little corner of South Carolina. While her father served in Korea, Hunter-Gault and her mother moved first to Covington, Georgia, and then to Atlanta. In ``L.A.'' (lovely Atlanta), surrounded by her loving family and a close-knit black community, the author enjoyed a happy childhood participating in activities at church and at school, where her intellectual and leadership abilities soon were noticed by both faculty and peers. In high school, Hunter-Gault found herself studying the ``comic-strip character Brenda Starr as I might have studied a journalism textbook, had there been one.'' Determined to be a journalist, she applied to several colleges—all outside of Georgia, for ``to discourage the possibility that a black student would even think of applying to one of those white schools, the state provided money for black students'' to study out of state. Accepted at Michigan's Wayne State, the author was encouraged by local civil-rights leaders to apply, along with another classmate, to the Univ. of Georgia as well. Her application became a test of changing racial attitudes, as well as of the growing strength of the civil-rights movement in the South, and Gault became a national figure as she braved an onslaught of hostilities and harassment to become the first black woman to attend the university. A remarkably generous, fair-minded account of overcoming some of the biggest, and most intractable, obstacles ever deployed by southern racists. (Photographs—not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1992

ISBN: 0-374-17563-2

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1992

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DEAR MR. HENSHAW

Possibly inspired by the letters Cleary has received as a children's author, this begins with second-grader Leigh Botts' misspelled fan letter to Mr. Henshaw, whose fictitious book itself derives from the old take-off title Forty Ways W. Amuse a Dog. Soon Leigh is in sixth grade and bombarding his still-favorite author with a list of questions to be answered and returned by "next Friday," the day his author report is due. Leigh is disgruntled when Mr. Henshaw's answer comes late, and accompanied by a set of questions for Leigh to answer. He threatens not to, but as "Mom keeps nagging me about your dumb old questions" he finally gets the job done—and through his answers Mr. Henshaw and readers learn that Leigh considers himself "the mediumest boy in school," that his parents have split up, and that he dreams of his truck-driver dad driving him to school "hauling a forty-foot reefer, which would make his outfit add up to eighteen wheels altogether. . . . I guess I wouldn't seem so medium then." Soon Mr. Henshaw recommends keeping a diary (at least partly to get Leigh off his own back) and so the real letters to Mr. Henshaw taper off, with "pretend," unmailed letters (the diary) taking over. . . until Leigh can write "I don't have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of paper." Meanwhile Mr. Henshaw offers writing tips, and Leigh, struggling with a story for a school contest, concludes "I think you're right. Maybe I am not ready to write a story." Instead he writes a "true story" about a truck haul with his father in Leigh's real past, and this wins praise from "a real live author" Leigh meets through the school program. Mr. Henshaw has also advised that "a character in a story should solve a problem or change in some way," a standard juvenile-fiction dictum which Cleary herself applies modestly by having Leigh solve his disappearing lunch problem with a burglar-alarmed lunch box—and, more seriously, come to recognize and accept that his father can't be counted on. All of this, in Leigh's simple words, is capably and unobtrusively structured as well as valid and realistic. From the writing tips to the divorced-kid blues, however, it tends to substitute prevailing wisdom for the little jolts of recognition that made the Ramona books so rewarding.

Pub Date: Aug. 22, 1983

ISBN: 143511096X

Page Count: 133

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1983

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