Finding Myself in The Joy Luck Cub

Last night I finished Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. I shut the book and stared at the wall, trying to keep the story inside me, in my veins.  I only feel that way when I read something that hits a nerve, that makes me reflect on and feel about my life.  This was the first book I’ve read as a part of this little endeavor (and the first book in a long, long time) that’s drawn that reaction from me.

I plucked it from the library shelf as a part of my most recent effort, to read what I loosely consider to be “modern classics.”  It’s funny because I’d already read about three chapters of it between the literature anthology textbooks I’ve had in high school, but I didn’t know that until I saw the chapter listings.  I liked the stories then when I read them individually–but when all of the viewpoints and pieces are combined, the result is really, really special.  Each chapter is from the point of view of one of four Chinese mothers and four Chinese-American daughters.

The result is a poignant picture of the relationships between the foreign-born mothers and the american-born daughters.  As the half-white, American daughter of a beautiful woman from India, this story lodged itself in me in an unexpected way.

Although all of the stories in The Joy Luck Club were compelling,  for me the most powerful was that of Jing-mei Woo and  her mother, who has recently died, leaving her to struggle with regrets and hopes.  The bitter moments are when she feels like she never knew her mother at all.  The peaceful moments are when she feels that maybe she has.  This confrontation with reflection  made me reflect on my relationship with my own mother.

Like the mothers in book, my mom has ended up far, far away from the life she envisioned she would have as a child in India.  She never thought she would come to America, or marry an American and raise two children in a society so different from the one she grew up in (and she’s done a marvelous job, if I do say so myself).  But like the daughters in the book, it is so hard for me to picture her as anything besides my mother. Sometimes she talks about India, usually just the good parts, the monkeys and the sweets.  But I find it difficult to connect the girl she describes with the mom in front of me.  I recognize that there is a world that I can’t imagine that has made her the woman she is today, a woman who has had many roles, only one of which I know.  There have been struggles and joys in her past that I can’t begin to understand.

But reading this book, I realized that I want to.  Jing-mei only discovers the true sum of her mother, her mother’s love and greatness, after her mom has died.  I want to know now, for a reason that is hard to explain but incredibly, wordlessly important.  Jing-mei makes a pilgrimage to China after her mother’s death.

But my mom and I plan to make this journey together.  If everything works out, we plan to travel to India sometime in the next few years.  After reading The Joy Luck Club, I realized how important this trip will be.

Meeting Jane Austen

Somehow, I made it 16 years without reading a word of Jane Austen.  I’m not sure how that happened.  I liked the movie of Pride and Prejudice, the one with Keira Knightley, and I’m obsessed with Downton Abbey, so I don’t know why I left Austen’s romantic, intriguing, Victorian-era classics untouched for so long.   I suppose I figured I’d read it soon–the seniors at my school usually did Pride and Prejudice in English class.
 But my determination to read classics made her work one of the most attractive possibilities.  My library didn’t have Pride & Prejudice on hand, so I ended up with Sense & Sensibility. I loved it from the moment I opened it.

There’s something distant and enchanting about Jane Austen’s world.  Every heartbreak and desire is viewed through a foggy window, so that all of it becomes a beautiful lull from a different world, where people exist to go to parties and where a two story home is considered a meager cottage.  But there’s honesty in all the emotions and the personalities endure, so that I feel like I know everyone–from Elinor to Fanny to Willoughby, because I know people just like them.  I related the most to Elinor, who is less impulsive but really just as much a romantic as her sister, and because of this Marianne became the sister I never had.

Sense & Sensibility is a page turner, too, so that every time the novel starts to fall into a lull something dramatic and unexpected happens.   This twistiness makes the characters’ prosperity ever after seem to constantly teeter on the edge of a cliff–but the story is too much like a fairy tale for the reader to ever truly believe that the good guys are going to have anything but a happily ever after.

I devoured Pride & Prejudice as soon as I closed Sense & Sensibility (by that time the library had a copy).  And although it’s considered the superior work, I actually have to say that I slightly preferred Sense & Sensibility. Maybe it’s just because I’d already seen the P&P movie, so there were no surprises there. 

But both books were terribly sweet–clean, elegant, idealized lives and loves that teenage girls never have but wish we did.  They appeal to the  inner princess, who puts on ribbons and dresses and falls in love at balls.  These are comfort books, to read on chilly fall days with hot chocolate.

My friends are all readers, but only one or two have read Jane Austen.  All of them have read some piece of gossipy chick lit.  They’re missing out on the real, original thing, which is frankly so much more satisfying.

For the sake of reading variety, I’ve stayed away from Jane Austen for a couple months.  But the fast will be broken soon: Persuasion is on my dresser, waiting to be opened.

 

Before I continue

Before I continue exploring my relationship with the individual books I’ve read, I’d like to give a quick overview of the progress I’ve had up to now. This is the list of the books I’ve read as part of my endeavor since about last September, in the order I read them.  They are loosely united under the title of “classics:”

1. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
2. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
3. Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen
4. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
6. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
7. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
8. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
9. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
10. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn

Looking at the list it seems like Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed is the misfit and an odd choice for a first read. It’s the most recent and modern book on the list, for sure.  I think of it as a classic because of the social change it helped to instigate (I think I first read about it in a “Mental Floss” magazine in a list of the top twenty books of the last twenty five years, or something like that).  It was definitely worth reading.
I’ve tried to aim for variety in each set of library books I’ve checked out.  As far as classics go, I think I’ve succeeded  somewhat: this list has female and male authors in roughly equal parts. However,  I’m sure you can see my preference for anything from the 1800s.
 Although I won’t go into detail now about any book in particular, I will say that my little endeavor has exceeded all my hopes.  Have I liked every book I’ve read? No.  Far from it.  But, unlike those empty headed clique or werewolf stories, every single book has made me question and think, and added to my understanding of my world and myself as a writer.   
If anyone has recommendations for classics, or any ideas to add to the discussion of the books I’ve read, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind.  That’s why I’m a reader. 

Endeavor #1: Classics

So I knew that I was going to depart from teen fiction and adventure into literary waters heretofore unknown.  But where to begin?

I decided to go with ‘classics,’ as vague as that sounds.  I just wanted to explore different styles of writing from different time periods, and I thought that the halls of written-word fame would be a good place to start. 

Also, I already liked classics, although I’d pretty much only read them in school.  Since high school started, we’d gone through what seemed like a slew: Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar , The Odyssey, Jane Eyre, Cold Sassy Tree, Frankenstein, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Doll’s House, Things Fall Apart.  It was a diverse group, but the thing was that (with the possible exception of The Odyssey) I enjoyed all of it.  Scout and Jane captured my heart permanently.  And all of the stories got me thinking about issues of society or the heart, which was  a refreshing change from vampireland. Unlike the majority of my classmates, I actually read all of every novel or play instead of flipping through Sparknotes the day before a quiz.  Even when the words were difficult or the pace was slow, I recognized that the words in front of my eyes in every case were valuable.  

So when I started my reading adventure, classics seemed appealing.  It wasn’t just the allure of walking into cafes or honors classes toting Hemingway or Conrad, although that was a nice benefit.  I was excited because whatever I read would be a book that had stood the test of time and at least a couple generations of diverse readership.  Even if I didn’t like them, these stories would necessarily be meaningful.  

And so I met Jane Austen. 

The Conception of the Endeavor

Last year, I realized the truth about teen fiction.

I was regularly raiding my local library’s YA section, bringing home glossy stacks of sci-fi and romance and fantasy.  I read teen fiction constantly.  And why shouldn’t I? I’m a teenager. It’s what we’re supposed to read.  In fact, I never adventured outside the front-and-back shelf of YA books, even as my frustration with the genre mounted.

With each vapid, shallow, blond character and slick thriller that turned out to be just a vampire novel,  I felt more and more starved for real storytelling: I wanted stories. I wanted to be captivated by the human experience,to read books that breathed, not flashy page-turners that relied on hot tubs or explosions to keep me reading.  After a few years of reading teen fiction, I had discovered a few great loves: The Hunger Games, The Book Thief, and anything by Terry Pratchett.  But the well had gone dry. It was a rare, rare, book I picked up to that was a real story, with values and engaging language and characters that at least resembled me or the people I go to school with more than reality T.V. stars.

Finally, around early summer, I had had enough.  There would be no more bubbly chick lit with girls whose lives revolved around tan lines.  No more action stories that sacrificed characters altogether for the sake of cliche plots.  I would redefine reading for myself: read to the ends of literature, expand my knowledge of the world and its past and its thinkers, and in doing so, fall in love again with what reading is all about.

This blog started out as a OneNote journal on my computer. But since reading is about conversation and sharing ideas, I realized this was an endeavor I could use company on.  So here I am.  I hope that together, our experiences can inspire our society’s emerging readers and writers–the teenagers, the young adults–or anyone else who needs a literature refresh to let reading be an awesome personal challenge and exploration. I want us to push our personal libraries beyond the confines of a single genre.  There’s so much out there, and we don’t know it unless we look.

I mean, I totally didn’t.