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All of these life experiences have made their way into Tan's novel and I enjoyed putting together the various life events with the stories found in her beautiful novels. As a result, I was able to finish this moving memoir in little more than a day as I immersed myself in Tan's writing process. Another preferred writer of mine notes that reading leads to rereading that leads to writing. Going back through my reading notes, I have discovered that I have read a number of author memoirs focusing on the writing process over the last two years.

Being that I have studied languages, I have always found the writing process to be fascinating, and, because I have read many of Tan's lovely novels, I thoroughly enjoyed entering her life and finding out about her family life and writing processes. While Tan and her family have experienced much sorrow, they have also experienced joy and love. This memoir was a labor of love and a joy to read. Until Tan is able to write her next novel, I am glad that I spent time with her on a more personal level.

View all 15 comments. Oct 31, Angela M rated it liked it Shelves: edelweiss-reviews. This is what prompted me to read her memoir which I hoped would be a look at her life, her family and the impact of these memories in her work. For the most part, this is what the book is , but it wasn't quite what I expected. It's a blend of thoughts on various things such as music and its impact on her writing , her self analysis of her creative process. While those sections were fascinating in some ways , the sections I enjoyed the most were when she talks about her childhood, her siblings, her parents' stories.

Some entries left me scratching my head like journal entries from various times. There is a section of letters to and from her editor during the writing of The Valley of Amazement. I did find those exchanges somewhat interesting giving us a view of the interactions between writer and editor. Overall I just felt it to be an uneven mix mash.

The introduction was the section I truly enjoyed where she talks about the photos and documents she has holding the memory and history of her family.

a book review by E. Ethelbert Miller: Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir

She astutely notes that sometimes what is not in the photo, what has been moved aside can jog a memory. She conveys some intimate personal details that I was not aware of - that she has epilepsy, suffered from depression and recognized years later that the suicidal tendencies of her mother were symptomatic of the depression she suffered. The writing in places was lovely, especially in the introduction.

Recommended to fans of Amy Tan. View all 31 comments. Mar 28, Michael rated it really liked it Shelves: , favorites. My review, as well as my other thoughts on reading, also can be found on my blog. Ostensibly about Tan's origins as a writer, Where the Past Begins examines many facets of the novelist's life and career: her earliest memories, her relationship to her parents, her musical tastes, her interest in linguistics, her revision process. Interspersed between the memoir's main pieces are impressionistic sketches excerpted from Tan's journal.

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In her introduction, Tan frames the book as a kind of "unintended My review, as well as my other thoughts on reading, also can be found on my blog. In her introduction, Tan frames the book as a kind of "unintended memoir," having emerged from her editor's desire to have her write an "interim book" between novels, and the book's loose structure reflects its spontaneous composition.

Not everything in the book is spectacular, but the parts that shine do so brilliantly. Her memoirs of her mother and her father are especially moving, as are those detailing her childhood in general. View 2 comments. Dec 28, Diane Barnes rated it really liked it. This is described as a memoir of Any Tan's childhood and writing methods, but I think it's mostly a memoir of her mother and their relationship. All of her books contain elements of her mother's life, in an attempt to understand what made her tick. Certainly her childhood 3.

Certainly her childhood was a horror, without physical abuse, but plenty of mental cruelty, losing her 16 year old brother and her father within 6 months of each other, both with the same type of brain tumor, and coping with her mother's instabilty.

Where the Past Begins

There are other essays here too, about music and art and her knowledge of linguistics. Her intellect shines through it all, and her quest to find out who she is, and what her past means to her. Any fan of Amy Tan will find much to admire about this book, but it is not an easy read, because she delves deeply into her own psyche, even when it's painful. Aug 31, Tammy rated it it was amazing. This book could easily have been titled Where a Writer Begins. Of course, I prefer the actual title and subtitle much better.

Tan is courageous in what she reveals about her past and her pinging, beautiful mind. She deeply delves into her past as she pursues her sense of self and what created the wonderful writer that she is. I was moved. I was in awe. And, I am grateful for her generosity. View all 8 comments. Nov 07, Julie rated it liked it Shelves: bio-auto-bio , non-fiction , 21st-century , american. I continue to vacillate between 3 and 5 stars on this one. It's another one of those reads that I just can't pin down.

Proust started this dilemma of indecision.


I've been a long-time fan of Amy Tan's novels, starting with The Joy Luck Club , and delighting in her works ever since, so I thought this would be a natural extension of my Tan-fandom. I'm not sure that I gained much, despite enjoying this. Sometimes, peeking behind the curtain doesn't reveal all that much. There is a sense, throughou I continue to vacillate between 3 and 5 stars on this one. There is a sense, throughout, that Tan is withholding something, on a certain level, despite her open-book persona.

She reveals many details of her life but it's as if we were seeing them through a veil; that is, she gives a "laundry list autobiography", without pinning much emotion to the actions. This distance created between her and the reader doesn't exist in her novels. In her fiction, I found that Tan speaks things that are "truer than true" Her memoirs, on the other hand, seem to only skim the very entangled relationship she has with her mother, creating a distance between what she knows and what she wants us to see.

I'm not finding any fault in that, for it is not a writer's duty to bare the soul for the reader, but I just find it perplexing that one would write a "tell-all book" but in the end "tell only some of it". Perhaps the genre is really not for me, in the end: I find myself squirming just writing this review about how uncomfortable auto-bios make me feel, especially from writers.

This one hit a nerve in a very puzzling, complicated way: what I can seem to figure out is that I miss the Greater Truth in her novels that is somehow missing from this work. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it on a certain level and I remain a staunch fan of her fiction. This time, I think the expression, "It's not you, it's me" is especially apt. Oct 18, Book Riot Community added it Shelves: new-books-liberty-s-recs. Love the novels of Amy Tan?

Love reading books where writers discuss their craft? Feb 22, Obsidian rated it it was ok Shelves: library-books. I have been reading Amy Tan since I was a teenager.

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I still have hard copies of her books on my shelf. I was annoyed the other day when I realized that somehow my copy of "The Joy Luck Club" went missing and had to go out and purchase another copy. I have been waiting for weeks now to get this copy of her memoir from the library. I was initially pretty happy with the memoir, but it was a very hard read to get through. We find out that a similar situation happened to Tan's grandmother.

When the memoir gives you glimpses into the events that have shaped her stories, the book really shines. It sounds like her parents had to struggle to be together and then when they came to America there were still issues that Tan's mother was trying to overcome. Some of the incidents sounded very shocking, and one wonders how she can keep going on as she had with seemingly no bitterness.

I also didn't realize that Tan's father died when she was a teen as well as an older brother. I think if we got a straight forward memoir that I would have enjoyed this more. I think jumping back and forth chronologically made things confusing. We also had Tan including the same information about her mother and maternal grandmother in different sections which made the book feel a bit repetitive.

I outright disliked one of the chapters, Chapter Ten Letters to the Editor. It is just emails back and forth between her and her editor. Tan includes some insight into the Shanghainese and what makes them so different. I really enjoyed that she included pictures of her family as well as drawings that she has done. That tipped things up enough for me to give this two stars. Oct 15, Marisa rated it it was amazing Shelves: reads , biograph-memoir , asian-authors-and-themes. Stunning and a real privilege to read. Read my full review HERE. Apr 27, Bkwmlee rated it really liked it Shelves: memoirs-biographies , nonfiction , asian-experience-or-author , edelweiss.

In her memoir, family history was conveyed via the various mementos and keepsakes Amy finds — old photographs, letters, documents, newspaper clippings, etc. I found this part of the book fascinating and most enjoyable. There was also a chapter that consisted entirely of letters between Amy and her editor, letters exchanged during the writing of The Valley of Amazement — while the letters were interesting and at times fun to read, I felt that they were a bit of a distraction and, like the journal entries, broke the flow of the book a bit.

There were also the instances where she narrowly escaped death several times, all of which were described in such detail that it made my heart stop a few times.

I was also shocked at some of the similarities in background with our parents i. That chapter alone reinforced for me the power of love and family and its ability to put previous grievances and wrongs suffered into perspective. The writing is wonderfully descriptive in many places and quite a few passages were beautifully rendered. View all 4 comments.

Oct 27, Jean rated it it was amazing Shelves: audio-book , non-fiction , autobiography. I attended a talk by Amy Tan when she was promoting her first book. I enjoyed her talk and reading that book. I put her on my list of authors to follow. Since that time, I have read all her books and make a point of attending her talks whenever she is in my area. This book is a memoir of her life to-date. She traces her family history through photographs. Tan describes her skill of nature drawings and compares that creativity to her writing.

The main topic of the book is about writing and creativity. Tan discusses a collection of letters between herself and her editor, Daniel Halpern. She provides in-sights on writing. She brings out what it takes to be a professional writer. Tan is a gifted storyteller.

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I enjoy learning about authors and how they write. I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is fourteen and a half hours long. Amy Tan narrated her own book. It is great to hear the author read their book. Jul 25, Ilana rated it it was amazing. I think lots of people will like this book, but if you're a writer, reading this will be like reading the best and most ethical kind of pornography, or like eating the most delicious dessert you've had in a long time.

Amy Tan makes me want to write and write and write and I could feel the impulse in my body as I read this, reminding me of just how physical writing can and its joys can be. Dec 14, Krista rated it really liked it Shelves: , nonfiction , memoir. My childhood with its topsy-turvy emotions has, in fact, been a reason to write. I can lay it squarely on the page and see what it was. I can understand it and see the patterns.

My characters are witness to what I went through. In each story, we are untangling a knot in a huge matted mess. The work of undoing them one at a time is the most gratifying part of writing, but the mess will always be there. So, apparently Amy Tan was contractually obligated to provide her new editor, Daniel Halpern a My childhood with its topsy-turvy emotions has, in fact, been a reason to write. So, apparently Amy Tan was contractually obligated to provide her new editor, Daniel Halpern at Ecco, with two books — one fiction, one non — and while he was hoping for a memoir, Tan resisted: it would seem that the older she gets, the more tortuous her writing process has become perhaps due to the brain lesions resulting from Lyme disease or the lingering effects of a massive concussion that affected her brain's language center , and the idea of a memoir — with the constant writing and rewriting and hedging and second-guessing — wasn't enticing to her.

They struck a deal: Tan would send fifteen uncorrected pages on whatever she felt like writing to Halpern per week, and he would turn it into a book; this book. As a result, Where the Past Begins is very free-form, with essays on drawing and music appreciation, old journal entries and letters, an overlong email exchange between Tan and Halpern from when she was writing The Valley of Amazement , and chapters about her childhood and what she has been able to unearth about her family back in China.

As a result, this is an inconsistent reading experience — some parts were fascinating, others less so — but as someone who has adored Tan's fiction throughout the years, I appreciated learning the inspiration behind some of her most gut-punching scenes.

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For the most part this worked for me, but individual experience may vary. Tonight I go to a spot in my mind where the foot of the mountain and a river connect, sneggin , a meeting place. I wait until I feel the sound pulsing in my veins. And it comes — Pes-pas! The second vowel tightens. The hooves are hitting the hard-baked earth of the steppes. Soon we will arrive at that place where the past begins. I didn't realise that Tan received a Masters in Linguistics before she started her writing career, and her lasting fascination with languages seems a key to understanding her point-of-view and the family dynamics that feature so heavily in her fiction.

If it wasn't true, it would seem an authorial overreach to have the Linguist lose elements of her own speech due to both illness and injury, and then watch her aging trilingual mother lose each of her own languages to dementia until she's reduced to speaking in the baby-talk of her mother tongue. The story of my grandmother is like a torn map glued together with so many bits and pieces that there is now more glue than map. The pieces haven't led to verifiable truth. I have imagined what the truth might have been, based on my own emotional and moral character.

Others have done the same. We see what we want to believe. We are all unreliable narrators when it comes to speaking for the dead. In particular, Tan is fascinated by dead languages and makes the point that once a language loses its native speakers — once no one is making puns or exchanging gossip in that tongue — it becomes impossible to actually know what those people's lives were like; cuneiform accounting tablets tell us nothing intimate of Sumerian domestic life.

In the same way, Tan makes the point that we can never really know anyone by the words they leave behind — she can read old letters and study yellowing photos, but she will never know the grandmother who overdosed on opium when Daisy was only nine. And this leads to another interesting point: I have never read an analysis of my work or me that reads as accurate. It's because they start off on the wrong path, have created the map and thereby see only those points and conclusions. There is no symbolic immortality to be had in giving one's archives to a library.

It's perpetual misinterpretation. Who I was will have been missing since before I stepped off Earth's floor. Apparently Tan intends to have all of her personal papers destroyed upon her death — all of the letters, journals, and partial novels that, as an admitted packrat, she now possesses — and this seems to be in line with what she's saying here: words on the page are dead things, not a conversation with their author, and open to misinterpretation; she wants to be remembered for what she has produced, not for what others assume those products mean.

And that's very interesting coming from a Linguist-novelist; someone who uses language to discuss language; someone who uses language to untangle the knotted mess that is her inner self. Still happy to have read it and am rounding up to four stars. Jan 25, Eilonwy rated it really liked it Shelves: deeply-thoughtful , heartbreaking , heartwarming , non-fiction. I'm never good at reviewing nonfiction!

This is not a book I would have chosen to read myself, despite having read and enjoyed Amy Tan's first two novels. But a friend of mine gave it to me, so I felt obligated to read it in a timely fashion. And I'm very glad I did. This is apparently a collection of essays that Amy Tan was "assigned" to do by her editor. So while they are loosely joined in a linear fashion as a memoir, they also range over a wide number of subjects.

Because they are each sort- I'm never good at reviewing nonfiction! Because they are each sort-of discrete, there is a fair amount of repetitiveness in getting re-introduced to some of Amy's family, and this lack of consistent flow is one reason I knocked a star off my rating. But her family has a fascinating and tragic story, which Amy narrates beautifully, and I was riveted through most of the essays.

In addition, Amy herself is a very interesting person, and I really enjoyed hanging out with her in the pages of this book. I was least interested by a section where she and her editor exchange emails about a WIP. And I'm sure it didn't help that I haven't read whichever of her books it was. Luckily, the book got its mojo back for me after that section with a discussion about Amy's love of languages, and a very touching reminiscence about her mother's last months struggling with Alzheimer's Disease, which is also about language.

I am very grateful to my friend for choosing this book for me. Dec 30, Kressel Housman rated it it was amazing Shelves: memoir , writing , east-asian-culture. I've read two of Amy Tan's novels, so I went into this book knowing why she's one of the most acclaimed writers alive today, but what really got me excited about embarking on it was the subject matter. It wasn't just for the insight to be gained from a master like her talking about her writing process; it was because the flap copy specifically said it was about delving into memory and how that shapes writing.

That there's a connection between memory and writing may seem like an obvious point, bu I've read two of Amy Tan's novels, so I went into this book knowing why she's one of the most acclaimed writers alive today, but what really got me excited about embarking on it was the subject matter.

That there's a connection between memory and writing may seem like an obvious point, but now that I'm getting back into my own writing, I see how deep that runs, and I couldn't wait to see what Amy Tan would have to say about it. My own deeper understanding of this connection happened last summer when I was enrolled in a memoir writing course at the Writer's Studio in Manhattan and simultaneously reading Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg.

As you can tell by her name, Natalie Goldberg is Jewish like me, but she's also a practicing Buddhist, and her approach to writing is meditative. Some might call it "freewriting," but she calls it "writing practice," and she means it as a spiritual practice, much in the way we Jews use the word "avodah. That's why so many people love doing it. Last summer, I did every single writing prompt in Natalie's book, which is something I didn't do with her other books.

I didn't finish it, but I probably got more out of it than anything else I read that year. Between her writing prompts, which were designed to stimulate memories, and the reassurance of my writing teacher that detailed descriptions are not boring but give your writing color, verisimilitude, and readability, I began remembering things I hadn't thought of in years. It's incredible how many sensory experiences our minds store over a lifetime, and with a little effort, you can bring it all out of yourself.

Once you've gotten in touch with the memories, there are endless ways you can interpret the details and shape them into a narrative. You can view any of your life's event positively or negatively. You can emphasize some details more than others, and you can ignore some things so much that they fade until they're forgotten.

A Writer's Memoir

Memory is a flowing current that can run in any direction we choose, so the interpretation and meaning of our lives is in our own hands. That seemed like a Zen realization to me, so it's fitting that Natalie Goldberg helped me reach it. Months after this insight, I discovered Amy Tan's book.

She is famous for her portrayal of Chinese women and their Americanized daughters, but what I like best about her writing is how she weaves spirituality and myth into her fiction. Please see my review on The Joy Luck Club for specific examples. So I really wanted to know if Amy Tan, a descendant of the culture that brought the world Zen philosophy, would confirm what I experienced about the process of memory and writing.

I am pleased to say that she did, though that's not the only thing she discusses in the book. She also talks about music, linguistics, and most of all, her family. I never realized just how much of her novels were taken from her mother's life. But not only did Amy's mother give her permission to write her story in her novels, she thought Amy had done such a realistic portrayal, she wondered if the ghost of her own mother - Amy's grandmother, that is - had helped along.

Talk about tapping into family and mythic memory! Amy does not reject the idea outright. Here is what she says about it: "If there is indeed a universal consciousness, it makes sense that mine would conjoin with it when the doors of imagination are flung wide open and all possibilities are allowed. I have periodically felt I have with me a spiritual companion who drops hints and guides me toward revelations, ones I never would have stumbled upon. Whatever it is, I don't need to analyze it any further.

I simply welcome this benevolent companion when I write, be it my grandmother, the universal consciousness, or a deeper layer of my subconscious unleashed by my imagination. Even if you're not interested in reading about Amy Tan's writing process, I recommend this book. Amy Tan's life story is that good. But read some of her other work first, especially The Kitchen God's Wife.

That was the closest to her mother's life story, and it's astounding in and of itself. And if you are interested in the writing process, you'll learn plenty from this book. Even with the quote above, I haven't spoiled it for you. View 1 comment. Nov 01, Kelli Oliver George rated it it was ok. Very disjointed and difficult to get interested in. I love Amy Tan, but this was disappointing. OverDrive uses cookies and similar technologies to improve your experience, monitor our performance, and understand overall usage trends for OverDrive services including OverDrive websites and apps.

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