“It’s a luxury being a writer, because all you ever think about is life.” Amy Tan

This month the BrownBaggers discussed JMRL’s 2013 Big Read title: Any Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club.”  We began our meeting by watching a film in which Amy Tan talks about writing her book.  This film is available at the Big Read website.  There are 2 versions of the film; we watched the short version so we would have time to chat.

Our discussion dealt mainly with the major theme, a timely one, of this book of overlapping stories:  the immigrant experience.  Everyone in the group could tell a story like that of themselves or someone they know.  It is the American story.  “Joy Luck” reminded us of another book that we enjoyed in February 2012, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford.  Both books delved into relationships of first and second generation Chinese dealing with their different attitudes toward American culture.

In “Joy Luck” the stories are about women.  The men are either banal or evil.  Most of us were confused by the overlapping stories of daughters and mothers who all had difficult names but similar stories.  A number of comments came out of this confusion:  1. Maybe, because women of a certain era in Chinese society were treated as nonentities, they all blended together in reality.  2. Since the stories were mainly about Amy Tan and her mother, she should have stuck with that as the only story.

Another theme we mentioned from “Joy Luck” is that of hope vs expectations.  Hope seems less active than expectation – at least in the lives of these characters.  Mothers and daughters in the book had difficulty relating as the mothers expected so much more for and from their daughters who were in the more open American culture, a culture so different from that in which the mothers grew up, and they worked very hard to assure their daughters’ success.  It was painful to read about the mothers’ disappointments as their American daughters didn’t grow up to be prodigies or wealthy as their mothers expected and hoped.  The pain was for both mothers and daughters.  Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” came up briefly at this point.  This made sense to those who have read it.

This is the last week of JMRL’s Big Read programming.  Hope you enjoyed some of this annual event.

~ The Reluctant Blogger

The Cervantes Prize or Premio de Literatura en Lengua Castellana Miguel de Cervantes

File:Medal of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize.svgWe all know about the National Book Award or should if we are readers in the US of A, but how many of us are aware of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize or Premio de Literatura en Lengua Castellana Miguel de Cervantes.  So who are some of the winners of this most prestigious literature lifetime award for Spanish speaking authors?

JMRL has a number of them represented in its collections, and the names of some are not obscure.  There is Jorge Luis Borges, the wonderfully lyrical poet from Argentina, who won in 1978, or Octavio Paz of Mexico who later won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  One of my favorite Latino writers is Mario Vargas Llosa.  I laughed throughout his book “La Tia Julia y el Escribidor” or “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.”  He also won the Nobel after he was awarded the Cervantes Prize.

Explore these writers in English or give them a try in Spanish.  If we don’t have the Spanish version, you can probably find it at the University of Virginia or request it though JMRL’s interlibrary loan system.

Other Cervantes Prize winners at JMRL are:

Juan Carlos Onetti of Uruguay

Rafael Alberti of Spain

Ernesto Sabato of Spain

Carlos Fuentes of Mexico

Álvaro Mutis of Columbia

José Jiménez Lozano of Spain

~ The Reluctant Blogger

“She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” Deborah “Dale” Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’ daughter

A couple of weeks ago the BrownBaggers book group discussed “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the first book by Rebecca Skloot.   Bombardment by political operatives and Hurricane Sandy hampered my efforts to get this report onto the JMRL blog.  I felt that, because Henrietta’s life is immortal, that there was no need for real haste.

Among the many themes in this book (race, family, religion, bioethics, medicine) bioethics got the discussion nod.   Henrietta Lacks’ cancer genes at her death were collected and have been in the mix for many important medical discoveries.  They proved to be super genes.  Her family never gave the OK for this to happen nor did they get any compensation from all the medical advancements due to experiments with these genes that occurred from the 1950’s to the present.  “The book is filled with stories of people used as research subjects, sometimes without their knowledge, sometimes with ill-informed consent, sometimes because of their inability to understand (patients with mental illness) …”*  The reading group was appalled by all this and voiced concern that this could still happen today.

Because this book was written by a white woman about African Americans, there was some comparison with “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, which the group read last year.  We felt that Skloot was more sympathetic to her subjects and was less intrusive but more helpful than the fictional character in “The Help.”

Henrietta’s family is full of colorful and complicated individuals.  The Lacks genes in and out of these people have made their lives very difficult.  Skloot does seem to help them find some closure, but their lives will always be on the edge.

We did like the book.  With the parallel stories of the Lacks family and the medical history surrounding Henrietta Lacks genes, we found that some followed one story line more than the other.

*(Courtesy ofUW–‐Madison’s Go Big Read Discussions Planning Committee and the Institute for Cross—College Biology Education Book Group)

~ The Reluctant Blogger