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Author grew up with encyclopedias, the Bible

Amy Tan


In her newest book, “The Valley of Amazement,” Amy Tan again explores the tangled knot of mother-daughter relationships across time and cultures. She reads from her novel Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Congregation Kehillath Israel in Brookline. The reading is sponsored by Brookline Booksmith, where you can get a ticket by buying a copy of Tan’s book.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

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TAN: “Weights and Measures” by Joseph Roth. It is a short novel written during the 1930s. In a way it reminds me of Franz Kafka. It’s a perfect piece to read right now considering what has been going on in our government. The main character faces a lot of betrayal and corruption. I had never heard of Roth — although he’s written books some people consider classics. I’m also reading “Thinking in Numbers” by Daniel Tammet. That sounds really dull, but it’s not. Tammet is an autistic savant who perceives numbers as shapes and colors.

BOOKS: What are you reading next?

TAN: “An Unnecessary Woman” by Rabih Alameddine. It takes place in Beirut, and the central character is an elderly woman who’s a translator. I know that sounds dull, too, but it’s very humorous and insightful. Alameddine is a bestseller in Europe, but he’s not well known here. It brings up the question of whether our literary tastes are cultural. For example, why is Richard Ford better known in Europe than here? The same thing is true of Paul Auster. If I tell people there I know either of them they look at me as if I know Brad Pitt.

BOOKS: Why do you think Ford is so popular in Europe?

TAN: Because of his careful consideration of the ideas and influences from the past. I think that is what they love. A lot of American literature looks forward or is in the current time. His is a reflection of the past.

‘I grew up with Bible stories, which are like fairy tales, because my father was a minister . . . I liked the gorier Bible stories. I did have a book of Chinese fairy tales.’

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BOOKS: Are you a fan?

TAN: I’ve read all of his books.

BOOKS: What else do you like to read?

TAN: Poetry. I read Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Jane Hirschfield. I like to read Billy Collins out loud.

BOOKS: Given the fairy-tale quality of your own books, did you read fairy tales growing up?

TAN: I grew up with Bible stories, which are like fairy tales, because my father was a minister. We heard verses and prayers every day. I liked the gorier Bible stories. I did have a book of Chinese fairy tales. All the people except the elders looked like Italians. But we were not a family that had fiction books. We had useful books like the World Book Encyclopedia, the Bible, and books by Billy Graham.

BOOKS: Did people read in your family?

TAN: My older brother and I read all the time. My father read but only things related to religion. One year he did read a set of stories that was called something like “365 Stories” out loud to us. They followed a family for the year, a page a day. They were about kids with simple problems — like a wheel coming off their bicycle. We were very sad when that was over.

BOOKS: Could your mother read in English?

TAN: She could but she didn’t read in English for pleasure. She did read “The Joy Luck Club.” Her praise was that it was so easy to read.

BOOKS: Do you own a lot of books?

TAN: I do. I get sent a lot of mother-daughter stories and Asian stories. My tastes are much broader than that. I also have antiquarian books I collect. Most of those are about China. Some of them are children’s books such as “The Story about Ping,” illustrated by Kurt Wiese, who spent six years in China. Another favorite is called “Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, a 19th-century missionary. It listed what he considered typical Chinese attributes like a lack of timeliness or sympathy or a high tolerance for pain. It was a meant in a benevolent way, but it is so racist it makes me laugh.


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