Thursday, December 21, 2017

Memoir Review: Where the Past Begins

During my unofficial Nonfiction November, I listened to the audiobook of Amy Tan's new memoir, Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir. I've only read one novel by Tan, her very first one, The Joy Luck Club, but I enjoyed it very much.

I was drawn to her memoir more because of her personal life, which I know more about than her writing. Tan has Lyme disease (as do my son and I), and she went undiagnosed for years (which is unfortunately not uncommon). By then the infections had caused permanent neurological damage. Although she is doing much better with years of treatment, she has been left with seizures and other problems and a lifetime of treatment. In a world filled with horrible stories about the effects of Lyme disease and other tick infections (singer Avril Lavigne and author Rebecca Wells are two other celebrities who have spoken up about their experiences), Tan's is one of the worst. So, I went into this memoir with a different perspective than most, though the book was focused mainly on her writing life, her family's history, and her own life.

In the Introduction, Tan explains the conception of this unusual memoir. Her editor suggested she turn their e-mails back and forth during the writing of her last novel into a book. Around that time, she was combing through boxes of papers left by her parents: old photos, family documents, and some of Tan's early writing and drawings. From that kernel of an idea and those memory joggers came this memoir, which includes a wide range of Tan's writing, including stories of her childhood, bits of fiction she wrote years ago, some of those e-mails between her and her editor, fascinating stories of her family's history that rival the stories in her novels, and even excerpts from her journals over the years. Here's how she describes the journal bits:
"Since this is an unintended memoir, I thought it would be appropriate to include writings from my journals. I gleaned entries that reflect the spontaneity and seeming randomness of ideas that characterize how I think. They are also in keeping with the nature of the other pieces in this book. I call the longer, anecdotal entries from my journals "interludes." I call the shorter entries "quirks." They are quirky thoughts from the top of the head, or quirky things I have seen or heard, or quirky remnants of dreams. For writers, quirks are amulets to wonder over, and some of them have enough strangeness in them to become stories."

I included that excerpt because it gives you a feel for the "seeming randomness" (as she says) of the book, which jumps around a bit but is always interesting. I enjoyed listening to the audio book, read by Tan herself, and hearing her stories directly from her, though I sometimes lost the thread for a moment or two, so seeing those interludes and quirks on the page might have helped me to keep things straight. As someone who only writes nonfiction and is in awe of novelists, her musings and "quirks" only gave me more reverence for fiction writers. She doesn't say much at all about her experiences with Lyme - in fact, she never mentions it by name - but she does make oblique references to the cognitive dysfunction she suffered and its lingering effects. Mostly, this is a book about writing, a fascinating peek into the mind of a much-acclaimed novelist, that will appeal to writers, readers, and certainly to fans of Tan's novels.

368 pages, Ecco


To read more about Tan's harrowing experiences with Lyme disease, why she went undiagnosed for 4 years, and her lingering effects, this article (written by her) on her website is excellent. You might think hers is an extraordinary story, but it is quite typical for Lyme disease that goes undiagnosed (as most cases do because there are no accurate tests for it).

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

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Click this link to hear a sample of the audiobook, read by the author.

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  1. I am seeing a lot of good reviews of this book. I had no idea she has lyme disease.

    1. Oh, yeah - she's been through terrible times the past 10 years because of Lyme. Completely lost the ability to write or think clearly for a while. Luckily, she finally got a correct diagnosis and has regained some of what she lost, but there was permanent damage. Very sad story but not at all unusual.

      The memoir, though, is all about writing and her history and was fascinating.