The Valley of Amazement

By Amy Tan |

REVIEWED BY ROBIN MICHELI

NOVEL

In her sixth novel – her first since 2005’s Saving Fish from Drowning—Tan immerses readers in the world of courtesans and 19th-century Shanghai, with its uneasy mix of wealthy foreigners and impoverished Chinese. Violet, half Chinese and half American, identifies herself as a proud Yankee, but she’s forced into the life of a courtesan, or “flower,” at 14, enduring agonizing struggles over the next two decades. Tan describes clothing, jewelry and interiors – the sole objects of beauty in the flowers’ constrained lives – in sumptuous detail, highlighting the disparity between the grand settings and the women’s denigration. Fans will recognize signature Tan themes: mother-daughter relationships, clashes between cultures. In a departure, though, she includes graphic, often cruel or violent sex scenes that, together with Violet’s trials, render the narrative oppressive at times. Still, threads of humor and emotional insight make Violet’s struggle to survive, and ultimately forgive, a journey worth sharing.

The Boy Detective

by Roger Rosenblatt |

REVIEWED BY RICHARD EISENBERG

MEMOIR

The former Time magazine essayist offers up wry recollections of his privileged Manhattan childhood, memories that rose to the surface during a wintry walk through the neighborhoods where he “first detected my life.” Rosenblatt’s goal is to “determine where he has been and where he is.” But the memoir is, at its heart, a valentine to the New York City of the ’50s and today, and to the author’s favorite detective stories and films. Along the way he muses on the mundane (the blue tuxedo he wore to the prom) as well as the profound (his fractured relationship with the Jewish dad he calls a “wanna-appear” WASP). No matter where you’re from, his story resonates.

Stitches

by Anne Lamott |

REVIEWED BY MEREDITH MARAN

NON-FICTION

Lamott’s pithiest, most insightful book yet, Stitches offers plenty of her characteristic witty wisdom, this time on the subject of stitching life back together when chaos threatens to tear it apart. “Where is meaning in the meteoric passage of time,” she asks. “Where is meaning in the pits? In the suffering? I think these questions are worth asking.” The author of Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird confesses that sometimes, “I really don’t have a clue.” But the breadth and depth of topics she covers—faith, school shootings, sobriety, illness, friendship—make this slim, readable volume a lens on life, widening and narrowing, encouraging each reader to reflect and focus on what it is, after all, that really matters.

Nicholson

by Marc Eliot |

REVIEWED BY MARY POLS

BIOGRAPHY

Who knew our Jack arrived in L.A. a virgin? Eliot’s brash bio covers the star’s confusing youth (his “sister” was his mother), the era when he couldn’t get a girl or a gig, his insecurities, temper and the fight to stay on top. The famous appetites are well-chronicled—enchiladas every day! Meryl Streep in the trailer! (Maybe)—but Eliot ends on a wistful note with Jack the leering codger failing to charm Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars. Unless Nicholson writes his own (please), this might be as good as we get.

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