Best known for her dazzling 1989 debut The Joy Luck Club – an intergenerational tale of Chinese-American immigrants that spent 77 weeks on the NYT bestseller list – the semi-autobiographical novels of Amy Tan have lent an important voice to first-generation minorities facing conflict between the present, and their parents’ past.
On the release of her 2017 memoir Where The Past Begins, she mused:
“Who we become has so much to do with the experiences we had, and how we survived. The book is not about happy situations — it’s about trauma, and the times when characters have to question who they are. It’s about my questions, and who I am.”
In a reading list for NY-based bookstore One Grand, Tan shared her favorite stories of family mythology, relentless curiousity, and humorous irreverence. From Louise Erdrich to Gabriel García Márquez, find her top ten books below. For a deeper look at her creative process, check out her Masterlcass on fiction, memory, and imagination.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
“I first savored these stories in Hawaii and nearly fell out of my hammock with the sheer pleasure of them. They are told in the distinct voices of family, friends and old adversaries in a Chippewa community, some soft-hearted, others hard-knuckled, as they recall the deep rifts and repaired shreds of their common history. Erdrich’s stories reminded me of the kind of stories my mother told me—the tragedies, grudges, and secrets. When I returned home from Hawaii, I started to write the stories that would become The Joy Luck Club.” -AT
Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich
“To understand ravens, Heinrich becomes the raven. He is heroic in the lengths he goes to conduct his scientific research, and relentlessly curious in pursuing the reasons behind raven behavior. He causes us to reflect on what we mean by morality, intelligence, and emotion in animals and humans alike. This book made me fall in love with wild birds, and those who know me also know how huge birds have become in my life.” -AT
The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
“I remember reading this memoir some twenty years ago and thinking I had found a long lost childhood friend. With the language of a poet—both incandescent and glaringly fluorescent—Karr recounts sexual abuse, the charm and unreliability of her alcoholic father, and the emotional chaos of her brilliant, beautiful, and mentally ill mother. What emerges in memory is a meditation on truth found in love and self-knowledge.” -AT
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis
“Davis is the ultimate prose stylist and this collection of short fiction proved addictive on many a late night. Her narrators are quirky, self-conscious, and sometimes humorously obsessive. Many of the stories are only a page or two long. But within those pages are observations that reveal the precise tics and nuances that make us indelibly who we are.” -AT
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
“The breathtaking beauty of Alameddine’s prose alone makes this compulsive reading. Its true genius, however, lies in the sacrosanct ideas that the narrator—a translator of books that will never be read—lays bare with humorous irreverence, wry insouciance, or intellectual outrage. She is fearless in looking at aging and death, the morality of war and survival, and the true meaning of a meaningful life. She also gives advice on not dying your hair blue in bad light.” -AT
“I was stunned when I read this book in 1976, and not just because it was the first book I read by an Asian American woman. Hong Kingston wraps family history around myth and discovers the ghosts of woman who have traveled through time into her own life. I felt those ghosts and went looking for mine.” -AT
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride