vulture lists

Amy Tan’s 10 Favorite Books

Photo: Vulture

Bookseller One Grand Books has asked celebrities to name the ten titles they’d take to a desert island, and they’ve shared the results with Vulture. Below is The Joy Luck Club author Amy Tan’s list. Her memoir Where the Past Begins is out in paperback now.

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.

To understand ravens, Heinrich becomes the raven. He is heroic in the lengths he goes to 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.

I remember reading this memoir some 20 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.

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.

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 dyeing your hair blue in bad light.

I was stunned when I read this book in the 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 women who have traveled through time into her own life. I felt those ghosts and went looking for mine.

This wildly imagined story of a slave boy mistaken to be a girl takes us on rollicking ride with the abolitionist John Brown on his way to Harper’s Ferry. The voice of the narrator is genuine and pitch perfect, hilarious in musing on the mistakes, accidents, and opportunities he took to find freedom, and a meditation on the choices in life.

This novel is cited by many of my author friends as the best in the English language. I, too, am awed by its beauty and intelligence, so much so that I sometimes feel I should stop writing. (I won’t.)  The narrator of this story has been bestowed with telepathic powers by virtue of the time of his birth. This proves useful in recounting his life, which is coincidentally wrapped around historical events in India. Rushdie injects much political criticism of the powers that came to be, and this trait in his writing recalls for me George Orwell’s treatise on why we write: politics has much to do with it.

I’ve read this book several times. As a writer, I am in awe of Márquez’s genius. The first sentence reveals the gist of the entire novel, and yet everything in this love story is surprising. I would count this as the most romantic novel I’ve read. It is the family legend of undying love we all wish we had.

Mary Oliver’s poems give us solace and perspective. They provide the companionship of like-minds and thus have the power to instantly remove loneliness. Her poetry is the little lamp in the window that guides us home when we are in love or in trouble. When you read the last line of each poem, you’ll understand. It will take your breath away.

Amy Tan’s 10 Favorite Books