The Odyssey

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Author: Homer

Finished reading on 8/19/17

 

To round out my reading of the classical epics I read The Odyssey this month which I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to because I had taught parts of it last year and because I had already read most of it in college and high school. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable reading the unabridged version is. It still remains my least favorite of the three epics but not so much lower than the other two.

The Odyssey is unexpectedly sensual. Homer is forever going on about the slaughtering of animals and the roasting of meat, the drinking of wine, the eating of extravagant feasts and so forth. I literally (not figuratively) got hungry while reading those frequent descriptions. My mouth started watering every time he went on in great detail about the slaughtering, cooking and eating of meat. Not only is the food sensual but the descriptions of the heroes, specifically Odysseus are specifically designed to arouse your sense of attraction. Homer seems especially obsessed with the well-shaped and muscular forms of the heroes. It’s very clear that he knows how this will appeal to his female listeners/readers (or perhaps The Odyssey was really written by a young woman as Samuel Butler suggests). Here is one description of Odysseus given by another character: “In build, at all events, he is no common man, – in thighs, and calves, and arms above, strong neck, and massive chest” (Book VIII). And here is another: “Meanwhile Odysseus gathered his rags around his waist and showed his thighs, so fair and large, and his broad shoulders came in sight, his breast and sinewy arms. Athene, drawing nigh, filled out the limbs of the shepherd of the people, that all the suitors greatly wondered” (Book XVIII). Other than these sensuous descriptions, the tale is not full of long and arduous descriptive detail. It is highly action and dialogue oriented much like The Iliad.

When we think of The Odyssey, we think of Odysseus’ long journey home and all of the adventures he has along the way. But actually that part of the narrative is only 36% of the entire poem. 45% of the book is devoted to Odysseus’ arrival on Ithaca and his revenge on the suitors. The first 19% of the book is about the situation on Ithaca before Odysseus arrives and Telemachus’ journey to the mainland seeking news of his father. The actual narrative describing Odysseus’ journey is incredibly fast paced compared to the second half. The second half happens in a matter of 3-5 days, whereas Odysseus was wandering for 3 years before he was marooned with Calypso. This leads me to my main question about The Odyssey, is it really about Odysseus’ journey home or is it actually about his homecoming? I think realizing that The Odyssey actually isn’t what we make it out to be in our abbreviated high school editions makes me appreciate the epic more. The central action is focused on Odysseus’ vengeance on the suitors, not his adventurous journey home. This unifying theme makes the poem more appealing.

It is this change in focus that makes me rethink the most easily identified theme in The Odyssey. We can all easily connect to the longing for home which drives Odysseus to continue his wanderings even when all hope of reaching home seems utterly lost. This persistence, this yearning I have often identified with the Christian desire for “home” meaning our home with Christ. However, if the thrust of The Odyssey is really Odysseus’ homecoming and the recompense of the suitors than perhaps he is more of a Christ type along the lines of the returning king and the righter of long tolerated wrongs.

Overall I prefer the Iliad. However, I will say that out of The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid, it’s The Odyssey that has the most moving and powerful scene: Odysseus’ reunion with Penelope. “As he spoke thus, her knees grew feeble and her soul within, when she recognized the tokens which Odysseus truly told. Then bursting into tears, she ran straight toward him, threw her arms round Odysseus’ neck and kissed his face, and said… so she spoke, and stirred still more his yearning after tears, and he began to weep, holding his loved and faithful wife” (Book XXIII). Taken out of context these excerpts of their reunion lose much of their intensity and power. And yet you can still sense how precious these two are to each other. This moment of love is unique to The Odyssey and similar moments do not have a place in either The Iliad or The Aeneid.

Of course Penelope is a very unusual figure. Women in the ancient world were of a degraded position. Their only honor being their ability to bear a man sons and continue the family line. Women were not trusted and were often viewed as being deceitful and full or treachery. Yet The Odyssey is very inclined to sing the praises of Penelope and not just to her faithfulness but to her wits and wisdom as well. This also sets The Odyssey apart from the Iliad and the Aeneid in which in neither do women play a significant part except as distractions to the heroes.

This poem reveals in several interesting way the mindset of the ancient Greeks towards the gods and the role the god’s played in their daily lives. For instance it is very clear that morality and specifically the morality surrounding hospitality was tied to a fear of the gods. Rich and noble people did not dare refuse to offer a beggar food and shelter for fear that the beggar could be a god in disguise. The gods are also blamed for irregular or uncouth behavior. There are several incidents of a character wondering or assuming that another is under the influence of a god. The theory seems to be used to say that at times the gods are actually responsible for a person’s misdeeds. Helen continually blames her betrayal on Aphrodite. The thing is, if they all believed that Aphrodite really was responsible for Helen’s behavior then why did the Greeks think of Helen as a symbol of betrayal?

I also noted this time that a side plot to The Odyssey is Telemachus’ coming of age. Telemachus has grown up without a father. He knows what it is like to have a fatherless family, to be missing a much needed father figure. How relevant a situation to our times! It is interesting to see that he can’t really grow into his full manhood until his father shows up again. He needs his father to become a man. Again how telling for the state of many young men in our society! As Homer says, “Ah, many a grief the son of an absent father meets at home, when other helpers are not by” (Book IV).

On a side note, the story of Agamemnon’s murder at the hands of his wife’s lover and his son’s subsequent revenge on his father’s betrayers reminds me eerily of Hamlet. Of course there are some obvious differences one being that Hamlet’s mother became the lover of his father’s murderer only after the crime was committed and unknowingly too. But in any case the son’s duty to avenge his father is clearly present in both.

On another note: is Phaeacia a vision of utopia? The people are supposedly descended from the gods and continue to be the favorite of the gods. They don’t interact with the outside world and it is specifically stated that they aren’t very good with weapons or warlike games.

I have little else to say about The Odyssey being that most people are very familiar with it and its themes. However, I’ll say this, you probably read an abridged or simplified version in high school and it’s worth it to go back and become familiar with the poem in its entirety.

 

 

Quotes:

 

“The song which men most heartily applaud is that which comes the newest to their ears.”

 

“Ah, many a grief the son of an absent father meets at home, when other helpers are not by.”

 

“But enter, and have no misgivings in your heart; for the courageous man in all affairs better attains his end, come he from whence he may.”

 

“Better to be the hireling of a stranger, and serve a man of mean estate whose living is but small, than be the ruler over all these dead and gone.”

 

“Friends, hitherto we have not been untried in danger.”

 

“for afterwards a man finds pleasure in his pains, when he has suffered long and wandered long.”

 

“Earth breeds no creature frailer than a man, of all that breathe and move upon the earth.”

Suite Francaise (1942 and 2004)

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Author: Irene Nemirovsky

Finished reading on 8/4/17

 

I read this novel for two reasons: the film and the story behind the novel. They say this novel is perhaps the first work of fiction every written about WWII. The author was a Jew living in France and in 1942 she was caught by the Germans, sent to a death camp and died there. This novel that she was in the midst of writing at the time remained lost, hidden in a suitcase for over 60 years. It was found and published in 2004. According to Nemirosky’s notes, the final novel was to have 5 parts but she only had time to finish part 1 and part 2. From what I gather, the novel was to be along the same vein as something like The Joy Luck Club. A collection of novellas or short stories that all overlap and tell a greater story of life in France during WWII. So even though the reader isn’t left hanging with a bunch loose ends when part 2 is finished there is still a definite sense that the greater vision is lacking. And because of this, the film, which focuses only on part 2 and turns that part into its own stand-alone story, gives a more satisfying and complete experience.

 

Part 1, however, taken on its own is an extremely fascinating piece of literature. It’s all about the mass exodus from Paris as the Germans advance through France. The refugees crawl through the countryside trying to stay ahead of the German forces. The narrative follows 4 families fleeing from Paris during the summer months as bombs, air raids and battles keep everyone in a state of panic.  What’s truly fascinating is seeing people’s reactions to reality. As it has been said before, trauma reveals your true self like an opaque class spilling it’s liquid. The reader sees a famous writer show his true shallowness, a cultured man become a common thief, a teenage boy run to and then flees from a battle, a Christian family leave behind their ailing grandfather unattended and forgotten and more. The thousands of years of civilization and culture and tradition all melt away in the face of a frightening, horrific, tragedy. Humans are humans and humans are mostly, ultimately petty when you get right down to it. The brilliant bit is that not everything is so hopeless unredeemable. And that’s what makes this piece such a layered tapestry of the human condition and the human spirit.

 

Part 2 though is the really thought provoking and heart touching story. This part of the novel is set in a rural village during the German occupation of France. A regiment of German troops moves into the village, Bussy, for three months. The main character, Lucile, who lives with her mother-in-law (her husband is a POW in Germany) in the best house in town is billeted an officer. Of course at first there is hostility between herself and the officer, naturally as they are enemies. However, as she gets to know him, her heart warms to him for he isn’t just an enemy is a human, a man, and an artist. This isn’t just the case for Lucile but the case for the whole town who eventually grow used to their conquerors and perhaps there is even a sense of friendship between them. This story certainly brings to light a lot of ambiguity that we often try to sweep under the rug when thinking about the Nazis of Nazi Germany. Is there any place for empathy or even sympathy in regards to them? Is it just possible that a good man, nay more than one good man was a part of the Nazi army? Should we condemn Lucile, whose marriage was a cold one indeed her husband was openly having an affair with another woman, for falling in a love with a man who shared affinities with her and who actually cared about her though he was part of an army that we vehemently denounce to this day? I find it interesting that the film is much more black and white. They write Bruno (the German officer) as a one of a kind man in the German army who has nothing in common with his colleagues and indeed does things for Lucile in stark contradiction to his duty, though certainly not everything he does is admirable. The film also picks out a German villain which the novel refrains from doing. Interesting how our sensitive 21st century conscience adds these elements.

 

I certainly recommend this novel and film if you are a person interested in the history and literature surrounding WWII. It’s not as much of a romantic novel as the film but it is still touching and does have one of the more unique love stories I’ve come across.

The Painted Veil (1925)

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Author: W. Somerset Maugham

Finished Reading on 7/29/17

 

I had an inkling for a long time that I would like Maugham’s writing and I certainly wasn’t disappointed when I did read his work for the first time. He will be one of those authors that I continually come back to like Amy Tan, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I know it’s a crude way to evaluate a piece of literature but I have two 1-10 scales on which I rate books for my convenience so that I can remember at a glance what I thought of their quality. The first is how much I appreciated the book, this would deal with the more literary criticism side of things. The second is how much I enjoyed the book regardless of literary merit. This book received a 10 and a 10 whereas the average score for both categories is a 7. I’ve rarely given books below a 5 because I usually choose books that I know I’m going to appreciate and enjoy anyways and if I don’t, I will stop reading them. So, the scale is a bit skewed I suppose.

 

First of all, I was won over by Maugham’s writing style. He is efficient but not bland. He is emotive without gushing. He makes crisp, vivid descriptions and moves on. He chooses carefully what exactly in a scene or a moment he wants to describe. This selectiveness gives the reading a realistic quality for in life, we don’t pay attention to every detail, do we? Something here or there catches our eyes and it is only when we focus greatly do we take everything in. I might be making a toasted sandwich and the melting of the cheese rather than the burning of the bread captures my senses for a moment before I take the sandwich from the stove and eat it. All writers must practice this art, but Maugham does it exceptionally well. His images really impress themselves upon your mental eye. Beyond the details, his characters’ feelings, thoughts, and expressions come alive on the pages. Not only can you see them in your mind’s eye, you feel as if you know them, as if they too have been a part of your life.

 

Of the story itself I thought it was a blessed inversion of The Awakening by Kate Chopin which is a novel I deplore with everything in me. The Painted Veil, set in Hong Kong and the Chinese countryside, begins with the adulterous relationship between Kitty, the main character, and a married man, Charles. This moment, at the very beginning of the novel, is Kitty’s low point. From there she grows in maturity, character and true independence. Kitty’s husband finds out about her affair and forces her to see her lover for what he truly is and then takes her away into a little rural, Chinese village. Her husband does not forgive her but Kitty begins to see how silly her dalliance was, how she had always been blessed with a good man though she isn’t attracted to him and that she had been foolish to be so deceived in Charles, a man who would never sacrifice anything in his comfortable life to marry her. While Kitty tries to reconcile her relationship with her husband she begins working in a convent and it is there that she learns that there is something more in life than the flirtations, luxuries and trivialities of which her life had previously consisted of.

 

Kitty doesn’t shrug off her motherly duties (she is pregnant at the end of the novel and determined to raise her child well) or does she run off into affairs to find her freedom. Rather she finds her freedom in a mature and strong character which seeks to do some good, regardless of what situation you find yourself in, rather than trying to suck as much comfort as you can out of life. Her feminism is pure because in the end it isn’t about her relationship status or her womanly duties, it is about who she is and her character not what she does.

 

I absolutely think this is piece, though written by a man (and if we as women say that we can write from a man’s perspective then we must be gracious toward men writing from a female perspective), is a phenomenal piece of feminist literature. Women don’t need some sort of sexual “awakening” to find themselves. We don’t need to chase after men, hoping they will define us and give our lives meaning. What women and men and every human needs is a “spiritual” awakening. A sense that there is something out there greater than ourselves to live for, a vision of living the good life by doing good for others and being the kind of person who has such a purpose. So ultimately, this book isn’t just about womanhood, it’s about the decision that every human faces in their own heart.

 

Quotes:

 

Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in that river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy.

 

I don’t understand anything. Life is so strange. I feel like some one who’s lived all his life by a duck-pond and suddenly is shown the sea. It makes me a little breathless, and yet it fills me with elation. I don’t want to die, I want to live. I’m beginning to feel a new courage. I feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas and I think my soul hankers for the unknown.

 

Though her [the Mother Superior] conversation was interwoven with her religion, Kitty felt that this was natural to her and that no effort was made to influence the heretic.

 

A little smoke lost in the air, that was the life of man.

 

I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write, and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.

The Good Earth (1931)

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Author: Pearl S. Buck

Finished reading on 7/25/17

 

Pearl S. Buck’s novel is unconventional in several ways, especially for her time. First of all, she a Westerner (American) wrote from the perspective of a local Chinese person. Secondly, she a woman wrote from the perspective of a man. Writing convincingly from a perspective so whole removed from her own is a feat that writers of all times should praise. Typically a writer can realistically transcend a gender role, a social role, or a cultural difference but to do all three at once, I can’t help but applaud. It does however make me wonder what a pre-revolutionary Chinese farmer would think of her novel.

 

There is much to talk about with this book but I will start with the obvious binary relationship between men and women. Seeing the status and treatment of women in pre-revolutionary China through this book especially and in others, I can’t help but have one small sympathy with Mao Zedong, he liberated women at least partially. This novel makes it very apparent that women were little better than slaves at the best, and something to be got rid of at the worst. Even the main character, Wang Lung who to all accounts is an abnormally empathetic and compassionate man, sees as merely means to an end, though at time he experiences guilt over this. He has no understanding of this guilt because culturally he treats women much better than they “deserve.” In many ways the novel, though told through Wang Lung’s eyes, is essentially about the women in his life. The reader’s sense of Wang Lung’s first wife and his own perception of her is vastly different. He thinks she is stupid because she is slow moving, silent, and goes above and beyond what is expected of her. However, the reader sees that there is much more going on beneath the surface especially when she foresees an opportunity to get riches for the family and she seizes it. She often sees situations in the family before, Wang Lung does. When she grows fatally sick, Wang Lung finally realizes what he is losing in her but he never is able to look at her with respect or as an equal. He still thinks she is ugly and slow of mind. Despite, Wang Lung’s hampered respect of women, at the end after all his trouble with his sons, he realizes in some small way the worth of his two daughters.

 

Some reoccurring themes include the presence of shame and the absence of peace. All of his life Wang Lung, though ambitious, is really just seeking some peace and comfort. However, it always eludes him. Once he achieves financial peace, his incurs all sorts of troubles with his family. More on this later. Shame is also a large motivator in this culture. We see it plaguing especially Wang Lung and his eldest son. They have a certain amount of vanity and when their vanity is wounded they feel ashamed and seek to correct the situation which caused it. Wang Lung’s ambitious pursuit of wealth was at first fueled by his encounter as a poor farmer with the great family of the town. The great family made Wang Lung feel ashamed of his position and thereafter he was never satisfied with it.

 

These two themes work well with the contrast between ill-gotten wealth and the land. Wang Lung and his family were simply subsisting on the land when a famine came and they were forced to move to the south. While there, an opportunity came to loot the house of a rich family. With their stolen riches they were able to buy more land, increase their profit, hire help, and buy more land. However, now that Wang Lung is a rich a man, he must deal with all the troubles that a rich family brings. His sons are spoiled and indulged, none of them follow in his footsteps to work and love the land. He himself gets entangled with a “flower” girl from town and makes her his second wife which gives him trouble with O-lan. His uncle, head of a band of robbers, is jealous of his wealth and so imposes himself and his wife and son on Wang Lung. The peace that he thought his money would buy him is fleeting to say the least. However, it is the land that pure, cleansing and represents true goodness in the novel. When Wang Lung is on his land, he is cleansed, healthy and whole. But when he is away from his land and caught up in his wealth, his troubles never cease.

 

Though the book is set in the last dynasty of China, it in many relates to the American life, especially when American blood was full of land being pioneers, settlers, and farmers for the most part. The desire for peace and wealth relate quite easily to the American dream and its devastating consequence for those who sell their soul to get it. In these two ways, I agree that this book is an American classic and completely worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. It’s an easy read and not long at all; give it a go.

The Valley of Amazement (2013)

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Author: Amy Tan

Finished reading on 7/16/17

 

I have now read of all of Amy Tan’s work (excepting her children’s books) and out of all of them, this one has the most intriguing plot. It’s a page turner and no mistake. I also found it to be one of the most tragic and deeply moving of all her novels. Some moments in here are just very powerful. Because more of the main characters are white American or partially white American it was easier to relate to them. For instance, Lulu’s confusion over the powerful idea of family in Chinese culture was relatable to me as I have also spent time as a very lost Westerner in a culture so very much different from my own. I also found it interesting to see more of the racial tensions between whites and Chinese in the early part of the 19th century. I didn’t realize how segregated Shanghai was because of the power Westerners had in that city. The remnants of the anti-foreigner currents that sprung up in that time I witness during my time in China. Chinese are very welcoming of foreigners but I wouldn’t call welcoming and accepting the same thing. There is still a very strong sense who the outsiders are.

 

The story is mainly set in the second and third decades of the 19th century in Shanghai. And as usual with Amy Tan, the central drive of the novel is the mother-daughter among 4 generations of women although mostly between the second and third generation. The main character is half Chinese. Her mother runs a very high class courtesan house in Shanghai in the 1910s. When Violet is 14 her mother is tricked into leaving Shanghai for San Francisco without Violet and Violet is sold as a virgin courtesan. Her mother believes she is dead and Violet must survive and make her way in the world on her own. Violet eventually has a daughter who at the age of 3 is also taken from her mother to live in America. Though there are a lot of romantic moments (some quiet explicit due to the nature of Violet’s forced profession) in the novel it remains a novel about mothers and daughters.

 

I think I walked away from this novel with a renewed sense of respect for the mother-daughter relationship. The novels shows that it takes a lot to really break the bond of love that forms between a mother and her daughter and that bond of love can be extremely powerful, surmounting obstacles that one would think otherwise impossible. I think Tan’s writing is especially poignant in our current society where the parent-child relationship is often devalued and cheapened. I find that a lot of people simple accept a strained or even estranged relationship with their parents. How sad that the power of that relationship, when it’s not being abused by either side, has been lost.

The Problem of Pain (1940)

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Author: C.S. Lewis

Finished reading on 7/7/17

 

Although I have read surprisingly few of C.S. Lewis’s books, he is in fact my favorite Christian author. He is a bit unconventional, for instance in this book he takes an old earth creationist view, and he writes as a lay person. He was a professor of English at Oxford and this appeals strongly to my personal interests as well. Sadly, to date I have only read all of Narnia, Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, The Abolition of Man and this book. He is one of the authors though that whenever I can get my hands on his books I do so and I want to read all of his works or most of them before I die.

In this particular book, Lewis tackles the question of why God designed a world in which there is pain and hurt. The common question is presented as thus: if God were all good and all powerful then he his creatures would be happy. This is not the case and so God either doesn’t exist or his not all good or all powerful.

Here I will offer a brief paraphrase of Lewis’s answer in my own words. God in order to give humans free will designed a world in which pain had to be a possibility. Pain became a constant reality at the fall of Man because evil entered the world. Now it exists in the world the simple good which descends from God, the simple evil which exists due to sin and its consequences. God uses that evil for his redemptive purposes which produces a complex good in the lives of his creatures. God does because we have been corrupted by the sin nature and he wants to do what he can in this earthly life to return us to our original design. For in heaven we will continually be surrendering our self in love to God. We cannot be happy in this world because it is in our nature to choose our self over God. That in itself defeats our happiness. God uses pain to make us see that all is not right with the world or with ourselves. Furthermore, God loves us too much to leave us alone, to leave us as we are. In my view, it is the exact same argument as the argument spoiling a child. If you love a child and want what’s truly best for your child, you won’t and shouldn’t give him or her everything he or she wants and let he or she get away with everything. Do we really admire the people who have gotten everything they want in this life anyways? Do we actually think well of the people who have never developed character through hard times? No. Then we should expect such a thing for ourselves.

This book is short but it is dense. It’s more philosophical than theological in nature. It is intense and very thought provoking and not just in the general sense. The book inspires introspection. I found myself looking inward to see how much I want to protect my self from pain and how much I truly want to choose my self over God.

This is also a good book for those who are struggling with doubts over the goodness of God. Pick it up. You won’t regret it.

 

Quotes:

 

And it appears, from all the records, that though He has often rebuked us and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, more tragic, most inexorable sense.

 

God is both further from us, and nearer to us, than any other being.

 

If the world exists not chiefly that we may love God but that God may love us, yet that very fact, on a deeper level, is so for our sakes.

The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991)

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Author: Amy Tan

Finished reading on: 7/5/17

 

I read Amy Tan for the first time three years ago and I have loved her writing ever since. I love her theme of mothers and daughters because it’s a relationship I can easily relate to. I love how she weaves in narratives from pre-communist China along with the stories of Chinese Americans. Now that I have lived in China, I can easily imagine the settings and characters she describes.

 

I don’t have much to say about this particular novel. I will offer here only a brief synopsis and cursory engagement with the novel’s themes.

 

It’s a frame tale. The first layer story is about a Chinese American daughter and her tenuous relationship with her very Chinese mother. The middle story is all about her mother’s life in China, how she fell into a very bad marriage and how she finally left that bad man for her true love, a Chinese American she met during the war. Honestly, the novel has a bit of a slow start. I didn’t really get into it until Winnie met her second husband. But after that the plot got much stronger.

 

The novel is about marriage, true love, friendship, sorrow and suffering. Winnie struggles with whether she should accept her fate or whether she should hope for a better future and do what she can to claim that future. Eventually Winne makes the choice to fight for her future. And when Winnie many years later hears that her daughter, Pearl, has an incurable disease she helps her daughter find the hope to not give into her fate without a fight. Ultimately this novel is about how much a mother loves her daughter and about how much healing can come when there is honesty between two people who really do love each other very much.

 

The mother daughter relationship is so important and so formative. It isn’t celebrated enough in literature which is why I appreciate Amy Tan’s work so much.