- ISBN-13: 9780399589096
- ISBN-10: 0399589090
- Publisher: Random House
- Publish Date: February 2017
- Page Count: 224
- Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.9 x 1.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.84 pounds
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-10-24
- Reviewer: Staff
The vexed intersection between writing and living (or not living) is explored in these ruminative essays. Novelist Li (Kinder Than Solitude) explores tenuous subjectsruptures in time, the difficulty of writing autobiographical fiction, the pleasures of melodramain meandering pieces that wander through personal reminiscences and literary meditations. Braided in are fragmented recollections from her youth in China, including a stint in the Peoples Liberation Army; her migration to America to become an immunologist, a career she abandoned to write fiction; stays in mental hospitals; travels as a literary celebrity to meet other literati; and intricate appreciations of writers, including Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Bowen, and William Trevor. The book can be lugubrious; Li repeatedly visits the theme of suicideincluding her own morbid impulsesand is given to gray, fretful melancholia (There is an emptiness in me.... What if I become less than nothing when I get rid of the emptiness?). Much of the text is given over to belletristic why-we-write head scratchers such as this tireless drive to write must have something to do with what cannot be told. But the wispy philosophizing is redeemed by Lis brilliance at rendering her lived experience in novelistic scenes of limpid prose and subtly moving emotion. (Feb.)
Notes on depression and literature
By just about any measure, writer Yiyun Li has had a remarkable life. Born and raised in Beijing before China’s explosion of prosperity (her family had no phone until she was in college), Li had a talent in science that brought her to the U.S. for graduate studies in immunology, but she shifted her focus to writing and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. By age 37 she’d won multiple writing awards, including a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and had a full life in California. Yet she recently spent two years in and out of hospitals for depression. She wrote Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, her first nonfiction work, during this difficult period.
This unconventional memoir tucks glimpses of Li’s youth in Beijing, her narcissistic mother, her quiet father and childhood friends into a variety of meditations on writing and writers. These eight essays consider essential questions: Why write? Why read? Why live? She considers the letters and journals of Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Philip Larkin, Ivan Turgenev and others, and she writes tenderly of her own friendship with the Irish writer William Trevor.
At times, this book feels like a quiet conversation with a wise friend who says confounding things. Still, Li’s writing is lovely, graceful yet plainspoken, and I underlined many passages, like this one: “Some days, going from one book to another, preoccupied with thoughts that were of no importance, I would feel a rare moment of serenity: all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”