Thursday, March 16, 2017

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

Title:  Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
Author:  Yiyun Li
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0399589090 / 978-0399589096

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "My first encounter with before and after was in on the fashion magazines my friends told me to subscribe to when I came to America."

Favorite Quote:  "Memory is a collection of moments rearranged - recollected - to create a narrative. Moments, defined by a tangible space, are like sculptures and paintings. But moments are also individual notes of music; none will hold still forever."

To even try and understand this book, you have to understand the context in which it came to be written. "Writing this book has taken about two years now, as long as the period that led to it, a year of descending into the darkest despair and a year of being confined by that despair. The bleakness, which can be summarized with a few generic words - suicide attempts and hospitalizations - was so absolute that it sheds little light on things. A sensible goad is to avoid it." Oh my.

Yiyun Li's life has taken many turns. Born in China, she grew up in Beijing. She came to the United States as a scientist to study; she received a Master's in degree immunology from the University of Iowa. She walked away from science to explore her writing, becoming part of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. She has won many awards for her writing, including the prestigious McCarthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius grant." She currently lives, teaches, and writes in California. In some ways, she has achieved her American dream. Yet, in 2012, she tried to kill herself. Twice. This memoir is an outcome of that struggle in her life.

The title comes from the work of another author, Katherine Mansfield. Katherine Mansfield lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She is known for her short stories, her journals, and for the fact that she died at the young age of thirty-four from tuberculosis.

The fact that the title comes from another author's work is indicative of the way in which this reflective memoir goes. To a great extent, it is a collection of essays rather than a linear narrative. Many of the "essay" center on or reference passages from works that bring either explanation or inspiration to the author.

I completely relate to the idea of finding ourselves in books and of reading a sentence that says what we are unable to express. "I would like to believe that there are as many alternatives in life as in fiction; that roads not taken, having once been weighed as options, define one as much as the irreversible direction of the chosen path." Even more so, I find myself thinking of the idea that no two readers ever read the same book because we each bring to any book the sum of our experiences. For the author, both reading and writing provide this purpose. "To read oneself into another person's tale is the opposite of how and why I read. To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one's existence."

I struggle with how to rate this book. On the one hand, I have enormous respect for the author's struggle with mental health. I wish her health and joy. I agree with the role books can and do play in our lives. On the other hand, I find the book itself very difficult to engage with. Unfortunately, I don't the see the lesson or wisdom being shared. I do feel a voyeur to an intensely personal battle. The book to me wanders as the battle might, trying thought after thought to see if one might provide the path out. This book reads as a therapeutic outlet for the author rather than a memoir to be shared with others. So, I see the struggle, wish her well, and move on.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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