I Love a Broad Margin to My Life

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Overview

In her singular voice—both humble and brave, touching and humorous—Maxine Hong Kingston gives us a poignant and beautiful memoir-in-verse that captures the wisdom that comes with age. As she reflects on her sixty-five years, she circles from present to past and back, from lunch with a writer friend to the funeral of a Vietnam veteran, from her long marriage to her arrest at a peace march in Washington. On her journeys as writer, peace activist, teacher, and mother, she revisits her most beloved characters—Wittman...

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I Love a Broad Margin to My Life

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Overview

In her singular voice—both humble and brave, touching and humorous—Maxine Hong Kingston gives us a poignant and beautiful memoir-in-verse that captures the wisdom that comes with age. As she reflects on her sixty-five years, she circles from present to past and back, from lunch with a writer friend to the funeral of a Vietnam veteran, from her long marriage to her arrest at a peace march in Washington. On her journeys as writer, peace activist, teacher, and mother, she revisits her most beloved characters—Wittman Ah-Sing, the Tripmaster Monkey, and Fa Mook Lan, the Woman Warrior—and presents us with a beautiful meditation on China then and now. The result is a marvelous account of an American life of great purpose and joy, and the tonic wisdom of a writer we have come to cherish.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Told in free verse reminiscent of one of Kingston's idols, Walt Whitman, this uncommon memoir of the artist at 65 is informed by the wide margins on the pages of the Chinese editions of her works (margins her father used to write in). Kingston revisits characters, like Wittman Ah Sing, the monkey from her first novel, and themes from her books: her pacifist, feminist activism; the challenge of stereotypes; East and West. Though this homage to aging, with wisdom gained through a freewheeling reflection on family, the past, fate (karma, we're reminded, means "work," not "doom"), and self-reliance (which is a translation of Kingston's Chinese name, Ting Ting), often rambles, it also has the cohesion and intricate logic of a musical composition. The artist is a mental traveler, presenting her life as a dreamlike journey that culminates in a listing of "my dead," some 50 names, which both pulls Kingston toward oblivion ("Each one who dies, I want to go with you") and inspires seven reasons to live. The desire to create recedes ("I regret always writing, writing") as the memoirist sees herself becoming "reader of the world," a "surprise world" that frees her from the need to create it with words. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Award-winning author of Woman Warrior, China Men, and other works, Kingston begins this memoir in poem form by musing about reaching age 65 and wondering if she is still pretty. Blending characters, setting, myth, and history, the always innovative Kingston takes Wittman, her fictional character from Tripmaster Monkey, on a journey through rural villages in contemporary China, connecting his story with her emotional experiences as a Chinese American. A vigorous antiwar spokesperson dedicated to promoting peace, Kingston discusses the time she was jailed for protesting at the White House and discovered Alice Walker to be her cellmate. The poetic structure adds to the book's effectiveness by enhancing the author's connection with readers on an emotional level while she reflects on her life and grapples with issues of guilt and reasons to keep on living. She ends with a list of her friends who died in the last four years and the intent to stop writing and just read. VERDICT Highly recommended for readers seeking a memoir that breaks new ground. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/10.]—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
Kirkus Reviews

Renowned Asian-American author Kingston (The Fifth Book of Peace, 2003, etc.) reflects on her life, as well as the lives of her most popular fictional characters, in this 240-page elegy.

The author began this book weeks before her 65th birthday, inspired by the notion of simultaneously gaining and losing time. Having named the protagonist of Tripmaster Monkey (1989) Wittman Ah Sing, in honor of Walt Whitman, she again tips her hat to the American poet by styling this memoir as verse. (The title is a line from Thoreau's Walden that hangs above her desk.) As with her previous books, Kingston explores cultural and familial identity, albeit in a highly unconventional way. Weaving together seemingly disparate subjects, from the death toll of the Iraq War to details about her marriage, she repeatedly articulates an urgent need to translate her deceased father's writings from Chinese to English. "How to leave you who love me?" she asks, before answering her own question with the directive to, "Do so in story. For the writer, / doing something in fiction is the same as doing / it in life." This opens up to her unearthing of the protagonists of The Woman Warrior (1976) and Tripmaster Monkey, and she offers updates on what has become of them. The meandering, meditative nature of the narrative is reminiscent of a journal filled with nonsequiturs and sketches, but it lacks a compelling structure. She spirals away from coherent thoughts and memories with lines like, "Soul through and through rocks, / mountains, ranges and ranges of mountains." There are moments of real honesty and interest, as when she lists the three surprising reasons she continues to live (e.g., "Kill myself, and I set a bad example / to children and everyone who knows me."), but these glimmers are outnumbered by scattered snippets that lack cohesion.

Kingston is clearly tuned in to a different frequency, and the rhythm of her writing complements her tone, but it's also erratic and lacks narrative traction.

From the Publisher
“A brilliantly penned memoir written in a fluid, narrative poetry genre. . . . Gritty…and energetic all in one breath.” —San Francisco Book Review

“Rich. . . . Only a few older writers—poets or not—can manage this balance of self-amusement and genuine longing. It’s an effect fully equal to the shaded tones of Kingston’s best writing.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“[A] graceful meditation. . . . Achieves meaningful insights into the art of living.” —Boston Globe
 
“A gentle, meandering memoir, organized as a long poem. . . . Cinematic and sensual.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Delights as an unconventional, intimate and intensely personal life story. . . . Forcing a slower, calmer contemplation of Hong Kingston’s words. . . . Moving. . . . Whether she’s recalling the birth of her son or the time she was arrested for protesting the Iraq war, Kingston’s memories are pungent and vivid.” —Post and Courier
 
“She leads the reader on a tour of her native China, her rich language often matching the lushness of the landscape itself. . . . Effortlessly transitions from personal experience to the worlds of her characters. . . . As much an examination of the nature of time and aging as it is an exploration of cultural identity and origin, I Love a Broad Margin to my Life contains both moments of dark alienation and buoyant transcendence.” —Time Out New York
 
“Blurring the lines among poetry, fiction, and memoir. . . . A meditation on form and formlessness, on meaning and identity, and how the most essential truths often exist outside the boundaries, in something of an ur-state.” —Los Angeles Times
 
“She seems at peace with the necessary sacrifices and negotiations she’s made as a writer, wife and mother. Yet she’s also acutely aware of her mortality and determined to carve out the free time to which she feels entitled at last. . . . Written in a dreamlike, impressionistic style. . . . Takes on a kind of mythical quality.” —The Boston Globe
 
“Engaging. . . . Startling.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR
 
“A sprawling, globe-hopping long poem. . . . Kingston is thinking deeply about the act of writing itself. . . . I found myself compelled by Kingston’s efforts to capture the disjointed landscape wrought by globalization. . . . Touching. . . . Offers its readers a memorable set of images, narratives, and questions that continue to push against the foundations of memoir, just as her earlier work, The Woman Warrior, did four decades earlier.” —Hyphen Magazine
 
“A brilliantly penned memoir. . . . She shares cultural experiences with a primal pentameter that may equal or surpass anything her readers have ever experienced.” —San Francisco Book Review

The Barnes & Noble Review

InI Love a Broad Margin to My Life, a captivating memoir written in verse, Maxine Hong Kingston summarizes her experience of aging as she turns 65: "Old people suffer,/ too much feeling, shaking with feeling,/ love and grief over too many dear ones,/ and rage at all who would harm them and the hurting world." Indeed, life seems almost too much for the gentle Kingston, the National Book Award-winning author of The Woman Warrior and China Men. A glimpse of a headline about Dick Cheney has her weeping openly in the street because "the stupid, the greedy, the cruel, the unfair have taken/ over the world." At the end of the book, she lists the 50-odd friends and relatives who died during the four years she took to write it, saying, "Each one who dies, I want to go with you./ I feel your pull into death./ I want to join my dead."

But Kingston's disillusionment and despair are no match for her fierce longing to change the world, and she presses on. She describes her 2003 arrest for demonstrating against the war in Iraq in front of the White House. (She and Alice Walker were briefly jailed together.) "We staged/ a theater of peace, recited poems -- and did not/ stop our country from war." While she seems almost surprised that her modest protest didn't halt the war machine, she stubbornly, against all evidence, retains her faith in the efficacy of her activism. "I believe: because of constant/ protests, the tonnage of bombs was not as massive/ as planned. And we hit fewer civilian areas./ The peace we have made shall have consequences."

Sections of the book focus on the Chinese-American author's relationship with China. In dreamlike passages she imagines her Tripmaster Monkey character, Wittman Ah Sing, experiencing the country for the first time. "Make up your mind, Monkey, get off the train,/ see the rivertown, enter its symmetry./ Paddle the river straight down the valley;/ stream with the sun's long rays," she writes, directing his journey. She combines these with recollections of her own travels there. Her sense of responsibility, both personal and political, extends to her parents' homeland, as she promises distant relatives, "I won't forget. I shall/ send you money forever," but, ever human, she admits to forgetting them occasionally nonetheless.

Early in the book Kingston reveals that her writing is driven by anxiety: "I am afraid, and need to write./ Save this moment./ Save each scrap of moment; write it down." But she draws the title of this latest work from a line from Thoreau, and like Thoreau, she resolves to live simply and deliberately; perhaps the rhythm of the book, whose plain language carries surprising force, is entwined with that goal. She reveals that the desire to write is leaving her. She's said all she has to say and wants to "become reader/ of the world, no more writer of it." It is a conclusion that is sure to dismay her readers.

--Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307270191
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/18/2011
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

 
Maxine Hong Kingston
is the author of The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey, and The Fifth Book of Peace, among other works. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle award, the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award. For many years a Senior Lecturer for Creative Writing at UC Berkeley, she lives in Oakland, California.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2011

    I don't understand...

    eBook: $14.97
    Hardcover: $13.58
    A publisher charging more for a digital version: Priceless

    0 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted January 25, 2011

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