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Digging to America - Anne Tyler

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Author: Anne Tyler / Genre: Fiction

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      05.08.2010 14:23
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      Not a bad book but just seemed a bit flat

      Digging to America by Anne Tyler is about two families in America who adopt baby girls from Korea in the late 1990s. One family is all-American and the other is Iranian. They become friends and each year they celebrate the girls Arrival Day.

      I didn't choose this book, I read it for my book group. However the blurb sounded interesting so I was quite keen to read it. The first chapter had me hooked. It is written as if from the point of view of an impartial observer on the day the babies arrive at the airport from Korea. None of the characters are named, and the event that all these people are gathering for is unnamed, although given what the book is about, we as readers know what is happening. I particularly enjoyed the gently mocking tone used to describe the circus the American family have created at the airport, in contrast to the dignified Iranians, only three of them in comparison to every distant relative of the Americans. I think the reason for my enjoyment of the Americans being mocked is cultural: in this situation I feel more in common with the Iranians, not the unsurprisingly over-the-top and stereotypical Americans. If it were me I wouldn't want a hundred and one relatives clogging up the airport, making lots of noise and all wearing badges such as "grandpa" and "cousin". I'd be more inclined to have the unobtrusive welcome party of the Iranians.

      However, the first chapter is the best part of the book. From there we move into third person narration from most of the main characters, all of whom are irritating in their own way. The Americans, in particular the mother, Bitsy, really irritated me. She knew best about parenting, and didn't hesitate to criticise Ziba, the Iranian mother, although they did become good friends. Bitsy is exactly the type of American stereotype that I dislike, know-it-all, over-the-top and obsessed with her childs heritage. Ziba wasn't much better, being very concerned with what Bitsy thought of her, but she was at least less overbearing and in-your-face, and didn't believe that working two days a week or the occasional use of a playpen would irreparably damage her child.

      While reading Digging to America, I kept waiting for something to happen. Most events were small, expected and just part of the fabric of the characters lives. The arrival of the girls was such an event in itself that I really thought something would go badly wrong at some point along the line. As it was, Digging to America was a gentle read, more of a study of the two families and their cultures than a series of events.

      Tyler's style seemed to fit the novel, but I'm not sure I liked it. The characters narration is a little vague, it never feels like we get to know them that well. I've never read anything else by Tyler, so I don't know if this is her usual style. I don't think I'd like to read more than this, although it worked well for Digging to America.

      On the whole I did enjoy Digging to America, but I still have mixed feelings about it. I'm inclined to describe it as bland, though I finished it knowing I had enjoyed it but also feeling somewhat dissatisfied, because not much happened. It's worth a read, it's not a bad book, but don't expect excitement.

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        21.01.2010 18:20
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        From Accidental Tourist to Accidental Americans

        Some of my best friends are people I've met by accident; people that logic would say I could easily never have met and in whose lives I could easily have never found a place. One of my dearest friends is someone I once sold a porcelain owl to on eBay and even my husband is a holiday romance that didn't die off when we got home. Such is life; a series of happy accidents and meetings that develop into more than could ever have been anticipated. Random meetings can develop in unpredictable ways. Such is the case for two Baltimore couples and their extended families in Anne Tyler's "Digging to America". Both couples are childless and both have opted to adopt a girl child from Korea. Other than that they have little in common.

        Bitsy and Brad Dickinson-Donaldson are a wholesome all-American couple. She's into home weaving and wearing odd sack-cloth dresses made from fabric she's woven herself. She has an opinion on anything and everything and no hang-ups about expressing those especially on the topic of childcare. You get the impression she's read every book on bringing up baby ever written. Anxious to cling to her baby's Korean roots, Bitsy doesn't change her daughter's name - she was and always (until the child says differently) will be Jin-Ho.

        Ziba and Sami Yazdan are younger than the Dickinson-Donaldsons. Sami was born in the USA to Iranian parents, whilst his wife Ziba moved over as a child. Ziba works part time as an interior designer, helping out at the family firm that builds new houses. She's going to be a working mum supported by her mother-in-law, Maryam. As imigrants, they know the problems of having 'funny' names that other people can't pronounced, so their daughter will be known as Susan.

        On August 15th 1997 the plane from Korea touches down with the two babies on board. Waiting for them at the gate in those pre-9/11 days of lax American airport security are their new families. Bitsy and Brad have brought a crowd of family and friends, all with cameras at the ready and each decked out with their badges saying MOM, COUSIN, GRANDPA etc. Jin-Ho's arrival is captured on film whilst in the shadow of this force-field of Americaness, Sami, Ziba and Maryam are waiting quietly for their new lives as parents and grandmother to begin.

        Bitsy tracks down the Yazdans and asks them over to a party - of all the bizarre things, a 'raking the leaves off the lawn' gathering. Soon the couples and their daughters are back and forth between each other's homes. For the first anniversary of the girls' 'Arrival Day' Bitsy arranges a party, complete with a Stars and Stripes cake, a showing of the arrival video and communal singing of 'She'll be coming round the mountain when she comes' - you see Bitsy is the kind of person who loves to build and establish rituals.

        Soon the Yazdan's, are inviting the D-Ds over for the Iranian New Year celebrations, and in no time there's no party in either family that lacks a good turn out from the other. The simple buffets of the early parties morph into complex sit-down meals for dozens of people. There's talk of roasting a lamb on a spit in the garden and both the host and visiting families alike are soon spending days preparing food, as each subtly competes to out do the other.

        When Bitsy's father Dave is widowed and takes a shine to Sami's mother, it's clear that despite the shared social lives, there are some major cultural barriers to overcome. Can the whole crowd stay friends in this competitive setting? Will Maryam sacrifice the sense of 'foreignness' that she's chosen as her self-definition and allow Dave into her life? And finally how will Bitsy the 'by the book' mother create yet another new ritual to get her second child to give up using a dummy?

        ~Opinion~

        I've long admired and enjoyed Anne Tyler's writing, ever since I started with the Accidental Tourist. She consistently produces calm, gentle stories that can be taken superficially or analysed for more depth. On the surface this is just another book about families and friends; it's quite a happy little tale. Dig a little deeper (well it is called "Digging to America" after all) and it's a very clever examination of what it means to belong and how to deal with living in a box marked 'other'. It's also about how we set up and perpetuate rituals in societies that have become so diverse that shared experience no longer acts as a driver.

        The two girls are Korean-born children growing up in America; one with a traditional name, dressed up in miniature Korean outfits for every gathering, the other renamed and being brought up to be a proper little American girl. However, despite the clear sense of 'otherness', Susan and Jin-Ho sometimes seem the least aware of their intrinsic 'outsider' status. Born in the USA, Susan's father Sami has rejected his language and roots and refuses to speak Farsi any more whilst his wife still clings to both her past and her present and his mother builds her sense of self out of what she once was, more than what she's become. Even the Iranian community think of her as a bit snooty. We meet Iranians married to Americans in the extended family where the American has become self-consciously Iranianised in the hope of breaking through the differences between the two cultures.

        In choosing to make the Yazdans Iranian, Tyler has tapped into a different vein of the American immigrant experience, which is after all, a well-worn topic for writers. She has taken on a group of people who really aren't sure where they fit. Most of the Iranians in the book were part of the diaspora that fled the country to get away from the corruption of the Shah, not ones who left after the Revolution to escape Khomeini. They are the party generation of bright dresses, too much make-up, drinking booze and having a good time; émigrés from a country that changed beyond recognition after they left, to be moulded into an austere place or religion and restriction. Unlike many immigrants, the 'going home' scenario just isn't an option because the homeland of their past has been swallowed up, leaving them as the only representatives of a lost place and time. They contend daily with the crass ignorance of their American neighbours. In one incident, Maryam gets annoyed at an American assistant who corrects her when she says she's from Iran with "Well I'll always call it Persia" - that's OK then. She's an American, she can call it what she likes and because she's an American, what she says goes.

        There's a very clever 'will they, won't they' about the relationship between Dave and Maryam. On one hand we can imagine their friendship as the final symbol of bringing the two families together, but on the other hand, it could be the wedge that's driven into the comfortable status quo and threatens to destroy this arrangement of cosy ritual. What's also very unusual is the way in which Tyler avoids a central character. If there were a film made of this book, it's hard to see any of the characters as more than supporting actors - there's no place for the big star around whom everyone else performs. Tyler avoids a lot of the clichés we expect in a book of this type. It would have been very easy to throw one husband in to the arms of the other wife, create big fights over the children and their progress, even indulge in some overt racism out on the streets of Baltimore, but she doesn't need to use such devices because she just writes gently compelling prose that keeps you turning the pages.

        ~Recommendation?~
        This is a very nice book and one I'd wholeheartedly endorse with just the one warning that you shouldn't expect a lot of action along the way. Tyler doesn't do twists and turns but by the end, I predict you will care a lot about the people you've met along the way.

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          05.05.2008 17:09

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          Story about two families

          This book Digging To America by Anne Tyler is a very enjoyable. The author was suggested to me by a work mate.I am pleased he did as over this weekend I found myself absorbed in this book.
          The story is about Two families that were waiting at an airport for the arrival of two babies from Korea which they are adopting.
          One of the families is called Donaldson and very American, the other family is Iranian there name is Yasdan. The family came from Iran a long time ago so there son was born in America so in fact they are Iranian-American.
          As you read on the story goes into how the families start coming together and then start to find out between them what it is like to be American.
          There is also a brief insight of Iranian-American Culture.
          Maryan Yazdan struggles with there coming together as two families to celebrate the arrival of their adopted children from Korea. One family tries to keep their daughter in the Korean Culture even down to what she eats and wears. The other family the Yazdans seems to bring their daughter up more in the American way . It is very interesting as the author cleverly draws you into each families lives and then one starts thinking about what you would do in their situation.

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          31.07.2007 21:59
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          a moving story of how to belong

          Who is an American? Besides the people who’ve lived in the US of A since the founding of the state also every immigrant who’s got the permit to live there; technically that’s right, of course, but it takes more than a piece of paper to make a foreigner a member of the American society. The idealistic idea of the melting pot has long been abandoned, the salad bowl or the mosaic are favoured now, a mixture but with the individual ingredients still discernable. Digging To America is about ‘real’ Americans, as American as Big Macs, first and second generation immigrants and brand new arrivals and how they get along with each other.

          The setting is Baltimore, the time the summer of 1997; two families meet at the airport waiting for two baby girls from Korea they’ve adopted long distance, Bitsy and Brad Donaldson have brought their whole tribe, all decorated with buttons “MOM”, “DAD”, “GRANDMA”, “GRANDPA” (twice over), aunts, uncles, cousins, the other family consists of only three members, Sami and Ziba Yazdan and Sami’s mother Maryam, she and her daughter-in-law Ziba have immigrated from Iran, Sami was born in the USA.

          They take the girls and head home and this could be it, but two weeks after this day Bitsy calls the Yazdans (the only ones in the telephone directory and thus easy to find), she suggests they get together to help each other if need be, to give the girls the opportunity to play together so that both would have a Korean playmate, and to generally become friends. Later she has the idea to celebrate Arrival Day, yearly celebrations of the day the girls arrived - one year at the Donaldsons‘, the following year at the Yazdans’ and so on.

          Bitsy’s and Brad’s daughter keeps her Korean name, Jin-Ho, whereas Sami and Ziba Yazdan change Sooki into Susan, the Donaldsons can’t understand this, they try to raise Jin-Ho as Korean as they’re able to. Interestingly, Jin-Ho asks to be called Jo when she’s still in pre-school and longs for an American Girl doll. The Donaldsons have very clear ideas about child raising and integration into the American way of life and give the Yazdans unasked for advice on nearly everything. They come over as rather ridiculous, they mean well, but they’re bossy in their affection, especially Bitsy is hard not to laugh at with her New Age interests, a bit of weaving, teaching yoga, poetry, a bit(sy) of everything that’s en vogue at the time. The Yazdans aren’t repelled, though, at least Sami and Ziba aren’t, they’re happy to have found American friends and even move into a house near the Donaldsons so that the girls can be nearer to each other, improbable as it is, they strike up a lasting friendship.

          The novel doesn’t have a closely knit plot, so there’s nothing to spoil, the first part focuses on the development of the girls and is occasionally quite funny but after the description of the third or forth Arrival Day party the reader feels that enough is enough, fortunately the author felt the same and shifted the focus on Maryam Yazdan, and we see arriving in a foreign country, adapting or trying to and belonging or not from a different point of view. She grew up in Tehran and emigrated in the days of the Shah, leaving for America to marry a doctor already established in Baltimore, she becomes a widow in her forties, when we meet her, she’s been in America for 35 years. Although she doesn’t dwell in the past like some of her friends, she still considers herself an outsider and is proud of it. She’s a dignified and elegant lady, even some of her Iranian friends find her arrogant.

          It’s not that she dislikes Americans but she doesn’t want them to impose themselves on her. She’s ensconced herself in her life but is made to reflect on her attitude when Dave, Bitsy’s father, who’s lost his wife to cancer, falls in love with her. She likes him very much, but . . . Isn’t her cultivated foreignness a shield to protect her against possible harm? But does she want to leave her shell at the end of her life and risk something new? She has to come to terms with herself and watching her doing so is fascinating, Anne Tyler has created a great character with Maryam.

          I didn’t know this author before I chanced on this book, when I looked up her name on the net, I learnt that Digging To America is her 17th novel and that she’s a widely read and famous author. Btw, her husband was an Iranian so that we can be sure that the Iranian bits of the novel are spot on. Obviously her favourite subject is the American family with all its facets, she seems to have a unique style, one critic calls her “America’s foremost Nutrasweet novelist.” Well, I can’t speak for her whole oeuvre as I’ve read only this book, but in my opinion there isn’t too much sweetness in Digging To America. Tyler is humane and doesn’t expose her characters, even Bitsy who so often behaves ridiculously is treated with dignity after all. And then, I’ve got nothing against a bit of sweetness if it isn’t all there is to a novel; Digging To America touches many subjects I find worth writing about, many more than I’ve mentioned here, as another critic put it, “Tyler’s writing is light in texture, but very filling”.

          The title is inspired by the children’s game of digging a hole to China. Jin-HO asks her grandfather if the children in China are “digging to America”. “Wouldn’t that be cool?” she asks. “They’d pop out of the ground one day when me and my friends were playing. They’d say, ‘Hey! Where are we?’ I’d say, ‘Baltimore, Maryland’.

          --

          Vintage
          336 pages
          RRP 7.99 GBP

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