SHELF: NWAW’s August must-reads, strangers brought together by unusual circumstances

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly

“One Amazing Thing”
By Chitra Divakaruni
Voice, 2010

On a weekday afternoon, a major earthquake hits an unnamed American city, trapping nine individuals in the Indian consulate’s visa office located in the basement of the building.

Book cover

With nowhere to go and more time on their hands than they know what to do with, one of the nine — a graduate student named Uma Sinha — suggests that each person tell a tale of “one amazing thing” that has happened in his or her life.

From Mr. and Mrs. Pritchett, an older white couple whose marriage is not all that it seems, to Jiang, a Chinese woman who understands more English than her teenage granddaughter Lily realizes, to Cameron, an African American former military man who is still haunted by the first death he had contributed to, it is clear that there is more to each individual than initially perceived.

This was one of the things I enjoyed about “Amazing.” Each person’s story adds complexity to his or her character. Readers really feel for them as they experience joy and happiness, as well as betrayal and heartbreak.

The story jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint, but instead of it appearing choppy or confusing, Divakaruni transitions the story smoothly from character to character, while maintaining each person’s distinct voice and personality.

Divakaruni also does a great job of presenting a story within a story. As each tale is being told, she weaves in bits of the present world. There are breaks when the characters pause from listening to stories to listen for noises from the outside world, move from one room to another because of rising water levels from a burst pipe, or take a short bathroom break.

In addition to getting readers to rethink how they perceive strangers, as well as people they encounter on a regular basis, “Amazing” will also get people thinking about how they would respond during a crisis. It also makes you think about the one amazing thing you would choose to share with others.

“Plainsong”
By Kazushi Hosaka
Dalkey Archive Press, 2011

In 1986, a nameless, ambitionless office worker in Japan finds his new apartment invaded by three acquaintances, as they begin staying with him without so much as a by-your-leave.

Most people would become annoyed and disgruntled by three people in their 20s — Akira, a penniless photographer, Yoko, his equally broke girlfriend, and Shimada, a young man who spends his time circling Tokyo’s filmmaking industry — moving in and mooching off of them without contributing anything to the household. But this story’s main character, now in his 30s, doesn’t mind. His apartment is big enough for the three to squeeze into, and he is stable enough financially to take care of them.

book cover

“Plainsong” is the story of this makeshift family’s day-to-day life. From the main character’s interactions with his coworkers, to Akira’s enthusiasm over visiting the beach, to Yoko’s daily jaunts into the neighborhood to feed stray cats, to Shimada mulling over quitting his job to write a book, every little thing the characters do is an event.

Initially upon reading the synopsis, I was skeptical whether I’d enjoy this book. I’ve read books with very little plot before and have found myself extremely bored. But this character-driven novel definitely held my interest. Hosaka’s characters are full of life and really make the novel.

In a world filled with stories about alien invasions, government conspiracies, and other outrageous plots, we begin to expect such occurrences are commonplace and our lives, as a result, become boring. “Plainsong” reminds us how extraordinary everyday life can be. We’re reminded of how much joy a trip to an amusement park can bring and how there really is something to be said about making friends with cats.

“Plainsong” reminds us that sometimes, less is more. We should take time to enjoy the simple things in life.

“World and Town”
By Gish Jen
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

Two years after the deaths of her husband, Joe, and best friend, Lee, Hattie Kong moves to the small fictional town of Riverlake.

She befriends many of the locals and even joins a walking group with a few of the women. As she begins to settle into her new life, Hattie — who is half Chinese, half white — gets new neighbors in the form of a Cambodian family. Coming from the city to escape the troubles that come with it, the Chhungs, like Hattie, have moved to begin a new life.

book cover

With a slow effort, Hattie befriends the family, although it’s not easy with language barriers and the Chhungs’ history of surviving war and inner city troubles.

But as Hattie gets to know the Chhungs and learns about the ghosts that haunt them, Hattie finds she has her own ghosts to face in the form of Carter Hatch, her first love. Like Hattie and the Cambodian family, the newly retired Carter is looking for a new start.

“World and Town” is told mostly from Hattie’s point of view, but it does include perspectives of other characters. This is the story about a small town in 2001 facing challenges of joining the 21st century, including cell phone towers and chain stores.

What I liked about this book was how Jen creates distinct voices and personalities for her characters. Each individual is his or her own person, and it’s nice to see the story told from their points of view. I also liked how Jen balanced the story with the characters’ personal lives and the goings on of the town. Sometimes, the line between the two is crossed, as it often can be in small town life.

This was one of my favorite parts of the book because this is really how small communities work. The folks may be nosy and they may be in your business, but most of the time, it’s because they care, and Jen does a great job of showing how the people of Riverlake are just that way. (END)

Samantha Pak can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

One Response to “SHELF: NWAW’s August must-reads, strangers brought together by unusual circumstances”

  1. Geri says:

    I had no idea how to approach this be-noeforw I’m locked and loaded.

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