Three tales of two countries

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly

http://nwasianweekly.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/32_20/shelf_yangtze.jpgThe Man Who Dammed the Yangtze
By Alex Kuo
Haven Books, 2011

In the Chinese city of Changchun, there lives a woman named Ge. In the city of Oshkosh, Wis., there lives a Chinese-American man named G.

These two individuals have never met, nor have they even heard of each other. But unbeknownst to both, they are living parallel lives. Both are finite-numbers mathematicians teaching at universities. After a demonstration goes wrong on each of their respective campuses, Ge and G become disillusioned with teaching and they each leave the profession to work in the dam-building industry — Ge at the Three Gorges Dam in China, G for the Westinghouse company in Pittsburgh. Once settled in their new careers, the parallel continues as both struggle to balance their personal views and values with the corporate politics that come with dam building.

“Yangtze” alternates between Ge and G’s perspectives as they go about their lives, allowing readers to see just how similar their situations are. In addition to their experiences, we also see how the history of China’s Three Gorges Dam parallels with the United States’ Grand Coulee Dam.

The story covers a time span beginning in the 1960s to present day. But despite the amount of time covered, “Yangtze” moves very quickly, often jumping years at a time.

And since both of these characters are mathematicians, the book is also filled with various numbers, formulas, and calculations — some a part of Ge and G’s work, but some also a part of their consciousness as they think about the various dilemmas they encounter.

http://nwasianweekly.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/32_20/shelf_oleander.jpgOleander Girl
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Simon & Schuster, 2012

Korobi Roy spent the first 17 years of her life sheltered by her grandparents, who cared for her after her parents died when she was a baby.

But when she turns 18 and goes to college, she falls in love with a young man named Rajat ,and they quickly become engaged. On the day of their engagement party, Korobi’s grandfather dies after having a heart attack, and the life she once knew changes forever. Korobi learns the truth about her parents, including the circumstances of her mother’s death and the fact that her father is still alive and somewhere in America. Armed with this new knowledge, Korobi is determined to travel from Kolkata, India to New York in search of this man she thought was dead. As daunting and scary as this task may seem, it is even more so as she — a woman with brown skin — is traveling only a year after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Despite all of these challenges, as well as her loved ones’ constant urging to come back home, Korobi presses on, refusing to give up her search with a determination that is nothing short of admirable. She has always been headstrong and stubborn, but Korobi really comes into her own while in America, learning to stand up for herself and be her own person — something everyone back home is surprised to see.

Although Korobi’s journey is the central story in “Oleander,” the book is told from various characters’ points of views, including Rajat, his mother, their loyal driver, and Korobi’s grandmother. Each of the characters must deal with a number of conflicts — moral, financial, religious, and others — and while some may make poor choices, they all eventually learn what it truly means to love and be loyal.

http://nwasianweekly.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/32_20/shelf_tale.jpgA Tale for the Time Being
By Ruth Ozeki
Viking, 2013

On a remote island on the west coast of Canada, a Hello Kitty lunchbox washes up on the beach. Inside are an antique wristwatch, a pack of hard-to-decipher letters, and the diary of Nao Yasutani, a 16-year-old Japanese girl living in Tokyo.

Ruth, the woman who finds the lunchbox, suspects it is debris from the tsunami in Japan in 2011. As a novelist currently suffering from writer’s block, she takes advantage of this welcome distraction and begins to read the diary.

In her diary, Nao describes the life she currently lives after being uprooted from America, which includes the bullies who harass her at school, as well as her parents, who are falling deeper into despair each day. The teen also recounts the story of her great grandmother, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun.

“Time Being” alternates between Nao’s diary entries and Ruth’s reactions to what she has read, and Ozeki does a wonderful job of creating two very distinct voices for each character.

Readers will have no problem picturing Nao as she sits at a café in Tokyo, writing about her great grandmother, with tidbits from her day-to-day life inserted throughout. Nao’s thoughts often break off at random tangents and jump from topic to topic as you would imagine a teenager would. But she is also thoughtful and wise, contemplating far-reaching subjects such as searching for lost time.

Ruth, on the other hand, is very much an adult. Her thoughts are much more reflective and she often thinks about her past. Having moved from New York to a small Canadian island on the other side of the continent to be with her husband, Ruth finds herself also searching for lost time and wondering how she ended up where she is now.

Although Nao is all the way on the other side of the world, Ruth feels an instant connection with the girl when she begins to read her words. This relationship between two people raises questions about writers and readers and the ability for us to connect with each other. (end)

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

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