Ordinary people, extraordinary feats — This month’s book picks from the Northwest Asian Weekly

By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly

Paper Daughter
By Jeanette Ingold
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

While her friends and classmates look forward to a summer filled with fun and relaxation, Maggie Chen is looking forward to a summer filled with hard work at her internship at the Seattle-area Herald newspaper. But along with excitement of a new opportunity, there’s a bittersweet nervousness as Maggie and her journalist father had planned and prepared for the internship together. Unfortunately, he was killed in a hit-and-run accident before the internship began. Though still grieving, Maggie is determined to honor her father’s memory and follow in his footsteps.

While helping with research on a story, Maggie discovers some illegal activity that may be tied to her father and his death. As she digs deeper, Maggie quickly learns that her father may not be who he said he was — leading her to question who she is.

Throughout “Paper Daughter,” Maggie is constantly forced to question everything she ever knew growing up. This would not be an easy task in the best circumstances, but learning all of this on the heels of her father’s death makes things all the more difficult. Still, Maggie shows great strength as she pushes through the pain and fear that she may learn things she doesn’t want to know.

In addition to Maggie’s story, the book also gives readers a lesson on “paper sons” and “paper daughters,” individuals who emigrated from China to the United States illegally by claiming people already in the country were their relatives. Ingold doesn’t sugarcoat the lengths people would go through to come to the States and the fear they had about being caught. She shows the difficulties people faced after leaving an already difficult life, only to realize how limited their choices and opportunities were because of their status.

Facing the Wave, A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami
By Gretel Ehrlich
Pantheon Books, 2013

When the earthquake hit Japan on March 11, 2011, it caused a fair amount of damage. But it was the tsunami that followed that devastated the Tohoku coast and its people.

Three months after the disaster, Gretel Ehrlich — a student of Japanese poetry, theater, and art — traveled to Japan to see the damage for herself, meet with survivors, and hear their stories. In “Wave,” she shares some of what she found.

Throughout her journey, Ehrlich meets an array of people from all walks of life, and the stories they share are terrifying, heartbreakingly sad, but uplifting at the same time. Her retelling of people’s firsthand accounts of their experiences puts readers right there with the survivors.

Fishermen take their boats out to sea to brave the conditions out on the water. An elementary school continues to mourn the loss of a number of students. A Buddhist temple becomes an unofficial morgue as people bring in bodies found in the wreckage. An 84-year-old geisha survives to hand down a song only she knows. A middle-aged hippie and his mother finally become close after she comes to live with him after the disaster. And animal lovers ignore the risk of radiation exposure to save dogs people were forced to leave behind when they evacuated.

Interspersed throughout these stories are also reports about the Fukushima nuclear power plant and the growing danger it poses.

Ehrlich also shares the courage, faith, and strength the Japanese people showed in the face of disaster. How neighbors unify to help one another and how strangers work together to rebuild a life they once knew.

These stories are awe-inspiring and will have readers wondering what they would do if they found themselves in a similar situation and how they would survive it.

The City of Devi
By Manil Suri
W.W. Norton & Company, 2012

With the entire world under terrorist attack and the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation in the near future, the only thing 33-year-old statistician Sarita can think of is finding her physicist husband Karun, who had vanished from their home city of Mumbai just days before.

Determined to be reunited with Karun, Sarita sets out on a journey across a nearly abandoned city, facing gangs of competing Hindus and Muslims. Along the way, Jaz, a Muslim who hides his homosexuality from the world, joins Sarita on her search. While on the surface, Jaz’s motives seem straightforward — repaying Sarita for saving his life — it is soon discovered that there is more to him than meets the eye.

In addition to all of this chaos, an appearance by the patron goddess Devi Maa — she appears on a beach to save her city from destruction — is thrown into the mix.

Despite all she faces, Sarita never loses faith in finding Karun and being able to form the family of three that he has always wanted. Initially, Sarita doesn’t seem to have it in her. She’s quiet, shy, is more comfortable around numbers than people, and doesn’t make friends easily. But throughout the story, she shows an admirable strength in the face of adversity.

Jaz – or the Jazter – is also a fun character. At first, he seems a bit shallow, but just as Sarita proves herself, Jaz shows there is more to him than his libido and his feelings may run deeper than people realize. (end)

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

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