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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: One Amazing Thing

Last week we met for our monthly book discussion to tackle Chitra Divakaruni's One Amazing Thing.

From the publisher:
Late afternoon sun sneaks through the windows of a passport and visa office in an unnamed American city. Most customers and even most office workers have come and gone, but nine people remain. A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11. A graduate student haunted by a question about love. An African-American ex-soldier searching for redemption. A Chinese grandmother with a secret past. And two visa office workers on the verge of an adulterous affair.
When an earthquake rips through the afternoon lull, trapping these nine characters together, their focus first jolts to their collective struggle to survive. There's little food. The office begins to flood. Then, at a moment when the psychological and emotional stress seems nearly too much for them to bear, the young graduate student suggests that each tell a personal tale, "one amazing thing" from their lives, which they have never told anyone before. And as their surprising stories of romance, marriage, family, political upheaval, and self-discovery unfold against the urgency of their life-or-death circumstances, the novel proves the transcendent power of stories and the meaningfulness of human expression itself. From Chitra Divakaruni, author of such finely wrought, bestselling novels as Sister of My Heart, The Palace of Illusions, and The Mistress of Spices, comes her most compelling and transporting story to date. One Amazing Thing is a passionate creation about survival--and about the reasons to survive.
On to the Discussion:

  • We began with 4 votes for liked, 7 for so-so, and 1 disliked.  Initial comments from the liked people were that they loved how the novel stresses the power of stories; another person said that she felt the book's overall tone was hopeful even though each stories was sad. 
  • The so-so people had much more to say.  Many felt like this was 2 different books, the book about the earthquake and the characters' attempt to survive and a book about their stories, but since they liked one of those 2 stories more than the other (it varied which they enjoyed more), the book was a so-so vote for them.  Another participant said she voted so-so because she enjoyed reading the book, but she thought the stories were too heavy handed in their morality lessons. One final opening comment was from someone who said she found the drama and tension of life and death situation very compelling.
  • It seemed most people were drawn to the stories each character told, so I asked if these were supposed to be true stories or were they meant to be read more as fables.  This started a general conversation about the stories. Here are some comments:
    • The stories were too amazing
    • Not knowing if they were going to survive or not, we felt the need to get out their deepest, darkest secrets.
    • The stories were very well told.  We all agreed here.  We liked the way the author unveiled the stories
    • The stories seem to allow each person to arrive at a point of clarity about their lives.
    • All had a secret that no one knew or saw.
    • These are ordinary people in a terrible situation.  How do you survive with so little to keep you going? All they had left to share was their stories.
    • Overall Malathi's story set in the beauty shop was our favorite
    • People did not know what story from their own lives they would tell because, as someone articulated, it is hard to know what would be the story you would feel the most urgency to get out as you are preparing for death.
  • I moved the questioning to the topic of how the book is structured since this is where I knew from the opening comments that we would have many opinions.
    • The point of view jumps around frequently and many had trouble keeping up at first. It was jarring. In fact, one person went so far as to say she would have enjoyed the book more if it were just the stories one after the other with an overall narrator telling us about the conditions, not the individual people in the office each having turns to describe the survival parts.
    • Since the structure alternated between stories from the past and survival in the present, another person said while she loved the stories, she wanted more about the disaster.  She thought that the author used too light a touch on describing the deteriorating situation; so light that she did not feel the tension.  This comment got a few others to counter that they thought the tension was intense.
    • This led to a discussion of whether or not they tried hard enough to survive.  A few people felt that they were too passive just waiting to be rescued.  These people felt they would have tried to get out more.  But this was countered by a reminder that this was a book, not real life.  The structure of the book was a balance between living and dying.  The author created this situation where the stories could be told.  People piped up that they liked this ambiguity in the structure of the novel. It made the book feel more real.  Their tenuous balance between life and death was well reflected in the story's structure. We may not think we would react this way, but as one person said, you cannot know what you will do until it happens to you.
    • Someone summed up the books structure perfectly by saying that the book has a zen feel.  Yes, their reactions (simply waiting for rescue? for death?) seem to go against what most of us would do-- we want to fight to survive-- but if you read it in a zen mind frame, you read the book differently.  This woman, who I was surprised liked the book based on her reading tastes, did just that.  When she read it in a zen mind frame, she loved it; when she started to lose the zen like attitude, she put the book down and did something else, only returning when she could get back into zen mode.
  • We talked briefly about many of the characters, but we spent the most time on Uma.  This makes sense as in an interview, the author mentions that Uma is the character with whom she most identifies.  Uma also bookends the novel; we meet her first and see her last. Why?
    • Uma is reading Canterbury Tales, a book much like this one. 
    • She is the most well adjusted of the group.
    • Many thought she was at the beginning and end because this is supposed to be her book. She seems like she would become a writer; we speculated that what we are reading is Uma's first book.
    • We also found it interesting that Uma's story to the group ends hopefully, but then just as it appears the ceiling may be caving in, she tells us, the reader the true ending, one in which she lied to her friend to make her feel better as she was dying.  Is that what is happening here too? Very powerful.
  • Which lead us to the ending.  The completely open, uncertain ending has left many a reader in the comments on Amazon and GoodReads very unhappy with this novel.  Overall our group was fine with the open ending because we didn't want to be told; it left more for us to discuss.  Also their stories don't really have an ending; no one's life story is complete until their life ends-- and even then it goes one, someone said. So I made everyone go around the table and vote to see if they lived or died.  I made them choose.  The result:
          • 8 said they live
          • 4 said they died.
  • One last comment.  Instead of ending with the group giving me words to describe the book, I asked them to share words that describe what all the stories have in common:
    • unpleasant
    • secrets
    • India
    • guilt
    • shame
    • bad karma
I would highly suggest this book for a book group who is willing to discuss a book they might not love.  Usually I am worried when most of the the people vote "so-so" for a book, but in this case, our ambivalence (I was one of the so-sos) made for a rich discussion.

PS: for the record, I voted that they died.

Readlaikes:  Another book we read with a completely open ending was The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason.  We read it a long time ago (pre-blog) but the book's setting in Burma, the uncertainty of the main character's situation, and a conflict between truth and stories are all key in both novels.

A few readers mentioned how this novel reminded them of the works, particularly the short stories, of Indian American author, Jhumpa Lahiri.

Divakaruni herself mentioned in an interview that she drew on The Arabian Nights as well as the obvious Canterbury Tales when writing this book.  She also mentioned reading Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now while writing this novel, and remarks that his idea of living in the now becomes important in her book.

But the book I most thought of when reading One Amazing Thing was another title Divakaruni mentions, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I read this novel before the blog, but here is a link to a student reading map which contains all the details.  This is a moving novel about a group of people from different backgrounds trapped in a hostage situation.  It is a novel that still stays with me years later.

Finally, I thought of another book we had discussed together, The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama.  It had the same dreamlike, zen quality and a plot in which secrets are slowly revealed in stories. Click through for details.

Only one more book discussion group left in 2012.

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