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Tan's latest offers warm winter retreat

Pour yourself a hot cup of something, put your feet up and snuggle in for a good winter's read. Amy Tan's "Saving Fish from Drowning" (Penguin Putnam, 2005) will keep you happily occupied when the weather precludes outdoor activities.

In Tan's latest novel, 11 rich tourists and a guide set out for a trip to Burma, have a few minor adventures and mishaps and then get kidnapped by a primitive jungle tribe. The plot, along with everything else about the book, is well constructed and picks up steam as it goes along.

You know you are in for something different when the narrator, very early in the book, says, "But in the wee hours of December 2nd, and just 14 days before we were to leave on our expedition, a hideous thing happened … I died."

The narrator retains her ability to go on the trip (unseen by the others) and to observe not only the outward events but also the inner thoughts of the travelers and others. Tan is a genius at detecting the gap between perception and reality.

"(Harry) and Marlena were suddenly at odds with each other, and he could not fathom why. … She shot him a look, a castrating look. His ex-wife used to aim such a look at him frequently toward the end of their marriage, and he was an expert at interpreting it. … Why this sudden turnaround?'

"The look Marlena gave him was actually one of mortifying distress. She ... was starting to feel the cramping effects of dysentery as it prepared to make its inexorable descent."

The narrator observes herself as well. Talking about the unlikelihood of her ever falling in love, she says, "I could not let myself become that unmindful." Later: "And then I realized it was my habit. To hold back my feelings. To keep my knees from buckling."

Tan is one of our local literary lights. Born in Oakland in 1952 shortly after her parents emigrated from China, she won a writing contest at the age of eight, graduated with honors from San Jose State and rocketed to stardom with her first book, "The Joy Luck Club," in 1989. According to Penguin Putnam's Web site, she feels ambivalent about her books being part of many multicultural curricula, and she frequently delivers a speech on "Required Reading and Other Dangerous Subjects." She sings in the literary garage band Rock Bottom Remainders, which plays at San Francisco book events.

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