Sunday, August 24, 2014

Saving Fish from Drowning, Amy Tan

I don't usually read other people's review of a book until after I have finished it and written my own review. When I was on Goodreads adding this book to my virtual shelves, however, I noticed that the very first review only had one star.  Given what I know about Amy Tan and her work, that seemed nonsensical.  I have found every book of hers to be well-written, at times both evocative and provocative, and generally moving and emotionally engaging.  As I scrolled down the list of reviews, I found that the first one-star reviewer was not the only one.  I suppose that everyone is entitled to an off day (or book), but given my track record with Tan I decided to go ahead.

Saving Fish from Drowning is in many ways a typical Tan novel, and in some ways something completely different.  Her usual setting and themes are there-China and southeast Asia; the relationship between parents and children, or husbands and wives; culture clashes, and/or trying to navigate two worlds by staying true to tradition while living in modern society.  But the narrator and the structure of the novel set it apart from her other works.  The narrator is wealthy art patron Bibi Chen, who spent her early years in China, and emigrated to the US during the Cultural Revolution.  As a member of the board of directors for an Asian art museum, she has taken on the role of tour guide for other wealthy Americans who wish to travel to Asia and explore the rich cultural heritage in places like China and Burma.  What makes her a unique narrator is that she is dead.  At the beginning of the novel we learn that she was found, throat cut, on the floor of her antique store in San Francisco.  The tour group she was supposed to take to Burma (which has recently begun to open its borders to more foreign visitors), decides to go ahead with the trip.  Things quickly go wrong when the group decides not to follow the carefully thought out and arranged plan Bibi created.  We know this because Bibi herself goes along on the trip, though of course, no one can see her, being dead and all.  After some initial problems, the group makes it to Burma, only to be kidnapped by members of a tribal group hiding out in the mountains, after two of the tribe's members become convinced that one of the Americans is in fact the long, lost savior they've been waiting for.

For me, the strongest aspects of the novel had to do with the cultural misunderstandings that occur between the Americans and the people they come across in both China and Burma.  There is the stereotype of the "ugly" American, someone who visits foreign places, looking for exotic experiences while at the same time expecting the people they encounter to change their own behavior to make the Americans more comfortable.  There is certainly some of that in the book, though the characters themselves believe that they are looking for "authentic" experiences.  But even these supposedly worldly travelers are shocked, dismayed, and judgmental about the conditions in the hotels and cultural sites they visit, exhibiting a basic lack of knowledge of their own privilege.  There is a minor celebrity, who seems rather put out when he is not recognized.  There are a few academics, who are interested in learning about the cultures they are visiting, but in a passive, waiting to be filled sort of way.  There is even a young American who works with an organization trying to aid the people of Burma and dismantle the oppressive regime, who considers herself to be on a sort of spy mission, showing a naivete that is more frustrating than charming or admirable.  And while Tan describes the various native characters as being essentially naive and superstitious in many ways, they definitely come off better than the Americans do in the end.

At the heart of the novel is an exploration of what it means to live life as a person who feels deeply.  Bibi herself admits that she long ago learned to turn off her own feelings, to live on the surface of an emotional life, mostly in response to a demeaning and cold step-mother.  This part of the book felt very much like Tan's other books.  But the concept of emotional connection is explored in various ways through the relationships the American travelers make with each other, both romantic and platonic.  There is a mother and daughter, a father and son, and various couples in various stages of commitment.  And, of course, there are some vacation hook-ups. To be honest, none of the characters was completely likable, except for maybe the two teenagers.  Each person has some flaw in their character that makes it difficult to be completely sympathetic when thing go wrong, which happen quite a lot.  When we discover what really happened to Bibi at the end of the novel, Tan's message seems to be that holding ourselves back from deep, authentic feelings towards others-through selfishness or fear or greed-will inevitably lead to disasters both small and large.

Do I think this book deserves a one-star review?  Absolutely not.  Most people seemed to find either the first-person omniscient narrator problematic, or they were put off by the characters in some way.  Some people didn't like that all of the Americans were so unsympathetic, some felt that there were too many, lots of people complained about the amount of detail Tan provides which they thought was irrelevant.  None of that really bothered me, but I don't think that this novel rises to the level of the Joy Luck Club or The Bonesetter's Daughter, either.  Overall, if you are a fan of Tan's work, it is worth it to read this novel so that you can be knowledgeable about her entire body of work.  If you have never read Amy Tan, don't start with this one.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

While support for the death penalty seems to be a forgone conclusion in the United States, most other developed nations long ago gave up the practice.  Regardless of how you as an individual American may feel about the morality and effectiveness of the ultimate punishment, surveys show that many people around the world find it odd that we have such a strong attachment to it.  I don't actually have evidence to support what I'm about to write, but I suspect that the people of Iceland would be among them.  At least, based on the fact that the last person to be executed in Iceland was over 150 years ago.  In her novel, Burial Rites, Hannah Kent uses the real-life case of the last people to be put to death under the death penalty in Iceland as the basis for a book has been labeled a mystery, though I think it could just as easily  be called historical fiction, for its examination of the intersection of religion and law in Icelandic society.  Or women's fiction, as it examines the role of women in a society that I imagine very few American's have much experience with.

Agnes Magnusdottir has been convicted of murdering her lover.  While awaiting execution, she is sent to a remote farm to live with a district official and his family.  Escape is essentially impossible, since no one could survive in the wilderness for long.  While there, she is expected to meet with a spiritual advisor in order to repent and make her peace with God before meeting Him face to face to be judged.  The wife of the district official is at first very resistant, but as Agnes works with the family, and her story comes out, it becomes clear that executing her would be a miscarriage of justice.

Kent uses a combination of third person and first person narrative (from Agnes' point of view) to tell the story.  Agnes' story is revealed both through the comments of the other characters and her own thoughts.  The official documents that were included, and the conversations of the other characters about Agnes, are then  given context when the truth from Agnes' point of view is revealed.

What really sets this book apart from other books in this genre is the setting.  Otherwise it's a sadly familiar story of a woman who was taken advantage of by a man she loved.  But the description of Icelandic culture and the interesting narrative structure help this novel stand out from other similar mysteries, even ones with historical settings.  I look forward to seeing if Kent's future books will continue to offer familiar stories with engaging twists.