Saving fish from drowning

by Amy Tan

Paper Book, 2005





New York : Putnam, 2005.


A pious man explained to his followers: "It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. 'Don't be scared,' I tell those fishes. 'I am saving you from drowning.' Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes." - Anonymous Twelve American tourists join an art expedition that begins in the Himalayan foothills of China - dubbed the true Shangri-La - and heads south into the jungles of Burma. But after the mysterious death of their tour leader, the carefully laid plans fall apart, and disharmony breaks out among the pleasure-seekers as they come to discover that the Burma Road is paved with less-than-honorable intentions, questionable food, and tribal curses. And then, on Christmas morning, eleven of the travelers boat across a misty lake for a sunrise cruise - and disappear. Drawing from the current political reality in Burma and woven with pure confabulation, Amy Tan's picaresque novel poses the question: How can we discern what is real and what is fiction, in everything we see? How do we know what to believe?… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member elbakerone
In a break from her traditional novels focusing on female relationships, Amy Tan presents an interesting look at crossing cultures in a novel which can best be described as a sentimental comedy of errors. Saving Fish From Drowning follows the story of recently deceased Bibi Chen - who has gained the Buddhist "mind of others" - as she omnisciently narrates the exploits and (mis)adventures of twelve friends taking a trip she planned for them across China and Burma (Myanmar).

The titular phrase Saving Fish From Drowning describes a Buddhist belief, encountered by the story's tourists, about how fisherman are not doing harm to their targets but rather are trying to help their catches by preventing them from drowning. The paradox becomes a theme of the book of how good intentions do not always cross cultures well and the story proceeds with many instances of the Easterners and Westerners trying to "save" each other.

The characters and plot line are instantly captivating and Tan is a masterful storyteller. Her cultural research and creative dialog make for a unique and interesting book however, as she plays with flashbacks and multiple points of view the pacing at times feels rather sluggish. A few of the characters seem pointless and their perspectives add little to the story, but their inclusion does provide a depth of realism and shows the scope of personalities Tan is able to capture in her writing. Overall this was not Tan's best work but deserves sincere applause for her first foray into a new genre.
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LibraryThing member Pennydart
There are some authors who move seamlessly from one type of story to another—Jane Smiley comes to mind as a good example. In “Saving Fish from Drowning,” Amy Tan attempts to break with the theme that has pervaded her earlier books, the mother-daughter relationships, particularly within the context of the immigrant experience. There’s nary a mother and daughter pair in “Saving Fish from Drowning,” which tells the story of a dozen hapless tourists who disappear in Burma. It’s narrated by Bibi, the would-be leader of their tour group, who is murdered shortly before the trip begins and so travels with the group only in non-corporeal form. That literary gimmick doesn’t work, and indeed Tan seems not to have thought it through carefully: it’s never clear why Bibi sometimes has powers to intervene in the group’s activities, while at other times is powerless.

The book contains much that is factual about recent Burmese history, and it’s certainly interesting, and disturbing, to learn about the indigenous Karen people and the horrific ways in which they’ve been treated by the Burmese military. But as a novel, the book is seriously flawed. It’s packed with too many characters who at best are flat and at worst are pure stereotypes: a hypochondriac who travels with a nearly complete medicine chest, an empty-headed, self-important television star (who hosts a popular show on dog training), a churlish teenager, and so on. The writing is often clunky, and the attempts at humor often fall flat: for example, a visit to “The Grotto of Female Genitalia” just isn’t on its own as funny as the author would like it to be. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s well below what one would expect from an author with Tan’s talents.
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LibraryThing member bookseller525
Saving Fish from Drowning is the story of a group of Americans who plan to travel to parts of China and Burma. San Francisco art patron, Bibi Chen has organzied the trip for the group. Just before the trip, Bibi dies. However, she makes the trip with her friends - as a ghost. Her friends are completely unaware of her presence.

The group blunders its way through China, altering the course that Bibi had set for them, at times acting the ugly American, as Bibi watches, frustrated.

On Christmas, on their way to a promised Christmas surprise as they are crossing a misty lake in Burma, the group disappears.

This was a wonderful, fascinating, adventurous book, with Tan's usual themes of relationships woven subtly throughout. I really, really loved this book. I think it's Tan's best work yet! It does start a tad bit slowly, but after about 20 pages or so it picks up beautifully and doesn't leave off. This was an extremely satisfying read!
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LibraryThing member smouw
I have mixed emotions about this book. I enjoyed learning about some political and historical information in Burma/Myanmar, but the characters were not complex, so they were hard to care about, and the actual story line seemed rushed--especially towards the end of the book.
LibraryThing member sonja_de
This was a fun read - I'd never read Tan before and was very impressed. The pace was slow, the narrator was rather annoying (not to mention dead), I didn't like the people on the tour group much either, but nonetheless I loved reading the book. A big part of that is that it's unusual - you can't really guess what comes next. I'd recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member mccin68
Bibi Chen organizes a cultural tour in Burma for 11 of her friends-she dies under mysterious cirmcumstances before the trip begins. In her place, Bennie, a novice but eager to please friend steps in as guide. The groups cultural naivety leds them to make disasterous choices culminating in their disappearance. Woven in the story is the uncovering the mystery behind Bibi's death. great book, loved spunky Bibi as narrator. It was easy to see how an unsophisticated traveller can easily get themselves into trouble. The ending was less dramatic that I expected but the descriptions of the locations and Bibi's love of the area, culture and art came through.… (more)
LibraryThing member jolerie
Our story opens with the mysterious death of Bibi Chen, a well known art patron. Her death ushers in a captivating story told from her perspective as a ghost, as she watches twelve of her friends inexplicably disappear into the foggy mist on Christmas morning. Originally responsible for the role of a tour guide during this vacation along the Burma Road, Bibi, now a spirit caught in the in-between is endowed with the ability to hear, feel, and sense things she would not have been privy to when she was alive. She joins her friends on this ill-fated trip and reveals the events leading up to their sudden disappearance to the aftermath that unites these twelve friends in an unexpected political struggle, with their lives as the pawn in a game none of them were prepared to play.

It is always sad when what would have been a five star read eventually and slowly deteriorates into a absurd and preposterous collection of explanations to wrap up a story. The first third of [Saving Fish from Drowning] would have been, hands down, a five star read with its host of captivating and engaging characters. The last third was filled with ridiculous turn of events that bordered on being ludicrous. Tan is talented with her ability to pen the life stories of the people who hold the crux of her narrative without sacrificing the story itself, but at the point where I was completely and utterly at her mercy, she left me incredulous and indignant at what was justified as the ending. Despite my lack of love for the conclusion of the book, her strength in story telling and magical touch in transforming black and white characters into flesh and blood was enough to save a book that lost its lustre and lure when it should have only gotten better.
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LibraryThing member mmignano11
#16-Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan I watched a documentary on PBS on the making of Amy Tan's novel,"The Bonesetter's Daughter into a musical. Despite owning several books by Amy Tan, including "The Bonesetter's Daughter" I was not inclined to read anything by her for no other reason than being unfamiliar with her work. I chose to read "Saving Fish From Drowning" based on the flyleaf. It sounded entertaining and a lighter read than the dramatic and moving memoir-like story that the musical is based on. As I became aware of her talent and the sensitive touch her presence and suggestiond lent to the production, I became more curious about her books. I was suprised at the flyleaf when it said the narrator would be a ghost. As it turns out she is a ghost and has a wry sense of humor and still manages to fulfill her role as tour guide for her group of friends. The ending is satisfying in many ways. We find out what happens to all of the characters.… (more)
LibraryThing member PghDragonMan
To call “Saving Fish From Drowning” a ghost story is not completely true, although the story is told from the viewpoint of a deceased art dealer. To say it is about jungle survival is not entirely accurate either, although there is a group of tourists stranded in the jungle. Neither is it about political persecution of minorities, even though the Karen People of Myanmar have a major role in the plot. But if you mix all these elements together, season with some commentary about the habits of American tourists and blend in a little slight of hand, you have a flavor of this wonderful story from Amy Tan.

This story takes place in Burma / Myanmar and Amy Tan uses China, a fixture in most of her stories, as an entry point into the country and as a way of introducing our cast of characters. The story is true to life in that the experiences these people have on their journey, changes each of them. We also view the all too common faults of American culture through the eyes of the inhabitants of these far away countries.

Often, when an author tries to give us too many messages, tries to have too many plot lines working, the storyline fails miserably. “Saving Fish” succeeds on all levels because of the complexity of the plot. The travelogue portion is very entertaining and written so well, the armchair traveler will have no trouble seeing the sights described. The interpersonal relationships are also well played out and at times, very entertaining. You really develop feelings for these characters. The message of political oppression is delivered very forcefully, but it in no way interferes with the rest of the story. If you are following the people story, not the political story, the politics sits in the background as part of the overall scenery. If you concentrate on the political aspects, the characters become something like a classical Greek chorus reminding in the audience what is going in the people’s lives. As I said, very well done all around.

Because of the scope of the work, you can read this as an adventure story and not be disappointed. You can also read this as something of a detective novel and find it very fulfilling. Satirists will find some hilarious scenes in the book as well. However you choose to read it, you should enjoy it this story immensely.
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LibraryThing member WittyreaderLI
I've heard Amy Tan is amazing and I wanted to try this book. However, after about 200 pages, I didn't particularly feel like I cared a lot about the characters. A book with 12 main characters is no easy feat, especially when the focus isn't placed on any particular character. They were easily distinguishable however but that doesn't make them any more interesting. I liked the whole travel premise, and the mystery, but when you find out what actually happened to the group, you will most likely be let down. Tan also uses very long descriptions and often meanders off the main plot in terms of giving a lot of backstory, which is fine, but in this case, it didn't keep my interest.… (more)
LibraryThing member alexis3700
LOVED this book, although it was not her best. Interesting story, great narrator. Sad pathetic people...kinda reminded me of the Mosquito Coast.
LibraryThing member autumnesf
Like her other books, I choose to listen to this in the car instead of read it. Her books are entertaining and not hard to follow while driving -- and since we live a ways out of town we are always driving and I am always looking for something to "read" in the wasted car time. This book was a little different than her others -- this one does not follow a mother/daughter relationship. In a nut shell its about a group of American tourist that travel to China, then Burma and are kidnapped by a remote tribe. It's worth a read/listen. Not much about China in the book, but anyone who has traveled to outer regions might recognize the crazy misunderstandings and hassles described. This is a library read in my opinion, not a keeper.… (more)
LibraryThing member mydomino1978
Narrated by Bib, a tour guide getting ready to take a bunch of rich Americans to the newly opened Burma. She is murdered just before the trip and her spirit is what is telling the story. The group decides to take the trip anyway (since it is nonrefundable) and go with a less informed tour guide. They get into lots of minor problems - of their own making. The culmination of problems does not take place until the book is more than half through. Up to that point it seemed to be more character development. Even with all that "getting to know the characters" I never felt particularly empathetic to any of them. When the catastrophic event takes place I mostly didn't care who, if any made it back alive. This books point seemed to be more about a political statement than an enjoyable reading with a point made along the way. This was not up to Tan's usual talents.… (more)
LibraryThing member JGoto
What a disappointment! I am an Amy Tan fan, but this book was not worth the time it took to read. The characters were unlikeable and uninteresting, as was the plot.
LibraryThing member tenapy
This was a book group read. Our best discussion ever. Each time I read a book of Amy Tan's it gets me going back to read her previous books. Together they are like dipping into a stream and immersing myself in a life, many lives. I learn so much.
LibraryThing member shejake
I really liked this fun story of what we perceive as real and what is fiction. According to Amy Tan's note to the reader, this fictional account is based on writings of a medium named Karen Lundegaard in California. It follows 12 tourists on a tour along the Burma Road and is told by the deceased tour leader Bibi Chen. As is quite often common, the tourists are an amalgamation of "ugly American", insightful, trusting, naive and selfish people. I laughed and despaired and felt connected throughout the story. This is definitely a "must read".… (more)
LibraryThing member bakersfieldbarbara
I've tried several of Amy Tan's books because their is such acclaim to them, but just can't finish any of them. Perhaps at a later time in my life. In the meantime, this doesn't detract from the book, only a statement of my exposure to her books.
LibraryThing member evaberry
It took me ages to finish this book. I just really couldn't get into it, which is a shame, because it is well written (by Amy Tan, after all). But I just didn't get excited by or interested in the story or any of the characters... and the whole Bibi Chen thing just seemed contrived. Maybe I wasn't in the right mood for it. A shame, because I really wanted to like it.… (more)
LibraryThing member arelenriel
This book although quite good it is not up to Tan's usual standards of excellence. I really enjoyed how she portrayed the narrotor. Definitely some interesting plot twists.
LibraryThing member saskreader
I found this novel unfocused, in need of structural editing, and, frankly, boring. I had difficulty keeping the female characters straight and had to go back to their introductory scenes more than once to confirm who was who. Ultimately, I was disappointed because the book started out with a wonderfully mysterious premise but unfortunately didn't deliver.… (more)
LibraryThing member omame
surprisingly good, but as i read it, i kept on wondering how amy tan sustained the voice of bibi chen throughout the novel. and how i wouldn't be able to do it. it can't be a good thing to be so conscious of how difficult and annoying it is to write in a certain character's voice while you're reading the book.
LibraryThing member sharlene_w
I have read other books by Amy Tan that I loved (The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter's Daughter, The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses), but this was a huge disappointment. I was through 10 of 15 CDs listening to her babble before the plot finally started to get interesting. That was the first inkling I had that there was a plot. The level of excitement at that point was where the book should have started. Instead of taking it up from there and giving the reader some real drama, the story was wrapped up in a very predictable turn of events and finished off with a long post mortem on the characters (as if I gave a damn about them at this point). She spent too much time fleshing out characters I never really liked or empathized with and not enough time on plot. Argh! I wish I had read some reviews first!… (more)
LibraryThing member eileenmary
Amy Tan is one of my favorite authors but this was a disappointment. I especially dislike the end. Too far out there for me. I get really discouraged with books that in the begining read like it will be a good one and you get to the end and it's a dud.
LibraryThing member quiltgranny
I've always enjoyed Amy Tan's stories, but this one is the best! I didn't plan on even getting the book because the official reviews didn't give it high marks. It was one of those times I needed something to read on the road, and there it was!

Ms. Tan develops her characters to the fullest, gives them a nice plot to interact with each other, and all the while keeping you entertained and guessing what will happen next. It's one of those books that makes you laugh out loud, shake your head, and frown all at the same time. Ms. Tan is the best at taking a bit of historial information and weaving a truly delightful story from it.… (more)
LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
A very different novel from Tan’s usual. Not worthless, as some of the reviewers have stated, but definitely not up to her usual standards.

I’m glad that Tan stretched her subject area, although I’d be happy reading her stories of Asian/Asian American mothers & daughters forever, but this book really should have been edited heavily before being published. It’s just not that good.

Tan’s people have always been where her talents shown, but this novel had almost no one with a developed character. The narrator, a dead woman, fairs best, but even she remains largely a cipher. The other people, an ensemble of travelers in Burma, are more caricature than character.

The book revolves around a group of tourists who travel to Burma and how they are abducted by a group hidden in the hills because the tribe thinks that a teenaged boy in the group is their ‘god’ come back to save them from the Burmese government, who wants them all dead. The government hinders rather than helps the rescue effort, the tourists believe the tribe who tells them that they cannot get out due to a fallen bridge (and don’t question it when things like noodles magically appear) and the incident brings the tribe first great good fortune, which is soon snatched away from them. You expect that the characters will grow from this experience, or at least be changed somehow, but this doesn’t seem to happen. No epiphanies, no post traumatic stress disorder. They just go back to their lives.

I have the feeling that Tan felt she ‘should’ write a novel with a political message, but wasn’t that into it, and didn’t really know how to fit in-depth characters into it. It’s a shame she couldn’t manage it; it’s a shame that her editor didn’t point out the flaws of this book. Did I feel like giving up reading it halfway? No. Did I feel let down? Yes.
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