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
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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 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
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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 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
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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 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 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
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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 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
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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.
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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
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really guess what comes next. I'd recommend it.
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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
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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.
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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
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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 exkayaker
I loved the originality of this book. Even though it does not seem as popular as Amy Tan's earlier works, I believe she succeeded in addressing issues of cultural clashes and the impacts of tourism on third world nations. I also found the book to be very readable. The characters were not
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necessarily lovable, but they were more than stereotypes, well developed, realistic and generally interesting.
Amy Tan's decision to tell the story from a ghost's point of view was curious.
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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
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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".
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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 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
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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.
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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
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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.
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
I did this book the hard way -- 15 cds, and mostly in my car or while cleaning my house on the weekend. I must say, though, that I thought this book was superb. Far and away better than anything of Amy Tan's (except maybe the Joy Luck Club, which I look back on with fond memories and which started
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me playing mah-jongg) previous works; out of the ordinary for her. I can't begin to express how much I enjoyed this story, and it is one I highly recommend. I am also going to buy the book, since it will take much less time to read it than it did to hear it!

Let me say one thing before I tell you a little about the book. Far and away, the biggest complaint from readers is that this book is not like Amy Tan's other works. In fact, to be brutally honest, I wasn't going to buy this book because I thought it was going to be another story like Amy Tan usually writes, but I needed a book on CD to listen to. I was so blown away by this story, and in my opinion, this work is her best. Undoubtedly. So if you're looking for the Joy Luck Club, you're not going to find it here. This is a really different scenario altogether and I'm telling you, if you want Joy Luck Club go read that again instead. And that goes for the rest of the people on Amazon. I don't understand why people get so disappointed when an author takes a different tack with his or her writing. Jeez, people, grow UP! Appreciate this book for what it is, NOT for what it isn't or for what the author did not give you. This is a fine book and I know I will reread it again.

Saving Fish from Drowning is told from the perspective of Bibi Chen, who is now dead and telling the story of 12 tourists who were supposed to have gone with her (she would have been the tour guide except that she died) to China and Burma (now called Myanmar) on an art tour. The tourists decided to go on the tour anyway, and got a new tour guide to take them. From the beginning, things started to go wrong, mostly based on misunderstandings between cultures & local traditions that were not understood. But the crux of the story really begins once the tourists cross from China into Myanmar. There more misunderstandings ensue and eleven of the 12 mysteriously disappear on Christmas day, and become involved in the lives of a small tribal group, the Karen. I won't say what happens, because this is the best part, but the way Amy Tan writes the history of this tribe you just want to cry.

The last chapter, imho, could have been left out and it wouldn't have detracted from the story. In fact, leaving off the last chapter may have made the story better. However, the rest of the novel was so incredibly good and had me listening and picturing Buddhas and grottos in China, jungles in Myanmar, the gnats, and hanging on to each word to find out the plight of the tourists.
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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 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 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
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wonderfully mysterious premise but unfortunately didn't deliver.
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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 sonlie04
I am an avid Amy Tan fan! But, I was very disappointed in this novel. I thought that it was difficult to get to know 11 characters. You didn't feel connected with any of the characters either. And most of the characters were idiots!
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.
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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.
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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 tvordj
Overall I didn't really like this book. There seemed to be a lot of commentary on the political situation in Burma/Myanmar and a lot of extra background information that didn't seem to be overly relevant or included way too much detail, and for me, I would have preferred just focussing on the main
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story and characters with far less of the above.

The story is told by the spirit of Bibi Chen, a San Francisco art dealer who died suddenly just before she was supposed to lead a tour of a group into China and Myanmar. The tour picks up an alternate guide but they go badly off the beaten track and end up in trouble. Bibi's ghost/spirit now sees and knows all, what each character is thinking and feeling. She's appalled at the turn that the tour has taken but cannot do anything about it, obviously. At one point, the tourists take a boat trip out on a lake and disappear but we are taken along with them to what happens to them while they are gone while the media picks up on the missing tourists.

The country itself (Myanmar/Burma more than China) is a political hotbed and the plight of the regular people is often tragic but instead of weaving the atrocities they suffer in with the tourists and having the tourists become more involved in helping, they pretty much stay self absorbed in their own little world for the most part. I expect that's supposed to make them seem shallow amid the political environment but the in-detail descriptions and background just dragged the rest of the story down. I did give the book 2 stars because some of it i did enjoy, focussing on the tourist characters and their adventures and personalities but the book couldn't seem to decide whether it was a light and funny story or a political statement.
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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
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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!
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