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138 of 145 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 13, 2005
I found this book highly engaging and readable, the characters clearly defined. There was a great deal of humor, much of it black, and a great deal of heart. This book was a page turner with a message. Each character is a recognizable tourist type, and most of them would be horrified if they were saddled with the "Ugly American" label. But then, they really aren't "ugly" at all, but well meaning if clueless. On the other hand, the natives are not all innocents, and there is a lot of humor in the misdirections and misunderstandings that ensue. As I say in my title, I am glad I didn't read all these negative reviews first because I probably wouldn't have picked the book up at all and would have missed a nice reading experience.
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60 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2005
I adore Amy Tan's writing. I teach JLC to 10th graders every year, encourage them to go on and read The Kitchen God's Wife or The BoneSetter's Daughter. So when, on a trip to Singapore, I saw her latest novel, I pounced on it, dropped what I was currently reading and started in. Now, I'm the first to say Tan needed to move on; while her tales of family cultural conflict fascinate me, she's talented enough that I wanted to see her branch out. She has here, but not to good effect.

For a writer capable of such nuance and subtlety, I find SFFD oddly flat and predictable, naive even in its attempt to portray the cultural clash between her spoiled California tourists and their hapless kidnappers. Her characterizations are broad and obvious: the tourists think anything less than the Four Seasons is roughing it, travel with syringes and IV drips in case of disease, and effuse about wanting to experience the "real" people while sneering at the tourist route they are so blatantly part of. As a seasoned ex-pat myself, thse people are stereotypes among the travelling set, their broadly drawn characters failing to extend much beyond caricature. Yes, tourist can be patronizing and culturally insensitive and self-involved, all in the name of seeking an off-the-beaten-track experience, but Tan doesn't really tell us anything new, or even especially insightful here. Which is too bad, because her premise was wonderful.

Still, I give it a 3 because it is, after all, Amy Tan, and if we've grown to expect more from her, I'm not sure she should be penalized for writing that's only good, rather than her usual excellent. It is, in the end, a fun read. Just not as riveting as we're used to..
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63 of 71 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 23, 2005
Fans of Amy Tan are in for a surprise with her latest novel, SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING. In this satirical tale of cross-cultural faux pas, international media, and uninformed American goodwill turned mostly bad, Ms. Tan writes an Asia-centered version of Tom Wolfe's BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES (or perhaps Richard Dooling's WHITE MAN'S GRAVE). Only here, she substitutes Burma (Myanmar) for the Bronx and GNN (read CNN) for the media precipitator of much of the climactic action. The end result, much like Wolfe's 1987 novel, is amusing for its social commentary but light in its literary heft, substituting caricature and fantastic naivete for character and improbable events for plot. Nevertheless, the result is quite entertaining, although hardly likely to spawn any anti-CNN, save the rain forests, or boycott Burma movements.

Ms. Tan chooses as her storytelling vehicle the ghost of a wealthy art patron, Bibi Chen, who has just met an untimely and rather ghastly violent death. Bibi had already organized an art and culture tour for a number of her longtime friends that had planned to follow the fabled Burma Road from Lijiang in southwestern China (claimed by some to be the inspiration for Shangri-La) across the closed border into Myanmar. Despite Bibi's death, her friends decide to follow her itinerary with a new (and unbeknown to them, gay, seizure-prone, and completely inexperienced) guide, Bennie Trueba y Cela. A series of misadventures and misunderstandings plague their trip, most of which the omniscient Bibi-ghost is powerless to prevent, but the group eventually crosses the border with Bibi's mysterious help. Once in Myanmar, more misunderstandings ensue and the twelve travelers finds themselves unknowingly involved in a sort of pseudo-Christian, second coming of Christ cult with members of a Burmese minority group called the Karen. All but one of the group disappear into the deep jungle on what they believe is a Christmas surprise part of their tour, but the rest of the world believes they have either been lost, killed, or kidnapped by anti-government insurgents.

SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING could well have been subtitled "Murphy's Law Comes to Myanmar," or perhaps "The Laws of Unintended Consequences." Innocent behavior turns to cultural insult, and everyone's best intentions create the worst of results. Ms. Tan draws of picture of hopeless cross-cultural confusion, where outdoor latrines turns out to be a sacred shrines, a copy of Stephen King's MISERY becomes the Holy Bible, and smuggled jewels and generous gifts of American dollars threaten or result in violent death at the hands of dictatorial governments. This indeed is the underlying premise of the Chinese fable about saving fish from drowning, that such acts of charity mask other objectives and often do little but harm to their intended recipients.

While Amy Tan's story line is serviceable in its role as socio-cultural satire, her characters are annoyingly stereotyped. The cast is filled with bumbling and culturally obtuse "ugly Americans," from the oversexed television star Harry Bailley to his sex-starved and swooning Chinese-American bombshell of a love object Marlena Chu, from the ultra-hypochondriac Heidi to the remarkably underdrawn Vera, a black woman who objects to the phrase "lazy eye" because "lazy" is a pejorative word. Most editorially unforgivable is the last chapter, a 42-page appendage that adds little and detracts much from the author's focus on events and misunderstandings in Myanmar, in the media, in intergovernmental relations, and among the group members themselves. Even the true nature of Bibi's death, once revealed, lends much weight to the outcome - just one more example of a fish saved from drowning only to die as an unintended result.

With SAVING FISH FROM DROWNING, Amy Tan has abandoned her usual cultural assimilation haunts for satirical realpolitik, tossing a Jon Stewart eye at American values and behavior and the dangers of unthinking, ratings-chasing media sensationalism. While this book is not on a literary par with Ms. Tan's THE BONESETTER'S DAUGHTER, it is nevertheless an engaging and often humorous read.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
This was my first Tan novel. I am glad to see that other readers do not consider it typical, for I found it hard to get into, I think because Tan's comic tone distances the emotional impact of the story. A group of well-heeled American tourists depart on a cultural tour of the Burma Road, from China into Myanmar. Bibi Chen, the tour's organizer, dies mysteriously just before departure, but Bibi nonetheless relates events as a ghostly (and often gossipy) narrator as the party departs without her. The group almost immediately gets into trouble by changing her careful plans. So perhaps Bibi is justified in her omnisciently patronizing air: the tourists are portrayed as shallow and behave crassly; the new settings are offbeat or downmarket; the comedy has a sour edge. It is hard to like any of the characters at this stage, and nothing is entirely believable.

So far, this is the package tour from hell. But the tone deepens towards the middle of the book, as the travelers get involved in a more serious situation, with both political and spiritual implications. We get to know some (but not all) of the characters better, to understand and even like them. The rainforest setting, a jungle anti-Eden inhabited by outcasts, is striking and thought-provoking. At times, I was even reminded of the empathy between captors and captives in Ann Patchett's magnificent BEL CANTO, which is high praise. But then Tan's comic sensibility resurfaces in a wryly cynical coda. While it wraps everything up neatly enough, it seems altogether too trivial for the large themes she had touched on earlier.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on November 11, 2006
Like many other reviewers on this site, I was put off a bit at first by the 'new' Amy Tan I was discovering, who didn't seem to live up to my expectations. She didn't feel like the same author at all, and I kept missing what I think of as her 'soft whisper voice.'

The voice this time out is sardonic, a bit silly, even snide at times. Of course, it's not Ms. Tan 'talking,' it's Bibi Chen, the dead narrator. It takes a while for her character to establish itself, but once she does, I for one was hooked, and by the end I was just as moved, entertained, and satisfied as usual. 'Secret Senses' is still my favorite, but this one is by no means poorly done, as some have implied.

The plot is simple enough. A group on tour in Asia disappears while in Myanmar, and the one remaining tour member, who manages not to disappear with them, is rather beside himself [in more ways than one] in trying to figure out what has happened to the others, and, if possible, save them.

The ghost who narrates the entire book knows what happened, and therefore we do too, and it's apparent to her and to us that things are not quite as bad as they might be. But they're bad enough. The group is being held captive, sort of, by some tribesmen who live in abject fear of Myanmar's military, and rightly so. They tourists become pawns in a power struggle involving the U.N., the government of what used to be Burma, various diplomats, and, most of all, the news media, especially a world-wide TV news service known as Global News Network, or GNN. [Har har!]

The story line works itself out much as you suspect it will, but along the way we learn a lot about what makes personal relationships work [or not], what makes things 'newsworthy' [or not], the fact that things don't always mean what they seem to, and the difference between individual people of all ethnicities and the group identifiers we have come to associate with them.

Which brings us to the most important point of this book, and indeed of all Amy Tans books, and very possibly of ALL good books, by anybody: the importance of the individual. We know these truths to be self evident-- that the individual human being is ALWAYS more important than whatever group he or she belongs to, than his or her ethnicity, than his or her political affiliation, religion, or whatever. We know all this, but in this day and age of mass information and misinformation, it doesn't hurt to be reminded from time to time by someone as eloquent as Amy Tan.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Perspective, fate and belief are all at work in this expansive tale of a group of Americans on tour in the militarily controlled country of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Narrated by a curator of Asian art, the story opens with the acknowledgement of the mysterious disappearance of an American tour group and the equally mysterious death of the narrator. As the novel unfolds, we are introduced to the twists that fate takes, the magic that belief can conjure and the varied perspectives possible when people of diverse cultures and backgrounds view the same situation. "Saving Fish from Drowning", a perfect title for this novel, is centered on love and freedom; and the love of freedom. As the tourist travel about Burma, they encounter hardship after hardship in their attempts to have an "authentic" experience. When a card trick and slight of hand magic mean more to the Karen tribe in the hills of Burma than to the magician performing them, fate takes control and situates the tourist amongst the most authentic experience possible. As the reality of their situation becomes clear, they quickly realize that what at first appeared to be an orchestrated tour of special significance for them is actually of greater import and significance to the tribe.

Throughout the story, Tan examines the presence and absence of love in the relationships of the characters while exploring the affect of an oppressive military regime on the lives and culture of its citizens. This is a meaty novel that seems to insist on being read slowly even when I wanted to quickly get to the next page to learn more about a character or incident. The story's opening ignites great curiosity - "It was not my fault. If only the group had followed my original itinerary without changing it hither, thither, and yon, this debacle would never have happened" - and ends as only fate would have it - "I can't say more than that, for it should remain a mystery, one that never ends." This was a good journey to Burma. Enjoy the trip.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 2012
I don't normally read Amy Tan's books because I love thrillers and she typically writes about relationships between mothers and daughters. But the plot of this book intrigued me and I read it from cover to cover. As she discusses in a Q&A at the back of the book, she has written it in two points of view that are normally not combined: first person and omniscient. The main character, Bibi Chen, narrates the book as herself after her death, basically as a ghost. But Bibi also has magical powers to see what each of her other characters are thinking and doing, i.e.: she knows all.

Bibi arranges a tour of Myanmar for her friends, planning to be their guide, but then she dies mysteriously, leaving them with an incompetent substitute. Most of the book is very entertaining and humorous. Bibi watches helplessly while her friends keep running into trouble with languages, customs, and directions. Anyone who has travelled internationally will sympathize with Bibi's friends. Bibi also "hears" the native people try to make sense of the silly and naive American tourists.

I would have rated this book a 5 for originality, humor, incredible research, and a very engaging writing style, but dropped it to a 4 because the first 40 pages and the last 40 pages are dedicated solely to fleshing out the characters. While Ms. Tan portrays Bibi's friends sympathetically and defines them well, I became impatient waiting for the trip to Myanmar to begin. After the trip ends, we then have to wade through an extended epilog about each character. The novel would have completely captured me if this character exposition had been sprinkled throughout the main part of the story. Nonetheless, the setting and story are unforgettable and I highly recommend the book.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2007
Amy Tan bows to Geoffrey Chaucer by imitating Canterbury Tales both in structure and subject matter. Saving Fish from Drowning and Canterbury Tales probe the mystery of human life, the pain and joy, the humor and drama. Tan and Chaucer unravel complexity. Chaucer structures his work around a group of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury. He writes descriptive portraits of each pilgrim and lets them interact. Harry Balley, the tavern owner, challenges the pilgrims to a competition: who can tell the best story? The competitive tales are told with humor, drama, pain and vulgarity, a reflection of the human situation. Underneath the stories Chaucer examines major questions, the questions we still struggle with. What do men want? What do women want? How does gender affect life? How do humans deal with evil? What is the cause of evil in the world? How much control do humans have? Are we programmed by the gods, by biology, by the mysteries of our own inconsistencies? Canterbury Tales is relevant today, not because Chaucer answers these questions, but because he asks them. In 2007 Tan asks the same questions.

She puts her characters in a contemporary setting, but borrows Chaucer's structure and subject-matter. Tan leaves no doubt that she parallels Chaucer's structure when she creates a group of travelers on a trip to Asia. Just like Chaucer she writes a portrait of each traveler and sets them up to interact. If that is not enough to tip the reader Tan names one of her leading characters Harry Bailey. She changes the spelling, but still gives a big hint. She is a good student of English literature.

Like Chaucer Tan also explores ultimate human questions. She explains her title choice with a story and an epigram. The story describes Myanmar fishermen scooping up fish, bringing them to shore while saying they are saving fish from drowning. Sadly the fish die on shore, and all the fisherman can do is to sell them for profit. Tan copies an epigram from Albert Camus. "The evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding." By giving the reader two thought provoking selections at the beginning of the novel she establishes a thesis. To Tan each human being has a limited perspective, and acts with multiple blind spots. Human limitation can make good intentions as destructive as pure evil. Beware of do-gooders.

Tan's edgy opinionated narrator Bibi Chen, who unfortunately died after arranging the trip with a group of her friends from San Francisco, comments on her friends from a broad Olympian view. This narrative technique works well for Tan because while stating her thesis--humans have limited perspective and often create chaos because of that--Tan allows Bibi to see the whole chaotic mess and serve it up to the reader. Bibi, like the rest of us, is powerless to effect change.

Saving Fish from Drowning and Canterbury Tales make Tan and Chaucer literary soul mates. They go after the same truths, are both fascinated by flawed human nature, and are able to see humor and pain without moralizing. They celebrate life; they leave the mystery in tact.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2005
Reading this book is like putting on your favourite jumper only to discover it has brutally shrunk in the wash. Amy Tan's previous books have been insightful, empathetic, sensitively-written, culturally-nuanced and completely fascinating. Saving Fish From Drowning is none of these.

I feel like she set out to do something deliberately different and ambitious, but lost track of her real voice along the way. She's tried to grapple with too many characters at once and instead of saying anything half-meaningful about them, she descends too often into set-piece farce and stereotype.

Unbelievably for an Amy Tan novel, it's hard work to slog through to the end. The finale is ultimately unsatisfying - again, she's tried to do too much with too many characters, and settles on a tone that sits uneasily between supercilious humour and earnest ethical resolution.

I couldn't agree less with the comparison one reviewer made with Tom Wolfe, who is another of my favourite authors. This doesn't have the subtlety of Wolfe's satire, nor his fizzing prose.

I never thought Amy Tan would be able to write something I didn't think was fantastic. Sadly, she's proved more than equal to the task with this.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2007
Amy Tan has always been one of my favorite authors, but I was quite disappointed in this book. She was obviously trying to branch out and try something new, and I applaud her efforts to be fresh and different, but this book just comes off as a big joke on the reader. I was intrigued by the premise, and enjoyed the fist 100 pages or so, but had to force myself to finish it out of morbid curiosity. Tan is usually witty, but this novel is sarcastic and cynical. She can usually rip your heart out with genuine tragedy, but this novel is full of 'gotcha' moments that make you think you're going to feel something you ultimately don't. Bizarrely, it reminded me of a lesser Michael Crichton novel...sort of "Congo" meets "Jurassic Plants". Add a dollop of Anthony Bourdain's "A Cook's Tour" (aren't natives silly, yet oh so inspiring?) you have a weird, soggy mess of a novel. Sorry, Ms Tan. Please go back to what you do best.
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