Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Saving Fish From Drowning

One Book/One Marin 2008
Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

The Fairfax Library Book Discussion Group will meet this Thursday, March 6th at 7 p.m. in the meeting room of the Fairfax Library to discuss our March selection and the 2008 One Book/One Marin choice, Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan,

“A provocative journey, colored with picaresque characters and haunting imagery, and a mesmerizing tale about what is real and what is make believe—and the profound answers one seeks when things seemingly fall apart.”

You can check the Marin County Library’s One Book/One Marin link for even more information about Amy Tan and her book. (Don’t miss the YouTube video of Amy singing with her rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders.)

We’ll also spend a few minutes of the meeting choosing our next 3 book selections. Please bring any titles you’d like to have us read together or send me an e-mail with your choices.

Below are the discussion questions for the Saving Fish From Drowning. I'll also have some additional author and other background information for our discussion on Thursday.

Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

1. In the opening chapter, Bibi says, "...in all my life no one had loved me wholly and desperately." Discuss how this is reflected in Bibi's voice and in the way she narrates Saving Fish from Drowning.

2. The first time in her adult life that Bibi feels “unmindful” passionate love results in her accidental death. Is her demise tragic? Comic? Ironic? Why does Tan leave us to assume for most of the novel that Bibi was murdered?

3. As the opening epigraph, Tan has chosen a quote from Albert Camus that reads, "Evil ...almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding." How does evil, ignorance, and good intentions play out in the novel? Discuss whether you have observed this in your own experiences with others.

4. The role of the media, including the Global News Network and the reality show "Darwin's Fittest" shapes outcomes and people's sympathies in the story. Do you believe the media really does have such an effect, and if so, in what ways and to what degree? Do you feel the media should have more or less of an effect?

5. Some of the group have mixed feelings about visiting Burma. "...it's in some ways a financial collusion with a corrupt regime," Roxanne says. (page 35). In a meeting with foreign journalists in Rangoon on November 17, 1995, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi, when asked if she thought tourism could help her country, reportedly replied, "Well, I think that visitors to the country can be useful, depending on what they do, or how they go about it. But I think also, tourists have to be careful not to deceive themselves ...You can talk about 'trickle down' effect, but sometimes the trickle down effect is exactly that, a mere trickle, which dissipates before it gets to where it's required." Do you think it's better to boycott a place where the native people are oppressed? Does tourism help in these places, or does it hurt? What further information might you need if you were one of the tourists considering whether to go to Burma?

6. In what sense do the tourists feel culpable for the suffering they see in Burma? Does Amy Tan offer a solution to their feelings of guilt?

7. In Chapter 6 (page 161), the group's Burmese tour guide, Walter, says, "...being American has less to do with one's proficiency in English and more with the assumptions you hold dear and true - your inalienable rights, your pursuit of happiness." Do you agree? How do you think Americans are perceived overseas today? What other qualities define Americans?

8. How does the tour group’s behavior reinforce or rebut stereotypes of the “ugly American”?

9. Is it important to get credit for the things we do? What about the blame?

10. Another theme in the book is the idea of unintended consequences. Outcomes are not in our control. When they’re bad, who actually suffers?

11. What is the moral responsibility of the tourists?

12. In Chapter 8 (p. 215) Bibi says, “In Buddhism it is said you must have complete compassion to have complete understanding.” Is this true? Do any of the characters exhibit this trait?

13. The title of the book comes from the anonymous epigraph in the beginning of the novel and is mentioned again in Chapter 6. Discuss the implications of the book's title and how it might reflect any of the character's intentions or actions. How are words used to conceal truth and deceive in Burma and among the travelers?

14. In the opening of Chapter 12, "Darwin's Fittest," Bibi says, "The only thing certain in times of great uncertainty is that people will behave with great strength or weakness, and with very little else in between." Discuss how some of the characters demonstrate their own strengths and weaknesses in their time of crisis or great stress.

15. Toward the end of their ordeal, in Chapter 17, the eleven captives experience a sort of group out-of-body experience. What are some of the ways that might explain what has happened to them? Is this state of feeling similar to what you have observed other groups who have undergone a powerful shared experience?

17. "But if miracles are like rain after a drought, then greed is the flash flood that follows," Bibi says, when all the good that seemed to come right after their adventure begins to dissipate. What examples in current events can you think of that might support this sentiment? What are some examples in history?

18. The narrative of Saving Fish From Drowning winds itself around episodes of illusion and false impressions: the travelers are lured away from their resort under false pretenses; the world at large is seduced by Myanmar's glossy PR campaign; and in a larger sense, your readers will be seduced by the story's façade of travelogue and tourist escapades, only to find that there is something much darker at the its soul. By its very trickery, the novel asks the question - how does one deduce what is truth? How can a person separate fact from fiction in everything they hear or see? Does this come into play in one's personal life? Do you think there's a political element to this theme?

19. Burma - and the current situation there - serves as the perfect setting for the novel's themes of truth and moral responsibility. But how much of this novel, do you think, is fact and how much is based on Amy Tan's imagination?

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