Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bus of fools

Continuing the discussion of authors reading their own work, I present the talented Amy Tan. My copy of the audiobook has a special oval to the right of the image that says "Read by the Author!" (Exclamation mark is included.) Alas, I cannot recommend this audiobook in any way. Saving Fish from Drowning fails on many, many levels.

A sophisticated and successful San Francisco art dealer, Bibi Chen has meticulously planned a Christmas/New Year's tour of out-of-the-way must-see locations in southwest China and its neighbor, Burma (called Myanmar by the military regime [per the CIA World Factbook] that has ruled the country for the last 22 years) for 12 close (and wealthy) friends. Unfortunately, Bibi dies under mysterious circumstances just days before departure. Her 12 friends decide to take the trip in her memory; Bibi -- by now an unsettled ghost -- is able to accompany them and she tells the story of their ill-starred journey.

The traveling group might have been friends with Bibi, but they are not friends with each other and there's considerable adjustment in the first days of the trip. Without Bibi to guide them, they make poor decisions at seemingly every opportunity. When one of their crew uses a grotto in Yunnan's Stone Bell Temple as a urinal, a local chief curses them, and the group decides to leave China and head to Burma earlier than scheduled. Bibi -- by now fully aware of the bad luck haunting this trip -- knows this is a bad idea. Settling in at a resort on Inle Lake, Bibi's friends set out for a early morning lake cruise and a Christmas Day surprise from some local villagers. Instead, they are abducted by men from a Karen (pronounced care-ENN) village -- who are hopeful that the teenage boy they have spotted doing card tricks is the long-awaited Younger White Brother. According to legend, Younger White Brother will free the Karen from the oppressive Burmese junta and lead them to victory.

One of the travelers was unwell the morning of the cruise and is not taken with the others. While the 11 slowly adjust to their predicament (they believe they have been stranded in the village because a rickety suspension bridge has collapsed), Harry Bailley -- celebrity dog trainer, a la The Dog Whisperer -- ineptly attempts to find his friends (Harry is the one who peed in the temple).

[If I knew how to caption images, I would tell you that Inle Lake is very near to Taunggyi on this map of Burma found via Wikimedia Commons. And now I see that it is impossible to actually see Taunggyi, so I will tell you that it is the spot roughly in the middle right (not on the river). While I'm giving credit, this post's title is a wholesale theft from the New York Times Book Review.]

If you are familiar with Amy Tan's work, you know that this is a departure from her domestic fiction of modern Chinese Americans coming to terms with their families' histories. And I don't mean to belittle her work with that simplistic description -- I love the sweeping drama of those histories and the authentic emotions that result from their exploration. I've read all but one of her novels. But Saving Fish from Drowning is a disaster. I think it's supposed to be funny, perhaps even ironic, but Tan's touch is so heavy that it appears almost desperate to please. There's nothing subtle going on, which makes it difficult to take seriously the way she tries to expose both the traveler's ugly American-ness and the horrors of the Burmese government.

Then, there's Tan's narration. Oy vey! It is so bad that I can only quote from this review from Publisher's Weekly: "When Amy Tan walks into a bookstore and reads from her work, the audience is enthralled by her very presence. But an audio recording is an art form and a performance, not an author appearance. Some authors excel as performers ... but Tan is not gifted with an actor's range. Alone in a studio, Tan does not do justice to her own work. Words melt when Tan drops her voice at the end of sentences--and even in the middle. It sounds as if she is rocking back and forth in front of the microphone, or perhaps looking down and away from the mike to study the text."

Her inability to individually voice her large cast of characters doesn't help (and when she tries to -- as she does with a few British characters -- it's cringingly unsuccessful). About three discs in, I grabbed a copy of the book so I could figure out who was who. This helped immensely going on, but the book is still too lengthy for its unskilled narrator to sustain interest. She seemed uncomfortable reading the sexy or scatological sections, and her voice grew very lulling and fakishly sincere when she was describing the tragedies endured by the Karen. I was finished with the story and its characters long before I actually finished.

Which I did. Because that's what I do.

No more Amy Tan narrations for me. A long time ago (before I kept track using my reading log), I listened to her read -- jointly with the actress Joan Chen -- The Bonesetter's Daughter. I don't remember feeling that she was so egregiously bad then ... have my ears just gotten so much more sophisticated? Probably. But I agree with the PW reviewer, who says: "Hopefully, she will leave future recordings to someone who can give her novels the breadth they deserve." Please.

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan
Narrated by the author
Brilliance Audio, 2005. 18:28


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