Thursday, January 24, 2008

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: Book Review

After my book club read The Glass Castle last month, I described it briefly in the book forum in an online community. A friend there (thanks, Naomi!) suggested I might also like Rachel Manija Brown's All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: An American Misfit in India. The synopsis sounded pretty interesting, and I almost always enjoy reading about different cultures (and this book features both an obscure religious/philosophical group and a very foreign country), so I picked it up from the library.*

I didn't expect this memoir to be so funny. I spent over an hour in the waiting and exam rooms at my local mammogram center this morning (routine yearly exam, all clear), stifling my laughter and snorting and wishing I had a bunch of post-its so I could flag specific passages to share. I looked around the web a bit tonight, and found a perfectly nice interview with Rachel Manija Brown on BookSlut - but little mention of the mind-boggling, eye-popping passages that made this story of a child stranded amongst weirdos in a remote part of India so enjoyable for me.

At the ashram, Baba's name was on everyone's lips at all times. It was used as punctuation, as a greeting, as an exclamation, as a goodbye, and as a prayer. Mom in particular used "Baba" much as some people use "fuck," as an all-purpose conjunction. "Oh, Baba, what a nice sunny day." "Baba, a cockroach in the dal!" "Oh, Baba, the train's late again." She even followed burps and sneezes with a trailing sigh of "Oh, Baba, Baba, Baba, Baba, Baba, Baba, Baba."

When I saw The Brady Bunch episode in which Jan exclaims, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" I knew exactly how she felt (p. 86).

From the end of one of my favorite chapters ("Without a Single Marathi Vowel"):

I wondered sometimes if the residents were strange because they lived in Ahmednagar, or if their choice to move to an ashram proved that they'd been oddballs before they left. As the only person in the ashram who wasn't there by choice, I would be the test case. If I turned out like the other residents - if I started writing love poems to Baba, if I volunteered information about my morning dump, if I turned eighteen and decided to stay on as a full-time Baba-lover - it would be because that forge everyone kept talking about had melted me down (p. 128).

Although Brown endured some horrific things, I never felt as outraged and saddened during All the Fishes as I did when reading The Glass Castle. Brown's parents were out-there different, self-absorbed, and sometimes oblivious, but they were never as violent nor as horribly negligent as Jeannette Walls' parents. In fact, much of Rachel's suffering in All the Fishes came from the nuns or the other students at the Holy Wounds of Jesus Christ the Savior Convent school. Her stories of this school beat all of the other "worst thing a teacher ever did to you" stories you've heard, hands down.

Rachel Manija Brown's website
proved to be an unexpected pleasure. As a child who spent the equivalent of several years buried deep inside books, many of them obscure and antiquated, I especially liked the Author's Notes, which describe the many books that play a role in All the Fishes.

There's everything from Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword to Marguerite Henry's King of the Wind (link to my Newbery Project review) to (I kid you not) Biggles Takes It Rough, by W.E. Johns. Plus deleted scenes, just like your favorite dvd, and a FAQ with "Whatever happened to the people in your book?". This was a lot more fun than the advertising/reviews/book club discussion questions I've come to expect on authors' websites. And it's all so pretty. Kudos to Ms. Brown and whomever designed her website.

I can't figure out why this book isn't as well known as The Glass Castle. It's perfect for book clubs - there's absolutely beautiful prose, tons of interesting things to discuss about it, and it's not too tragic (maybe it needs a "not an Oprah pick" sticker on the cover?). I couldn't even find any other reviews searching blogs, which partially prompted me to write this. It deserves much wider recognition, dammit!

I'll leave you with final bit of wisdom from All the Fishes Come Home to Roost:

Parents, if you do not want your children to write tell-all memoirs when they grow up, do not name them KhrYstYll, Pebble, or Shaka Zulu (p. 18).

*If you can afford to buy new hardcovers, this one's worth it. You can also request that your library buy it for you.


Anjali said...

Sounds like a winner! Can't wait to check it out!

Maw Books said...

Oh my, two more books to add to my TBR. Reading great reviews just seems to do that to me!

Anonymous said...

I found the book funny but at the same time was horrified at the over-generalization of another culture based on one or two experiences. I have been to India many times, and can appreciate the caricature-stereotypical descriptions Rachel Manija Brown describes, however, I have also found very inspirational educators, mystics and devotees who do not fit her descriptions at all. What worries me is that readers will take her word as "this is what it is like in an India...etc." and that would be an abuse to the Indian culture.