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First of all, I would feel dishonest if I didn't disclose that I went looking for this memoir because I knew that rachelmanija had written it. When I pulled it from the shelf in the bookstore, I found I was rather reluctant to actually open it: I felt like I was prying into the private business of someone I had only recently met. Fortunately I got over that. I have read the whole thing through twice, and two days ago, when I decided to stop being bashful and write it up, I found myself reading it through again. I'd meant to leaf through it quickly and pinpoint my favorite scenes, but I found it impossible to do only that. Oh yes, I liked the book!

Mani's parents are followers of the guru Meher Baba. When she is seven years old - a precocious child who already reads on a college level and loves her menagerie of pet animals - her parents move to India to become part of their Beloved Baba's ashram. The little girl leaves behind her pets and her wonderful, feisty grandfather and enters a community where she is the only resident child. The culture shock of a move to India would have been extreme even in the best of circumstances, but Mani's situation isn't remotely ideal. The town, Ahmednagar, isn't near much of anything. She is the only foreign student at her school, and the other students mock her and throw stones at her. Her parents are too preoccupied to offer her much in the way of comfort or aid, and the other adults at the ashram either ignore her or constantly admonish her to show her appreciation for being part of Baba's community. And some of the residents of that community are terrifyingly weird. Books, nature, and her own imagination become Mani's refuge and her fortress.

This should be a very sad book, but I found it both screamingly funny and surprisingly optimistic. Brown's descriptions of the eccentric cast of characters who shamble or rampage through her story are sharp and unflinching, and her retelling of the most notable incidents of her young life are vivid and involving. By the end of the volume, she has kept her promise to her younger self to report the misery of her childhood honestly, but she has also acknowledged the part that the experiences played in making her the woman she is today.

All the Fishes Come Home to Roost by Rachel Manija Brown- review

Oddly enough, the book kept reminding me of the only other memoir among my favorites: My Family and Other Animals, British naturalist Gerald Durrell's story about his childhood (ages 10 to 15) on the island of Corfu, Greece. Of course, there are sharp differences, too. Durrell enjoyed the hell out of his time in Greece: he was cossetted and fussed over by most of the local residents, he had a series of tutors and never had to deal with being the odd man out at school, and it's clear that his family, odd as they were, would have rallied around him had he needed it. Even his family's benign neglect - which allowed him to spent huge amounts of time exploring the hills and shores of the island - is a looking-glass version of Mani's isolation. But there are so many similarities: the abrupt departure to another culture, the eccentric characters and humorous anecdotes brilliantly detailed, and the deep reverence for the natural world - even when it's at its most brutal.

All the Fishes isn't all youthful suffering and biting humor. There is a loving description of the local market, where Mani and her father pass stalls selling things ranging from fruits, flowers, and vegetables to the colorful paraphernalia of traditional Indian daily life: iconic pictures, for example, and powdered pigments for decorating bodies and homes. Brown takes the time to make sure we know something about all of it. We learn a great deal of Indian history over the course of the book, with an emphasis on the heroic tales that fired young Mani's imagination. And there are pleasant human encounters too, with sympathetic adult pilgrims who take Mani seriously and later send her books, for example, and with one special young friend of her own age.

I felt that so much of this book echoed and yet easily trumped the less pleasant aspects of my own childhood: the feeling of isolation (but I usually had at least one - although usually only one - good friend), the damaged mother (but mine never moved me overseas to a hostile environment), the mockery of classmates (but mine never stoned me), the constant threat of losing any friends I might make (but our world of roving diplomatic personnel and scientists on short-term assignments still provided possibilities for new friends), the need to take refuge in books (but I had access to one of the largest and wealthiest public library systems in the country). I even went through a milder version of the scene where Mani fruitlessly turns the tables on the boy who is her most frequent and vicious tormenter. I might have felt that I was meant to count my blessings - except for something that I noticed when I went back to re-read the book. I'm not going to go into more detail here, but my heart was definitely a little more full because of it.

In our bedroom is a small bookcase that holds my best book friends, ranging from The Secret Garden and National Velvet to C.J. Cherryh's Cyteen and Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint. All the Fishes Come Home to Roost will be joining My Family and Other Animals there, and nearby will be the book that Mani is reading in paragraph 1 of Chapter 1: The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley.

I hope Fishes will be happy there.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 12th, 2007 07:51 am (UTC)
You would probably enjoy The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride. I dont tend to sway towards memoirs, but my friend insisted I take a stab at it. I loved it! I read it in a day.
Jul. 13th, 2007 02:34 am (UTC)

b3n-chan, thanks for the recommendation! I have heard good things about that book, but never before from someone who actually knew something about what I like to read. I guess I should check it out.

Jul. 12th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC)
What a lovely surprise! Thank you very much!

I love Gerald Durrell, especially the Corfu books. His books are easily available in India and I read them when I was living there, so his style was definitely an influence on mine.

I'm honored to have my book on the small shelf, as those books are all among my very favorites too.
Jul. 13th, 2007 02:25 am (UTC)

Well, truthfully, I wondered whether I should give you a heads-up, but I was already feeling very self-conscious about doing it at all, so I just did it.

Gerald Durrell was one of my first "adult" authors - I think I was maybe 11 when I first read My Family and Other Animals. When I first read your response, I was startled that you had read him - so few people I know have. And yet it's not at all surprising, really, as you point out.

Jul. 12th, 2007 06:58 pm (UTC)
I might have felt that I was meant to count my blessings - except for something that I noticed when I went back to re-read the book.

The dedication?

I certainly didn't intend anyone to count their blessings. There's always someone worse off than you, but that doesn't make your pain hurt even a tiny bit less.

Jul. 13th, 2007 02:31 am (UTC)

>> I certainly didn't intend anyone to count their blessings. <<

Oof, no, I'm not expressing myself well - that remark was meant to be more about me than about you. I tend to worry that I'm making mountains of molehills with my problems, and your experiences were so much more extreme than mine. But the dedication - which I truly did not notice until I went back for the re-read - really touched me, and knocked that silliness out of my head for the moment.

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


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