When his girlfriend takes a job as a schoolteacher in northern Thailand, Mischa Berlinski goes along for the ride, working as little as possible for one of Thailand's English-language newspapers. One evening a fellow expatriate tips him off to a story. A charismatic American anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, has been found dead, a suicide, in the Thai prison where she was serving a 50-year sentence for murder.
Motivated first by simple curiosity, then by deeper and more mysterious feelings, Mischa searches relentlessly to discover the details of Martiya's crime. His search leads him to the origins of modern anthropology and into the family history of Martiya's victim, a brilliant young missionary whose grandparents left Oklahoma to preach the Word in the 1920s and never went back. Finally, Mischa's obsession takes him into the world of the Thai hill tribes, whose way of life becomes a battleground for two competing, and utterly American, ways of looking at the world.
Vivid, passionate, funny, deeply researched, and exhilarating, Fieldwork is a novel about fascination and taboos - scientific, religious, and sexual. It announces an assured and captivating new voice in American fiction.
©2007 Mischa Berlinski; (P)2007 Tantor Media Inc.
"A lean, interesting tale." (Publishers Weekly)
"A surprisingly compassionate look at Christianity in conflict with anthropology. I kept expecting tirades, and instead got sweetness and thoughtful good humor. A remarkable novel." (Stephen King)
I was an anthro student at the same time at the subject of this novel while in California, though not at Berkeley. This is one of the best descriptions of my experience and what it is to think and be an Anthropologist I have EVER heard. This novel is brilliantly observed and worth every second. WOW. It is also nostalgic and incredible that the students at Berkeley and the students and faculty at my university had identical experiences. What a wonderful wonderul book.
I found this work delightful, and the narrator greatly added to the experience. His droll tone and varied styles accentuated the humor, which often popped up unexpectedly. This account of a young journalist's obsession with getting to the bottom of an old murder is peopled with the most extraordinary people. A missionary family figures largely in the tale and I liked the sympathetic handling of them. They could have been made to seem ridiculous or even contemptible, but they are shown as sympathetic, sincere people. It is left to the reader to decide whether they were misguided. I found myself thinking about the characters several days afterward. My understanding is that it's completely fictional--there are no Dialo people--but the descriptions of China and Thailand are interesting and based on fact.
Narrative makes the world go round.
Beware the publisher's summary: As another reviewer noted, the novel is not a "who dunnit." As the title suggests, the young American journalist-protagonist (on his own search for identity while wandering the world) is doing "fieldwork," but in an ironic sense -- He is drawn to investigate the interlocking lives of the anthropologist doing academic fieldwork and of the Rapture-waiting missionaries trying to harvest souls in the "fields of the Lord." He is a generation younger than those he studies, and even they embarked on their S E Asian endeavors generatons apart. As in good fieldwork, the protagonist tries to describe, understand and hypothesize why things happen; as in bad fieldwork, he becomes obsessed with his subject, but manages not to be judgemental. Along the way we learn of the beginnings of the academic field of ethnography, conjecture that one must leave one's own culture to find/truly see one's self, meet some very eccentric characters, tour Thailand, and witness two visions of post WW1 American life try to extend themselves to the world.
I loved the novel, but it does have that "author's first novel" shakiness in structure at times. I'm not sure that I liked the narrator, but it must have been a difficult to decide what tone to adopt for the narration of this original tale.
I thought this book was fascinating in the details and descriptions. You just wanted to hang on their every word. That said, it also felt too long. The story took many diversions and I'm not sure they all added value. By the time the 9+ hours were done I was ready for the conclusion, but it didn't come until the last half hour. This is richly written and wonderful characters. I recommend it.
The characters and scenes were vibrant and captured my imagination. I enjoyed every moment, but was a little let down by the rushed ending.
I would caution that this isn't really a true mystery, more of an investigation. A "why" versus a "who".
Like Asian stews, this book was tasty with the right amount of spice. Lots of unknown (to me) facts about SE Asia combined with an understanding of the lifestyles of both secular and religious foreigners in Thailand. The characters were fleshed out and drew sympathy. I would listen to this author at any opportunity. Good work Mischa Berlinski, write on.
I loved the first two hours and thought it could be a great book. I lost interest in the characters and the storyline after that point. The book describes in great detail the family life of Christian missionaries over two generations. It then goes into painstaking details about daily life in a Thai village for an anthropologist.
Unless you are devoted follower of Christian missionary life or enjoy the subject of anthropology I would recommend passing on this book. How disappointing for what could have been a great book.
It took a long time to get into this book, but once I did, I was hooked. The characters are very "real" and I couldn't wait to find out what they were going to do next. It was a little hard to realize what "time" you were in, since the book goes back and forth through many time periods.
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