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.
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.
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 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.
It's brilliant. A true clash of civilizations, gods and cultures. The reader gets an overview of the work of anthropologists and Christian missionaries, as well as a taste of what it is to live in a culture so different and comparatively primitive in comparison to our Western world. The differences are so profound it casts doubt on whether any cultures so materially and spiritually apart can have common ground other than good will to meet and understand each other. The questions I found myself asking, particularly as a liberal politically, is Christianity somehow a bridge religion which can enable primitive animist religions to accept modern life? Are some animist religions inhibiting in a bad way, causing a culture
to become stifling and fearful so that the culture smothers all progressive growth and scientific exploration? The way history happened, in one reading of it, it appears that Christianized nations somehow promote the concept of 'progress' and democracy, perhaps as a backlash, to a degree that until recently Christian cultures leapfrogged the others in science discoveries and the spread of science's benefits. Christianity has done its best to stop all scientific progress, through torture and murder, so I am a bit mystified why original Christian nations ended up being promoters of scientific progress and democracy, but I've read a number of essays on the question. I'm still arguing with myself. Africa is a work in progress, and you can find a country there to suit every argument. But still, one can't help musing on how religion and science and progress and politics all seem to interact. A question is whether scientific progress is good to a point for different cultures and will that stopping at a point translate into a society's either falling back into primitivism or simply stopping at that point while other societies surge ahead, and another question is should we ever stop certain scientific discoveries from promulgating throughout a society until more maturity or never and should we make that choice for them and who would make the choices. One more question I ended up thinking a lot about: is it right to force a primitive tribe hiding in a forest without science or writing to maintain their way of life, or should we allow in manufactured goods and electrical grids and motorized equipment? Is it right to keep a primitive culture living in a manner that people used to live 50,000 years ago fenced off, forbidden to the outside world? Should science introduction guidelines be developed for cultures where people are living the same way as people did 50,000 years ago be treated different than a culture living as people did 100 years ago? By not introducing different religions to the one such a culture may have, are we condemning that culture to more pain and suffering because their current religion is harsh, mean and full of bad spirits they spend all of their time appeasing? How does an advanced society decide when a religion is detrimental to a more primitive society, and what should the advanced society do - wean the poorer culture off of its religion, or introduce a more satisfying and less destructive religion? All religions state they are the true faith, and all can't be right. How do we restrain the major religions from introducing the more science restricting aspects of their faith if we decide to replace a religion deemed as unworthy? What kind of part do strong personalities play at crucial intersections of history? If you hate philosophy or religious discussions in non-fiction books, perhaps this fictionalized novel which introduces the same issues in a literary fashion is more suitable to your taste. There is a mystery as well, since a murder is committed and the question of why is not revealed until the last few pages. All of the characters are fascinating people, and the author's treatment of all of them is fair and just. I didn't detect any bias for one side of the question or the other. This is a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it to everyone.
This book weaved its way through my life at a time when I was trying to tie loose ends of my life together. A left incomplete doctorate, my faith in miracles, teaching English to Thai students, and I could go on. Mr. Berlinski helped me to put these pieces together and come away with a greater faith in Christ. Although his missionaries weren't perfect, they were real. His social scientists were conflicted in ways they couldn't change no matter how hard they tried.
Although this story is fictional, Mr. Berlinski has melded together his non-fictional experiences into a masterpiece that shows how real people deal with the hand we've been dealt and create lives for themselves that are either trapped by their circumstances, or transcend them.
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