By now you know I have penchant for books about faraway places, especially when they are character-driven in their plot. And I love the way Amy Tan chops her ideas into tiny, stark phrases that say so much.

The title is a case in point. A fisherman saves fish from drowning, he tells a group of tourists just before he totally screws them over.

Tan has a way with dark comedy. This is not a friendly read. It’s got sharp edges, not to mention a dead protagonist. When you realize the book is about an art dealer who dies mysteriously just before leading a tour of eleven friends down the famous Burma Road, you think you’re getting a literary thriller. What you’re really getting is one long, wild, dangerous culture clash, as only Tan can write it.

Darker than The Joy Luck Club, just about as dark as The Kitchen God’s Wife, Fish has some amazing word pictures in it as well. You can smell the steam from the river, see the trees, and feel the terror and wonder and confusion.

And you get gems like this: describing the rescue of the protagonist’s hapless friends, Tan writes, “Most of [them] could have walked down, but after the twins said they wanted to be airlifted by the giant sling, everyone else did, too. Why not? It made for great TV visuals, all day long.”

She just has that acid-dipped honey voice running through the whole thing. It’s a great read, but be prepared to be ashamed of yourself for laughing.

“Fill this bottle, Sir”

Having been raised as a true Scots Presbyterian, I am of the generation that doesn’t go to the doctor unless you’re really, phlegm-producingly sick. This has resulted in a couple of serious incidents over the years, but the habits of a lifetime are deeply ingrained.

So it came to pass in my 71st year that Wendy finally persuaded me to have a health check. (Read: she made the appointment and threatened me.) Last Monday I duly presented myself at Doctor Ashley’s office and had my first proper check-up in ten years.

I’d taken along the medical history brought with me when I moved to the US from Scotland, and the academic paper on Nail Patella Syndrome that features a photograph of my toe-nails. (It’s a hereditary condition). To my great relief I received a clean bill of health – a surprise to Wendy, and I suspect even to the doctor!

But this wasn’t the end of it – oh no, not by a long way! This Monday I was scheduled for lab work. Admonished to fast beforehand and come early to deal with paperwork, when presenting myself at the counter, I admitted I’d had a breakfast bar at 7a.m.

The secretary said “whaaa?”

I repeated my crime, fearful now that I’d be turned away. She called in a senior member of staff, who asked me to “repeat that, please.”

“I had a breakfast bar at 7 a.m.”

“What’d you have?”

“A baaaaaarrrrrrr.” Experience has taught me that, when accents collide, strengthening the vowels can help SW VA ears.

“Yes,” said the woman, in the patient voice of one dealing with an imbecile. “But what was on it? Eggs? Bacon? Oatmeal? How much did you eat?”

Realization dawned at last, as my father-in-law is fond of breakfast bars—the Shoney’s kind, not the six-per-pack granola kind. I laughed and explained, she laughed and took me to the back—

–and poked me repeatedly, trying to get a vein. I told her a funny (now) story about a nurse years ago in Scotland with the same trouble. She bit her tongue and tried again. This became very unpleasant until she got what she wanted. I regretted telling her the funny story.

Several unspeakable samples and a couple of preventive shots later, I was wending my way home, a bandage the size of Russia around the drill site that had been my arm.

Satisfied, my darling Wendy?