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Review: The Mountains Sing: A Novel by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

I received an audiobook version of this book free from Net Galley in exchange for a fair review. I make no money off this blog, not even from the links I post to Amazon.

My Interest

Some of my earliest memories involve seeing the Vietnam War on the nightly news. I was born during the Kennedy administration so Vietnam has been a part of the American lexicon my entire life. My parents did not try to distract us when watching the news–instead, they let us join in and talked with us about what we saw. We grew up politically aware and advanced for our age. In the early 1970s, my mother’s cousin went to Vietnam as an officer, resigned his commission, and finished his tour as an enlisted man. Later, he made his career as a psychologist specializing in the care of Vietnam vets with PTSD. Later still, I worked in a library with a large number of Vietnamese employees–all refugees of the war. Knowing a few of their stories fueled my desire to begin learning more about the war in the 1980s.

The Story

What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them–their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.”

“What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them–their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.”

In the 1920s what we know as Vietnam was part of the French empire. French culture, architecture, education, Catholicism, and language dominated especially the southern part of the colony. The story features Trần Diệu Lan, a woman born in 1920, and her family is the focus of this multinational look at Vietnamese history. From the land reform movement to the war to beyond. The stories of the different family members “humanize” the struggle to survive under each regime, and throw the forcible taking of wealth, the reduction, the after-effects of Agent Orange, and much more.

My Thoughts

I don’t know why I put this one off so long. It was really engrossing. This is the kind of multi-generational saga I loved before I let social media devour my attention span. Listening to it brought back all the joy of reading those big books of family sagas. I admired the resourcefulness of each generation in this family. There were true heartbreaks, joys, and moments when I wanted to hurt someone–all sings of a very well-told story.

My Verdict

4 Stars

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Review: Ru: A Novel by Kim Thuy

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My Interest

For once I honestly cannot recall how I learned of this book. I suppose in trolling for prize winners (it won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s Award) or for books in my Reading The World project. Regardless of how I found it, I’m glad I read it.

The Story

“From my father I inherited the permanent feeling of satisfaction….Very early, my father learned how to live far away from his parents, to leave places, to love the present tense, to let go any attachment to the past.”

(p. 64)

Nguyen An Tịnh, the fictionalized version of the author, tells her story in vignettes. Her birth in Vietnam, the harrowing trip out by boat. The years of waiting. Arrival in Quebec, which she confusingly calls her ‘American Dream’ which I supposed is more understandable than simply “my North American dream,” her life is told in episodes that sometimes run a few pages, sometimes barely cover an entire paragraph. The family’s immigrant experience is familiar–well off, well educated parents who speak fluent French had to earn a living cleaning toilets. Their daughter takes Quebec life in stride.

The writing was so captivating, the emotions right on the surface, that I had to remind myself again and again that this was a novel. Like many children whose childhoods are marred by trauma, she is always ready to go–she packs light, taking only books (p,100). Her memories in the story circle in and around present-day and everywhere in between.

“As a child, I thought that war and peace were opposites. Yet I lived in in peace when Vietnam was in flames and I didn’t experience war until Vietnam had laid down its weapons. I believe that war and peace are actually friends, who mock us.”

(p. 12)

My Thoughts

While there was one scene I felt must have been added to meet that seemingly mandated list of must-haves in the very p,c, world of publishing (well, it seems that way), this book is exactly enough of her story. Even one more page would have sent it over the edge and into “ordinary.” It is just short of extraordinary–exactly where it needs to be. I do not always agree when books have a long list of awards, but this one definitely earned them.

4 Stars

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Books to Read After Watching Ken Burn’s Vietnam War on PBS

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Vietnam. That one word brings my childhood into focus. It was the nightly news for all of my remembered life in elementary school. My Mom’s cousin served. He resigned his commission and finished his tour as an enlisted man. He went on to be an expert in PTSD treatment of Vietnam-era veterans.

If you are planning to watch Ken Burn’s sure-to-be-excellent documentary series on the war, then some of these books may interest you. I confess, having studied the war in most of my political science courses in 1980–1984, I haven’t read too much on it since. I find it too painful, too raw.  There’s not enough distance. The men in those photos were alive in my lifetime. To me it is not “history,” it is “real.”

There are thousands of books, both fiction and nonfiction, on the Vietnam War. These are a few that I have read and that have had a lasting impact. As you can see, memoirs are a favorite of mine. I have not read much on the war recently, however, so some of these may need to be found used.

 

Nonfiction

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This is the companion book to an earlier PBS series on the War. It is an interesting read with or without the companion series. Although more information is available today than at the time it was written, it is still a useful book. Vietnam: A History by Stanley Karnow.

 

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Like the fabled “Class the Stars Fell on” (1915) and the equally distinguished class of 1846, the West Point class of 1966 produced the young officers of the Vietnam war who would go on to lead the Army.  This is a fascinating look at an extraordinary group of men. The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of  West Point’s Class of 1966.  by R

 

 

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One of the classics on America’s Vietnam generation of leaders, policy wonks and politicians, The Best and The Brightest is a behemoth by the standards of today’s Book Club mandated 300 page limit, but is well worth the time. The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam.

 

Personal Stories

 

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Wives and children also “served” when the man of the family was at war and none served longer than the wives and children of POWs.  America’s highest ranking POW Ben Purcell and his wife, Anne, jointly told their story of the war. Ben of his captivity and Anne of her life at home and her efforts, with other POW wives, to gain attention for the POWs. While this book appears to be out-of–print it can be found online used for a reasonable price or in many libraries. I hope this documentary will encourage a re-release of the title. Love & Duty by Ben and Anne Purcell.

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As America’s longest held POW Jim Thompson lived thru more than mere hell. Back at home his wife felt trapped as well. This is their story.  Glory Denied by Tom Philpott

 

 

 

 

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Nurses played an extraordinary role in the war–as they have in every war since the Crimean War. This memoir is raw and gritty and unforgettable. If you were a fan, back in the day, of the television show China Beach, you probably read this book. Sadly, this is another to find used or in a library. It, too, should be re-issued.  Home Before Morning by Linda Van Devanter

 

 

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What was it like to be the young wife of a soldier in Vietnam? What about after that service ends–however it ends? Lonely Girls With Burning Eyes: A Wife Recalls Her Husband’s Journey Home From Vietnam by Marian Faye Novak. Another one to find used or at a library.

 

 

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See also my recent review of the personal memoir of Hmong refugee of the war, resettled from Laos to Minnesota. The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang reviewed here.

 

 

 

Fiction

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Former Secretary of the Navy, Naval Academy grad and one-time presidential candidate, James Webb, is also the author of several volumes of masterful, compelling fiction. Fields of Fire is on the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War. I recall staying up half the night while reading this–I didn’t want to put it down. Fields of Fire by James Webb.

 

 

The Book of the T.V. Series

 

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The Vietnam War: An Intimate History by Geoffrey C. War and Ken Burns