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How odd today to read short stories written by a white Midwestern American in the voices of Vietnamese women and men. The stories focus on the lives of Vietnamese during and after the Vietnam War, mostly South Vietnamese who have relocated to Louisiana. The stories are subtle and believable, even the ghost story. While there are questions today as to the propriety of white men writing from the perspective of different ethnic groups and genders, Robert Olen Butler has the empathy and imagination that makes fiction work—his Vietnamese narrators are compelling.
The stories deal primarily with family relationships: narrators dealing with grandfathers, husbands, sons, best friends and even an unborn child in the womb. There are plot twists and surprises, as well as cameos from celebrity possessions—John Lennon’s shoe, Elizabeth Taylor’s Puerto Vallarta movie set. The stories sometimes seem dated, 25 years after publication and long after the horrors of that particular war have faded in general memory. But they are well worth reading.
As with some other story collections, I had difficulty listening to these short stories in the car. It takes time to warm up to the characters in each story and to get a sense of who they are and what they think. Then, as we begin to enjoy their company, the story ends and we start again with a new narrator in a different context. This is frustrating, even in a book like A Good Scent, with interrelated themes.
Another quibble is with Butler’s decision to narrate the stories himself. It takes time to get used to his flat Midwestern voice, in story after story, speaking as a Vietnamese expatriate. He does a fair job, with good tone and inflection, but the novel would have benefited from professional actors as narrators.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
The author, a white man who served in Vietnam, was the perfect person to read these wonderful stories. He pronounces everything properly and moves along in a comfortable way. I had recently listened to a novel about a stolen painting -- 32 hours of the main character being drunk or stoned. When the next day it won the Pullitzer Prize, I was ready to scream in the street! This book, however, is so deserving! This writing is so rich. Most of the stories are told from the viewpoint of a Vietnamese person,man or woman, elderly or younger, usually a Vietnamese who came to the U.S. -- usually Lake Charles, Louisiana -- to settle. Not all the stories are about war at all. Some are about family life, co-workers, romance, trying to fit the old teachings and ideals into the new American framework.
I thought I already knew too much about Vietnam. I have a half-Vietnamese step-daughter who un-friended me on FaceBook, who got into serious drugs, whose daughter photographed her pregnant belly in the bathroom to show all of FaceBook, etc. etc. As the third wife, I listened to sickening stories of cutting down our tortured soldiers in the jungle, the naughty little lizard who uses the F-word. I've been screamed at by a Vietnamese-American boss one-third my age. . . . Americans tend to assume that brown people who don't understand English probably don't have much to say anyway. Butler shows how wrong this is as he paints the most subtle thoughts of his sweet and interesting characters.
These stories call for more than one listen -- and not more than two stories at a sitting! They're pungent! And sometimes funny. Among my favorites was the sleepy girl at the restaurant and Mr. Cohen. I also loved the ending of the one about bringing grandpa home from the airport, how the family prepared a feast and was so excited to have this dear old man come to live with them after many years of separation. How could the husband offer some kind of healing to his wife? Listen and see! These stories are a treasure. Thank you, Mr. Butler!
3 of 4 people found this review helpful
Thoroughly enjoyingthese stories but a shame the author does not know one woman he would trust to read those stories which are written in the female voice. Sometimes when listening one does not know it is the female voice until the first feminine personal pronoun is encountered. It would make better listening, and vary the audio experience when listening to the short stories.