Title: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories
Author: Robert Olen Butler
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company
Publication Date: 1992
Genre(s): Short stories, Fiction
I have no hatred in me.
–from “Open Arms”
This is a collection of short stories about the Vietnamese living in America post-war. Through fifteen varied stories, Butler blends Vietnamese folklore with American realities and, at times, does so by breaking your heart.
I don’t know why, but I find it terribly difficult to review short stories. I can rate the collection as a whole, and I can talk about various favorite stories, but it’s challenging to me and I don’t know why. Nevertheless, I’m going to give it a shot. This was read, of course, for my Asian-American lit class, but it’s the first text we’ve read that isn’t written by an Asian-American. Not surprisingly, it’s been my favorite of the semester. It even won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. The collection receives a lot of harsh criticism being written by a white guy about the Vietnamese, but we’ve discussed this issue a lot in class and I don’t think you have to be Vietnamese to write about them. Perhaps people would rather pick up this collection of short stories, written by a white guy, as opposed to reading Yamamoto’s collection of short stories. But maybe this collection will open their eyes to different cultures and issues and influence them to read Yamamoto and Tan and Chin. Who knows? All I know is that it made for an interesting read (at times) and introduced me to a culture I’d previously not read about. Like my professor always says, you don’t have to be black to teach African-American studies — you just have to be an expect on the subject. However, I digress.
Some of these stories bored me to death; some of them, however, surprised me. My favorite thing about short stories is that you don’t really know what’s going on until the middle of them, and then shortly after you’ve read the climactic ending and it’s over and you’re left speechless (well, if it was properly executed). I’m going to tell you about a couple of my favorite stories from this collection in hopes that you find some of them interesting enough to read the book yourself. Just do yourself a favor and don’t read the 1-star Goodreads reviews — they’re pretty harsh.
“Mr. Green” is a story about a woman and her grandfather’s parrot, Mr. Green. Though I wasn’t enthralled by the story in its entirety, the ending shocked me enough to read it again and appreciate it a little more.
“Fairy Tale” is about a Vietnamese prostitute in New Orleans and seems to be one of the more criticized stories in this collection. The Goodreads commenters complain about the collection as a whole yet seem to solely criticize this one piece of it. I understand being skeptical of a story about a Vietnamese prostitute written by a white guy, and that the unrealistic broken English pisses you off, but I happened to enjoy the story, and perhaps it would be beneficial to review the collection as a whole instead of simply bashing one single story. Ahem.
“Crickets” is one of those sad stories that people of all cultures can relate to, and I think it affected me the most. It’s about a father, who grew up in Vietnam, and his son, who is growing up in America. His father tries to show his son what kinds of things he did for fun as a kid and tries to spend time with his child; unfortunately, the son finds it to be quite boring and is honestly more concerned about his clean shoes than playing with his father. It’s heartbreaking and you can easily make connections to today’s society and generation gap.
Last but certainly not least, “Ghost Story,” probably my second favorite, is hard to summarize and one of those stories you simply need to read to understand the chills that I got when I read it. Every collection has one of those stories. (I’m still not over “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” from Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning……..)
I’m not going to say the writing was my favorite, because it certainly was not, but it was fine. I enjoyed the collection as a whole, though I had my favorites and least-favorites. Not sure it was worth of a Pulitzer, but it was an enjoyable read that I may or may not pick up again. It is, however, one of the two books from this class that I’ll actually be keeping for my collection. That’s gotta tell you at least something.
Favorite Quote(s): “I like the mornings. You can feel sometimes that you’re all alone in the world.”