The Mountains Sing–Learn About Vietnam

The Mountains Sing

By Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Published 2020

Read Aug 2020

Que Mai was born in northern Vietnam in 1973 in the midst of the war known globally as the Vietnam War and called the Resistance War Against America to Save the Nation by the government of Northern Vietnam.  She has authored 11 books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction.   The Mountains Sing is her first book written in English.  She draws upon her family’s history and her extensive research to tell the story of the Tran family of Nghe An Province in north central Vietnam.  She brings to the reader the experiences of this family as it lives through a long period of great turmoil which left this reader with a new perspective of the people of this area and the struggles they have endured. 

The reader meets Grandma Dieu Lan (born 1920 to Mr and Mrs Tran) and granddaughter Huong (born 1960 to Grandma’s daughter Ngoc and her husband) in 1972 in Ha Noi where Grandma is a school teacher and Huong a student.  They are anxiously awaiting the war to be over and for Grandma’s six children and families to be reunited and returned to them.  While Grandma and Huong are hiding in a cave to shelter from the Dec 18, 1972 major extended bombing of Ha Noi, Grandma begins telling Huong the story of her family starting in 1930. Her stories which, progress in time from 1930, alternate with Huong’s narration of the family’s story moving forward from that day in the cave.

Grandma Dieu Lan was born into a land owning farming family.  All the members of the family worked taking care of animals and working in the field.  She marries, begins having a family, and is happy. But change is underway.  She tells Huong about the family trials during the Japanese occupation, the Great Famine, and the Viet Minh’s execution of the Land Reform.  During the Land Reform, her family is torn apart and then works to recover itself.  The Vietnam War disperses the family again as the sons are drafted to fight with the Viet Minh and Huong’s mother, a doctor, leaves to find her husband.  Huong’s narration covers the period of the war through letters and diaries and discussions with her mother and uncles after they return from the war.  Her narration also describes her family’s post-war period through 1980 as they work to find a new normalcy in the newly united county under communist rule.

The author makes several choices that enables the reader’s engagement and gives the reader a sense of the family’s culture.  As with many families with six children, life paths the children take, freely chosen or not, can cause substantial family conflict and this is true for Grandma’s children.  Que Mai sprinkles the text with Vietnamese words and uses a variety of approaches to provide their definition.  Several characters, and in particular Grandma Dieu Lan, use proverbs to express their feelings—and to help buoy spirits in difficult times. 

Que Mai uses her book to make clear that the Vietnamese people are more than some of the impressions that have been suggested—poor, illiterate farmers.   Grandma Dieu Lan’s farming parents believed in education—they hired a tutor for her brother AND her.  She becomes a teacher.  Her children are educated and Huong attends school and wins a place at a premier high school.  She gives Huong books as presents including a Vietnamese translation of “Little House on the Prairie”.  This book allows Huong to understand that Americans, who have pledged to bomb her people into submission, also work hard and love their family.  Both Huong and an uncle see young American soldiers taken prisoner or killed by the Viet Minh army and wonder about the humanity of these American solider and how their family members would be treated if they were prisoner of the American enemy.  Huong wonders at one point if people read more about each other if they would find other ways to solve their problems besides war. 

Que Mai uses Huong’s description of her journaling after an uncle’s death to explicitly show some of her themes regarding war:  “I wrote for Grandma, who’d hoped for the fire of war to be extinguished, only for its embers to keep burning her.  I wrote for my uncles, my aunt, and my parents, who were helpless in the fight of brother against brother, and whose war went on, regardless of whether they were alive or dead.”  But her book covers more than the Vietnam War and introduces the reader to a broader history of the struggles of these people who have been occupied by foreigners for centuries and whose struggles continued after their expulsion.  In the final chapter, Huong and her family are at Grandma’s grave.  Huong tells us she has converted Grandma’s stories into a manuscript which she brings to the grave.  She says “Grandma once told me that the challenges faced by the Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountain.  I have stood far enough away to see the mountaintops, yet close enough to witness how Grandma became the tallest mountain herself:  always strong, always protecting us.”

This remarkable book will engage the reader’s brain and your heart and give the reader a new perspective on this time and these people and on the concept of the usefulness of war in general. 

Where the Crawdads Sing—Good Summer Reading

Where the Crawdads Sing

By Delia Owens

Published 2018

Read June 2020

This book has been wildly popular.  This reader listened to it while on a summer vacation and understands the appeal.  It is a coming-of-age story. The person coming of age is a young girl abandoned by family and surviving on her own in the swamplands of North Carolina. It has lush language about the landscape. The young girl blossoms into a well-respected author despite many obstacles.  It has a murder mystery, the story of the investigation running parallel to the coming-of-age story.  The reader is engaged to root for the young girl during her struggles to both interact with and avoid society.   It is sweet but not sappy.  It’s a little unbelievable with regards to the ability of a girl of nine to actually survive on her own but as the youngest of a hard-scrabble family she had to learn some things before everyone left and the family from whom she buys gas has their eye on her.

So enjoy reading this book along with lots of other readers even if it’s not one that you  will discuss for many hours with a serious book discussion group.  We need some of these too, especially during these days of a seemingly unending pandemic and this one might provide some needed positive nourishment.

Provocative Mothers and their Precocius Daughters: 19th Century Women’s Rights Leaders

Provocative Mothers and Their Precocious Daughters

By Suzanne Schnittman

Published 2020

Read Aug 2020

This reader devoured this thoughtful and thought provoking book.  The author’s scholarship is remarkable.  She has reviewed countless pages of primary source documents—personal letters, diaries, and the writings of these remarkable women, as well as countless pages of secondary sources—biographies, histories, etc.  The author then concisely presents the reader with clear pictures of these reform mothers and their daughters—how the reform mothers managed motherhood and their activism, for several of the mothers on very limited incomes; how their activism translates to their parenting of their daughters; how the daughters responded to this parenting and the kind of adult they became as a result; and how the relationship between mother and daughter evolved over time.  This reader appreciated the extensive footnotes—it gave this reader confidence that the pictures presented of events and personal feelings reflect the data available about them and appreciation that the heavy lifting had been thoughtfully and thoroughly done by the author. 

The book gave this reader much to consider about both mother/daughter relationships and how new access to rights or advantages of one generation impacts both the parent/child relationship and the person/society relationship.  Some aspects of the mother/daughter relationship are likely universal and not impacted by time or place.  This likely includes hoping for the life of the daughter to be even easier/better than experienced by the mother and hoping that the daughter will support the mother in times of need.  How this translates in particular, however, is likely dependent on the constraints present in society, laws, and religious/tribal/family culture at the time.   When these constraints change substantially from one generation to the next, the relationships between parent/child and person/society might be different for one generation of children compared with another which can be both liberating for the child and troubling for the parent and society. 

This book is one you won’t forget soon and it will likely incite further exploration of the history of struggles for rights in this society that have needed amendments to the Constitution and/or federal laws to make them possible and how society has evolved as a result. 

The Cellist of Sarajevo–Relentless Struggles

The Cellist of Sarajevo

By Steven Galloway

Published 2008

Read June 2020

The cellist of Sarajevo really existed.  He was playing his cello when twenty-two people lost their lives in a bombing outside his window while waiting in line for bread during the siege of Sarajevo.  He really played that song each of twenty-two days in a row in their memory.  This book uses three voices to describe fictional people living in Sarajevo during those twenty-two days.

Arrow learned marksmanship in school and shot in competitions with her teammates.  She had been pressed into service to kill snipers lurking in the hills who were killing residents while they went about their daily business.  During the time of this story she has been assigned to kill the sniper sent to silence the cellist.  We hear what she is thinking and feeling during this time.  Her voice is the clearest and most distinct of the three.  We are left, as was she, with the question—is she really different from the snipers in the hills?

We listen to Keenan’s thoughts as he ventures into the streets to collect water for his family and neighbor from one of the few water sources left in the city. He doesn’t want to expose anyone else in his family to potential death by sniper during these treks but also doesn’t know what would happen to them if he is shot. 

Finally we listen to the thoughts of Dragon, a baker who has lived in the city all his life and is mourning the loss of the majesty of the buildings and the vitality of its people.  His family is no longer in the city—he has sent them away for safe keeping.  He too ventures into the streets to collect food and water.

The voices of Keen and Dragon are less distinct from each other compared with the voice of Arrow.  They recount their terror when worrying about whether it is safe to leave the safety of buildings and barricades to cross the street when needed.  They recount the various buildings that have been lost during this endless struggle. 

There is no discussion regarding the parties engaged in battle nor the reasons for the siege.  The book is solely focused on these three people as representatives of those whose lives are in a sort of suspended animation as their city and its people are being slowly destroyed.

The book is mercifully short (235 pages) as each page describes the endless dreadful state of being for the three characters.  This reader read a Kindle version so the extent of progress in the book wasn’t as obvious as when reading a hardcopy.  At one point, this reader wondered if the book would ever end as the relentlessness of destruction and sense of doom was almost overwhelming.  Fortunately this reader did eventually break out of this feeling, did experience the ability of the characters to persevere, and did appreciate the author’s ability to show both endurance of the spirit and the enormity of what Sarajevo citizens endured. 

Christine Falls—John Baneville’s first book as Benjamin Black

Christine Falls

By Benjamin Black

Published 2006

Read July 2020

This is the first book John Banville wrote as Benjamin Black and the second book of this Quirke series he is producing with this pen name.  Quirke is a melancholy, often drunk, pathologist who manages to get involved in trying to understand cases others think should be considered closed.  His inability to let them go reminds one of the character “Columbo” in the 1970’s TV series—always another question to consider.  But in this case, Quirke is a hospital pathologist, not a police officer, and in this book, no police are involved in the case at all except when they are called to deal with people that end up dead after Quirke connects with them to talk about this case he can’t quite leave alone.

In the opening chapter we meet Malachy Griffen, an ob/gyn doctor who practices at the same hospital as Quirke.  A sense of tension between the two is suggested in this opening scene which could be due to Griffen’s unexpected presence in Quirke’s office writing in a file.  Certainly this unusual situation is what peaks Quirke’s interest in the case.  We eventually learn that the tension is probably also associated with the unusual relationship between Quirke and Malachy.  Malachy’s father rescued Quirke from an orphanage when he was a boy and raised him as a son, actually showing parental preference for Quirke as a son over sickly Malachy.  Over the course of the book we learn more interesting and unusual details of their relationship which follow them to the present. 

An aspect that separates this series from other crime/mystery books is the language.  It’s not clipped but rather tends to be atmospheric and requiring involvement from the reader.  It doesn’t rely on short chapters that end on a cliff that compel you forward.  But you are drawn into the book to understand how the parallel story being told connects with the story Quirke is trying to dissect—which in this case requires involvement with living and, likely, lying people.

The time element of the story is not directly revealed, but it’s clearly not set in the present.  No cell phones are used and orphanages still exist, among other differences with current society.  These understated differences help pull the reader into this somewhat foggy world, shrouded in the gloomy weather, present but not explained melancholy of the characters, and likelihood of long-term deceptions that may never be fully revealed to the reader or the characters.  I look forward to reading more of this series.