The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam
by Dana Sachs
Dana Sachs has written part memoir, part travelogue about her life in Hanoi where she ventured as a young woman to teach English twenty years after the Vietnam War. Little did she know that she would fall in love with the country and decide to stay. We meet average Vietnamese trying to adjust to the beginnings if a capitalist economy as well as life after the war. Along with Sachs, we are immersed in delightful sensory and visual experiences. None of the difficulties of travel in a country like Vietnam are glossed over but made to somehow seem appealing and in the end, worth the effort.
"Vividly detailed vignettes of living with a remarkably generous people." – Kirkus Reviews
"The cyclo pulled to a stop in front of an enormous green gate. I turned around and looked at the driver, but he only gave me a smug smile from his seat on the pedicab. 'This is number four,' he said, gesturing toward the address beside the gate. I glanced at the number, then at the address in my hand, then glared at him. When he had first approached me as I stepped off the bus in central Hanoi, he had insisted that my destination was ten kilometers away and that he, in turn, deserved a hefty fee for pedaling me there. But we had traveled less than a kilometer and arrived in five minutes." – The House on Dream Street, Algonquin Books, 2000 edition.
Catfish and Mandala: A Two-wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam
by Andrew X. Pham
Catfish and Mandala, published in 2000, won the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize and was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Pham was born in Vietnam but raised in California. In order to understand his own personal history he decides to take a yearlong bicycle trip around the world ending up in Vietnam. Here he explores his own inner landscape as he studies the history and culture of his birth country. This is a fascinating memoir, both of his experiences in Vietnam as well as what it means to be an immigrant in America.
"An insightful, creatively written report on Vietnam today and on the fate of a Vietnamese family in America." – Kirkus Reviews
"Many Vietnamese Americans 'have been back.' For some of us, by returning as tourists we prove to ourselves that we are no longer Vietnamese but Vietnamese Americans. We return, with our hearts in our throats, to taunt the Communist regime, to show through our material success that we, the once pitiful exiles, are now the victors. No longer the poverty-stricken refugees clinging to fishing boats, spilling out of cargo planes onto American soil, a mess of open-mouthed terror, wide-eyed awe, hungry and howling for salvation. … We return and, in our personal silence, we gloat at our conquerors. … Mostly we return because we are lost." – Catfish and Mandala, Picador, 2000 edition.
The Coroner's Lunch
by Colin Cotterill
A rogue Laotian seventy-two year old coroner in Laos who solves mysteries, Dr. Siri Paiboun is one of the most delightful detectives in recent mystery writing. Colin Cotterill knows Laos and brings alive the streets and the people of Laos while engaging us in marvelous entertainment. The Coroner's Lunch is the first of many. Take three or four of this series along on a trip to Laos and you will be kept occupied while waiting for planes or buses. And you will find yourself soon immersed in the sights and pleasures of Asia.
"The sights, smells, and colors of Laos practically jump off the pages of this inspired, often wryly witty first novel." – Denver Post
"A wonderfully fresh and exotic mystery. … If Cotterill … had done nothing more than treat us to Siri's views on the dramatic, even comic crises that mark periods of government upheaval, his debut mystery would still be fascinating. But the multiple cases spread out on Siri's examining table … are not cozy entertainments, but substantial crimes that take us into the thick of political intrigue." – The New York Times Book Review
"Dr. Siri Paiboun was often described as a short-arsed man. He had a peculiar build, like a lightweight wrestler with a stoop. When he walked, it was as if his bottom half was doing its best to keep up with his top half. His hair, clipped short, was a dazzling white. Where a lot of Lao men had awakened late in life to find, by some miracle of the Lord above, their hair returned to its youthful blackness, Siri had more sensible uses for his allowance than Yu Dum Chinese dye. There was nothing fake or added or subtracted about him. He was all himself." – The Coroner's Lunch, Soho Crime, 2005 edition.
The Quiet American
by Graham Greene
One can never go wrong reading Graham Greene. The Quiet American takes us to Vietnam before the Vietnam War and is a prescient novel that presents the reader with an understanding of the roots of the war and how various factions became involved. The main characters are also locked in a dramatic love triangle. Suspenseful yet understated.
"There are many natural storytellers in English literature, but what was rare about Greene was the control he wielded over his abundant material. Certainly one can imagine nobody who could better weave the complicated threads of war-torn Indochina into a novel as linear, as thematically compact and as enjoyable as The Quiet American." – Zadie Smith, The Guardian
"After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat: he had said, 'I'll be with you at latest by ten,' and when midnight had struck I couldn't stay quiet any longer and went down into the street. A lot of old women in black trousers squatted on the landing; it was February and I suppose too hot for them in bed. One trishaw driver pedaled slowly by towards the river front, and I could see lamps burning where they had disembarked the new American planes. There was no sign of Pyle anywhere in the long street." – The Quiet American, Penguin Classics, 2004 edition.
A Record of Cambodia: The Land and its People
by Zhou Daguan, translated by Peter Harris
A Record of Cambodia: The Land and its People is an astounding document and highly recommended for anyone on a visit to Angkor Wat. Zhou was a Chinese diplomat who visited Angkor at the end of the 13th C. He was there for a year and when he arrived home wrote a memoir of his visit. It is the only extant writing on Angkor at the time of the high point of its civilization. Peter Harris has done a fine job on a new translation. This is NOT an academic book. Both readable and fascinating, it is a short book; but also has a good introduction to help explain the history of Angkor. It is not an inexpensive book, but well worth it to know you are reading a first-hand account.
“ … a book that enhances any recreational visit to Cambodia, but at the same time offers concrete facts and references for academic readers.” – Kent David, Devata.org
“Inside the palace there is a gold tower, at the summit of which the king sleeps at night. The local people all say that in the tower lies a nine-headed snake spirit which is lord of the earth of the entire country. Every night it appears in the form of a woman, and the king first shares his bed with her and has sex with her. Even his wives do not dare go in. At the end of the second watch he comes out, and only then can he sleep with his wives and concubines. If for a single night this spirit does not appear, the time has come for this foreign king to die. If for a single night he stays away, he is bound to suffer a disaster.” – A Record of Cambodia, Silkworm Books, 2007 edition.
A Woman of Angkor
by John Burgess
I read A Woman of Angkor before visiting Cambodia and the temples of Angkor. Usually I find that fiction written in the first person from an ancient time doesn’t work well unless the writer is superb (i.e. Memoirs of Hadrian) and Burgess is a good but not a great author. However, I couldn’t put the book down. I found the main character so appealing and interesting that I couldn’t wait to see what happened next in the novel. Along with a good story, I highly recommend this book mainly for the amazing sense of place. Although at times the story is a bit implausible, still it brings Cambodia to life: the jungle, the people, the food, and the colorful rich atmosphere.
“A Woman of Angkor is a powerful work of imagination that takes the reader to a faraway time and place and makes the story vividly real.x…xThis is historical fiction with a difference – about a people whose history has been obscured and abandoned like the magnificent shrine that for so many centuries lay hidden in the jungle.” – David Ignatius, The Washington Post
“A poignant glimpse into the daily life of Twelfth Century Cambodia.” – Dawn Rooney, author of Angkor – Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples
“Brahmin priests chart the turnings of the cosmic engine. They counsel princes and craft judgments of holy law. But concerning simpler things, such as getting where they want to go? They often need some help. Perhaps that is why I felt no apprehension when I first caught sight of the priest that rainy season afternoon. All I saw was a man who looked to be lost, and my sympathy went to him.x…xHe was tall, perhaps in his thirty-fifth year, and of course he was wearing the white silk garment that marks members of his sect. A silver neckpiece hung across his chest. His hair and whiskers were turning colour sooner than his age might suggest, as if they wanted to match that neckpiece.” – A Woman of Angkor, River Books, 2013 edition.
In the Shadow of the Banyan
by Vaddey Ratner
Although reading about the time of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia is difficult and nightmarish, it is important to do so before traveling there. The history of the time in the 1970’s has changed Cambodia forever, and continues to this day to have a profound impact on the politics and culture of the nation. It would be a mistake to visit the country without an awareness of its history. The novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, brings this history to life through the story of a high caste family and the trials they undergo during the time of the Khmer Rouge. As I read the novel I thought, “this must be a true story.” And yes, although a novel, this is the story of the author’s life in Cambodia growing up and surviving the terrors most of us cannot imagine.
“What is remarkable and honorable here is the absence of anger and the capacity – seemingly infinite – for empathy.” – Ligaya Mishan, The New York Times Sunday Book Review
“To read In the Shadow of the Banyan is to be left with a profound sense of being witness of a tragedy of history.” – Krys Lee, The Guardian
“Later that morning, in an array of brightly colored silks that almost outshone the surrounding birds and butterflies, we gathered in the dining pavilion, an open teak house with a hardwood floor and pagoda-like roof, which stood in the middle of the courtyard among the fruit and flower trees. Again Mama had transformed herself, this time from a butterfly to a garden. Her entire being budded with blossoms. She had changed into a white lace blouse and a sapphire phamuong skirt, dotted with tiny white flowers. Her tresses, no longer loose, were now pulled back in a chignon tied with a ring of jasmine.” – In the Shadow of the Banyan, Simon & Schuster, 2012 edition.