On my Bedside Table

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Stealing Buddha's Dinner

by Bich Minh Nguyen

The childhood memories of a girl who came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975. She touches on the tensions between her family's culture and the culture of her adopted homeland, using food as a framing element. Very nicely done. She takes recollections that are authentically childlike to help us understand from a perspective developed by the wisdom of years what it is like to be part of two cultures, and at home in neither one. We hear her young voice and her current voice equally throughout, and sympathize with them equally too.

It doesn't hurt that I remember the '80s much as she does (as we are not so far apart in age). The details she lays out have all the more punch because of that shared knowledge. It goes without saying that there are things about her experience I can't share, but I feel like I can imagine them a little better after finishing this book.

She also conveys the huge divide between her experience growing up in America, and her parents' experience as refugees. There are things she cannot know about what they went through because the questions are too difficult, both to ask and to answer. Energies are spent on coping with the way things are now, rather than revisiting what they've been through.

There was a family whose kids went to my elementary school who were also from Vietnam (as a matter of fact, their last name was Nguyen too). I found myself thinking about them quite a bit as I read this book -- wondering about their story and wishing I could have come to know them better while I had the chance.

Thought I'd better just jump back in -- some of the books I've read while on hiatus here:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon -- As my boss promised, very different. But I loved it and read it straight through (disappeared upstairs for a good few hours one weekend). The main character and narrator is autistic, and the book is written from his perspective. Amazing how Haddon can write something that is totally not in a normal narrative style, but it still manages to touch on all the points along the way that allow him to tell a story. It feels like the story is going on outside the pages of the book, and you get just enough peeks at it along the way that you can put it together in your head. It's like it's written in another language or something -- very cool.

After This by Alice McDermott. I didn't like this one as much. It was too sad -- all about disappointment and unmet expectations, getting by, making do. It was about how you put your life on pause when situations are not as you would have them. Real life will start "after this..."

Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: the Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland by Bryan Sykes. This one was a fun read, if you're into the vicissitudes of mitochondrial DNA. I really enjoyed it.


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