A good scent from a strange mountain : stories

by Robert Olen Butler

Paperback, 1992




New York : Penguin Books, 1993, c1992.


Butler's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories about the aftermath of the Vietnam War and its impact on the Vietnamese is reissued. Includes two subsequently published stories that complete the collection's narrative journey, returning to the jungles of Vietnam.

Media reviews

"A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain" goes a long way toward making the Vietnamese real, and its method is bold: each of the 15 stories is told in the first person from the viewpoint of a Vietnamese transplanted from the Mekong Delta to the Louisiana bayou. The Americans have become foils; it's
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the Vietnamese who are now at the center, haunted by the past, ambivalent about their hosts, suffering sexual torments, seeking a truce in their various wars.... To become complete, these dislocated men and women return in memory and imagination to Vietnam, where folk tales narrated within the stories often illuminate their present condition.... The intricacy of these stories, and of most of the collection, lies in their motifs, not in psychological insight. Mr. Butler uses the narrative surprises and symbolic imagery of folklore, and as in folklore his meanings can be both simple and opaque.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member TommyB
This is one of the best books I have read in the last couple of years. Robert Olen Butler has portrayed the people and culture of the Vietnamese community in the United States so convincingly that I was compelled to research how he had developed such insight. (His only direct connection to Vietnam
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appears to have been a year as a linguist in that country in 1971.) Butler does a tremendous job of portraying both the thoughts and lives of a variety of Vietnamese people and how they have adapted to life in the United States, as well as describe their perceptions of the people of their adoptive country. Butler gives us bar girls, Vietnamese businessmen, a man with a ghost story that ends up as a commentary on living in the United States, an American "MIA" who never left Vietnam, a former GI who never got over Vietnam, a half-Vietnamese daughter of a GI who worked for years to get her into the United States and more. Every one of the stories is insightful, evocative and captivating.
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LibraryThing member CarolynSchroeder
This book is a bit hard to review as it had some of the best stories I have read in years, and also, a couple of the worst! But all in all, it was an interesting, unique collection with some absolutely hysterical, beautiful and perceptive observations about Vietnamese immigrants mesching into
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American life. Although all of the stories revolve around Vietnamese immigrants to Louisiana, they featured very different characters, both male and female, and ranging in age to young to incredibly old (100+). Bulter really shines in the every day, particularly stories about loves, both gained and lost, and the story "Love" was by far my favorite. I laughed out loud as a self-proclaimed "wimp" seeks out a low down papa (i.e. voodoo man) to enable him to put a hex on his wife's (suspected) lover. There are also many threads of Vietnamese folklore weaved in and I enjoyed reading those bits. Interestingly, I think where this stories suffered the most were when the author tried to hard to make something of the American-Vietnamese relationships from the war and thereafter. The story "The American Couple," which is the longest (79 pages) and most tedious story in the bunch, follows two couples (one Vietnamese and one American - both husbands were soldiers, of sorts, in the war) through a Mexican vacation. On a visit to the set of "Night of the Iguana," the men implode into war visions, posturing, play acting and throwing rocks at each other while the wives stand idely by. That was a hard story to swallow and just weird for no purpose. Butler does such an exceptional job reflecting on every day observations of the culture differences, kindesses and quirks we have, he does not have to placate the reader by creating such unbelievable drama and weirdness. In sum, while I don't really feel this collection was Pulitzer worthy, some of the stories were really outstanding. Overall, recommended.
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LibraryThing member actonbell
These are short stories about Vietnamese immigrants living in New Orleans. What looks like a Vietnamese community to outsiders isn't as much as a community as it appears; these immigrants come from all walks of life, made their way to New Orleans by different paths, and are adjusting to American
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life in very individual ways. All these stories are intriguing, and the way Robert Olen Butler assumes such a variety of different voices is mighty impressive.

I enjoyed these stories very much!
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LibraryThing member LJuneOsborne
This is the book to go to if someone wanted to study how an author can use different 'voices.' Lovely. All of the stories work off of one another to make each other more powerful than they would have been if read individually, and I can't imagine something like that to be easy to accomplish.
LibraryThing member little-sparrow
This book of short stories won a Pulitzer Prize. The stories are all about Vietnamese Americans living in the Louisiana area. Some of the stories I really liked and others were just okay. I have to wonder how they pick these Pulitzer winners, because I have read a ton of great books that are better
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than this. Don't get me wrong, it's worth reading, just not the best book of the year.
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LibraryThing member agnesmack
I'm not sure how to describe this book of short stories. I wouldn't say it was good - although a few did draw me in. But it was really interesting. It felt sort of voyeuristic, watching these people's lives. There was quite a bit of folklore involved, which I'm not usually into but it was, well,
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sweet, in the contexts it came up in. I was somewhat frustrated from it only being told from one very firm point of view. You know, Communists sucks, fuck all ya'll. All in all, I wouldn't read this book again but I would definitely recommend it to anyone who's into folklore,
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LibraryThing member edwinbcn
Robert Olen Butler's A good scent from a strange mountain is a short story collection in which the narrator tells stories from different gender perspectives (no problem there), but from the Vietnamese point of view, either set in Vietnam or the United States. I do not know much about the author,
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but my impression is that this connection and choice of perspective is inappropriate and not very interesting. I even sensed a racist-sexual obsession for the Vietnamese female body.

I love Marguerite Duras and Andre Malraux, French writers who write about Vietnam from their French or French / Indo-Chinese perspective or Graham Greene's The quiet American, which is set in Vietnam, but written entirely from the British perspective. With Olen Butler I had the feeling that the "interest" was suspect, almost unsavory. Americans do not have the same colonial experience, and hence, so it seems, their interest in other nations seems superficial, not as deep and natural.

I found these stories unreal, boring and meaningless.
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LibraryThing member suesbooks
His character descriptions were so vivid I felt as if I really knew the people. I am assuming that these are accurate portrayals of Vietnamese who have relocated to the United States, lbut I don't really know that. I thought most of the stories were quite interesting, but the final and title story
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did not do much for me.
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
This collection of short stories, of the Vietnamese affected by the war, is probably the best collection of short stories I have ever read. Most of the stories are about immigrants from Vietnam who have ended up in Louisiana. Some are set in Vietnam. All are beautiful.

Not all is sweetness and
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light, but the reader is shown the heart of the characters. There is darkness and some of the stories are disturbing, but all ring true. This 1993 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction felt so intimate to me that the people were, in my mind, real.

The prose is lyrical without becoming flowery. The characters are fascinating. The insight is remarkable.

This is one of those rare books that I will want to read again.
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LibraryThing member ohernaes
Stories and memories of Vietnam. Not my style.
LibraryThing member Crazymamie
"I'd lost a whole country and I didn't give it a thought. Vûng Táu was a beautiful city, and if I put my face into the wind, I could see nothing of it clearly, not its shaded streets or its white-sand beaches, not the South China Sea lying there beside it. I can speak these words and perhaps you
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can see these things clearly because you are using your imagination. But I cannot imagine these things because I lived them, and to remember them with the vividness I know they should have is impossible. They are lost to me."

This collection of short stories won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. The stories are connected by setting and culture - all of them feature immigrants from Vietnam who have settled in New Orleans, Louisiana after the Vietnam War. It loses rating points from me only because the collection is a bit uneven - a few of the stories are not quite as good as the others. That being said, the stories that shine really SHINE. I loved these voices and the complex memories of a culture that has been displaced. It manages to be heart-breaking and triumphant at the same time.

"I like the way fairy tales start in America. When I learn English for real, I buy books for children and I read, 'Once upon a time.' I recognize this word 'upon' from some GI who buys me Saigon teas and spends some time with me and he is a cowboy from the great state of Texas. He tells me he gets up on the back of a bull and he rides it....After that, a few years later, I come to America and I read this word and I ask a man in the place I work on Bourbon Street in New Orleans if this is the same. Up on and upon. He is a nice man who comes late in the evening to clean up after men who see the show. He says this is a good question and he thinks about it and he says that yes, they are the same. I think this is very nice, how you get up on the back of time and ride and you don't know where it will go or how it will try to throw you off."

There are a total of seventeen stories in this collection, and some of them have appeared in other publications, but this is the first time they are all collected together in one book. My very favorites were Mr. Green, The Trip Back, Fairy Tale, Letters to my Father, Snow, Salem, and Missing, but they are all worthy of reading.
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LibraryThing member dangnad
A wonderfully entertaining and sometimes hilarious look at American, especially Louisiana, life from a Vietnamese perspective
LibraryThing member larryerick
All of these stories involve Vietnam and Vietnamese people. Nearly all the stories involve Louisiana, and a good number involve Catholicism, as opposed to Buddhism, Taoism, or other more typical Asian religions. I do not know the significance of the particular religious slant. One story had all
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these elements in it, but could have easily had none of them and still made exactly the same points. It was as if it was changed just to fit the ambiance of the rest of the book. Regardless, the author did serve during the Viet Nam War as a translator, and did teach in Louisiana for many years. After the first story in the collection, I quickly developed a feeling that the author had felt a keen interest in the Vietnamese transplants to America, and felt a need to fill a void that existed in relating their lives outside the war to the rest of Americans. More and more as I read, I could envision in my mind a white male American doing one-person one-act plays or monologues, with the author playing the role of a series of Vietnamese characters. After a while this image became less invasive, but I never fully lost the feeling of the author trying to do his Vietnamese friends a favor of telling their story for them. Frankly, I wish there had been a bit more variety in the stories at times, but there is some humor, some suspense, some surprises, but a nearly constant underflow of sadness. This book may have served its purpose for its time, but I strongly suspect a current book written by an actual Vietnamese writer would have very distinct differences.
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LibraryThing member Sean191
So well-written with every character well-developed. I only wonder how this work is perceived by people who are actually Vietnamese or of Vietnamese decent. I didn't seem disrespectful of their culture, I'm just wondering how accurate it's perceived.
LibraryThing member Martha_Thayer
The Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. Great stories.
LibraryThing member mstrust
A Pulitzer Prize winning collection of stories told from the view of Vietnamese characters, most of them re-settled in the New Orleans area after the war. The stories are peopled with an old man at the end of his life who dreams of Ho Chi Minh, a stripper who thought she'd become an American
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housewife, a man who relays his experience with a man-eating ghost to strangers, and a middle-aged woman who finally has a chance to take revenge on the friend who stole her true love.
My favorite was "Love", about a former spy for the American military who had routinely used his power to get rid of men who pursued his beautiful wife, but once they are in America and the wife is wandering again, the husband visits a voodoo papa to get rid of the competition.
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LibraryThing member porian
This is one of the best books I've read in years. I laughed, I cried, and ate alot of chocolate. I don't know why it's not anthologized more.
LibraryThing member Gypsy_Boy
A collection of short stories by an American GI (who has long taught creative writing on the college level) who served as a translator in Vietnam. He clearly is taken with the country and its people but I found it offputting that all of the stories are told by Vietnamese narrators. There’s just
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something about an American writing from the point of view of Vietnamese narrators that bothered me. This won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993; back then, there weren’t a lot of Vietnamese authors writing or available in English so, from that perspective, I guess it’s all understandable but it mostly left me surprised that this was a Pulitzer winner.
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