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A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

Selection

“A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain”

Ho Chi Minh came to me again last night, his hands covered with confectioners’ sugar. This was something of a surprise to me, the first time I saw him beside my bed, in the dim light from the open shade. My oldest daughter leaves my shades open, I think so that I will not forget that the sun has risen again in the morning. I am a very old man. She seems to expect that one morning I will simply forget to keep living. This is very foolish. I will one night rise up from my bed and slip into her room and open the shade there. Let her see the sun in the morning. She is sixty-four years old and she should worry for herself. I could never die from forgetting.

But the light from the street was enough to let me recognize Ho when I woke, and he said to me, “Dao, my old friend, I have heard it is time to visit you.” Already on that first night there was a sweet smell about him, very strong in the dark, even before I could see his hands. I said nothing, but I stretched to the nightstand beside me and I turned on the light to see if he would go away. And he did not. He stood there beside the bed—I could even see him reflected in the window—and I knew it was real because he did not appear as he was when I’d known him but as he was when he’d died.

Reviews

1992

1992

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain is remarkable… for how beautifully it achieves its daring project of making the Vietnamese real.”

— George Packer, The New York Times Book Review

“Butler writes essentially, and in a bewitching translation of voice and sympathy, what it means to lose a country, to remember it, and to have the memory begin to grow old. He writes as if it were his loss, too.”

— Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Butler’s achievement is not only to reveal the inner lives of the Vietnamese, but also to show, through their eyes, how the rest of us appear from an outside perspective, one more objective than our own. Any reader of this book will feel a strange and perhaps salutary sense of exposure, and be made to wonder, among other things, just who are the ‘real’ Americans.”

— Madison Smartt Bell, Chicago Tribune

“Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain is both funny and deeply affecting. It is a brilliant collection of stories about storytellers whose recited folklore radiates as implicit prayer. This is one of the strongest collections I’ve read in ages.”

— Ann Beattie

“Some of the images in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain—a woman sleeping under a grandfather clock, a parasail carrying a dreamer across the horizon, the ghost of Ho Chi Minh—are as memorable as the stories they punctuate. We have Robert Olen Butler’s wide-range vision, his compassionate memory of the war, to thank for that.”

— Gail Caldwell, The Boston Sunday Globe

“The number of novels and short-story collections about the Vietnam War is now approaching five hundred. Were I to recommend a single volume that poignantly shows the magnitude and the humanity of the tragedy, it would be this one… Each story is written with compassion, extraordinary insight, and frequent humor.”

— John Clark Pratt, The Detroit News

“Each of the fifteen stories here brings us a sharp impression of a different person, speaking magically to us across the silent page. Some of Butler’s characters are circumspect, quiet, even elegant in their narration; others are jumbled and ragged. All of them real… This is one of the best, most finely tuned pieces of prose fiction that I have read in a long time.”

— Vince Passaro, New York Newsday

“I like Robert Olen Butler’s work very much. His is a voice searching for explanations and clarifications—of the human condition. With A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, he delves into the life of a community that is still very much a mystery to the American reader. With this book he gives us both the spirit of a people and the insight and artistry of a compassionate and entertaining writer.”

— Oscar Hijuelos

“Robert Olen Butler is a profound and reliable writer for brave adults. These stories are a searing adventure into the New World he makes of America.”

— Frederick Busch

“Superb work. Strong stuff. Robert Olen Butler has caught for us the Vietnamese sense of elegance and delicacy, history and family, in an excellent collection of stories. Written in an array of first-person Vietnamese voices, there is an undercurrent of longing and loss, ambition and dread. And these stories are spooky. After all, how would you like Ho Chi Minh coming to you in a dream with the dust of sugar on his hands? This is Butler’s finest work.”

— Larry Heinemann

“These are masterful stories—funny, touching, sometimes troubling—about transplanted souls who are not quite ready to break the hold of their native soil. If there is such a thing as a book whose time has come, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain is that book. I read it with pleasure, learned from it, and I will read it again.”

— Rick DeMarinis

“Robert Olen Butler has written an extraordinary book. He has managed to depict both Vietnam and Louisiana simultaneously in stories that have the delicate and graceful quality of tropical flowers. The use of fable and folktale, the juxtaposition of occidental and Asian cultures, the description of the Gulf Coast South through the eyes of refugees, make for an incredible literary accomplishment. Robert Olen Butler is a poet who writes prose fiction; but more important is the beauty he saw rise from a tragic war. There is no American writer I know of who writes with more compassion and understanding than he.”

— James Lee Burke

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