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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars We're all human, 13 Aug 2009
By 
Catherine Murphy "drcath" (Norway) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Boat (Paperback)
The Boat, a collection of short stories by Nam Le, came to me as one of two books, for achieving the short list for the Litopia short story competition on the subject "First Twin".

In his opening story, Le plays an authorial game. A member of a writing group claims he is sick of "ethnic lit", of writers posing on jacket covers in traditional costume, of stories with descriptions of exotic food. Nam Le is Vietnamese, a member of a writing group and every one of his stories concerns a different type of ethnicity and, of course, contains a mention of some ethnic dish.

This sly humour is characteristic and refreshing. It's needed, because the subject matter is often dark. A child describes his life as an evacuee from his native city. American planes fly overhead on secret missions, his parents visit, reassure him; then return to Hiroshima. A Colombian hitman, barely into his teens, discovers love, loyalty and the price of friendship. An aging artist receives news of terminal illness and desperately attempts to contact his beloved, estranged daughter. A Vietnamese girl boards a boat crammed with other illegal immigrants. A storm blows them off course and supplies of water and food begin to run out.

It's a moving, stunning collection of tales and if Le occasionally allows allusiveness to descend into incoherence, it's forgivable, because these are stories which should drift into silence, rather than end with a bang. And it's only at the end that the point Le makes at the beginning becomes clear: however different our background and experience may appear to make us, just under the surface, we're all human.
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5.0 out of 5 stars `The storm came on quickly.', 15 April 2011
By 
Jennifer Cameron-Smith "Expect the Unexpected" (ACT, Australia) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Boat (Paperback)
This collection of short stories is Nam Le's first book. It's a wonderful collection of seven stories, set in different cultures, contexts and countries. Two of the stories are close to Nam's Vietnamese heritage: Nam and his family escaped from Vietnam in 1979 when Nam was just three months old.

The first story, `Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice' is a story about a writer (also named Nam) studying in the USA. Nam is struggling over whether to use his father's account of surviving My Lai and North Vietnamese prison camps as a creative writing assignment. His father does not care for his son's career choice, and does not appreciate his writing.

The final story `The Boat' is a moving account of the flight of refugees, leaving Vietnam by boat hoping to establish a better life in Australia. It's a story with some haunting moments:

`They stood together in silence, the spray moistening their faces as they looked forward, focusing all their sight and thought on that blurry peninsula ahead, that impossible place, so that they would not be forced to behold the men at the back of the boat peeling the blanket off, swinging the small body once, twice, three times before letting go, tossing him as far behind the boat as possible so he would be out of sight when the sharks attacked.'

`Cartegna' depicts a violent Colombia where boys are transformed into men, and corpses, through drugs and gangs, while `Meeting Elise' (set in Manhattan) is the story of a man dying who is trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. In `Halfhead Bay', a boy lives with his family in an Australian coastal village, while in `Hiroshima' a girl is living in the days before the bomb is dropped. `Tehran Calling' is about a young woman who has returned to her homeland, and is trying to make a difference for those who've been unable to leave.

Seven very different stories, each separate but all connected by a common quest: a search for belonging and a sense of identity. Where (and what) is home, and how do we each define it? I felt this most keenly in `Love and Honor' - a sense that even those who share common heritage can be divided by different experiences and realities. `Love and Honor' takes its title from William Faulkner's 1949 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

`Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.'

Entirely fitting. This is one of the memorable collections of short stories I've read.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Boat - Nam Le, 14 April 2009
By 
B. M. Bennett (london) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Boat (Paperback)
This is an excellent collection of short stories - varied in content but uniformly well written and evocative and I agreed with one critic that the stories would certainly bear more than one reading.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A wide variation, 14 April 2009
This review is from: The Boat (Paperback)
This collection of short stories won't bore you. They are all very different when it comes to setting and characters. Reading the first story sort of explains it all though. You get a feeling that the main character in the first story is the writer himself - who's got a Vietnamese origin - and he's being told that he should write about his past, about what he knows about his people. Which he does in the last story. In between he takes us to Tehran, Hiroshima and South America.

My favourite stories are "Elise" (relationship between father and daughter) and "Tehran calling" (relationship between two old female friends).

Lee is good at describing every day life even if this every day life is set in extreme circumstances. It's still the people I care about, even if I'd like to know more about them. Some of the endings leave me wondering too much.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing colection of short stories, 24 May 2009
By 
F. D. Auton - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Boat (Paperback)
I am not normally a fan of short stories but this one took me by surprise. They are a collection of culturally very different and quite dark stories of great imagination. Exceedingly well written and like it says on the cover - these stories are to be read once and them to come back to again.
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3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Promising Collection, 12 Dec 2008
By 
MisterHobgoblin (Melbourne) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Boat (Hardcover)
The Boat is a collection of short stories - seven of them, with the longest approaching novella length, They are diverse; each with a very different scenario - ranging from bandits in Colombia; to a young American woman caught up with a resistance movement in Teheran; to Vietnamese refugees on a junk. Nobody can accuse Nam Le of trading on the standard fare of ethnic literature. But that's really a judgement for others to make; readers should praise Nam Le for breaking away from expectations - but when Nam Le does it himself?

This brings us back to the very first story - the improbably titled Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice. In this story, the viewpoint character is a Vietnamese writer in the US, being visited by his father. This prompts soul-searching about what it is to be a writer; what it is to have left the culture of your parents and embraced a foreign culture. The writer in the story appears caught between writing a fiction based on experience - set in a boat fleeing Viet Nam - and writing diverse stories that defy expectations. Oh, and the writer in Nam Le's story is apparently named after Viet Nam. Now given that what unfolds is a set of diverse stories culminating in the boat one, we have a fairly obvious, personal piece of self-analysis. Some people will herald this as a provocative act of genius, but others might think it looks a little bit too raw, too crude. The point of fiction, surely, is to tell common truths through analogy, not to simply set out personal philosophy with no attempt made to change identities or situations. But then, at the end, perhaps fiction does take over. Nam Le's father surely wouldn't have done *that*?

As with all collections of short stories, the success depends on whether or not the reader catches hold of particular stories. Different readers will find different highlights. The Colombian rebel story seemed the most intriguing, but the beautifully simple, clear narrative was let down in the end by an ambiguous ending - again, a device that will be to some tastes and not others. But in getting beneath the stereotypical characters, portraying the real people behind the cartoonish roles, Nam Le seems to be at his best.

This is a promising collection of stories if you can get through the wince factor of the first one. The writing is mostly clear and lucid. Nam Le conjures up images and scenes with few words, but with great precision and detail. There is more to the stories than one might imagine from their length and it would be interesting to see what Nam Le could make of a full length narrative.
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The Boat by Nam Le (Hardcover - 15 Aug 2008)
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