Readers of contemporary fiction, followers of ethnic lit, and lovers of short stories, take note: Nam Le's debut collection is a must-listen. Winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize and a New York Times Notable Book of 2008, this collection of seven stories covers vast geographic territory from Vietnam to Australia to Tehran to Iowa to New York City. And though there's no common theme, there are links: solid writing, transparent emotion, and astute observation. In the opening tale, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice", the Vietnam-born, Australian-raised Le touches upon the responsibilities of ethnicity through a character named Nam at the Iowa Writers Workshop. "You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing," a fellow student tells Nam. "Ethnic literature is hot now, and important," says another. The story touches on satire, but hits a truer note, as does the rest of the book.
The protagonists are so disparate a 14-year-old assassin in Bogota, Colombia; a Japanese child in 1945 Hiroshima; a young American woman visiting a friend in Tehran it's delightful to hear them in their own voices. The seven narrators give each story its own sound that fits the main characters, letting you sink deeply into the worlds. Henry Strozier, as the narrator of "Meeting Elise", is particularly effective, using his gravelly voice to portray a prickly, aging New York City painter who's about to meet his estranged daughter for the first time just as he receives a cancer diagnosis and longs for his dead lover. Gideon Emery reads "Halfhead Bay" about an Australian teenager struggling with first love and the imminent death of his mother, in a boyish Australian accent. The depths these stories reach in a brief time make The Boat perfect for those who want to escape their days, in hour-long blocks. Kelly Marages
In the magnificent opening story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice", a young writer is urged by his friends to mine his father's experiences in Vietnam - and what seems at first a satire of turning one's life into literary commerce becomes a transcendent exploration of homeland and the ties between father and son. "Cartagena" provides a visceral glimpse of life in Colombia as it enters the mind of a 14-year-old hit man facing the ultimate test. In "Meeting Elise", an aging New York painter mourns his body's decline as he prepares to meet his daughter on the eve of her Carnegie Hall debut. And with graceful symmetry, the final, title story returns to Vietnam, to a fishing trawler crowded with refugees, where a young woman's bond with a mother and her small son forces both women to a shattering decision.
Brilliant, daring, and demonstrating a jaw-dropping versatility of voice and point of view, The Boat is an extraordinary work of fiction that takes us to the heart of what it means to be human, and announces a writer of astonishing gifts.
©2008 Nam Le; (P)2009 Recorded Books, LLC
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
If you like literary short stories, this is a well-crafted collection. Le does an impressive job of getting inside the minds of his diverse characters -- a teenage hitman in Colombia, a young girl in World War II Japan, a 30something American woman visiting a friend in Tehran -- and making the realities they live in feel convincing. The pieces drew me in more through the moment-to-moment evocativeness of the language than the plots or the characters, and Le's efforts to be lyrical sometimes felt a little forced, but, for the most part, he writes with impressive maturity for an author so young. The pieces touch on themes like loneliness, obligation, mortality, and the sacrifices that people make that end up setting them apart from others.
I recommend The Boat in its audiobook form: short stories like these are meant for being read aloud, and each voice actor does a fine job, his or her accent and intonation fitting the location and mood of the piece perfectly. I look forward to experiencing Le's first novel, if he writes one -- he has an undeniable talent for viewpoint and texture.
guess I am not a short story listener. I wish they'd put a longer break at the end of the story.
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