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A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants: A Memoir Paperback – January 8, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this affecting memoir, Coffin relates tales from his childhood and the complications that arise from being the offspring of an interracial couple in the late 1970s. Coffin's father was a U.S. soldier who met his mother in Taiwan during the Vietnam War. Not long after they venture to America to start a new life, Coffin's parents separated and he and his younger sister, Tahnthawan, moved to Maine with their mother. Coffin was taken back to his mother's Taiwanese village several times during his childhood, and, on one occasion, encountered an elderly Buddhist priest who claimed the boy should come and live as a monk. Years later as a university student, he returned to the village to become a monk in the hopes of finding himself and his true identity. He meditated and learned prayers and chants, but often found himself alone in his room, sleeping on the floor next to his Buddha statue until he begins to question whether he is meant for the life of a monk. In heartfelt prose, Coffin beautifully captures his journey, both geographical and internal. (Feb.)
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“It’s worth reading this book twice. Once for the story—absorbing and, at times, amusing—and once more for the poetry: crystalline observations of people and place that float alongside the narrative. What could have been a simple coming-of-age tale is, in Coffin’s hands, a wry, at times lyrical commentary on cultural identity and Buddhist practice.”

Asians in America
“Jaed Coffin’s memoir A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants is both honest and heartfelt that the reader cannot help but be absorbed into the narrator's world by his lyrical words…A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants is a book that Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans alike will genuinely enjoy reading. It will inspire others to do what Coffin has done: to find who they are and not fear what they may discover in their journey.”

Multicultural Review, Fall 08
“Plain-spoken but lively, unflowery prose that at times recalls one of [Coffin’s] ‘literary idols,’ Ernest Hemingway…Packed with fascinating detail and a kind of melancholy beauty.”

Reference & Research Book News, 02/09
“Coffin vividly recalls his sense of displacement and struggles with his ethnic identity…Coffin brings his American sensibilities and Thai heritage together in an account that is witty and deeply appreciative of both his heritages.”

“A colorful account of [Coffin’s] experience…This story will have a lot of appeal for older YAs and adults who are interested in religious experiences and journeying to discover more about oneself.”

Portland Monthly Magazine, November 2008
“Ernest Hemingway and Jack London would envy this talented memoirist’s travels.”

You Probably Shouldn’t Read This, 4/11/09
“Evokes Thailand in a strong, compassionate way…Coffin’s writing is fluid and evocative.”

Spynotes, 4/12/09
“The writing is truly excellent—shimmering descriptions couched in spare, efficient prose.”

International Review, 12/2/2009
“Coffin’s descriptions of life in Thailand as a monk are intriguing…[His] writing is blunt and honest.”


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 205 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; 1st Da Capo Press Ed edition (January 8, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306815265
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306815263
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #826,236 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Utah Dave on March 9, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Jaed recounts some fascinating experiences succinctly and artfully, some you would never expect of a Buddhist monk. What I found lacking was the dropping of some important motifs, specifically whether he pursued his Buddhist practice to any degree after he returned from Thailand, and how he ultimately regarded his romantic interest in Lek. For someone who belittled American culture so much (and I'm not criticizing him for that), Jaed was very American in pursuing an idealized quest abroad, abandoning it within a season, and going on to describe his next projects as though the pipe dream never happened. If the experiences were so fascinating and important, what were the ultimate impacts of them on his life and why?
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Linda Bulger VINE VOICE on April 27, 2008
Format: Paperback
Jaed Coffin grew up in Maine, the son of a Thai mother and a white American soldier. His parents divorced when he was an infant and until her father died, his mother brought him and his sister on several visits to her ancestral home town. Growing up with roots in two cultures, he felt--as young people often do--rooted in neither.

While at Middlebury College Coffin studied philosophy and, he writes, "had become obsessed with Buddhist thought and secretly imagined that my cultural background entitled me to privileged insight into ancient sutras." The reader might have preferred more on his spiritual path as a prelude to Coffin's decision to go to Thailand and be ordained as a monk. It may have been a question of family or cultural responsibility, like compulsory military service, but that is not conveyed in Coffin's writing.

A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants: A Memoir is Coffin's story of life in the temple as a chanting monk. He writes in an observational fashion and the details of this culture shock are vivid. He spoke very little Thai when he immersed himself in temple life, nor was his understanding of Buddhism extensive. And, it must be said, his commitment to the celibate life was not deep.

The writing is crisp and descriptive but the main character of this memoir remains something of an unknown. Coffin writes of his "not sure heart" and after ten weeks, decides to go back to the U.S. and finish college; or maybe that was always his intention? There's a further decision to be made, about a Thai girl named Lek, and again the decision process is not explored for us.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Constant Reader on August 31, 2008
Format: Paperback
That's a harsh heading, but this really is an incredible story... of one college undergrad's brief summer visit to Thailand. A philosophy major unsure of what (if anything) he wants to do, Coffin applies on a whim for a grant to live as a monk in his mom's hometown in Thailand. This certainly has the potential to be interesting... but since he isn't actually a Buddhist or very interested in Buddhism, nor is he spiritual or very interested in spirituality, nor does he speak Thai or is interested in trying to learn it, essentially he hangs around, ogling the local girls and feeling angst-ridden and bored. He makes friends with one of the few English-speaking monks and marvels at the man's seemingly cryptic utterances ("I go ten thousand years in cave!")-- I couldn't help wondering if the man might have been less cryptic and more interesting in his native language-- and at the end of the summer goes back to Middlebury. This certainly isn't a book about monastary life, Buddhism or even much about Thailand, which remains impenetrable to the author; instead it's all about him, but his lack of engagement or interest in anything but himself makes him just one more undergrad philosophy major. I couldn't figure out why I should care.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By R. Ng-Yow on January 29, 2008
Format: Paperback
Excellent! A well written and high engrossing read. Part autobiographical, part travelogue, and a highly adventerous recollection of Jaed Coffin's experience as a Buddhist monk. Jaed writes with pure honesty and an exacting recollection of his thoughts while undergoing his explorations. Required reading for anyone interested in better understanding Southeast Asian culture and ways! Highly recommended.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By BEN C. on January 19, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In a world where many find time for introspection only when we mistakenly leave our BlackBerrys in the car while we queue up at Starbucks, we could learn a lot by reading this fascinating book about a young man's quest to honor his culture and discover his values. It takes a unique drive to leave a preppy New England school to become a monk in Thaliand - and it takes courage to write about the emotions of the experience candidly. This book is a treat to read - honest and succinct. Strongly recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By EConverse on October 31, 2010
Format: Paperback
This is an ethnography by a boy struggling to find his ethnic identity (as he is the son of a white U.S. soldier and a woman from Thailand) and more importantly his difficulty in finding his right place in the world. He grows up in Maine and attends Middlebury College, where he receives a grant to fly to Thailand and return to his mother's former village and become an ordained monk. He travels the Thai countryside and learns about Buddhism, humanity, and himself. He returns to finish college and to move on with his life.

I appreciated the author's truthfulness and openness in explaining his experiences. Jaed Coffin gave no hesitation in writing about his feelings and contemplations, often adhering to the default "act as a good monk would act" even when he felt quite the contrary. The insider's perspective into the monastic life was very interesting. He was very relate-able and did not put himself on a pedestal. He explained his feelings toward a girl that he knew he could not become close to and his constant self-questioning of his decision and his regrets.

The read was very quick and easy and I could not wait to hear the next step. I would have liked to hear more about what happens to Coffin after returning to the U.S. or perhaps a second return to Thailand, but perhaps in another book. The piece was well-structured and very enjoyable. I also would have liked a little more depth into the monastery-life and less on his journey, but that's just my opinion.
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