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VINE VOICEon June 18, 2008
THE BOAT is an engaging and free-wheeling collection of seven short stories by first-timer Nam Le, organized in a cleverly self-referential package. In the pivotal first story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" (a title drawn from William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950), a young Vietnamese American lawyer-turned-aspiring author named Nam is visited by his father, just arrived from Australia. Nam has settled in Iowa to attend the renowned Iowa Writer's Workshop.

As he struggles to meet its creative demands and beat his own writer's block, a friend encourages Nam simply to write about Vietnam, since "ethnic literature's hot." Another friend differs: "It's a license to bore. The characters are always flat, generic." It's that last friend who tosses out as an aside, "You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans - and New York painters with hemorrhoids." And thus is THE BOAT.

The second story follows the perilous life of Juan Pablo Merendez, an adolescent assassin in Medillin, Colombia as he is called to task by his boss for failing to carry out an execution. Next comes "Meeting Elise," the story of an aging, hemorrhoid-afflicted painter seeking desperately to make amends with his estranged (and engaged) daughter as she makes her Carnegie Hall debut as a concert cellist. Another story, titled simpy "Hiroshima," traces the life of a young Japanese girl moved to the safety of the nearby countryside in the days immediately preceding the dropping of the atomic bomb. "Hiroshima" is sandwiched between two other stories, one a "coming of age" story in a coastal Australian town, the other a "coming to life's purpose" story in Tehran, Iran. After this whirlwind tour, Nam Le returns for the finale to Vietnam for his title story, "The Boat." Not surprisingly, this one is a flight and survival story, focusing on Mai, a young girl cast adrift for days in the Pacific with two hundred other refugees on a smugglers' trawler that has lost its engines.

So what to make of the metastructure? In Nam Le's opening story, the writer Nam succumbs to the pressure of his writing assignment and opts to "exploit the Vietnamese thing." He interviews his father, a survivor of the My Lai massacre, and converts this horrific story relatively quickly and easily into typewritten copy. He awakens the next morning to discover that his father has read and then destroyed the one and only copy. Has Nam Le the author discarded ethnic literature of his own (the figurative tearing up of the My Lai story by his fictional father in the first story) for that of Colombians, Japanese, Iranians, and Australians? And has he, upon attempting to step outside his own ethnicity and into the skins of others, returned unsatisfied to his own Vietnamese experience for his closing story? Is the reader intended to compare the relative merits of Nam's own ethnic (Vietnam-based) stories with those drawn from the world at large? Or are we to see the opening and closing stories as literary "brackets" of the immigrant/ethnic literature genre, one a tale of departure or escape, the other of adaptation and assimilation?

There seems little doubt that the opening and closing stories are Nam Le's most affecting. The opener is touching in its treatment of intergenerational relationships and differences in perception, while the closer is a harrowing tale of sun, salt, thirst, and death for the sake of freedom. In between, the other stories show notable flashes of literary command, but only the "Cartegena" story in Colombia engages the reader with anything approaching the story-telling power of the opening and closing Vietnamese stories.

Perhaps Nam's fictional friend in his opening story is correct, that one writes best about what one knows best, that it really is best to "totally exploit" ethnic literature. In Nam Le's case, THE BOAT shows an emerging authorial talent that promises the possibility of compelling ethnic literature as well as a future range well beyond "the Vietnamese thing." It is quite easy to recommend this book on its merits and also advise readers to keep a watchful eye out for Nam Le's next effort.
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Perhaps this is the year of short stories. In April Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth" was published to the delight of lovers of short stories. And now this dazzling debut, a collection of seven short stories titled "The Boat", by Nam Le. Even though he is only 29 years old, he writes with the wisdom of a very old and experienced writer. The title story is very long, and reads like a novella.

Unlike Lahiri's stories which are mostly about the lives and experiences of immigrants from India in the United States of America, Mr. Le's stories take place around the world, in Vietnam , Iran, United States, Australia, in the slums of Columbia in South America, and in Iowa, and in cities like Manhattan. The first story with a very long and curious title of "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice", has elements of autobiography, because its protagonist, a man named Nam who, like the author, was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia. And like the author, he is a lawyer who goes to Iowa to take a course in writing. His father suddenly decides to visit him, and a reader can feel the uncomfortable tension between the father and the son. I felt that the father was quite abusive towards his son, lashing him mercilessly, when the writer was a boy.

Of all the stories, I liked "Meeting Elise", about an old painter named Henry Luff, who is dying from terminal cancer, and who decides to meet his estranged daughter, Elise, in a fancy restaurant at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan. It is a very moving story.

Mr. Nam Le's prose is elegant, smooth, and almost lyrical. The sentences shine because of their clarity: "The truth was, he'd come at the worst possible time. I was in my last year at the Iowa Writers' Workshop; it was late November, and my final story for the semester was due in three days. I had a backlog of papers to grade and a heap of fellowship and job applications to draft and submit. It was no wonder I was drinking so much."

This is indeed an amazing and very impressive debut. I wouldn't be surprised if it wins major literary awards such as the Pulitzer or the National Book Award.
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VINE VOICEon October 10, 2013
Nam Le's stories are about people from all over the world who hope to live somewhere else and the struggle to get there. The Boat has the sufferings of Vietnamese boat people trying survive a sea voyage that kills many if not most. Two women are on board with a young boy who was given to be raised by one when the other had him illegitimately and would have been disgraced if people had known. The two women struggle with each other who is the actual mother and who should care for the child as people on the boat sicken and die. Another story has two Colombian teens who have fallen into gun running for FARC as they hope to make money to go to America. Another story is of a fishing village in Australia where the fish are depleted and residents are desiring to move to the city. A boy whose family is originally from the city and whose parents are more sophisticated, struggles with bullying from boys whose families are longer inhabitants. The bullies families back the boys up while the bullied boy's family reports the trouble to the school. Other stories carry as much weight as these stories. I was very impressed by the writing and loved each one.
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on October 29, 2013
Although this book is well written I thought I was getting someting different. Not the authors fault. I could not do the voilence in the stories that I read. It was recommended to me by my daughter and I felt that I was ready for a more meaningful book. Not so. This book is not a light read and is full of the stories of oppression and hardship. Authenticlly written but noto my time.
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on February 24, 2013
The scope of this writing is tremendously impressive. David Mitchell notwithstanding, there aren't many modern writers who can globetrot as believably as Nam Le. Le possesses the strange ability to slip between skins with ease, and though the two strongest stories in the collection ("Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" and "Halflead Bay") seem to reside closest to his own experiences, the range and reliability of the voices in this collection is nothing short of breathtaking.

I will be eagerly waiting for all of Nam Le's future work. This is a brilliant debut, and there's nowhere to go from here but up.
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on April 14, 2011
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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on May 19, 2008
although i think "halflead bay" was suppose to be the climactic piece in the collection, my favorite was "hiroshima." i don't know, it might have been the constant repetitions of the japanese slogan ("one hundred million deaths with honor!") that haunted me, especially coming from the narrator a young child but after i finished that story i got chills.

i was afraid he was going to be lahiri-esque but was pleasantly surprised to find that his prose was lyrical, choppy and abstract; very real, in other words. and he's young, only 29 i think.

the biggest triumph of the book is how seamlessly he writes about other people (besides asians) and i think this is really shocking for readers, for critics especially -- that a non-white writer can do that. le's "the boat" succeeds in all the ways that chang rae lee's "aloft" failed. lahiri, lee they are still trapped in the ethnic dialogue, and i don't blame them...it's of their generation. but i'm relieved, freakin celebrating the fact that the immigrant experience, while valuable and eye-opening is being treated with a critical eye now, one that appraises it more honestly especially in comparison to other, more probing questions that we all, immigrant or not, share.

structurally speaking, i liked the fact that his writing was very disparate, wave-like almost. he's a very visual writer, that said, in the last two stories (tehran calling and the boat), i didn't know what was going on sometimes...which might have been the point.
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on November 13, 2009
This is a book for those who believe that well-constructed art is not just what's nice to look at, but that which effectively causes the observer to feel. It's an extraordinarily poignant collection of stories about far-flung places and times that starts with a memory of Vietnam, penetrates the dark world of Colombia's slumlords, and accompanies an adolescent boy in a remote Australian fishing village as he navigates the dichotomous journeys of losing his mother and experiencing his first love. It wades through the glittering emotional wreckage of an ailing, estranged father in New York City, follows a child through the prelude to the bombing of Hiroshima in Japan, traces the steps of a woman's fight for equilibrium in Iran, and at last, in a poetically symmetrical terminus, returns to Vietnam, in a languishing vessel full of refugees searching desperately for escape.

The book is difficult emotionally, with few likable characters, and yet the author conclusively transports the reader to each vastly different location and era, and straight to the core of each disparate mind, with a truly startling sense of reality. One continuously striking aspect of these stories is that they uniformly lack dénouement. Each one ends at its apex, leaving the reader mid-plunge and without the ballast of resolution. While this technique was at first frustrating for me, once I found my balance in it, I came to see it as a skillful illustration of the fact that life is about the journey, and the destination is meant for mystery.
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on October 8, 2013
I was looking forward to reading this book because I thought Nam Le would have a fresh new writing style to reflect a new age of Australian authors. However, I found him writing stories that did not resonate as real or true to me. Settings in South America and Japan seemed unbelievable. In the Australian short story about the young boy with a mother with multiple sclerosis, the suffering the mother endured seemed so unlike my experience of supporting a multiple sclerosis sufferer. His writing is fluid and enjoyable though.
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on January 25, 2014
This is one of those rare books that make you draw your breath in by the sheer power and beauty of the writing. I read this around the same time I read "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak. Both are truly extraordinary literary achievements by young authors. They write like 'old souls' with a wisdom way beyond their years. Read "The Boat". Read "The Book Thief".
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