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Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam Hardcover – September 29, 1999

4.4 out of 5 stars 202 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Kirkus Reviews

A brilliantly written memoir in which a young Vietnamese-American uses a bicycle journey in his homeland as a vehicle to tell his eventful life story. The veteran-penned ``going back'' book has become a subgenre of the American Vietnam War canon. So, too, has the multigenerational Vietnamese-refugee family saga. Now comes a stunning first: a family tale by a Vietnamese-American that centers on an eye-opening trip to his native land. Pham (born Pham Xuan An) fled Vietnam with his family in 1977 at age ten. Raised in California, he worked hard, went to UCLA, and landed a good engineering job. A few years ago, rebelling against family pressures to succeed and a patronizing, if not racist, work environment, Pham quit his job. Much to his parents' displeasure, he set off on bicycle excursions through Mexico, Japan, and, finally, Vietnam. ``I have to do something unethnic,'' he says. ``I have to go. Make my pilgrimage.'' In his first book, Pham details his solo cycling journeys, mixing in stories of his and his family's life before and after leaving Vietnam. The most riveting sections are Pham's exceptional evocations of his father's time in a postwar communist reeducation (read: concentration) camp and the family's near miraculous escape by sea from their homeland. The heart of the narrative is Pham's depiction of his five-month adventure in Vietnam, often not a pretty picture. Because of his unique status as a budget-minded Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese), he runs into significant harassment from the police and many unfriendly civilians. For every moment of self-discovery and enchantment there seem to be ten of disappointment and dispiritednessplus nearly constant physical pain from his journey and a bout of dysentery. But Pham perseveres. He returns to his home, America, with a smile on his face. An insightful, creatively written report on Vietnam today and on the fate of a Vietnamese family in America. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Amazon.com Review

A great memoirist can burnish even an ordinary childhood into something bright--see, for instance, Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. So what about a really good writer with access to a dramatic and little-documented story? This is the case with Catfish and Mandala, Vietnamese American Andrew X. Pham's captivating first book, which delves fearlessly into questions of home, family, and identity. The son of Vietnamese parents who suffered terribly during the Vietnam War and brought their family to America when he was 10, Pham, on the cusp of his 30s, defied his parents' conservative hopes for him and his engineering career by becoming a poorly paid freelance writer. After the suicide of his sister, he set off on an even riskier path to travel some of the world on his bicycle. In the grueling, enlightening year that followed, he pedaled through Mexico, the American West Coast, Japan, and finally his far-off first land, Vietnam.

The story, with some of a mandala's repeated symbolic motifs, works on several levels at once. It is an exploration into the meaning of home, a descriptive travelogue, and an intimate look at the Vietnamese immigrant experience. There are beautifully illuminated flashbacks to the experience of fleeing Vietnam and to an earlier, more innocent childhood. While Pham's stern father, a survivor of Vietcong death camps, regrets that Pham has not been a respectful Vietnamese son, he also reveals that he wishes he himself had been more "American" for his kids, that he had "taken [them] camping." Catfish and Mandala is a book of double-edged truths, and it would make a fascinating study even in less able hands. In those of the adventurous, unsentimental Pham, it is an irresistible story. --Maria Dolan

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (September 29, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374119740
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374119744
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (202 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #594,379 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The 25th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon was approaching, as was a conference at NYC's Asia Society on Vietnamese American authors, so I purchased this book for a friend. But before I gave the book away, I started to read the preface. And I was as hooked as a net caught in a propeller. I gorged myself on this book's language. It was so poetic, I wanted to deconstruct the sentences to see how Pham built them. How this book did not win a National Book Award I can not fathom. (although it was honored with the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize). As was said in the reviews above and below, Pham's book is an adventure book as worthy as any Outside Magazine story, a memoir, and an extended essay on cultural identity, immigration, guilt, and family dynamics. The metaphor filled, flowing chapters alternate between his current bike trip, the immigrant experience, and his family's flight from Vietnam two decades ago. The book is honest, humorous (as in when he relates his Dilbert-like experiences working as an aerospace engineer in California, or when his brother's boyfriend offers him a supermarket of armaments for road biking protection), psychologically complex (the duty of the first son, the guilt over a suicide), frightening (when relating the experiences of his father in a post-War Vietnamese prison, their escape as boat-people, finding lodging at the home of what may be an escaped mental patient), gutsy (finding a bike path from Narita Airport), sensual, exhilarating, sad, profound, and subtle (can you save every beggar, can you marry every poor Vietnamese woman). Simply a must read.
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Format: Hardcover
I traveled through Vietnam in 1998 and I found Andrew Pham's vivid descriptions of contemporary Vietnam in 'Catfish and Mandala' piercingly accurate. In the pantheon of "Vietnam" literature this book comes from a voice and perspective that has been grossly under-represented. Andrew Pham makes the most of this opportunity by writing a carefully crafted, moving and important work. Between the covers the reader is transported in time and place, from the author's childhood hometown of Phan Viet in the 1970's, to the low socio-economic Northern California suburbs of the 1980's, to the chaos and disarray of modern-day Saigon. It should be made clear that this is not a book about the Vietnam War; in one sense it has everything to do with the war (without it he would not be here today), in another it has nothing to do with it. The war is the 800 pound elephant in the living room, the event that until now has defined the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam for most Americans. But Pham makes it clear that most Vietnamese have long since tried to move on, and this allows him to tackle the more universal and timeless issues of family, relationships, friendship, powerlessness, frustration, empowerment, injustice, corruption, redemption. He does this with remarkable success. I could not put this book down and would recommend it to anyone.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It has been a long, long time since I have been so moved by the work of a new American author. "Catfish and Mandala, A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam", by Andrew X Pham, is a book that invites one along on a trek through the minds, hearts, and souls of two nations. As a veteran of the Vietnam War I tagged along willing with Mr. Pham----at first. I soon found myself being pulled deeper into the past, a past that long ago laid waste to my youth and my spirit. Having read this book, I view the world in another light. I view the Vietnamese and American people with an understanding that has escaped me for so many years. To call "Catfish and Mandala" a travelogue is to call Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and Kerouac's "On the Road" travel books. "Catfish and Mandala" is truly great literature. I only wish it had been written sooner.
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Format: Hardcover
Catfish and Mandala is the best book about Vietnam I have read in decades. It is humorous, witty, moving, but also very disturbing. Andrew Pham talks about his family's escape from Vietnam, his father's time spent in re-education camp, his family in the U.S., his sister's suicide, his brothers' homosexuality. But best of all is his bicycle travelogue in Vietnam with little money. It's a truly refreshing book, completely different from the tales that I heard from my Vietnamese friends who came back and travelled in air-conditioned cars. And even though I want to believe them, somehow their stories contradict with the experiences I had while living there. Andrew's book is a rare gem that explores the stories behind that are not readily available to the wide-eyed tourists in sanitized packaged tours. In Saigon, Andrew broke down sobbing after a beggar who resembled his old girlfriend pleaded for the leftover food. While travelling to visit his father's old prison, he was left with packages of smuggled tobacco while the police was searching the bus and demanding bribery. And in Vung Tau, he befriended a beautiful young girl who worked in one of those "embracing beer" halls. She was begging him to take her to the U.S. Even if he didn't love her, he could pretend to marry her so he could take her out. "My children, grandchildren, great grandchildren will thank you everyday for the rest of their lives," she said. When he refused, she just left and the next morning he saw her hand-in-hand with a white tourist who might be easier to be persuaded. The trip continued as he came back to his hometown Phan Thiet and then went up North to Ha Noi and beyond.Read more ›
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