A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Stories

ISBN: 0749397675
ISBN 13: 9780749397678
By: Robert Olen Butler

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About this book

This 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of 15 stories evokes the ordeals of the Vietnamese people in the Vietnam War. Old or young, humble or arrogant, puzzled or proud, these are the characters for whom the absurdities of American popular culture and memories of war uneasily coexist.

Reader's Thoughts


I know lots of people love this book, but these short stories were hit or miss for me. The book romanticizes (or maybe anti-romanticizes)the immigrant experience. The overarching theme is Vietnamese immigrants having trouble assimilating in America. You’ve heard it before: the old ways are pure and spiritual; America is soulless and video games, etc., etc.Some stories were good. A few were excellent. Many made me roll my eyes. The worst was the longest story in the book about a Vietnamese woman who yearns to be close to her husband, but is so committed to tradition, she would not even touch him unless he initiates contact first. Instead, she obsessively observes her husband, constantly trying to decipher his moods and thoughts. (I mean, I hate to be unsympathetic, but for crying out loud. Touch his hand, see how it goes.) And it is all described in excruciating detail worthy of Ian McEwan’s Saturday. I mean, I see the literary value of this story, I just didn’t enjoy reading it.If you are nostalgic for the olden days and/or like Booker Prize winners, this book is for you.

Jenny Zhang

Writing in mock broken English from the perspective of a naive Vietnamese prostitute with perky tits is so fucking stupid, but it still gets you a Pulitzer. This book makes me want to beat up my friends.


This book was a recent pick by our Readers Group (now 10 years running) and it was an author/title that was new to me. I've discovered that the "no prior knowledge" approach can be a great way to approach film or literature as you bring no expectations to it. How I had missed this tough I don't know. Butler's Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection of post-war Vietnamese immigrants is an important work by anyone's standard. If you've read novels on Vietnam then this is an important addition to that canon as it reflects a side of the war that has never been covered before. At least I'm unaware of any work like it. Much like Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" Butler gives an alternate view... the survivor's of a civil war. The characters in this book are often rooted in Vietnamese tradition trying to move on in a new home that is often unfamiliar or unfriendly to them. All of them are marked by the war in some way, whether it was first hand or by displacement by their parents. Each story stands on it's own offering another perspective to a complex war. These stories are not so much about war than about the aftermath and how it ripples through generations. This collection deserves to be recognized with some of the finest writing on the Vietnam War such as Philip Caputo's "Rumor of War", Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried", and Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke." There is more than one view to a war and "A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain" is a piece that is rarely represented but just as important.

Nathan James

I've been meaning to read this Pulitzer Prize winning book for years. Finally got it, and yet again, I have to ask myself why I wait so long to read such good books.Robert Olen Butler's collection of short stories from the perspective of Vietnamese emigrants to New Orleans.***************SPOILERS AHOY AHOY**********************The first three stories sucker-punched me. About three quarters of the way through each one a character witnesses or does something that either breaks my heart or gives me chills. The Trip Back is one of the MOST BEAUTIFUL SHORT STORIES I have ever read. And I'm pretty well read, if I do say so myself. I'm tearing up just thinking about the husband's act of consolation to his wife at the end. God, I want to write like that.Ok. So, that said, the first three stories were the strongest for me, Other heavy hitters were Preparation and Missing. Both of these stories had strong psychological implications. The American Couple went on a little too long. I trust the author to know that he needed the game show stuff in that story, but its purpose was not clear to me and did not add anything of value. Also, I found Gabrielle's constant awareness of her own observations very grating. If I could go back and skip reading that short story, I think I would have given this book 5 stars.The short story from which this book is named was also one of my least favorite stories of this collection. I have to conclude that its themes are essential in Butler's mind, because he named the collection after it. But the narration was nebulous (on purpose, I think, because the narrator was on his deathbed), as was its meaning. I should go back and read that one again to see if I missed something. A Ghost Story also seemed unnecessary.


Like all on this site, I'm a voracious reader. In my lifetime I've read thousands of books, including many of the great classics of literature. This book is my absolute favorite book of all time. The first time I read this book, I did it in a sitting. And then I proceeded to read it twice more in a 48 hour span. The prose is first-rate, with imageries that jump off the page. Butler weaves themes and phrases from one part of a story throughout the rest of the story to perfection. This book makes me want to be a writer; it makes me wish I had written that perfect sentence I had just read. The quality of stories ranges from superb to breathtaking. I can't say enough good things about this book. It is my all-time favorite.


It was OK, but seemed to be the same story over and over. Plus, I could never forget that it was a white man writing. Seemed false to me. I didn't finish - I became bored.

Jeffrey Chase

This is a book of short stories, winner of the Pulitzer. It is a setting of the lives of Vietnamese, beautifully written, and incredibly moving. I have a hard time loaning this book to another, b/c I might never see it again. This is the best book of short stories I've ever read, even more so than Hemingway, Snows of Kilimenjaro. A great book, highly recommended.

Agnes Benis

Short stories about the aftermath of the Vietnam War and its impact on the Vietnamese. Poignant and lyrical prose.Some favorites:Preparation: two friends; one had died and she is preparing her for burial. Reviews their past and how she loved the woman's husband first and how friendship prevails.Mr. Green: About a grandaughter and her grandfather and how she is inadequate simply because she is female and how she survives with a sense of self calling forth the Crucification and the 12 Apostles.The Trip Back; how finally a grandfather is brought to US and how happy his granddaughter is to have him come. He however has become senile and denies even that she is a relative.Snow: How the effect of snow on two vietnamese in US brought them together. For each first snow was a frightening experience The woman worrks in a restaurant and the man is a customer for take-out.Love: How a jealous husband used to identify admirers of his wife as Viet Cong and they would be bombed by Americans. What he does in US in LA when he cannot call upon troops.Mid Autumn: Woman talking to child in the womb. How her true love in Vietnam was killed and she is in the US married to a good man. Fable of the emperor and the birth of Vienam integrated in story.Missing: Fear in Vietnamese family when a photo of American shows up in US newspapers as proof that there are living MIA's. The man chose to stay in Vietnam. Questions arise about his US family - does he have a wife, children etc.?Salem: A pack of cigarettes and a photo. The government has called for all items to be turned in to ameliorate relations with U.S. and search for the missing. Man's decision as to whether of not to turn in photo.A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain: Best friend of Ho Chi Minh before the war and the Vietnamese custom when you are very old to try to see all your friends to talk about your feelings, to understand one another and to say good bye. This is an old man's encounter with Ho Chi Minh who has already died.


This is a wonderful collection of stories that reveal the thoughts and lives of the Vietnamese people in their struggle to not lose their cultural heritage as they survive in a new land. It’s funny, sad, heart-felt, passionate and powerful and demonstrates the commonalities of mankind as well as our differences.


Some of the most beautiful stories I've ever read. You MUST read this one!


This is a book of short stories about Vietnamese people, mostly in the large Vietnamese community in New Orleans. I was attracted to it because growing up in New Orleans, there were always tons of Vietnamese people around, and at my school, etc., so I was curious.The stories were mostly very dark, which does not turn me off at all. I like dark books with an edge. However, some of them were a bit too much even for me. Also, the stories that veered into dreamscapes and passages reminiscent of mythology tired me (mythology and dreams bore me instantly).My favorite story revolved around a Vietnamese couple and an American couple on vacation in Mexico, both having won their vacations on American TV game shows. Both husbands had fought in Vietnam, and they both bonded and clashed over this. The story is told from the very observant wife's perspective, and it was interesting all the subtleties she noticed in both men's interactions.

Jo Deurbrouck

This is more a collection of voices than of stories. Compelling, thoughtful, well-meaning, sometimes wise voices, trying to make sense out of life, humanity, nationalism, being Vietnamese, being old, living with war, and trying to love through all the complexities of being human. I didn't read the book. By happy accident I listened to it. I'd sure recommend the experience. Hearing this collection of voices made the journeys they described and their earnest attempts to understand themselves and their world even more intimate.One of Butler's recurring devices that I just love is how in the 'now' of the stories, mostly, nothing happens. But the characters are carrying the sums of their lives, and in those lives people have struggled, died, killed. You get all of that...in a very quiet 'now.'One criticism of the audio version. Between stories there is a very short pause, then Butler (your narrator) reads the title and dives in. The reader would be well served by 1. music of some kind of break indicator; and 2. more time after hearing a new story title and before the story begins. These are stories you want to savor and think about. You don't want to just dive into the next one. And since the story structures are so low key, you literally aren't sure, many times, that a story has ended until Butler announces the next title, which you aren't ready to think about because you're still in the previous story.


I forgot that I finished this finally. I didn't throw it, but I definitely didn't like it very much. I think that writers CAN write from other points of view (just like readers can read and understand different points of view than their own) but all but one narrator rang false; what I heard behind the "Vietnamese" voice was always a white guy, probably from the midwest, who maybe went to Vietnam for a while. I can hear him working on it. Oddly, the story that had the strongest and most-likely-to-go-wrong voice (Fairy Tale) was the only one I liked.


Beautifully haunting collection of stories. I've read a lot of Tim O'Brien's work, seeing the Vietnam war from the point of the American soldiers. This gave a really intriguing insight into the other side of the stories. I think I'm going to seek out similar collections. My one disappointment, I guess, is that this collection isn't written by a Vietnamese author. I wonder how different that would make the perspective.

Tiah Keever

I was about to read Norman Mailer's "Why are we in Vietnam?" but decided I didn't want to read about the Vietnam War right now, then I randomly grabbed this collection of short stories off my book shelf. I purchased it months ago at Powell's from the Pulitzer Prize section when I randomly bought many books. I did not know what it was about and just delved right in. Funny how life works. My sister was on her way to go meet her Vietnamese father for the first time(well, besides the few months of her life that he was around before leaving)down in California and I was trying to sidestep Vietnamese war stories...This lovely little volume contains what else?- stories about Vietnamese immigrants who have fled from the war and wound up in Louisiana, which is likened to the the terrain and climate of Vietnam. Not having been to either I can't confirm or deny this, but I imagine that Butler must have some knowledge of this. Butler is not Vietnamese, he served in the war on the US side from '69-'71 (Wikipedia)and all of these stories are fiction but you'd never know it form the finely crafted writing. Several of the stories are from a woman's viewpoint and it's quite amazing how well Butler performs this task. I had never even heard of him before, and like I said I simply grabbed this book one day when I was adding some books to the collection(I just decided I needed to read some Pulitzer Prize winning authors to kick it up a notch)but his work is wonderful. Go forth and buy yourself a copy, or check it out from your local library. If you don't like this book than you don't like reading.

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