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

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.


I stumbled on to this book in a used book store while on vacation in Chicago. The Vietnam/Louisiana connection is what caught me since I currently live in Laos, but lived in New Orleans for a time as well. I bought it for a dollar. Not only one of the best books I have read all year. One of the best books I have read period. Butler has a gift for tapping in to the human condition that we all share, regardless of place, and giving insight into a culture that is not his own. I will be thinking about these stories for a long time, and definitely will be re-reading them from time to time throughout my life. I am looking forward to finding all his other works!


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.


In THE THINGS THEY CARRIED by Tim O'Brien he has a short story about the young enemy soldier that he killed by throwing a hand grenade at him. In Olen Butler's A GOOD SCENT FROM A STRANGE MOUNTAIN, there is "Salem" the short story of a Vietnamese soldier that keeps a pack of Salem cigarettes that he recovered from a dead American soldier that he had killed. He is troubled because the government wants him to return all of the items that could be used to identify the dead Americans. Ho Chi Minh smoked Salems and he wants to keep them as a shrine. The stories should be read together. The Man I Killed is the focus of these two stories, there are people out there in these wars and when these two men focus on that. War becomes a different thing for both of them.


I was surprised to find that every story in this collection is about being a Vietnamese transplant to the US, specifically to New Orleans, particularly since the author is not Vietnamese. I was even more surprised at how well Butler writes the immigrant experience, even the female perspective. I suppose I shouldn't have been, since it did win the Pulitzer Prize, but it is not often you find someone able to write so well about people so unlike themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the stories and when I try to go back and choose my favorites now it's difficult. I did particularly enjoy the longest story (I often tend to prefer longer stories to short) The American Couple, about a Vietnamese/American couple that wins a trip to Puerto Vallarta, where they bond with another American couple. I also enjoyed Snow, a short romantic piece about a Vietnames waitress. Mid-Autumn was excellent, although sad, and I thought Preparation really captured certain parts of being a woman. But like I said, I enjoyed all of the stories, especially as it is a culture I did not know much about. It seems that Butler did a lot of research and has found an insightful way to tell the stories of these people and of the human experience in general.


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

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.


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.

Shelley Fearn

Part of my duties as a librarian is to continually analyze the collection and sometimes I have to actually discard books. I hate to disappoint you all but not all books are keepers in medium sized libraries. This book came upon my desk when someone thought we could weed it from the collection. When I researched the book I found that it won the Pulitzer in 1993. That was enough to entice me to read it.I am so glad I did. It is a collection of short stories about Vietnam and the Vietnamese, many who came to the U.S. following the war. The stories are excellent. Butler writes in a lyrical prose that leaves you unable to choose which was the best story. I actually was brought to tears by one of them. He writes with such an understanding of the country and even its folkloric influences that I had to find out more about Butler himself. It appears he worked as a linguist in Vietnam during the war. He certainly absorbed the country's culture. A must read.His new book "Hot Country" just came out. I'm anxious to read a mystery written by such a master.


I feel bad giving this book only one star since it won the Pulitzer, but I did not like this book at all. It's a collection of short stories about Vietnamese immigrants in America. The dust jacket promised "lyrical" but delivered "short and choppy" instead. The stories could be revealing about the Vietnamese immigrant's experience in America, but the writing style is off-putting and frankly, doesn't make much sense to me. Even if the stories are from a Vietnamese person's point of view, and even if they don't speak English well, they wouldn't THINK in choppy sentences, would they?


I went through a long phase where all I ever wanted to do was bike across Vietnam on my way to Angkor Wat. I cooked Vietnamese dishes, watched every Vietnamese film I could find, looked for language classes, and explored some amazing authors. This one, any person would enjoy. It's a collection of short fictional vignettes written from the quirky, lost-in-translation or strange-but-true viewpoint of recent Vietnamese immigrants adjusting to new lives in the deep south. Much I could relate to, in terms of setting. My hometown along the Gulf Coast welcomed a Vietnamese and Filipino community in the early 70s, with the children of a few of those families becoming friends of mine since high school. I recall the author revealing that his manuscript had been rejected by hundreds of publishers. But Robert Olen Butler believed strongly in his stories, based on the truths of the Vietnamese community he'd come to know in his Louisiana town. When a publisher finally took a chance on it, the book won a Pulitzer Prize.


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.

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.


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.


This Pulitzer-prize winning collection of short stories portrays the many ways in which cultures can clash, in this case Vietnamese and American cultures – during the war, after the war, immigrants to America, soldiers’ post-war experiences. While not all stories may not be appropriate for use in school (Fairy Tale tells the story of love between an American, Vietnam War veteran and a Vietnamese immigrant prostitute in New Orleans, and Love is the story of a man who used to provide false information to American spies in order to have his wife’s lover’s homes bombed), I particularly recommend Crickets. In this story, a Vietnam immigrant tries to impart to his American-born son a game he used to play with his friends, in which they would stage fights between wood crickets and fire crickets. Of course, his son is ultimately uninterested, and the differences between old home and new home, old generation and new generation, show themselves in various ways.

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