A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

ISBN: 0802137989
ISBN 13: 9780802137982
By: Robert Olen Butler

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About this book

Robert Olen Butler's lyrical and poignant collection of stories about the aftermath of the Vietnam War and its impact on the Vietnamese was acclaimed by critics across the nation and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. Now Grove Press is proud to reissue this contemporary classic by one of America's most important living writers, in a new edition of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain that includes two subsequently published stories -- "Salem" and "Missing" -- that brilliantly complete the collection's narrative journey, returning to the jungles of Vietnam.

Reader's Thoughts


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?


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.

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.


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.


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 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.


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.

Graham Mcmillan

Pullitzer prize winner from 1993, featuring short vignettes of life for post-war Vietnamese mostly now living in America. Stories of alienation, cultural assimilation and humor. a few of these short stories were truly memorable, beautifully written, and deserving of a Pullitzer prize. Others not so much. So, a bit mixed. But still, glad I read it for the great bits.


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.


The 15 stories collected here, all written in the first person, blend Vietnamese folklore, the terrible, lingering memories of war, American pop culture and family drama. Butler's literary ventriloquism, as he mines the experiences of a people with a great literary tradition of their own, is uncanny; but his talents as a writer of universal truths is what makes this a collection for the ages.


So, I actually really liked a lot of these stories, but this book bothered me because all the stories are narrated by Vietnamese or Vietnamese Americans and the author is white. I mean, no one should be confined to only write from the perspective of their race/gender, but I can't really get over this one. I've read other books that do the same thing and haven't though twice about it (although maybe I should have thought twice), but this collection of stories is particularly troubling to me.I've come to the conclusion that it bothers me in this case because Butler went to the trouble to construct 15 stories from the perspective of young, old, women, men, immigrants, people born in the states, successful business men, waitresses, married, single, etc. It's like he was trying not just to adopt a perspective culturally different from his own--but was attempting to voice an ENTIRE culture. But maybe that was the point. Maybe I was supposed to be bothered?

Stephen Gallup

I bought and read this book when it first came out, back in '92, inspired to find it after hearing a radio commentary. At the time, I had just returned from a life-changing stay in Taiwan and was fascinated by all things Asian. Thought of it again this week while reading The Unwanted .This is a collection of stories told from the points of view of various Vietnamese expatriates at various stages in the process of becoming assimilated into American culture. The author has a remarkable ability to speak with authority from many different personalities. I so admire that talent, and just do not get the reaction of another reviewer who claims to be bothered by it. The empathy required to pull this off when the author is not even Vietnamese is praiseworthy, not troubling.


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!


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.


This was my book club's selection for the month, and - to be honest - I wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of reading it. I don't have much of an interest in short story collections or the Vietnam War, so this anthology didn't hold much appeal.However.The reason I joined the club is to experience new and varied reads, and this book didn't disappoint in those categories. I found that I really enjoyed the short story format - it was easy to read a story or two during a sitting and not worry about forgetting what had happened in the plot when I next had the chance to read a few more pages.And I found Butler's interpretation of various post-War Vietnamese really engaging. Even though the stories don't delve into the Vietnam War itself (at least, very little of the actual war is mentioned or described; though, I was glad to have a reason to look up an annotated history of the event - an event I hadn't considered since high school), the book carries with it the shadow of war, and it's difficult to separate the more "contemporary" stories of transplanted Vietnamese with the brutal, lasting effects of war.My favorite stories included Crickets, Love, A Ghost Story, Snow, and The American Couple.

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