The book is a collection of short stories that share a common theme: Vietnam. Or, more accurately, Vietnamese people. Butler is a Vietnam War veteran who trained and worked as a translator. He spent longer than the normal tour of duty in the country. Duty stationed in Saigon, he discovered he genuinely liked the people. He spent his free time exploring the city and talking with ordinary people.
The stories vary in length, setting, and tone, from only a couple pages to almost novella size, from Vietnam while the war is still in progress to 20 years later in Louisiana, and from melancholy to upbeat. Protagonists vary widely, too.
For example, an elderly man living in exile in Louisiana is visited by an old friend, Ho Chi Minh, that he had shared a room with many years before in Paris. The fact Ho has been dead for over a decade is irrelevant. They reminisce about the days they spent working in the kitchen of a London restaurant while Ho tries to remember what he did wrong when caramelizing sugar for Auguste Escoffier. Ho chides his old friend for becoming a Buddhist instead of becoming as involved as politics as Ho did, although he does note that at least he picked Hoa Hao, a reformist Buddhist movement.
The notion that the future president of North Vietnam once worked as a chef's helper in a London kitchen managed by one of the most famous names in culinary history struck me as sufficiently bizarre that I had to Google it. Sure enough, Ho worked in multiple kitchens when he was a young man and still trying to figure out just where he fit in the world. Whether or not he worked for Escoffier is debatable, but for sure he was in a kitchen in London at the right time for it to have happened. What is known is he changed jobs frequently.
In any case, the elderly man decides visiting with Ho could be a sign he's going to die soon so he asks his children to arrange for a Vietnamese tradition, having family members come to visit him to say goodbye before he's actually on his deathbed. When they do visit, he decides it's easier to just pretend to doze in his chair than it is to talk with them. He saves his conversations for the visits with his dead friend.
The overall tone of the stories varies. Some end on a vaguely sad note, others are more upbeat. Good things happen to people who weren't expecting a happy ending, although not always. One fellow learns the hard way that it pays to be careful what you wish for, another realizes you can't turn back time. As a whole the book was a good read.
In one of those weird coincidences that happen all the time, I was still thinking about the book when Pat Sajak made a joke on "Wheel of Fortune" about the beaches on Antigua being full of Wheel of Fortune winners because the show seemed to give away a lot of prize packages with that particular Caribbean destination. One of the longer stories in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain features a couple who are on a Mexican vacation because the wife won the trip on "Let's Make a Deal" by dressing as a duck. As she's looking around at the hotel she realizes that all the other guests also look like game show winners -- and sure enough, "The Price is Right," "Jeopardy," and others are all represented. It gives an otherwise serious story a light touch.
I am, of course, now wondering if I ever do get to Aruba or Antigua or Cancun if it will turn out that most guests won their trips and I'll be the only sucker who actually paid to go.
Back to the book. This is one I do recommend. The writing is good, the stories are interesting, and you may even pick up some trivia about Vietnam without having to think about it much. I do have to say that learning that most Vietnamese restaurants in this country with seemingly exotic names are actually just advertising their specialty wasn't much of a revelation. That's a tradition in most countries, including this one (e.g., Colton's Steak House, Red Lobster, International House of Pancakes).
On the usual 1 to 10 scale, I'll give it an 8. It's better than average but not quite a solid 9.
Up next: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. The L'Anse library amazed me. They actually have it in their collection. In fact, I already have it on the nightstand to be read as soon as I finish reading Battleship, an odd book that claims to be about a racehorse (a steeple chaser) but is more accurately a biography of Randolph Scott's first wife, Marion duPont. Fascinating but completely irrelevant piece of trivia: Battleship is buried at Montpelier, the home of the fourth President of the United States, James Madison.