“The more I read, the more I became afraid of wars.”

Books on Tap met Thursday, May 5 at Champion Brewing Company to discuss The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. This is a beautiful, compelling family story of love, sacrifice, and incredible pain. The Vietnam War traumatizes, wounds, and kills members of this family, but the intricacies of war are kept off the page, and are only discussed between characters after conversations that swing between gentle coaxing and frustrated demands. Where Quế Mai really rests her focus is on the internal war existing inside one very strong woman – Trần Diệu Lan, a mother who is narrowly able to escape her home during the Vietnam Land Reform, her six children in tow – for a time. The decisions she must make for those children as they journey were a heavy crux of our discussion. Which character elicited the most sympathy as this young family scrambled to survive? What is the mark of a mother, and is that mark indelible, or not? As we read about Trần Diệu Lan, we were reminded of the theme of motherhood found within Beloved

We learned a lot from this book. Many shared stories of friends, and in one case, a beloved husband who later passed away from Agent Orange exposure, who served in Vietnam and came home reticent, not wanting to share those stories or experiences. Some of the book was brutal: we gritted our teeth through a gruesome decapitation in broad daylight in the middle of the road and trembled as we read through the opening scene of the book: 

“Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Sixty kilometers away. Armed forces get ready to fight back.” The female voice becomes more urgent. The sirens are deafening.

Shelter after shelter is full. People dart in front of us like birds with broken wings, abandoning bicycles, carts, shoulder bags. A small girl stands alone, screaming for her parents.

“Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Thirty kilometers away.”

Clumsy with fear, I trip and fall.

Our readers were appreciative of what Quế Mai gifted to us because she chose to write in English: voice to the trauma and PTSD that exists in Vietnam as a result of the war and associated societal upheaval. What does history look like when written from everyday people’s memories? In this case, it includes stunning Vietnamese proverbs that many readers recalled as some of the most poignant lines from the novel. 

In conclusion, our readers would recommend this book. It was well-written and interesting, deftly moving between two different time periods, keeping us on our toes and paying attention – simply a good book. As one reader noted, “if you want to write a good novel, make it as hard as hell to read!” 

Other Books Mentioned: 

Wild Swans: three daughters of China by Jung Chang         

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien 

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen 

A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain 

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway 

Books on Tap will meet again on Thursday, June 2 at 7 pm to discuss The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. Our remaining summer titles include: 

July 7: Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam

August 4: Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

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