Category Archives: Vietnamese American

Author Interview: Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the BanyanAlmost two years after  Vaddey Ratner made her New York Times bestselling debut with In the Shadow of the Banyan – her fictionalized account of her survival, as a young child, of the Khmer Rouge genocide that took most of her family along with some two million others – her bookish peregrinations continue. I caught up with Ratner during a few days in her suburban Washington, DC, home – just back from her Norwegian book launch in Oslo and heading out to another speaking engagement in Arizona. In between the frenzy of family duties and repacking her suitcase, she graciously answered questions with acuity and alacrity … and alas, not without tears from us both.

Although you arrived in the United States at age 11 not speaking English, you graduated high school as valedictorian and then summa cum laude from Cornell. What was your career after college? In other words, what did you do before you published your first book after age 40?
I never had what you’d call a “career” before the publication of In the Shadow of the Banyan, before I became an author. I was always writing, albeit in anonymity, and in that sense, I guess I’ve always been a writer. In the years right after Cornell, probably the only job worth mentioning was a short stint at the Asia Society in Washington, DC, where I answered the phone and membership inquiries. So in short, I went from being an over-achiever to lying low, under the radar, wanting desperately to write and yet fearing what that meant – a leap back into my traumatic past, the nightmare and complicated history.

Where did that inspiration and drive to be “always writing” originate?
Language itself, that alchemy of illusion and allusion. My ineradicable fascination with storytelling, its magical power to transform and elucidate and even mystify.

I suppose it’s safe to say that I wanted to be a writer as soon as I became aware of the written language, aware of the existence of books and the universes they contain – in other words, as soon as I learned to read and write, when I was around four or five years old. This was in Khmer, my native tongue. As a small child, I lived and breathed stories, searched for meanings in new words, in the tales I was told and the ones I overheard.

How and when did you decide to write Banyan? And after decades of experience far-removed from Cambodia, was the process of recovering your memories difficult? How did you prepare yourself to relive such horrors in order to write this book?
When I was living in Cambodia from 2005 to 2009, the realization came to me that the story I wanted to tell was larger than me, than my own life. With Banyan, I wanted to pay homage to our humanity that part of us that not only survives but triumphs. I saw this everywhere in Cambodia. I still see it every time I return. Despite living in the shadow of genocide, people there possess a lightness of spirit that’s absolutely inspiring.

There is no way to really prepare oneself to write this kind of book. The tragedy and atrocity were not imagined nightmares but real ordeals I lived through. So to write it, I had to relive it. Every loss I endured as a child, I endured again and again each time I sat down to write. It was a heartbreaking story to tell because I not only had to invoke the past – a country’s violent history – but I had to delve into my family’s personal ordeals—our private tragedies. I mourned every memory I exhumed.

From the perspective of writing as a craft, it was an excruciating first project to take on. I had no formal training as a writer and had not published a single line to be able to confidently call myself a writer by virtue of experience. Still, I knew this was the story I had to write before I could even think about another. No matter how long it would take me, I thought, I would discipline myself to this one endeavor. After all, I’d survived those horrific events, when many in my family had not, so it was the least I could do – devote my life to remembering them. [... click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Vaddey Ratner,” Bloom, March 5, 2014

Readers: Adult

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Author Profile: Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan“To transform suffering into art”: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan

While the Vietnam War ended for the United States with the April 1975 military withdrawal, death and destruction continued, moving into neighboring Cambodia and Laos. With the evacuation of U.S. troops, the Communist Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia’s capital (and largest city) Phnom Penh and dispersed its inhabitants to remote areas. In an attempt to create a more equitable society, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the majority of those who were perceived to have power, particularly the wealthy and educated. To destabilize any remaining social structures, they fractured family units. Those who managed to survive were sent to labor camps where many would die of starvation, disease, torture, and execution. Over the next four years, Pol Pot and his heinous regime claimed almost two million lives – a quarter of Cambodia’s then-population.

Vaddey Ratner and her mother survived. No one else in their immediately family lived. Ratner was just five in 1975. Six years later, in 1981, mother and daughter arrived in the U.S. as refugees. Just over three decades later, in August 2012, Vaddey would publish In the Shadow of the Banyan, her fictionalized account of her young life, her missing family, and how she miraculously stayed alive while too many others did not.

In the transcript of a speech that Ratner’s Simon & Schuster editor, Trish Todd, gave at BEA’s 2012 “Editors Buzz Panel” [to watch fast forward to 28:36 for Todd/Banyan], she confesses to initially believing that Banyan “was not a natural fit for me” when Ratner’s agent first pitched Todd the novel. Intending to “honor [the agent’s] submission with a nice rejection and begin my vacation,” Todd – a 30-year veteran of publishing – finished the manuscript without pause (barely moving!) and realized that she “had just read what could be the most important book [she] would ever publish.” She cancelled her vacation and planned how to win the “very big auction” to buy this first novel of a new, untested writer. The rest, as they say…

The laudatory responses quickly followed. Readers made Banyan a New York Times bestseller. Critics agreed. Banyan was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and appeared on eight 2012 best books lists, including Christian Science Monitor and Kirkus Reviews. The populist bibles O Magazine and People raved and recommended. The highbrows too applauded and nominated, naming it a 2013 PEN/Hemingway finalist, as well as a finalist for the 2013 Book of the Year Indies Choice Award. Ratner made the media rounds: NPR’s “Morning Edition,” USA Today, and The Washington Post, to name a few. She spoke around the world, at the PEN/Faulkner gala, the United Nations Association, the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, and more.

Unlike Todd, I took over two years to finally reach the last page of Banyan. Not even the prospect of meeting Ratner in livetime, thanks to a mutual writer friend who insisted I join them for dinner, could get me to finish reading Banyan! Thankfully, the mutual friend’s new book took precedence as dinner conservation. Not until this Bloom deadline loomed could I force myself to actually reach book’s end. Why the frozen hesitation? Because I simply couldn’t let the book go: holding on to the promise of unread chapters was more comforting than racing to the conclusion. I needed only a fraction of the 300 pages to realize that as wrenching and terrifying as the story is, Banyan would surely be one of the most heart-stoppingly gorgeous titles I would read in years. I wasn’t wrong. [... click here for more]

Author profile: “‘To transform suffering into art’: Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan,” Bloom, March 3, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Frangipani Hotel*STARRED REVIEW
What is most haunting in Kupersmith’s nine multi-layered pieces are not the specters, whose tales are revealed as stories within stories, but the lingering loss and disconnect endured by the still living. With an American father and a Vietnamese “former boat refugee” mother, the author channels her bicultural history to create contemporary, post-Vietnam War glimpses of reclamation and reinvention on both sides of East and West.

In “Skin and Bones,” two Houston sisters visit their Ho Chi Minh City grandmother “to rediscover their roots” but more realistically because “Vietnam Was Fat Camp.” In “Guests,” a pair of American expat lovers have diverging expectations. A dying youth tries to steal another’s body in “Little Brother,” and an insistent knock at the door demands retribution 40 years after the war in “One-Finger.” In “Reception,” set in the titular Frangipani Hotel, the clerk’s family’s past overlaps with the coming new brand of the ugly American.

Verdict: The wunderkind moniker will soon enough be attached to the 1989-born Kupersmith, who wrote most of these stories as a Mt. Holyoke undergraduate. Her mature-beyond-her-years debut deserves equal shelf space with other spare, provocative collections, such as Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore, Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds, and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, January 1, 2014

Readers: Adult

Published: 2014

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One Step at a Time : A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

One Step at a TimeIntroduced to U.S. readers by award-winning Canadian author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch in last year’s Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War, Son Thi Ahn Tuyet’s story continues – literally one step at a time. Now that Tuyet has a real home with her own real family – Dad, Mom, sisters Beth and Lara, and baby brother Aaron – she’s learning to finally feel safe. Nighttime still remains a bit scary when memories of war and tragedy return to haunt her dreams; no matter how nice her own room is, for now, Tuyet prefers to sleep safely “burrowed into her nest of pillows and covers on the throw rug between Beth and Lara’s beds.”

In addition to adapting to her new family and struggling to understand a culture so different from the one she left in a language she hasn’t yet learned, Tuyet prepares for some of the greatest physical challenges of her young life. The beautiful new red shoe and soft red slipper Mom bought for her polio-damaged feet and legs have already filled Tuyet’s heart with joyful smiles. Now Tuyet faces the first of multiple operations that will someday allow her to walk. In the 1970s, hospital rules did not allow for constant parental interaction as is today’s accepted norm; remarkably, Tuyet endured her surgeries virtually alone.

Thankfully, recovery proved to a full family affair: the whole Morris family not only made Tuyet physically comfortable, but each ensured that she was emotionally buoyed as well. From learning to blow out birthday “fire” and realizing that the beautiful wrapping paper is meant to be torn, to not grabbing her baby brother and seeking shelter at the sound of an airplane, to being able to balance well enough on her own two legs to kick a soccer ball, Tuyet takes her new life – and her steadily recovering legs – one glorious, triumphant step at a time.

“Thank you, Tuyet,” Skrypuch writes in her ending “Author’s Note,” “for allowing me to share your story.” Readers, too – especially younger readers who might be facing any sort of adversity – will surely appreciate Tuyet’s inspiring experiences. Step by step, Skrypuch shows with forthright clarity how Tuyet becomes her own very best hero.

Tidbit: Here’s an update (with pictures!) from Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch herself!

Last year, Last Airlift won the Red Cedar award in British Columbia and was a [2013] Red Maple Honour Book in Ontario. These awards are readers’ choice awards, where kids do the voting. For the Red Maple award, the Ontario Library Association hosts a huge event at Harbourfront in Toronto, with thousands of kids bussed in. I arranged for Tuyet to stand on the stage with me, and for her daughter to hold the sign and her son to introduce the book. We had long snaking line-ups for autographs, and many of the kids wanted Bria and Luke to sign their books in addition to me and Tuyet signing them. I’ve got some photos on my website. Check it out here:
♦   Last Airlift signing with Tuyet and her kids
♦   Red Maple Day at Harbourfront
♦   Tuyet and Red Maple Day

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Biography, .Nonfiction, Canadian, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese American

Author Interview: Kim Thúy

RuKim Thúy is one tough writer to get to, although she declares in our first email exchange when I finally track her down, “I am not at all the kind who plays hard to get :-) .” Attempts to contact her included pleas to both her Canadian and U.S. publishers and publicists (multiple times, ahem!), as well as to her Canadian literary agent’s office. Two months had already passed since my feature piece on Kim Thúy had been filed, edited, and readied for publication.

So, I got personal. I sent random emails to friends who happened to be Canadian writers. How hard could six degrees of separation be, right? I asked an Israeli Canadian buddy and an American ex-pat-now-Canadian professor. Nothing. And then I remembered a Nepali Canadian journalist author friend, who quickly replied she didn’t know Kim Thúy personally, but she thought of two friends who might. The connection that finally came through was a missive from Shanghai from a novelist on her way to a Vancouver residency! Talk about searching the ends of the world!

Kim Thúy insisted on a Skype chat: “… my English is weak [it’s so not!]. Live Skype allows me to use my hands to speak to you.” And she requested an 8:33 call on a Thursday morning, warning “a later time will be interrupted by all kinds of daily stuff: phone calls, people at the door, wild cats … and bears in the garden …” I will add that, regardless, her phone(s!) rang as if on cue every few minutes.

Still, we managed a two-hour session of gesticulating and laughing and outright guffawing.

Okay, so you’ll hear me typing while we talk, and I’m also recording our conversation …
Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve said so many stupid things during interviews, I don’t worry at all anymore! So you can do anything you want with this!

Then I might as well ask you the most selfish question right up front: when’s the next book coming out?
I’ve written two more since Ru! They are already out in French. My second book is with another author, Pascal Janojvak. We met in Monaco because we were both there for a book prize [the Prix Littéraires Prince Pierre de Monaco]. I had not read his book [L'Invisible] and he had not read mine. Pascal is half-French, his father is Slovak, and his parents met in Switzerland where he was born. But now he is living in Ramallah, in Palestine. And I wondered why a Swiss would be living in Ramallah! He had been there for five years, he had his kids there. And I thought, there must be a love story! He met his Italian wife in Beirut at the Institut Français. They lived in Bangladesh, then worked in Jordan, then got jobs in Ramallah. Their children have many passports! We first met for only one-and-a-half hours, but something just clicked. We exchanged our first email, and the story was right there. So we started writing this book, going back and forth. It’s called À toi.

Since it’s not translated into English yet, can you tell us about it?
When we met, first I talked about French colonization, about the Vietnamese people’s love/hate relationship with the dominant culture. For the Vietnamese, we want the French to leave our country, but then we also wish we had French features. We still wish to be French, even though we despise them, because we wish to be like those who have the power.

Then Pascal came back with a great story about Palestine, about what the kids are playing in the streets. He noticed that when they had a choice, the Palestinian children chose to be an Israeli soldier, because that’s the closest they had to a hero! When they played with planes, they wanted the supersonic models from Israel, not the Palestinian versions. Israeli products are always thought of as better than the Palestinian. That was very interesting to me. I knew so little about Palestine – beyond explosions, smoke, guns. But Pascal told me about how when a pot of soup is made by someone’s mother, she shares it with her friends. I don’t have that sort of image – of mothers, fathers, their children living their daily lives. But of course, they have the same daily lives as everyone else!

Pascal told me about all the stress in Gaza that has led to a big controversy with black market sleeping pills and Viagra. The men can’t sleep. They’re too tense and not relaxed enough for that. When he told me this story, I finally realized how they must always live under such pressure all the time. The body is always reacting, the body has to keep changing and adapting. But by being under stress always, we are just muting ourselves.

I wanted to continue this conversation with him, so we did that through writing the book.

And also, he was very handsome, by the way. And now you know I’m just superficial! I just wanted to talk to him. Anyway, that’s how we started. The book is about the same length as Ru. It’s not yet translated into English but I think soon. [...click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Kim Thúy,” Bloom, September 18, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Translation, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Author Profile: Kim Thúy

RuKim Thúy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader

Ah, well . . . better start with true confessions: my words appear on the back cover of the U.S. edition (at least the first printing) of Vietnamese Canadian author Kim Thúy’s debut novel, Ru. The blurb is excerpted from my starred review in the August 15, 2012 issue of Library Journal: “This extraordinary first novel unfolds like ethereal poetry . . . [an] intricate, mesmerizing narrative.”

So now, you’re fully aware of my publicly admiring bias for the novel. And clearly, I’m not alone. By the time Ru hit U.S. shelves in November 2012 (translated from the original French), it had already earned numerous, important, global accolades for its first-time author. After multiple lives as a refugee, interpreter, translator, lawyer, and restaurateur, Thúy was 41 when she “bloomed” with the initial publication of Ru in Canada in October 2009.

Success came quickly and broadly, with editions that appeared in 20 countries: nationally, Ru was shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize; internationally, it was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. The original French debut won Canada’s coveted Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2010, only to reappear two years later on the shortlist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation when the English-language edition, translated by the award-winning Sheila Fischman, appeared in 2012. “This is an exemplary autobiographical novel. Never is there the slightest hint of narcissism or self‑pity,” read the Governor General’s Literary Award jury citation upon announcing Ru the 2010 winner. “The major events in the fall of Vietnam are painted in delicate strokes, through the daily existence of a woman who has to reinvent herself elsewhere. A tragic journey described in a keen, sensitive and perfectly understated voice.”

That enigmatic single-word title is as multilayered as the slender novel’s elliptical prose: “Ru” means “a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge – of tears, blood, of money” in French; in Vietnamese, pronounced quite differently but sharing the same spelling, “ru” is a “lullaby, to lull.” “Ru” is “the most beautiful word in our [Vietnamese] language,” Thúy told Vinh Nguyen in an interview for Diacritics, which named Ru the first-ever Vietnamese Canadian novel.

“I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey. . . . The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost,” Ru’s narrator introduces herself.

My name is Nguyễn An Tịnh, my mother’s name is Nguyễn An Tỉnh. My name is simply a variation on hers because a single dot under the i differentiates, distinguishes, disassociates me from her. . . . With these almost interchangeable names, my mother confirmed that I was the sequel to her, that I would continue her story.

The History of Vietnam, written with a capital H, thwarted my mother’s plans. History flung the accents on our names into the water when it took us across the Gulf of Siam thirty years ago. It also stripped us our names of their meaning, reducing them to sounds at once strange. . . . In particular, when I was ten years old it ended my role as an extension of my mother.

In just over 140 spare pages, Thúy constructs an intricate mosaic of vignettes that flow through decades, continents, generations, and cultures. The “Reading Group Guide” available at book’s end explains that Ru is “an autobiographical novel based on the author’s real-life experience as a Vietnamese émigré and how she found her way – and her voice – after immigrating to Quebec.”

Written as a series of prose poems that range from a precise few lines to a fleeting few pages, the emerging narrative charts a young girl’s journey from wealthy privilege in Vietnam; her rebirth as a war refugee in Canada; her return to her native country where the locals consider her “too fat to be Vietnamese” – not because of her stature, but because “the American dream had made me more substantial, heavier, weightier”; and eventually her own overwhelming motherhood. [... click here for more]

Author profile: “Kim Thuy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader,” Bloom, September 16, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009, 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ...Author Interview/Profile, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Memoir, .Translation, Canadian Asian Pacific American, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American

Away We Go! A Shape-and-Seek Book by Chiêu Anh Urban

Away We GoDC-area local Chiêu Anh Urban‘s second chunky children’s book is perhaps even more clever than her first. While Raindrops: A Shower of Colors offered a thoroughly kiddie-friendly lesson in color-making, Away We Go! is an entertaining game in learning shapes. Invitingly packaged in vivid hues, Urban makes early reading a full adventure: rather than a one-way exchange from page to audience, she encourages active participation beyond the obvious. And how …!!

The set up seems simple … but definitely not toooooo simple. Go ahead, open up and join in. In the top corner of the left page, Urban poses a question: “Do you see a square?” followed by the corresponding shape. On the left, the truck’s cargo space is represented by a square cut-out; on the right, the train’s body gets the same cut-out square. Easy, right?

Now turn the page: “Do you see a triangle?” Urban queries. But wait! On the left is an ice cream truck with the same square cut-out from the train on the previous page. Hey, that’s not a triangle! But the front windshield is triangular, as is the bottom of the ice cream cone emblem on the toothsome truck’s side! You’ll have to look to the right for the expected cut-out; it makes up one of the sails of the festive boat. Now turn again: “Do you see a heart?” And so the adventures go on – via spaceship, hot-air balloons, police cars, submarines, blimps, and more!

Every double-page spread is an adventure in the obvious and not-so-obvious. For the kiddies, that’s all grand fun … for us old folks, I can’t help thinking Urban is giving us a gentle reminder to pay close attention to all the hidden, oh-so-little-but-really-important stuff. God is in the details and all that, right? Oh, so very clever indeed!

Tidbit: Be sure to continue the fun with activities and party printables, available on Urban’s website, by clicking here.

Readers: Children

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Vietnamese American

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Camping, Hiking, and Other Natural Disasters (Book 2), Allergic to Birthday Parties, Science Projects, and Other Man-Made Catastrophes (Book 3), Allergic to Dead Bodies, Funerals, and Other Fatal Circumstances (Book 4), Allergic to Babies, Burglars, and Other Bumps in the Night (Book 5) by Lenore Look, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Alvin Ho 2-4

As part of appreciating the versatile art of LeUyen Pham – who with her hubby Alex Puvilland imbued Friday’s post, Templar, with such swashbuckling energy – I thought I should keep a good thing going by adding a few more Pham-tabulously illustrated titles this bright new Monday. [Truth be told, I wouldn't mind channeling some of that swashbuckling energy myself, ahem!]

Welcome back to Concord, Massachusetts, the literary birthplace for many – including darling Alvin Ho, introduced in Book 1: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things. In spite of … or because of … the many challenges this brave young man faces – most especially he seems unable to speak out loud in school, not to mention being afraid of just about everything – Alvin is one imaginative hero. Armed with his PDK (Personal Disaster Kit), and well supported (whether he wants back-up or not!) by his family (little sister Anibelly is beyond delightful) and friends (Flea with her self-described “‘irregular arms or legs’” is the ultimate example of total girl power!), Alvin is getting through second grade with courage he sometimes forgets he has!

In Book 2, Alvin and Anibelly discover the many joys of camping, even if their only weekend catch is their shocked (upside-down) father. In Book 3, Alvin realizes just in time that getting the ‘right’ birthday invitation doesn’t always mean that’s the ‘right’ party to attend. In Book 4, Alvin’s inability to speak in school causes a life-and-death misunderstanding as he worries about how he will bring himself to attend his grandfather’s friend’s funeral. And, in the latest Book 5 (out this spring), Alvin needs to transform his usual PDK into a Pregnancy Disaster Kit as he just might be in the family way along with his baby-full mother!

Author Lenore Look manages to balance the neverending humor with well-woven moments of reality. As we giggle and laugh with Alvin, Look gently reminds us that children can have serious issues; Alvin sees a counselor regularly to face his fears (and hopefully find his voice). She carefully adds glimpses of the world beyond Alvin’s limited comfort zone by including a bit of history in each installment – from the American Revolution to Native Americans to even the tragic 2010 Haiti earthquake. And, of course, in every volume, LeUyen Pham whimsically gives Alvin his joy, his shock, his worry, his frustrations, his adoration, his appreciation … his reactions are perpetually wondrous under Pham’s pen. Here’s selfishly hoping that this unique fear factor continues for many seasons to come …!!

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2009-2013

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Chinese American, Vietnamese American

Templar by Jordan Mechner, illustrated by LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland, color by Hilary Sycamore and Alex Campbell

TemplarReady for some swashbuckling adventure … with quite a history lesson thrown in? ” [I]t’s all absolutely true,” author Jordan Mechner promises in his entertaining “Preface,” before he adds, “Well, some of it.”

The history portion goes back to late 13th-into-14th-century France to the “shocking downfall of the Knights of the Temple – a scandal that shook the fourteenth century and reverberates to this day,” Mechner explains. “Bizarrely, although it’s well documented for something that happened 700 years ago, it was a piece of history I’d never seen dramatized – not in a movie, not in a novel, not in a video game.” Until now. And how! The powerful Templars, originally formed during the Crusades, were “the Jedi of their time,” but in 1307, in a deft political move, the King of France ordered the mass arrest (and subsequent torture and murder) of 15,000 Templars. International machinations ensued: “The Order of the Temple was shattered, never to rise again.”

Within those facts, Mechner inserts a wildly sensational thriller of love, loyalty, and loss. Templar Knight Martin is one of the few survivors of the King’s massacre. He manages to rally a motley crew of fellow survivors and supporters, and devises an impossible plan to ferret out the Templar’s missing grand treasure. Never mind that he’s forced to begrudgingly accept the help of his long-lost first (and only) love, while somehow maneuvering around the King’s henchmen who never seem to die … come hell or high water (literally), Martin’s got plans …

Six years in the making, culminating from research Mechner began back in 2002, this could-have-been-true graphic tale comes to vivid life thanks to the husband-and-wife artist team of  Alex Puvilland and LeUyen Pham (one of my favorite kiddie book illustrators ever!), who also energetically made Mechner’s Prince of Persia fly off their panels. Make sure to set aside the afternoon (and more), because once you open the book you won’t stop until you run out of pages, after which you’ll most likely turn to the screen to find out more, more, more (even a Luddite like me has to be thankful for the instant gratification of the internet!). Mechner even obligingly provides you a detailed “Afterword” to keep your adventures going … !

Readers: Adult, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, European, Nonethnic-specific, Vietnamese American

Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey by GB Tran

VietnamericaBoth the inside and outside covers here are exactly the same: a mostly well-ordered, three-generation family tree … except for the bottom right corner in which the youngest member – the book’s author/creator GB Tran – is desperately attempting to complete the thus-far neatly organized tree. Under one arm, Tran holds his matching portrait with his initial-ized American name slightly askew, while desperately reaching out to grab the placard that bears his full Vietnamese moniker “Gia-Bao” which is falling just out of his reach. Scattered below him are unnamed portraits that don’t seem to have a designated destination in the familial constellation.

Tran’s pictures throughout this extraordinary graphic memoir speak proverbial volumes. As the only U.S.-born member of his scattered Vietnamese family, he is clearly the ‘odd man out,’ attempting to bridge his American ‘GB’ self with his inherited ‘Gia-Bao’ heritage. Thirty years after his family fled their war-torn country, Tran joins his parents on his first journey to his ancestral home. Packed into his luggage is a high school graduation gift his father gave him – a book about the Vietnam War that got tossed in unread with his comics and PlayStation controls – inscribed with a dedication quote from Confucius: “A man without history is a tree without roots.” Now in his late 20s, death convinces Tran to meet his surviving extended family after both his grandmothers die within months of each other, each on either side of the world. “There’s a lot about your parents you don’t know,” his paternal grandmother had warned shortly before her passing. “And they won’t be alive forever to answer your questions.”

Page by page, Tran pieces together his extended family’s violent, brutal past on both sides of a moving border that divided a war-torn Vietnam and what they had to do to survive, how his parents, three older siblings, and grandmother were able to narrowly escape the devastating Fall of Saigon in April 1975, all the while interweaving his own challenging youth as the youngest son of refugee immigrants who began uncertain new lives in South Carolina and his eventual adulthood as a culturally disconnected young artist. His return ‘home’ to a country and family he’s never met is a revelatory experience, eloquently expressed through vivid, spirited panels filled with memories, dreams, regrets, hopes, and a few answers. Halfway through, Tran’s drawings are interrupted by a single page of collaged photographs that offers a momentary glimpse of his parents’ lives before they were his parents: still-young lovers who have endured so much but seem contentedly unaware of the difficulties and challenges yet to come …

So remember the identical inside and back covers mentioned above? That sameness won’t be an option by the time you reach the final page. As you read from one cover to the other, the portraits at book’s beginning will stop being of strangers from whom you can turn away …  after sharing Tran’s illuminating journey, they’ll be just like family, too.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Southeast Asian, Southeast Asian American, Vietnamese, Vietnamese American