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The Refugees Hardcover – 7 Feb 2017
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Nguyen's eight heart-wrenching and hopeful stories ought to be required reading for every politician in this era of wall-building and xenophobia.
With anger but not despair, with reconciliation but not unrealistic hope, and with genuine humour that is not used to diminish anyone, Nguyen has breathed life into many unforgettable characters, and given us a timely book focusing, in the words of Willa Cather, on "the slow working out of fate in people of allied sentiment and allied blood"
A powerful antidote to all the fearmongering and lies out there . . . A rich exploration of human identity, family ties and love and loss, never has a short story collection been timelier. ***** Five stars.
[A] superb collection . . . exquisite stories . . . Nguyen crafts dazzlingly lucid prose.
Poignant . . . Nguyen writes most movingly of the debt of safety and freedom . . . Nguyen's stories are to be admired for their ability to encompass not only the trauma of forced migration but also the grand themes of identity, the complications of love and sexuality, and the general awkwardness of being. For all their serious qualities, they are also humorous and smart . . . The form of the short story seems to come to Nguyen effortlessly.
Beautiful and heartrending
The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner returns with a beautifully crafted collection that explores the netherworld of Vietnamese refugees, whose lives and cultural dislocation he dissects with precision and grace.
The Refugees is the book we need now . . . The most timely short story collection in recent memory . . . The stories in The Refugees [are] haunting and heart-wrenching, but also wry and unapologetic in their humanity . . . Throughout, Nguyen demonstrates the richness of the refugee experience, while also foregrounding the very real trauma that lies at its core.
A book that holds your interest . . . Unpretentious, deliberate and well-observed collection.
A collection of fluidly modulated yet bracing stories about Vietnamese refugees in the US, powerful tales of rupture and loss that detonate successive shock waves . . . Each intimate, supple, and heartrending story is unique in its particulars even as all are works of piercing clarity, poignant emotional nuance, and searing insights into the trauma of war and the long chill of exile, the assault on identity and the resilience of the self, and the fragility and preciousness of memories.
The Refugees is a collection of perfectly formed stories written over a period of twenty years, exploring questions of immigration, identity, love, and family.See all Product description
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From the title one expects stories of loss, displacement, pain and suffering alone, since these are the only things that we associate with refugees. But the book does not focus on these much. The stories look at the characters as human beings, their being refugees in the past serving as a backdrop. We see refugees to be people like us with focus on the mundane aspects of their life – love, relationship, sex, family. This is the most refreshing aspect of this book. Having said that I did not like the book much because the characters are lifeless and still. You do not feel for any of them nor identify with them.
The power of a short story lies in the impact that it can create on the reader in lesser words than a novel. In my experience, I have never been able to read one good short story after another even if there were by the same author, because a good story makes you pause. You want to hold on to it, reflect on it for a while before moving to the next one. For this reason, I have read collections of short stories slower than novels.
But The Refugees does not have this effect. The plot of each story is intriguing – a man who develops Alzheimer’s mistakes his wife for a past lover. I liked the plot. What if? What would be the reaction of the wife? Would she be mad at him? Does his confusion mean that he did not love the wife as much or their marital life was a sham? Or it is one of life’s cruel coincidences with no specific meaning? But the story ends without touching any of these questions. It ends without making us wonder, without touching heart strings. This is true for all stories in this collection.
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In “War Years,” the first-person narrator retrospectively takes us back to his early teens when his parents owned a store stocked with items the refugees from Viet Nam liked. So let me give you a taste of just how wonderful—and occasionally humorous—this collection of stories is.
My parents did not grant me so much as an allowance. When I had asked for one in the
fourth grade, my father had frowned and said, “Let me think it over.” The next night he
handed me an itemized list of expenses that included my birth, feeding, education, and
clothing, the sum total being $24,376. “This doesn’t include emotional aggravation,
compound interest, or future expenses,” my father said. “Now when can you start
paying me an allowance?
I have read the author’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer, five—yes, five—times. In fact I led a group of senior citizens—I am one too—at our Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Everyone found the novel just amazing.
And so is this collection of short stories, all about refugees as the title says, not immigrants. The distinction is important in the fictional world this amazing writer has created. Refugees are desperate. We must remember this: millions of non-communists were left in Vietnam after the United States left to fend for themselves against the communists who had taken control. Yes, so many became boat people, many of whom drowned. So the cast of characters in these eight stories are among those who made it to the United States where life, although easier than in their homeland, was hard as so often is the case for people who come to this country.
Today we are being treated to a Trumpian display of fear of “the other” when, in fact, this was once a country that truly believed what Emma Lazarus wrote, “Give me your…” inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
In one story, a late teenage boy arrives in San Francisco, sponsored by a do-gooder with lots of money, where he finds himself desperate for work and some type of good life. “Transplant” is one of my favorites: a Latino in need of a liver transplant is storing in his garage knock-offs of Versace, Chanel and Louis Vuitton pedaled by Louis Vu (which apparently is a very common Vietnamese last name). But you might say the name itself is a knock-off. But enough of that or I’ll be called a spoiler.
Some stories are told in first person, others in second. One of the first person narrators in a ghost writer who also sees ghosts (ghosts are big in Pulitzer novel.
There is a good reason for all the high star ratings: writing doesn’t get any better than that of Viet Thanh Nguyen.
“In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.” Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees
Holy moly! What an incredible, emotional and remarkable book! I am honestly having a hard time coming up with the right words for this review – I feel it deserves so much more than my unsophisticated writing skills. Nguyen is an eloquent, perceptive, brilliant writer and storyteller. The eight stories featured in The Refugees are powerful, compassionate, and moving. Every day, hundreds of individuals are displaced and must flee their homes and countries. Many refugees fear for their lives and must leave without notice, leaving everything they love behind. The Refugees deals with their immigrant experiences, and the risks they endure for a chance of a better future and life. Nguyen brilliantly brings his characters’ triumphs and sorrows to life. One particular story, “The Warriors” is about Nguyen’s own family’s experience, “…the story “Warriors” about the child of refugee shopkeepers and what happens to that family, that is drawn very much from my life and the lives of my parents. And it was a very difficult story to write because I think my parents’ lives are worthy of writing about. I don’t think my life is particularly worthy of writing about.” With the current political climate in the United States, there is an urgent need for books such as The Refugees to be written and read by all. Get yourself a copy of this book from the bookstore or borrow it from the library or friend – just make sure you read it!
Side note: I was fortunate to meet and hear Viet at the Central Library in Arlington, Virginia. He is extremely funny, smart and genuine - a great human being!