Picks and Pans Review: A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

updated 05/31/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/31/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Robert Olen Butler

In a stunning stroke that plucked a deserving author from relative obscurity, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was awarded last month for these uncannily perceptive stories written by an American from the viewpoint of Vietnamese citizens transplanted to Louisiana. Although these people are in a strange new land, their experiences end up being quintessentially American.

The book is filled with dreamlike images and poignant examples of cultural paradox. In the title story, Ho Chi Minh, the deceased president of North Vietnam, appears in spirit to an old friend dying in America. Ho, once a pastry sous-chef to the great Escoffier in London, appears with his hands covered with confectioner's sugar and frets over his inability to reproduce the master's glaze fondant. At the end of the story Ho's sugared hands become an emblem of his greater failings. In "Letters from My Father," a young Vietnamese-American woman compares herself to a kind of drawing she used to see in Saigon bookstalls—viewed from one angle it shows a beautiful woman, from another a skull. Throughout, Butler conjures up small poetic ironies that end up speaking volumes of history. (Henry Holt, $19.95; Penguin paper, $10)

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