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10.15.08

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Phaedra

The Eaves of Heaven

A Life in Three Wars

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


In the mid-1990s, Andrew X. Pham reviewed restaurants for Metro, so it comes as no surprise that his new book about his homeland of Vietnam includes some sensuously evocative passages about food: 'Mother always came down into the kitchen to prepare her special roui patties. In a great bowl big enough to feed everyone in the estate, she beat eggs together with roui, grated mandarin orange peels, chopped shallots and strips of black wood mushrooms, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and added clear noodles to hold the mixture together." Don't be shocked to learn that "roui" are "lemon-hued" sea grubs. Following his memoir Catfish and Mandala, Pham gives voice to his father's own journey through Vietnamese history in The Eaves of Heaven. Born in the 1930s to a rich land-owning family, Thong Van Pham endured the three conflicts of the title: with the Japanese, the French and the Americans, not to mention being caught between the Nationalist and Communist forces struggling for Vietnam's future. In a sometimes dizzying series of chronological dislocations, Pham tells of his father's childhood during World War II, his time as a young teacher in the 1950s and his dangerous years in the 1960s, first conscripted into the South Vietnamese army and then imprisoned by the North Vietnamese. The interlacing narrative leads to the sudden end of the war: "The cities didn't fall; they tumbled, one after another in quick, horrific succession." The sweep of historical events imparts special poignancy to the small treasured boyhood memories of catching grasshoppers to roast over a fire on a "hard square of dried palm leaf." (By Andrew X. Pham; Harmony Books; 297 pages: $24.95 hardback)


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