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The Gangster We Are All Looking For

3.51  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,400 Ratings  ·  174 Reviews
This acclaimed novel reveals the life of a Vietnamese family in America through the knowing eyes of a child finding her place and voice in a new country.

In 1978 six refugees—a girl, her father, and four “uncles”—are pulled from the sea to begin a new life in San Diego. In the child’s imagination, the world is transmuted into an unearthly realm: she sees everything intense
ebook, 176 pages
Published April 13th 2011 by Anchor (first published 2003)
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As novels go, The Gangster We Are All Looking For -- Le Thi Diem Thuy's beautifully told account of a Vietnamese immigrant family -- is soaking wet.

The sea is a constant, foreboding presence. Bodies are washing ashore on the first page and they are washing ashore on the last page. A man tells his beloved that if she would marry him, "he would pull the moon out of the sky and turn it into a pool for her to wash her feet in." "Bad water" is blamed for the death of a young boy, and a simple glass f
I just read this book for the 5th time. I have to admit that I did not like the book when I first read it, but with each reading, my appreciation for this book increases. I love its poetic language and fragmented narrative. Here is one of my favorite passages:

"After I ran away, I phoned my parents only a couple of times, to let them know I was all right. The last call was from the airport, to tell them that I was moving to the East Coast to go to school. My father wasn't home. My mother said, 'T
Oct 15, 2013 Greta rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I had to read this for my Advance Fiction class. This is not a bad book, in fact I love how the voice stays true to six year old narrator. However, this book didn't leave me with the feeling of "man, I am so sad that book is over", ya know?
Jun 25, 2015 janet rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This doesn't meet up into a cohesive narrative and leaves a lot unsaid, which I want to suggest is a strategy for not allowing narratives of tragedy to trace a myth of finding wholeness or a home in America. There is so much mystery surrounding her father's grief and the parts of his life she never heard about and it is sort of an obsession. Though he is directly described in the time they were alone together as solicitous, there are hints that he could have been abusive. We are left to wonder a ...more
Nov 10, 2009 Emily rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2003
Today--speedily even by my standards--I read thuy lê's new book The Gangster We Are All Looking For. It is one of those new novels-in-stories, or stories-as-a-novel pieces that are so popular now. It reminded me primarily of two other books about the Asian-American experience: When the Emperor Was Divine and The Woman Warrior.

lê, who isn't into capitalization, has written a quasi-autobiographical series of vignettes about a young Vietnamese girl in California. It includes scenes from when she an
Teachers4socialjustice Book
Here are some discussion questions that came out of our book club:

1. How does the passage on p. 95 beginning with “…two dogs chasing each other’s tail…” describe the parents’ relationship?
2. What is the significance of the title?
3. How does this book showcase father and daughter relationships?
4. This novel focuses on the places in between such as pages 109 and p. 37. Does the reader always know where these places are?
5. How is this novel about running away to find yourself? Look at p. 158 (“…I r
Reading this book was for an English class, and I'm very glad for it, as I doubt I would have come across it otherwise.

I've read a handful of books about Vietnamese people living in America after the war, my favorite being Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham. This book is focused more on the child's view of the story, specifically the relationship between the narrator and her father, who she refers to as Ba. In the first part of the book Ba is a sort of protector as she struggles to understand
Sep 27, 2010 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The personal history of le thi diem thuy is certainly one worth telling. She was born in Vietnam at the height of American involvement in their war. Two of her siblings drowned during her childhood. Her oldest brother drowned in the ocean in Vietnam, and a sister drowned in a Malaysian refugee camp. At the age of six, le and her father were picked up by an American naval ship and placed in a refugee camp in Singapore. Eventually they would be reunited with her mother and a sister in southern Cal ...more
Jul 13, 2011 Libby rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: year-of-women
This book, a fictionalized memoir of a Vietnamese girl who settles in San Diego, was selected for the One Book, One San Diego initiative. The book plays fast and loose with time and memory and feels like at least two different books smushed together. The first is a pretentious rendering of the protagonist's childhood that I found about as meaningful as the plastic bag dancing in the wind in "American Beauty" (which is to say prettily imagined but lacking something in essentials). In fact, it was ...more
Jul 19, 2015 Nikhil rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american
A book with an interesting concept but poor execution. The novel was trying to do too much -- at once bildungsroman and elegy and family history -- with the result that the narrative feels disjointed. For instance, much of the final 30 pages of the text are devoted to the brother of the narrator, the brother who drowned when the narrator was 5 before the text even begins, the brother who only been mentioned briefly in passing. It is deeply unclear to me why the novel winds down with its meditati ...more
Glenda Lynne
This book is a slow/quick read. Comparatively few pages and almost sans plot, it drifts poetically from image to image, and frankly, I tried but could not drift with it. I live in San Diego and am very familiar with much of the area she describes. I taught in the public school system for 38 years and am familiar with the extreme social trauma that occurs when people immigrate to our area from very disparate cultures. San Diego is, after all, a city full of immigrants and all the resultant proble ...more
May 05, 2016 Linda rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The greatest book I have ever read. It is so beautiful.

"In Vietnamese, the word for water and the word for a nation, a country, and a homeland are one and the same: nu'ó'c."

"Ba and I were connected to the four uncles, not by blood but by water."

"Ba's voice echoes from deep down like a frog singing at the bottom of a well. His voice is water moving through a reed pipe in the middle of a sad tune. And the sad voice is always asking and answering itself. It calls out and then comes running in. It i
Karen Fitzgerald
I found this book to be very interesting. It is mainly told from a 5 year old Vietnamese girl's eyes as she leaves her home and some of her family members behind around 1978 to immigrate to America.
I was initially intrigued because the girl ends up living and growing up in San Diego, California, specifically in the Kearney Mesa area. Being a San Diego native, that caught my attention.
The first 3 sections (chapters maybe?) I found to be very well written. Even though I am not a big fan of time
Apr 01, 2009 Alan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels
poetic novel about Vietnamese immigrants to USA (California). Told from the p.o.v. of a young girl I enjoyed her descriptions of the weird place she's ended up in, and the behaviour of those around her (particularly teenage boys). Slim, almost plotless (although there is the story of her family's disintegration under the pressure) but full of memorable imagery.
Aug 18, 2015 Candace rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I am always interested in immigrant stories and in the Vietnamese-American community, so this was a good choice for me. Le's prose is almost like reading a poem. She weaves a lot of memories and experiences of the protagonist together to create a story that works. I loved this book and read it in just a few days.
Jan 06, 2013 Arturo rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
You know that moving feeling of the ocean that lingers inside your belly after a long swim in the ocean? It is that same lingering feeling I have in me after reading The Gangster We Are All Looking For, by lê thi diem thúy. I think it will remain with me for a while.
Feb 16, 2013 Pauline rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good book...compelling story of what it is like to adapt to a foreign culture with different ideals of assimilation between family members. Trying to stay true to cultural richness but striving to be accepted by your "new" culture is difficult & confusing.
May 11, 2016 c rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I think it bears rereading because I probably could like this book a lot more if I gave it the time. I think a lot of the most poignant accounts of historical trauma come from those who were too young to fully grasp the events but caught the full brunt of their effects. Gangster puts you in that same position, moving like a series of snapshots through the displacement of a family, providing just enough imagery to give you a visual, and just short of enough background for you to fully comprehend ...more
Apr 26, 2016 zespri rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: asia
it is 1978, and a six year old vietnamese girl is taken ashore in San Diego with 5 other boat people, one her father. Their new life is told in short, lyrical passages, which seem to cover the sadness and distress of refugees starting a new life in a new and foreign country. It is hard to even imagine what life was like for the boat people, but books like this help us to remember, and give a little understanding. Quite a poignant read in the light of our most recent refugee crisis in Europe.

Virginia Jacobs
Aug 06, 2011 Virginia Jacobs rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was beautifully and poignantly written. The language was simple, yet compelling and visual. The book is clearly somewhat autobiographical, and while there are undercurrents of sadness, there is also enough joy and happiness to make the corners of one’s heart turn up, because we have all been there, too, we just didn’t say it as well.

For example, the chapter titled palm is about both palm trees and the palm of the narrator’s hand. The opening paragraph says, “The trees in the neighborho
Pretty Girls Make Gravy
Mar 02, 2011 Pretty Girls Make Gravy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
The Gangster We Are All Looking For is the 2011 choice for One Book, One San Diego; which is a partnership between our local NPR station (KPBS) and the San Diego Public Library. Every year a committee chooses several candidate books and KPBS encourages listeners to go online and vote for their choice in a poll. The winner is promoted on KPBS throughout the year, the author does some interviews, and there discussions of the book are held at local branches of the Public Library system every so oft ...more
Jul 25, 2011 Adam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I entered this book knowing little more than its title and that it was about the experience of a young Vietnamese refugee. The title led me to expect a different sort of book, but it was nonetheless engaging. Lê Thi Diem Thúy tells the story of a refugee family’s fracturing and decline in Southern California. Refugees are unlike voluntary immigrants in many ways. They arrive on foreign shores with no real desire to be there. They have been forced to abandon their homes and country, to which ther ...more
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Jul 27, 2010 Lis rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club, 2010-reads
written from the perspective of an immigrant girl from vietnam, having moved to san diego. true to her country of origin, water is a constant theme: people washing in on the shore, boys jumping into a pool, even words sounding like a drop in a well. it goes on this way as constant themes stay throughout. for example, she hardly talks about her mother without mention of her clutching her pocketbook. but it's a short book, such a quick read (easily took me one day without fully devoted attention), ...more
I feel somewhat neglected by the author when the plot gives way so often to more evocative, lyrical moments. In my less generous moments, I have even found those moments repetitive. But then I try to focus on the artistic purposefulness of the way in which the writer returns to water imagery and how those evocative, surreal, lyrical moments involving water imagery repeat with a rhythm much like ocean waves, and the imagery and prose style parallel the experience of floating, drifting, being imme ...more
Dec 19, 2007 Emile rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Along with a child-like attention to detail and soft, poetic language there is a magical quality to the story-telling in this memoir - like the interweaving of fact and imagination in a Maurice Sendak book. In 'The Gangster', time, space and reality are grounded in reality but fluid. Increaingly rapid transitions between past and present make the urgency of the past strikingly, and appropriately, immediate. At the same time our narrator seems to pull back, floating higher above what her life has ...more
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Sometimes a book speaks to you for reasons you don't entirely understand. You're charmed and the author can do what you wouldn't tolerate of another writer or in a another book. There is a lot of roundabout meandering here- the kind which made me curse Faulkner, yet in this case it's perfect and wonderful. The writing is good. Words feel carefully chosen and fit together well without being overdone. I'd happily read a couple pages at a time for weeks if I could restrain myself.

For all that, I lo
Jun 01, 2016 Pamela rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I had to take multiple breaks when finishing up this book in a courtyard at my university. Why? Because I kept having to sob, and I sure as hell wasn't going to do it in a very public, social place. This book is a book about trauma, immigration, family, and home. It's beautifully written, painful, and so very subtle. For anyone who comes from an immigrant background -- especially if you are Vietnamese American -- this will pull at your heartstrings.
Jul 02, 2014 Jaclynn rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
It's certainly a very poetic and free flowing book, and perhaps this it's one redeeming quality. Thoughts randomly come forth, recede, come flowing back out again. This decade, a decade in the future, the past...all randomly thrown in. No conclusion, no explanation or details about certain events mentioned. Haunting, lovely language, but not filling.
John Lee
Aug 22, 2014 John Lee rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I think the low rating might be due to the fact that I have read so many stream-of-consciousness books for this class (Modern Literature). This was a fairly easy (though also very emotional) read, written in an extremely conversational style but full of vivid descriptions. It reminded me a lot of books like To the Lighthouse and Speak, Memory, though it somehow seemed less accomplished than those works. I can't really say that anything in the book was bad, but I simply didn't find it as engaging ...more
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Class of 2014: The Gangster We Are All Looking For 2 9 Jan 24, 2014 12:31PM  
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Lê Thi Diem Thúy left Vietnam on a boat with her father in 1978 and grew up in San Diego, California. In 1990, she moved to Massachusetts and enrolled in Hampshire College. After graduating in 1993, Thúy traveled to Paris to research French colonial picture postcards made in the early 1900's.

Today, she is an author and performance artist based in Northampton. She recently finished a one-year Radcl
More about Lê Thi Diem Thúy...

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“When I grow up I am going to be the gangster we are all looking for.” 6 likes
“I don't know how time moves or which of our sorrows or our desires it is able to wash away.” 5 likes
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