Jenny's Reviews > Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham
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's review
Jun 15, 11

bookshelves: setting, subject-matter
Recommended to Jenny by: John
Read from May 22 to June 06, 2011 — I own a copy

3.5 stars. Catfish and Mandala is a travelogue of Andrew Pham’s cycling trip through Vietnam and serves as a launching pad for excavating his family’s past. Because he’s Vietnamese American, he gets treated with resentment from the Vietnamese who stayed but because he is also a partial native, he gains access to a part of Vietnam that most Western tourists wouldn’t get to witness. Like many Asian American stories, Pham is searching for home, a place where he doesn’t feel like an outsider.

He speaks about his Asian American experience with passion, simplicity, specificity, and insight and he excels at description and metaphor, evoking an emotional response from me even when he doesn’t offer too much of his own emotions. His description of his family and their struggles as new immigrants are particularly poignant. And I think he was really honest in how he expresses the guilt he feels about being the oldest son, a fraud, and a failure in the eyes of his parents. I feel like Pham is also trying to come to terms with the death of his sister as well. I was particularly interested his relationship with Chi and I like how admits he is not the authentic eldest son because his older sister should have been it.

I started off really excited by this book because I identified with Pham’s descriptions of his immigrant family and his struggle with trying to find himself. But after about 100 pages my excitement started to wane because he kept on cutting from past to present to dreamlike chapters—he builds up the suspense in a past event and switches to the present and by the time he gets back to the past the momentum is lost. The book was an honest portrayal of his experience but some parts lacked emotional depth. I wanted less description of his bowel movements and almost getting his ass kicked by drunken Vietnamese men and more about his emotional journey.

A perfect description of eating star fruits:
“The fruit tasted sun-baked, for in full ripeness it was golden, the color of cloud underbellies tickled by a slanting sun. It had a flowery texture halfway between a melon and an apple, though it was less substantial that either. Its juice was sharp, indecisive between sour and sweet, resulting in a dizzied tanginess….
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Reading Progress

05/27/2011 page 124
35.0% "The excitement from the beginning of the book is waning and his cuts from past to present isn't as effective. Excitement is built, he changes to present, and by the time he gets back to the past I've lost momentum."
05/27/2011 page 124
35.0% "The excitement from the beginning of the book is waning and his cuts from past to present aren't as effective. Excitement is built, he changes to present, and by the time he gets back to the past I've lost momentum."

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