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Reviews of The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

The Mountains Sing

by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai X
The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 352 pages

    Mar 2021, 368 pages


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About this Book

Book Summary

Winner of the 2020 BookBrowse Debut Award

The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multi-generational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. "Both vast in scope and intimate in its telling ... Moving and riveting." - Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee's Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore not just her beloved country, but her family apart.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.

The Mountains Sing is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai's first novel in English.

From the Author

"My publisher at Algonquin Books forwarded me the news of my first book in English, The Mountains Sing, winning BookBrowse's Best Debut Award for 2020 and I sat there crying.

When I was growing up in Vietnam, as I labored on rice fields and sold things on streets, I escaped into books I had read and stories I made up in my mind, and dreamed of becoming a writer. Thank you so much for enabling my childhood dream to become a reality. Thank you for creating space on your bookshelf and in your heart for stories about Vietnamese people – stories which have been neglected, buried, or erased. BookBrowse's Debut Award shows me that kindness and compassion exists.

My sincere thanks to you, to the many BookBrowse subscribers who voted for a novel that comes from the faraway land of Vietnam, to BookBrowse publisher Davina Morgan-Witts, and to the BookBrowse team. May we read more about each other's experiences so that humans love humans more, so that one day there will be no war on earth."

-- Quế Mai

Pronunciation Guide

Hà Nội, 1972–1973

Grandma is holding my hand as we walk to school. The sun is a large egg yolk peeking through a row of tin-roofed houses. The sky is as blue as my mother's favorite shirt. I wonder where my mother is. Has she found my father?

I clutch my jacket's collar as the wind rips through the air, swirling up a dust cloud. Grandma bends, putting her handkerchief against my nose. My school bag dangles on her arm as she cups her palm against her face.

We resume walking as soon as the dust settles. I strain my ears but hear no bird. I search, but there isn't a single flower along our path. No grass around us, just piles of broken bricks and twisted metal.

"Guava, be careful." Grandma pulls me away from a bomb crater. She calls me by my nickname to guard me from evil spirits she believes hover above the earth, looking for beautiful children to kidnap. She said that my real name, Hương, which means "fragrance," would attract them.

"When you come ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
Download the complete book club kit which contains the author's letter to the reader, discussion questions, author's essay about her writing journey, a historical timeline, the Trần family tree, as well as a playlist of Vietnamese music.

Also recommended: 13 Questions With Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

  1. There are many major historical events featured in the novel. How much did you know about these events before you read The Mountains Sing? Did the story show you a new side to any events you were already familiar with?
  2. Many of the characters in The Mountains Sing experience terrible things, and some of them must make difficult choices. Each of them handles their experiences differently. The Sơn ca helps Hương ...
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

Here are some of the comments posted about The Mountains Sing.
You can see the full discussion here.

According to Huong, proverbs are the essence of Vietnamese wisdom. Did the proverbs resonate with you?
I really liked the proverbs. I felt they helped promote understanding of the culture of the Vietnamese people. - PKH

Dieu Lan believes that no matter the circumstances "no one has the right to take away the life of another human being." Do you agree with her statement? What's your take on forgiveness?
I do agree that "no one has the right to take the life of another human being." But there may be instances when killing cannot be avoided. This reminds me of the commandment "Thou shalt not..." In Hebrew, it actually reads "... - bettyt

How does Grandma Dieu Lan help her children after their return? What might her relationships with her children reveal about family relationships in Viet Nam?
After I finished this book, I took a long walk and ruminated on the strength of mother love. I just returned from a visit to 2 of my daughters who had babies within 2 days of each other. As I grow older, my mother love becomes stronger, not only ... - debra

How important do you think music and poetry are in the Vietnamese culture? How important are they in your own culture?
So very important and are really the history that is passed down and that is what Grandma Dieu Lan did. All cultures have a variation of this, but in this digital age much is being lost because who can preserve a text, a tweet, or a snapchat? ... - MimiJo

How is the Viet Nam portrayed in The Mountains Sing similar to or different from the Viet Nam you already knew?
I knew very little about the lives of the Vietnamese people throughout the war. This was an eye-opener on the suffering the people there encountered. - bettyt

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    BookBrowse Awards


BookBrowse Review


This story is beautifully and compellingly told by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, whose family lived through Vietnam's 20th-century history, starting with the land reform, Communist rule and the Vietnam War (Margaret A). It seems odd to note that a book about such painful events is "easy to read," but this poet, essayist and novelist tells her characters' story with clarity and beautiful language (Karen S)...continued

Full Review (531 words)

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(Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Media Reviews

Minneapolis Star Tribune
At times, because of the number of characters, fast narrative pace and alternating points of view that go back-and-forth in time, it can be hard to keep track of what is happening when...However, Nguyen’s poetic descriptions and deep affection for her characters allow the reader to feel for the Tran family’s many vicissitudes.

New York Times
Stirring...Que Mai has said that she chose to write The Mountains Sing in English to gain the distance a second language provides — a distance necessary to approach a disturbing history calmly. But writing in English also allows her to present to an audience in the United States a moving portrait of its former enemy, the North Vietnamese. Through her depiction of sympathetic characters suffering under a repressive regime, Que Mai offers us in The Mountains Sing a novel that, in more than one sense, remedies history.

Nguy?n Phan Qu? Mai has created a luminous, complex family narrative that spans nearly a century of Vietnamese history...The Mountains Sing affirms the individual's right to think, read, and act according to a code of intuitive civility, borne out of Vietnam's fertile and compassionate cultural heritage.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A richly imagined story of severed bonds amid conflict.

Library Journal (starred review)
Recalling Min Jin Lee and Lisa See, Nguyen displays a lush and captivating storyteller's gift as she effortlessly transports readers to another world, leaving them wishing for more.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Nguyen brilliantly explores the boundary between what a writer shares with the world and what remains between family. This brilliant, unsparing love letter to Vietnam will move readers.

Author Blurb Bruce Weigl, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of the bestselling memoir The Circle of Hanh
In The Mountains Sing, Nguyen Phan Que Mai has found a true and clear voice in English that is rich and compelling the way only those who come to English as a second language can sometimes manage.

Author Blurb Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish: Stories out of Entebbe
A poignant and vivid portrayal of a brutal slice of Vietnamese history from a perspective that is so rarely heard abroad: that of the Vietnamese themselves. We are starkly reminded of how those wars – and wars everywhere – wash over and drown both the guilty and innocent alike.

Author Blurb Karl Marlantes, bestselling author of Matterhorn, What It's Like to Go to War, and Deep River
Good literature frees us from being trapped in our own skins by allowing us to identify with characters and see the world through their eyes. Reading this novel, I was moved by Nguyen Phan Que Mai's beautiful, even poetic, depictions of enduring courage. I came away with a deeper understanding of the war in which I fought.

Author Blurb Larry Heinemann, author of Paco's Story, winner of the National Book Award
Nguyen Phan Que Mai has written a wonderful, intricate story of the lives of a Vietnamese family trying to make it through generations of war. The Mountains Sing is a beautiful story of the simple challenge of keeping a family together and the courage of perseverance. It is told with the sureness of a master storyteller with a poet's spirit. A large and complicated story, marvelous to read.

Author Blurb Mai Elliott, Pulitzer-Prize finalist and author of The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family
In this moving family saga, author Que Mai gives us a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary North Vietnamese as they struggle to survive the calamities that descend over their country – from the Japanese occupation during World War II, to the harsh and ideological rule of the communists, to the American bombing of the North, and to the shocks and aftershocks of the Vietnam War. It is a story of loss and sorrow, of longing for peace and normalcy, and—above all—of the triumph of hope over despair, told in the authentic voices of a resilient and resourceful grandmother and her granddaughter.

Author Blurb Ocean Vuong, MacArthur award winner and author of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
A sweeping story that positions Vietnamese life within the rich and luminous history of national epics like The Tale of Kieu and the Iliad. Expansive in scope and feeling, The Mountains Sing is a feat of hope, an unflinchingly felt inquiry into the past, with the courageous storytelling of the present.

Author Blurb Philip Caveney, author of Sebastian Darke, Alec Devlin and Movie Maniacs novels
Inspired by real life events, Nguyen Phan Que Mai's story will thrill, shock and terrify the reader in equal measure. It will also inspire them with its life-affirming qualities of everyday heroism and survival against all the odds.

Author Blurb Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle
Deep human bonds of family, place, and memory are written of in ways that are often heartbreaking, but show the strength and persistence of those ties. This is a book that glows with spirit and those larger life forces that include love. I look forward to the day I can put this book in readers' hands.

Author Blurb Sara Maitland, author of Daughter of Jerusalem, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award
The structure is clever, the writing often evocative, the characters convincing and very touching and the whole narrative deeply engaging. And this is a first novel! Impressive.

Author Blurb Thanhhà Lai, National Book Award-winning author of Inside Out & Back Again and Butterfly Yellow
Nguyen Phan Que Mai's sweeping tale proves on every page that despite war-time tragedies and numbing ugliness, the human desire to forgive and thrive soars as high as the mountains. An essential read for Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans searching to understand their grandparents and parents who lived through the war in Viet Nam.

Author Blurb Thi Bui, author of The Best We Could Do
Que Mai tells the story of the war that tore apart Viet Nam, and of the generation lost to the war, by braiding around it two beautiful strands told by the older and younger generations of a family. This book is an act of love, compassion, and ultimately healing, and very much needed by all who survived the war.

Author Blurb Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Sympathizer
The Mountains Sing is an epic account of Viet Nam's painful 20th century history, both vast in scope and intimate in its telling. Through the travails of one family, Nguyen Phan Que Mai brings us close to the horrors of famine, war, and class struggle. But in this moving and riveting novel, she also shows us a postwar Viet Nam, a country of hope and renewal, home to a people who have never given up.

Author Blurb Wayne Karlin, author of Wandering Souls, winner of the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award
Over the last two decades we have been gifted with works by Vietnamese writers who have brought us into the consciousness of those that Americans saw only as backdrops for their own stories. Nguyen Phan Que Mai not only adds to that rich body of work, she daringly transcends it.

Reader Reviews

Nadereh Zolghadr

Mountains sing
What an eye-opener is this book! I have read about the Vietnam War and have been familiar with the history of the country. I have been an admirer of the Vietnamese courage and valor in defending their homeland and defeating the imperialists. But ...   Read More
Betty Taylor

Beautifully written saga
It seems almost sacrilegious to say this is a beautifully written book while the content is about two violent periods of Vietnam’s history. Even though surrounded by violence, respectfulness and gentleness could still be found among the people of ...   Read More

To Make the Mountains Sing
Nguyen Phan Que Mai's novel, The Mountains Sing, is a masterful work: the writing is smooth, educational, and full of emotion. Although I was in college during the Vietnam War, I have to say that I knew very little about it. Fellow students were ...   Read More
Lynne Lambert

The Human Side of War
Viet Nam is a country that knows too well about the subjugation of foreign powers and war. The French, Japanese, and Americans, as well as political factions within their own borders have all taken a toll on the Vietnamese people. The novel The ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Land Reforms in North Vietnam (1953-1956)

The humiliation of a landlord during North Vietnam's land reform program. The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế is set against the backdrop of several decades in Northern Vietnam, including the period from 1945 to 1976 when it was an independent state known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). This was a time of extraordinary hardship brought about by factors related to shifts in political power and the struggle for Vietnamese self-governance, with a significant one of these factors being the land reform movement. Land reform measures in North Vietnam were initiated in 1953 by Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Lao Dong, the Vietnamese Workers' Party of the DRV, and lasted until 1956. The ideology of the Lao Dong was based on facets of Chinese communism, as well as Soviet Marxism and Leninism. Their ...

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