The Boat, by Nam Le. A 21st century classic

This is a book review I did for a Uni assignment. I got 20 out of 20 for it.  Yeah, I’m a bit proud of that.

The Boat: A book review

By Nam Le
Published by Penguin Group (Australia)
9780143009610 (pbk)
$16.95, 315 pages

I’m not big on reading short stories. I’ve always been a long-form novel kind of guy. It wasn’t until I read Nam Le’s The Boat that my opinion of short stories changed.

For those who don’t know, The Boat is the first collection of short stories from Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born Australian who now lives in the United States and edits fiction for the Harvard Review. He has won numerous awards for short fiction and The Boat has been translated into multiple languages. The eponymous title story is used in some classrooms to teach students about the plight of refugees.

The Boat is an extraordinary piece of work. It reads like a text book on how to write good short stories – any student would benefit from reading it. Every story is told from the perspective of vastly different protagonists, who vary wildly in age, maturity, and experience, and each of the stories is markedly different. Whether it’s a 14-year old gang banger/would-be assassin in Columbia in ‘Cartagena’, an aging New York artist dying of cancer in ‘Meeting Elise’, or a fiercely patriotic, Japanese girl in the third-grade in 1945 Hiroshima, Le writes each of his characters with an incredible level of nuance that genuinely engages the reader. Each story is longer than a conventional short story, giving his characters the time they need to percolate emotionally. This doesn’t diminish them in any way – I challenge anyone to put one of these tales down without finishing it.

The stories that bookend the collection are set in New York (‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’) and on a Vietnamese refugee boat (‘The Boat’) respectively. The first tells of a well-educated writer seeking his Vietnamese veteran father’s approval and their inevitable cultural and emotional distance; the last is a tale of a traumatic refugee boat journey interspersed with flashbacks to life under the Viet Cong. I suspect these are both deeply personal, however it wouldn’t matter if they weren’t – Le demonstrates an ability to realise worlds and characters with astounding detail and pragmatism.

Every story in this collection is poignant; there are no happy endings. Le writes believable stories that strive to explore the humanity of the characters and events from multiple points of view, with realistic consequences. Le changes his writing style with each piece, never allowing you to pigeon-hole him. It’s almost as if he is flexing his writing muscles for the sake of it, but each story moves with its own rhythm, textures and emotions, the like of which amateurs such as I can only marvel.

As soon as I finished The Boat I immediately gave it away to a friend – not because I hated the book, but because I was desperate for someone else to read it and experience the level of enthusiasm I had. The Boat is a truly profound piece of writing, one that affected me greatly, and I believe that it will be regarded as a classic of the 21st century.

Top Ten Tabletop Role Playing Games

Without further ado, my current favourites:

  1. Symbaroum – awesomely evocative Swedish fantasy TRPG. It’s all in the atmosphere. Cool systems, too. Check out my review here.
  2. Dungeons and Dragons (5th Edition) – my old favourite. 5th edition is miles ahead of previous D&D versions. To find out why I love the game, click here.
  3. Fate – possibly the best ‘story-based’ TPRG around. Players and Game Master create the stories together – any genre, any type of game. Read my review of Fate’s epic awesomeness here.
  4. 13th Age – great combination of crunchy D20 mechanics and story-telling. Read my review here.
  5. Coriolis – The Third Horizon – those Swedes just keep pumping out great games. This Sci- Fi TPRG uses the cool mechanics from Mutant: Year Zero. The setting is Arabian Nights in space. Very cool. I’ll review it as soon as I finish reading it (it’s a big rule book, y’know).
  6. Mindjammer – fantastic, far future, Transhuman Sci-Fi, using the excellent Fate system. One of the best written rulebooks I’ve ever read. NO typos or grammatical errors! The spelling nazi in me was overjoyed. Reviewed here.
  7. Mouse Guard – it’s a joy to play as a mouse in a fantasy setting, where mice have towns and cities and the Mouse Guard protect them from wild animals and other threats. Uses the excellent Burning Wheel system. Must find time to review…
  8. Mutant: Year Zero – post-apocalyptic mutant mania! Another amazing Swedish game with  great sand-box play and cool D6 mechanics. Need to review this, too…
  9. Stars Without Number – Cool old school D&D-system Sci-Fi game, with lots of sand-box tables that can be used across other games. Lots of supplements. A second edition is on the way. Where will I find the time to review all these games?
  10. Cogs, Cakes and Swordsticks – Charming English Steam Punk TRPG, with possibly the simplest games mechanics I’ve ever seen. Great game to play over tea and crumpets. I am determined to review this! Sometime.

There are LOTS of TPRGs available. My list could go on and on. But ten’s the limit. For now…

Pedestrian. A poem.

I’m a pedestrian
Story of my life
Knocked down
By rushing cars
At the crossing
And crossroads

Standing, watching
Waiting for impact
Knowing how much
It will hurt
But not moving
Out of the way
I am a deer
Staring down
Interminable
Inevitability

I fall down
Blood on pavement
Get up, rise again
Slowly to my feet
Dust myself off
Wait for the next one

I’m afraid
To cross this road
I always stop
In the middle
The chicken
Who never gets
To the other side
Forgets why
He wanted to cross
In the first place

Time to trust
Faith, hope, love
To hold my hand
Like the baby
That I am
Develop some
Real road sense
And better metaphors

Good luck with that

 

Some of us run wildly through life, without care or concern for the consequences. Some of us tread cautiously, looking both ways, weighing the odds.

Some of us let our fears overcome us, and before we know it, we’re approaching middle age and still don’t know how to avoid life’s oncoming cars.

Waiting for a sign…

So, just what is my purpose in the grand scheme of things? I have to admit, most of the time I’m not sure. Does this make me a bad Christian? No. At the very least, it makes me human.

When I became a Christian two years ago, I truly believed God had a purpose for me, and that he would enlighten me as time went by. I had to be patient, wait for the seasons to change, endure, hope. I’ve done that every day. Some days my faith is stronger than others. But it never fails me. My commitment is rock steady.

I thought, perhaps I have a purpose in my music and writing – I compose songs devoted to my God, and I have found my true self in my stories, poems and other writings. But even with these, I’m still not sure if I have my purpose. Being a full time student, I haven’t got a real job, and while I don’t believe that a job means purpose by any means, my previous working existence strongly equated purpose with contributing in a meaningful way through work. I’ve been feeling guilty because I’m not working. But then, I feel guilty about a lot of things.

My pastor spoke at church yesterday about fear preventing us from walking more closely with God (the process of sanctification). And I do let fear control my life. I suffer from depression and anxiety and I have all sorts of fears controlling me. With regular therapy I’m learning to let them go. But not having a purpose, a real meaning to my life, is perhaps one of my greatest fears.

Am I crazy to think this? Probably not. I’m sure I’m not the only Christian to wonder about their role in the big picture.

I guess I’m waiting for a sign from the big guy upstairs. The problem is that I don’t know what the sign will be, or even if there will be one. And if there is one, will I recognise it (sounds familiar – I have the same problem with women).

I believe in faith, love, and ever-enduring hope. Maybe I’ll discover my purpose soon. I sincerely hope so.

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