Two things I usually do not like to read about: war and hot places. And yet I found myself picking up Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai everytime I walked past the New J Fiction shelf. I could tell by the description on the back of the book that the story was about a young girl living in South Vietnam right before the fall of Saigon, thus, it was about war in a hot place. Yet, the praise on the back cover also demanded that I “read it slowly to savor the delicious language” and cheer on “a protagonist so strong, so loving, and vivid [that fellow author] longed to hand her a wedge of freshly cut papaya.” I asked myself one question: Have I ever eaten a papaya? I don’t think so, but after reading this book I am convinced that papaya is now my favorite fruit, and that Inside Out & Back Again has my vote for the Newbery Award this year.

This story, told in verse, spends one year with ten-year-old Hà as her family undergoes the transition from their war-torn, unsettled home in South Vietnam to the the unknown and sometimes cruel world of being refugees in the United States. Ha’s environment is something I have never experienced, but her spirit and humor remind me of many of my kindred fictional friends from Ramona Quimby to Allie Finkle. Thus, she enabled me to live a piece of our world’s history that, until now, had really only been presented to me through dry history books or masculine, heated war literature.

Hà’s story in heartbreaking, but not without hope and smiles. An excerpt from Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai:

Quiet Decision

I help Mother
peel sweet potatoes
to stretch the rice.

I start to chop off
a potato’s end
as wide as
a thumbnail,
then decide
to slice off
only a sliver.

I am proud
of my ability
to save
until I see
in Mother’s
deep eyes.

You deserve to grow up
where you don’t worry about
saving half a bite
of sweet potato.

April 19

In the searing debut novel The Lotus Eaters, author Tatjana Soli captures the devastation of war-torn Vietnam from 1963-1975, but also beautifully balances it with complex relationships and passionate romance.

Helen Adams has dropped out of college to come to Vietnam to work as a freelance photographer and to find answers about her brother’s death.  She soon falls in love with a charismatic Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer, who takes her under his wing.  As a female covering combat in this age of new-found womens liberation, Helen’s gender draws as much attention as does her cover-quality work.  But Helen,  just like the lotus eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, finds herself unwilling or unable to leave, even in the final chaotic days of the U.S. military’s evacuation from the conflict.

There’s romance (with two very different men) —  there’s danger (with every mine-filled step) and there’s that anxious tension that keeps you hoping for their survival right up to the very end.  The book is thoroughly researched (it includes a lengthy bibliography) with a perspective that only 40 plus years of history could provide.

Part travel guide, part cookbook, the best word to describe this gorgeous book is “stunning”. Koto: a Culinary Journey Through Vietnam is filled with beautiful photography, mouth-watering  recipes and an eye-opening look into this complex and distant land.

Beginning with a thoughtful overview of the long history and diverse cultures of this beautiful nation, the authors then bring us to contemporary Vietnam where they lived and taught for two years. Divided into seven main food regions, the book provides a dish by dish journey through the long, skinny country. Recipes are relatively simple – very few take up more than a page – and where necessary have been adapted to the Western kitchen with ingredients that are available in most Asian supermarkets.

To page through this book is to immerse yourself in another culture on a delightful – and delicious! – journey of discovery.