Pham Thi Hoai's Sunday Menu is an eclectic group of short stories depicting life in Vietnam in the 1990's, a nebulous time of economic and social restructuring in which the delineation of traditional male/female relationship dynamics began to blur.

Her characters are vague, existentially-inclined, and self-deprecating - overtly aware of their own personal inadequacies living under the shadow of rigid cultural expectations, but resigned to live by their own simple rules in the wake of monumental societal flux.

Her vivid prose crackles across the pages, an impressionistic smattering of intimate tableaus and character sketches that eschew tired literary cliches and time-tested forms of plot linearity.

Highly recommended reading.

The author


The Doors of Perception and Heaven and HellThe Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

I think we can all agree with Huxley at this point in time. Lysergic acid diethylamide is an undeniably better way to transcend consciousness than self-flagellation and the subsequent festering wounds. (31/8/2012)


Steppenwolf Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

I plan to lend this to every middle-aged, misanthropic miserablist I know. Maybe they too will follow Harry Haller, toss off their self-denigrating hang-ups, rage at a bacchanal, and discover that unadulterated hedonism can brighten even the dreariest of outlooks.


My War Gone By, I Miss It SoMy War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd

Grizzly images seared into brainspace... I hope they dissipate with time. His style leaves a lot to be desired and his thesis of conflict addiction is liturgically rehashed to a numbing point. Leave the memoir, take the jarring history of modern inhumanity left to its own brutal devices while the impotent observers shivered and the pundits traded barbs. The Balkans are endlessly interesting: read Ivo Andric's Bridge on the Rive Drina for an account of the Ottoman years and watch Emir Kusturica's films for a bit of whimsy amongst the ashes of burning buildings.


A Confederacy of DuncesA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

I laughed out loud quite often, but also fell on auto-pilot quite often as the hare-brained misadventures of excessively corpulent and over-educated Ignatius tended to drag behind what my high expectations lusted after. The veracity of the dialogue is unquestionable, but some of the sub-plots bored me with seemingly interminable discourse between banal characters(Santa Battaglia and Mrs. Reilly come to mind). There is some superb characterization (Jones and Myrna Minkoff are almost unrivaled in modern lit) and the book works as a raucous cultural pastiche of the 60's, but it could have used some snipping in the capable hands of a warm-blooded editor. Unfortunately, the author passed before this ever made it to a publisher, so we are left with what may be the finest (and funniest) draft ever given to the reading public.


Under the VolcanoUnder the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Lowry on...

alcoholism - "...if our civilization were to sober up for a couple of days, it'd die of remorse on the third."

actions of the unsound mind - "The act of a madman or drunkard, or of a man laboring under violent excitement, seems less free and more inevitable to the one who knows the mental condition of the man who performed the action, and more free and less inevitable to the one who does not know it." (Tolstoy)

colonization - "The only trouble was: one was afraid these particular Indians might turn out to be people with ideas too."

cockfights - "...the vicious little man-made battles, cruel and destructive, yet somehow bedraggledly inconclusive, each brief as some hideously mismanaged act of intercourse."

existence - "What is man but a little soul holding up a corpse?"

fate - "Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine."

friendship - "In the final analysis , there was no one you could trust to drink with you to the bottom of the bowl."

gulp(s) of tequila - "...he felt the fire of [it] run down his spine like lightning striking a tree which thereupon, miraculously, blossoms."

geopolitics - "Can't you see there's a sort of determinism about the fate of nations? They all seem to get what they deserve in the long run." (Geoffrey Fermin)

horses - "Weary of liberty he suffered himself to be saddled and bridled, and was ridden to death for his pains." (Goethe)

intercourse - " alike are the groans of love to those of the dying."

journalism - "[It] equals male prostitution of speech and writing." (Hugh Fermin)

justification for drunken loitering - "Veo que la tierra anda; estoy esperando que pase mi casa por aqui para meterme en ella." (Geoffrey Fermin)

lighting cigarettes - "La supersticion dice - que cuando tres amigos prenden su cigarro con la misma cerilla, el ultimo muere antes que los otros dos." (Cervantes the Tlaxcaltecan Barman)

quietude - "Silence [is] as infectious as mirth, an awkward silence in one group begetting a loutish silence in another, which in turn [induces] a more general, meaningless silence in a third, until it [has] spread everywhere. Nothing in the world is more powerful than one of these sudden strange silences..."

shared beliefs - "Yes, indeed, how many patterns of life were based on kindred misconceptions, how many wolves do we feel on our heels, while our real enemies go in sheepskin by?"

the authorities - "The world [is] always within the binoculars of the police."

vultures - "Infernal bird of Prometheus! They were vultures, that on Earth so jealously contend with one another, defiling themselves with blood and filth, but who were capable of rising, like this, above the storms, to heights shared only by the condor..."

yesteryear - "...yet the banality stood: that the past was irrevocably past. And the conscience had been given man to regret it only in so far as that might change the future."


Catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

"You have no respect for excessive authority or obsolete traditions. You're dangerous and depraved, and you ought to be taken outside and shot." - Major Sanderson(Squadron Psychologist) to Yossarian (pg.309)

Thrusted upon many of us during our weary adolescence by overzealous AP teachers, I was lucky enough to have avoided this ruthlessly cynical wartime tale until recently. Now, armed with an attention span far greater than that of my perniciously hormonal 16-year old self, I was able to appreciate this masterful look at the deficiencies of modern organizational structures.

Heller takes aim at the grotesque ambitions of simple humans lifted into incongruously high positions of power and influence.  A small Italian island during the waning months of World War II provides the setting, but the majority of the novel's themes are as relevant to a mortgage brokerage in Encino as to the theater of battle.  

We are introduced to a profound microcosm of the world's absurdities: Milo Minderbinder, the ostensibly innocuous mess hall cook, sets up an international food syndicate where military secrets are traded for bushels of tangerines. When his clandestine activities are discovered, he successfully defends himself by preaching the gospel of free market economics - because it is clearly unpatriotic to fetter the spread of commerce. Likewise, the insidious Colonel Cathcart sends his squadron on increasingly dangerous missions for the sole reason of landing his square-jaw on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

The protagonist, Yossarian, is unabashedly motivated by self-preservation and one can't help but dutifully cringe with him as he navigates through waters driven by the cold logic of war. Catch 22 is where the pure, youthful Anarchism of Kropotkin meets the comedic folly of seventies TV staple MASH. Read this book and talk about this book with your friends, then maybe we will stop grooming our brightest youngsters to be CEOs and generals.


The Quiet AmericanThe Quiet American by Graham Greene

"When we are young we are a jungle of complications.  We simplify as we get older."

Essential reading for anyone familiar with Saigon or interested in its modern history. The transition from France's protracted Colonial burnout to America's attempt at introducing "democracy" to Vietnam is brilliantly depicted in these pages. Burn a joss stick, pour a whiskey soda, prepare a (non-opioid) pipe, position yourself comfortably on a hazy patio in the declining light, and delve into this masterpiece.


The Crying of Lot 49The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

...What's with all these Humbert Humbert cats, coming on so big and sick...

Serge's Song (pg. 120)

Philatelic philanderers, paranoid shrinks, head-spun husbands, a shadowy rival for the USPS, a Mike Fallopian, The Courier's Revenge, and a well-diversified, yet dead real-estate tycoon. The reader can sympathize for Mrs. Oedipa Maas because your head will spin as sharply on its axis as hers does. One hell of a ride.

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