Book Review: “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A deceptively simple story of an author finding her writing identity whilst suffering a serious illness. During the illness she reconnects with her mother. The family had suffered extreme poverty and her father had been traumatised by his war experience.

The setting is America in the late 90s / early 2ooos. AIDS is taking its toll, the twin towers are about to be destroyed. Lucy Barton is in hospital for an undisclosed, serious illness. She details her relationship with her husband, flashes back to her childhood, has lengthy, entertaining reminiscences with her mother, who sits at the end of the hospital bed, refusing to ever sleep.

The episodes in writing workshops appealed to me, depicting some of the difficult characters who may be encountered at such events

Although the subject matter is intense, the short chapters and captivating writing style make this an enjoyable read. Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge” was serialised for TV and, for the most part, was captivating. This book will encourage you to read more of her work if you haven’t already.

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In Vietnam: The Rainbow in the Snow

Vietnam has been gripped with football (round ball version) fever for the last month. Not the World Cup, not the Asia Cup, not the full national team; no, the Under 23 Asia Football Cup, being played in China. As Vietnam progressed through the group stages, the quarter and semi-finals, beating Australia on the way, the country erupted in unison every time a goal was scored. After each victory, thousands of flag waving motorcyclists would process around the city, sounding their horns and cheering. It was like this all over the country.

Yesterday afternoon (Saturday 27/1/18), Vietnam, against all expectations, found itself in the AFC U-23 final, playing Uzbekistan in Changzhou. The whole country went on hold for the match. Đà Nẵng cafes and bars filled up with excited supporters. It seemed like everybody was dressed in red and yellow, and waving the national flag.

As I was walking past the Red Window bar near my place, they invited me into watch on their large screen. The bar was suitably decked out for the occasion:

The match was nearly postponed because of a blizzard. From what I saw on the T.V. the match should have been postponed. The conditions were horrendous. I’m pretty sure most, if not all of the Vietnam team would never have seen snow before, let alone played in several inches of it, in the middle of a blizzard. They were at a distinct disadvantage to the Uzbekistan team, who would be familiar with the freezing weather. Half-time was extended to about 30 minutes whilst a bevy of workmen cleared the snow that accumulated in the first half. Here they are:


Uzbekistan took the lead in the first half. They looked bigger, stronger and better able to cope with the treacherous pitch. But Vietnam kept coming at them, and scored from a beautifully curled free-kick. My Vietnamese friend told me that the commentator described the trajectory of the free-kick as like a rainbow in the snow. The bar erupted:


It stayed 1-1 until full-time and then almost to the end of extra time. It looked destined to go to a penalty shoot-out, at which Vietnam had proven themselves to be experts. But tragically, with almost the last kick of extra-time, Uzbekistan scored again. It was way too late for Vietnam to pull another goal back, and the match ended 2-1 to Uzbekistan.

What was then noticeable was the good-natured way in which defeat was accepted, and the achievement of just reaching the final was appreciated. The country was united behind their national team, regardless of victory or defeat. There wasn’t the outburst of nastiness and anger and recriminations that you might see from say losing British or Australian supporters. There were still significant motorbike flag waving processions around town, but I’m sure the place would have been much wilder had Vietnam won.

Here’s the “Rainbow in the Snow”:


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

In Vietnam: Đà Nẵng – Booming, but will it bust?

When I was looking for somewhere to live in Đà Nẵng, a major requirement was to find a place out of earshot of the numerous construction projects going on, especially in the beach areas. I eventually found a nice place in a quiet back lane. Apart from the usual apartment noise issues (upstairs neighbours walking around noisily, water pipes banging every time someone uses the toilet etc.), and the usual Vietnam city noises (the “Bánh Bao Đây” men broadcasting their wares from motorbike mounted loudspeakers, barking dogs, motorbike engines) it’s been relatively quiet … until last month, when a house almost opposite was demolished in record time, and a new building commenced. This is now the view from my balcony:

I could write a book about the speed with which buildings come down and go up in this city, never mind the improvised building techniques, the health and safety practices (there are none), the living conditions of the workers (many of them live in makeshift tents on or next to the site), the endurance of these men and women (many of the labourers are women). Maybe another post.

I took a brief walk around my area yesterday, not straying more than about 300 metres from my place. These are just some of the building project going on within that radius, and I’ve not bothered with the numerous smaller scale improvements going on.

What is driving this building bonanza? I think it’s partly tourism and partly a response to the growing “expat” community. Korean tourists are everywhere in the city. Apparently Vietnam reminds them of Korea twenty years ago. They come for the beaches, the cheap food and drink and probably other reasons. There are numerous marts that cater specifically for Korean tourists. The largest supermarket near me, Lotte Mart, is Korean owned, and busloads of Korean tourists descend on it, frantically buying up nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, biscuits, coffee and tea. Some areas of the beach are crowded with selfie-taking Korean women.

The expat community (like me) tends to be resident for longer periods, and is willing to pay much higher rents than the local residents, though still a lot less than would be paid in Australia, U.K. and U.S.A. In response, numerous apartment blocks have sprung up, with the aim of being rented to expats.

The worry, I think, is that the current boom is bound to lead to an oversupply. Rents will decline. Apartments will remain empty. Hotel rooms will be vacant. A shock to the Korean economy could precipitate this (though maybe the situation in North Korea might encourage more Koreans to come here). A clampdown on expats working “unofficially” might cause the expat influx to cease. Any number of events might lead to a bust in the hotel and apartment market.

The Vietnamese are incredibly resilient people. Businesses here run on tiny margins, almost it seems on a marginal revenue basis i.e. any revenue is better than no revenue. Shop staff are often family members living on the premises and not being paid much. Restaurants are often someone’s front room. Wages of course are miniscule by western standards. Vietnam will survive, but it could be a bumpy ride for Đà Nẵng.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

In Vietnam: The Case of the Disappearing Beach

A few hundred metres from where I live is Mỹ Khê beach. Since I moved to Danang in August 2017, I’ve been running or walking on the beach most days. I head down a back lane, cross the busy main beach road, and down a short path to the beach. At the bottom of the path is a guard’s hut, which is primarily to prevent unwanted visitors entering the swanky resort just to the right of the path.

Just before APEC, last November 2017 (i.e.  2 months ago), I took this picture looking south. That part of the beach was roped off and guarded – many of the international delegates were staying at the resorts further down the beach. It was also just before Typhoon Damrey hit the Vietnam coast.

The second picture was taken a few weeks ago (late December), only about 6 weeks after the first picture. The erosion of the beach is dramatic. This doesn’t seem to be a seasonal event from what I can tell. Perhaps the damage caused by the typhoon has precipitated a sustained loss of sand, some sort of permanent lowering of the coastal shelf; or perhaps it’s a dramatic rise in sea level.

The third picture was taken a few days ago (mid January). The guard’s hut is now tottering, and previously buried sewage or water pipes are exposed to the waves.


To the south of the guard’s hut, large palm trees have been undermined and are falling into the sea:

I also used to be able to run north, up the beach from the hut, but now, even at low tide, the waves cover the beach, as shown in the photo below. A number of bars, restaurants and cafes along the beach are threatened with inundation, especially if another typhoon or wild storm hits this coast.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018


Book Review: “We are Not Ourselves”, Matthew Thomas

We Are Not OurselvesWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very moving, well-written story, especially considering this is his first novel. It tracks the life of a girl, Eileen Tumulty, growing up in an Irish family in New York and her subsequent adult married life. It is a story about early-onset Alzheimers. It is a story about the reactions of friends and family to the devastating diagnosis, of the challenges of continuing to try to live as normal a life as possible as the disease takes hold, of the struggles of negotiating the American health system, the difficulties of juggling job and carer responsibilities, the self-centredness of youth, the challenging relationship between parents and son. All of these things are woven into the timeline of the progressing illness.

The book is long: 101 chapters, though many of them are just a few pages long. However, I found it gripping from the start. The characters are well depicted, with empathy but without making them flawless. We see Eileen’s dedication and her tendency to be spendthrift. We see her husband Ed’s intelligence as well as his obsessive personality. We see their son’s slow realisation of how much his parents have done for him, after years of being an ingrate.

It is a terrific book about a difficult subject; a subject many of us worry about whenever we forget where we put the keys or can’t recall the name of a famous actor. Well worth reading.

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Book Review : “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was part of my English school curriculum back in the 60s. I re-read it whilst working in Vietnam this year (2018), and it still felt fresh and relevant. The central theme, of a love triangle between a beautiful, young Vietnamese woman, an older English reporter and a young American, takes place in French occupied Vietnam. The Viet Minh are fighting the French in the 50s, and the Americans are standing back, subtly interfering, and deciding if and when to make their move. The love triangle can be seen as a metaphor for the ongoing war.

Greene writes beautifully. His observation of wartime Vietnam, of political intrigue and of the relationship between the three lovers, is acute. Many of those observations can still be made today, in particular the phenomenon of beautiful, young Vietnamese women with much older Western men. Why does this happen? In Greene’s view, love is an illusion, a romantic notion. Relationships are more utilitarian. Fowler, the English reporter, has no illusion that Phuong loves him, except in a simple way dependent on him providing security for her. She provides emotional and physical comfort for him. Pyle, the young American, pretends a romantic love, but his version is one of saving her from Vietnam, and taking her back to become a conventional American wife – a bit like imposing American style “democracy” on Vietnam rather than allowing the Vietnamese to make their own choice.

“The Quiet American” is still a great read. Perhaps the conclusion is a bit too “pat”, a trifle contrived. This apart, it is a classic of 20th century English fiction.

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