Catfish and Mandala

Pham, Andrew X. Catfish and Mandala: a Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. New York: Farrar. Straus and Giroux, 1999.

It has been several years since I read a bicycle memoir (the last being Where the Pavement Ends by Erika Warmbrunn). I was very excited to start Catfish and Mandala. So much so that I started it two days before May began. Even though May is Bicycle Month I read this for Memorial Day. I’m glad I went that route because it’s not really about the bike.

Catfish and Mandala is more than an adventure story about biking across Vietnam. It’s a cultural exploration and by turn, an explanation. Comparing American versus Vietnamese differing viewpoints on mundane topics like when a child should move out of his parent’s home after reaching adulthood. And yet. Noticing similarities: we all want our fathers to be proud of us, in any culture.
The story of Pham’s father’s imprisonment in the Labor Camp is brief, but heartbreaking just the same. After reading pages 16-20 I will never look at catfish the same.
Pham’s ability to weave past with present is brilliant. He recaptures his family’s flight from Vietnam to the U.S. when he was a small child seamlessly while recounting his own journey from the U.S. back to Vietnam as an adult. His confusion over what he remembers is intertwined with his inability to articulate what he is really looking for. Pham finds himself asking “what am I doing here?” time and time again. As he faces prejudice and violence and corruption I asked the same question.

Favorite lines: “Somehow they got by on love and rice” (p 17),” Everything could shift, and nothing could change” (p 107), “I have an urge to kick myself in the head” (p 158), and “A stray mutt curls up at my feet and shares his fleas with my ankles” (p 200).

Author Fact: I have to start of by flirting. Pham is a good looking guy! My next fact is actually a question – how can you be a “starving” restaurant critic?
Book Trivia: Catfish and Mandala is Pham’s first book.

Things that need further explanation: what, exactly, are “angry egg-eyes”, and what do they look like? Pham mentions five different types of bananas. Now I want to know their names and characteristics.

Pham mentions Miles From Nowhere by Barbara Savage. I’m so excited it’s actually on my list. Sad to say I won’t be reading it until probably May 2016 though!

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “Bicycling” (p 36). Simple enough.

ps~ I enjoyed Catfish and Mandala so much that I added Pham as a favorite author on LibraryThing.

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