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Listen, Slowly: 05/15/16

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai, though a stand alone story, reads like the symbolic sequel to Inside Out and Back Again. While the first book is about the flight from Viet Nam, this one is about returning, at least temporarily.

Mai lives in Laguna Beach. She's on the verge of being a teenager and is finally old enough to go the beach without supervision. She has tons of plans, none of which involve spending time with her grandmother in Viet Nam. But she's the only one without unbreakable commitments and so when news surfaces about her grandfather, presumed killed in the war, she's put on a plane with her grandmother and a new cellphone.

I have to admit that Mai didn't strike me as a realistic pre-teen in the California chapters at the start of the book. Mai is too boy crazy. She's also jealous of her friend's newly grown breasts. There may be girls out there eager to grow into their adult bodies but the sentiment I hear most from girls that age is relief at not needing bras yet or frustration if they suddenly do. As far as noticing boys (or girls) in new ways, it's more of a giggly fascination and a whole lot of confusion about what to do next.

Fortunately, though, Mai is plucked out of a Laguna Beach summer romance book and into a much more interesting one. She is put in a home in a remote village near Ha Noi full of distant relatives she's never met. She is assigned a translator because she can't always think of the right words and her tongue struggles with the language's tones. But she can understand what's spoken, relearning a language she was once fluent in as a toddler because she spent so much time then with her grandmother.

Of all the relatives she meets, my favorite is Ût, a teenage girl who is just a little order than Mai. She wants to be a biologist and takes pride in the frogs that she raises. She can speak English but has trouble reading it, especially the longer terms that show up in science texts. She and Mai bond as Mai begins reading to her so she can memorize the books she'll be tested from if she wants to work for a group of American scientists.

Listen, Slowly is a refreshing take on the lasting effects of the war. As a child growing up in the years following the end the war Viet Nam was always presented as a jungle labyrinth full of dangerous, evil monsters. It's an over simplification of a mess we helped create and rather than earn my generation's sympathies for what my parents' generation went through, these stories mostly served to alienate us from something that was so pivotal in their collective experience (whether they served or not). The stories also did nothing to teach about Viet Nam beyond where it vaguely is and who went there.

Here though, the country is presented as any other far away place. It has its cities and its rural parts. It has mosquitos and local solutions for mosquitos. There are enough characters and variety of location to paint a clearer picture of the country and its people.

This isn't a story with an antagonist or a big adventure or some calamity that needs stopping. Instead, it's a quiet piece about family, patience, and the finding of oneself through travel.

Four stars

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