Robert Olen Butler – A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

good scentI adored this books for the first few stories. It is a collection of short stories that you can tell going into it that they are related only by theme and setting. I have never read anything by Butler before reading this book. i had never heard of Butler before this project, and I have also never read anything about Vietnam except for Nick Flynn’s newest book The Ticking is the Bomb which he mentions an old boyfriend’s of his mother and the lasting effect the war had made on him. I would say Vietnam is a minor subplot in Flynn’s work, other than that I have never read anything about such a mixed up war. So for me this was a new experience and one that I thoroughly enjoyed the first couple of stories, but let me tell you something about Butler’s writing. It is wonderful and enchanting, it invites you in very very easily into it’s inner secret and lulls you to sleep and erases all since of tension or suspense and then there is a sudden twist right at the end of the story, usually in the last word, last sentence, last paragraph. There are fifteen stories in this collection, and every single of one of them come down like this. I love a twist ending. I love suspense. I also love a happy ending. But Butler’s complete overuse of it was sort of unnerving for me.

So I really wanted to finish this novel and start in on Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and I am reading it last night at my mom’s house when I am supposed to be watching Monday Night Football with my step-dad, and I am in the middle of the last story in the collection The American Couple. This story is basically a novella that is just jammed into this collection for some reason. So its about 80 pages where as the rest of the stories are about 10 a piece pretty consistently which also lends itself to a little repetitive tone. But anyways so I am half way through and I have a strong desire to finish tonight, and I cannot for the life of me concentrated on the words on the page, the two husbands are stalking each other or something. I couldn’t follow, and Butler really wanted you to sit in the suspense. He starts describing things for the third or fourth time, and you are in the thick of it, right smack dab in the middle, and he wants you to feel the tension, ‘whats gonna happen?’ ‘is someone going to die?’ I don’t know, but the whole time I didn’t care what happen, after 70 pages I just wanted the story to end so I could read the last story which is the title story. It was painful. And it doesn’t have that great an ending worth the suspense which is also frustrating. Some of the stories are gems, A Ghost Story I loved, The Trip Back, Snow!, and a few others were beautiful. I loved them. I didn’t want them to end. They could have been novels and I would have read an 800 page book if they would have just keep going, but they ended and you had to go on to something else, and usually I liked it next one as much as the one before. There were a couple in there that just seemed like a flat but otherwise not distracting.

Overall, this was a great read. Other than Butler gets a little predictable in his ending, and The American Couple story sort of drags near the end, this was well worth the read and I am glad that it one the award so that I would be forced to read it. I am not sure if it makes me want to read more Butler, but I might at least look at some. I am telling you it was just that second to last story that really left a bad taste in my mouth. If you could find a way to ignore the ending of that story, then I would have walked away head over heels about this book. 90% of it is truly magical, surreal, dream-like and lyrical all in one gentle, evocative collection of some fantastic writing. I think this is one on the list that is really close to a must read.


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