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Reviews of "Catfish and Mandala" and "Mother Nature" 

Memory and Motherhood

The father of a friend said recently that he thought it was his daughter's months-long backpacking trip through Vietnam a few years ago that fueled her desire for a career in social work. After reading "Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam," by Andrew X. Pham,(Farrar Straus & Giroux, $25) it's hard to disagree with the father. Pham's book is a story told in two parts. Born in 1967, Pham fled Vietnam with his parents after the war. One strand of this engaging story is Pham's memories of growing up in Vietnam, his family's uncertain escape on a tiny boat, and his youth as a poor outsider in the United States. The other equally powerful story is that of Pham's return to his homeland, which he travels up and down, from Saigon to Hanoi, on his bicycle. It's not hard to see in Pham's narrative what in Vietnam might impel a career in social work. The country is developing but still quite corrupt and desperately poor, trying to reconcile a communist government with a capitalist economy that travels in fits and starts, and threatens to perpetuate the wide breach between haves and have-nots. But Pham's book is much more than a description of the faces and places he sees. More compelling is how he must deal with the return to his country, which has become familiar to him and alien at the same time. American Vietnamese are resented in Vietnam for leaving, and often prospering, but also envied for their perceived wealth. Pham is viewed as an outsider, and disliked but also appreciated, almost coveted, as a ticket to the United States. Pham's journey, over roads and also through memory, proves a harrowing one for him. But he leaves the sense that he's better for it, and so is any reader who chooses to go along with him for the ride. — Mark Stroh "Mother Nature : A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection" by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (Pantheon Books, $35) is a fascinating look at the history of motherhood from an evolutionary perspective. Scientists such as Hrdy find clues to human evolution in the study of all animals, especially mammals, in the study of primates, and in anthropological studies of traditional hunter-gatherer cultures. Hrdy is a wonderful guide to this strange world of the human story — she presents a vast amount of information in a way that is accessible to the general reader. What makes this book especially important is her focus on women. Women have too often been left out of the story altogether as scientists focused on "man the hunter" and theories of male evolution. Readers will be amazed at the variety of maternal behaviors found in the animal world and in the human world. Cherished notions of motherhood will be shattered — and then recast into something richer and stranger. I find the book's organization somewhat frustrating. At times it is not clear in what direction the narrative is going, and it seems to circle back upon itself. Equally frustrating are some of the questions about fathers which she poses at the beginning of the book but fails to answer — especially, "Why didn't fathers evolve to be more attentive to infant needs?" But it is an exciting book with a vast amount of information not only on motherhood, but also on infant abandonment, attachment theory and the world from an infant's perspective. The style is witty and engaging, and the author is clearly brilliant. If Hrdy's theories are correct, her book leaves us with at least one urgent question. How can human mothers get the support they need in order to take care of their babies? - Alice Garrett
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