The Best We Could Do

August 12, 2017
The Best We Could Do Book Cover The Best We Could Do
Thi Bui
Graphic Memoir
Abrams ComicArts
March 7th, 2017
eBook
330
NetGalley
Thi Bui

An intimate and poignant graphic novel portraying one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam from debut author Thi Bui.

This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.

At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.

In what Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “a book to break your heart and heal it,” The Best We Could Do brings to life Thi Bui’s journey of understanding, and provides inspiration to all of those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past.

(via Goodreads)

 

Woohoo! My first #ARCAugust review! I picked up this book from NetGalley thanks to the suggestion of Crystal @ Lost in a Good Book. Her review really captured me and I was lucky to pick up a copy.


 

Memoirs fascinate me. There is something about digging into the heart and soul of a person’s life which is incredibly gripping. Each human being has such different experiences in their lives– there are constant lessons to learn and amazing stories to uncover. Thi Bui’s family memoir, The Best We Could Do, shows the reader the path to uncovering these lessons and stories without sugar coating. With the additional magic of being a graphic novel, it’s easy to be astounded and inspired by Bui’s family’s past.

 

 

In 1978, Bui’s parents fled South Vietnam with their four children; one not yet even born. In 2002, Bui is still grappling with the events which her family experienced leading up to their escape and continuing to follow them through their lives in the United States. These events drove a wedge between child and parent. Then, as Bui begins to embark on her own journey of motherhood she seeks to close the gap between herself and her parents. By asking questions and learning the history of her parents and their experiences, Bui begins to understand.

The gap that grew between children and parents, as in most cases, stems from misunderstanding. The reader gets to follow Bui’s tale as she jumps back and forth between present day, birthing her first child, asking her parents about their pasts, and everyone’s life in Vietnam leading up to the war. It’s clear from the start that the relationship Bui has with her parents is tense and uncertain. But the reconstruction of these relationships as Bui begins to understand their motivations and the choices they made to protect their family is heartbreakingly moving.

Bui’s parents grew up in very different circumstances. Bui’s father grew up in conflict and poverty-ridden North Vietnam while her mother grew up wealthy in (relatively) safe South Vietnam. This provides the reader much more insight into the holistic details around colonization and conflict which led Vietnam to where it is today. Bui collects their stories. Stories of hopes, dreams, war, fighting, education, family, and more.  These stories from Bui’s parents are rife with contradiction. Watching Bui untangle the web of their memories reminds us how important communication is– it’s obvious they both choose to remember what is important to them in a meaningful way, but these selective memories also put up barriers between all the members of her family. This is as true a reflection on life as I have ever read.

It took Bui over 15 years to create this book. In the introduction Bui states,

If was difficult to carve out the time and headspace to work on something that not only required a lot of historical research, but was also intensely personal and at times painful. I often wanted to quit.

Masterfully, Bui combines three-generations of family stories with Vietnamese history and distills these ideas into small illustrated panels. With a simple watercolor palette dominated in oranges, the graphic style reminds me of Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer. Simple illustrations capture both quiet and loud moments coupled with varying intensities of color to provide depth and power. This is at once both escapist and terrifying as we see all these conflicting images of present and past, home and work, peace and war, all depicted in a similar fashion.

Unfortunately, I feel like this also allowed me to step away from the true emotion of the story. The Best We Could Do felt almost cinematographic as I watched this story unfold. This experience left me feeling detached.  It also could have been the way Bui wrote the tale– after all, her family is still alive to read this memoir. Perhaps my separate also incurred from her inability to get too detailed and raw with the story. After all, it can be challenging to show people how you really view them in such a public light.

While the story and the history and the illustration and the color are all engrossing, that’s not what sticks with me after reading this memoir. What sticks with me is the underlying meditation about what it means to belong. Bui’s memoir provides a lens which allowed me to ponder what relationships I have in my life, how these relationships evolve, and what these relationships mean in relation to larger social, political, and economic issues. While the Vietnam war might have happened many years ago, it’s easy to see parallels in today’s discussion on immigrants and refugees. With this lens, The Best We Could Do suddenly has a universal application for empathy in the Other. This one-page panel in particular left me practically in tears:

The Best We Could Do comes highly recommended to anyone who is interested in more #OwnVoices immigrant tales, graphic memoirs, or those looking to deepen an understanding of their own familial relationships.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and Abrams Publishing in exchange for an honest review. This is no way affected my opinions of this book. Check out Abrams ComicArts and Thi Bui on their respective websites for more information. 


What do you think?

  • What was the last book you read which inspired you to reflect back on your own life? Why?
  • Do you read graphic memoirs? Why or why not?
  • What are your favorite immigrant #OwnVoices stories? Share your recommendations below!

21 Comments

  • morethangeekylove August 13, 2017 at 8:07 am

    Wow 15 year to write/draw and gather information it is really admirable that she did not quit and finished this heartbreaking I would say graphic novel. I am all for these reads they are right up my alley and I love reading own voices/memoirs there always something new to learn and it thought provokes you.

    I am glad that you liked it and I love your reviews they give so much insight on the book you have read and makes you want to pick it up and read it as well.

    2. I have received a few graphic novels own voices about eating disorders and another one for what is to be gay in a bigot society which I’m really excited about and cannot wait to read.

    This said I would love to pick up The Best We Could Do I am a 100% sure I would enjoy it!!!

    1.Never thought about it, maybe I am still to find that one book that will make me reflect on my life. There is none I could think of on the top of my head… hmmm I like this question though I would need to think and would let you know!
    3.It might be Persepolis this is also a ownvoice graphic novel I read it long time ago but I am planing to re-read it I have the complete version of it and I know you have read it too 🙂

    • Jackie B August 13, 2017 at 7:27 pm

      I know, right?! 15 years is one heck of a commitment to a single project. I don’t know if I could pull that off, honestly. But, who knows!

      Thanks for all your great feedback on my reviews. That means a lot to me!

      I really love Persepolis! I love all of Satrapi’s graphic memoirs. I love how they so clearly portray humanity as it is, and not how we want to perceive it.

      I hope you consider picking up The Best We Could Do— it’s a really great novel. And it’s certainly a quick read!

    • Grab the Lapels August 15, 2017 at 9:18 am

      Persepolis is, indeed, an #ownvoices book, and I highly suggest folks read books 1 & 2 back-to-back. Maus, of course, fits the bill, and I really love both of The Rabbi’s Cat books, though they aren’t full-on memoir.

      • Jackie B August 15, 2017 at 12:22 pm

        Oooh, I just heard about The Rabbi’s Cat. I’ve added it to my TBR for next year; so many books, so little time. Thanks for the additional recommendation, Melanie! I’m sure both Lin and I will love it. 😀

        • Grab the Lapels August 15, 2017 at 1:51 pm

          If you’re a slow reader like me, takes about two hours to get through each one. My husband reads them in about thirty minutes.

  • KrystiYAandWine August 13, 2017 at 2:07 pm

    Wow! This books sounds so powerful and those images are stunning. Wonderful post, Jackie!

    • Jackie B August 13, 2017 at 7:16 pm

      Thanks, Krysti! It definitely gave me some things to consider. I’m glad I read it.

      • KrystiYAandWine August 14, 2017 at 7:59 pm

        That’s great! I really need to dive into graphic novels.

        • Jackie B August 15, 2017 at 8:27 am

          Other awesome graphic novels I’d recommend to you: This One Summer (mentioned above) , Nimona, Ms. Marvel, El Deafo, and and of the Delilah Dirk graphic novels. In fact, I’d start with Delilah or Nimona. Both are amazing. 😉

          • KrystiYAandWine August 15, 2017 at 11:55 am

            Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve had Nimona on my list for a while, so I need to actually pick it up. I did preorder Spinning, so I’m looking forward to that. I used to be a figure skater, so I think that will be a fun one to start with for me. 🙂

            • Jackie B August 15, 2017 at 12:22 pm

              I love that you pre-ordered a graphic novel as someone who doesn’t read a ton of them! Yay! I hope you love it.

  • Evelina August 13, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    I have seen this one around a lot lately. The drawing style seems absolutely amazing… I know I might have loved it, but I never requested it because reading graphic novels is always such a pressure… Because it’s ACTUALLY timed, being in ACSM format. Always stresses me the hell out xD

    However, it sounds like it’s definitely stuff I would have been interested in. I remember I was one of those ‘weird’ kids who, even at age 10, cared to listen to what that old primary school teacher had to say about living durng WWII. Nobody else seemed to be interested. I guess that was the budding bookworm in me.

    15 years! Oh my gosh. It is kind of a shame that we get through works that take as long as quickly. When you think about it.

    Loved your review. I love it how you can always write serious and in-depth reviews, like a true literature critic xD with me, it’s just gif and shits and giggles 😀

    • Jackie B August 15, 2017 at 11:17 am

      I know! Reading anything in ACSM format is frustrating. It’s so pretty! I usually get it read in time, but I’ve been so bad about putting off my reviews I find that they are gone before I can write. O_o Silly Jackie. I need to work on my prioritization, for sure. But I love reading them, so I can’t stop requesting them!!! Oops.

      It blows my mind that anyone would be spending 15 years on a novel… mostly because I don’t have the focus for it! But I imagine it would have taken a decade to even get all these details out of her family. Those are a lot of challenging memories…

      D’aw, thanks! I appreciate your compliment. I try to be critical and attentive. But I love your gifs! Your style is uniquely you and makes me sooo happy to read. More please. 😉

  • theorangutanlibrarian August 13, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    This looks like it was done really well as a graphic novel- the artwork is so evocative. And I love the idea of how it plays with memory, and it sounds like it covers hugely important themes. Amazing review!!

    • Jackie B August 15, 2017 at 11:33 am

      Thanks! I love the graphic novel format; I actually think it would be substantially less effective in a more traditional form. Particularly that last image which contains their photos from the refugee camp? Powerful.

  • Grab the Lapels August 15, 2017 at 9:15 am

    I know I read someone else’s review of this, so it’s my second encounter with this book. There are so many graphic novels about families in war-torn countries. Now, I’m just waiting (and will likely wait forty years) for a book out of Syria.

    • Jackie B August 15, 2017 at 12:21 pm

      Agreed! It took Satrapi quite a long time to get her story about Iran out, so I think you’re right that we’ll be waiting a long time. At least for an #OwnVoices depiction of the Syrian refugee stories. I can’t imagine going from a homeless refugee to a published graphic novel artist. The strength and dedication that would take! I’m cheering for that unidentified person.

  • Dani @ Perspective of a Writer August 15, 2017 at 6:16 pm

    How fascinating that she drew the characters more true to life than most Asian illustrators. I also wonder if she held back some in writing this because her family is still alive…? It is an interesting idea that you put forth… as a writer you may not even realize what you’ve done… I’m glad you enjoyed this! Memoirs are not my favorite even though I seem to be roped into reading them quite often, lol. My book club LOVES them… I do love that Bui put her story out there… it is a worthy cause to want people to understand that their parents were doing the best they could… hindsight is always 20/20!

  • ChicNerdReads August 18, 2017 at 10:47 am

    OMG this review makes me want to buy this even more! I was going to get it during BookCon but they were sold out of copies. I didn’t even know it took the author to write 15 years, wow! Ugh it’s so beautiful and the fact that it is a real story makes it really personal. I am not a huge fan of memoirs but I love how this one is illustrated and written. Thanks so much for sharing your views, amazing review <3

    • Jackie B August 21, 2017 at 9:03 am

      D’aw, thanks. I appreciate the compliments!

      This story is really beautiful. Lately, I’ve found that graphic memoirs and essay collection memoirs have really been tickling my fancy. I don’t know what it is– I think you’re right that the images make this much more personal.

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