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The Beauty of Humanity Movement [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Camilla Gibb
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 17 2010

The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the Vietnamese heart, that pho was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French, who turned their cows away from ploughs and into bifteck and pot-au-feu. The name of their national soup is pronounced like this French word for fire, as Hung’s Uncle Chien explained to him long ago.
“We’re clever people,” his uncle had said. “We took the best the occupiers had to offer and made it our own. Fish sauce is the key—in matters of soup and well beyond. Even romance, some people say.”
—from The Beauty of Humanity Movement (p 5) by Camilla Gibb
Old Man Hu’ng has been making and selling pho to hungry devotees for nearly 70 years, continually adapting his recipe and the location of his food cart to accommodate the terrible demands of poverty, war and oppression that have plagued Hanoi throughout his long life. Cherished least of all his mother’s ten children thanks to an inauspicious facial birthmark, Hu’ng was sent in 1933 to apprentice at his Uncle Chien’s restaurant where he achieved mastery over broth and noodles. Inheriting the business from his uncle, Hu’ng’s sublime cookery and willingness to barter made him a favourite in the 1950s with the Beauty of Humanity Movement, a group of artists and intellectuals who dared question Communist rule, at great peril.
Heading the Movement was Dao, a poet whose young son Binh would shadow Hu’ng at the restaurant, hungry not for noodles but for the attention that his own revolutionary father was too distracted to provide. When Dao was inevitably arrested, Binh’s mother whisked the boy into hiding, blinding him in one eye to avoid conscription. Hu’ng was forced to close his restaurant, but not knowing any other life’s work, he persisted in making and selling pho by pushing a food cart through the city, even when forced to make his noodles with scavenged pond weeds.
Fifty years later, Binh is a middle-class Hanoi carpenter who once again consumes daily bowls of Hu’ng’s pho, following the old man to whatever location he has moved to in order to evade police beatings. Binh tries valiantly to protect Hu’ng, the gentle old man who is as close to a father as he has ever known. By extension Hu’ng is also a grandfather to Binh’s son Tu’, a somewhat aimless Nike-shod tour guide who wears his clothes and hair in modern fashion, and yet whose spirited idealism reminds Hu’ng of his revolutionist grandfather.
Then one day Hu’ng’s improvised pho stand is visited by a beautiful stranger, Maggie, a foreign-raised Vietnamese art curator who was spirited out of Hanoi as a child during the fall of Saigon. Her artist father disappeared in those tumultuous times, and Maggie has returned to the country of her birth to learn his fate. Hearing of Hu’ng’s reputation, she has come to plead for answers—did he know her father? Hu’ng’s memory is failing, but he dearly wants to help this young woman, whose beauty sends him back to a time long ago, when he loved a girl whose betrayal he has never forgiven. . .
Steeped in rich and highly evocative language, Camilla Gibb’s The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a nuanced and gentle paean for Vietnam, a poignant testament to the strength and resiliency of love and art in overcoming terrible hardship.

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Product Description

Quill & Quire

Camilla Gibb’s previous novel, 2005’s Scotiabank Giller Prize–nominated Sweetness in the Belly, was set mostly in Ethiopia. For her newest work, the author turns her attention to Vietnam. The novel’s central character, Old Man Hung, is an itinerant pho seller in Hanoi who has forged an extended family from the son and grandson of an illustrious poet. Hung has honoured the poet’s memory since the latter disappeared after publishing a politically charged magazine in the 1950s.

One morning, Maggie, a curator at a posh hotel in the new Vietnam, appears at Hung’s cart searching for information about her father, a dissident artist who vanished after the fall of Saigon. Maggie serves as the catalyst in the lives of Hung, whose history involves a difficult and painful journey through Vietnam’s tumultuous past, and the young man Tu’, who has had a much easier life working as a tour guide for vacationing Westerners.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement starts slowly. Gibb carefully sets up the many strands of the story, shuttling back and forth from present to past. She also provides a primer on the city’s iconic soup; the reader comes to understand that the history of pho mirrors the history of Vietnam and the trajectory of Hung’s life. At one point, Hung is so impoverished he is forced to make his noodles out of pond grass.

The novel is full of book-club friendly themes such as lost love, forgotten memories, changing values, displacement, and family. These themes work for the most part, but certain details, such as the inclusion of the Vietnamese version of American Idol, feel more like convenient devices than necessary parts of the story. 

Gibb brings The Beauty of Humanity Movement to a poignant close, reconnecting the story’s disparate strands. However, certain earlier scenes – such as one in which Hung returns to his village to find it decimated by his own country’s soldiers – don’t quite come alive, and as a result the emotion of the story occasionally gets lost.


“Gibb’s fictional portrait of contemporary Vietnam should be essential reading for anyone mulling a visit to Hanoi, whose profusion of motorbike traffic and culinary aromas issues from these pages with graphic verisimilitude.”
— The New York Times Book Review

"A bittersweet story of old lost love.... A debunker of stereotypes and a seeker of the big picture, [Gibb] isn’t satisfied with merely creating convincing characters and a bold plot. She educates and enlightens the reader whose grasp of Vietnam’s history and culture may be based on little more than the vague recall of old headlines."
The Gazette (Montreal)

"[Gibb’s] latest work slips like silk into the psyche of contemporary Hanoi.... Gibb’s largely unadorned writing is rather like Hung’s pho, delicious for its austerity and complexities."

"Gibb ties the strands of narrative together in the same way that Hung makes his pho – with care, with gentleness and with reality. She employs all the senses to create a vivid aesthetic tapestry of the concrete, and then infuses it with the abstractions of family and ambition and respect for elders."
The Globe and Mail

"Simply heartwarming.... Writing with grace and understanding, [Gibb] tells of years of oppression, poverty, artistic resistance, and finally, survival.... The book left me astonished."
The Sun Times (Owen Sound)

"Gibb drapes her story over good strong bones—characters that span several generations, the nobility of the artists in contrast to the war and its political players. But the true beauty of the novel radiates from the details—the smell of the soup, the feeling of the early-morning streets, the sense of community in poverty and the community woven by memories."
— Los Angeles Times 

“Gibb has created a fascinating portrait of modern Vietnam.... The collision between the personal and political, the overlapping of the characters’ stories and the tracking of their past and present lives reveal the human connections that unite us all.”
— The Independent (UK)

“Gibb has made a loving, wise, tender, dreamy and insightful work of fiction.”
—National Public Radio
“An intensive course in Vietnamese history, Gibb’s poised and thoughtful novel does not flinch from horror but is also open to the beauty of this scarred country.”
The Guardian (UK) 

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Gentle Tale of Hope Feb. 28 2012
The Beauty of Humanity Movement gave a feeling of a country and a culture, so well described to the senses, that one could imagine oneself there by sight, smells and taste. The present time poverty and struggles in which the book is primarily set are, when compared flashbacks to the past, a time of great hope for the present day people. The horrors of the past are spoken of in such a gentle and respectful tone that is universally understood and heartbreaking in its simplicity.

The characters encircling the life of the street cook, Old Man Hung, become like real people, the book gives the impression of the re-telling a real life story rather than being a novel. Camilla Gibb is an effortless storyteller. This is a very simple tale embroidered throughout with fine details and a gentle touch.

Through a culture so foreign and a past so unimaginable, it was a delight to find that the best things that make us human: love; sacrifice; forgiveness and most of all hope are found in the universal "Beauty of Humanity".
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An engaging read Jan. 9 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book was hard to put down: the personal stories kept me engaged, and added a sense of humour and lightness that balanced out some of the more bleak and disturbing accounts of the horrors of the Vietnamese War (or the "American War" as it's referred to by the Vietnamese). Gibb deals sensitively with the issue of learning to navigate between two cultures, as one of the main characters, Maggie--an American-Vietnamese who has returned to the country of her early childhood-- seeks the story of her missing father, a revolutionary artist who never managed to rejoin his family when they fled Vietnam decades earlier. Gibb explores the issues faced historically, and more currently, by the Vietnamese and their Vietnamese-American counterparts, and manages to tease apart many of the complexities without coming across as pedantic. The resolutions of most of the main characters' challenges are a bit too tidy, and in several cases a bit predictable. However, as a whole I really enjoyed this book, and found that it did a great job of giving some insight into an incredible history (and collection of personal stories) that we seldom hear about. Warning: reading this book may leave you with an intense craving for Old Man Hung's mythical pho.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful portrayal of a people... Feb. 22 2012
Reading The Beauty of Humanity Movement was like taking a few glimpses of the Vietnamese culture and history. It had a timelessness and sensuality that made it a good book in my books. My mouth watered the whole time too :))
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a must for a visit to hanoi Sept. 23 2010
By stephen
This is a marvelous look at contemporary hanoi,with a brief look at it's history. Unfortunately i read it after my visit.i found vietnam a charming,vital,young country and this book definitely captures the ambiance that i experienced
It is a must read for anyone planning to visit hanoi.
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2 of 19 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing! Dec 31 2010
By Louise Jolly TOP 50 REVIEWER
I was quite disappointed in this novel. I had heard so much hype about it that I was very anxious to get a copy and read it. Perhaps my over-anxiousness was what ruined the story for me. For this review, I'll only re-type the synopsis from the dust jacket:

"Set in contemporary Vietnam, this is the story of a country undergoing momentous change, a story that transforms our notion of how family is defined-not always by bloodlines but by the heart. Tu' is a young tour guide working in Hanoi for a company called New Dawn, but while he leads tourists through his city, including American veterans on "war tours," he starts to wonder what it is they are seeing of Vietnam-and what they miss entirely. Maggie, who is Vietnamese by birth but has lived most of her life in the U.S., has returned to the country in search of clues to her dissident father's disappearance during the war. Holding the story together is Old Man Hung, who has survived decades of political upheaval and through it all has found a way to feed hope to the community of pondside dwellers among whom he lives.

This is a keenly observed and skilfully wrought novel about the reverberation of conflict through generations, the enduring legacy of art, and the redemption and renewal of long-lost love."
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