Best and the Brightest

Halberstam, David. The Best and the Brightest. New York: Random House, 1972.

Reason read: the United States pulled out of Vietnam in the month of March.

Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest is a deep dive into the origins of the Vietnam War. It is a scrutiny of the policies and procedures crafted during the Kennedy administration that led to the consequences in Vietnam. The meat of the book takes place between the years of 1960 and 1965 but flows back and forth to earlier and later times to give substance to the timeline. What really helps the narrative is that Halberstam was a reporter during this time. He was at the heart of the perfect storm: the fall of China, the rise of McCarthy and the outbreak of the Korean War. This trifecta of events had a profound and lasting effect on the White House and domestic politics of the time.

A single line I really liked, “In government it is always easier to go forward with a program that doesn’t work than to stop it all together and admit failure” (p 212). Isn’t that human nature in a nutshell?

Author fact: I cannot help but wonder what books Halberstam would have written had he not been killed in a car accident at the age of 73.

Book trivia: I always love the photographs Halberstam chooses for his books. The photos in The Best and the Brightest are no different.

Nancy said: Pearl called The Best and the Brightest “hefty, riveting and definitive” (p 238). Agreed, agreed, and agreed.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust and More Book Lust. In Book Lust in the chapter called “Vietnam” (p 238) and in More Book Lust in the super obvious chapter called “David Halberstam: Too Good To Miss” (p 112).


March to a Different Drummer

I will make a return to racing in two weeks. My last public run was in July. I’m not ready. Simply not. March is also two Natalie Merchant concerts. A return to my favorite voice. Here are the books:

Fiction:

  • Monkey’s Raincoat by Robert Crais – in honor of March being a rainy month. Dumb, I know.
  • Topper by Thorne Smith – in honor of Smith’s birth month being in March.
  • Giant by Edna Ferber – in honor of Texas becoming a state in March.

Nonfiction

  • Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam – in honor of March being the month the U.S. finally pulled out of Vietnam.
  • Cherry: a Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard by Sara Wheeler in honor of March being the month Apsley ended his depot journey.

Series Continuation:

  • Gemini by Dorothy Dunnett – to finally finish the series started in August in honor of Dunnett’s birth month.
  • Blackout by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza – to finish the series started in February in honor of the Carnival festival in Brazil.
  • Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – to continue the series started in honor of Asimov’s birth month.
  • The Moor by Laurie R. King – to continue the series started in January in honor of Mystery Month.

For fun:

  • Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver – still reading
  • Sharp by Michelle Dean – still reading
  • Calypso by David Sedaris – needed for the Portland Public Library reading challenge.
  • Living with the Little Devil Man by Lina Lisetta – written by a faculty member.
  • Hidden Southwest edited by Ray Riegert – for my May trip.
  • 1,000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz – for my May trip…and the 2020 Italy trip.

Lotus Eaters

Soli, Tatjana. The Lotus Eaters. Read by Kirsten Potter. Blackstone Audio, 2010.

In the year of 1975 North Vietnam is still pushing towards Saigon. It’s the end of the Vietnam war (or American war, depending on who you ask). The Lotus Eaters opens with the city’s demise being eminent and the panic to escape, mounting. Caught in this frenzy is Helen Adams, a seasoned American photojournalist, and her Vietnamese lover, Lihn. Stepping back in time, we learn that Helen is following in the footsteps of her soldier brother, killed in action earlier in the war. She has come to Vietnam to research his death and ultimately falls in love with the war.  As we follow Helen from her first arriving in Saigon, we witness her naivete and her desperate need to belong. Quickly, she attaches herself to Sam Darrow, a fellow photojournalist who has been around the block a few times. He is supposed to be a hard-nosed, loner of a photographer, but he and Helen soon develop a romantic relationship that defies logic and marriage vows. Sam’s assistant, Lihn complicates things when he too falls in love with Helen. In the midst of well-worn war, emerges a not-so obvious love triangle.
In other reviews I have read the complaint is Soli takes the story too far, drags it out too long. I disagree. Each phase of Helen’s time in Vietnam, as well as her time away, builds a layer of her personality and adds to the complexity of her emotions. I am of two minds about the beginning, though. Soli reveals upfront that Lihn is Helen’s lover and they are desperate to get out of Saigon. That information nagged at me throughout the rest of the telling because I knew it was coming. For example, I expected something to happen to Darrow because the shift in Helen’s relationship with Lihn. It was a matter of when this something would happen that kept me guessing.

Reason read: Saigon fell in the month of April. Confessional: this was a little longer than I anticipated so I listened to it a few days into May.

Author fact: The Lotus Eaters is Tatjana Soli’s first book.

Reader fact: Kirsten Potter graduated from Boston University.

Book trivia: The Lotus Eaters won the James Tait Black Prize in 2010.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter simply called “Vietnam” (p 248). Duh.


Descending the Dragon

Bowermaster, Jon. Descending the Dragon: My Journey Down the Coast of Vietnam. Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 2008.

I knew that I would learn fascinating things when I read Descending the Dragon. I didn’t expect to learn details like the city of Hanoi had a french designer or that none of the buildings could be higher than Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. And speaking of Ho Chi Minh, visitors can traipse past his embalmed body today despite the fact he died 44 years ago. His body is re-embalmed every 2-3 years. Freaky.
This is the journey of traveler Jon Bowermaster. He is used to traversing the globe solo, on assignment for National Geographic and The New York Times (to name a few). The adventure in Descending the Dragon is unlike any other. Bowermaster and a small team of four take to kayaking down Vietnam’s northern coastline. Seeing Vietnam from the water was a completely different experience for Bowermaster. He gained a much different perspective of the fishing communities and beach dwellers than if he had approached them from land. As much as he would have liked to have traveled the entire coast by water government restrictions forced him and his crew to travel by land on occasion. Probably the most poignant moment in the book was when Bowermaster was visiting a pagoda and met a monk who desperately wanted to tell him something but couldn’t out of fear of betraying the government. Later Bowermaster is told, “Be careful what you use of our words, our faces – because, if the government gets wind of even a small complaint made by us, you will be gone from here and you will have no idea what happens to us” (p 129). It is a land of beautiful contradictions.

The photography of Rob Howard is spectacular. While the Vietnamese loved to have their photo taken and were ready for him with a pose Jon was able to catch them in candid portraits. None of the images look contrived or staged. Howard has a fascinating website detailing his work.

Reason read: In celebration of my birthday because Vietnam has always fascinated me. Yay.

Author fact: Jon Bowermaster has his own website (of course). He sells his kayak adventures on dvd and posts blogs about really cool things (like fracking).

Book trivia: As I mentioned earlier, the photography for Descending the Dragon was by Rob Howard. Spend some time on his freaking amazing website. I could have spent all day clicking around it.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Water, Water Everywhere” (p 274).


To What End

Just, Ward. To What End: Report From Vietnam. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1968.

Disclaimer: I threw this on my December list because somewhere I got the idea that Ward Just was born in December. Not so. He was born in September (so I have been told), so this was a mistake in the timeline.

Ward Just’s To What End is his first book and is a first hand account of the Vietnam War. As a journalist he begs the question everyone wanted to ask (and is still asking), “what business does the United States have fighting this war?” The entire time you are reading To What End you never lose sight of the fact that Just is a writer and not a solider. He views the war always from the point of view of plot, “there was a book as good as Farewell to Arms in the stories, if you had the wit to see it and the imagination to generalize from it” (p 165). And generalize Ward does. He doesn’t bother to cover all aspects of the Vietnam War, just the parts he is directly involved it. He doesn’t include an index because he doesn’t want to complicate the telling with too much detail. He has been advised to keep it short for the same reason. The end result is a quick straightforward commentary.

Striking lines: “It is the first war where an academic could walk about undisturbed (and relatively safe) and probe and take soundings” (p 79), and “The Vietnamese laugh both from amusement and embarrassment and you can never tell which” (p 102).

Author Fact: Ward Just born in September. I need to commit that to memory.

Book Trivia: To What End is Ward Just’s first book.

BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called ” Ward Just: Too Good To Miss” (p 135).


In Country

Mason, Bobbie Ann. In Country. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1985.

In Country is deceivingly simple. The language is so straightforward and uncomplicated you think it was originally written for children. Here’s the scoop: 17-year-old Samantha Hughes acts obsessed with the Vietnam War. She lives with her vet uncle and pesters him daily about the possibility of Agent Orange reeking havoc with his health. He has bad acne on his face and strange headaches. Despite having a boyfriend her own age Sam also starts to fall in love with a local mechanic, another vet. To the average witness Sam’s fixation with all things Vietnam is borderline mania, but Sam has good reason. The father she never knew was lost in the war. He died when she was only two months old. He never came home. No one knows very much about him and if they do they aren’t saying much. As a result Sam feels her entire existence is shrouded in mystery. After being rejected by the vet and reading her father’s journal Sam decides she needs a change of pace. She loads her uncle and paternal grandmother in her clunker car and travels from Kentucky to Washington D.C., to The Wall. There the entire family finds some sort of closure.

I had to come back and modify this review because I forgot to point out the best thing about this book. Sam has another obsession – music. I love the way the hits of the 80s, especially Bruce Springsteen’s album ‘Born in the USA’ ground the reader and orient him/her to the timeframe of the story.

Author Fact: Bobbie Ann Mason wrote criticisms and short stories before writing In Country, her first novel.

Book Trivia: As a best-selling novel In Country was made into a movie in 1989 and starred Bruce Willis. In Country is even studied in high school English classes.

BookLust Twist: From More Book Lust in the chapter called “Maiden Voyages” (p 159). Pearl liked it enough to mention it again in another chapter called “Teenage Times” (p 216).


May 2011 was…

May was a month of deja vu. The Just Cause walk. Wanting to go home. Same old, same old. Nearly everything I read this month reminded me of something else I have already read. Out of Control by Suzanne Brockmann reminded me of The Defiant Hero by the same author was the most obvious because the plot and characters were very similar. Almost too similar. To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite reminded me of Educating Esme by Esme Raji Codell. They had similar plot lines: taking on a difficult classroom of students as a new teacher. Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham reminded me of Where the Pavement Ends by Erika Warmbrunn. Two stories about traveling through difficult, foreign terrain by bicycle.

So, here’s the list:

  • To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite ~ in honor of National Education Month. This was a really quick (but good) read. Read in one day.
  • Catfish and Mandala: a Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X. Pham ~ in honor of May’s Memorial Day. This was probably my favorite book on the list.
  • Out of Control by Suzanne Brockmann ~ in honor of Brockmann’s birth month. I have mixed feelings about this book (as my review pointed out). Read in one day.
  • A Child’s Life and Other Stories by Phoebe Gloeckner ~ in honor of May being Graphic Novel month. This was super hard to “read.” Read in one day.
  • Antigone the play by Sophocles ~ in honor of May being the best time to visit Greece. I keep forgetting this plot so it was good to read it again. Read in one day.
  • Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong ~ in honor of Asian-American Heritage month. Read over a weekend. This was one of my favorites.
  • Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery ~ in honor of Eeyore’s birth month. This was an audio book and very different than everything else I have listened to so far.
  • Seabiscuit: an American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand ~ in honor of the Kentucky Derby.
  • The Dean’s List by Jon Hassler ~ in honor of Minnesota becoming a state in May. This reminded me a little too much of my own work place!
  • A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters From the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward edited by Isaac Metzker. Read in two days.
  • City of Light by Lauren Belfer ~ in honor of history month. Interesting story about Niagara Falls and the advancement of electricity at the turn of the century.
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi ~ in honor of May being the best time to visit Iran. This was amazing. Can’t wait for part II. 
  • Friday the Rabbi Slept Late by Harry Kemelman ~ in honor of Prayer Day being the first Thursday in May. This was a fun murder mystery. Read in one car ride home.

I didn’t get to three books on my orginal list: China, To Me, House on the Lagoon, and, Art and Madness. I forgot to pack them and ended up finding Persepolis and Friday the Rabbi Slept Late at home.

May was also the month for crazy travel. I slept no more than two nights at a time in Bolton, Concord, Boston, Chicopee, Peaks Island, Rockland and Monhegan all in eleven days time. I took two boats, one bus and three different cars. Walked over 75 miles. Saw family. Saw friends. Breathed in the woods. Inhaled the ocean. I enjoyed every second of it.