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The Vietnam Wars

4 April 2010

¶ Sebastian Junger on Matterhorn, a novel by Karl Marlantes. The gist of this lengthy, sympathetic review is compressed into Mr Junger's second paragraph.

Karl Marlantes’s first novel, “Matterhorn,” is about a company of Marines who build, abandon and retake an outpost on a remote hilltop in Vietnam. According to the publisher, Marlantes ­— a highly decorated Vietnam vet — spent 30 years writing this book. It was originally 1,600 pages long; now it is 600. Reading his account of the bloody folly surrounding the Matterhorn outpost, you get the feeling Marlantes is not overly worried about the attention span of his readers; you get the feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published. Rather, he seems like a man whose life was radically altered by war, and who now wants to pass along the favor. And with a desperate fury, he does. Chapter after chapter, battle after battle, Marlantes pushes you through what may be one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam — or any war. It’s not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered.

¶ Danielle Trussoni on The Lotus Eaters, a novel by Tatjana Soli. There is a great deal more storytelling than judgment on display in this favorable review, but the piece is not entirely unhelpful.

When accused of being a mere tourist of the war, she is chagrined by the realization that her early months in-country were a charade, a time when she had played at war, when “the whole country had merely served as backdrop for her adventure.”

But what, exactly, is the nature of Helen’s adventure in Vietnam? The novel’s title refers to a passage in Homer’s ­“Odyssey” about a country of lotus eaters, a “race that eat the flowery lotus fruit” and share it — and its opiate comforts — with those who wash ashore, so they won’t want to leave. The metaphor is apt. In Soli’s novel, there are those who eat the fruit of the lotus and those who do not, journalists who experience the country alongside soldiers and those who choose desk jobs back in Saigon. Soli defines the unquantifiable desire that can seduce a person to danger, even to a kind of suicide wish. “That’s one of the keys to life here,” says Helen’s lover Darrow, a man whose addiction to danger she will come to mimic. “Sudden and sublime. Sudden and awful. Everything distilled to its most intense. That’s why we’re all hooked.”

¶ Jon Meacham on Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Mr Meacham writes as though an objective history of a major world religion were a conceptual novelty — which for many believers, indeed, it is.

Properly understood — and MacCulloch’s book is a landmark contribution to that understanding — Christianity cannot be seen as a force beyond history, for it was conceived and is practiced according to historical bounds and within human limitations. Yes, faith requires, in Coleridge’s formulation, a willing suspension of disbelief; I do it myself, all the time. But that is a different thing from the suspension of reason and critical intelligence — faculties that tell us that something is not necessarily the case simply because it is written down somewhere or repeated over and over.

Which brings us to the significance of the history of Christianity, and to the relevance of MacCulloch’s book. The story of how the faith came to be is a vast and complex tale of classical philosophy and Jewish tradition, of fantastical visions and cold calculations, of loving sacrifices and imperial ambitions. It was, as Wellington said of Waterloo, a close-run thing: a world religion founded on the brief public ministry, trial and execution of a single Jew in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. In my view, an unexamined faith is not worth having, for fundamentalism and uncritical certitude entail the rejection of one of the great human gifts: that of free will, of the liberty to make up our own minds based on evidence and tradition and reason. John’s Gospel says that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Perhaps; I do not know. (No one does; as Paul said, we can only see through a glass, darkly.) But I do know this: Short of the end of all things, it is the knowledge of the history of the faith that can make us free from literalism and ­fundamentalism.

¶ Claire Messud on Next, a novel by James Hynes. In sharp deviation from usual practice, I must take issue with Ms Messud's somewhat disengaged review by making reference to my own experience. I have paused, in my reading of Next, precisely where "the short story Hynes really wants to tell" begins, for the simple reason that I have loved the eventful uneventfulness of this achingly retrospective novel, and am in no hurry to follow what I take to be its crashing resolution. If anything, I'm afraid that the "great drama" of the finale will spoil the satisfaction that I have enjoyed so far.

Hynes’s novel contains many memorable passages and comic riffs; and his decision to shape the book around its high-stakes ending (50 pages of riveting, vivid and unstoppable reading) does, ultimately, justify and define the whole. But much of any day, even in the mind of a pretty funny guy, is fairly dull, and with more than 300 pages of narrative, Hynes cannot fully overcome this challenge. Although the book’s great drama lies in its conclusion, that conclusion feels far less contrived than what leads up to it. Kevin’s interior ramblings are not primarily the problem. The difficulty lies in the book’s innumerable neat descriptive vignettes of glimpsed strangers, cumulatively repetitive and shallow: “a rotund young woman with a buzz cut works up a sweat changing out the trash bins,” “a portly young guy with an unkempt black beard and a distended black T-shirt sits on a bench smoking, while a plump, liver-and-white springer spaniel pants at his feet.” Above all, the book is compromised by Hynes’s novelistic need to have a few things happen before Things Happen.

The bulk of “Next” is written wholly in service to its climax (indeed, to what will happen next), and hence exists as a deferral of, a preamble to, the short story Hynes really wants to tell. This structural challenge — the formation of a work around its deus ex machina — exposes deeper questions about what art is and what it’s for, and left this reader, at least, impressed but finally unsatisfied.

¶ Susann Cokal on Something Red, a novel by Jennifer Gilmore. This comfortably favorable review did not kindle a desire to read a story about disillusion in the late Seventies.

“Something Red” is a delectable time capsule, with plenty of references to events and products, especially odoriferous ones, that plant us squarely in the moment. Love’s Baby Soft makes an appearance, as well as K-Tel records and Gunne Sax shirts. This well-chosen name-dropping is part of the texture of the characters’ lives; for the teenagers, pop artifacts loom as large as calamities like the Jonestown massacre. (Beware, though, of a few inaccuracies: atomic bomb testing turned sand into glass at White Sands, N.M., not Los Alamos.)

¶ Tracy Lee Simmons on Cleopatra: A Biography, by Duane Roller. This warmly favorable review has the surprising effect of making the famous Egyptian queen sound like someone you've never heard of.

Roller tells his tale smoothly and accessibly. Scholarly digressions are consigned to helpful appendixes that Roller uses as small seminars for airing points of dispute, as a good many remain. What, for example, were the origins of Cleopatra’s mother? Was Cleopatra — the quintessentially vile foreigner according to Octavian’s propaganda — a Roman citizen? (Roller believes she was.) And he offers a digest of classical literary descriptions of the queen and a discussion of her iconography (including coin portraits, which are the only certain likenesses) to pinpoint those elements of her modern identity that only evidence from the period can prove or support.

¶ Cathleen Medwick on Rat, a novel by Fernanda Eberstadt. This review, loaded with storytelling not only about the book but about the author's biography, is almost perfectly uninformative on the subject of the book's actual quality.

But throughout that gilded childhood, Eberstadt longed for another existence, for the footloose life of the willfully dispossessed. In her novels, idealists and fast-trackers wrestled with thorny problems of love and social identity. After her family’s move to the French countryside, her lifelong fascination with Gypsies inspired a nonfiction book about their haunted music and lives. “Flamenco,” she wrote, “is the art of desperate measures, the winning of a fugitive grace from failure, bankruptcy, shame.” That fugitive grace, that rag-picking of hope from ruin, resurfaces in Eberstadt’s shrewd and sensuous fifth novel, “Rat.”

¶ Wesley Stace on The House of Tomorrow, a novel by Peter Bognanini. Interesting at the outset, this review soon makes the book under discussion sound like a homework assignment.

“The House of Tomorrow,” which doubles usefully as a “Buckminster Fuller for Dummies,” is a coming-of-age story that gets nearly as far as sex but not quite. Both Whitcomb kids are likened to vampires, but there is no notable biting. This is not the only level on which the book, which often resembles a sympathetic young adult novel, fails to deliver on its promises. Bognanni offers many good observations about the boys’ world, but they generally sound more like Bognanni’s observations than his hero’s. Noticing the food-themed beauty products on the sister’s dresser, for instance, the sheltered Sebastian wonders: “Was the idea to slather yourself in sweet sauces and fruity relishes? To prepare yourself for consumption?”

¶ Miranda Seymour on George, Nicholas and Wilhelm, by Miranda Carter. Ms Seymour's enthusiastic review is quite agreeably saucy.

As a study of three equally significant figures, Carter’s book was perhaps always doomed to failure. But as a study of the kaiser (one that admittedly benefits from John Röhl’s monumental three-volume biography) and of his passionate love-hate relationship with England, “George, Nicholas and Wilhelm” succeeds magnificently.

¶ Andrea Wolf on Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of a Marriage, a Trial and a Self-Made Woman, by Chloë Schama. Although not unfavorable, this review might well leave most readers wondering why they would bother to read this story.

Schama spins a fine story herself, but it’s Theresa who keeps the reader at a distance. Unlike the tortured Mary Eleanor Bowes, the heroine of Wendy Moore’s masterly “Wedlock,” whose horrific marriage transfixed an earlier generation of the British public, Theresa doesn’t evoke much empathy because she seems not only needy and clingy but something of a stalker. Despite the wrong done to her, she appears to have been totally delusional in her pursuit of what she believed to be her destiny, an alliance that was, she insisted, “a real fact of magnetic influence.”

¶ Nancy Kline on The Storm, a novel by Margriet de Moor (translated by Carol Janeway Brown). This too-short review, which seems favorably intended, gives the book under review a gimmicky feel, and piles on the following reservation:

This presents de Moor with a problem. Armanda’s life is far from uncomplicated, yet it pales beside the tragedy of Lidy’s death. As Armanda knows, it is far less dramatic to be “created by God to live, rather than live through things, that heroic version of spending the time assigned you.” How can we care about her first orgasm (even if it is with Lidy’s former husband) when we know that in the next chapter the sea will be rising toward the attic where Lidy, stranded, waits to die, surrounded by an oddly touching group of strangers who have become her surrogate family?

¶ James Gavin on Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, by Alice Echols. Mr Gavin's warmly favorable review makes it clear that this book is not a self-indulgent romp with pop culture but rather a worthwhile piece of social history.

But the heart of this book is serious stuff: its tracing of how disco helped groom and commercialize a formidable new gay identity. For one thing, it helped make gym-­going de rigueur in gay life. Echols explains: “The sweatbox quality of many gay discos made stripping to the waist all but necessary, which in turn made working out practically obligatory.”

The ’70s “lumberjack masculinity” fooled a country that was still naïve about homosexuality. Many of disco’s gayest anthems — Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” — were coded enough to become huge hits. Echols amusingly charts the rise of the Village People, six men dressed as gay fantasy figures (including a cop, a cowboy and a biker). A mass public seemed to view them as the ultimate in hetero butchness; their international smash, “Y.M.C.A.,” became a staple at wedding receptions. The members played it safe by staying coyly evasive about their sexuality. Sylvester did the opposite. That openly gay, black, gender-bending disco star scored only one major hit, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”; he proved to be too out, too soon.

¶ Lori Soderland on If You Follow Me, a novel by Malena Watrous. Aside from the following paragraph, Ms Soderland's review struck me as somewhat incoherent.

Japan seems to be a particularly difficult place to sort yourself out if you are a sensitive, rules-averse American woman with a flexible sexuality and a penchant for getting into trouble, like the narrator of Malena Watrous’s smart, comic first novel, “If You Follow Me.” But fortunately for the rest of us, calamity borne with a good sense of humor often turns into a great story.

¶ Polly Morrice on The Shaking Woman: Or, A History of My Nerves, by Siri Hustvedt. Although not unfavorable, this review is almost helplessly unsympathetic, and not very helpful.

Hustvedt makes a stout case that brain disorders must be viewed not just as scientific phenomena but as human narratives, and she advances some useful correctives about the limits of neurobiological research. Yet, perhaps not to its credit, “The Shaking Woman” omits more than the fact that as children we’ve all felt shamed by insensitive adults. In arguing that neurological illnesses become inseparable from the selves they inhabit, Hustvedt glosses over the situations and reactions of those who serve: the parents, spouses and siblings whose lives are transformed by tending to a loved one’s disorder of mind or brain or both. Their absence makes this elegantly written book feel a little chilly.

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