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).
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).
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 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.
Pham, Andrew X. Catfish and Mandala: a Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. New York: Farrar. Straus and Giroux, 1999.
It has been several years since I read a bicycle memoir (the last being Where the Pavement Ends by Erika Warmbrunn). I was very excited to start Catfish and Mandala. So much so that I started it two days before May began. Even though May is Bicycle Month I read this for Memorial Day. I’m glad I went that route because it’s not really about the bike.
Catfish and Mandala is more than an adventure story about biking across Vietnam. It’s a cultural exploration and by turn, an explanation. Comparing American versus Vietnamese differing viewpoints on mundane topics like when a child should move out of his parent’s home after reaching adulthood. And yet. Noticing similarities: we all want our fathers to be proud of us, in any culture.
The story of Pham’s father’s imprisonment in the Labor Camp is brief, but heartbreaking just the same. After reading pages 16-20 I will never look at catfish the same.
Pham’s ability to weave past with present is brilliant. He recaptures his family’s flight from Vietnam to the U.S. when he was a small child seamlessly while recounting his own journey from the U.S. back to Vietnam as an adult. His confusion over what he remembers is intertwined with his inability to articulate what he is really looking for. Pham finds himself asking “what am I doing here?” time and time again. As he faces prejudice and violence and corruption I asked the same question.
Favorite lines: “Somehow they got by on love and rice” (p 17),” Everything could shift, and nothing could change” (p 107), “I have an urge to kick myself in the head” (p 158), and “A stray mutt curls up at my feet and shares his fleas with my ankles” (p 200).
Author Fact: I have to start of by flirting. Pham is a good looking guy! My next fact is actually a question – how can you be a “starving” restaurant critic?
Book Trivia: Catfish and Mandala is Pham’s first book.
Things that need further explanation: what, exactly, are “angry egg-eyes”, and what do they look like? Pham mentions five different types of bananas. Now I want to know their names and characteristics.
Pham mentions Miles From Nowhere by Barbara Savage. I’m so excited it’s actually on my list. Sad to say I won’t be reading it until probably May 2016 though!
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “Bicycling” (p 36). Simple enough.
ps~ I enjoyed Catfish and Mandala so much that I added Pham as a favorite author on LibraryThing.
- To Sir with Love by Edward Ricardo Braithwaite ~ in honor of National Teacher Day (May 3rd)
- Out of Control by Suzanne Brockmann ~ in honor of Brockmann’s birth month
- A Child’s Life and Other Stories by Phoebe Gloeckner ~ in honor of graphic novel month
- Antigone the play by Sophocles ~ in honor of May being the best time to visit Greece.
- Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong ~ in honor Asian-American Heritage month
- Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham ~ in honor of Memorial Day
- Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery ~ in honor of Eeyore’s birth month (I’ll explain that connection within the review). I’m listening to this as a training book.
- House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferre ~ in honor of May 5th being Cinco de Mayo
- City of Light ~ by Lauren Belfer ~ in honor of May being History Month
Lastly, for the Early Review program for LibraryThing – Art and Madness by Anne Roiphe.
I put so many books on my list because a) a few of them are really, really short so I know I can read I can read them in 1-2 days time and b) I don’t have plans to travel anywhere until May 20th so I should have more time to curl up with several good books, and c) AFTER the walk I have ten days of NOTHING to do. I am picturing myself on the back deck, a glass of wine in one hand and a good book in another.
Confession – Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham looked so good I started reading it on April 28th. Sue me.
May is also (finally) the Just ‘Cause walk. I am not confident I did everything to train (but then again, there is only so much walking one can do), and I know I didn’t fund raise as hard as I should/could have. I am $100 off from the amount I raised last year. I am guessing not asking aunts, uncles, cousins, (mother), grandparents….anyone from my mother’s side to donate played a big part. C’est la vie. Or, to quote mom, “whatever.”
When I sat down to first write “March ’10 was…” I suddenly became exhausted by the very idea of it. Not sure why. Could it be that 300+ books later and I am finally losing steam? Am I becoming weary of the process? I wasn’t not sure. This recap was designed to keep myself accountable to the “Fill-in-the-blank Is…” post. Something to check back in with, designed to ask myself, “How does what I really read by the end of the month compare to what I set out to accomplish at the beginning of the month?” Truth be known, it has been fun to see how far off the map my reading has taken me. Titles that were so far off my radar are a joy to remember at month’s end. So, in answer to my own questions – no I don’t think I’m burnt out, losing steam, becoming weary of the process. I think I needed to put it back into perspective…kind of like hiking up that bra strap that has slipped out of place…
- Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban ~ turtles and strange relationships. What’s not to love?
- Goodnight, Nebraska by Tom McNeal ~ this should have been a movie
- Jennifer Government by ~ this will be a movie, I swear
- Making of a Quagmire by David Halberstam ~ one reporter’s take on the political firestorm and other events that led up to the Vietnam war and beyond…
- An Armful of Warm Girl by William M. Spackman~this was so bizarre…
- King Lear by William Shakespeare ~ classic.
- The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings ~ in honor of Florida becoming a state in the month of March
Here’s something really cool. I started reading Affliction by Russell Banks because it was on my March list (Russell Banks’s birth month) but it’s also on my April list. That means I can continue reading Affliction in April…That doesn’t happen that often.
For LibraryThing and the Early Review Program I was able to finish two books:
- No Instructions Needed: An American Boyhood in the 1950s by Robert Hewitt, and
- The Man From Saigon by Marti Leimbach.
Just a note on The Man From Saigon ~ It was very interesting to read this at the same time as reading a nonfiction about the same topic.
March was also a month of healing, getting sick again, seeing good, good drums, the weather getting warmer…and lots of training walks!
Halberstam, David. The Making of a Quagmire. New York: Random House, 1964.
The only way American citizens were in touch with the Vietnam War, at all, was through the eyes of reporters. They were responsible for bringing the fighting as well as the politics of South Vietnam into the forefront of public awareness. They were credited for keeping the public more informed than in the dark. It has been said that not many could cite what we were fighting for “in the jungle.” Not many more could find Vietnam on a map. Yet, with the publishing of the Making of a Quagmire David Halberstam sets up to explain just how involved the U.S. was before the conflict erupted. In a comprehensive manner he explains our country’s commitment to the political struggle in South Vietnam. Despite pressure on all political sides Halberstam never compromised his view of the crisis. He refused to publish propaganda to support either side. The Making of a Quagmire is simply unflinching and honest.
Most interesting quote: “In many areas the war had come to a virtual halt because vital units were practicing for the parade” (p 45). I find this interesting because Halberstam goes on to say, “It seemed unbelievable, but it was true; the public was not to be allowed to watch the ceremonies” (p 46).
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter simply called, “Vietnam” (p 238). Also in More Book Lust in the chapter called, “David Halberstam: Too Good To Miss” (p 112). Interestingly enough in both chapters Nancy Pearl gives Halberstam’s book the complete title of The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era yet nowhere on my copy of Making of a Quagmire is that subtitle printed.
Leimbach, Marti. The Man From Saigon. New York: Doubleday, 2010.
This was an interesting read for me due, in part, to the fact I was reading The Making of a Quagmire by David Halberstam at the same time. Leimbach’s descriptions of Vietnam mirrored Halberstam’s almost perfectly. The rainy, muggy climate, the poverty stricken communities, the brash (trying-to-be-brave) military presence, but above all, the reporters trying to capture the atrocities of politics and war while remaining mentally sound and physically safe. Of course, Leimbach’s story is a bit less intense with the addition of an adulterous romance threaded through the bomb blasts and sniper attacks. Susan Gifford is a green reporter trying her hand at covering the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. When she is taken captive by the Vietnam Communists, the Vietcong, along with her photographer, Hoang Van Son, the plot thickens. Susan is suddenly confronted with a profound and deep relationship that was originally a professional partnership forged out of necessity.
There are, of course, a few lines that became my favorite. The one I hope makes it into the final copy is “It was a feeling of being trapped and desperate, of having been cornered by her own mistakes” (p 6). Been there. Done that.
March is a small stash of books. Small because I want to get back on the training schedule…with a vengeance.
- Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban is actually a leftover from February. It was one that I was really looking forward to reading so I’m adding it to March
- Goodnight, Nebraska by Tom McNeal ~ in honor of Nebraska becoming a state in March
- Jennifer Government by Max Barry ~ in honor of March being Max Barry’s birth month
- Making of a Quagmire by David Halberstam ~ in honor of March being the month the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam
If there is time I will tackle:
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte ~ in honor of national literature month
- Armful of Warm Girl by W.M. Spackman ~ in honor of… and this is a stretch…Oscar Month. Here’s the thought process: March is Oscar month which translates into giving award for the best something-er-rather. Nancy Pearl gave Armful of Warm Girl the award for best title. Told you it was a stretch…
For LibraryThing and the Early Review program I promise, promise, promise I will finish No Instructions Needed: an American Boyhood in the 1950s by Robert G. Hewitt.
March is also a concerted effort to get back to training, a little bit of music and hopefully, a whole bunch of fund raising…
May was a combination of heaven and hell. May was a Mother’s Day without my mother. May was walking 60 miles and having my mother at the finish line. May was a trip homehome and almost too much time with my mother. The good and the bad. As much as we love each other there is only so much mother-daughter time we can bestow on one another.
My favorite moments of the month were learning gardening tips from mom (hello! I’m brand new to everything about it), and talking to strangers about the Just ‘Cause walk. Here’s what I managed to read:
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson ~ a touching, tragic story about one teenager’s horrible secret.
- Off Keck Road by Mona Simpson ~ not my favorite – very bland.
- Bordeaux by Soledad Puertolas ~ a really lonesome story based in Bordeaux, France.
- Where the Pavement Ends: One Woman’s Bicycle Trip Through Mongolia, China and Vietnam by Erika Warmbrunn~ this was probably my favorite out of everything I read this month.
- Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser ~ Fraser’s recollections of the war in Burma as a 19 year old.
- Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurty ~ something I picked up completely by accident, a year early!
For LibraryThing and the Early Review Program:
- Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood ~ this was such a pleasure to read I plan to reread it once it has been published.
I didn’t get to The Victorians by A.N. Wilson. It sat on the desk in my office for the entire month. I think I looked at the pictures.
I can’t believe how fast the time is flying by. Unbelievable. April flew by me on very windy wings. Thanks to a mini mental health holiday I was able to get through some pretty good books:
- Astonishing Splashes of Colour by Clare Morrall ~ this was fascinating. I definitely want to read more of Morrall’s work.
- An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David ~ witty, and global. This made me hungry for really well designed food.
- The Punch: by John Feinstein ~ The book that got me obsessed with December 9th, 1977.
- The Noblest Roman by David Halberstam ~ prohibition, prostitution and politics, southern style.
- The Jameses: a Family Narrative by R.W.B. Lewis ~ I now know more about Henry James and his ancestors than I ever thought possible and I didn’t even finish the book.
- Flashman by George Fraser MacDonald ~ the first in the Flashman series. Strange.
- Ancestral Truths by Sara Maitland ~ really intense book!
- The Apple That Astonished Pairs by Billy Collins ~ a book of fascinating poetry.
In honor of National Poetry month it was:
- “Table Talk” by Wallace Stevens
- “Tract” by William Carlos Williams
- “I Go Back” by Sharon Olds
- “Colette” by Edwin
- “Church Going” and “I Remember, I Remember” by Philip Larkin
- “Why Do So Few Blacks Study Creative Writing” by Cornelius Eady
For the Early Review program:
- Fatal Light by Richard Currey. This had me by the heart. It’s the 20th anniversary of its publication and just as relevant today as it was back then. It’s fiction but not. If you know what I mean. I think that it’s important to note that I was supposed to get a February pick but because I moved it got lost in the shuffle (translation: I didn’t get the forwarding thing set up in time and it went back to the publisher). Fatal Light is actually a March pick.
December started off being my fresh start. New houses, new atttitude. It would have been a return to charity walks (or runs?) had a little thing called house hunting not gotten in the way! December ended up being a really, really difficult month. Lost another house, craziness at work, mental health taking a trip south, a passing of a friend and coworker… Here are the books I read escaped with. It may seem like a lot but, keep in mind, I cheated. I was able to read the first two in November.
- The Quiet American by Graham Green ~ I read this in three days time…in November. Was really that good!
- A Dangerous Friend by Ward Just ~ Another book I read in just a few days time, again…in November.
- Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver ~ probably one of the best court-room dramas I have ever read.
- I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away by Bill Bryson ~ funny, but repetitive!
- A Family Affair by Rex Stout ~ very strange yet entertaining.
- Lincoln’s Dreams by Connie Willis ~again, strange but entertaining!
- Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella ~ okay. I’ll admit it. This one made me cry.
- ‘Sippi by John Oliver Killens ~ powerful – really, really powerful. That’s all I can really say.
- Snobs by Julian Fellowes ~ silly story about what happens with you combine boredom with good old fashioned English snobbery.
- Choice Cuts by Mark Kurlansky ~ really interesting, but a bit dry at times (no pun intended).
For LibraryThing it was the fascinating Honeymoon in Tehran by Azadeh Moaveni (really, really good).
Confession: I started Le Mort d’Arthur and couldn’t deal with neither volume one or two. Just not in the mood for the King, no matter how authoritative the version.
So. 11 books. Two being in the month of November and nine as the cure for what ailed me.
Edited to add: someone asked me to post “the count” at the end of each “— Was” blog. What a great idea. I will be starting that next month – something new to start 2009 with. Thanks, A!
This is the companion read to The Quiet American by Graham Greene. I have to say it was interesting to read one man’s book in honor of someone else. But, back to Ward Just. Just was born in December, hence the addition of A Dangerous Friend. If it isn’t clear, I read The Quiet American because it was so similar to A Dangerous Friend. It just made sense to read them together.
A Dangerous Friend takes the reader to Vietnam, 1965. Sydney Parade is a man bored with his Connecticut life. In search of something bigger than himself he leaves his wife and daughter for the jungles of Saigon. While his intention is to be part of a foreign-aid operation building bridges, administering agriculture education, and facilitating supply delivery, Sydney soon discovers war is war no matter which side you are on. The depths of conflict strike his moral heart and leave him struggling to survive any way that he can.
A couple lines that I liked:
“…we were imprisoned in our own language, tone deaf to possibility” (p 4)
“The answer to chaos is repetition” (p 73).
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in two different chapters: “Companion Reads” (p 64), and “Ward Just: Too Good to Miss” (p 135). Also, mentioned in the introduction (p xi).
Greene, Graham. The Quiet American. New York: Viking Press, 1956.
This has come up twice for my December readings – once because of Ward Just’s birthday (don’t ask), and once because it is a companion read to Ward Just, again don’t ask. I’ll explain all that when I get to Ward Just’s book later this month week.
Like my friend who started decorating for Christmas, I started reading my December picks on 11/23/08. I couldn’t help myself. I had wanted to fit in Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling but my library’s version was not the complete works. In addition it was missing the two crucial stories Nancy Pearl specifically pointed out. Rather than disrupt the flow of order I moved onto December…a week early!
This was a story of two battles. An English reporter is sent to cover a war-torn Saigon. While there he falls in love with Vietnamese woman. His love is challenged when an American from Boston falls in love with the same woman. There is a real war raging on the periphery, complete with bombings and mass murders, while at the center is a battle over a woman. The interesting twist to this story is how the story makes the reader feel towards the two men and how that changes over time.
Best lines: “I shut my eyes and she was again the same as she used to be: she was the hiss of steam, the clink of a cup; the was a certain hour of the night and the promise of rest” (p 5). That is such an achingly beautiful line!
“You cannot love without intuition” (p 13).
“The possession of a body tonight seemed a very small thing – perhaps that day I had seen too many bodies which belonged to no one, not even to themselves” (p 65-66).
“For a moment I had felt elation as on the instant of waking before one remembers” (p 205).
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in two different places: in the chapter “Companion Reads” (p 64), and “Ward Just: Too Good To Miss” (p 135).