Book Review: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus EatersThe Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The perfect title. As readers, we give it little thought. By the time we see a book in its finished state, it’s a done deal. We consider its cover, the heft in our hands as we ponder the accolades on the back jacket or peruse the synopsis on the inside flap (I don’t know what e-reading sorts do – don’t you miss the feel of a book, the whisper and scent of paper and ink? Sigh.). At any rate, the right title is perhaps the most critical and taken-for-granted aspect of a book.

But the perfect title will be more than a quote or an image from the book it fronts. It will carry a theme or act as a metaphor to summarize in a handful of words the book’s core. Such titles seem as if the book was written around them.

And so it is with The Lotus Eaters. As depicted in Homer’s The Odyssey, the Lotus Eaters were inhabitants of an island deep in the southern Mediterranean who ate from a native lotus, becoming indolent and apathetic – drugged by the flower’s narcotic. Odysseus’s sailors

“…went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.”

Odyssey IX

It is an image used time and again by novelists, from James Joyce to Edith Wharton, and serves as the ideal metaphor for Tatjana Soli’s debut novel The Lotus Eaters.

In Soli’s gorgeous, fluid and haunting novel, the seductive narcotic is war. When war mixes with ambition, desire and an exotic locale, it becomes an elixir custom-made to slake the thirst for adventure.

This novel expresses more clearly than any I can think of the allure of the war experience and the shame and confusion that accompanies the attraction. The story opens in April, 1975 as Saigon is overrun by the North Vietnamese Army, signaling the end of the war in Vietnam. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, is torn between getting herself and her lover onto a chopper and out of the madness and her desire to capture this story of her lifetime.

Helen makes her decision and through that decision the reader is taken back ten years, to the start of Helen’s personal and professional journey through Vietnam. The Lotus Eaters is told principally from the perspective of Helen, but we also read through the voices of Linh, a Vietnamese photojournalist, and Sam Darrow, a celebrated, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Both men become Helen’s mentors and the focus of her passions.

Helen’s ambition to excel as a female photojournalist pushes her past the machismo of her fellow journalists, the barriers erected by the military against allowing women near the front, the horror of witnessing death and mutilation, the impossible fight against nature in the tropics and mountains of Southeast Asia, and her loneliness and fear, until all of these become the very source of her ambivalent addiction to recording the war in Vietnam. Vietnam becomes home. She learns its language, the rhythms of its seasons; its very scents and shadows become ingrained in her spirit.

The Lotus Eaters shows us the upside-down world of the wartime experience and how living on the edge heightens each emotion. Passion, anger, fear, joy intensify until they overshadow memories of “normal.” Helen even tries to return home, spending several weeks in the healing beauty of the California coast, but the pull of the Lotus is too strong. She returns to Vietnam, to assume her place at the front lines of the war.

Tatjana Soli’s writing is as lush and vivid as her setting. She can be heavy-handed with the metaphors, as if she’s trying too hard to bring you into this overgrown, overripe world, but this is easily forgiven. Her characters are complete, the story is compelling and the writer’s voice is strong and unique. The novel itself became a Lotus that I reluctantly set aside each day and was bereft when it came to an end.

Rarely do we see war’s front lines through the eyes of a woman; rarer still is ambivalence so richly presented without judgment or conclusion. An outstanding read.

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Book Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the BanyanIn the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To render historical, political fiction in the voice and through the eyes of a young child, a writer sets herself a tremendous challenge and takes on great risk. Children are naturally fanciful, unreliable creatures – not dishonest, but only able to offer the truth as their immature brains can grasp and explain it. When the story is revealed as the author’s own, the reader feels compelled to accept a fictionalized account as mere degrees of separation from the truth.

What Vaddey Ratner has accomplished with her striking and lovely In the Shadow of the Banyan is a tone poem. Its outline is based on the atrocious Khmer Rouge regime, but the narrative floats on themes of family, mythology and the deadly beauty of the author’s homeland. The nanny of the story’s narrator, Raami – the author’s mirror character – says it best when she declares that stories “are like footpaths of the gods. They lead us back and forth across time and space and connect us to the entire universe.”

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a story that connects us to Cambodia’s recent past and the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970’s. Because we are seeing the events unfold through the eyes and within the heart of a seven-year old girl, we are twisted and wrenched by a child’s vulnerability and hope but spared the most gruesome details of torture and obliteration. In many ways this is a grace, for it allows us to focus on the child’s small world of her privileged family and their servants without being overwhelmed by the incomprehensible horror of Cambodia’s civil war. But it also renders some characters shadowy and incomplete and glosses over context that would have helped create a firmer narrative.

Although the book jacket declares the novel covers the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime, the action is heavily concentrated on the first days and weeks after the capture and exile of Raami’s family. The first half of the book is a near moment-by-moment recount of the first weeks after the Khmer Rouge declares a new state on April 17, 1975. The second half chronicles the splitting apart of Raami’s family as one relative after another is slaughtered outright or dies as a result of their enslavement. There is a reference to the second anniversary of the Revolution and to Raami’s ninth birthday. The book’s final pages mention the war between Vietnam and Cambodia and the retreating Khmer Rouge armies, so it must end in the early weeks or months of 1979. This is significant to me because I feel the details invested in the early parts are tedious at times, whereas the shifts of time and events in the latter third of the novel, as Raami ages and suffers and grows as a refugee in her own homeland, are given broad, vague brushstrokes.

Ultimately, however, it is a book I feel honored to have read. Ratner’s language is lyrical and stirring; she creates gorgeous and vivid portrait of Cambodia, filling the reader with longing to see, hear, taste, and touch a vibrant, complex land. It offers a unique perspective into a history and culture little or mis-understood in the West and I hope other readers have the same reaction as I – of wanting to know more, to read more, to hear other survivors’ stories – in an effort to understand and to humanize the newspaper headlines.

My husband, as a teacher of high school history and social studies, received a Fulbright grant and spent several weeks in Southeast Asia a few years ago. Cambodia and Vietnam, in equal measure but for different reasons, touched him to his core. Vietnam’s recent history he was, of course, more familiar; U.S. history books treat Cambodia’s chaos as a post-script to the “American” War (as the Vietnam War is known in Southeast Asia). When you begin to fully grasp a reality that is little mentioned in our own history books, it’s a horrible slap in the face – a sensation of guilt and anger that in your ignorance, you are somehow complicit. It is through the gift of authors such as Vaddey Ratner that these stories are told so we all can wake up and learn.
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Book Review: Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam WarMatterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“First of all, you can’t fall into hating the people you are killing. Because you’ll carry that hate with you longer than you will the actual killing itself. It is only by the grace of God that you are on one side and your enemy is on the other side. I often think, ‘I could have been born in North Vietnam.’”

Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes, August 20, 2010 The Times (London).

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War launched onto the bestseller lists in 2010, when United States was entrenched in two unpopular wars in ill-understood and seemingly hopeless places: Iraq and Afghanistan. Neither of these wars is comparable to Vietnam in terms of tactical warfare, terrain, volume of casualties and mis-treatment of vets by their fellow citizens, but the cultural divisions at home, the politicizing of the conflicts and the anger and sorrow over the loss of soldiers and civilians remain the same.

Matterhorn tells the Odyssey of Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas as he leads Bravo Company through the jungle near Vietnam’s border with Laos, just beyond the DMZ. The company’s mission is to secure a remote hilltop base: the fictional Matterhorn. This novel is a living thing. It breathes and pulses, it horrifies and heartens. It is a brilliantly written tribute to combat veterans and a searing examination of the fog of war.

Bravo Company becomes a collective Sisyphus, at the mercy of the gods of the Fifth Marine Division. It spins in circles in the jungle, trying to make sense of the quixotic orders of base commanders more concerned with their careers than the lives of the young men in their charge. The soldiers of Bravo Company endure the unbearable: jungle rot, immersion (or trench) foot, man-eating tigers, near-starvation and dehydration, and of course, the horrific wounds of war: bullets, grenades, mines and shrapnel cut down the company throughout their journey.

The narrative has many themes: the adventure of battle and the camaraderie of soldiers; the value of a well-trained militia in sharp contrast with inherent unjustifiable nature of war; the racial tension between black soldiers and white that brings the conflicts of home to the battlefields of Vietnam; and the truth of military politics – the power struggles between reserve and regular officers and “lifers” on the ground and with their commanding officers, who adjust casualty numbers and keep up a pretense of victory to look good to their superiors and to the press at home.

Marlantes writes with clarity and authenticity, in a style that is raw, vivid and surprisingly readable. Matterhorn flows with fully realized characters whom you come to love or revile with ferocity, your heart breaking with each loss. He provides breathtaking detail; the combat scenes are rendered in a minute-by-minute reel and you experience the soliders’ fear, adrenalin and pain.

It took Karl Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran and accomplished civilian (Lieutenant, USMC; Rhodes Scholar, Oxford) thirty years to write, rewrite and find a publisher for Matterhorn. Although I would not wish such an arduous journey to publication on any writer, I believe that telling this story now, in a new century, to a generation for which the Vietnam War is an anecdote or a chapter in an American History textbook, benefits the book’s readers and its subject.

Among the most precious and devastating aspects of any war are the soldiers’ stories. No one who has not served in combat can understand what a soldier suffers physically and emotionally. For Vietnam veterans, who returned home only to face insults and shunning, the stories remained locked inside. Writers who record their stories speak for the millions who cannot. In 1977, journalist Michael Herr published Dispatches, an account of his experiences in Vietnam in 1967-68 embedded with platoons; Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien offered the beautiful and compelling The Things They Carried in 1990. Twenty years later – and thirty-five years after the end of the war in Vietnam – Karl Marlantes reminds us that the stories of young soldiers in the jungles of Southeast Asia are as devastating and relevant now as they were to a generation once removed – our fathers, brothers, uncles and grandfathers  – who still live with these experiences tormenting their hearts.

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Book Review: A Trip to the Stars, Nicholas Christopher

A Trip To The StarsA Trip To The Stars by Nicholas Christopher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leaving a Manhattan planetarium in 1965, 10-year old Loren grasps the gloved hand of a woman he mistakes for his aunt, Alma. It will be fifteen years before Loren sees Alma again. Her name will be Mala, his name Enzo, and the separate journeys they take before they are reunited are the focus of this epic, fantastical story of love, betrayal, spiders and stars.

It is a pleasure to suspend belief as A Trip to the Stars unfolds. Mala and Enzo relate their stories in alternating sections and a world of characters pours forth. Mala begins a quest- first searching for her nephew, then for a vanished lover, and ultimately for her soul- that takes her from New Orleans to Vietnam, then through island archipelagos that represent her loose connection to earth. Enzo is cocooned at a sprawling hotel outside Las Vegas, surrounded by a Gothic cast of permanent and transient residents who serve as tutors of his eclectic education. A cleverly rendered combination of star-crossed fate and merciless human manipulation connects Mala and Enzo.

Much of this novel is ravishing diversion. Much of it is grinding tedium. Nicholas Christopher infuses Mala’s storyline with tremendous passion and feeling. You soar as she discovers deep, abiding love and crash when she loses her way. Her journey, both mystical and maddening, is fascinating.

Christopher employs expository detail to relate Enzo’s life. Told in first person by Enzo, his story drags on and on, with a voice that never varies, no matter what Enzo’s age. It reads as one long flashback, like an interminable movie voiceover. Christopher mires this storyline in so much exhausting detail that he loses all sense of urgency, suspense, and relevance. The threads that weave together to form the complete tapestry of Enzo’s and Mala’s destinies are found throughout Enzo’s narrative, so resist the temptation to skim. But prepare yourself to suffer boredom at the eye-rolling conceit.

Christopher’s prose is achingly beautiful, his imagination vast and astonishing, his characters warm and profound. Despite my frustration with the author’s style choices A Trip To The Stars will stay with me. And the night sky will hold deeper wonder

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The Beauty of Humanity Movement, Camilla Gibb

The Beauty of Humanity MovementThe Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel offers quiet satisfaction. There is nothing awesome or monumental about the plot or Gibb’s writing. It is an engaging story written with care and honesty, without pandering to bestseller lists or in search of a specific audience.

Beauty, set in contemporary Hanoi, offers a fresh perspective on well-worn themes: the search for cultural identity and the meaning of “home.” Gibb weaves together three narratives: Maggie Ly, a Vietnamese-American curator searching for information about her deceased father; Old Man Hu’ng, a pho vendor, who suffered cruelly during the Communist regime of the 1960s and 70s; and Tu’, a 20-something tour guide for whom the Vietnam War is a unit in History class. Tu’ wears Nike, has a mobile phone, and knows the name of every NFL team. He is also savvy enough to realize the Củ Chi Tunnels have been widened to fit the robust American forms that he guides through his city’s famous sites.

I wouldn’t recommend reading this lovely novel on an empty stomach. We witness Old Man Hu’ng learning to make pho, Vietnam’s national dish, and perfecting it through the years as he sets out on his own to feed his starving neighbors and later, the pho purists who seek him out each morning. Gibb creates a paen to this savory, star anise-cardamom-cinnamon-marrow rich soup brimming with thinly-sliced beef, rice noodles, laced with lime juice, basil, and Sriracha sauce. My mouth is watering just recalling Hu’ng’s special recipe. Of course, during the years of the Communist regime and the war, Hu’ng had nothing but weeds to work with; he still managed to nourish the hearts and stomachs of those left to him.

Through her three principal characters, Gibbs shows Vietnam as a shifting prism. Is is an ancient land of deep faith and artistry; it is a rapidly modernizing economy that is the darling of investors and developers; it is the ethnic home of a multi-cultural diaspora spread by colonial oppression, inner conflict, and international war. Viewed alone, these facets reflect only one aspect of Vietnam. Together they refract a rainbow of Vietnam’s history and its future.

And here’s a recipe for classic pho: The Steamy Kitchen: Classic Vietnamese Pho
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