BOOK REVIEW: Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Miss BurmaMiss Burma by Charmaine Craig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel tells the story of a mixed-race family and their trials and tribulations in Burma / Myanmar from the colonial period (before the Second World War) through the early 1960’s when a civil war was in progress. The father / husband, Benny, is ethnically Indian, religiously Jewish, works for the British, but was born and spent his early childhood in Burma. He marries a Karen woman (i.e. of the Karen tribe.) The central (and titular) character is the couple’s first child, Louisa. Louisa is a beauty, and for various reasons – none of which reflect her own preferences – she ends up a beauty queen and national celebrity.

What is fascinating about this book is how the many levels of humanity – from the individual level (e.g.Louisa / Miss Burma) to the international level – play into each other. At an individual level, each member of the family finds his or her life intruded upon by the nation’s conflicts. Benny ends up a prisoner of war of the Japanese and then later a prisoner of the Burman ruling regime. He feels beholden to the Karens because of a combination of factors involving repaying of debt, familial obligation, and friendship. Louisa ends up in the pageant – in part — because of the question of whether the leaders and Burman citizens are really serious enough about unity to allow a non-Burman into that high-status role.

At a national level, there is a rapid succession of changing situations. First, the country needs to thwart the Japanese invasion. Next, they must throw off the British colonial yoke, and, finally, Burma must figure out what kind of nation (or nations) it will become. The Burman leader wants to consolidate the country, while many tribal groups, including the Karen, want independence. Benny’s family is tied up in this conflict, in part, because of their Karen connection, but also the fact that Benny was able to exploit the post-war economy to his advantage and became rich after the war. This makes him, and his family, both important and simultaneously loved and despised.

At the international level, America and other global powers have interests in keeping Burma from disintegrating into tribal sub-states. In the early post-war period, these interests are largely economic, and involve the preference to have a solitary trading partner for Burmese goods. However, later, as “domino theory” takes center stage in American foreign policy, the interest shifts to thwarting the spread of Communism. (“Domino theory” was the idea that if a non-Communist government fell, others would proceed in a chain reaction throughout the region. It was a little simplistic, but reflected the anxiety of the times and was a large part of the justification for the Vietnam War.)

I found this book gripping and fascinating. The international intrigue and family tensions both work together to make an intensely readable work. Without getting into the ending, I will say that it feels a little bit rushed and anti-climactic. However, the events of the book give it plenty of tension overall, and there is a logic to the place the book ends. It is emotionally powerful to see how this family is repeatedly torn apart and must come together again through great difficulties. We also see how obligation and sense of duty play themselves out, often trumping other considerations.

I would highly recommend this book for readers of fiction, particularly those with interests in historical fiction and works that offer insight into a nation and a culture.

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BOOK REVIEW: Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong

Novel Without a NameNovel Without a Name by Dương Thu Hương
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel’s protagonist, Quan, is a North Vietnamese soldier who, after ten years of war-fighting and surviving, has worked his way up to a junior officer position with a small unit under his command. Much of the story describes a road trip in the midst of war. One of Quan’s childhood friends who is now his superior officer, Luong, assigns Quan the task of going to visit a distant medical unit to check on a third common village friend, Bien, who is said to have had a nervous breakdown. Luong, further tells Quan to take some well-earned time off for a home visit, since the junior officer hasn’t been to see his home in a decade. In the latter part of the book, Quan returns to his unit after an uneasy home visit to see the father with whom he has strained relations (his mother ran away with another man), the neighbors he seems closer to than he is his own father, and his childhood sweetheart who has fallen on hard times — having had to accept that the two would never be married. On the way, back to his unit, Quan checks on Bien who he busted out of horrific conditions at a field hospital and got reassigned to a special unit with the non-Infantry, but macabre, task of building coffins. The book ends with another uneasy transition, the war’s end – which sees Quan’s comrades in celebration, but also not sure what to expect after an entire adult life spent at war.

Interspersed with the real-time events that occur as Quan travels through a jungle war-zone, one is shown flashbacks to some of the intense traumas of his years at war. These include friendly-fire incidents and the “only the good die young” effect in which it seems the most kind and virtuous are often the most perishable in times of war. There’s also a very human story that’s told about how war effects lives and transforms relationships – in some cases forging unbreakable bonds and in other cases building impenetrable barriers between loved ones.

I’ve read a few books on the Vietnam War, both fiction and non-fiction, but this may be the first I’ve read from a North Vietnamese perspective. What is interesting about that is that the experiences and themes are often not that different from one sees in works like Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn” or Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Soldiers on both sides have similar day-to-day experiences from boredom to horrors, and it has largely the same effect upon the soldier’s psyches. One of the overarching themes this book has in common with its American-centric counterparts is growing disillusionment. Like the American soldiers who often couldn’t comprehend what they were fighting for (other than the survival of their friends and themselves), Quan’s core beliefs become challenged over the course of the novel. It’s often been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it seems equally true that there are no ideologues in foxholes. The pragmatic concerns demanded of the war-fighter make it hard to be an impassioned Marxist or an impassioned follower of any ideology. This is seen in one scene in which an older officer is put off by Quan’s lack of enthusiasm for the Marxist message, and then later when the tables are turned and Quan converses with a young subordinate soldier who is even more disillusioned.

Of course, there are differences. Quan is much more at home in the environment of the war – though not exempt from the miseries of the jungle. It’s not like he’s been dropped on a different planet as it was for American soldiers who had no experience of tropical living. On the other hand, an American soldier could at least rest assured that his loved one’s were home in safety, but for Quan and his peers there is no reason to think family is any more safe than they. Of course, the concept of traipsing through the war zone on a home visit after years successively at war represents one important difference that is also fundamental to the story.

I found this book to be gripping and illuminating. It’s highly readable and relatable, even though there are flashbacks that take one out of a linear timeline; they are well done and not confusing. I would highly recommend this book for anyone who reads war stories, who enjoys translated fiction from other cultures, or who just wants a thought-provoking work of literary fiction.

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DAILY PHOTO: Medieval Warfare at Sümeg

Taken at Sümeg Castle on December 20, 2016

Taken at Sümeg Castle on December 20, 2016

 

Close up foot armor.   One imagines this kicking up under the front plate to stab the enemy without ever breaching his armor; file under "W" for "wicked."

Close up of foot armor. One imagines this kicking up under the front plate to stab the enemy without ever breaching his armor; file under “W” for “wicked.”

 

Another armor close up

Another armor close up

 

One of the trebuchet on display at the base of Sümeg castle

One of the trebuchet on display at the base of Sümeg castle

BOOK REVIEW: Thirst by Andrey Gelasimov

ThirstThirst by Andrey Gelasimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This novel (novella) is translated from Russian, and is the story of a soldier, Kostya, who fought in Chechnya and was badly burned while trapped inside an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC.) Owing to his severe disfigurement, Kostya becomes a heavy-drinking homebody. This changes when one of his team members from the war, Seryoga, goes missing and a couple surviving team members come to recruit Kostya to the search party.

Kostya struggles with an internal conflict common in war stories. On the one hand, Kostya both rationally recognizes the logic of why his friend and teammate, Seryoga, didn’t pull him from the burning APC (i.e. Seryoga believed Kostya was dead) and he loves Seryoga like a brother. On the other hand, he can’t help but feel that if Seryoga had pulled him out sooner he wouldn’t be so hideously disfigured and his life—as he sees it–wouldn’t have been ruined. Kostya battles those feelings, even defending Seryoga’s decision based on the reasonable conclusion that Kostya was already dead. A flashback sequence interwoven into the contemporary timeline shows us the events of the APC attack, including—ominously—a discussion of what should happen in case grenade breaches the vehicle for the benefit of the FNG (F@#%ing New Guy.)

The story is short and sparse, and that complements the somber tone of the book. One reason for dragging Kostya into the search is that his father is a Lieutenant Colonel with the pull to access records. This forces Kostya to open up the estranged relationship with his father and his father’s new wife. One gets the feeling that Kostya blames his father more for his plight than he does Seryoga, adding to any pre-war problems in the relationship. There are several factors that combine to move Kostya toward a better place over the course of the story. One is the thaw in relations with his father, and–perhaps even more so—the burgeoning relationship with his step-mom, Marian, who he discovers to be a genuinely good person. A second factor is reconnecting with his military buddies. Finally, his art (Kostya has a talent for drawing) becomes more therapeutic as his friends and family begin to see it.

This is a classic brothers-in-arms story. The universality of that bond comes through in translation. With tweaks in details (and choice of liquor) this story could be about American soldiers in Vietnam or Iraq. What makes the book a worthwhile read, if nothing else, is its display of that commonality of human experience. The ways of soldiers who have a stake in each other, even if they feel little personal stake in the grand strategy that has put them where they are.

I found this story to be moving and thought-provoking. I’d recommend the book—particularly for readers of literary fiction—and it’s definitely literary fiction. The story is character driven, and not plot or action driven. The tension derives from the interaction of characters and not (except for the APC fire) outside events. Many will find the ending abrupt and anti-climactic, but it’s the story of Kostya’s journey and not of any particular destination.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Country With No Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali

The Country Without a Post OfficeThe Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 27 poems about life in conflict-riddled Kashmir. Kashmir is a territory in the Himalayas that’s governed by India, but claimed by both India and Pakistan—and, it should be noted, has a significant population of residents that want to be part of neither country. In other words, there are some who’d like to see an independent Kashmir. However, at the moment Kashmir is one portion of one of India’s 29 states, Jammu and Kashmir—a state which is, itself, tripartite (Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir, and Buddhist Ladakh.)

It’s a telling quote from Tacitus with which the author begins the collection. Solitudinum faciunt et pacem appellant. I won’t claim that I didn’t have to look this up, but it means: “They make a desert, and call it peace.” The first poem echoes variations on that quote.

There are a range of poetry styles within this collection, including: rhyming verse, free verse, poetic prose, and ghazal. A ghazal is a Middle Eastern style of lyric poem which has a pattern of rhyme and is metered to be set to music; there are several in this collection. Some of the poems are sparse and some are wordy, and variety is the order of the day.

The 27 poems of this collection are divided among five parts. The book is brief (under 100 pages), and it contains only a prologue and notes (some of which are interesting) with respect to ancillary matter.

This collection paints a portrait of war and life in a war-torn locale. It’s as much the latter as the former. The title poem, “The Country With No Post Office,” suggests the sapping nature of life where the institutions of governance and civil society have broken down.

I’d recommend this collection for those who enjoy poetry, but also for those interested in the conflict in Kashmir.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Taiheiki trans. / ed. by Helen Craig McCullough

TaiheikiTaiheiki by Helen Craig McCullough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Let me be blunt, “The Taiheiki” isn’t a book you pick up to read a gripping story. While it’s considered a work of fiction, it reads like a history. In some sense, it is a history. It does follow the broad brush strokes of the events in Japan in the early 14th century. However, there are way too many characters to keep track of, or to remember who is on the side of whom, or even to know whether a given individual is worth remembering or whether they’ll soon die an ignominious death. If you don’t believe me, here are the words of the book’s translator and editor, “In short, the ‘gunki monogatari’ [the war tales of which ‘The Taiheiki’ is one] are not great literature. But the best of them are worth reading.”

I agree with McCullough’s point about these books (and this one in particular) being worth reading, but I would add an “if.” “The Taiheiki” is worth reading, if you have an interest in medieval Japan, samurai, or civil war life. The time period in question was fascinating, and it was characterized by war and intrigue. The Hōjō clan was ousted. (They were the military clan that administered the government.) A compromise had been in effect in which the mantle of Emperor was to be alternated between two opposing lines. However, an ambitious Emperor Go-Daigo refused to relinquish the title, and this led to a war between the courts. It’s a story of both warriors of legendary loyalty (most famously, Kusunoki Masashige) and those of shifting loyalties.

While the book is too fractured to form a clear and interesting story overall, that doesn’t mean it isn’t filled with intriguing episodes of battles, espionage, siege warfare, and even the occasional ghost or goblin story. There are many interesting individuals that are dealt with in sufficient detail to make them intriguing—the aforementioned Kusunoki Masashige stands out among them. The book offers insight into the medieval Japanese mind and to some degree the modern mind as well. There are discussions of philosophy and strategy worked into the narrative that help one to understand from whence the individuals were coming.

The book has a few features that help non-expert readers. The first is an extensive introduction written by Dr. McCullough that serves to provide background for the book and the era in which it took place. The second is frequent footnoting. There are also several plates of artworks and photos interspersed throughout the book. These help the reader visualize the environs and how these individuals would have looked.

If you have an interest in medieval Japan, in samurai, in ninja, or even in pre-modern war generally, I’d recommend this book. (If you’re looking for a gripping tale of intrigue set in 14th century Japan, not so much.)

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BOOK REVIEWS: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They CarriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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It’s called a novel, but it reads like a collection of war stories and essays about being an American soldier in the Vietnam War. That’s not a criticism. In fact, it’s part of the brilliance of this book. If it were thoroughly plotted, it might not feel so authentic. As war is disjointed, so is O’Brien’s book. Some of the chapters are tiny and some are lengthy. Some read more like essays than fiction, and others are clearly fictitious.

When I say that “some are clearly fictitious,” there’s always a doubt that it might just be a true story–because war is just that absurd. An example that springs to mind is one of the most engaging pieces in the work. It’s called “Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” and it’s about a wholesome, young girlfriend to one of the soldiers who [improbably] comes to live in the camp. The girl acclimates to the war, and soon she is going out on patrol–not with the ordinary infantry soldiers, but during the night with the Green Berets. Perhaps the moral is that some people are made for war, and it’s never who you’d suspect. As I describe it, the premise may sound ridiculous, but the way O’Brien presents it as a story told by a Rat Kiley–a fellow infantryman known to exaggerate—it feels as though there is something true, no matter how fictitious the story might be. Before one reads “Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong” one has been primed by a chapter entitled “How to Tell a True War Story,” which tells one that truth and falsehood aren’t so clear in the bizarre world of war.

There are a couple of chapters outside the period during which O’Brien (the character, who may or may not be the same as the author) is actively in an infantry unit. One early chapter describes his near attempt at draft dodging, and another talks of his time stationed at the rear after being injured. Both of these chapters offer an interesting twist in the scheme of the book overall. We find O’Brien to be a fairly typical infantry soldier, and it seems hard to reconcile this with his floating in a canoe and narrowly deciding not to make a swim for the Canadian shoreline. However, what is odder still is realizing how distraught he is to be pulled out of his unit, particularly when he realizes that he has become an outsider and the [then rookie] medic who botched his treatment is now in the in-group. This is one of the many unusual aspects of combatant psychology that comes into play in the book, along with O’Brien’s description of how devastating it was to kill.

There are 21 chapters to the book. As I said, they run a gamut, but at all times keep one reading. It’s the shortest of the Vietnam novels I’ve read—I think. When I think of works like “Matterhorn” and “The 13th Valley,” there seems to be something hard to convey concisely about the Vietnam War, but O’Brien nails it with his unconventional novel. O’Brien also uses repetition masterfully. This can be seen in the title chapter “The Things They Carried,” which describes the many things carried by an infantry soldier—both the physical items they carried on patrol and the psychological and emotional things they carried after the war. It’s a risky approach that pays off well.

I’d recommend this book for anyone—at least anyone who can stomach war stories.

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DAILY PHOTO: Military Bulldozer

Taken in December of 2015 at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

Taken in December of 2015 at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City