BOOK REVIEW: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel is set in Italy during World War I. The protagonist, Frederic Henry (like Hemingway, himself) volunteered to drive an ambulance in Italy during the war. The story is informed by, if not based upon, Hemingway’s personal experiences. Central to the story is a romance between Henry and a British nurse named Catherine Barkley. Their tentative flirtations deepen when Henry is wounded and spends a considerable amount of time at the hospital while recuperating. Barkley becomes pregnant with Henry’s child in the middle of the war. Henry returns to service for only a short time before he finds himself in the midst of a chaotic retreat from the swift advance of the Austrians and Germans. This retreat continues to go sour for Henry, leading to a flight for his life as he attempts to get back to Catherine so that he can get them both (plus the unborn child) to safety.

There’s a [variously-attributed] quote about war being: “long periods of interminable boredom punctuated by sheer terror.” This book captures that feel, but even during the moments of quiet from the opening through Henry’s rehab to the weeks hiding out in the Swiss mountains, Hemingway keeps the story engaging by shining a light into the protagonist’s psychology – and, occasionally, through wit. Then there are the thrilling moments like the shelling that wounds Henry or his various narrow escapes.

I found this book to be highly engaging. It has some beautiful language, exemplified by the famously well-composed opening paragraph, mixed with the taut suspense of life in a war zone. If you’re interested in war stories or classic American literature, it’s a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Power Born of Dreams by Mohammad Sabaaneh

Power Born of Dreams: My Story is PalestinePower Born of Dreams: My Story is Palestine by Mohammad Sabaaneh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 7, 2021

This graphic novel reflects upon the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of the author’s (artist’s) time in prison. At first, I found the story to be an evocative personal account of life in prison, but as the story continued it felt progressively less personal and more propagandistic. The central theme is that Palestinians feel imprisoned by circumstance, regardless of whether they are actually in a jail or not.

Still, it’s not the kind of work that will constructively advance a dialogue. It will rub those who sympathize with Israel the wrong way because it’s far from an unbiased account of events, vilifying the Israelis while glorifying (or failing to acknowledge) the Palestinians who engage in violence. This bias is particularly notable in the back matter, which presents accounts that seem journalistic, but which selectively present information to make it appear that all fault lies exclusively on one side.

To be fair, the author spent time in jail for (as best I could learn from the internet) what sounded like consorting with unsavory characters. [Which reeks of Soviet-style “justice,” but the book doesn’t really delve into the reason for his imprisonment, and – even if it did – I’m not sure that I’d trust that it’s the complete truth – given the way the general narrative is presented. So, I couldn’t tell you whether the author is an artist wrongly imprisoned for expressing himself, or whether he did something that was truly and legitimately seditious.]

The art is linocut to create a chiaroscuro effect (i.e. white lines, black background) and is stylistically interesting.

I enjoyed the art and found this to be an interesting read, but I wouldn’t recommend readers take it at face value as a fair account of the conflict, but rather as one man’s personal message about the conflict.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dreaming Eagles by Garth Ennis

Dreaming EaglesDreaming Eagles by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

New Edition Out: June 1, 2021

This graphic novel by the author of “The Boys” and “Preacher,” tells a story based on the experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen, and does so as a story within a story. The framing story is set in 1960’s America and finds a World War II veteran (a pilot of the Tuskegee Airmen) trying to talk his teenaged son down from getting too entangled in the Civil Rights movement — for reasons that are only revealed as he completes the telling of his experiences at war. Through flashbacks, the protagonist depicts not only the thrilling exploits of air-to-air combat over Europe and the visceral tragedies that occur when hot lead meets with aluminum high above the world, but it also shows the unique tribulations experienced by these particular military men – such as “leaders” who wanted to see them fail and widespread discrimination.

The story-in-story approach is an excellent one because it allows for a character arc in which the protagonist grows. Without getting into spoiling details, as the protagonist revisits his story, he comes away with a new and changed perspective (which is always a valuable feature in storytelling.) The frame also breaks up the history and helps maintain reader attentiveness by showing the influence the story has on the attentive son. (Young men not being famous for being interested in the life stories of their parents.) I don’t mean to suggest that the war story is not interesting. It’s full of action, heroism, and the tension of interpersonal conflict. However, for those who aren’t history buffs and are acclimated to Ennis’s more popular fare [i.e. full of superheroes and random acts of violence and titillation,] the story may feel a bit flat only by virtue of the fact that it is constrained by actual historical events.

I found the art to be well-crafted. The chaos of air combat is conveyed without being so chaotic that one can’t tell what is happening, and the graphics offer a great sense of setting and era.

This volume is definitely worth giving a read. It tells a compelling story of the combative exploits and the political / social travails of these groundbreaking and heroic pilots, while holding a mirror to the rank societal biases of the era.


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BOOK REVIEW: Freiheit! by Andrea Grosso Ciponte

Freiheit!: The White Rose Graphic NovelFreiheit!: The White Rose Graphic Novel by Andrea Grosso Ciponte
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: March 4, 2021

This tragic story tells the tale of a small college-centric anti-Nazi resistance group, doing so in graphic novel form. While it touches upon the story of six White Rose members who were executed, special emphasis is given to the sister-brother duo of Sophie and Hans Scholl. White Rose was largely involved in distributing leaflets to encourage others to engage in resistance activities against the Nazis. (Note: the translated text of the White Rose pamphlets is included as an appendix.) There is so much attention given to the truly fascinating question of how a bunch of fascist lunatics managed to run a country into such diabolical territory that it can easily be missed that there was at least some resistance within Germany. I, for one, was oblivious to the story of White Rose before reading this book.

The arc of the story takes the reader from the upbeat stage during which White Rose was succeeding in distributing articulate and persuasive flyers, through some of their close calls and other frustrations (e.g. the Scholl’s father being arrested), and on to the bitter end. Much of what I’ve seen previously about resisters centered on communists. One sees in White Rose a different demographic. There are a number of religious references without the “workers of the world unite” lead that would be taken by leftist groups.

I believe the author overplayed the stoicism with which the executed individuals accepted their fate. This is based upon a true story, and so this may seem an unfair criticism because perhaps that’s how it appeared in reality. However, from a storytelling perspective, it felt surprisingly devoid of emotional content [given the events provide loads of potential for it.] There is a great tragedy in young people being executed by the State for asking others to resist fascism, but as a reader I didn’t really feel an intense visceral connection to events. As I said, I suspect this had to do with the author wishing to show that the Scholls took it in all in stride, but I think some display of angst or anger might have made for a more intense reading experience. I don’t know whether it was more a textual or graphic issue that left me unmoved.

All in all, the book was an interesting insight into resistance to the Nazis in an academic environment. I did find reading the pamphlet translations themselves to be insightful. The flyers give one insight into where the student-resisters were coming from, and what buttons wished to push in others. It might have been a bit more gripping, but it was an interesting telling of events.

If you’re interested in learning more about Germans who resisted the fascists, this book provides a quick example of how (and by whom) it was done, and I’d recommend you give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio

The Photographer of MauthausenThe Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Due out: September 30, 2020

This “graphic novel” tells the story of a Spanish photographer, Francisco Boix, who was sent to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp as a Communist during the Second World War. [Note: I only put graphic novel in quotes because it’s not a fictitious story, which “novel” implies, but graphic novel seems to be the accepted term for any graphically depicted story – fact or fiction.] Mauthausen was a camp in Austria. While it wasn’t technically one of the extermination camps, it was legendary for the death toll associated with the granite mine where many of the inmates labored. Its “staircase of death” was the location of untold fatalities, including: murders by the Nazis, suicides, and even tripping accidents that will happen when an emaciated prisoner has to carry 50 kg stones up almost 200 uneven steps with no railing day after day.

Boix, who had been a journalistic photographer previously, was assigned to work for a Nazi officer who took pictures in the camp – particularly pictures of fatalities. Boix carried equipment, set up lighting, developed negatives, and made prints. His boss, Ricken, is depicted as bizarre character. On the one hand, Ricken seems not so bad by Nazi SS standards, but, on the other hand, he has a sociopathic inclination to see death as art. Boix takes advantage of his position to make copies of the negatives with the idea that they will be evidence when the war comes to the end. At first, there is support for this plot among the Spanish Communists, who help hide the negatives away in places like the carpentry shop. However, this support dwindles when it becomes clear that the Germans will lose the war, and – thus –surviving to the end becomes everyone’s primary focus. Soon Boix is on his own to figure out how to get the photos out. He develops a plan involving one of the boys at the camp (children being less intensely scrutinized) and an Austrian woman, who is a sympathizer.

The book climaxes with the operation to get the negatives out of the camp, but resolves with the immediate post-War period when Boix attempts to generate interest in the photographs as well providing testimony at the Nuremberg Trials. Boix is portrayed as fiery and impassioned. When the others at Mauthausen just want to survive to the end, he maintains that any risk is worth it. While he is shown to have some conflict about putting a boy’s life at risk with (arguably) the riskiest step in the process, he doesn’t seem waiver. At the trials he’s outraged about the panel’s insistence on “just the facts.” He wants to freely and fully tell the story of Mauthausen, and they – like courts in democracies everywhere – wish to maintain an appearance of the dispassionate acquisition of facts.

I found this book to be engaging and well worth the read. The artwork is well-done and easy to follow. The story is gripping. While there are a vast number of accounts of events at places like Auschwitz, there aren’t so many popular retellings of events at Mauthausen. I highly recommend this book for those interested in events surrounding World War II and the Holocaust.

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BOOK REVIEW: Carl Lutz (1895-1975) by György Vámos



Carl Lutz by György Vámos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page (only the French edition is currently showing)

 

Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat assigned to Budapest in 1944, at the time the Nazis and their Arrow Cross comrades were trying to deport the Budapest Jewry to death camps. Lutz may not be as well know as his Swedish counterpart, Raoul Wallenberg, but that’s not for lack of saving lives. Like Wallenberg, he saved thousands of Jews by issuing protective documentation, and by fudging numbers and background documents where necessary to keep more people safe.

Lutz also oversaw a facility where the people issued these documents were allowed to stay to keep them out of the city ghetto from which they might get caught up in deportations. The Swiss-flagged facility was called the “Glass House” because it was on the grounds of a factory where specialty glass had been made, and the building’s façade was covered in multiple styles of glass as a way for perspective customers to see what products were available. Unfortunately, the property wasn’t designed for residential use, let alone for providing facilities for large numbers of people. Quarters were cramped and hygienic facilities were inadequate. However, the facility did keep people alive, even though it was raided by the Arrow Cross. [For those visiting Budapest, a small museum / memorial room can still be found at this same location, and this book’s author can offer more insight.]

The book is written in a scholarly style, i.e. employing a historian’s tone. It largely follows a chronological format. The book doesn’t discuss Lutz’s life much outside the war years, but it does give the reader background about Hungary’s anti-Semitic laws and actions as well as an overview of strategic-level events. [Hungary was allied with Germany in the Second World War, but in 1944 tried to separate itself and stop deportations. This resulted in Germany taking control and handing power to the Arrow Cross Militia, which was the Hungarian fascist party — akin to the German Nazis.]

The book is concise, weighing in at only 125 pages — about 17 of which are in an appendix of documents and photos regarding Swiss efforts to undermine the Nazi’s Holocaust.

As I said, the book is written in a scholarly / historical format, rather than the more visceral narrative approach of a journalistic or popular work. Still, it does become more intense reading in the latter half — when the author is describing events concerning the Glass House, Lutz’s issuance of protective documentation, and the siege of Budapest by the Russians at the end of the war. It will certainly give readers insight into a little-known rescue effort during the Holocaust.

If you’re interested in international efforts to thwart the Nazi’s plan to exterminate the Jews, this book will clue you in on events that aren’t well-known – particularly by English readers. I highly recommend this book.

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DAILY PHOTO: Memorials under Autumn Skies, Andersonville

Taken in December of 2011 at Andersonville National Historic Site / Andersonville National Cemetery

BOOK REVIEW: The End of Killing by Rick Smith

The End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest ProblemThe End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest Problem by Rick Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Before one dismisses this book based on its seemingly pollyanna title, I’d suggest one think of it as an opening volley in what promises to be a series of crucial debates that will play out — one way or another — in the years to come. I believe Smith, founder and CEO of TASER and Axon, did a great job of presenting an argument for the pursuit of a range of technologies and policies intended to curb violence, as well as anticipating, presenting, and debating many of the opposing arguments. The book’s tone is more pragmatic than its bold and controversial title might suggest. That said, I don’t agree with all of the author’s conclusions by any means; though I do agree these questions need to be thoughtfully considered and debated.

I’d put the technologies and policies Smith advocates for into three basic categories. First, those that are nearly inevitable given societal winds of change and the nature of technological development (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary weapons of the law enforcement community, automated systems being deployed to curb violence in schools, and ending the war on drugs.) Second, those which may be laudable, but which are hard to imagine coming to fruition in the world we live in [or are likely to see in the foreseeable future] (e.g. nonlethals becoming the primary [or exclusive] weapons of the military.) Third, those which are so full of the peril of unintended consequences as to be, frankly, terrifying – if not dystopian (i.e. the use of surveillance and profiling technologies to ACTIVELY attempt to prevent crimes that haven’t yet happened.)

Instead of describing the contents of the book chapter by chapter, I’ll discuss its ideas through the lens presented in the preceding paragraph – starting with the seemingly inevitable technologies. The central thrust of this book is that nonlethal technology needs to be developed / improved such that nonlethals can take up a progressively greater portion of weapons deployment and usage, with the aim of ultimately replacing firearms (and other lethal weapons) with nonlethal weapons. It’s important to note that Smith doesn’t suggest such a replacement could happen at present. He acknowledges that nonlethals are currently not as effective and reliable at incapacitating a threat as are firearms, and he isn’t advocating that people be put at risk by having to defend themselves with an inferior weapon. However, it seems reasonable, given the tremendous technological advances that have occurred, that nonlethal weaponry could become as or more effective than firearms.

If that doesn’t seem reasonable, I would remind one that firearms aren’t – as a rule — as instantaneously and definitively incapacitating as Hollywood portrays. One can find numerous cases of individuals still moving with a magazine’s worth of bullets in — or having passed through — them. (And that’s not to mention the lack of precision that tends to come with throwing a projectile via a controlled explosion.) The point being, one isn’t competing with perfection – so one doesn’t need to be perfect, only better than an existing [flawed] system.

Smith addresses the many dividends of nonlethal weapon usage over that of the lethal counterparts, and there are many. For one thing, killing isn’t easy on anyone (anyone who’s right in the head any way.) Even when a killing is legally justifiable and morally defensible (or even state-sanctioned) it often still results in traumatic stress. For another, there is the reduced cost of getting it wrong, and the adverse societal impacts (e.g. revenge killings) that result from wrongful deaths. Long story short, if one can produce a nonlethal that’s consistently as effective at incapacitating threat, it’s hard to make a rational argument for not fielding said weapon. The example of an automated system to respond to school shootings is an extension of the nonlethal weapons argument, as it’s ultimately based on nonlethals deployed by drone (or robotic system.) The chapter on the war on drugs (ch. 15) bears little discussion as it’s no news that that “war” has been a failure and a phenomenally ineffective way of addressing a societal problem.

That brings us to the laudable but unlikely category in which I put military use of nonlethals as primary (or exclusive) weapons. I’m not saying that military nonlethal weapon systems won’t continue to be developed, improved, and deployed. Given the degree to which war of late features non-state actors and unconventional warfare, it’s possible to imagine such weapons playing a dominant role in specific operations. After all, military members aren’t exempt from the psychological costs of killing. However, military forces deploying into a war zone with nonlethals as their primary weapons is almost impossible to imagine, especially considering the diversity of conditions and opponents for which a military needs to be ready.

In warfare, there is something called the “force multiplier” effect of wounding an enemy over killing an enemy. That is, if you wound someone, it takes two people to carry him or her, plus a chunk of a medic’s time. So, one can imagine four people being out of the fight because one person is severely wounded, versus the one person who would be out of commission (the dead person) if the individual were wounded. To be fair, Smith imagines technology (drones and robots) doing the heavy lifting. Still, it’s hard to imagine how one side in a conflict wins if they have to transport, warehouse, feed, and care for every enemy that is incapacitated while the other side is just killing away. Even if that one side is much more automated, it seems tremendously expensive – even for a relatively small-scale war.

That brings to me chapter five, which I found chilling. That chapter considers how artificial intelligence and surveillance programs (albeit with judicial oversight and other protections) could be used to anticipate crimes so that law enforcement could actively go forth to try to prevent them. (If this sounds a lot like the Tom Cruise movie loosely based on a PKD story, “Minority Report,” it’s because it essentially replaces the three pasty precognitives with computers and offers a bit more oversight. While Smith cautions against taking fictional stories too seriously, he employs some fictional scenarios that I believe might be as a pollyanna as the Spielberg film is dark.) At any rate, the word “actively” is crucial to my concern. I’m all in favor of what has historically been known as “preventive law enforcement” — activities such as putting more patrols in high crime areas, youth mentoring programs, and programs that inform people and businesses about how to be harder targets. However, the idea of police going out and engaging people as though a crime has been committed when none has been conjures images of cities on fire.

First, such an approach is predicated on watching everybody – at least everybody’s online activity – all the time. Which seems both dystopian and of limited effectiveness. [What percentage of people who post on FB that they want to shoot someone are likely to do so?] What about the judicial oversight and related protections? When is a warrant issued to surveil or arrest a person? The warrant is issued based on something an artificial intelligence system already flagged, meaning a government entity is watching everybody’s behavior on a constant fishing expedition. I’m not fond of that idea at all.

Second, we aren’t nearly as good at forecasting the future as we think. Violent crimes are rare and often spontaneous events, and that puts them in classes of behavior we are particularly bad at making predictions about. And, we haven’t eliminated the trade-off between type I and type II error. Imagine there is a question about whether individual X is to be detained based on what the AI spit out. X either was or wasn’t going to commit a crime. We can imagine a four-way matrix in which two of the solutions are correct (i.e. 1.) X was detained and was going to commit a crime; 2.) X wasn’t detained and he wasn’t going to commit a crime.) However, since we can’t know the future [like, at all] the potential remains for mis-estimating whether X was going to commit a crime. So, we have two potential errors (i.e. 1.) X wasn’t detained but he was going to commit a crime [and thus did]; 2.) X was detained but he wasn’t going to commit a crime [wrongful detention].) So, we want to minimize the first error because any violent crime is unacceptable? We go out and shake down more high risk individuals. While we succeed in preventing crimes, we also end up with more wrongful detention. Our legal system’s requirements with regards evidence suggest that as a society we are averse to wrongful disruption of a person’s freedom. Hence, while a “preponderance of evidence” is sufficient for cases where one might lose money in a civil case, if one might be imprisoned, the standard becomes “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Wrongfully detaining an individual when a crime was committed may be sad, but doing it when there is only a suspicion that a crime might likely be committed is tragic.

Of course, under present standards one can’t detain a person for very long. So you let them go, and maybe they do the crime – whether or not they intended to in the first place (ever heard someone say, “if you’re going to treat me like _______, I’m going to act like _______?” I’ll admit that it’s a bit far-fetched but if the system spurs one crime in a million subjects detained that wasn’t going to happen, is that acceptable?) Alternatively, one could place surveillance on the individual. In which case, one is essentially living in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Congratulations. It seems to me this approach offers either huge costs for a marginal gain, or you go full dystopia and knock out crime at a horrifying cost. Neither way seems appealing, but – then again – I am not willing to pay any price to keep anything bad from ever happening to anyone.

I found this book to have some fascinating ideas and to spur my thinking on subjects I might not otherwise have considered. While there was a significant bit that I found unsavory, I also discovered some ideas that were intriguing and worth pursuing. I would highly recommend this book for those interested in issues of technology and policy.

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BOOK REVIEW: Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

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

Amazon page

 

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

Amazon page

 

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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