Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books or films, especially those that relate to language or literature in some way.

April 1865 & Civil War Trivia – Reviews

Jay Winik. April 1865: The Month that Saved America. New York: Harper, 2001. Print.

Webb Garrison. Civil War Trivia and Fact Book. Nashville: Nelson, 1992. Print.

I had heard about April 1865—the book, that is—for some time. I came across a copy and picked it up. It is well worth reading.

It does pretty much focus on the major events of April 1865 which settled the American Civil War and set a rough direction for reunion. Nearly half the book deals with the events that lead to the surrender of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses Grant and the Army of the Potomac at Appomattox. The book emphasizes that if a few minor details had been different, there might not have been any surrender at this time.

We get fairly detailed back stories on both Lee and Grant, and though they were different in background and temperament, they were both men of honor. Grant had been instructed by President Lincoln to be magnanimous. Lee understood that he could have kept a guerrilla war going for years in the remote areas of the Confederacy, but it would have led to greater hostility and needless bloodshed.

Winik reminds us the most civil wars do not end in such a manner. Usually the losing side is found guilty of treason and the principals are exterminated. Any remaining guerrillas brutalize their victims. As Lenin is to have said, “The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize.”

April 1865 reminds us of the hopes that Lincoln expressed in his Second Inaugural Speech the month before: “With malice toward none and charity toward all.” It looked like that was going to be happening.

Of course, Lincoln could not see his vision fulfilled because on April 14 he was shot. Winik reminds us that the Constitution was somewhat vague on actual succession, and when William Henry Harrison died in office in 1841, there was some controversy over what should happen next. Fortunately, a precedent had been set when Tyler took over back then, so that in 1865 there was little dispute that Andrew Johnson should be the new president. (The current succession system only came about with the passage of the 25th Amendment in 1967.)

We get some interesting background on Johnson as well. He was a career politician and a true Jacksonian. That helped him get elected, but it made him unpalatable to many of the Northern elites. Still, he was the only senator from a seceding state that stuck with the Union, and he made an effective if unusual running mate for Lincoln in 1864.

Meanwhile, the other main Confederate Army in the Carolinas led by Joe Johnston was still very active. Sherman was running him down, but Jefferson Davis was telling Johnston to hold out and not surrender under any terms. Sherman offered terms similar to those Grant offered Lee, but the new administration said the terms were too generous. Finally, by the third round, Johnston surrendered. His men, too, were disarmed but allowed to return home without consequences.

Johnston and Lee were of like minds when it came to the idea of a guerrilla force. Davis was not. Indeed, Johnston had in fact directly disobeyed Davis’s instructions. But at that point Davis was on the run and there was little he could do about it.

With the surrender of the two largest Confederate armies, the other army leaders of the South would follow suit. Winik provides evidence that Nathan B. Forrest, for example, would have been willing to keep fighting, but when he saw what was happening, he did the same. No, it did not mean that North and South would hold hands and sing Kumbyah, there was still a lot of mistrust and animosity, but the United States was set in a new direction.

One story Winik recounts perhaps reveals the sense of the new direction. The large Episcopal Church in Richmond had a priest who supported the Confederacy. Blacks were members of the congregation, but they had to sit separately from the white people and could not take communion until the whites were done. After Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, the first person to go forward for communion was black. For a noticeable time, no one else joined him. The priest looked upset but said nothing. Finally a well-known white visitor to the church went forward to join his black brother. It was Robert E. Lee. After that, there was no more segregated communion. It also demonstrates Lee’s willingness to acknowledge the new realities.

Winik points out that Lincoln very deliberately spoke of the United States as a nation. Till this time, that was not the way even most Americans saw themselves. The word nation implies a common culture and history and tradition. Most writers and speakers prior to the war would speak of the United States in the plural as “the United States are.” Since the war, we speak of it in the singular, as I did in the previous paragraph, “the United States was,” not “were.”

We get a little background of John Wilkes Booth and the members of his plot. Booth had some hope that assassinating the leaders of the government would force the Union to set the Confederate States free. Clearly that did not happen because there was still something of a national identity. It also is true that most of the South had been devastated by the war in a way that the North had not.

At times the language of April 1865 gets a bit florid. Each time Colonel George Custer is mentioned we are told about his long yellow hair. Still, that is a minor distraction.

The last chapter summarizes the book eloquently. It is one of the finest essays on the American Civil War. If the reader were just to read the last chapter, the book will have been well worth picking up.

Civil War Trivia is what it says it is. The entire book is written in catechetical or question-answer format. For “farbs” like me, it was interesting and fairly light.

There are many curious details here. There were at least two sets of brothers who were generals on opposing sides. The Confederacy so intently advocated states’ rights that the Governor of Georgia did not have the state militia join the war until 1864 and attempted to broker a separate peace settlement with the Union. Two future presidents served in the same Ohio regiment (Hayes and McKinley). And so on.

Civil War Trivia contains a pretty extensive index. That makes it good for keeping on hand as a reference tool. Not only are there many names, but numerous helpful and simple descriptions of weapons and supplies. As a teacher of Civil War literature, I will probably keep this on hand to refer to when either my students or I have questions.

P.S. Just a few days after posting this, I found the following essay online which details part of the Appomattox surrender and looks at the contemporary political situation in the United States: http://www.nationalreview.com/node/448689/print.

The Alleys of Eden – Review

Robert Olen Butler. The Alleys of Eden. New York: Horizon, 1981. Print.

Having read most of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War tales and having loved most of the stories in Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, I thought Butler’s Vietnam novel would be worth checking out. The Alleys of Eden is, with reservations.

As I suggested in an earlier review, Butler is one American writer who actually presents Vietnamese people as developed characters in his Vietnam War era stories. Butler was a naval supply officer in Vietnam during the war, and most of those supply officers who went to Vietnam were trained in the language first. Butler himself became more intimate with the Vietnamese and with Vietnamese expatriates in the United States because of his understanding of the language and culture.

The Alleys of Eden tells of Cliff Wilkes who has deserted his position as an officer for Army Intelligence to live with a Vietnamese woman he has fallen for. One of my all-time favorite short stories is “Fairy Tale” in Butler’s Good Scent collection mentioned above. This novel has echoes of that short story, but its characters are different, and, as they say, character is destiny.

Wilkes lives in a busy side street in Saigon for over four years until the fall of the city in April 1975. Though a student radical before he was drafted and now an army deserter, he is concerned that the North Vietnamese would simply kill him because he was an American and do the same to Lanh, his paramour, because she had been living with an American.

The couple manages to flee, Wilkes taking on an assumed identity. In his four and a half years of living among the Vietnamese and speaking their language, he feels like a man without a country. He belongs in Vietnam with his Vietnamese woman, not back in the USA. It is almost as if both he and Lanh were immigrants to a strange land, that they had been expelled from their own Eden.

Of course, Lanh is completely new to the land and among aliens. The only English she speaks is Saigon bar girl English, and all the Americans are so much bigger than she. Cliff professes his love for her, but, with his legal problems, can they make it in the New World?

The Alleys of Eden, like Butler’s short stories, has a great sensitivity and understanding (might I even say love?) of the Vietnamese people. Cliff could have stayed in Vietnam if it were not for the politics. Because he is a deserter, the American government could be after him, too. He is between two worlds.

Like Fontenot in “Fairy Tale,” Wilkes identifies more with the Vietnamese than he ever did with the American radicals he used to associate with. And Lanh’s life in Vietnam would be virtually impossible to live, even if she were to return and no one knew of her relationship with Cliff. She was an orphan and really had nothing and no one till Cliff came along.

There is one reservation with this short novel. There are many explicit sex acts in this story. It is not pornographic, but it does add a shallowness to the characters. In spite of his identification with things Vietnamese, Cliff really has little more depth than the pot-smoking “radicals” drifting in and out of the story.

Students of American Literature may recall a trend in American fiction after World War I that was known as primitivism. It had the typically bleak outlook of much of realism and naturalism but with a twist. The idea was that the most honest and best portrayals of human nature were from people who for one reason or another were outside the limits of accepted society.

Writers like Faulkner and Steinbeck were especially associated with this idea of people living in a socially “primitive” condition. Characters like the mentally challenged Benjy of Faulkner or Lennie of Steinbeck illustrate this as do the nomadic migrant workers in Of Mice and Men or the migrating Joad family, or even Quentin Compson, the Mississippi boy who finds no place to belong at Harvard. Such people fit in nowhere, but we perhaps get a sense of what really makes people special and what really motivates human beings at the core because they are not part of the social construct that surrounds them.

Cliff and Lanh live that way, too. The Alleys of Eden can be seen as a more modern primitivist work. In that case, it has a more modern point of view which at its core is much sadder. Benjy and the Joads had family. George and Lennie had friendship. Quentin Compson at least sought some transcendence in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It seems all Cliff and Lanh had was sex. To quote a popular song from the sixties: “Is that all there is?”

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus – Review

Nabeel Qureshi. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, Mar. 2016. E-book.

The title of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus sums up what this book is about. The author is an American medical doctor. His parents were from Pakistan, so he was raised Muslim. His father had a career in the U. S. Navy, so from the perspective of a military brat living in various places around the world, his family’s religion was the one constant in his life. He fondly remembers the time they spent in the United Kingdom where they would get together with thousands of Muslims at an annual convention.

His father took Islam seriously and had a decent library on the subject. His mother taught him and his sister and made them memorize the Quran. That the author became a follower of Jesus, we understand, was not an instant decision but took years to accomplish.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus tells us many things about the religion that the author was raised in. Of course Muslims consider Muhammad a prophet and the Quran the only reliable scripture. Many things about his culture that he associated with Islam are typically Asian, not just Islamic. Then he tells how his faith was challenged by the Christian faith of a friend who belonged to the same college debating society as Qureshi.

Qureshi was told time and again growing up that the Christian Bible had been corrupted over time. Muhammad came to set things right, and the Quran in Arabic alone is God’s reliable revelation.

When Qureshi was challenged on this belief by his Christian friend, Qureshi asked his father and different Muslim leaders about this, and they all said the same thing. They were referring to various translations of the Bible like the King James or New International Versions, not the Bible in its original languages.

To make a long story short, Qureshi discovers that there are in existence parts of the New Testament in manuscript one generation from their writers. That there are over five thousand manuscripts containing parts of the New Testament, not to mention thousands of other ancient and medieval writings that quote Scripture. While the manuscripts vary some, most of the variations are spelling differences, and none of the differences affect any Christian doctrine. The book goes into far more detail, but that is a brief summary.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that any part of the Quran even existed until two and a half centuries after Muhammad lived. When people started putting it together, it was based on what had been handed down orally to different men who then took another couple hundred years to even decide whether something was genuinely from Muhammad and whether it was inspired by Allah or a Satanic verse.

I recall reading some time ago (I think it was in the seventies or eighties) that some archaeologists discovered a collection of old Arabic writings from the time period when these Muslim scholars were trying to figure out what was genuinely Quranic. A few contemporary Islamic scholars were interested and began publishing articles in some scholarly journals analyzing these works. Two of the men were killed by radical Muslims who thought even looking into the origins of the Quran was wrong. No more research has been done since on these manuscripts. Compare that to all the work done on the Dead Sea Scrolls!

Interestingly, Qureshi arranged for a dialog between a Christian scholar and a respected imam that he knew. He described the dialog in some detail. It went well with respectful discussion until someone asked the imam about how he accounted for the reliability of the Quran in its present form, knowing what we do about its origins. The imam simply said he believed in Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet and walked away.

Imagine yourself like Qureshi who is sincerely seeking to understand the truth when that is the only answer this scholar can give.

Qureshi notes that the culture he was brought up in was typically Asian, not Western. Even Islamic Asians do not have a strong concept of sin. Sin is not necessarily wrong. Shame is. That is like the Chinese, Japanese, and other non-Islamic Asian cultures. Qureshi has some humorous stories illustrating this, and they help us understand some of the cultural differences that may be manifest in the name of religion. As I write this, the news is telling of a number of preteen girls killed by a Muslim suicide bomber outside a concert in England. To any Westerner—Christian, Jewish, atheist, whatever—that is wrong, sinful. To a non-Westerner, as long as there is no shame, it is probably OK.

Qureshi notes that authority is important in both an Islamic and Eastern context. He accepted many beliefs such as the one about the corruption of the Bible simply because people in authority had said so. It is very difficult to even challenge authority according to their way of thinking and doing. That probably even explains why the imam walked out of the dialog. Western Christians need to understand that as well.

Qureshi was attending an American college. He eventually would become a medical doctor. Here he became friends with the student debater mentioned above. They ended up rooming together and sharing their religious beliefs. They were friends and agreed to disagree about their differences. Keep in mind that this takes place in the United States, so there is neither political nor academic pressure promoting either religion.

One very important thing Qureshi tells us goes not just for Muslims but for anyone a Christian may be trying to present the Gospel to:

If had said that I didn’t want to know if Christianity was true, David [his friend] would not have pursued our conversation any further. He had long before realized that people who wanted to avoid the truth usually succeeded. (2239)

There is a lot more to the story. A few details are worth mentioning here.

Qureshi was raised as an Ahmadi Mulsim, a sect that began in British India when Pakistan was part of that country. In parts of Pakistan the Taliban will try to kill Ahmadis. The conflicts between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are part of today’s news. However, Qureshi notes that the sects are not all that different. The large mosque his family attended in Virginia, for example, was a Sunni mosque, but it had leaders who were Shiite and Sufi, and men like his Ahmadi father were respected as well. There are differences, yes, but their faith in Muhammad and the Quran unites them.

Genrally, Muslims view dreams as being more significant than most Westerners do. We have heard and read of Muslims coming to Christ after having dreams about Him. So the Lord used dreams to speak to Qureshi. He shared one especially unusual dream he had with his mother. She looked up the interpretation of the dream in a book by the Muslim Ibn Sirin on dreams. That dream was pointing Qureshi to Christianity—even as he and his mother relied on Muslim interpreter of dreams.

One personal observation—at one point Qureshi’s friend David introduces him and his father to Gary Habermas, a professor at Liberty University. The meeting was arranged to discuss the crucifixion of Jesus because Muslims teach that Jesus was crucified but did not die. At this meeting Qureshi’s father says something about the Shroud of Turin. While this account does not say they discussed the relic at all, Habermas says “there is a lot of good reason” to think that the Shroud is the genuine burial cloth of Jesus.

That was interesting to this reviewer. Back in the early eighties I reviewed a book co-authored by Dr. Habermas called Verdict on the Shroud. In that book Habermas expressed doubts about its authenticity. So even this professor has apparently changed his beliefs about something he even wrote about after taking a closer look at the evidence. Should we all be so humble…

The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare – Review

Chris Smith. The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare. New York: Harper, 2003. Print.

The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare is a picture book that would appeal to fans of The Lord of the Rings. Using photos and storyboard drawings from the film, Smith puts together a nice overview of the battles and weapons of Middle Earth.

For the Rings aficionado, the book details (or in some cases, imagines) early Middle Earth history and the evolution of warfare in and among the various kingdoms. It clearly depends on The Silmarillion and The Hobbit along with the trilogy. It also makes us appreciate the thought and imagination that went into outfitting all the various armies and factions in the films. (This was before The Hobbit films.) Each group and many individuals had distinctive weapons and armor. The book is arranged topically with plenty of pictures, but lots of text as well.

We see the armor and weapons of groups such as the Riders of Rohan, the Uruk-hai, the Nazgul, and various groups of Elves. There are also pages devoted to individuals such as Aragorn, Saruman, Elrond, and the Balrog. In addition, we get accounts of nearly every significant battle in the known history of Middle Earth.

Looking over a lifetime as a student and a teacher, it seems like interest in Tolkien peaks in alternating decades. In the sixties his books swept through America. I noted many students reading his books in the eighties as well. The twenty-oughts, of course, had the great films. (We’ll pretend the dud from the seventies never happened.)

This may be an off-decade for Tolkien—indeed, The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare is over ten years old—but it should be fun for anyone interested in Middle Earth and the imagination that it takes to bring such a mythos to life. Many of my students over the years have enjoyed the Greek and Roman myths we read, especially Ovid, Vergil, and the Homeric Epics. Yet most films based on these stories are so-so at best. Perhaps the reason is simply that no one has put the thought into The Odyssey, for example, as the makers of The Lord of the Rings films did. Peter Jackson, would you like an idea for a new film?

Chester and Gus – Review

Cammie McGovern. Chester and Gus. New York: Harper, 2017. Print.

Chester is a Labrador Retriever who flunked service dog school for a reason that most dogs would—he hid at loud noises. Most dog owners have dogs that hate thunderstorms. However, Chester otherwise excelled in his training so much that his trainer Penney thought she could teach him to “read” flash cards.

Meanwhile, Gus is an eight-year-old autistic boy who seems to understand what is going on around him but who does not speak and retreats from people for no apparent reason. Chester and Gus tells the story about how they were brought together and how Chester was able to serve Gus, if not as a guide dog, at least as a therapy dog.

What sets the book apart is that it is told from Chester’s point of view. This is endearing. Most of us understand that dogs are naturally pack animals and tend to be oriented toward others. So Chester aims to please Penney and then tries, often in frustration, to relate to Gus.

Besides Gus’s behavior, there are other obstacles to overcome. Chester runs away at a loud noise at a Halloween “Fright Night” event. Gus loves scary things. Penney thinks she can train Chester to “read” like Koko the Gorilla that got a lot of publicity in the eighties.

Gus’s parents try to enroll him in school with Chester to assist. Gus seems to be improving, but kids who act differently are often magnets for bullies. One teacher thinks Chester is an unnecessary distraction and is able to get the administration to send Chester home.

And always there is Gus’s behavior.

Chester and Gus is sensitive and moving. We are told that the author is the mother of an autistic child, so she is writing with acute awareness. The book could be considered late elementary or YA reading level, and is well worth sharing—especially with any family or school kids who have to share their home or classroom with an autistic child. We have already recommended it for our school library.

The Pirates – Review

Matthew West. The Pirates. Boston: New Word City, 2015. E-book.

The last time I read a book that was a survey about pirates that was not a picture book or about a professional baseball team was probably in college (a LONG time ago) when I read Exquemelin. Matthew West’s The Pirates is a great, light overview of the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly 1690-1720) when most of the sailors known as pirates today flourished. (The infamous Barbary pirates were more like privateers and naval raiders. They represented their North African governments.)

Well, flourished is not exactly the right word. Many disappeared, apparently returning to less unsavory professions under assumed names or perhaps lost at sea. Others died horrible deaths at the hands of the Royal Navy or the courts. And if the testimony of Captain Kidd is to be believed, the courts were not always exactly fair.

Interestingly enough, one of West’s primary sources is none other than Daniel Defoe. He wrote a fiction book, Captain Singleton, about a pirate, but in 1724 he published a nonfiction tome entitled A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates and a sequel in 1728.

Besides being a writer and editor, Defoe was also involved in the shipping business, and interviewed many sailors and consulted court records to write his pirate books, which were very popular at the time.

West tells us that there were two main areas where English pirates flourished, the Caribbean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Both places had rich convoys of merchant vessels and remote islands with little government. So Blackbeard (a.k.a. Edward Teach, né Drummond) mostly sailed the Caribbean and Carolinas, while Captain Kidd was mostly in the Indian Ocean.

Chapters are devoted to some of the main characters and their associates as well as the beginnings and lifestyles of pirates. We learn that Kidd was probably unjustly accused of piracy. He had letters from the British government authorizing his vessels as privateers against the French. However, he got some powerful politicians back home upset at him and, if we accept the record, he was tried by a kangaroo court in England. Kidd, by the way, did bury some of his treasure, but all indications are that the authorities recovered it and it went to the King’s Exchequer.

We learn how Nassau in the Bahamas was practically deserted when an ex-pirate decided to rebuild it and make a go of it as a legitimate British colony, and how he and his greatly outnumbered people managed to beat back a Spanish attack.

Besides Captain Kidd, one of the most interesting characters is Blackbeard. West tells us that “Blackbeard was a master of psychology, who consciously managed his larger than life personality to suit the peculiar conditions of his chosen profession.” (1264) It is hard to exaggerate both his physical appearance and the manner which he intimidated most people.

Far and away the most successful pirate was Bartholomew Roberts, a.k.a. Black Bart. He truly roamed the seas far and wide. He attacked ports and vessels from Newfoundland to Brazil and along both the Indian and Atlantic coasts of Africa. To put things in perspective, though, his career of piracy lasted four years. That was longer than most pirates survived the trade, but hardly a lifespan. In those four years he captured 400 vessels and looted a number of ports as well. He had had experience as a line officer in the British Navy, so he knew more about sailing and about naval warfare than most of the other men who thought the pirates’ life was for them.

In addition to these well-known names, we learn about Woodes Rogers, another former naval officer and privateer. He sailed closer to Antarctica than nearly anyone at the time and rescued Alexander Selkirk who had been marooned for four years on an island off the coast of Chile. Selkirk is widely, and probably accurately, seen as the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.

(As an aside, while there were other marooned and shipwrecked men whom Defoe would have known about and possibly even interviewed, Robinson Crusoe the novel has one giveaway that Defoe relied on Selkirk’s story. The novel tells us that Crusoe occasionally saw penguins on his island. Of course, there are no penguins in the Caribbean where Crusoe was shipwrecked, but they are not uncommon along the shores of southern Chile where Selkirk was.)

One captain of a ship in Rogers’ South American privateering expedition was named Simon Hatley. Hatley’s ship was captured by the Spanish, and he was held by them for three years. He would later say that the difficulties with his ship began when he shot an albatross that had been following his vessel. This is told in more detail in The Road to Xanadu, but we know that Coleridge was familiar with this story and the superstition related to it.

Pirates were often treated well by local governments that appreciated their contributions to the local economy. More remote trading posts like some in the Caribbean and Africa often traded with pirates because there was no other governing or colonial body around. One such trader in what today is Guinea was a man by the name of Benjamin Gun, who became the inspiration for Stevenson’s Ben Gunn in Treasure Island.

The Pirates deals with the English pirates alone. Yes, there were Spanish and French pirates as well (L’Ollonais comes to mind immediately), but West focuses on the English ones. He notes well:

The Golden Age [of pirates] lasted barely thirty years, yet this brief flowering of villany on the high seas left a permanent mark on the Western psyche. For all their impropriety, pirates appeal to something deep in our souls. Their legacy, begun centuries ago, continues to capture our imagination with the lure of the far horizon, the promise of a different tomorrow, and, as ever, riches. (1758-1762)

The Vietnam Reader – Review

The Vietnam Reader. Ed. Stewart O’Nan. New York: Doubleday, 1998. Print.

I do not review every book I read. Some because they are not worth reviewing, and some because I feel that I have nothing to add to the discussion. I have looked over and read large portions of The Vietnam Reader, but I decided that I did have a little to add to the discussion.

This is a large anthology (724 pages) that does cover the American writings related to the war pretty well. It is arranged somewhat chronologically. There are songs, poems, articles, short stories, and selections from books, both fiction and nonfiction.

While it does have an excerpt from Robin Moore’s The Green Berets, it focuses on the protest literature. The introductions to each section are well thought out and helpful. O’Nan’s observations on some of the stereotypes speak volumes. Except for discussions of the films about the war, nearly everything included was written by a veteran or journalist involved in the war.

The editor notes that these are all American writers because that is how he limited his anthology. There are no Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, or Australian writers here. It would be appropriate for a college level class looking over the literature of the war. O’Nan put it together because there was nothing like it for a class he wanted to teach. He has done a good job.

There are numerous selections from Tim O’Brien. Songs range from Barry Sadler’s “Green Berets” to Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag.” The selection from Bloods was very moving. A poem called “Christmas” may be one of the most effective. It is written from the point of view of a Hessian mercenary at Trenton: It makes us see the American soldiers like the Hessians of the Revolution, outsiders inserted into someone else’s war.

Except that it wasn’t. The French were interested in our War for Independence. So Russia and China were interested in Indochina, and the United States got involved as well. As Tom Lehrer would say, “Who’s next.”

I really appreciated O’Nan’s brief reviews of the main films about the war. He notes that there was a lot of stereotyping and a lot of inaccuracies in most of them. The most glaring omission is that he does not even mention The Hanoi Hilton. I recall reading back in the eighties that veterans of the war thought that film was the most realistic. However, it was spiked by the press. Hardly anyone reviewed it, so few theaters showed it. It was spiked for political reasons because it did not fit the left-wing worldview of most of the media at the time. Alas, it appears that O’Nan spiked it, too. He did not even name it in his list of “other films.”

I appreciated what he wrote about Apocalypse Now. It is visually effective and a stunning story. I have shown it to my classes, but not my American Literature classes. I show it during my British Literature classes when we study Heart of Darkness. It is truly not so much about the Vietnam War but a retelling of the Conrad novel.

The other surprising omission is anything by Robert Olen Butler. He was a veteran of the war as well, and his stuff is some of the best story telling to come out of the war. Some of his short stories are perfect tales. He was a naval supply officer who had studied the Vietnamese language, not a “grunt” like most of the authors included. His writings have been some of the few by Americans who wrote about Vietnamese as much as Americans. The only thing I can imagine is that either Butler or his publisher did not give O’Nan permission to include any of his work in the anthology.

Still, if one were using The Vietnam Reader for a class on the war, it would be easy enough to supplement it with the missing film and works by Butler. It would probably get some students interested in reading the entire books such as Bloods, Dear America, The Green Berets, or any of the O’Brien books.

This may not be as thorough a review as some other books reviewed here, but I felt I could add a few comments to the discussion. Why did all the elites hate The Hanoi Hilton so much when the veterans called it the best?

The Sorrow of War – Review

Bao Ninh. The Sorrow of War. Trans. Phan Thanh Hao. Ed. Frank Palmas. New York: Pantheon, 1993. Print.

With the exception of those by Robert Olen Butler, few of the books about the Vietnam War written by Americans say much about the Vietnamese. The Sorrow of War was written by a veteran of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Ninh, a Hanoi native, was in the NVA from 1969 to the war’s end in 1975. From the regiment of 500 men that he originally was assigned to, only ten men including him survived the war.

This alone reminds the reader that from the Vietnamese perspective this was a civil war. To hear about units with casualties like those, Americans have to go back their own Civil War. Ninh’s description of Hamburger Hill very closely resembles Spotsylvania Court House in the description of its casualties.

First, let me share some impressions from the novel. It is well known that military people in America at the time of Vietnam were not generally treated well. There were no parades. Men going out in public in uniform were frequently reviled, called baby killers and pigs. It was almost assumed that war veterans were PTSD wackos or strung out on drugs.

According to Ninh, surprisingly, it was not much different for NVA veterans. Like American veterans, they tended to keep to themselves and had a hard time re-integrating into society. Ninh writes of the expectation of some kind of peaceful realm governed by a benevolent ideology when the war ends, but that did not appear. Though not a major part of The Sorrow of War, we are reminded that two years after Saigon fell to the NVA, it was fighting the Khmer Rouge and the Chinese, both supposedly Communist brothers of the Hanoi regime.

Kien, the main character, represents the everyman veteran. He survives the entire war. Having just turned seventeen in 1965, he boards a troop train to take him to basic training. The train is attacked by bombers on the first day of American bombing raids. He is present in Saigon on April 30, 1975, the last day of the fighting.

Like the war episodes in arguably the best American Vietnam War novel, Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien, the many episodes of The Sorrow of War are presented in a disjointed manner. Each episode lasts from half a page to perhaps five or six pages at the most. There are no chapter divisions. The novel truly does progress, but not in a linear or chronological manner. Gradually, the whole picture is revealed, glimpses of the full ten years of fighting.

It is no spoiler to say that our soldier Kien wrote this typescript and then abandoned it. A neighbor found it while cleaning out his apartment after he moved on about ten years after the war. The pages were not numbered, we are told, and in disarray, perhaps like Kien’s memories. Still, the reader sees that the stories are not randomly arranged, but they emerge like chords or pages in a symphony to form a vivid whole.

Although soldiers and sailors from the countryside might call men from the city like Kien “bourgeois,” the only truly believing Communist we meet in the novel is Kien’s mother. As she adopts the Marxist ideology, she becomes more distant and eventually leaves Kien’s father. Kien cannot relate to her at all. So perhaps Communism gave birth to modern Vietnam, but ultimately socialist theory cannot relate to the ordinary citizens of the land.

One of the first sorrows of war that we see is simply that the old way of life is gone. Kien was happy in prewar Hanoi. It was a lovely, fairly sophisticated city. He had friends. He enjoyed school. Postwar Hanoi is different. It is beaten down, full of mistrust. Most of his friends are gone or so damaged by the war that he becomes more detached. He sounds like one of Hemingway’s veterans: “We were all a little detached.”

The great sorrow is, of course, the war itself. We read about so many people that Kien knows dying that like Kien we become indifferent. And Kien does his share of killing others. Some of his victims might have been appealing friends in another life.

At one point his patrol comes across a prospering farm in the countryside. The farmer and his wife treat the men hospitably, sharing coffee and a meal with them. One of Kien’s fellow soldiers says that he grew up in a similar location, but his family was impoverished. Another soldier says that is because this peasant farm they are passing through has not been turned into a commune. After the war, he suggests, it will be as poor as every other farm.

The most poignant of the sorrows is that Kien recognizes that many different people, fellow soldiers and even a female scout, gave their lives to save his. Good soldiers to “have each others’ backs,” but Kien has somehow survived. Sometimes he was smarter, but sometimes he was just luckier.

Another sorrow is the rapine. If Kien is to be believed, it seems that North Vietnamese soldiers and sailors would rape any woman they could, even if she was from the North. We begin to understand that the women were as affected and as damaged by the war as the men were.

A doomed love story weaves its way through the novel as well. Kien has to survive ten years of war before he is reunited with his “soul mate,” Phuong. Their chaste, tender, and optimistic relationship before the war is naïve and dreamlike. After the war they each have changed too much, and though they try to make a go of marriage, Phuong eventually leaves.

From the beginning Kien remembers a number of places like Hamburger Hill where many people were killed. He and his platoon mates believe such places are full of ghosts. They even burn incense and pray to placate them and ask for their help. It seems hardly the materialistic philosophy of Marxism to do that! Ah, but we recognize that the war survivors like Kien and Phuong have become ghosts themselves, spirits wandering through the streets of the cities and the bypaths of the villages of North and South alike.

Being Written – Review

William Conescu. Being Written. New York: Harper, 2008. E-book.

A few years ago a fellow Advanced Placement Test reader told me about this book. I finally had a chance to check it out. Being Written is metafiction or magical realism in the vein of Tim O’Brien, only there is no war. Instead of an army patrol, this concerns a group of oversexed millennials navigating their relationships. Though perhaps not as moving as The Art of Fielding, Being Written is clever in one respect. The main character, Daniel, tells us that he is a character in a book that someone else is writing. Whenever something is about to happen to him, he hears the scratching of a pencil on paper.

Daniel is trying to win the love of Delia, a girl he meets in a bar and initially has a one-night stand with her. We begin to see that Daniel may be something of loser, but it appears that Delia’s current live-in boyfriend may be more of a loser. That young man earns a living as a homosexual prostitute. As with The Art of Fielding, I could not help thinking of Tim Buckley’s song that says:

Godless and sexless directionless loons…

Exactly two-thirds of the way through the story (67% on my Kindle) a very surprising turn of events takes place. There are no spoilers here, but maybe a hint. Daniel suddenly shouts out, “Chekhov!” He paraphrases the Russian playwright: “If a gun shows up in the first act, it has to go off by the end of the story.” (1865)

Most of the story is told from Daniel’s point of view with occasional chapters from others’: Delia; Graham, her boyfriend; Monty, a co-worker of Daniel and family friend of Delia; and Jon, the token gay. Daniel is worried that he will be a minor character in the book, maybe like J. Alfred Prufrock:

No! I am no Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt an easy tool…

No, he does not become a mere minor character, though one could argue he is a superficial character. They all are.

To really understand the book, I recommend that the reader consider a true minor character in this story, one who does appear to merely swell a scene—the Broadway lady. She is a mentally disturbed lady who sings Broadway tunes in the subway station that Daniel frequents .

Alas, like many of the novels I have read coming from the author’s generation, there are some explicit and even degrading sex scenes. For that reason, this book is not for everyone.

Robinson Crusoe: Serious Reflections – Review

Daniel Defoe. Robinson Crusoe: Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe with his Vision of the Angelic World. 1720; 1903; Google Books. 3 May 2017. E-book. [References are Kindle locations].

I have taught Robinson Crusoe for years. Some time ago in order to add to my knowledge of the novel, I read its sequel, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. In the past year I discovered that Daniel Defoe actually wrote a third book by Mr. Crusoe. Robinson Crusoe: Serious Reflections is different. It is not a novel at all, but a collection of essays which Crusoe supposedly wrote reflecting on his life and experiences.

Keep in mind that Defoe made his living much of his life as an editor and wrote many essays and editorials himself. He ended up in jail at least twice because the British government did not like what he had written. The essays in Serious Reflections are similar in style and approach to those of Addison, Steele, Johnson, and other eighteenth century contemporaries. The sentences may be longer and more complex than what we normally read today, but his language and logic are easy to follow.

The preface begins by Crusoe emphatically stating that his life story “while allegorical is also historical.” If some people think that he has made it up, he reminds us that “Even the miracles of the blessed Savior of the world suffered scorn and contempt.” (63)

The first chapter may be of most interest to students of literature and of Robinson Crusoe. Here “Crusoe” reflects on solitude. While he notes things from a Christian rather than pantheistic point of view, his reflections are very similar to those that Thoreau would write in Walden about 130 years later.

Solitude, he notes, is partly a mental state. He can achieve a state of solitude similar to that on his island even in London “…if the mind be confined, if the soul be truly master of itself, all is safe…” (170) How like Thoreau! Like Thoreau he notes that “The abstaining from evil, therefore, depends not only and wholly upon limiting or confining the man’s actions, but upon the man’s limiting and confining his desires.” (198) Again, this is similar to Walden‘s praise of self-control.

He notes, as many others have, that while good company is best, “no company is better than bad company.” (207) He also questions whether monastic separation is necessary. He says that when St. Paul was dealing with his “thorn in the flesh,” he did not retreat, he prayed. God’s answer, “‘My grace is sufficient for thee’—sufficient without the help of artificial mortification.” (289 cf. II Corinthians 12:7-9)

In his novel when passing through a mountain wilderness, Crusoe jokes that he was more concerned about the two-legged variety of wolf than those with four legs. So his next chapter is on honesty.

Looking back on the end of his first novel, Crusoe expresses gratitude for the people who treated him and his property with honesty after he was cut off from human society for twenty-eight years. Similarly, he helped a Brazilian friend who was in a financial pinch. Yes, we need each other.

“Crusoe” observes that the truly honest man acknowledges his mistakes, just as Crusoe did in his tales. At the same time he notes that “every man thinks himself and proclaims himself an honest man.” (452) So who truly is honest?

The author devotes quite a few pages discussing cunning and claims that the New Englander is even more cunning than the Scot. He meant that as an insult, but I have known “Yankees” who would accept such an accusation with pride.

While discussing honesty, he makes a solid case for a reform that he hoped to see in England. It came about, but Defoe was a century and a half too early. The reform? Abolishing debtors’ prisons. He even has a Bible text to support his position.

He also uses an analogy similar to the shopkeeper’s debtor story in Pilgrim’s Progress. If a man moves to a new country and lives honestly there but has outstanding debts in his old country, true honesty would compel him to pay off those debts as well.

To a truly honest man, his word is his most valuable possession. There is a lot of wisdom in these pages. Defoe notes that “virtue is its own reward.” (843) Similarly, a truly honest man also cares about the reputation of others because he is aware of “his own frailty.” (881)

The next chapter is entitled “Of the Immorality of Conversation and Vulgar Errors of Behavior.” Crusoe said that he observed a greater coarseness in England after being away from his homeland for twenty-eight years. Western morality today is not unlike that of early 18th Century England—including her American colonies—before the Great Awakening. Crusoe writes more with concern than with self-righteousness. He repeatedly acknowledges the need for God’s grace.

Going on in the vein of virtue being its own reward, he remarks that vices seldom live to an old age. As a Whig, he acknowledges that to make laws against some vices like drinking and blaspheming is “as fruitless as making a shelter against the lightning.” (1187) So many have engaged in these things that there would be as many trespasses as there are minutes in a day.

He tells us that it was very much “the mode” among the “beaux” to “set up for atheists” and to have “committed witty in the defense of it…” (1192) No, Mr. Crusoe, things have not changed that much. Bartholomew Fair in the 1600s, atheist clubs in the 1700s, and communistic judges in the 2100s. The more things change…

Defoe notes that Augustine observed that the Romans of his day were immoral because they were imitating their immoral gods. So today, people justify their actions because even their leaders do the same things. As Chaucer wrote, “If the gold rust, what shall the iron do?”

When reflecting that moral degeneracy in the Western world goes hand in hand with atheism, he observes that even polytheists and abject heathen have some fear of a Creator or Prime Mover, a fear that many people of his day lacked. Yes, Mr. Defoe, things really have not changed that much.

Serious Reflections is pretty good at asking atheists some tough questions. Towards the end of the book, he even has a dialogue between a student of the Bible and an atheist that could have come from the pen of John Bunyan. “Crusoe” claims it really happened.

There is a chapter “On the Present State of Religion in the World.” This chapter is interesting to read as an historical document. There is a dialogue between Crusoe and an old man about the necessity for the Gospel to be carried universally. That was a message in Robinson Crusoe—ex-cannibal Friday made a better Christian than many civilized Westerners—and here Defoe extends that idea.

He does propose one thing that might have partly worked 300 years ago to some degree: That Christian countries conquer pagan lands to at least destroy false gods. Doing that might get them away from the distractions of idolatry and turn to the true God. The most one can say is that it was tried in the 18th and 19th Centuries some, but a state religion is not the same as a heart religion. Still, Crusoe argues that while Christianity in a culture may not always have a saving influence, it does have a civilizing influence.

I personally bear witness to that. When I was in college, I had two conversations each with a friend in the same week. One was a born-again Christian and the other was meditating Buddhist. I was interested in what they both had to say. They each invited me to join them in meetings that happened to meet at the same time. As I reflected on the two invitations, I considered history. There was little that I could see that Buddhism had done for the people in the oriental nations that practiced it, except maybe for the monarchs and warlords. Whereas Christianity, especially since the Reformation, had transformed the West and the world. Although it would take three more years before I was born again myself, I was on the way to meeting Defoe’s God, not the idols of the East.

Other chapters include “On Listening to the Voice of Providence” and “Of the Proportion Between Christians and the Pagan.” The first presents very practical advice about “listening” to the voice of conscience. The second carries forward points made on the chapter on the state of religion.

The appendix is entitled “A Vision of the Angelic World” where Crusoe presents what he purports to be a view of angels and demons warring in the world. This is hardly sensational and seems to rest primarily on what the Bible teaches. It is a stark reminder, again, of what Thoreau wrote in Walden, that “our whole life is startlingly moral.”

At one point Defoe seems to have forgotten he is in character and speaks on himself and Crusoe as separate people. Other than that, Defoe is writing on behalf of Crusoe. Serious Reflections can help us appreciate the Crusoe novels more and even provide some commentary on them.