Books in Review II

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Welcome to “Books in Review II,” an online feature that complements “Books in Review,” which runs in The VVA Veteran, the national magazine of Vietnam Veterans of America.

This site contains book reviews by several contributors, while other reviews appear in each issue of The VVA Veteran. Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War or Vietnam veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:

Marc Leepson
Arts Editor, The VVA Veteran
Vietnam Veterans of America
8719 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Email your comments, questions, and suggestions to mleepson@vva.org

–Marc Leepson, Books Editor

Before We Sleep By Jeffrey Lent

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Jeffrey Lent has written a lot of serious literary novels, including In the Fall (2000) and A Slant of Light (2015), both of which deal with war and relationships. That’s also true with his new novel, Before We Sleep (Bloomsbury, 385 pp., $28).

In it, seventeen-year-old Katey Snow leaves her parents’ home in Vermont in the dead of night, carrying a packet of letters from an old World War II Army buddy of her fathers, which she hopes will provide information about who she is and where she came from. She’s recently been told that Oliver Snow, whom she has thought was her father, is not her biological parent, and she’s now driven to find answers.

This large novel deals mostly with the Greatest Generation as the 60s brings the trauma of a new war down upon them. The novel is heavy going. I found the prose excessively poetical and sluggish—and not just because of Lent’s lack of finesse with commas. I grant that other readers might well bask in his prose ponds, which seemed to me to be a Saragossa Sea of verbiage.

When Katey leaves, sneaking off without any formal farewell, I thought it likely that terrible things would happen to a girl who had never been away from home. I was not wrong. Terrible things do happen, but Katey bounces back from them much faster than I thought was likely or possible, given what Lent lets us know about her character.

The novel goes back and forth between Katey’s adventures on the road and her mother Ruth’s point of view and memories. We learn a lot about Oliver and Ruth, and about their marriage at the beginning of  World War II. Lent expends much prose (and energy) giving the reader a picture of Vermont, and showing us how the state changes through the seasons and through the years.

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Jeffrey Lent

This novel is more about mothers and daughters than it is about men and war. But there is enough to justify calling it a Vietnam War novel—in the larger sense. There’s even a rant about what napalm will be used for after the war “once this shit runs out of steam.”

Will the sender of the letters Katey is seeking answers from have the answers Katey needs or wants?  That is the central mystery of this novel, and I won’t answer it here. Read the book and discover for yourself.

You’ll either love this weighty novel and its special poetical language, or you will not. Good luck with it.

—David Willson

The Militarized Zone: What Did You Do in the Army, Grandpa? by Wayne E. Johnson

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Wayne E. Johnson was drafted in 1969 and spent two years serving in the U.S. Army. He is currently working on a prequel to his novel The Militarized Zone; What Did You Do in the Army, Grandpa? (Tradewinds, 302 pp. $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), which was published in November of 2016.

Will Jensen is the protagonist of this heavily biographical novel, which takes place mostly in Korea. Will is drafted and sent to serve his Army time in Seoul with 8th Army Headquarters in the MOS 71 H-30, personnel management specialist.  It took the author over forty years to figure out how to make a book out of notes he took during his Army service.

Johnson tells us that this is a work of fiction and that the characters are composites of real people he served with. He sprinkles some Korean words and phrases into the narrative, but explains most of them; others are easy to figure out.

Johnson tells us to look at the book “as you would M*A*S*H* and Good Morning, Vietnam.” All three, he says, “are based on real events, real people, somewhat embellished for entertainment value and continuity.”

I enjoyed The Militarized Zone and learned that serving in Korea during the Vietnam War was amazingly similar to serving in Vietnam at that same time. It was safer in Korea than in Vietnam, though. Bob Hope and Racquel Welch entertained the troops there, just as they did in Vietnam, so a Korean tour of duty had that going for it, too.

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Wayne E. Johnson

Johnson has written an honest and entertaining book about a subject that has not drawn a lot of attention: What were we up to in Korea during the Vietnam War? This interesting book answers that question and does so with humor and clarity. Jane Fonda gets a mention early on, but Bob Hope and Racquel Welch help balance that out.

—David Willson

Vignettes from Vietnam by Brice H. Barnes

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In Vignettes from Vietnam: Brief Moments of Sanity and Belated Notes of Gratitude (Outskirts Press, 232 pp. $14.95, paper) Texan Brice H. Barnes writes mainly about his two tours of duty in the Vietnam War.

His first tour encompassed the Tet Offensive, during which Barnes earned the Distinguished Service Cross at the Battle of Widow’s Village with the 2/47th Infantry, a mechanized infantry battalion in the 9th Infantry Division. During his second tour he commanded an infantry company during the incursion into Cambodia and then worked as an advisor with the ARVN.

Barnes devotes the book’s largest portion to vignettes that say thank you to people who helped him during his thirty-year Army career. With a light-hearted tone, he recognizes friends and acquaintances—such as church ladies who shipped overwhelming quantities of cookies to troops overseas.  Barnes retired as a colonel.

The book also includes a collection of Barnes’ other writings. He presents reflective thoughts on Tet 1968 and the battle for Widow’s Village, a small hamlet near Long Binh. He presents several pages of poetry and poetic tributes, followed by short on-scene reports that he wrote for the Austin American-Statesman during his second tour in 1970. He ends the book with a history of the 5th Division.

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Photo from “VC/NVA ATTACK ON LONG BINH AREA DURING TET 1968,” by Larry F. O’Neill 

Barnes’ collection of writing covers many years and shows a highly individualized view of the American Army and the Vietnam War.

For ordering info, go to the Outskirts Press web site.

–Henry Zeybel

Pushing Limits by Ted Hill

The first meeting between Army Capt. Ted Hill and his battalion commander at Cu Chi in Vietnam in 1969 pretty much sums up Hill’s memoir, Pushing Limits: From West Point to Berkeley & Beyond (American Mathematical Society, 294 pp. $45, hardcover; $25, Kindle).

After reviewing Hill’s C.V., which included West Point, Stanford graduate school, and Ranger training, the commander rose, shook Hill’s hand, and said, “You look like a leader to me.” Hill thanked him but said he felt that he did not have the right to learn combat engineering at the expense of men’s lives.

“And if possible, sir,” Hill added, “I prefer to take part only in defensive actions.”

Ted Hill’s reward for honesty was a series of unconventional and dangerous duties, often at the shoulder of his action-hungry commander.

This insightful and entertaining book’s first half covers Hill’s military career, emphasizing the rigors of West Point and Ranger training. Hill conforms to the demands of the schools, but he does so with improvised actions that sometimes bring punishment. As often as not, however, he outwits the systems. Plus, his superior intelligence ultimately saves him from washing out. That part of the book could have been titled “How I Outsmarted the Hard Asses.”

The second half tells just about everything you would want to know about the study of mathematics at the highest levels. Hill’s references to subjects such as Kolmogorov’s Strong Law of Large Numbers; the law of the iterated logarithm and the central limit theorem; and Markov chains opened doors beyond the fringe of my mathematical knowledge.

After years of study and reflective thinking among “pure and applied postgraduate math majors who were the best of their generations,” and while still marching to the tempo of his own drumbeat, Hill received a PhD from U.C. Berkeley in theoretical mathematics.

After devising an improvement in state employment practices, Hill became a faculty member at Georgia Tech. His fluency in several languages qualified him as a visiting lecturer overseas.

Ted Hill

Riding the crest of his genius, Ted Hill’s contrarian nature emerged one last time: As a whistle blower, he challenged Georgia Tech administrative practices that led to “financial misdeeds.” Years of investigations by school administrators brought some positive changes. They also brought Hill’s involuntary early retirement at age sixty.

Hill’s tendency to see many situations in life as problems to be solved enhances the book’s readability. He seeks to improve whatever he can.

His determination to pursue problems to their conclusion won my admiration.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Dreams, Vietnam by Marc Levy

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Former Vietnam War Army medic Marc Levy’s Dreams, Vietnam (Winter Street Press, 112 pp., $12, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is the most amazing and surprising book to come out of the Vietnam War. That is my opinion based on having read thousands of books related to the war.

I completely agree with the blurb on the back cover, which notes that the book “is a rare gift.” It goes on: “Using a spare style that startles with its directness, Marc Levy transforms the dreams of almost forty years into what often feel like surreal prose poems, with disturbingly realistic details of war juxtaposed with domestic details of childhood and civilian life. One minute the dreamer is in Vietnam, the next he’s in a childhood park; he’s a schoolchild, an adolescent, but simultaneously a soldier.”

The writer of the cover blurb, Martha Collings, gives profound thanks to Marc Levy for his trust in sharing these dreams with strangers. They show us how deep the wounds of war go. They cut very deep.

One example, this quote from a dream from February 22, 1999:

“I’m in a war. A plane of unknown origin flies overhead. It’s identified as hostile and anti-aircraft guns open up. The plane circles in the cloudy sky; it begins to drop bombs. The sharp explosions create fountains of earth that shoot up and fall to ground. There’s a firestorm of smoke and flame. I run but get caught in the haze. I find a clearing. I find my dog.”

I find many of the details of this dream interesting, but what intrigues me most is that it ends with Levy finding his dog. I am a dog lover, and my little dogs bring me much comfort. My dog Arlo often slumbers on my lap and enables me to get an hour or so of much-needed shut-eye despite the intense bone pain that usually prevents me from getting any deep sleep. Levy’s dreamer finding his dog brought tears to my eyes.

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Marc Levy

I found this book of dreams to be as beautiful and moving as I did the stories in Marc Levy’s book How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and other Postwar Stories.  Both are powerful and deserve to take a place among the best books of our war.

Thanks to Marc Levy for being brave enough to put these visions in print and to make them available to us in beautiful editions. His dream book also includes his excellent drawings. I would have liked to see more of them.

Marc Levy’s website is medicinthegreentime.com

—David Willson

Behind My Wings by BJ Elliott Prior

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As a stewardess for the Military Airlift Command in 1969-71, BJ Elliott Prior developed a life-long love for members of the armed forces. Back then, she served on flights that carried troops to and from South Vietnam. Often she saw the same men before and after their tours. Decades later she found Vietnam War veterans and interviewed them about their participation in the war. She  has recorded their experiences, with the help of Linda Lou Combs Wiese, in Behind My Wings: Untold Stories of Vietnam Veterans (Burkhart, 228 pp. $15.99, paper).

The stories come from former officers and enlisted men who talk about the past in similar ways: search-and-destroy missions, living in the jungle, exposure to Agent Orange, massive artillery and air firepower, emotional swings, PTSD, failed marriages. At the same time, Prior finds idiosyncrasies that give each man individuality.

She examines the apprehension of young men en route to a war they did not fully understand and the fragmented personalities of those who survived combat with drastically altered values. She describes one veteran who talked “as though part of him was left back on those battlefields.”

The book’s subtitle notwithstanding, most of these accounts add little new information about the Vietnam War. However, the mens’ observations rank beyond the ordinary when described through Prior’s innocent eyes. She suffers when they suffer and pays a psychological price along with them.

Behind My Wings is not totally gloom and doom. The MAC routing from California to Vietnam included aircrew rest stops in Hawaii, Guam, Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. They provided opportunities for romance, which “was everywhere during our layovers,” Prior writes. “We were quite young, fun and wild.” How wild? Prior had “Coffee Tea or Me” embroidered on her garment bags.

Prior went on to put in a forty-year career as a flight attendant with Continental Airlines, which contracted MAC flights during the Vietnam War.

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BJ Elliott Prior

Her two years with MAC exceeded by a year the airlines’ recommended time frame for attendants’ “well being.” Afterward, in the midst of “drinking and dating to fill the void and pain in [her] life,” Prior says, she began a “journey with God.”

She accents Behind My Wings with passages from the Bible. “My story is God’s glory,” she says.

The author’s website is behindmywings.com

 

—Henry Zeybel

Brave Deeds by David Abrams

David Abrams served in the U. S. Army for twenty years and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of a Public Affairs team. Much of that experience was used for his first novel Fobbit and for stories published in Esquire, Glimmer Train, Narrative, and other magazines.

His new novel, Brave Deeds  (Grove Press/Black Cat, 256 pp., $16, paper) takes place during one long day in Baghdad during which just about everything that could go wrong does go wrong. I’m much reminded of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which a \funeral dominates the narrative. The main difference is that in Faulkner’s novel the body of Staff Sgt. Rafe Morgan is not dragged on a long, dusty walk made necessary by the malfunction of a Humvee. As I Lay Dying is dark comedy classic, which Brave Deeds seems likely to become.

We get to know a squad of six soldiers about as well as a reader could in the span of this short book about perseverance and people being where they have no business (or proper preparation) to be. The squad’s predicament is funny or we wouldn’t be able to stand reading about young men who are lacking in what it takes to be modern day Lawrence of Arabias.

These are deeply troubled young men:  Cheever—fat and whining about his sore feet—is no worse than the other five, just more annoying and irritating.

This is a dark, deeply sad book, but mostly I recollect how funny many of the scenes were. A beat-up old van full of flowers and a pregnant stowaway who is about to give birth—very funny and beautifully observed by the author.

The six young men walk west across war-torn Baghdad, making fish out of water seem the most comfortable and positive and hopeful of clichés. How can they not all die horrible deaths?  Reading Louis L’Amour novels, going to Rambo and Tom Cruise movies, and watching “mud-streaked men straining up a jungled hill with Mel Gibson toward their deaths in We Were Soldiers” has not prepared them for this war.

David Abrams

One chapter is entitled “This Ain’t No Movie,” and my one thought upon seeing that heading was: That’s for damned sure. I’ve never seen—nor do I want to see—a movie like this book. The book is cinematic enough for me. This is the chapter in which golf gets a mention, which caught me off guard.

“Casualties of war, collateral damage, battle tally” get discussed in this fine novel of modern desert warfare—discussed and portrayed as well.

Read this book. Don’t send your children off to fight any war out in the desert. I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy.

The author’s website is davidabramsbooks.com

—David Willson