Books in Review II

Featured

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

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

51fn8usx0rl

Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the American war.  She now lives in Kansas with her family.  Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 277 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $7.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is written in free verse.  This children’s book—a bestseller that won the National Book Award when it come out in 2011— tells the story of Ha and her family’s journey from Saigon to America.

Thanhha Lai decided to use poetry to tell her story rather than a novel or short stories. It starts in Saigon in 1975,  the Year of the Cat. The reader gets a poem dated February 11, Tet, in which everyone eats sugary cakes and wears new clothes. It is a time for starting over.

The next poem is dated February 12, and the reader realizes the book is written as a journal in poetry.  At the end of the book we are on January 31, Tet, once again. In between, we get a year of Thanhha Lai’s life, her journey, and that of her family.

a1fneev4x7l-_sy200_

Thanhha Lai

 

Here’s a brief sample from “Life in Waiting,” one of the poems that offers a taste of the author’s voice and great talent.

A routine starts/as soon as we settle/into our tent.

Camp workers/teach us English/mornings and afternoons.

Evenings we have to ourselves.

We watch movies outdoors/with images projected/onto a  white sheet.

Brother Quang translates/into a microphone,/his voice sad and slow.

If it’s a young cowboy/like Clint Eastwood,/everyone cheers.

If it’s an old cowboy,/like John Wayne,/most of us boo/and go swimming.

The Disney cartoons/lure out the girls,/who always surround/Brother Vu,

begging him to break/yet another piece of wood.

I can still hear them begging/when I go sit with Brother Khoi,

who rarely speaks anymore/but I’m happy to be near him.         

This is a fine book, both sad and funny–and not just for children.  Read it.  The Vietnamese point of view is elusive and seldom appreciated.

—David Willson

The Discharge by Gary Reilly

Gary Reilly died in 2011. He left behind a treasure trove of unpublished novels. Among those is a trilogy which relates to his military service. Reilly’s protagonist in that trilogy is named Pvt. Palmer. In the first novel, Palmer is drafted and trained to be a military policeman.  In the second, The Detachment, Palmer serves his year in Southeast Asia.

In the recently published The Discharge (Running Meter Press, $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) Pvt. Palmer is “back in the world,” and like most of us who served in uniform in Vietnam, he confronts a new America, one that is very different from the one he left behind a year earlier. Reilly accurately portrays the confusion of Palmer as he struggles to find his direction home.

The strategies that served him well in Vietnam don’t help much in Denver, San Francisco, or Los Angeles where he goes to pursue a movie career. Palmer’s “California dreamin’” comes to naught and soon enough he’s back in Denver behind the wheel of a cab.

Our hero had some fun adventures in California—Strother Martin, Gunsmoke, and the La Brea Tar Pits come into play. It’s a near thing that Palmer doesn’t end up in the pits along with the saber-toothed tigers and the ancient giant tree sloths. He also played phone tag with Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, John Steinbeck, and Woody Allen.

Palmer’s return to America also involves his fear about his role in baby killing. He tries to play an early Animals album that has “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” on it at a party, but is told that it  was not “the right sound for now.” No sounds Palmer comes up with are, as he tries very hard to become a part of things, but all his efforts fail miserably.

51at6yi6hol-_sy200_
Gary Reilly

No book I’ve read better captures the anomie that poor, befuddled Palmer struggles with. Behind the wheel of a taxi, Palmer finds his place in America—permanently on the move, always changing his destination—a destination chosen by others.

The Discharge prepares us for The Asphalt Warrior series—eight books so far—all of them comedy classics.  Read them after you read this one, if you haven’t already.

The publisher’s website is theasphaltwarrior.com

—David Willson

Across The Fence by John Stryker Meyer

516mgs3btbl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

“Across the Fence” refers to secret recon missions run by the SOG (Studies and Observations Group) in Vietnam.  The “fence” is the Vietnam border. SOG teams went out on missions across the border into Laos and Cambodia when U.S. forces were not supposed to be in these neutral countries. Across the Fence: The Secret War in Vietnam (SOG Publishing, 334 pp., $24.95, paper; $3.29, Kindle) is a memoir by  John Stryker Meyer, who was in the Army Special Forces assigned to SOG from April 1968 to April 1970.

Members of the SOG group wore sterile fatigues and carried no IDs or dog tags. The government never admitted they were active-duty troops. If captured or killed, they were spies. They were all known by code names. Meyer’s was “tilt.”

Specials Forces members of SOG were sworn to secrecy. They could not tell their parents, girlfriends, or buddies what they were doing, and they agreed to keep quiet for twenty years. The recon teams consisted of six-to-eight men, and each team had several South Vietnamese Army members. The 219th Vietnamese Air Force transported the recon teams using H-34 helicopters nicknamed “kingbees.” They could take more enemy fire than any other helicopter and still fly.

Stryker’s writing gives vivid accounts of the secret missions into Laos and Cambodia. His description of being plucked from a landing zone in Laos and dangling by a rope under a speeding Kingbee moments before the LZ was overrun by North Vietnamese troops was breathtaking. The NVA knew that these missions were operating across the fence, and a large bounty was placed on SOG heads.

tn_general

Meyer (right) in country

 

Most striking about the book is the high volume of photos and the information on what happened to SOG veterans Stryker chronicles. He includes a conversation that took place 31 years later between SOG member Lynne Black and the NVA general his team encountered.

This book gives an excellent first-hand account of little-known Vietnam War operations and the people who carried them out. It’s a great read.

The author’s website is www.sogchronicles.com

—Mark S. Miller

Aztec File by Dale A. Dye

34879313

Dale Dye, the former Marine who served in Vietnam in 1965 and in 1967-70 and in the mid-eighties re-invented military technical advising in Hollywood (think Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Born on the Fourth of July, et al.), also has written a slew of novels, including seven in the Shake Davis series.

Sheldon (Shake) Davis is a guy who manages to be where the action is and knows what to do to forestall disaster. In Dye’s seventh and newest in the series, Aztec File (Warriors Publishing Group, $14.95, paper; 280 pp.; $6.99, Kindle), Shake is suspicious about some bad guys who are up to something along the Mexican-U.S. border.

Shake’s suspicions lead him to another problem-solving exercise in the nick of time, which he specializes in. Spoiler alert: At the most extreme point of danger, Shake yells “Bomb!”—which I do not recommend as the first step in dealing with a group of jihadis who have built a huge explosive device out of oil barrels and fertilizer and fuel oil and are on the brink of exploding it in a crowd.

Shake receives an award for his action, which is not the result I predict if you or I did the same thing.  We’d get shot or blown up—or both—but Shake gets decorated and afterward everyone eats barbeque and drinks his or her beverage of choice.

This is the best and most exciting Shake Davis novel so far. I enjoyed seeing the jihadis defeated, along with some Mexican gang bangers who are thrown into the mix. They kidnap Mrs. Shake and mistreat her. Their reward for that is brutal and final.  Yes, Shake Davis is a “hard man,” but we need such men in hard times.

If you are a fan of Dale Dye’s fine series of thrillers featuring Shake Davis and his band of faithful helpers, buy this book. You will not be disappointed.

—David Willson

White Water, Read Hot Lead by Dan Daly

In 1967-68, Dan Daly served as the skipper of a fifty-foot-long Swift Boat in Vietnam. He delivers a highly personalized account of that experience in the new edition of White Water, Red Hot Lead: On Board U.S. Navy Swift Boats in Vietnam (Casemate, 413 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle), which was first published in 2015.

Swift Boats worked relatively unfettered by assignments from headquarters. Daly and his five crewmen primarily intercepted trawlers carrying supplies to NVA units in South Vietnam.

Daly describes Swift Boat life starting with training in California. In country, he and his men encountered frequent firefights, ferocious weather that once capsized their boat, and harassment from superiors who considered Swift Boaters too independent and macho. Daly also recollects the onset of his lasting love for a Navy nurse from the U.S.S. Repose.

His crew’s combat action mainly took place offshore near Da Nang. To fill out the Swift Boat picture, Daly describes in detail an operation in which one of his friends picked up Special Forces troops at the southern tip of Vietnam near the Cambodian border.

Daly holds a lasting fondness for his crewmen and fellow Swift Boat skippers. Through his eyes, his men saw themselves as elite sailors working hard to maintain that status. His book makes a strong case for an overwhelming sense of teamwork and dedication to duty among Swift Boat crews.

Daly and crew

Throughout the book, Daly has blended an excellent collection of photographs, most of which he shot, with the text.

The author’s website is whitewaterredhotlead.com 

The book is available for a 50 percent discount for members of Vietnam Veterans of America. To order, call 610-853-9131, or go to casematepublishers.com, tell them you are a VVA member, and provide the code VVA-50. The offer is good through September 30, 2017.

—Henry Zeybel

Swift Boats at War in Vietnam edited by Guy Gugliotta, John Yeoman, and Neva Sullaway

Vietnam War Swift Boats exemplified a one-of-a-kind weapons system from 1965-70. They were designed and built for intercepting North Vietnamese trawlers that supplied NVA and VC troops in South Vietnam. In late 1968, their mission expanded to patrolling rivers, streams, and canals, which greatly increased their contact with the enemy.

The fifty-foot-long Swift Boats’ main strength was an ability to “outrun anything they couldn’t outfight,” the crewmen said.

On Swift Boats, an Officer in Charge commanded five crewmen and enjoyed virtually total independence of operation. Only 116 Swift Boats took part in the Vietnam War, manned by about 600 officers and some 3,000 enlisted men. Nearly all the men were in their early to mid-twenties. Fifty Swift Boat sailors were killed in Vietnam, and 400 wounded.

Guy Gugliotta, John Yeoman, and Neva Sullaway have combined their experience and knowledge to put together Swift Boats at War in Vietnam (Stackpole, 328 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $15.65, Kindle), an oral history. Gugliotta, a former journalist, and Yeoman earned three Bronze Stars each while commanding Swift Boats. Sullaway’s expertise centered on peaceful maritime activities.

Their book’s chapters tell the Swift Boat story chronologically from 1965-70—the life of the American operation. Thereafter, the boats were turned over to the South Vietnamese. Each chapter begins with a review of official monthly Operations Summaries for a given year. Then comes a series of oral histories from crewmen who served on Swift Boats during that year.

A large number of Swift Boat veterans responded to the editors’ requests for stories about their war experiences. Those selected for the book strike many emotional notes: humorous, sad, bitter, sardonic, enlightened. Their testimony reflects the pride of the crews and provides a vivid view of Swift Boats and their crews at war and at rest in Vietnam.

The book’s photographs are significantly enhanced by captions that explain the pictures, such as one showing a boat’s 81-mm mortar, aimed like a cannon, which “could accurately hit targets 4,000 meters away. In the horizontal mode, accuracy was good to about 1,000 yards.”

Swift Boats at War in Vietnam is an ideal place to begin reading for anyone unfamiliar with the subject. Those who know about the boats should be entertained by the range of feelings displayed in the short war-time stories.

—Henry Zeybel

Us Guys: the Army, the 60’s by John Leone

419noezff0l-_sx331_bo1204203200_

John Leone’s Us Guys: the Army, the 60’s (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $26.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is short, but well-written. Leone is a master of understatement, which serves to enhance his sharp wit. This nonfiction book is about four men who became friends fifty years ago after serving together in the Army: Leone, Martin Alexander, Tom Lovetere, and Don Garceau. They remain friends today.

Leone calls this a “scrapbook.” He says the stories in the book are not momentous, nor do they deal with calamities. They are about everyday things. There’s something poignant about everyday activities, though, when they are surrounded by war. The stories fasten on small transactions between different cultures in the war zone, memories, and experiences.

The four guys helped start the 187th Assault Helicopter Company, but were sent to different units when they arrived in Vietnam. Throughout the book, Leone talks about each man in individual chapters; there also are contributions written by each guiy

Leone has the ability to tell sharp, detailed narratives, most of which are funny. In the section about the Dominion of the Golden Dragon—the unofficial Navy award given to people on ships that cross the International Date Line—he writes: “To be sure, King Neptune was there with a beard looking astoundingly like a mop from the mess hall, as was Davy Jones, similarly regaled.” The rest of the story had me laughing out loud, as did the photo of the men and an official-looking crossing certificate.

51meoyvm3kl-_sy200_

John Leone

There are other photos of the guys, past and present, as well as images of helicopters, Vietnamese markets, and beaches.

Photos of Vietnamese coins and paper money at first appeared to be a yawn. But as I looked at them, I was transported to Vietnam. Handing a coin that has scalloped edges and exotic engravings to a person whose language you don’t know can last in the mind forever. Proust with coin, you might say.

Leone is offering discounted copies of the book (for $20) to veterans. For info on ordering directly from the author, email Johnleone1@verizon.com

His website is johnleonebooks.com

— Loana Hoylman