Snow in Vietnam by Amy M. Le

Snow in Vietnam (Mercury West Publishing, 229 pp. $26.99, hardcover; 16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a debut novel by Amy M. Le. The author was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States at the age of five. She now considers both the Pacific Northwest and Oklahoma to be her homes. 

I love the title, even if it is somewhat gimmicky. I also loved the novel. “Snow” is the name of the main character, a woman who is the youngest of seven children. Within the family she is called “Eight” because her parents are “One.” In May 1973 she is a 34-year-old virgin living with her family in Vinh Binh Province in the Mekong Delta, and is about to marry a Vietnamese man she hardly knows. She’s a former schoolteacher who now works for a bank. The Paris Peace Treaty has been signed, bringing hope that normalcy will come to Vietnam.

She marries and gives birth to a daughter a year later. Shortly afterward she learns that her husband has been living another life with another woman. It’s a deceit that Snow refers to as “a Nixonian blow.” With her life falling apart, she strikes out with her daughter in a bold move of independence. Before long, though, she returns to the home of her parents and siblings.

By early 1975 communist troops, which Le refers to as the “northern army,” are moving on Saigon and pretty quickly the city falls. As the communists gain control over all of the former South Vietnam western books and clothes are burned and families are encouraged to spy on their neighbors. By the end of 1976 Snow has missed three opportunities to escape this oppressive society—in which, she notes, even the sunlight seems to shine differently—and flee to the U.S.A. She saves money for years to try to buy freedom for herself and her young daughter.

But time marches on. Her child seems to be suffering from a serious heart condition. There are fears of a war with Cambodia and China. She wants to be able to give her daughter the life that she used to dream of for herself. With 1977 coming to a close, any possible escape still seems “light years away.”

Then in early 1979 she seizes what may be her last opportunity and faces the dangers involved in getting herself, her daughter, and a nephew onto a small fishing boat with forty other people. There’s no turning back as the boat sails into the South China Sea.

The final chapters continue Snow’s story, telling of storms, pirates, and many months in Indonesia before receiving the news she has waited years to hear.

This novel is dedicated to “the boat people of Vietnam and the refugees who left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.” Le wrote it as a tribute to her late mother’s bravery and selflessness.

Amy Le should be pleased with her work and know that her mother’s memory has been well served.

The author’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

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Chris Bohjalian writes best-selling thrillers—lots of them. His twenty-first and latest, The Red Lotus (Doubleday, 400 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle, $24.50, audiobook), has a strong Vietnam War theme.

One main character—an NYC private investigator and former cop—served in the trenches in the war. One minor character, an upper-crust guy (“Boston Brahmin, Patrician, old money”) served as an Army lifeguard in country. The uncle of one of the main characters died in combat in the war. Agent Orange and its effects on humans and animals—mainly rats—comes up periodically. And a fair amount of the action takes place in Vietnam, albeit in the present day

Rats are at the center of this fast-moving novel. So is the Plague. So is a sociopath who enjoys torturing and murdering people. So is Bohjalian’s fondness for filling the book with in-your-face, clinical descriptions of fatal illnesses and serious medical conditions, along with their medical treatments. The main character, Alexis, a millennial ER doctor, has a self-cutting addiction. Bohjalian fills us in on the razor-blade specifics of that malady, as well as all manner of emergency injuries and illnesses that Alexis treats on the job.

That is, when she isn’t trying to spearhead the investigation into the mysterious death of Austin, her boyfriend. He died violently in Vietnam, purportedly run over by a car during a solo excursion while the young couple was enjoying a biking vacation there.

Alexis discovers that Austin had lied to her and everyone else about why he choose Vietnam for this biking adventure. He claimed he wanted to see the place where his dad—the lifeguard—had been wounded and his uncle had been killed. Turns out his rear-echelon father had been injured in a golf cart accident at Long Binh Post and his uncle died in another part of Vietnam.

Those revelations set in motion a plot that moves back and forth between Vietnam and New York City. The tale includes a smart Vietnamese detective, the dedicated American Nam vet PI, an edgy NYC hospital administrator, and an array of bad guys and gals—and rats.

The sociopath is a rat aficionado. He’s also a maniac who cooks up a dastardly scheme involving a unique biological weapon: rats injected with a new form of the Plague that does not respond to antibiotics. Austin, a clean-cut guy who raises money for the hospital where Alexis works, gets involved in the scheme and pays for it with his life. The plot picks up steam as the hunt for Austin’s killer (and the real reason he went to Vietnam) meshes with the main bad guy’s plan to unleash ultra-killer rats on the world. Things zoom to a blood-drenched climax in New York City.

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Chris Bohjalian

Along the way, Bohjalian gets in a bit of Vietnam War support troop bashing at the expense of Austin’s Army lifeguard dad. Rear-echeloners were “guys playing basketball and sitting around getting tan at the swimming pools,” the Vietnamese cop explains to Alexis. “Plus the tennis courts. The softballs fields. The libraries. The weight rooms. The nightclubs.”

Who knew?

If you’re up for delving into the fictional ramifications of evildoers unleashing the Plague on the world as we go through a real pandemic, this could very well be the book for you.

The author’s website is chrisbohjalian.com

–Marc Leepson

 The Off-Islander by Peter Colt

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Peter Colt spent twenty-four years in the Army Reserves. During that time he served in Kosovo in 2000 and in Iraq in 2003 and 2008. Colt, who was born in 1973, got to know many Vietnam War veterans and Green Berets while serving in the Reserves. He grew up on Nantucket—the island referred to in the title of his new book, The Off-Islander (Kensington, 240 pp. $26, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle).

Colt’s first novel is more about the death of the lifelong friendship of Andy Roark, a P.I., and Danny Sullivan, a lawyer, than it is about anything else, which includes trying to find a missing person, the long-gone father of a client. Andy and Danny are refugees from Boston’s Southie, where they were raised. Danny is annoyed with Andy because he has not found a stable job, or a wife, kids, house, mortgage, or dog.

Andy’s Karmann Ghia needs a new clutch and he needs a job to get the money to fix it. So he takes the job and flies to San Francisco to meet with the client and hear what she has to say. The last time Andy was in San Francisco he had just come home from the Vietnam War and got stared at for his short hair and called a “baby killer” in a bar.

In the Army Andy did Recon work and came away from that experience with disdain for supply clerks, jerks, and bottle washers who seemed to later claim they’d served in the Special Forces. He was a Green Beret, just like the man in the song. He went out and found the enemy and killed him or helped him get killed by artillery or bombs. He and his fellow Green Berets trained small, hard, nut-brown Montagnards to kill, too.

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Peter Colt

Andy notes that he worked in a dangerous part of a dangerous, stupid part of the war where the enemy threw their best men at him and his fellow Green Berets, and put bounties on their heads. When Andy came home, he had a lot of trouble trying to be a normal person, going to college, and fitting in. It was chaos; whereas in the war, things made sense to him.

His search for the missing man, Charles Hammond, is confused and difficult and seems destined to fail, but Andy persists despite attempts on his life and a distinct lack of support from Danny Sullivan.

By the end of the book, Danny and Andy are no longer friends and the reader has been taken for a long, exciting ride in pursuit of the missing man.

We are told that this is not the last of the Andy Roark novels. I look forward to the next one.

The author’s website is peter-colt.com

–David Willson

 

Letting Go by Abe Aamidor

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His grandfather served in an engineering unit in France in World War I. His father was a paratrooper badly wounded in World War II. But Indiana native Dwight Bogdanovic didn’t follow family tradition and join the military. A 1-Y deferment for scoliosis kept him from being drafted during the Vietnam War.

Bogdanovic is the narrator of Abe Aamidor’s new novel, Letting Go (The Permanent Press, 192 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle). Aamidor, a former journalist, is the author of a novel, short stories, and nonfiction works including Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man Behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History.

After dropping out of Indiana State University in 1968, Bogdanovic sold encyclopedias. He shared a house for three years with two other guys, one of whom was a Vietnam War veteran named Hank who became a security guard and sped around in a Harley in his free time. Hank was “seemingly uncomplicated,” Aamidor writes, but also would “sit up suddenly in bed in the middle of the night and look around, demand to know who was out there, even call out to his buddies to get their guns.”

Bogdanovic moves from address to address, and job to job, winding up as clerk at a sporting goods store. Relatively late in life, he and his wife, Thetis, have a son, Bertrand, who carries on the family’s martial tradition. The seventeen-year-old enlists in the Army following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“I knew all along he’d be going in,” his father says. “It was in the way he’d discuss famous battles in history and in some of the books he’d read, such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien, although neither was a gung-ho, go get ’em, John Wayne flag waver. Quite the contrary. It was just that Bertrand always took the side of those who would stand tall.”

Bertrand conducts covert operations in Afghanistan and receives several medals. On the first page of the novel we learn that he died overseas. The manner of his death remains a mystery: “The government,” Aamidor writes, “would only say he was KIA, killed in action, the bare outline of a dagger by his name in all the official documents.”

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Abe Aamidor

The American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just one concern of Letting Go—to an extent, they represent all combat. Throughout, Aamidor refers to both world wars and the Vietnam War, as well as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and Korean War.

Ultimately, the book examines life in general, and Bogdanovic is an Everyman who reflects on his experiences in a self-effacing way, providing no more than tentative answers to questions that have perplexed philosophers for centuries.

What makes for a rewarding day-to-day existence? Being attentive to one’s thoughts, perhaps—honesty, too, and showing appropriate gratitude. But Bernard’s relentless pursuit of results? Perhaps not.

The author’s website is aamidor.com

–Angus Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin by Dennis Latham

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Dennis Latham’s novel, Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin (YS Gazelle, 200 pp., $16, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is fiction, almost embarrassingly so. Latham is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam. The book’s blurbs refer to constant laughter provoked in readers by the crazy antics of the characters in this novel. I didn’t have that problem.

The plot of the novel—first published in 2009—concerns the plight of John Elvin, who is twenty-four years old and still a virgin. He is determined to change that status, but he has no idea how to go about doing that. Not a clue. The virgin he meets, Lori Anderson, is eager to help Elvin with his plight, but her eagerness does not translate to anything much happening with any dispatch.

There is a crazy Vietnam veteran in this novel, John’s brother. He was wounded in the war so that his head resembles a butt, which seems funny to everyone but me.

This book has large print and wide margins and can be read in a jiffy, but it still seemed slow going to me. It takes place the summer of 1982, “before HIV made sex an extreme risk, back when condoms were called rubbers,” Latham writes.

It was a different, primitive time. No cell phones, home computers, or satellite TV. So, I guess the book works as a cultural artifact of a certain time and place in America. But I did not find it to be funny.

—David Willson

A Police Action by AA Freda

AA Freda served in the Army’s 5th Infantry Division in the Vietnam War during the period immediately after the Tet Offensive. Freda is the author of Goodbye Rudy Kazoody ,a coming-of-age novel. 

The main characters in Freda’s A Police Action (Dorrance Publishing, 254 pp., $25, hardcover; $16.75, paper; $9.99, Kindle)–which also is a coming-of-age tale–are nineteen-year-old Samantha (Sam) Powers and twenty-one year old James Coppi. It’s a “meet cute,” love-at-first-sight book. And it demonstrates that love is hard, very hard, especially when the female protagonist is pregnant by someone other than the young man she is in love with.

Both of these young people are confused. It doesn’t help matters that James is headed for Vietnam as an Army draftee. Is there any hope for a couple who met in a place called Country Honky Tonk in Colorado Springs?  As the cover blurb warns us, “uncertainty is the only certainty” in this story.

As a survivor of the 1960s, I recognized that era as a main character of this story. The author has done a good job of portraying the 1960s, including the effect the Vietnam War had on the country and the young people who were knocked topsy-turvy by it.

James is something of a con man. He operates as an Army Shylock, lending money before payday to all and sundry. He goes into the Army prepared to operate this way, and has trusted relatives who wire him the money he needs to keep his dirty little business going. I kept expecting to see him dragged into an alley and get his wrists broken, but (spoiler alert) that does not happen.

James does get shipped to Vietnam and does serve his time there, being at risk some of the time although he is mostly a rear echelon trooper. Freda offers a full discussion of the role of REMFs in the war, by the way, and gives some statistics.

To wit: “There’re eight to ten rear-echelon motherfuckers for every one of us up in the front.”

The huge base at Long Binh is accurately characterized as a Little America with tennis courts, nightclubs, restaurants, hot meals, and hot showers. Body count and shit-burning details get full discussion and ham and motherfuckers and fragging get more than a mention.

Also, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000 program—the one that resulted in underqualified men being drafted—is discussed, and said men are called “retards.”  Not a kind label for men who through no fault of their own ended up serving in the Army.

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Serious subjects are dealt with, but mostly this is a novel of young love in which Sam and James struggle to survive in a world out of their control. I enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it, especially to young adults.

I am one no longer, but during the period portrayed in this novel I was, and I went through much of what our young lovers did.

My heart went out to them in the course of this sensitive story.

The author’s website is https://www.aafreda.com/a-police-action.html

–David Willson

Some Never Forget by R. Cyril West

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Some Never Forget (Molan Labe, 302 pp., $12.95, paper; $.99, Kindle) is the second book in R. Cyril West’s POW/MIA Truth series. His first was The Thin Wall.

Some Never Forget is an intriguing mix of conspiracy theory related to the betrayal of POWs being left behind in Southeast Asia by their government, along with American Indian Tlingit mythology. The latter is an attempt to reap the sort of magic that Tony Hillerman made his own and nobody else has been able to hold a candle to.

West believes there are baskets full of dirty government secrets. It’s hard to argue with that. He begins the story begins in Sitka, Alaska, in 1980, nine years after Walter Greene’s son went missing in the Vietnam War. Greene is tormented about the unknown fate that befell his boy—especially after the Department of Defense suddenly changes his son’s status from MIA to KIA.

Greene sees this clerical change as redolent of meaning. After he gets a warning from a government functionary and weird things start happening on his homestead, Greene is galvanized into action.

He believes it is a lie that all the POWs came home. He wants to get to the bottom of things. We are assured that the end of the novel will make us gasp. It sort of does.

The first page of this paranoia thriller gives us the phrases “Korea Veteran,” “Don’t Tread on Me,” and “Fuck Hanoi Jane.” When I read the third, which is lettered on Greene’s leather jacket, I thought I knew all I needed to know about his mindset. I was pretty much right.

I guess I am in the “anti-American” crowd that Greene wishes to steer clear of.  I hope I am wrong.

The author’s web site is http://www.rcyrilwest.com/some-never-forget

—David Willson

A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe was born in 1984 in Rockhampton, Australia, and lives in Tasmania. I wouldn’t be surprised if her father served during the Vietnam War. Certainly the way she characterizes the people in her novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult, 176 pp., $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), indicates she knows about Vietnam War veterans. Or she is a damned good researcher. Either way, her characters ring true.

I was relieved to read that the characters in the book are fictitious as I would hate to blunder into any of them in real life. Or in my dreams, for that matter.  Especially Uncle Les “who seems to move through their lives like a ghost, earning trust and suspicion.”

The backbone of A Loving, Faithful Animal (the only book I’ve read that presents the Australian ruins of the Vietnam War) is the fact that Ru’s father, an Australian conscript during the Vietnam War, has turned up missing, this time with an air of finality. This makes Ru think “he’s gone for good.” Or for evil.

One blurb writer says the book’s “astonishing poetic prose left me aching and inspired.”  I got half of that—unfortunately, the aching part.

I don’t know if the greeting, “Have a few bottles of Tiger Piss and get defoliated,” was invented for this book, or if it is a common one in Australia’s legacy of their involvement in the Vietnam War. I hope it is just particular to this novel.

A character cuts off both trigger fingers to avoid being drafted. That seems extreme to me. But the book reminds me that a prevalent attitude during the war was that if you were drafted you would be sent to Vietnam and if you were sent there, you would die there. I never understood that, but I did encounter it.

John Wayne does get a mention, so do Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, LBJ, and Ho Chi Minh. One of the comments a character makes about being the offspring of a Vietnam veteran is that she’s spent her life “trying to lead [her] father out of the jungle.”

The question gets asked, “Why are we in Vietnam?”  The answer is that Ho Chi Minh kicked over LBJ’s trike. I’d say that’s as good a reason as any.

Josephine Rowe

Early in the novel we are told that all chemical agents used in Vietnam “have been fully exonerated from causing veterans’ subsequent ill health, with the partial exception of the antimalarial drug Dapsone, whose status has not been resolved.”

That makes me feel better about the Multiple Myeloma that is killing me by degrees. The question about how many Vietnam vets it takes to screw in a light bulb gets asked. No answer is given.

If you feel the need to read a book about the impact of the Vietnam War on the people of Australia, start with this one.

You could do worse. I did.

—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

The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

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Matthew Quick is best known for his big-selling 2008 novel, The Silver Linings Playbook, and the even bigger Hollywood movie it spawned in 2012. The book and film received generally positive reviews. More than one critic, however, has pointed out that the plot—about a young man overcoming mental illness—strains credibility (to the breaking point) and the characters bear little resemblance to real human beings.

In his new novel, The Reason You’re Alive (Harper, 240 pp., $25.99, Quick again deals with a main character with serious mental problems. The reason you’re reading this review on this web page is that the character is a Vietnam War veteran.  Said veteran is “an opinionated and good-hearted American patriot fighting like hell to stay true to his red, white and blue heart,” Quick’s publisher says, “even as the country he loves rapidly changes in ways he doesn’t always like or understand.”

There’s little doubt the guy (who narrates the story) is opinionated and patriotic. But good-hearted? I couldn’t get that word out of my mind as I read page after page after page of the veteran spouting anything but “good-hearted” words. For example, throughout the book he refers to Vietnamese as “gooks” and “little yellow” people. Doctors are “fucking moron[s] and nurses are “cold bitch[es].”

I guess some of this crude, offensive spouting off can be classified as “opinionated.” And I am sure there are people who agree with some or all of this. But why center a novel on a character who is a mean-spirted, bigoted, misogynist, racist boor?

Some reviewers (and the publisher) talk about the humor in the book. Perhaps some of this Archie-Bunker stuff tickles some people’s funny bones. But I didn’t find anything close to humor on one page of the novel.

Another distressing aspect of the book is Quick’s ultra-clichéd depiction of his central character. The guy is little more than a one-dimensional stereotype: a mentally unbalanced, cammie-wearing, gun-loving Nam vet haunted by the dozens of men, women, and children he offed in the war. How do we know this? Quick has the guy conveniently tell us that he and his buddies “did things you can’t even imagine” in Vietnam, killing maybe “hundreds of gooks,” many of them civilians, and “burning so many villages.”

Then there are the credibility-stretching plot details, including the fact that the narrator somehow amassed a fortune in the world of finance after the war and his best friend in a multi-billionaire. And that in Vietnam the guy is ordered to “break” a fellow grunt, an American Indian, who scalped dead enemy soldiers and kept them on his belt. He “breaks” the guy by humiliating him in front of the platoon, forcing him to crawl all but naked on the ground and pick up cigarette butts with his teeth.

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Mathew Quick

Spoiler alert: The book’s penultimate extended scene is another piece of preposterousness: a meeting arranged by the vet’s billionaire friend with the guy he “broke” at the latter’s mansion in Vegas. All goes swimmingly well—including what’s meant to be a shocking disclosure but is lamely predictable.

Before reading this book, I had thought that the tired, stereotypical image of the Vietnam veteran as a one-time merciless killing machine turned mentally damaged and violently dangerous was a thing of the past. Sad to say, its alive (and not well) in this book.

—Marc Leepson