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Posts Tagged ‘vietnam war reading challenge’

Happy new year!  It’s hard to believe that 2010 is already over and that it’s time to wrap up the reading challenges in which I participated over the year.  I only signed up for 4 challenges, and I’m proud of myself for completing them all.  Here’s what I read:

2010 War Through the Generations Challenge: The Vietnam War

For the 2010 War Through the Generations Vietnam War Reading Challenge that I co-hosted with Serena (which ran from Jan. 1, 2010-Dec. 31, 2010), I signed up for 11+ books.  Although I didn’t read as many as I’d hoped for this challenge, I still completed it by finishing 13 books.

1. Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong by Kevin Bowen

2. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

3. Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa

4. Song of Napalm by Bruce Weigl

5. Letter to My Daughter by George Bishop

6. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

7. A Hundred Feet Over Hell by Jim Hooper

8. Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann

9. The Fall of Saigon:  The End of the Vietnam War by Michael V. Uschan

10. Fatal Light by Richard Currey

11. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

12. Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell

13. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

2010 Jane Austen Challenge hosted by The Life (and Lies) of an inanimate flying object

For the 2010 Jane Austen Reading Challenge hosted by The Life (and) Lies of an inanimate flying object (which ran from Jan. 1, 2010-Dec. 31, 2010), I signed up for the “Fanatic” level of 5+ Jane Austen retellings, sequels, or reimaginings and 6+ original works by Jane Austen.  I finished this one by reading 7 in the retellings/sequels/reimaginings category and 6 works by Jane Austen.

1. Mansfield Park Revisited by Joan Aiken

2. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: The Last Man in the World by Abigail Reynolds

3. The Darcys & the Bingleys by Marsha Altman

4. The Plight of the Darcy Brothers by Marsha Altman

5. Mr. Darcy’s Great Escape by Marsha Altman

6. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:  Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith

7. Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart by Beth Patillo

******

1. Sanditon by Jane Austen

2. Persuasion by Jane Austen

3. Lady Susan by Jane Austen

4. The Watsons by Jane Austen

5. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

6. Love and Freindship by Jane Austen

2010 Everything Austen II Challenge hosted by Stephanie's Written Word

For the 2010 Everything Austen II Challenge hosted by Stephanie’s Written Word (which ran from July 1, 2010-Jan. 1, 2011), I had to read 6 Austen-themed books.  I went a little overboard on this challenge, and finished 13 books.

1. To Conquer Mr. Darcy by Abigail Reynolds

2. Mr. Darcy’s Little Sister by C. Allyn Pierson

3. Darcy’s Voyage by Kara Louise

4. Persuasion by Jane Austen

5. Captain Wentworth’s Diary by Amanda Grange

6. Anne Elliot, A New Beginning by Mary Lydon Simonsen

7. Mr. Darcy’s Obsession by Abigail Reynolds

8. Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford

9. Lady Susan by Jane Austen

10. The Watsons by Jane Austen

11. Pemberley Ranch by Jack Caldwell

12. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

13. Love and Freindship by Jane Austen

2010 Maud Hart Lovelace Reading Challenge hosted by A Library is a Hospital for the Mind

For the 2010 Maud Hart Lovelace Reading Challenge hosted by A Library is a Hospital for the Mind (which was held during the month of October), I had to read just 1 book by Maud Hart Lovelace, but I completed the challenge by reading 3.

1. Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace

2. Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace

3. Betsy and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace

How did you do on your 2010 reading challenges, and what are you plans for 2011?  I will be posting my 2011 challenge sign ups soon.

Wishing you all the best in 2011!

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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The rest of the day Mellas raged inwardly against the colonel.  This gave him energy to keep moving, keep checking on the platoon, keep the kids moving.  But just below the grim tranquility he had learned to display, he cursed with boiling intensity the ambitious men who used him and his troops to further their careers.  He cursed the air wing for not trying to get any choppers in through the clouds.  He cursed the diplomats arguing about round and square tables.  He cursed the South Vietnamese making money off the black market.  He cursed the people back home gorging themselves in front of their televisions.  Then he cursed God.  Then there was no one else to blame and he cursed himself for thinking God would give a shit.

(from Matterhorn, page 212)

If you only read one book in the new year, it should be Matterhorn.  It’s fitting that I spent the last morning of 2010 finishing what is, hands down, the best book I’ve read this year.  It took Karl Marlantes, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran and a Marine, 30 years to complete this book, and his attention to detail and perseverance have certainly paid off.  His first-hand knowledge of Vietnam and the Marines shines through.

Matterhorn is set in 1969 and centers on Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas as he learns the ropes as a platoon leader in Bravo Company.  Mellas has an Ivy League education and is very ambitious.  He overthinks every decision, wanting both to impress his superiors and earn the respect of his men.  He makes it quite obvious that he wouldn’t mind being company commander at some point.  When the book opens, Bravo Company is on the fictional hill Matterhorn building a fire-support base.  An operation in Cam Lo that serves mainly as a public relations stunt in which the U.S. troops team up with the South Vietnamese army forces the evacuation of Matterhorn, and Mellas gets his first taste of war.

Marlantes does a great job introducing numerous characters from the different platoons and squads of Bravo Company.  Some we love, some we hate, but we grieve with and for them as the days go on and they move their way through the jungle.  At times, the men face more danger from the climate, the leeches, the jungle rot, the immersion foot, and the lack of food and water than the North Vietnamese.  Many times the weather keeps the helicopters from dropping off food and other supplies, removing the wounded and dead, or taking the men back to base camp.

Life in the bush is hell, and Marlantes engages readers’ senses to drive the point home.  We can smell the unwashed bodies and the rotting uniforms.  We can see the oozing sores all over their bodies.  We feel the fear and the tension as they hump through the jungle not sure whether the enemy is waiting for them up ahead.  We feel their anger when the high-ranking officers withhold supplies when they fail to reach a checkpoint on time because they haven’t eaten or drank in days.  We hear the sounds of the bullets and grenades, and we feel their sorrow when they lose one of their own.  Marlantes’ writing is that good, so brilliant, in fact, that I wished the nearly 600 page book was longer.

But Matterhorn is about more than the battles and the hardships of war.  Marlantes uses the novel to highlight racial tensions among the soldiers and the politics of the war.  One alcoholic colonel makes one bad decision after another as he seeks to become a general, and Bravo Company pays the price.  The number of confirmed kills is inflated, and when the number of dead U.S. soldiers exceeds that of the enemy, the loss is downplayed.  As Mellas sees, hears, and experiences all this, his outlook of the war and the Marines is changed.

Matterhorn drives home the point that many of the soldiers were teenagers, and the lieutenants tasked with making life-or-death decisions were not much older.  This is emphasized through their poor decisions — signing up for another tour to have 30 days R&R with a bar girl, for instance — and how they walk through the jungle with Kool-Aid stains on their lips.  Many times throughout the course of the book, the men question why they are there and what they are being forced to do.

Marlantes’ writing flows so easily, and even though there is an extensive glossary at the back of the book, he defines certain military terms in the narrative without bogging the story down.  Obviously, Matterhorn isn’t a happy book, and most of the time it is devoid of hope, but there’s also humor here and there.  There’s harsh language and graphic violence, but that’s to be expected.  It’s not a book for those with weak stomachs.  At times it was almost too hard to continue reading, and even though I expected that some of the characters I’d grown to love would die, I wasn’t prepared.  At one point my heart literally hurt, that’s how involved I was in this book.

Matterhorn is a book that comes alive, that feels authentic, that takes readers on an intense journey.  After I turned the last page, I wanted to bawl like a baby, and then I wanted to start reading it all over again.  This is the best novel of the Vietnam War that I’ve read so far, and it’s definitely earned a special place on my shelf and my list of all-time favorites.

**Serena and I hosted a read-a-long for Matterhorn to coincide with the challenge.  We held a discussion every Friday during the month of December.  If you’re interested, check out week 1, week 2, week 3, and week 4.**

Disclosure: I received a copy of Matterhorn as a gift from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Finally I made myself slip the first negative into the enlarger.  What emerged on the paper was a picture of a GI in a wheelchair, his right leg amputated at the knee and wrapped in a white bandage.  He looked so much like TJ, I gasped and took a step backward.  I had to force myself to look again and see for sure that it wasn’t my brother in the wheelchair, that it was someone I’d never seen before in my life.

I decided to print the rest of the pictures later.

(from Shooting the Moon, page 99)

Frances O’Roark Dowell’s Shooting the Moon is a Vietnam War novel with a focus on the homefront.  The daughter of an Army colonel, 12-year-old Jamie Dexter is enthusiastic and even excited about the war.  She and her older brother, TJ, played soldiers as little kids and moved around a lot for their father’s military career.  When TJ turns 18 and decides to become an Army medic instead of going to college, Jamie supports his decision and even insists she would go to Vietnam herself if she could.  And she just doesn’t understand why the colonel doesn’t want him to go.

TJ sends “boring” letters to his parents, but he sends Jamie undeveloped rolls of film with instructions for her to develop the film and send him the contact sheets.  The Dexters are stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and Jamie’s job in the rec center gives her access to a dark room.  With the help of Sgt. Byrd, a Vietnam vet, Jamie develops TJ’s film and learns that she is good at making his pictures come to life.

TJ has long had an interest in taking pictures of the moon, and he continues this in Vietnam.  But he also takes pictures of wounded soldiers, and it’s these pictures that cause Jamie to think differently about the war.  When her good friend and gin rummy partner, Private Hollister, tells her that he may be shipped off to fight, Jamie feels helpless.

Shooting the Moon is a short, middle-grade novel that focuses on Jamie’s evolution from a little girl with lofty ideas about war, having been taught all her life that serving in the military is a duty and an honor, to a girl whose eyes have been opened.  To Jamie, war initially seemed like an adventure.

“You should go, TJ.”  I leaned over and grabbed his wrist, like I’d pull him all the way over there myself if I had to.  “I’d go to Vietnam in a minute if they let me.  Besides, you don’t know when we’ll get another war.”

“Oh, honey,” my mother said.  “You don’t know anything about war.  You’re just a little girl.”

“I’m starting eighth grade in September, which is hardly a little girl, and I read Time magazine,” I argued.  “I know plenty about war.”

“That’s enough, Jamie,” the Colonel said.  But I thought deep down he had to be proud of me, and of TJ, too.  He’d raised us, after all.  He’d raised us to believe in the Army way.  And as far as I was concerned, he’d raised us right.”  (page 21)

Through TJ’s pictures, Jamie learns that war isn’t glamorous or fun.  The wounded and suffering men in TJ’s photos were someone’s son, brother, husband, or father, and they may or may not be coming home.  It wasn’t a game.  Dowell softens the blow by teaching this lesson through Jamie and photos that are far removed from the action, but even though the story lacks the immediacy you’d expect in a story about war, it still packs a punch.

I started reading Shooting the Moon with The Girl (age 10), but she grew bored after a few chapters and decided she wanted to read something else.  The Girl knew from the publisher’s summary that Jamie would receive important rolls of film from her brother, and she felt it took too long to get to the point of the story.  She was more interested in what was in the photos than in Jamie learning how to develop them.

However, given that our country remains at war, Shooting the Moon has an important message for young readers whose ideas and beliefs about war often are very different from the reality.  The characters are not as well developed and the ending not as fleshed out as they would be in a longer novel, but Shooting the Moon provides much food for thought, especially with regard to Jamie’s relationship with the colonel.  Dowell’s novel is about more than war; it’s about love, family, and growing up.  And the message remains relevant today.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Shooting the Moon as a gift from a friend. (Thanks, Kerry!) I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die.  Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.  They carried shameful memories.  They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

(from The Things They Carried, page 20)

I just couldn’t let the War Through the Generations Vietnam War Reading Challenge end without reading something by Tim O’Brien, and since Serena bought me a signed copy when she attended an author event earlier this year (thanks so much, dear friend!), I decided to read The Things They Carried.  This book blew me away, and I can see why many people consider it THE novel about the Vietnam War.

The Things They Carried reads like both connected short stories and a memoir and focuses on a group of soldiers who fought together in Vietnam.  The stories are not presented in a linear fashion, as O’Brien skips around from before, during, and after the war.  It takes some time to really get to know the characters, but the story unfolds and the characters are developed bit by bit.

The narrator is named Tim O’Brien, but the book is subtitled “A Work of Fiction,” and in a few of the stories, O’Brien discusses the idea of truth and war stories.

A true war story is never moral.  It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.  If a story seems moral, do not believe it.  If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.  There is no rectitude whatsoever.  There is no virtue.  (page 65)

Here is the happening-truth.  I was once a soldier.  There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look.  And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth.  He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty.  He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe.  His jaw was in his throat.  His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole.  I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.  (pages 171-172)

Wow.  So I guess it boils down to this:  War is ugly, and there is a bit of both truth and fiction in these stories.  Sometimes the true facts are unemotional and distant, while a fictional account that truthfully portrays war is more emotional and more alive.

O’Brien punctuates thoughts like these with stories of the men, such as those about First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who carries the photo of a girl he loves who doesn’t love him back, who carries the guilt of mistakes he made when his mind was on Martha and not on his men, who was afraid to disobey orders and camped his men on a village latrine (a literal shitfield) and had to face the disastrous consequences.

The Things They Carried is about the physical things (weapons, keepsakes, other men) and the mental things (fear and guilt) that the soldiers carried on their shoulders.  O’Brien covers everything from memory and guilt, to friendship and loss, to action and inaction, to decision and dishonor.

As a novel of the Vietnam War, I expected The Things They Carried to be brutal and gruesome and heartbreaking.  I’ve read many war novels, and they all have stayed with me in some way.  But after I finished this book — in my opinion, a literary masterpiece — I carried with me a great sadness and will for a long time carry the stories of these men (whether fact or fiction) in my heart.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Things They Carried as a gift from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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The weapon in my right hand is a pirated Ithaca Magnum-10 shotgun, gas-operated, semi-automatic, a full-choke barrel sawed down to ten inches for ease in single-hand handling at close quarters.  It was captured from a North Vietnamese officer, later presented to me as a gift.

The bulge in my left hip pocket is a soggy paperback edition of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

Such things live together here, poetry and shotguns.  Alive and well in a single body.

(from Fatal Light, page 46)

First published in 1988, Fatal Light is the story of a young man who receives his draft notice in 1967 at the age of 18 and is sent to Vietnam as a medic.  Richard Currey uses some of his own experiences as a Navy corpsman in Vietnam, but he says the book is “highly fictionalized” (page xiii) and draws also from the experiences of people he knew.  Fatal Light is not a linear novel, but more like snippets from the life of a young soldier who becomes disillusioned with war and life after all that he witnesses.

The unnamed narrator is close to his family, and Currey gives a glimpse of what his life is like before the war.  He spends summers with his grandfather, has a girlfriend for whom he bought a ring just before being drafted, and spends the night before recruit training listening to his father’s stories from World War II and Korea and dancing in the living room with his mother.  And then his life changes dramatically.

As a medic, he is told he will be in the rear most of the time and have people looking out for him.  They make it seem like war will be easy for him.  Instead, he sees men minus heads after their jeep hits a mine, and he sees soldiers go nuts, shooting random villagers and keeping body parts of the dead Viet Cong as souvenirs.

Because the novel is written as snippets from the narrator’s life and war experiences, the chapters are short and disjointed.  There are only a few other characters, and you don’t see too much of them.  There are odd dreamlike sequences when the narrator is suffering from malaria.  But they join together to form a powerful and heartbreaking story about the way the war changed the men who fought.  The prose is sometimes sparse, sometimes poetic, but the scenes are full of emotion and description that tear at your heart, punch you in the gut, and thrust you into the scene.

Sleep ceased to be rest, was never an escape.  Dreams careened, haunted, collided, and I was always forced to look:  the double amputees, incinerated faces with lips burned off and teeth locked in satanic grins, bodies in decay and distended with gas, fingers and noses and ears rat-gnawed, the ones floating face down in paddies pulled out after days with tongues and eyeballs protruding from macerated skulls and their gunshot wounds looked so innocent, so simple.  On the road out of a northern ville I saw a dog eating the body of a man.  The man had been shot in the head, eviscerated, tossed aside.  The dog pulled at a dirty loop of intestine, one paw braced against the opened belly.  The passing scene on any ordinary day.  (page 96)

If this nauseating scene was ordinary, it’s no surprise that many Vietnam veterans have trouble talking about their experiences.  Currey forces readers to consider these scenes because war isn’t pretty.  There is a scene right after the narrator comes home in which he shows his grandfather pictures from Vietnam that he took as proof of what really happened.  His grandfather tells him not to show people because they won’t want to see them and aren’t ready to see them.

The truth about war is that it’s terrible and grotesque, it destroys innocence and scars people’s souls.  The truth hurts, it angers, and it leaves men who’ve witnessed this truth wondering what to do and where to go with all they have seen and learned.  Fatal Light emphasizes this from the first page until the last, but Currey takes these horrifying images of war and turns them into a beautifully crafted, powerful novel.

Disclosure: I borrowed Fatal Light from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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The Fall of Saigon: The End of the Vietnam War is an installment in the Turning Points in History series published by the Heinemann Library.  Michael V. Uschan writes for young readers, covering the events that led to the Vietnam War up to the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975, and beyond in just 30 pages.

This book was The Girl’s (age 10) introduction to the Vietnam War and a refresher course for me.  (The only book I’ve read about the history of the war — and I never finished it — is Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald, and it was pretty dry from what I remember.)  In The Fall of Saigon, we learned Vietnam was a colony of France; how Ho Chi Minh pushed for reform and independence after World War I; how Ho Chi Minh created the Vietnminh, which eventually became the Vietcong; and how the Geneva Accords approved in 1954 divided Vietnam into North and South.  Uschan describes the Vietnam War as a guerilla war, discusses the involvement of the United States and opposition to the war, and even mentions the My Lai massacre.

There are plenty of photographs in both color and black-and-white, and Uschan includes quotes from eyewitnesses.  A timeline and a glossary in the back of the book are informative as well.

While I found The Fall of Saigon to be educational and easy to understand, The Girl found it boring and too much like a textbook.  She found it difficult to understand many of the terms repeated numerous times, such as communism, and had a hard time keeping the different sides of the war straight.  We’d read a paragraph or two, and I would have to explain things, as she had never before studied this period in history.  It made for some interesting discussions, but she was more interested in hearing about how her grandfather fought in the war than in reading the book.

This isn’t the kind of book that shows the personal or emotional aspects of war or the horrors seen by the Vietnamese people or the soldiers who fought.  It’s just the facts presented in a way that won’t shock or overwhelm.  It’s a good introduction to the war for readers seeking only the basics.

Disclosure: We purchased our copy of The Fall of Saigon: The End of the Vietnam War. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Our man Paco, not dead but sure as shit should be, lies flat on his back and wide to the sky, with slashing lacerations, big watery burn blisters, and broken, splintered, ruined legs.  He wallows in this greasy, silken muck that covers him and everything else for a stone’s throw and dries to a stinking sandy crust.  He lies there that night and all the next day, the next night and half the second day, with his heels hooked on a gnarled, charred, nearly fire-hardened vine root; immobile.  And he comes to consciousness in the dark of that first long night with a heavy dew already soaked through the rags of his clothes, and he doesn’t know what hit him.

(from Paco’s Story, page 18)

Set during the Vietnam War, Paco’s Story, winner of the 1987 National Book Award for fiction, is a haunting novel about the only survivor of the massacre of Alpha Company at Fire Base Harriette.  Paco is an ordinary soldier who somehow managed to live, but it almost seems as though his surviving was the easy part.  Haunted by the ghosts of the soldiers who died that day, Paco must re-enter the land of the living.

Larry Heinemann uses a ghostly narrator to tell Paco’s story, someone who can observe the people who interact with Paco, how they feel about the war and their concern (or lack of) for the returning veterans.  Paco takes a bus to Boone, Texas, with his AWOL bag and a cane, and a sympathetic WWII veteran gives him a job as dishwasher at the Texas Lunch.  Full of painkillers and booze, Paco lives a quiet routine of work and sleep — quiet, aside from the nightmares.  The owner of the diner, Ernest, and Jesse, a Vietnam vet passing through Boone, talk about their wartime experiences, which is something Paco is unable to do, leaving that job to the narrator.

The narrative often seems choppy and can be difficult to follow at first, and I saw so many things I missed the first time I read this book in college.  There are many layers to Paco’s Story, from Paco himself to the secondary stories about the medic who found Paco and a promiscuous young woman intrigued by him, among others.  These asides might seem out of place at first glance, but given that Paco isn’t telling his own story, the reactions and observations of the people around him say a lot.

It is easy to pity Paco the victim, and Heinemann does a great job showing how difficult it is for Paco to live with the pain of his wounds and memories.  But Paco isn’t an innocent soul, and in a horrifying, brutally violent scene involving a Viet Cong girl, Heinemann drives home the point that war isn’t pretty.  Paco’s Story will force readers out of their comfort zones with graphic imagery and harsh language, but its raw honesty is what makes the book so important.  The book doesn’t sugar-coat or romanticize war, and readers soon understand why some Vietnam vets continue to struggle with memories of their experiences and find it hard to talk about what they did and what they witnessed as soldiers.

At War Through the Generations, we hosted a read-a-long for Paco’s Story during the month of July.  If you’d like to learn more about the book, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of the discussion.

Disclosure: I purchased my worn-out copy of Paco’s Story. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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‘Just watch me, I’m going back down!’  Hooper chopped the throttle and crossed the controls.  These were the enemy, he kept telling himself, and this is what he was here for.  Recovering from the slip, he broke toward the bodies and cross over them at seventy-five feet.  The transition from the war films of his youth to reality came with the sight of the first crumpled figure.  Only feet away a smaller body lay face down in the grass.  He had just slaughtered a child.

(from A Hundred Feet Over Hell, page 22)

During the Vietnam War, Jim Hooper’s brother, Bill, was a Catkiller who flew missions over the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the border of North and South Vietnam.  These Catkillers flew Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs, scoping out the area assigned to them and directing the pilots responsible for dropping napalm and various bombs to hit the intended target and avoid the U.S. soldiers on the ground.  Bill Hooper learned early on that his job and that of the other Catkillers would not be easy.

‘Gentlemen, this is the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog.  It has no armor.  It carries no offensive weapons.  It is slower than the front-line fighter aircraft of the First World War.  But those of you who end up flying this aircraft in combat will log more hours in your first three months than the jet jockeys will during an entire tour in Vietnam.’  (page 19)

In A Hundred Feet Over Hell: Flying With the Men of the 220th Recon Airplane Company Over I Corps and the DMZ, Vietnam 1968-1969, Jim Hooper tells the stories of his brother and several of the men his brother flew with and worked with during his time in Vietnam.  Throughout most of the book, the men tell their stories in their own words, helping readers better understand the stress they endured as they flew these planes right over the enemy and were shot at constantly, their sense of duty, and the friendships they forged along the way.

Hooper uses a lot of military terminology, but that shouldn’t deter readers unfamiliar with the lingo.  There is a glossary in the back of the book that defines many of these terms, and while I flipped back and forth many times, eventually I just stopped trying to make sense of the acronyms and allowed myself to get lost in the book.  If you think a non-fiction military book about Vietnam is destined to be dry and boring, you’d be wrong.

Going back and forth between the pilots and some of the soldiers on the ground, several particularly intense scenes involve a handful of troops hunkered down, unable to move, and under intense fire from the Viet Cong.  Various circumstances — being shot at, the weather, the time of day — made the Catkillers’ job difficult, but despite the pressure and with the help of the men in their backseats, they saved many lives.  Hooper puts you right in the plane, and my heart pounding, I rushed through the pages to see how the missions turned out.  I don’t know how these young men — many barely out of high school — could deal with such pressure day in and day out, but they did their jobs well and with heart.

A Hundred Feet Over Hell was difficult to read at times, but it’s such an important book because it tells the true stories of these men in their own words.  In addition to intense combat scenes, Hooper includes their interactions during down time, a frantic grief-stricken search when a plane is downed, and stories about crazy things they did in the air, even inserting a bit of humor here and there.

‘Catkiller 1-2, request you divert to intercept and identify bogey.  Over.’  Thinking that Hillsboro must have confused me with a different aircraft, I asked if he understood that I was an O-1 Bird Dog capable of a max cruise of a little over one hundred knots and armed with nothing more than four white phosphorus marking rockets.  The controller confirmed that he was well aware that I was an O-1 Bird Dog and how I was armed — and then gave me an intercept course.

The bogey’s reported airspeed suggested a Russian helicopter, the presence of which was the subject of much rumor and speculation.  They were heavily armed and considerably faster than a Bird Dog.  Unless I could pop out of a cloud and ambush it with a first-pass hit, my chances of success were less than zero.  The only thing that chopper crew was likely to die from that day would be laughter at the sight of my underpowered Bird Dog chugging resolutely toward them.  (pages 148-149)

I haven’t read too many non-fiction books about Vietnam, and I never heard of the Catkillers until I picked up this one.  A Hundred Feet Over Hell is full of both action and emotion, and the first-person stories make it a must-read.  Besides hearing their stories in their own words, the pictures contributed by several of the men and featured in the middle of the book made me feel as though I knew them, and I must admit that tears were shed when I learned that a few of the men I had been reading about were killed in action.  It made me wonder what stories my father would tell about his time in Vietnam if he was alive today.  When I closed the book, I immediately thought that my dad would want to read this, and then I had a reality check and remembered that he’s been dead for over a decade and I wouldn’t be able to give him my copy.  Yes, the book really was that good.

Disclosure: I received a copy of A Hundred Feet Over Hell from Lisa Roe, Online Publicist for review purposes. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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Given that I love all things Jane Austen, I just had to sign up for the Everything Austen II challenge hosted by Stephanie’s Written Word.  The challenge runs from July 1, 2010, to Jan. 1, 2011, and you need only complete 6 books, movies, crafts, etc., related to Jane Austen.  This is what I plan to read:

To Conquer Mr. Darcy by Abigail Reynolds
Mr. Darcy’s Obsession by Abigail Reynolds
Mr. Darcy’s Little Sister by C. Allyn Pierson
Darcy’s Voyage by Kara Louise
Old Friends and New Fancies by Sybil Brinton
Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford

Also, since 2010 is about half over, I figure it’s time to see where I am with the other challenges in which I am participating.

For the Jane Austen Challenge hosted by the Life (and Lies) of an Inanimate Flying Object, I chose the “Fanatic” level, which requires me to read 6 works by Jane Austen and 5 sequels, re-imaginings, etc.  (Click here to see my original reading list)

So far, I’ve read 1 work by Jane Austen and 7 sequels/Austen-esque novels:

Mansfield Park Revisited by Joan Aiken
Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: The Last Man in the World by Abigail Reynolds
The Darcys & the Bingleys by Marsha Altman
The Plight of the Darcy Brothers by Marsha Altman
Mr. Darcy’s Great Escape by Marsha Altman
Sanditon by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith
Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart by Beth Pattillo

All I need to do is finish 5 works by Austen, and I’m done!

Finally, for the War Through the Generation’s Vietnam War Reading Challenge (which I’m co-hosting with Serena), I’ve finished 7 of the 11+ books I signed up to read. If you read my original reading list, you can see I’ve strayed just a bit, but I’m fine with that.

Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong by Kevin Bowen
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa
Song of Napalm by Bruce Weigl
Letter to My Daughter by George Bishop
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
A Hundred Feet Over Hell by Jim Hooper (I’ll be reviewing this next week.)

When I think about how fast the months pass, I’m glad I limited myself to only a handful of challenges, although there are so many good ones out there.  I don’t think about challenges as deadlines, but as ways to either broaden my reading horizons or focus on a topic, author, etc. that really interests me.  This keeps them fun.  And if I don’t finish the challenge, well, that’s life.

How are all of you progressing with your reading challenges?

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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What he liked about his brother, he said, is that he made people become what they didn’t think they could become.  He twisted something in their hearts.  Gave them new places to go.  Even dead, he’d still do that.  His brother believed that the space for God was one of the last great frontiers:  men and women could do all sorts of things but the real mystery would always lie in a different beyond.  He would just fling the ashes and let them settle where they wanted.

(from Let the Great World Spin, page 154)

The 2009 National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin, is set in New York City in 1974, when the Vietnam War had everyone on edge.  Colum McCann’s novel focuses on numerous characters in chapters that read almost like short stories and are tied together by a real-life event:  Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974.

The novel opens on the morning of the tightrope walk, when hundreds of men and women of all races and social classes join together on the city streets and look up at a tiny speck in the sky.  The tightrope walker, never mentioned by name, is causing a buzz, with people taking sides as to whether he will make it across or fall to his death.  From there, McCann introduces a set of diverse and oftentimes eccentric characters:  an Irish monk torn between his radical religious beliefs and romantic love; a grief-stricken prostitute who worked the streets with her daughter; a troubled young boy obsessed with graffiti in the subway tunnels; a woman hit hard by the loss of her son in Vietnam; and a drug-addicted artist, among others.

Right away I was drawn into the stories of these people, characterized by intense pain and a need for love.  Considering the rough lifestyles of several of the characters, one could argue that they were lost causes, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw a bit of hope in each of their stories, even if things didn’t end well.  Although I found their stories extremely interesting, it felt like I was far removed from them, and I couldn’t really connect with them emotionally.  The story of the Irish monk, Corrigan, for instance, was told from the point of view of his brother, but he was such a unique character — more so than the brother, in my opinion — that it would have been interesting for the story to have come out of his own mouth.  Yet I think I understand McCann’s choice in narrator, so it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book.

McCann connects the characters in ways that I didn’t necessarily expect, but they were believable connections.  However, it took awhile for some of these connections to be made, and I spent much of the book wondering what these people had to do with the tightrope walker.  I think connecting the chapters with the tightrope was a neat idea; and while I understand that the use of this real-life event helps to set the scene and I see the connection between the tightrope walker perched precariously above the city and each of the characters on the brink of something, I don’t believe it was necessary and often felt like a digression.

Let the Great World Spin brings New York City to life, underscoring the diversity of its boroughs and its residents and how even people in a big city can be linked to one another in interesting ways.  McCann tackles some heavy topics, like the Vietnam War, addiction, and faith, through the eyes of people who are anything but ordinary.  It was like a disaster, with part of me wanting to shield my eyes from all the tragedy and part of me unwilling to stop staring.  There’s so much more that could be said about the characters, but I really think it’s best to start reading without knowing too much about them so as not to spoil the moments when they come together.  McCann is a very talented storyteller, and I can see why Let the Great World Spin is an award-winner.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to participate in the Let the Great World Spin tour.  To check out the rest of the tour dates, click here.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Let the Great World Spin from Random House for review purposes.  I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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