Oh, how I wish this was not the first history I read of the Vietnam war. Having lived through the era, I had a naive hope that I would have some basic...moreOh, how I wish this was not the first history I read of the Vietnam war. Having lived through the era, I had a naive hope that I would have some basic understanding of events and would be able to follow the author's arguments reasonably well. I was wrong. Another reviewer here likened reading Fire in the Lake to drinking from a fire hose, and I wholeheartedly agree. FitzGerald unleashes a torrent of statistics, quotes, and scholarship embedded in a rigorous sociological perspective and never lets up. She harks back repeatedly to her central thesis, which is that Vietnamese society was (is?) so foreign, so completely based on different principles and assumptions, that the Americans hadn't a prayer to intervening successfully or winning the war. The family, the village, the land, and a Confucian world order of people in correct relation to each other in a reflection of heavenly order and harmony -- these are notions she harks back to repeatedly. Indeed, these leit motifs recurred much too often for my taste. Given that the author seemed to assume the reader could follow her sophisticated analysis, it struck me that at the same time she was not above cramming her thesis down the reader's throat.
Fire in the Lake is a difficult book, rendered even moreso by the passage of time. Events were still unfolding in Vietnam when this book came out. The edition I read was printed in 1972, and I can only hope that the new edition, which contains an afterword by the author, offers more "closure," if I may use the term. The book ends without an ending, trailing off in speculation about what would happen when the Americans left. There is no neat summing up of events or the luxury of looking back to bring the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. That may account, in part, for my feeling as I read of being cast adrift on a dark sea; I knew the ending of the story but I didn't quite understand how the ending was reached. And, unlike everything else I've read or heard about Vietnam, this book is not at all concerned with American soldiers and their experiences or even that much with the reaction to the war at home. The Vietnamese and Vietnamese culture are her touchstones, and only insofar as American actions affected them does America enter into the picture. (And that, now that I think of it, is perhaps this book's most redeeming feature.)
I'm not in a position to say whether FitzGerald's book was accurate, but indeed if even a small portion of her assessments are correct then her blistering condemnation of American foolhardiness and willful blindness in Vietnam is certainly understandable. Still, I found myself holding back at times from her arguments, even as I was impressed by them, partially in annoyance at her highhanded and theoretic approach and partially in mere confusion. How could I have lived through this era and know so little about the Vietnam war? True, I was a child at its beginnings, yet I was in college during the last few years and had participated in anti-war marches and rallies and, in general, thought I "knew" enough about the war to know that I opposed it. But it seems I knew very little, after all, at least in terms of who the major political figures were -- certainly the major Vietnamese figures -- and what the major U.S. policies and campaigns were.
And so, it seems, more reading is needed before I can say whether this book was insightful or merely a useful irritant, goading me on to reaching a better understanding. (less)
Much like the character in this book, Mitchell Sanders, who invariably comes up with a "moral" to each story he tells, it's hard not to fall into the...moreMuch like the character in this book, Mitchell Sanders, who invariably comes up with a "moral" to each story he tells, it's hard not to fall into the mode of "moral-izing" in response to a book like this, but I will do my best not to. Indeed, it would be an oversimplification to even categorize a book like this as a "war novel" or "memoir" or "bildungsroman" or any other convenient pigeonhole that springs to mind. While it's clear that the author draws heavily from his own experience, he resists hewing to the truth of "what happened." The boundary between fact and fiction is fluid. In the end, it doesn't really matter which is which. The fictional may serve us better than the facts.
Rather than my usual slice-and-dice review, cobbling together my reactions to and rendering some verdict about the book, I will simply quote a few resonant passages that I found particularly poignant. They are "the things I carried with me" after reading this book.
(In a chapter in which the author attempts to flee the draft by going to Canada but, after an odd interlude on the border, goes home and ultimately to Vietnam instead):
"I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war." (Italics mine.)
"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." (From the chapter entitled, "How to Tell a True War Story")
"I did not look on my work [writing about the war] as therapy, and still don't. Yet...it occurred to me that the act of wring had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain."
"But this too is true: stories can save us. I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda [a childhood friend] alive. And Ted Lavender, too, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon [three friends who died in Vietnam], and a slim young man I killed, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen... They're all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world."
Okay, so one bit of reflexive reviewer analysis. It just occurred to me that parts of this book reminded me of James Joyce's story, "The Dead." I can't say why, other than the subject is, of course, death and the dead. But beyond that there's a certain lyricism and sense of sadness. At the end of "The Dead," the main character, Gabriel, confronts a past he didn't know existed, reflecting of what he has become and wishes he could be. He sees that the dead do not stay in the past but that they still affect us. While we have no control over who lives or dies, we can, in a sense, give the dead life. We carry them with us; they live through us still.
Next month I'll be traveling to Vietnam, accompanying my husband, who has a conference there. Although I lived through the era of the Vietnam War, I was too young to really form a clear opinion or understand what was really happening, though generally speaking, I fell in step with my high-school friends and participated in anti-war marches and was, broadly speaking, against the war. Now I'm nearly sixty, looking back on an era that I only dimly recall. Before I go to Vietnam, I want to have a better understanding of what happened. Starting with this very personal book provided one person's truth, and that's something, if only a sliver of a very much larger truth that is ultimately unknowable and incomprehensible.
Enough with the abnormal psychology, already! The detective and his mismatched assistants are interesting, but I can't say the extended passages detai...moreEnough with the abnormal psychology, already! The detective and his mismatched assistants are interesting, but I can't say the extended passages detailing the depredations of the sickos they are up against did much for me. I didn't really learn anything, didn't particularly enjoy it... oh, except the narrator for the audiobook was rather good. That's pretty much why I finished it, I think. (less)
This book wasn't what I'd hoped it would be, but it was fairly interesting, nonetheless. I was hoping it would be more of a general exploration of how...moreThis book wasn't what I'd hoped it would be, but it was fairly interesting, nonetheless. I was hoping it would be more of a general exploration of how the brain processes and perceives music, but the emphasis here is largely on neurological case studies, many of them recycled from Sacks' previous books such as An Anthropologist on Mars, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and The Island of the Colorblind, all of which I have read and enjoyed at various times but which, frankly, I hadn't needed or wanted to hear about again.
However, Musicophilia did strike a chord (pun intended) in many ways as it made me think more deeply about my own involvement with music and my own brain's peculiarities, limitations, and features. Sacks is a tireless explorer and chronicler of his own mind, and at times I wished I possessed his tenacity of purpose. What intrigued me most was his hypothesis that when one hemisphere or portion of the brain is damaged, other sections may "step it up" to compensate. Indeed, the examples he provided of how patients coped with and adapted to extremely debilitating conditions were fascinating and heartening. As I age and deal with hearing issues, for example, it is useful to understand the mechanisms behind hearing loss and to learn of how others cope with far more striking afflictions.
While many of the cases that Sacks details are interesting, about halfway through the book hearing of one case after another became repetitive. What I was hoping for, but never really got, was a deeper analysis of how the "normal" brain perceives and relates to music. His neurological patients are the exception, not the norm, and he focuses almost exclusively on fairly talented (or, indeed, brilliant) classical performers and composers. There are few examples of people involved in, say, jazz or rock. This reflects Sacks' own interests and experiences, of course, but it seemed like a significant shortcoming.
Ultimately, I couldn't really complain, though, as the title says it all: this is a collection of tales of music and the brain. The book does not claim to be a comprehensive examination of the topic. (less)
I can't fathom why this reader was chosen for this book. His voice and delivery are incredibly annoying. Not only does he sound like a heavy smoker su...moreI can't fathom why this reader was chosen for this book. His voice and delivery are incredibly annoying. Not only does he sound like a heavy smoker suffering from a cold, but his staccato delivery is odd, to say the least. In addition, there is quite a bit of variance in the timbre of his voice, with obvious differences between recording sessions.
This is one of those rare cases where the author would have done a much better job reading the book than the hired pro. (Exceptions to my "authors should never narrate their own books" dictum, however, are Oliver Sacks, Simon Winchester, Bill Bryson, and Neil Gaiman.) I heard Nathaniel Philbrick read excerpts from one of his work at the National Book Festival in DC a few years back and I'm sure he'd have done a much better job than this reader.
I tried to get used to this narrator, as occasionally I find I can mentally tune out the more annoying features of some voices, but I finally gave up in exasperation at the end of the first of ten CDs, just as I was becoming engrossed in Philbrick's account. Guess I will have to find this book in print, which is annoying as I'm having eye trouble and have been relying on books on CD to get my reading fix. (less)
The insights in this book have much broader societal implications than how we behave on the road -- or perhaps how we behave on the road merely reflec...moreThe insights in this book have much broader societal implications than how we behave on the road -- or perhaps how we behave on the road merely reflects our species' failings?
"We have met the enemy and he is us," Walt Kelly once famously penned, but on the road, it seems we fancy ourselves much better drivers than all those people we wish would go away -- the tailgaters or those who leave too much space between cars; the lane-changers or those who stubbornly sit in one lane; those who merge too late or too early; drivers who are going too fast or too slow; and particularly all those S.O.B.S who drive (insert favorite hated type of car here). Yet, as Tom Vanderbilt notes, but we are contributors to whatever traffic jam we're stuck in and by default fall into someone else's notion of a bad driver. We are the enemy.
Vanderbilt begins his straightforward yet complex book with an analysis of traffic jams and their contributing factors, but he soon ranges much further afield, citing studies from a wide range of disciplines. I found much information in this book surprising, not the least of which was learning that the road and car safety features that we rely so heavily upon -- lines on the road, signage, anti-lock brakes, seat belts, driving bigger cars -- can be contributing factors to a false sense of security. I was intrigued to learn that removing road signs could actually lead to fewer collisions in many places.
Other things I was surprised to learn were that drivers tend to pass closer to cyclists wearing helmets than those who are not (perhaps assuming the helmet-wearing cyclists are more "serious" and will not veer in front of them), that cars rather than trucks are the cause of most truck-car collisions, that a surprising amount of the traffic on city streets consists of people looking for parking, and that suburbs can be riskier places to drive than cities.
Much of this has to do with the way we seem to be hard-wired, while some has to do with social conditioning. In one of the chapters that most intrigued me, Vanderbilt analyzes traffic in other parts of the world such as China and India (two places I have been a passenger but not a driver, thankfully) as well as the much safer Scandinavian countries. I've driven in places that felt completely chaotic (Croatia springs to mind) and counted myself lucky to emerge unscathed, and also driven in places that are supposedly difficult to drive such as Italy, the U.K. and other "wrong side of the road" countries, Mexico, and the German autobahn. In these cases, I realize, my perception of being in danger kept me in a continual state of high alert and was probably the main reason I emerged unscathed.
One important dictum I took away from this book is that drivers are in more peril when they assume they're safe than when they are on the alert for danger. It is, ultimately, our own inattentiveness that is the greatest threat to our safety on the road.
Toward the end of the book, Vanderbilt mentions that after September 11, 2001, there was a marked increase in traffic fatalities. The obvious reason, of course, was that those too skittish to fly were driving instead, and so put themselves at greater risk. This was the springboard for Vanderbilt's trenchant analysis of real vs. perceived risk, which I found quite illuminating. Why do we, as a society, tolerate the great number of traffic deaths per year (approximately 40,000) yet remain on constant alert for terrorists, who, all told, have caused some 5,000 deaths since 1960 in the U.S.?
A lot of the reasons we don't recoil in horror at these grim traffic statistics, it seems, have to do with our ideas of what is acceptable: it is more acceptable to die doing something with a perceived benefit (getting where we want to go) and under our own autonomy (e.g. we are the drivers, not someone else) than to have little or no autonomy or perceived benefit.
When we are in "control," it seems, we feel that it's not such a bad thing if, for example, we have a beer or two before getting behind the wheel or talk on our cell phones or text while driving, which, studies have shown, put us at much greater risk. We might even feel quite indignant when we see other drivers holding cellphones to their ears or coming out of a bar and getting into a car. And it is speed, above all factors, that kills, yet we stubbornly resist lowering speed limits and regard it as our god-given right to proceed at a "fair" speed: e.g. ten miles over the posted limit.
Thus Vanderbilt leaves us with the undeniable conclusion that regardless of how sophisticated our machines become or how deftly we engineer our roads, it is ultimately our own psychological limitations that bedevil and endanger us. We have met the enemy. He is us.
A note on the reader, Marc Cashman: Mr. Cashman was, I thought, the ideal reader for this book. I'm a picky listener but not a single feature of his voice, phrasing, timing, or emphasis bothered me; on the contrary, I felt he greatly added to my enjoyment and understanding of the book. I'll be seeking out other books read by him. (less)
I recently returned from a 2-1/2 week trip to China, where I spent three days in Hangzhou. My husband and I found this guide quite useful and informat...moreI recently returned from a 2-1/2 week trip to China, where I spent three days in Hangzhou. My husband and I found this guide quite useful and informative, giving us insight into the city and steering us in the right direction. What I found particularly admirable was that this guide's listing headings give the name of each item both in English and Chinese characters. Having the names written in Chinese was critical as cab drivers in China speak little or no English, and saying something like "Take me to Hafeng Road" was useless. Instead, I'd whip out my iPad, find the bookmarked page of this guide with the relevant listing, and point to the Chinese characters. Worked every time. In other cities, I was reduced to taking screen shots of Chinese websites for the places I wanted to visit so that cab drivers could understand where I wanted to be taken. My Fodor's and Lonely Planet guides did not provide this essential Chinese information. (less)
A few months ago, I visited China, staying in Nanjing, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou -- all foci during the long, devastating Taiping Civil War that...moreA few months ago, I visited China, staying in Nanjing, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou -- all foci during the long, devastating Taiping Civil War that took place between 1850 and 1864. When Westerners think of Nanjing, of course, it is the brutal Japanese occupation before and during WWII that springs to mind, but I soon became aware as I visited the city that there are successive layers of history, each of which affected later developments.
The Taiping era fascinates me, and since Nanjing was the seat of the Heavenly King and the last major city to be held by the rebels, it is perhaps the best place to learn of the rebellion. Among other places in Nanjing, I visited the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Museum, the site of what was once the palace of the Heavenly King, and walked parts of the impressive city walls to view ancient fortifications. The Taiping Museum was of particular interest and very detailed, but I quickly realized I was poorly prepared to understand the artifacts and displays, most of which had at least some English text to explain them.
The mere facts of the rebellion -- that a poor, failed scholar who had visions that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ and had been given, according to his visions, the task of wiping the foreign Manchus from power and establishing a heavenly kingdom in its stead -- almost seem too fantastic to believe. And yet this is what happened. Millions of Chinese peasants left their homes and followed him, some hewing to his quasi-Christian beliefs and others sensing that the time had come, at last, to rout out the corrupt Manchu overlords. The subsequent upheaval dwarfed anything we might compare it to. The best estimates are that anywhere between 20 to 50 million people died during this civil war that, somehow, very few of us in the West have even heard of.
Obviously, this all made a strong impression on me, and I resolved to read more about the Taiping so that I could reach a better understanding of what happened.
I don't think most of us in the West fully understand the resentment and mistrust the Chinese, even today, feel toward us. Of course, the Opium Wars and the various vulture-like entities that sprang up in response to the enfeebled Qing dynasty have much to do with that, but there was also the experience, during this struggle as well as at many other times, of Western representatives continuously changing tack or seeming to work in unpredictable ways. For example, during the Taiping campaigns, Western military leaders would capriciously change sides, not to mention that some Western envoys insisted on protocols that were opaque or contradictory. It was not the East that seemed inscrutable in these exchanges so much as the West. (The Taiping rebels were fairly consistent up until the end in dealing with Westerners, and the representatives of the Qing also clung to a fairly consistent policy, which centered on keeping barbarian influences as far as possible from Beijing and the emperor.)
The events the author describes and analyzes are complex, but he helps us by focusing on two major players, the reluctant scholar-general Zeng Guofan and the Taiping leader Hong Rengan, cousin and most influential advisor to the Heavenly King. Both of these men were unlikely leaders, yet they each had a strong vision that guided their actions and policies. Although he was fighting "on the wrong side" from the Western perspective, I confess that I developed a real fondness for Zeng, who improbably emerged from his Confucian fastness to become a brilliant strategist. His tale is a tragic one, for at the end of the war, when he had finally defeated the Taiping, he only wished to withdraw back into his scholarly cocoon but instead faced ridicule, suspicion, and opprobrium up until the time of his death.
Another striking and indeed exasperating aspect of this era is the West's consistently cack-handed and wrongheaded approach. There was endless vacillation over which side to back, the Qing or the Taiping. Indeed, the third course, neutrality, while it seemed the safest, invariably backfired, and the British policy of "neutrality" was no such thing. But all the major foreign powers -- British, French, and American -- failed to understand what the Taiping were and weren't, and the author recounts a litany of their diplomatic missteps and miscalculations. Ultimately, Hong Rengan's Taiping vision was very much in accordance to what the West wanted: open trade, modernization, and a pro-Western government in power. Yet a few Western representatives who wrote dispatches back to governments halfway across the globe managed to critically misrepresent Taiping intentions.
I couldn't help but think, as I read this book, of how often our foreign policy goes awry because we don't know what the "real" nature of rebel factions or emergent movements is. A brief glance at Syria provides a rich example of this. Who will be our friends after the dust settles? Which group's policies will align most closely with our own interests? The role of the media and of particular influential people who may or may not have a clear appraisal of the situation has at times an outsize influence over foreign policy, not to mention what I will call the "appetites" for foreign intervention at home at any given time.
In short, it is instructive to see how dramatically the West got it wrong during the Taiping rebellion, and it would be foolish, in the final analysis, to assume that we have made much progress in assessing friends and enemies since then. It is also striking that the Taiping provided a template for revolutionary "leaps forward" under communist leaders and, indeed, still provides a crude template for changes China is undergoing today. (less)
The relevant sections for the parts of China we were in were fairly helpful, but I will think twice before I buy more electronic travel guides. Simply...moreThe relevant sections for the parts of China we were in were fairly helpful, but I will think twice before I buy more electronic travel guides. Simply put, they are a pain in the butt to deal with. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find things in them. You can't dog-ear an iPad, alas!
Also, both this guide and Lonely Planet's have one major failing, in my opinion. None of the listings gives the names in Chinese characters, which I found to be the most critical thing. For instance, if I needed to take a taxi somewhere, saying something like 'Take me to the Nanjing Museum' to a taxi driver was useless. Taxi drivers spoke almost no English and even my most earnest attempts to render place names authentically fell flat. The only thing that worked was having the name of the place I wanted to go to written out in Chinese characters and pointing to it when I got in a cab.
I don't think it would be too much of a stretch for the editors of these guides to ensure that the Chinese characters for hotels, major sights, restaurants, etc. are listed in the headings. (less)
I like the background information that LP provides (history, culture, etc) but I am rethinking my new policy of only taking travel guides downloaded t...moreI like the background information that LP provides (history, culture, etc) but I am rethinking my new policy of only taking travel guides downloaded to my iPad. Using them is more cumbersome and frustrating than I'd like. While saving on weight, I end up losing time. It's a trade-off.
Also, both this guide and Fodor's have one major failing, in my opinion. None of the listings gives the names in Chinese characters, which I found to be the most critical thing. For instance, if I needed to take a taxi to a museum, saying something like 'Take me to the Nanjing Museum' to a taxi driver was useless. The only thing that worked was having the name of the place I wanted to go to written out in Chinese characters. I don't think it would be too much of a stretch for the editors of these guides to ensure that the Chinese characters for hotels, major sights, restaurants, etc. are listed in the headings. (less)