The Water Diviner and Other Stories, byRuvanee Pietersz Vilhauer****

ALT.FINAL_The WaterI read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and University of Iowa Press. This distinctive collection is for sale now.

All told there are fifteen stories, all of them featuring Sinhalese Sri Lankans, most of them expatriates that have moved to the United States.  Before commencing I knew very little about the culture of this small island country, apart from its having been colonized by Britain earlier in its history. I still know very little, but this collection is an approachable way to introduce oneself, in addition to being well crafted fiction.

Several of the stories are dark, dealing with the racism and ignorance with which immigrants are often greeted. The angriest of the stories is “A Burglary On Quarry,” in which a student is accused of burglary by her well-to-do, bigoted landlord who doesn’t want to face the obvious perpetrator: her own son.  It reads like a manifesto, and it makes me want to pump my fist and yell, “Tell it!”

This, however, is something none of the characters in these stories would do, apart from the privileged Caucasian American in “Accident.”  David nearly comes to great harm while visiting his new wife’s homeland, largely due to his own obliviousness; it hasn’t occurred to him that he himself might be deemed unacceptable for his race and nation of origin, having lived all of his life as an affluent member of the dominant culture. He is from Texas, and he’s drunk, and he doesn’t even try to understand discretion or subtext. As his wife’s neighbors ogle him suspiciously and the police consider that he may have caused an auto accident for which he is not responsible, he continues to assure his wife—in English—that everything is just fine. He says nothing quietly, ever, and it takes a political connection on the part of his wife’s relatives to extricate him from the hard place he doesn’t know he’s in.

Other entries are also bittersweet, and “Sonny’s Last Game” stands out as one of these. However, “Leisure” literally made me laugh out loud. Well, guffaw, actually: “Cutex! Who does she think she is!”

The last entry, “Hello My Dear”, is both funny and bittersweet, as Prema is faced with the question of whether an email from a stranger is a scam or the real deal.

I enjoyed this collection tremendously and would read Vilhauer again in a heartbeat.

The Frozen Hours, by Jeff Shaara****

thefrozenhours“’All right. They’re on our left. They’re on our right. They’re in front of us, they’re behind us. They can’t get away this time’.”

 

Fans of Jeff Shaara’s military historical fiction won’t have to wait much longer; with the ambitious rendering of the Chosin Reservoir battle during the Korean War, he’s taken a great leap forward. I received a DRC from Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, May 23, 2017.

Shaara makes military history accessible by breaking it down into small bites, and by choosing a reasonably representative group of historical figures to feature. One thing that has made him controversial, but which I admire and appreciate, is his decision to add at least one completely fictional character to each book in order to have the humble foot soldier, the ordinary joe that never gained fame or glory, represented. If Shaara chose to use the more traditional method, including only those actual servicemen that left a trail of records behind them, he would be telling us about the war solely from the point of view of officers. I am glad he has stuck to his guns—so to speak—because the rank and file make an enormous impact on the outcome of every battle in every war.

Approaching this story, it is key not to skip the preface or the afterword. This reviewer taught American history and government, and yet I learn something new every time I read one of Shaara’s books. One of the things I appreciate most is that it’s reasonably clear what is fact and what is fiction.

The war is basically a struggle over who will rule the Korean peninsula. Over the centuries, Japan, China, and various Western powers have had their eye on it; it is located in a way that gives its would-be colonizer wonderful access to a great many other places. Who wouldn’t want a military base there? And so as we commence, the Chinese, accompanied, at the outset, by the Soviet Union (now Russia), are determined to repel American incursion into the region. Shaara shows Koreans themselves as merely wishing everyone else would just leave, and although others would differ, this point of view serves well enough for the purpose of telling about this battle.

The US military troops here are commanded from afar; General MacArthur provides unreachable deadlines for the capture of hotly contested areas. At the outset of our story, he orders Marines and US Army shipped to North Korea and selects a inland line of march that he tells the press is a “pincer movement” but which in fact leaves vast amounts of unguarded areas between isolated groups of soldiers. They are high in treacherously cold mountains, where many men on both sides of the conflict will freeze to death or lose body parts to frostbite. They are surrounded and forced to fight their way out, then fight again to rescue their comrades.

There are two things I would change here if I could. The first is the maps. I blew them up on my tablet and still wasn’t able to read most of the print. They were better than nothing, but just barely. There isn’t even a compass provided to show where north is located.

The second is actually a pretty sore spot, and that is the constant use of nasty racist terms for every Asian mentioned ever. The Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese all get called more ugly names than I ever want to see again in my life! I understand that part of his point in doing so is to show how badly the American command underrated Mao’s forces. I also understand that Caucasian US troops did use racist language casually, and that dehumanizing the enemy is one more way to unify one’s own force and go out and kill people.

However, an author gets to choose his points of emphasis. In his many excellent Civil War novels, Shaara goes lightly around the N word, because he understands that it is painful and divisive, and that for many people, it will destroy the joy they might otherwise experience reading his work. It’s a tender place in our national consciousness. Yet the perception doesn’t hold when the people of color are Asian. It’s hard to take. Why add more nastiness than one must? Occasionally there is a lull where Chinese are called Chinese and Koreans are called Koreans, and I sink into the narrative as one does with strong fiction, only to have another epithet tossed in my face like cold water.

Perhaps it is because Asians are quieter, most times, about racism and stereotyping, that writers—Shaara is by no means alone in this, which is why only one star comes off—seem to think nothing of repeatedly slamming these horrifying terms at us again and again from within their pages. The references to the Japanese are obviously only there as—what do I call this, ambience? The Japanese are now allies of the US, but the J word gets sprinkled in anyway, and it’s a rotten thing to do.

There are nearly 7 million Asians of either Japanese, Korean, or Chinese ancestry living in the USA, and I have news: they read. And whereas I am undoubtedly more sensitive than some readers, given that we’re talking about my husband and my youngest child, I am not actually Asian myself. And there were moments here when I really felt that if I hadn’t committed to reading for the purpose of a review, I would prefer to leave the book unfinished, to slide it in the back somewhere and not really look at it anymore.

Shaara is an excellent writer, and his characters are almost tangible at times. With a little more sensitivity toward people of color, his work could be even better. This book is recommended to those that love historical military fiction, with the caveat just mentioned.

Everything Belongs to Us, by Yoojin Grace Wuertz****

everythingbelongstousI was invited to read this novel by Random House and Net Galley, and although I read multiple books at a time, this was the one I saved for bedtime, after the lights were out, the hound snoring at the foot of the bed, and everyone else was asleep. This is prime reading time, and this was the story I wanted to follow uninterrupted. You can get a copy for yourself this Tuesday, February 28, 2017.

This story is set in 1978 in Seoul, South Korea, and features the political demonstrations by workers and students against the notoriously repressive Park regime. The main characters are all involved briefly with these protests, either as participants or as witnesses. While the setting is handled competently, the success of this novel is owed to character, character, and character.

We are introduced to three young adults. First is Jisun, a bright young daughter of a ruling scion. Jisun harbors tremendous anger toward her father, and as the story unspools, we find out why, little by little. One hint I’ll offer that doesn’t spoil the ending is that it isn’t about rape or sexual abuse of any kind, and I was glad not to see this overused device employed here. Everything in this story is fresh and original.

Our story comes to us from multiple viewpoints. My favorite character by far is Namin, a striving member of the working class battling to rise through hard work and intellectual talent. An unlikely but wholly believable friendship develops between Jisun, who is trying to grasp what ordinary people experience day to day, and Namin. Namin’s parents labor nearly every waking hour running a food truck, and her sister works in an auto plant so that Namin can attend the university. The choices that are made in order to fuel Namin’s success, and by extension that of her family, are hard ones, and this is just one aspect of the book that would make for excellent discussion in a literature class or book club.

The third main character is Sunam, a young man from a middle class family who finds himself in a love triangle with these two young women. At one point I feared the book would turn melodramatic, but in the author’s capable hands it is deftly maneuvered and is made believable. In fact, while I didn’t always like these characters, by the halfway point I absolutely believed all three of them.

The only weakness here is the way in which the protestors are depicted; they seem addled and the struggle appears to have no political platform whatsoever. Liberal Christian missionaries appear and vanish with no clear role, and although a purpose becomes apparent eventually, I felt they were more of a distraction than a worthwhile component.

The struggle against the Park government was a more worthy one than Wuertz’s narrative suggests. Had this been given firmer contours, this would be a five star read.

For those looking to broaden their literary horizons or just looking for a good story, this novel is recommended.

Vietnam, by Mary McCarthy***-****

VietnamVietnam , an impassioned journalistic effort by Mary McCarthy originally published during the US war against Vietnamese freedom fighters, is a once-stirring piece of research that, while worthwhile as a period piece or for specific types of historical research, is in general terms too dated to be of great interest to most readers. Instead, it speaks to the innocence and disbelief Americans with no axe to grind in Southeast Asia felt when they came to grip with the actual facts regarding the war, and how many responded after becoming enlightened.

Thank you once and twice, first to Open Road Integrated Media, and next to Net Galley, for allowing me to read the DRC in exchange for this honest review. The book is now available for purchase.

In many ways, the American mindset can be divided into two contemporary periods: one before the Vietnam War, and one after it. Before the war against working people in Vietnam commenced, Americans by and large trusted their government and believed what its political leaders said was true. As layer upon layer of lies was peeled away from the startling nugget of truth at the core of this conflict, many people—in particular, the youth of the USA and around the world—were outraged at the many ways in which they had been deceived. Most of those smooth-faced but indignant youth are now grandparents now, and most have learned never to believe something is true just because a politician—even the president of the USA—says so.

McCarthy wrote this book during the metamorphosis of the American public from the former condition to the latter.

McCarthy went to Vietnam as a member of the press, and was astonished by both what she saw, and by the things that were told her. In 1967, when this book was written, the military leaders she interviewed told her that roughly ten percent of the population, or 1.5 million people, had become refugees, “casualties of war”, because the bombing had destroyed their homes and defoliated large swaths of jungle. It was unclear to me whether they were speaking about all of Vietnam or only South Vietnam; her time there seems to have been spent entirely, or mostly, inside the city of Saigon, which had become so Americanized that there were more English-speaking Caucasians there than Vietnamese.

At times, her outrage is sufficiently scathing to take this reviewer back to that time. I was just a kid, but the white-hot rage in the streets is hard to forget, even so.

In describing her visit to Saigon, she speaks about the ways in which officers and GIs alike regarded a hospitalized child, a victim of the bombing: because they showered her with candy, dollar bills, had photographs of themselves taken with her, and brought her toys, they considered her to be a very lucky tyke indeed. They made reference to her owning more dolls than Macy’s, and one soldier said fondly, “That girl is so spoiled.”

This type of rationalization, the notion that after wounding and possibly orphaning a child with bombs that destroyed her village and left her full of shrapnel, she had become “so spoiled”, is characterized by McCarthy as “Pharisee virtue”, a phrase I found startlingly eloquent.

There are other moments when she appears a bit confused, and appears to be unconsciously using the terminology of the very military and government forces that she opposes. My own youngest child is half Asian, and when I read an expository sentence in which McCarthy referred to the local children as “slant-eyed”, I almost dropped my reader. What the hell? She refers to the Vietnamese policeman that works for the US army as a “small Vietnamese policeman”, and from context, I got the distinct impression that he was not noticeably smaller than other Vietnamese men, and that in fact his size had nothing to do with anything. If she were still alive today, I would advise the author to check her terminology, and then check her own assumptions about what “normal” looks like. It appears she was carrying around some ingrained racism that came out despite her finest intentions.

One more strange factor here was her reference to the uniforms worn by the National Liberation Front, (otherwise referred to pejoratively as the “Viet Cong”, a term she uses freely), as “black pajamas”. Did McCarthy not understand that this was an expression used by the US military which was intended to demean Vietnamese fighters by suggesting they did not know how to design a uniform? Vietnam is a very warm place, and it’s humid as hell, which is why they used lightweight cloth to make uniforms. The jungles were dark and virtually impenetrable, and this is why black was a really good choice of uniform color. Pajamas are something one sleeps in. The Vietnamese soldier didn’t get a lot of sleep, and he did not fight wearing sleeping apparel.

McCarthy is not always blind regarding the power of terminology however: she points up the fact that napalm, which had been made even more horrific in that it now adhered to things (and flesh) while burning, had been name-changed to “Incinderjell”, making it sound like a children’s dessert. Officials could publicly state that napalm was no longer in use, because now it was called something different. Likewise, defoliants were referred to as “weed killer”.

The only photographs are of the author.

For those that want to travel back to the time when Johnson was president and America’s youth were waking up to the fact that the US government did not always behave in accordance with its stated democratic ideals, this is a good work to drop into your reader. It’s very brief, and you can finish it in a weekend.

I also recommend this work to students and other researchers looking at this volatile and transformational period in American history. Since she personally went to Saigon while the war was being fought, her own experiences constitute a primary document, and in such a case, I would not rate this book a 3 star work, but rather 4 stars.