In Sunlight and in Shadow – a GoodReads Review

In Sunlight and in ShadowIn Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve said this before, but I must say it again…

Mark Helprin is a Master Wordsmith and story teller.

In Sunlight and in Shadow is a beautiful thing. Helprin tells his story by constructing sentences as though he were delicately placing brush strokes in oil on a canvas. He brings the characters to life so intensely that you become their friends as you read the words. They live initially in this book, later in your heart.

I cannot even tell you here what this book is about. I’m so awed by Helprin’s talents that my words here by comparison couldn’t even begin to explain to you how this story and its characters live and struggle and find love, joy, sorrow, and strength in their journeys. It’s something only Helprin can tell you about.

I’ve been reading since I was about four years old. My mother instilled in me her love of books. I’m forever grateful. And it’s true that I’ve read thousands of books in my life, from cheesy science fiction to the Classics. However, I can probably count on one hand the number of authors as adept as Helprin at telling a story and making you be part of it as you read it.

I’ve never been to New York City. I’m a Florida boy born and raised. Yet, I can see the sights, smell the smells, watch the mass of humanity as it walks down the street or rides the subway. I can hear the clanking of the street cars, smell the scent of the ocean, and feel the cool fall breeze on my face while I read Helprin’s words printed in black on the off-white pages of this book.

This is the kind of book that sucks me in and won’t let go. Helprin’s masterful writing tugs directly on my heart. I’m suspended in time and seem to be sitting in the chair at the same table where the characters are enjoying a lunch together. I can smell the food, hear the low hum of the conversations around us and the squawking laughter of the woman at the far end of the dining room. I hear the tinkle of silverware and crystal.

All this happens when I read a Helprin book. It lasts beyond the folding down of that back cover, as it should with any truly good book. Unfortunately, books are very subjective things. This particular one may not be as wonderful for you as it was for me. That’s the nature of reading. I would suggest you give it a try just to see.

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July, July by Tim O’Brien – A GoodReads Review

July, JulyJuly, July by Tim O’Brien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book of stories… sad, very sad stories of some fifty-somethings at a thirtieth (one year late) college reunion in the summer of 2000. These are children of the late 60s. They are all FUBB, each and every one. However, they’re all wonderfully human in their FUBBness.

O’Brien is a masterful character creator. He manages in three-hundred or so pages to make you feel as though you were at this reunion and knew all these folks back in the day. I was more a child of the early 70s than the late 60s, but I have an older brother, so I was exposed to that turbulent Nam era. I could relate in many ways to these folks at this reunion. Many of us who came from that era would.

O’Brien’s book had a taste of Stephen King to it. The only difference is that O’Brien is writing about real human horror here; the kind we all experience and pile up in our wake as we go through life. I’ve officially added Tim O’Brien to my list of authors I would love to have dinner with and spend the evening talking. If they all showed up for the same dinner, Tim would find himself in fine company.

Read this book. It’ll remind you of something in your own life… or you’ve been living under a rock for fifty years.

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Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam – a Goodreads review

Huế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in VietnamHuế 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is another of those “must read” books that should not be passed by. If you have any interest in the era or this war, you should read Bowden’s book. It’s long. It’s heavy (in hardcover), but it’ll be worth the effort.

A true understanding of events during this era (or any era, for that matter) in history requires effort on the part of the reader. There are many excellent to mediocre to downright bull-feces books out there on the topic of the Vietnam War that have been written since the 60s. This particular book falls into the excellent category.

While no book, movie, or memoir will ever put you in the shoes (boots) of those who were there, you will learn from their experiences and empathize with their plight during those tumultuous times.

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A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo – a GoodReads Review

A Rumor of War: With a Twentieth Anniversary PostScript by the AuthorA Rumor of War: With a Twentieth Anniversary PostScript by the Author by Philip Caputo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with many of these wartime memoir books, they are difficult to read. They bring out your anger, your fears, your disgust in government, your hatred for war in general. They also heal. They help you to understand, to empathize, to reach into yourself and wonder… wonder how you would have handled these situations. Ultimately, they sadden you. They sadden you because you realize that so many gave their lives during these events. So many lived through them and carry their burdens still. And why?

I’m no pacifist by a long shot, but really… what was the point of Nam?

My feelings about this era in U.S. history don’t even one iota lessen my respect for those who suffered (and are suffering still) through it; soldiers, civilians, families, etc. The words on the page can inform you. They can make you see, understand, even feel a hint of the suffering: however, no words can ever take you there and let you experience what soldiers like Mr. Caputo experienced.

Respect.

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Chained Eagle – a GoodReads Review

Chained EagleChained Eagle by Everett Alvarez
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Commander Alvarez,

I must start this review by saluting you, sir.

This book should be read by every politician and citizen of any country. It’s the story of the longest-held POW of the Vietnam War era. Commander Alvarez endured EIGHT AND ONE HALF YEARS of deprivation, torture, filth, vermin, parasites, sadistic jailers, insects, cold, heat, fear, starvation; and through all that, he didn’t lose his faith or his mind. He made it home, finally.

You cannot even begin to know what this man endured for his country. Only those who were there with him can understand. The ones who did manage to make it home arrived as changed men. They were not the young, idealistic boys they had been in the earlier stage of their lives.

Regardless of your beliefs or feelings about that era in our history, Everett Alvarez –and all the others who suffered as POWs, grunts in the jungles, nurses in the field hospitals, and their families– deserve the utmost respect and gratitude from the citizens of the United States of America. They were called. They obeyed. All gave some; some gave ALL.

Read this book!

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Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes – a GoodReads Review

MatterhornMatterhorn by Karl Marlantes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s cliche to say, but there weren’t enough stars available to properly rate this book. It was definitely 5+, though.

I was 7 years old in ’68 with an older brother who was 18. The Vietnam Era is something that looms large in my memories of childhood. I can still remember the fear I had that my brother would have to go to war. I still remember the news every evening and the discussions at the dinner table afterwards. I was young. I wasn’t stupid. As the war dragged on, I even began to worry at my own fate regarding my possible participation in that war. Fortunately, for both myself and my brother (high lottery number), we got lucky. My parents’ fears never came to fruition.

For someone — even someone like myself with an avid interest in Military History — who has never experienced a battlefield or a jungle ambush or a shelling/bombing, there is just no possible way for them to fathom such an experience. You cannot watch movies or read books to understand what it’s like to be shot at by someone who is intent upon killing you. It’s just not possible. There are many authors who have written books or movie makers who have created epics on film (documentary and fiction) that can bring a tiny inkling, a safe and sterile view, to the uninitiated.

Karl Marlantes has written this story about a group of young boys whose lives change forever as a result of their experiences in Vietnam. This is a fiction, but it is 100% based in reality of that time period. It could easily be a non-fiction narrative; and probably is close to the experiences of many, many men who were there then. I would even think it would be painful for them to read a story such as this; similar to my godfather once telling me that he and his American Legion cronies had to walk out of the theater during Saving Private Ryan because they’d been there and done that and the memories were still close to the surface even 60 years later.

I was never a hawk when it came to this war. I’ve studied it extensively since my teen years to my middle age. It was a part of the fabric of my childhood. I think that’s why it fascinates me so. It was an unbelievable political cluster-screw. So many lives were wasted or altered completely by this event. Regardless of my beliefs about this war, I have always respected and been awed by the sacrifices that young men (and women) in the U.S. Military and its support system made during this time in history.

Again, nothing can put you in their shoes. Nothing can impress upon you what they endured. Nothing. It’s that simple. Total immersion is require for total understanding. This book by Marlantes will take you there. It will make you want to shower and search for leeches on your legs and neck. It will give you a hint of the fear these kids experienced. It will break your heart. Yet, it will only do this to you for brief instance in time while you sit in your easy chair under the reading light.

That being said, experience this book. Experience it two or three times. It’s worth the read. I don’t care if you don’t have an interest in the Vietnam War. Read it, anyway. If you’re human, it will have an effect on you. It will get you to feel. It may bring tears to your eyes. It did this to me.

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Enduring Vietnam by James Wright – a Goodreads Review

Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its WarEnduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War by James Edward Wright

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hmm… this book is a bit difficult to describe. It’s a lot of things…

  • historical
  • political
  • cultural
  • painful
  • cathartic

If you grew up in the era of this war, this book will be painful to read, yet therapeutic in its presentation of the affects that this war had on many of us from this time in our lives.

I did not serve in this war, but I have the utmost respect for those young men and women who did. I was just a bit too young. Had it lasted just a few more years, though, I would have been a candidate for the draft.

My father and uncles all served in WWII. My brother was of draft age during the height of the Vietnam War, but had a high lottery number and lucked out; otherwise, his life could have been seriously changed by his experiences had he served.

Because of my brother’s age and the fact that this war was the first televised war, it was a daily conversation in our home then. I remember the fear my mother expressed over my brother’s situation. I remember my father’s comments about the news stories on the evening news.

I’ve had an interest in military history since I was a small child, but my focus has always been on the Vietnam War, possibly because I grew up in the midst of all of it. If you have an interest in the era and would like to try to understand what the young men and women of that time period were dealing with, read this book.

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Backfire by Loren Baritz – a Goodreads Review

Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We DidBackfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did by Loren Baritz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read many books on the Vietnam War. Most were all about the who, what, where, and how. This book, however, is about the WHY! And while many of the reasons behind this debacle in US history were known to me or suspected highly, Mr. Baritz puts it all out there in this book; the motivations, the errors in judgement, the manipulations, the lies and deceit, the ineptitude of our leaders (civilian and military), etc. It’s just the whole sad story that cost so many lives.

And for what?

So politicians could get re-elected? So bureaucrats could continue their cush gigs while feeding from the public trough? So military men could give themselves medals and advance their careers? I have no respect for the entire lot of them.

The ones involved in that cluster-screw who I have respect and empathy for are the U.S. servicemen and women who were out there every day getting the asses shot at. The grunts slogging through the mud and mines to achieve some cockamamie goal dreamed up by suits sitting in air conditioned offices 10,000 mile away.

I have respect and empathy for the innocent Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians who suffered so much during this era. They lost so much to gain so little.

I have respect for North Vietnamese people and leaders. They outlasted the US. They bided their time. They suffered. They lost much. They won.

If you have any interest in this era, you should read this book. It was written in 1985, but could be used as a blueprint of what NOT TO DO in our current era when it comes to “limited wars” and wasting of human life for causes that cannot even remotely be classified as noble.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – a Few Comments

A Tree Grows in BrooklynA Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

I loved this book. It was a bitter-sweet story, yet still left a good feeling in your heart when that last page was turned. It’s not action-adventure. It’s not horror. It’s not sci-fi. It’s about what it is to be a human being. It’s about struggle, pain, hunger, disappointment, loss, grief, happiness, anger, love, death, etc. In other words, it’s about all of us.

Read it. It’s like life itself. No one can tell you about a book. You have to experience it on your own.*

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*This brief review is copied in its entirety from my GoodReads profile.

On Writing

There have been a few times in the past when I’ve been accused by some folks of being a somewhat skillful writer. Now it’s possible that these nice folks just don’t realize what skillful writing really looks like, so it’s also possible that opinions may vary widely among my readers (all three of them).

That being said, I was recently asked how I developed these skills. It all started with my mom. She was a stay-at-home mom when I was a wee lad, back in the early 60s; that’s the 1960s, not the 1860s. Anyway, mom took the time to teach me to read and write and appreciate books before I was in the 1st Grade. I will always be thankful for that.

Once I started on my educational journey, a classical Catholic school education, I was inculcated er… I mean educated by Sister Mary Himmler and her ilk at St. What-His-Name’s Catholic Penitentiary. While I rebelled against the incessant brain-washing and militaristic discipline, I did excel in those three fundamental Rs that were offered in schools during that era… Reading, Riting, and Rithmetic.

I guess that some modicum of knowledge and skills were absorbed via osmosis and cracks of that 16″ wooden ruler applied to my knuckles (of the non-writing hand) and my ass cheeks during my stretch in the care of the Poor Sisters of Capital Punishment. Seriously, though… I do not regret my Catholic school education in the least. If there’s anything to rue about, it’s that I did not take full advantage and excel to even greater heights when I had the opportunity.

What brought this post to fruition today was a conversation with a friend a week or so ago. She had been admiring some article I had written somewhere (forget which/where now) sometime in the past and took a moment to ask me what reference books and such did I keep within reach near my writing desk that assisted me in my writing endeavors.

This then is that list:

  • St. Martin’s Guide to Writing (1997)
  • The Complete Plain Words by Gowers/Fraser (1973)
  • The Chicago Manual of Style (14th Edition)
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Usage (1965)
  • Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition (1969)
  • Thorndike/Barnhart Dictionary (1962)
  • Wheelock’s Latin (6th Edition)
  • Cassell’s Latin Dictionary (1921)
  • Roget’s Thesaurus (1969)

And because of the occasional need to brush up on my rusty Spanish:

  • The Bantam New College Spanish/English Dictionary (1987)

*click to view the full sized image

Note the cool brown bag book covers. Bet you haven’t seen many of those around lately, huh? There’s a whole story about those covers on this blog. Check it out, if you’re interested.

I also regularly use Internet sources in my writing. A few listed below in no particular order:

So, you might be asking at this point, “What does it take to be a skillful writer?” Well, Hell if I know. When I become one, I’ll let you guys know. In the meantime, thanks for stopping by visiting with me for a bit.

Go learn something. It won’t hurt you none, I promise.

Later,

~Eric