Introvert that I am, the best way to look back on the year almost past is through the books that I read. Reading is my ultimate escape and my most cherished way to relax. It goes back to my parents, neither of whom I can recall ever being without a book or magazine close at hand. It also goes back to Vietnam where a book or magazine provided a welcome escape from that most unwelcome reality.
With that prologue, here are my favorites for 2011.
Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver (2000)
Kingsolver lushly presents the stories of three women and one man coming to terms with life. Deanna Wolfe has it all figured out until a man unexpectedly walks into her hermit existence as a National Forest caretaker. Lusa Maluf Landowski must figure it out after she is suddenly turned into an inexperienced farm widow. Two elderly neighbors slowly discover their shared values after many years of hostility. Kingsolver laces all of the stories with lush descriptions of the plant and animal life, including newly-arrived coyotes, in southwest Virginia. The stories gradually move toward each other and resolution but that resolution is left to the reader to imagine. Kingsolver ‘s ending shows the trajectory but doesn’t waste the reader’s time with a lot of specific detail, only that each character has come to understand her and his place in the grand scheme of things.
Driving on the Rim, Thomas McGuane (2010)
Small Montana town doctor Irving Berlin Pickett never quite fits into the world he lives in. He’s certainly not even a typical small town doctor. Despite his medical degree and obvious skills, he never shakes of the unusual circumstances of his early years—the Pentecostalist mother or his itinerant carpet-cleaning father. He manages to figure it out, though, mostly by trial and error. Along the way, author McGuane offers a fair amount of humor (at times laugh out loud funny) and insight.
The Ancient Child, N. Scott Momaday (1989)
Well-told story of culture and identity among Native Americans. The story weaves between the present, New Mexico in the days of Billy the Kid and ancient stories. This tale brings together the death of Kope’ Mah and old medicine woman, young medicine woman and dreamer, Grey and Native American artist Locke Setman, long removed from his cultural roots, living and working in San Francisco. Momaday’s art is how seamlessly it all becomes once the reader understands that the story happens in different dimensions. That the story ends on the Navajo Nation, in places I know, makes it all the more real.
Dog Boy, Eva Hornung (2009)
Set in post-Soviet Russia, Dog Boy tells the story of four-year old Romochka, a four year-old boy abandoned in the economic collapse that impoverished many Russians. Romochka is adopted by a pack of feral dogs and becomes an integral member of the pack. Hornung tells the story in a believable fashion with a keen understanding of canine and human behavior. Events fall in a logical order with the main characters—canine and human—acting realistically and plausibly. The dogs are always dogs and Romochka straddles the divide between dog and human without ever losing his humanity. It’s a grim tale of survival in difficult circumstances.
While Mortals Sleep, Kurt Vonnegut (2011)
These clever previously unpublished Vonnegut short stories showcase his sense of irony, humor and outrage. Set in an era where ten dollars was a meaningful amount, these stories present men and women in their full range of behaviors and beliefs and circumstances. The circumstances are sometimes unusual and altogether normal at once (the relationship between man and machine in “Jenny or the voice of the $12 million Kilrane fortune in “Money Talks”). “Humbugs” dissects the world of art with a neat dexterity and perfect pitch. Vonnegut is a master writer with the attention to detail that makes his portraits of life entertaining and illuminating.
Girl By the Road At Night, David Rabe (2010)
A strikingly small but genuine encounter between Whittaker, an American GI, and Lan, a Vietnamese prostitute. The two edge closer to a more personal relationship that leaves each uneasy in his and her own culture. Rabe, a Vietnam veteran, captures time and place pitch perfectly. The details are different but the sight and sound of the Vietnamese “hospitality industry” are familiar to this veteran’s ears. The two main characters are fully developed, complete individuals, not the stereotypes so typical of Vietnam fiction. Their love is far from unrequited and the ending is a downer but that was Vietnam during the war.
A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, Christopher B. Krebs (2011)
The story of German nationhood involved much fictional interpretation of the Roman historian Tacitus’s description of tribes on the Roman Empire’s periphery in 98 CE. Krebs history of begins with the assumptions and errors of Tacitus’s second hand account of Germanic tribes and follows the idea of German culture, nationhood and separateness to become the Nazi racial ideology. Krebs gives a good account of how a manuscript survives the pillaging of great ancient libraries into future generations as well as development of “the idea of a German nation that came into being as a state only in the late 19th century.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram, Dang Thuy Tram (2007)
Dang Thuy Tram was a young physician from Hanoi who volunteered to serve as a doctor with the National Liberation Front in what was then South Vietnam. Her diary was captured after she was killed by American forces in 1970 at age 27. The American officer assigned to dispose of non-intelligence documents kept the diary after his translator told him “Don’t burn this one….It has fire in it already.” Years later, the diary was returned to the Tram family and published in Vietnam. The diary is an intimate view of life on the Other Side, where Americans are bloodthirsty killers and The Enemy. Ms. Tram recounts the difficulties of treating wounded with limited supplies and often under fire. At the same time, she is also a young woman grappling with her emotions and personal relations and a determined cadre striving to serve Party and Nation, even if it means hardship and death. For me as an American, Ms. Tram’s words are difficult to read—we don’t think of ourselves as the bloodthirsty enemy. We were fighting for freedom, after all. Weren’t we?
Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention, Manning Marable (2011)
Manning Marable presents Malcolm X, warts and all, as a work in progress, evolving from a small-time, petty criminal to advocate of black nationalism. The criminal begins to assimilate knowledge while in prison that puts his own experience as a minority in white America into perspective. The Nation of Islam offers him opportunity to further expand that knowledge and provides an intellectual framework for his understanding of man and society. Ever-changing, Malcolm X finds the strictures of NOI to be limiting and begins moving toward a different, perhaps more mainstream approach in the year before his assassination. Marable clearly sees the changes in Malcom’s thinking and the flaws in his character but he also recognizes Malcolm’s unwavering commitment to black self-determination and autonomy. That is the one constant in Malcolm X’s life of reinvention.
The reader will note Vietnam shows up in both fiction and nonfiction selections. Both books remind me that the so called "enemy" is a real person who differs from me only in geography and culture. My trip to Vietnam at the turn of 2011 brought that lesson to me in clear, unambiguous terms.