The Lotus Eaters


The Lotus Eaters

By Tatjana Soli

narrated by Kirsten Potter

14.90 recorded hours

Blackstone Audio



Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes) whetted my appetite for more novels about the Vietnam War. Previously a topic that did not particularly interest me, given that I’m not much for topics that happen in my own lifetime, the Vietnam War had made little impression upon my quotidian thoughts. That changed when Karl Marlantes managed to dump me in the middle of the jungle. So now, the Vietnam War has gotten into my head. Everyday I think about it. Sometimes it’s a small thought like when I see a Vietnam War Veteran’s license plate. Sometimes it’s a bigger thought like when journalists compare Iraq with Vietnam. But the point is, that the Vietnam War has become a part of my living history, my present, even though I was not there. The most natural way for me to feed my interests is to read. Fiction. Non-Fiction. It doesn’t matter because in reading more and more about any topic, what is true becomes evident and what isn’t falls away.

When Matterhorn was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, a companion review of The Lotus Eaters also appeared (read Danielle Trussoni’s review and Janet Maslin’s earlier review.) I was at first reluctant to pick up The Lotus Eaters because it didn’t sound gritty enough. It sounded more like a love story for women to read then a book that would transport me to the Vietnam War. I can’t pinpoint what changed my mind; but it may have been pure laziness. The company I work for produced the audio and so I could (and did) walk over to the warehouse and borrow a copy. And besides, there is a helicopter on the cover…

The story is about Helen, a girl who arrives in Vietnam as a novice photographer, ostensibly choosing Vietnam because she wants to discover more about the circumstances of her brother’s death as a soldier. It becomes clear however, that Helen’s own nature has led her there and, now that she is in Vietnam, is intrigued by the land and people. But the overarching theme of the novel is really the addictions that war junkies (the hard core soldiers, the correspondents and photographers who stay on and, the civilians who remain) both relish and suffer despite common sense and the relationships that would otherwise temper risky choices.

The book opens with the fall of Saigon. The listener becomes a voyeur of events that unfold during that day in April 1975 when the crush of people motivated by fear and desperation struggle to escape the approaching conquering armies. The listener follows Helen, the veteran female war photographer as she negotiates the physical and psychological detritus of the city. It becomes clear that this is not your musical, Miss Saigon. Images of the day imprint upon the mind’s eye as much as a newspaper photograph would, a clever literary technique given the protagonist’s profession. This photograph-as-prose approach is subtle in the beginning and more obvious later when certain scenes are literally framed.

Kirsten Potter’s voice is very cool, calm and detached and, appropriate for the novel. Her voice is clear and transparent enough to tell the story and very subtle changes in her tone convey a shift in mood and/or speaker and, accents are used sparingly. The listener is relegated to the third person omniscient POV from the onset of the book and remains there as the author intends. And therein lies my quibble. I don’t want distance from the events. I want to feel them. And I don’t. Still, the highly descriptive prose and the writing technique make this a worthwhile listen. Just don’t expect Matterhorn.

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The Things They Carried

“I liked Matterhorn but Best Vietnam Novel Ever? I don’t think so”


In the above rather provocative tweet sent by a book blogger, a
link to a book review of Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes) was attached. I dutifully clicked on the link and read a rave review about the book:

“It’s the best novel I have ever read about Vietnam, which is saying something as I loved Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried.”

– Michael Jones for The Huffington Post

Now, considering that it took me two weeks to “get out of the bush” after listening to Matterhorn (narrated by Bronson Pinchot,) I was ready to wholeheartedly agree; but then I realized Matterhorn is the only novel about Vietnam I have ever experienced, so what the heck do I know? Hence, I decided to read more novels about Vietnam. Fortuitously, while I was browsing the porch offerings at the Boothbay Library in Maine (any book = 25 cents!) I came across a copy of The Things They Carried and felt it was destiny that it should be the first book to read and compare with Matterhorn.

The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien

In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes about the truth of Vietnam, not necessarily what really happened in Vietnam; but stories that show the truth of Vietnam, especially its senselessness. The short story collection (loosely connected by recurring characters) is more about writing about Vietnam than it is about the actual experience of Vietnam. TTTC is metaliterature that allows the reader to intellectually grasp the meaninglessness of the Vietnam War without feeling it in our guts. The stories are illustrations and abstractions of what it was like for Tim O’Brien but the reader is removed from the immediacy of the action.

But maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, the text had no “voice” to shape it, give life to the nuances or the angst of the characters. And now the second fortuitous event occurs in my quest to discover a book that might possibly challenge Matterhorn as The Best Novel About Vietnam: audible.com had one of their member sales! I was able to snag a copy of The Things They Carried (narrated by Tom Stetschulte) rather inexpensively! YAY! My excitement was short-lived however.

The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien
Narrated by Tom Stetschulte

Recorded Books
7.00 hours

Tom Stetschulte did not seem particularly invested in the text, much less able to color the narrative needed to make the characters, including Tim O’Brien, “pop.” His voice did not exhibit a range much beyond his own more mature voice, so the 18 to 20-something-year-old characters lacked a certain vibrancy and specific characteristics, such as ethnicity. When writing or expressing universals, such as the senselessness of war, perhaps Tim O’Brien and Tom Stetschulte did not think this was important; but the Vietnam War needs the context of specifics to draw us into the time and place. To even begin to make sense of the incomprehensible, the reader/listener needs to be drawn in viscerally, tactilely, to engage as if he were actually present. From there, the mind might be able to grasp the scope of the war experience; but expecting a reader to process the war experience “top down,” i.e academically or intellectually without the feel of the war, is arguably impossible.

Robin Whitten, Founder and Editor of AudioFile Magazine (who, by the way, reviewed TTTC as narrated by Tom Stetschulte and gave it an Earphones Award – read the review here), called my attention to the podcasts that the National Endowment of the Arts produced as part of The Big Read. The NEA/Big Read produced a series of podcasts, each covering a title in their program, of which TTTC was one. I loved the podcast! It contained excerpts from an interview with the author, military vets and, actor Bradley Whitford reading from the book. There were even a couple of cool sound f/x (e.g. the sound of a chopper which moved from the left channel to the right and, a sound clip of The Rolling Stones.) I’m sure Robin Whitten thought that having the background material on TTTC would make me appreciate the novel more; but mostly I thought it was a shame I couldn’t get a recording of Bradley Whitford reading The Things They Carried! Bradley Whitford sounded like he had much more of an affinity for the text.

The Bottom Line:
The writing left me detached and the narration was uninspired.

Matterhorn = 1, Other Vietnam Novels = 0

Other Vietnam Novels TBR: The 13th Valley (by John M.Del Vecchio;) Dispatches (by Michael Herr;) The Lotus Eaters (by Tatjana Soli;) Fatal Light (by Richard Currey) and maybe Going After Cacciato (by Tim O’Brien.) If you have a recommendation for a book (fiction or non-fiction) about the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!

Audiobook Review: Matterhorn

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
By Karl Marlantes
Narrated by Bronson PInchot
Ⓟ 2010, Blackstone Audio, Inc.
20.4 hours
HISTORICAL FICTION

 

I picked this title up because of the helicopter on the cover. Yep, that’s right, I let cover art influence my reading choice! There is something about a helicopter in flight that evokes excited feelings of hope, rescue and relief. If I were a different kind of person, I might feel the same way about an image of a Prince Charming on a white charger, but I’m not and so there it is. I do not generally judge a book by its cover, but in this case, the helicopter was the siren song that seduced me into choosing this title. The only question that remained was whether I would read the book in print or, listen to it in audio.
 
That question was answered when the narrator was in Ashland, OR and my husband and I took him out to dinner. During the course of the dinner, Bronson was asking about “the Columbus book.” It was explained to him that the book was WAITING FOR COLUMBUS (by Thomas Trofimuk; narrated by Grover Gardner) and that, while recording the book, Grover had become so emotionally enmeshed with the text that he actually broke down during the studio sessions. Bronson then said that he had had the same experience while narrating MATTERHORN and, that was what decided it for me. That kind of narrator engagement and response to a story is rare and always something special.
 
So, I pulled a copy from Blackstone’s warehouse and I spent the next couple of weeks listening to one of the best audiobooks I have ever heard, finishing late on a Saturday night. At the beginning of the audio I took the time to draft out a chart of the characters. You can see the Command Structure/List of Characters if you “Look Inside” the book on Amazon.com or you can draft out your own chart within a couple of minutes (I drafted first and compared.) After having written it down, it was pretty much set in my mind. I referred to it once after that to scribble a note about Lt. Col. Simpson (sometimes, Lt. Col. Simpson was referred to as “Big John Six” and other times just as “Big John.”)
 
Anyway, this is why you should listen to MATTERHORN:
  • Excellent writing: From the opening lines to the close of the novel, the author immediately and effectively places the reader/listener in Vietnam, 1969. The imagery is evocative without dipping into superfluous metaphor and, the scenes resonate with physical and psychological detail;
  • Excellent narration: I had one small gripe about the narrator which was that the first three of four times he says the word “gook,” he pronounces it to rhyme with “book.” The rest of the time, he pronounces the word to rhyme with “kook.” Both are correct, but the inconsistency bothered me. The times he pronounced “gook” like “book” I was taken out of the story. But outside of that, I would have to say the narration was flawless. Bronson channeled the characters and the material so effectively that he literally disappeared into the book and the characters spoke (and BTW, “Balki” does not make an appearance in any way, shape or form!)
  • For the veterans: I’ve read a lot of the customer reviews posted for both the print and audio editions of this title. A lot of Vietnam veterans seem to love this book, clearly believing their story has finally been told. This book is fiction; but clearly it’s “true.” Without having read the reviews though, you would know it. There is an honesty in the writing that comes through.
  • For everyone else: There’s a old adage about not judging a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. This book forces you to hump 6 clicks in a Marine’s boots. This book does what the very best of books do: enables the reader to see another point of view. There’s a great scene in the book wherein Jackson, a black Lance Corporal explains to Mellas, a white Second Lieutenant, that he (Jackson) could no more explain what it’s like to be black to Mellas than either of them could explain what its like to be in the bush to civilians. The irony is of course, is that Marlantes has explained what’s its like to be in the bush. Readers/listeners will feel like they were with Bravo Company every step of the way.
I never know which books are going to deeply resonate with me and when they do I really don’t know why. I’m a middle-aged overweight mother in the the Northwest. I have had no military experience and no one in my family served (my father’s experiences in WWII are a different kind of story.) Anyway, Matterhorn really affected me. The first night after I had started listening to the audio, I woke up in the middle of the night, more than a little panicky, slightly sweating and attacking the leech on my leg. OK, it was really a Band-Aid, but it never knew what hit it!
 
After finishing this audiobook, I spent a week still “in the bush” and another week trying to find another audiobook to listen to (after you listen to something this amazing, everything else sounds like dreck!)
 
Highly recommend to absolutely everyone.