Over the recent winter vacation, I had some time to read a few books – a couple of biographies (one auto-, one facilitated) and a much-praised Vietnam novel. This is a short review of them.
I’m not a big fan of war books, so I approached The Things They Carried with some hesitation. However, I have to say that the praise it has gotten has been well deserved. It’s a collection of stories, some of which have been published before. Each story is semi-capable of standing on its own, but still interlinked with the rest.
I find it difficult to describe what style the book is written in, but the writing is powerful in its detail, feeling, honesty, imagery and is, above all, very human. It doesn’t attempt to instill the image of moral superiority for anyone or anything, it doesn’t delve in who’s right and who’s wrong – it simply tells a vivid and powerful story of a platoon in Vietnam as well as snippets of life before and after the war. Some details are naturally gory, some tales are of adventure, but there is no attempt at either inflating or glorifying the events of the war. The text is at the same time simple and almost lyrical, as can maybe be seen from this short excerpt:
Like cement, Kiowa whispered in the dar. I swear to God – boom, down. Not a word.
I’ve heard this, said Norman Bowker.
A pisser, you know? Still zipping himself up. Zapped while zipping.
All right, fine. That’s enough.
Yeah, but you had to see it, the guy just–
I heard, man. Cement. So why not shut the fuck up?
After a time, Kiowa sighed.
One thing for sure, he said. The lieutenant’s in some deep hurt. I mean that crying jag – the way he was carrying on – it wasn’t fake or anything, it was real heavy-duty hurt. The man cares.
Sure, Norman Bowker said.
Say what you want, the man does care.
We all got problems.
No, I guess not, Bowker said. Do me a favor, though.
That’s a smart Indian. Shut up.
He wanted to share the man’s pain, he wanted to care as Jimmy Cross cared. And yet when he closed his eyes, all he could think was Boom-down, and all he could feel was the pleasure of having his boots off and the fog curling in around him and the damp soil and the Bible smells and the plush comfort of night.
After a moment Norman Bowker sat up in the dark.
What the hell, he said. You want to talk, talk. Tell it to me.
No, man, go on. One thing I hate, it’s a silent Indian.
While the book is supposedly fiction, it reads almost like an autobiography and clearly some of it is based on O’Brien’s own experiences in Vietnam. Highly recommended, even if you don’t like war novels as such (possibly especially if you don’t like war novels).
Roughly around the time when the Vietnam war was going on, another kind of drama was ongoing in Saudi Arabia. Princess, as the subject would reveal, tells the story of a female member of the royal family in Saudi Arabia and her fight against the submission of women in the country. Written by an American writer who befriended Sultana, the book is a detailed story of her life from childhood onwards.
The book offers a fascinating insight into the lives of both men and women in Saudi Arabia. It’s often difficult to understand how such subordination of women became the norm there and by western standards the lives of both men and women are extremely strange. The power of Mutaween and the “Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” is indeed scary there; yet, at the same time, many people lead blatantly double-faced lives in relation to e.g. alcohol consumption. Another interesting aspect that I didn’t know of was that the Saudi Arabians typically lead very “normal”-looking lives when traveling abroad – for women there is no need to wear the veil abroad, for example.
While some years old (it was published in 1992), Princess is a moving and, at times, infuriating story about the tortured lives of the “privileged” in Saudi Arabia. One can only wonder how much, if anything, has changed since the time of writing this book, but I’m sure not enough has. Also highly recommended.
Elizabeth Kim was born out of a short relationship with a Korean woman and an American soldier – her mother despised and shunned for this “shameful” act by her village and family is eventually murdered in front of her daughter, who is then sent to an orphanage and subsequently adopted by an American couple. One would like to think her worst troubles would be over at this stage, but unfortunately they were just beginning; it turns out her adopters were ultra-strict, uneducated, religious zealots who, if humanly possible, often only made her live worse than before. Unfortunately her troubles didn’t end even when she got married as the man was violent and suffering from mental problems.
As the name would imply, it’s not a happy book nor a great adoption story in the positive sense – but it is also a story of hope, power of love and forgiveness and the persistence of life as Kim finally breaks free and starts to build her life essentially from scratch. She also has a daughter from the distraught marriage and some of her feelings and thoughts are also included in the book, adding to the story’s depth. The story also highlights the importance of “parental selection” in adoption processes that is nowadays done. Like Princess, the experiences and some people responsible for evil deeds will make you angry, but it’s the kind of anger that can change things if directed properly. Ten Thousand Sorrows is a remarkable autobiography and one that brings out some of the worst aspects of both Korean and American cultures; thankfully, there is some kind of a happy ending as Kim’s life is slowly put together with the help of some good people in her life.