Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Lotus Eaters

There are days here in Southwest Florida that are so exquisitely perfect that I wonder what I've done to deserve to be here and alive at this moment in time. Today is such a day. It's a day so beautiful that I can actually take a few hours' break from my sustained anger at our government's careless refusal to consider the less fortunate of us; the many who have no home, no yard to luxuriate in on a sunny afternoon, no job, no hope for the future, the people who will suffer so that the uber-wealthy can hold onto their tax cuts.

I am home today on furlough, those unpaid hours that many of us are doling out to ourselves in minor increments so as not to affect the checkbook too drastically. The irony is that I am using the day to do some work. The beauty of that statement is that I don't consider reading for a book discussion "work." It's a joy to me.
To be able to sit and read for a glorious couple of uninterrupted hours, rather than in dribs and drabs between nodding off to sleep, is better than a chocolate ice cream cone. I make it a habit to choose books that I haven't yet read. I like coming to it fresh, as my customers do, gut reactions at the forefront. My choice this time - outstanding!

How do they do it, these young writers who create a first novel of such depth, such anguish and loss, such descriptive power? Where do the pull these emotions from? What is the background of the author of The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli? In researching these questions I stumbled upon a fabulous website to which I have applied to be a member. It's a haven for literary nuts like us! (I'm assuming that you, dear readers, must be one if you're here)

I'm not sure why I've had such a resurgence of interest in the Vietnam era over the past year or two. Perhaps it's because of my deep seated fear that we are repeating those mistakes of the sixties in Afghanistan. Have we learned anything from history? It seems not. We'll see what my ladies have to say.

The Lotus Eaters should be read hand in hand with Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn. (see previous post)
While Marlantes focuses on the chaos of battle from the soldiers' perspective, Soli takes a more humanistic approach to war, concentrating on the relationships between the oppressed and the oppressor (or liberator if you buy into how we saw ourselves). She also does a remarkable job of showing readers how life in a war zone changes people, how the almost certainty of imminent death naturally causes one to throw off the moral restrictions of a past life that barely seems real anymore.

It is death that brings neophyte photojournalist Helen Adams to Vietnam, her brother's death and her parents' anguish. It is death that will hold her there for over ten years, honing her craft, building a reputation as a ballsy, fearless reporter, garnering front page coverage back in the states. It is love that may make her careless.

Helen's love affair with infamous war correspondent Sam Darrow would appear to give her a hand up in the field, being included on dangerous sojourns along the Ho Chi Min Trail, allows her take photographs with a sense of being protected, if not by Darrow himself, then by the inscrutable Linh, his Vietnamese assistant. But, as she works, lives with and becomes comfortable among the villagers, acquires the language, and adjusts to the stifling humidity, Helen finds herself falling in love with the land and questioning, as so many of us did, why American soldiers are dying so violently and senselessly.

This post is becoming over long, as often happens when I feel passionately about something. Like Matterhorn, The Lotus Eaters will stay with me long after I've finished reading. It is, to use that overwrought but often apt word, luminous. The language is so extraordinarily evocative that, sitting in the back yard, the buddha facing me from his/her nest of firecracker bush, turtles splashing in the canal, devilish sun raising a strong sweat on my back, I can almost believe that I'm with Helen, Darrow and Linh, taking R & R in a Vietnamese village untouched, so far, by war.

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