Monthly Archives: April 2016

Book Review — Friendly Fire

Friendly Fire by C.D.B. Bryan

Friendly Fire by C.D.B. Bryan is not your typical Vietnam War book. Bryan, a graduate of Yale and (unhappy) veteran of the Korean War, developed this book from a series of articles written for The New Yorker. Friendly Fire centers around the friendly fire death Michael Mullen and his parents’, Pat and Gene, investigation of the event.

This is mostly written as narrative fiction with very few notes. Bryan admits that he was trying to present the story rather than the method of research. Michael Mullen died in Vietnam from artillery shrapnel from an American gun firing routine Defensive Targeting (DT) on February 17, 1970. There is immediate sympathy for the parents as they wade through and fight for information. Suspicion cast on the army with a wide range of clerical errors and the arduous task of fighting a bureaucracy. To help build a case for the parents, their family history in Iowa is traced back and the reader is taken into the family — normal small town America. The reader feels the frustrations as they battle the army for answers. Pat, especially, becomes an outspoken peace activist. The reader continues with little choice but to wholeheartedly support the Mullens.

About half way through the book the reader will pick up on things. Michael’s final paycheck given to the family is short because he took advance leave before going to Vietnam and the army deducted that from the check. Pat is outraged and blames the army for not allowing him to live long enough to pay it back with time in service. She writes the president and representatives, often. The FBI is following her and tapping her phone. She blames Michael’s battalion commander, LTC Norman Schwarzkopf, for killing her son and covering it up. Schwarzkopf was sacrificing troops to advance his career. I was just over halfway through the book when Pat started losing credibility with me. Not in her opposition to the war, but in her bitterness and looking to find a conspiracy and someone to blame. During a Pentagon visit, she becomes angry at a woman who compiles the casualty lists as if, somehow, the woman is actually creating the casualties.

The Mullen’s met with Schwarzkopf while he was in Walter Reed hospital recovering from surgery on his back. When Pat Mullens contacts Schwarzkopf, he said he would like to talk to her about that night. He agrees to meet and continues to invite Pat to talk whom seems more content to argue about meeting than actually meeting. Schwarzkopf is very open and the Mullens are very hostile. Bryan enters the book and plays mediator for the continuation. Bryan spends time with the Mullens and interviews Schwarzkopf. He searches for survivors from the night Michael was killed. This was a monumental task at the time. There were 1.3 million on active duty in the army in 1970 and no computerized recordkeeping. If someone left the army there was no Facebook or Google search to help track them down.

Bryan uses all the information available from eye-witnesses and records and recreates the night of the accident in the final chapter. The result will surprise some and not surprise too many veterans. The death of a son was a catalyst in what became a movement in the 1970s — anti-war and a loss of faith in elected officials, from the president on down. As much as this book is about the death of Michael Mullens; it is also about a change in the nation and the loss of hope and the American dream. Not your average Vietnam story.

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Book Review — Vita’s Other World: A Gardening Biography of Vita Sackville-West

Vita's Other World: A Gardening Biography of Vita Sackville-West

Vita’s Other World: A Gardening Biography of Vita Sackville-Westby Jane Brown is the public’s view of Vita Sackville-West’s life. Brown read English and History at Birmingham University before completing a Masters degree in Landscape Architecture at the University of Greenwich. She has over 20 years of experience in gardening and landscape design, having worked as a landscape designer at Clifton Nurseries in Little Venice and with The Landscape Agency before setting up Jane Brown Associates in 2006.

Vita Sackville-West lead that Clark Kent – Superman life. The Superman life includes the affairs, almost entirely with women, and a wild writer’s life. This life seems to upset her gardening fans which made up the other part of her life. Vita Sackville-West was well known in the gardening circles and created a different type of fame. Pat Nixon even requested a meeting with her to discuss gardening. Myself, I found the gardening to be out of place in the life that I read about Vita. It seems Vita had no formal training in gardening and fell into it as part of her home life or perhaps something to keep her tied to home. Gardening, here, is not the backyard patch or flower gardens — we are talking about acres.

Vita grew up around the gardens of Knole House and later brought gardens to Long Barn and later still to the impressive Sissinghurst Castle. The Sissinghurst gardens were open to the public and at times, Vita would mingle with the visitors and answer questions. Her gardens at Sissinghurst are now part of the National Trust. Vita’s Other World tells the story of a more domesticated Vita with an entirely different passion. The book contains plenty of black and white prints of the Vita and the gardens. It is a shame that so few are in color. The original photography was black and white and coloring technology had a way to go when this book was published in 1985. We should be grateful that photography was common enough to capture so many pictures, but black and white garden pictures leave much to be desired.

This is a well-written book on the history of Vita and Harold’s gardening. It is light on biography and avoids scandal but it is a gardening book written by an educated and experienced landscape engineer. A great book for gardeners and a light read for Vita Sackville-West fans. Brown makes use Vita’s writing and quotes her often throughout the book with special attention given to the Vita’s 2,500 line poem “The Land.” A nice look at the lesser known side of the writer and poet.

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Book Review — Broderie Anglaise

Broderie Anglaise by Violet Trefusis

Broderie Anglaise by Violet Trefusis is the fictionalized portrayal of a love affair between the author and Vita Sackville-West. Trefusis was an English writer and socialite. She is chiefly remembered for her lengthy affair with the poet Vita Sackville-West, which the two women continued after their respective marriages to men. Trefusis wrote novels and nonfiction works, both in English and French. This novel was published in French in 1935. It has only recently been translated into English.

I started reading Virginia Woolf, which led me to Vita Sackville-West and she has taken me to Violet Trefusis. The Vita Sackville-West — Virginia Woolf affair is well known, but before that affair, Vita took to Violet Trefusis in a relationship that lasted a lifetime. Vita wrote about her affair with Violet in her book Challenge and later in her journal which was published by her youngest son as Portrait of a Marriage. There are, of course too, the letters Violet send to Vita but the letters Vita send back were all destroyed by Violet’s husband, Denys. Vita’s and Virginia Woolf’s relationship has been preserved in letters and diaries which have all been published. Broderie Anglaise is Violet’s version of events and her characterizations of the people involved. John Shorne is Vita, safely taking a more socially acceptable male form. Lady Shrone is Victoria Sackville-West played out in hyperbole. Alexa is Virginia Woolf who Anne (Violet) is meeting. An actual meeting Virginia and Violet did take place in real life.

This book would probably be of little interest or value to a reader not familiar with the setting who might simply dismiss it as a mediocre novel. There is nothing stellar about the writing or the story — Two women who competed for the same man, who was controlled by his mother. The story comes to mean more when the characters are known. If anyone has read Portrait of a Marriage or the letters Violet wrote to Vita, the story and it characterizations become clear. Violet was a very emotional person and it is reflected in her letters in the form of passion and mocking when her passion was not returned. Broderie Anglaise is Violet’s last bit of bitterness and revenge on both Vita and Virginia Woolf. Vita and Violet remained friends for life but things never returned to the passion of the earlier years. That is perhaps one reason this book was not published in English until recently. Nigel Nicholson (Vita’s son) waited until both Vita and Violet had died before publishing Portrait of a Marriage perhaps this was Violet’s thinking in keep the book in French, although Vita did speak French. Their affair inChallenge was fictionalized and there too Vita played the male role, but it also remained unpublished for fifty years for fear of a scandal.

For those interested in Vita Sackville-West this book does hold some value. Trefusis has shown in her letters just how emotionally driven she was and it reflects well in this novel as the characters outside of Anne (Violet) are but caricatures of their real selves. Violet could hold a grudge and it shows. It would seem that she believed that she and Vita should have been together and it was those surrounding Vita poisoned their relationship. Broderie Anglaise is perhaps better viewed as a study of Violet Trefusis’ psyche than as a novel.

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Book Review — Herman Melville: The Dover Reader

Herman Melville The Dover Reader by Herman Melville

Herman Melville: The Dover Reader by Herman Melville is a selected collection of Melville’s works. Melville is most famous for his lengthy novel Moby Dick of which excerpts are included in this anthology. He took to the sea only for a few years, but that had a lasting impression on him and in his writing. One begins to wonder how much of his fiction is inspired by actual events and how much is really fiction. Moby Dick opens with a detailed tutorial on whales and whaling which sets the reader’s mind in a nonfictional mode before starting his story. Mixing fact and fiction in a believable way is a trademark of his work.

Melville rose quickly to fame but descend equally as fast. The opening selection is his first novel Typee a full-length story that started his rise to fame. The story takes place in the Pacific as two men flee a badly run ship and hide out on a tropical island. The place seems like paradise, but like most paradise stories there is a dark side. Next are excerpts from Moby Dick as mentioned above. He tried to renew his fame with short stories and magazine serials. The anthology closes with a few of these short stories with most of them having a nautical theme with two exceptions. One of the two is the very well written “Bartleby, the Scrivener”

Dover delivers a thorough collection of Melville’s work at a great price. Not including the complete Moby Dick is a way to introduce other writing, and Moby Dick has long been on student reading lists. Most have either read it or remain fearful of its size. This collection demonstrates the Melville was more than a one hit writer and others an introduction to hook those that have been putting off Moby Dick.

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Book Review — What Persists: Selected Essays on Poetry from the Georgia Review, 1988-2014

What Persists by Judith Kitchen

What Persists: Selected Essays on Poetry from the Georgia Review, 1988-2014 by Judith Kitchen is a collection of selected essays previously published in the Georgia Review. Kitchen was the author of six books and co-editor of for nonfiction collections. Her awards include two Pushcart Prizes for an essay, the Lillian Fairchild Award for her novel, the Anhinga Prize for poetry, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She has served as a judge for the AWP Nonfiction Award, the Pushcart Prize in poetry, the Oregon Book Award, and the Bush Foundation Fellowships, among others. Kitchen was an Advisory and Contributing Editor for The Georgia Review where she was a regular reviewer of poetry.

I am quite new to poetry and enjoy reviewing it. However, I have no formal education in poetry. My area of study is political science and international affairs. I do find poetry a nice balance to the harshness of international dealings. I like the thinking and imagery that poetry delivers to the reader. It is a thinking relaxation for me and I would hate to spoil it with too much analysis.

As an undergraduate, I reviewed T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and I saw it as the aftermath of WWI and treated it in a historical sense. I came close to getting an “F” on that review because I didn’t focus on fertility. I documented my findings but that was not good enough. Here is Kitchen’s genius. She reviews poems and even if I didn’t notice her points, she points them out in a logical and meaningful way. Unlike a student failing to see fertility gods, she gently directs the reader to her findings. After that, she explains her findings by being intimately familiar with the poet’s entire works and who he or she was inspired by. In one poem she critiques she mentions Whitman. I would never have seen it. I wouldn’t have figured it out even with a hint. Kitchen points it out and identifies it. She finds themes no matter how minute through a poet’s work. Her mind worked like a wartime code breakers. The message in poetry is not always clear, but Kitchen finds order and meaning in what sometimes appears to be a jumble of words.

I found this collection of essays to be a wealth of information. She showed someone like me what to look for in poetry beyond the emotional effect. She isn’t heavy handed of monolithic in her findings, but she does show an aspiring critic what to look for in a poem. Reading her essays probably did more to open my mind to analyzing poetry than anything I have read or heard. Furthermore, her work tends to be enlightening rather than dictatorial. I will use What Persists many more times as a reference book on criticism more than I will use it as an analysis of the poems covered. It is said no one ever builds statues to critics, but Kitchen deserves one.  She had great insight into poetry.

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Book Review — Violet to Vita: 2the Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1910-1921

Violet to Vita by John Phillips

The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West are the one-sided conversation between the two writers. Vita’s letters to Violet were destroyed by Violet’s husband Denys and the racier ones destroyed by Violet herself. Their affair was much longer than the twenty-two years represented by this collection of letters. It lasted a lifetime. In Virginia Woolf’s “love letter” to Vita Orlando Violet plays the role of Princess Sasha. It was a deep and lasting friendship and love affair that was even recognized by her current lover at the time.

The letters make the bulk of the book outside of the introduction. Small introductions are written to each section of letters. Vita was apparently was a rock star of her time. Women threw themselves at her. Violet was obsessed with Vita and it shows in the letters. No doubt the love shows through when Vita responds in kind. However, when Vita ignores Violet’s pleas and amour, Violet grows almost fanatical in her devotion. She turns into what today would be a Facebook stalker in the age of letters. She mocks Vita for going back to her weak husband and domestic life. When things were good the letters reflected it. A series of letters uses pet names from Vita’s Challenge Julian and Eve. Jullian was the persona Vita took on when she dressed as a man, as she did on more than a few occasions, when out with Violet.

The only problem I had with this book was the feeling I was only hearing one side of a phone conversation. The letters from Vita were lost long ago and would have made an excellent addition to this collection. It is difficult to tell if Violet was overreacting or perhaps even delusional at times without seeing Vita’s letters. Vita does tell her side in her own works, but she has the luxury of framing things in her memory of past events rather than what was actually written at the time.

This collection of letters provides support and a check on Vita’s own writing — Portrait of a Marriage. Vita Sackville-West was quite the rebel, free spirit, and mover of her time. She is often seen just as a shadow of others like Virginia Woolf. Her writing was a second rate, according to Virginia Woolf, and only a few books remain in print. I found here writing hit or miss, but after reading Vita’s autobiography, biographies, and letters and gaining insight into her life perhaps Challenge will have more meaning to me. The more I read about Vita Sackville-West the more interesting I find her.


The rock star herself



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Book Review: Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West

Behind the Mask by Matthew Dennison

Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West by Matthew Dennison is a well-researched biography the English writer, poet, gardener, and traveller. Dennison is the author of five works of nonfiction. He read English at Christ Church, Oxford, as Douglas Jerrold Scholar, and afterwards the History of Decorative Arts at the University of Glasgow. He is a journalist and regular contributor to a range of publications, including Country Life, The Spectator and Telegraph Magazine; he contributed to ‘Queen Victoria’s Children’ and ‘Royal Cousins at War’ for BBC 2 and ‘The Queen’s Longest Reign’ for BBC1.

I kind of stumbled across Vita Sackville-West while reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries and letters. Since then I have readPoems of East and West, Passenger to Teheran, and a few novels. Recently I ordered Portrait of a Marriage written by her son, Nigel Nicholson, which piqued my interest. Behind the Mask is the first biography (or biographical information) I have read that has not been written by a family member or lover, but it does use plenty of first-hand source material.

Vita was a lonely and grubby tomboy growing up and her first close relations were with girls. Her parents were distant and her mother actually ran out. Victoria, Vita’s mother, did not enjoy childbirth and refused to have another child. Some of the pain lingered on when she saw her child. Vita fell in love with the Sackville estate which was bittersweet. As a woman, Vita knew she would not inherit the estate. She grew up knowing that the estate was a beautiful dying dream for her.

Vita had many same-sex relationships, but at the time, there was no lesbianism in the social constructs of Britain. Male homosexuality was known and also a crime. Interestingly Vita married Harold Nichols, a homosexual or at least a man with homosexual needs. The two did have a platonic love and were able to hide their affairs behind the marriage. When it came to relationships, Vita was a rock star. Women fell totally in love with her and she was the one who remained cooler. Virginia Woolf was the lone exception.

Behind the Mask also covers the two important aspects of Vita’s life writing and later gardening. Vita wrote about what she knew, her life. Direct connections between her life and her writing are brought out in the book. Later in life, she took up gardening at her new estate, Sissinghurst Castle which is part of the National Trust.

Behind the Mask is a detailed look into the personal and professional life of Vita Sackville-West. Reading this book has opened up new connections to writers. Violet Trefusis, a lover of Vita’s, wrote Broderie Anglaise and was the stunning Russian Princess Sasha in Woolf’s Orlando. This biography helped clarify Orlando as well as Vita’s own writing. Also, British writer Ronald Firband satirized Vita in his 1923 novella The Flower Beneath the Foot. Vita is Victoria Gellibore Frinton, the Honourable Mrs. Chillywater. Behind the Mask moves Vita Sackville-West from the footnotes of Virginia Woolf to the forefront. An interesting woman who lead an interesting life redefining marriage, love, and life in a conservative time.

(Read for my own benefit and not for review)



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Book Review — Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War by Matti Friedman is an account of the 1990s Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Friedman is an Israeli-Canadian journalist and author. In 1995, he made aliyah to Israel and now he lives in Jerusalem.

I picked this book up thinking it was a Vietnam memoir. The marketing blurb referenced Vietnam and the cover reminded me of a Vietnam scene. I was wrong in fact, however, very close in spirit. It seems that there are many similarities in the occupation of southern Lebanon and the border region and America’s involvement in Vietnam. The youth of Israel would have preferred not to be in a firefight much like the Americans decades before. However, they went when called and took part in a military action they knew was essentially fruitless.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is a record of Avi’s, a young Israeli soldier, involvement in the war. Avi left details of his service in letters and personal writings. The second part is the author’s account during his time in service and the reactions of the families of soldiers. The third part is again written by the author. He returns back to Canada to “get his accent back” and then travels to Lebanon as a Canadian. There he meets with the people he had pointed his rifle at earlier. There is a world of difference and the only change is which passport he was holding.

Pumpkinflowers is not just an account of the soldiers but also the military experience. The leaders were trained and ready to fight another large scale tank war, but against the Hezbollah that would not happen. Their walled outpost, Pumpkin, was staffed with more than infantry. There was an anti-tank squad with nothing to shoot at. Leadership was determined to fight the war they wanted and not the war they actually faced. The enemy changed tactics learning it was safer to retreat farther back into Lebanon and launch rockets than use men in cross-border attacks.

Friedman writes a valuable history that seems to be repeated over and over again. The Soviets did it in Afghanistan. America did it in Vietnam and almost again in Iraq and Afghanistan. When faced by a superior force the best action is to retreat and fight a guerilla war. Small groups can win against a far superior enemy if they believe in their cause and they fight a non-conventional war with an enemy who does not change its tactics. The last section also presents the human side of war experienced by those in the crossfire. People who grow up seeing their neighbors killed learn to hate those doing the killing, no matter what the reason. Friedman exposes war as something that is not black and white or fought by zealots, and recognizes that things change depending on which side of the line one is standing.

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Book Review — Constellation

Constellation by Adrien Bosc is a novel centering on Air France Constellation BAZN flying on the night and morning of October 27 and 28, 1949. Bosc is a French writer and editor. The French edition of Constellation won the Grand Prize novel by the French Academy in 2014, Literary Award for Vocation 2014, and the Price Gironde News Scriptures 2014. The Constellation referred to in the title was Lockheed L-749A airliner. It was four engine propeller driven aircraft. It started regular service in 1947 and was still used by TWA until 1967. The aircraft line was finally retired in 1993.

Without knowing this was a novel the reader could easily think he or she was reading a detailed researched account of a fatal air crash. BAZN was scheduled to fly from Paris-Orly Airport, France to New York City, with a stopover at Santa Maria Airport, Azores. By 1949, transatlantic flights were routine and Air France was coming up on its 2,000 non-stop crossing. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the fatal flight on October 27 except the changing of the refueling stops from Shannon, Ireland to Santa Maria in the Azores because of weather. The pilot had over 60,000 flight hours including eighty-eight ocean crossings. His crew consisted mostly of former combat pilots. This was an experienced crew flying a plane with proven safety record.

Bosc weaves a story together alternating strands of the flight, search, and repatriation and the passengers. Of the forty-seven passengers, eleven were crew. The remainder included a Middle Weight Champion, a French violinist and her brother, a Walt Disney director, an artist, a Montreal newspaper editor, and five Basque shepherds coming to work ranches in America. The story of the flight is broken down into sections and brief biographies of the passengers are used to separate the flight and recovery. Even in a grim story, Bosc puts together some almost poetic passages:

…Atlantic. Reflected in the infinite puddle are the Big and Little Dippers, Orion, and Scorpio.

I have always been a fan of aviation stories most of them, however, not as tragic as this story. From an early age, stories of WWI pilots to specifications of commercial planes always interested me. The story of the flight is well done and the biographies add the human touch to the book. What confused me while reading the book was what to take as factual and what was made up by the author. The flight information seems to line up with the actual events. The passengers are all correctly identified. The question is where does reality stop and fiction begin. There are no citations through the book and reads like narrative non-fiction except that the author is entirely too young to be a witness to any of these events. I am left to assume that the book is more in the style of writing rather than the more cut and dry American style. The literary term is “faction” or nonfiction novel. The style was popular in the United States earlier with notable works such as Alex Haley’s Roots and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The problem for some, like me, lies in what is true and what is fiction. For others looking for something interesting to read without the urge to fact check, this is an excellent novel of tragedy and the human connection to the fallibility of technology.

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Book Review — Day of the Oprichnik

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin is a futuristic Russian novel tied to the past. Sorokin is probably better known for his novel The Queue. Sorokin has experienced Soviet Russia and the rise and fall of democracy. The Day of the Oprichnik is a single day in the life of Oprichnik Andrei Danilovich Komiaga in post-Putin Russia — 2028.
The Oprichnik were originally part of Ivan IV’s Russia. Ivan IV (The Terrible*, in the West, but Great or Powerful in Russian — Grozny or thunderstorm) had difficulty with his nobles (boyars) and went about to correct this. His plan involved using commoners to police the nobility. In that society the common people believed the Czar, Ivan IV, to be divinely appointed to rule and his word was God’s word. Using this control he was able to turn the peasant population against the nobility. The large part of this was done by a special police force called the Oprichnina. They were feared by all. Their coat of arms contained a broom and a dog’s head. The broom to sweep away the traces of the criminals and the dog’s head — vicious and loyal. Executions and property confiscations were the norm. Many other nobles were exiled to the East unintentionally, but effectively spreading Russia East into Siberia. The problem this created was that the Oprichnina were only accountable to the Czar. Their new found power lead massive corruption as there were no effective checks on the Oprichnina.

Sorokin takes a reader on a trip to a Russia that returns to the past. Rule by an autocratic Czar and a renewed religious fervor in the country sets the scene. The reader will experience a day in the life of Andrei Danilovich Komiaga a rising member of the small Oprichnik unit. In addition to enforcing the royal decrees, there are also the operations of the unit as what seems to be an organized crime family. Extortion, drugs, and luxury are the way of life. The reader will also witness the variable morals where cursing is disallowed but rape is accepted. Day of the Oprichnik is a novel of what happens when a society falls blindly to a ruler or religion. Although a bit hyperbolic at times its message is clear.

* Terrible although a bad translation could be used as how Ivan IV was seen by Russia’s many enemies, but it was meant as a term favor. Many rulers were also described as awful. This was meant, at the time, as being awe-inspiring. Many words take on their own meaning with time like “awful” and even Machiavelli(an). Being known as Ivan the Terrible was actually a compliment to the ruler given by the people. Ivan IV was a progressive as rulers came in that time period. Yes, there were atrocities but his in comparison to peers he was not all that “terrible.”


Read for enjoyment and not for review purposes.

Recomended by Ksenia Anske

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