Monday, April 20, 2015

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen: A review

The SympathizerThe Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since the mid 1970s, we have not lacked for literary and film retellings and interpretations of the Vietnam War. But all of these have been told almost exclusively from an American perspective. Although the war was fought in their country, decimated their land, and killed untold numbers of their people, we have not had the Vietnamese viewpoint of events. Viet Thanh Nguyen, with his first published novel, remedies that glaring lack for us.

Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American. Born in Vietnam, he and his family were among the boat people who escaped following the fall of Saigon and the overrunning of the South by the North Vietnamese. He was raised in the United States and educated here, so he has a unique perspective of the war and its aftermath. With this novel, he has finally given voice to the previously voiceless Vietnamese people who endured the horror of the war.

The novel is written as a confession. Our narrator, whose name we never learn, is writing his account of events for the "commissar" of the Vietnamese prison/reeducation center where he is being held. We soon learn that understanding duality is key to understanding the nature of the protagonist. He is only half Vietnamese - his mother was a teenage girl who was seduced by a French Catholic priest. He was raised by his mother alone and he loves her unconditionally. She is his hero. He hates his father who never took any part in his raising, nor did he acknowledge his son. At the time that we meet him, however, both parents are already dead.

Not only is he dual in his origins, he is also balancing between two worlds, two political ideologies. He is an aide to a South Vietnamese general (also unnamed) who fought against the Communists, but, as he tells us in his opening lines, "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook,  man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds, to see any issue from both sides."

He is an undercover agent for the Communists. His handler is a childhood friend named Man. Our narrator is blood brothers with Man and another childhood friend, Bon. Bon is a "genuine patriot" of the South and is an assassin for the C.I.A.; Man is the true-believer Communist; the narrator is the man in the middle.

The action of the novel begins in the chaotic and terror-filled days of the fall of Saigon. The narrator wants to stay and take his place in a reunified Vietnam but he is ordered by Man to go with the general as he flees to America and to keep an eye on him there. Working through the C.I.A., the narrator manages to bribe the appropriate people to facilitate an air evacuation of the general and his extended family, as well as Bon and his wife and child and himself. As they flee, they are under fire from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese and Bon's wife and child are killed before the plane takes off. The others make good their escape, first to the Philippines and later to California.

In Los Angeles, the narrator continues his spying and continues reporting to Man through an intermediary in Paris. He lands a clerical job with one of his former professors (he had been sent to attend college in California years earlier), and he engages in an affair with an older Japanese-American woman. He continues to observe and report on the activities of the local Vietnamese refugees, and he is able to alert Man when the general begins plans for a reinvasion of Vietnam through Thailand.

As the ragtag army comprised of former South Vietnamese soldiers who are armed and funded by Americans makes plans for its return, Man orders the narrator to stay in the United States and continue reporting, but Bon is going with the army and the narrator feels that he must accompany his blood brother to try to keep him safe. He disobeys Man's directive to his great regret.

In the last chapters of the book, we see the narrator, Bon, and the group they are with captured and imprisoned. The narrator must now endure the harsh interrogation techniques that he was taught by the Communists when he first joined their crusade. These chapters are dark indeed and were very difficult for me to read. They are the main reason that I give the book four stars instead of five. Readers with stronger stomachs might well give it five, for it is a remarkable book. It is a valuable insight into the Vietnamese view of that awful war that so consumed us, particularly people of my generation, in the 1960s and 1970s.

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Poetry Sunday: A Book

Here's short poem but one that will be very meaningful to those who love their books. Readers will certainly understand and appreciate these sentiments as expressed by Emily Dickinson, a poet who always got straight to the point!

A Book

by Emily Dickinson

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul! 


As a constant reader, I am well aware of "the chariot that bears a human soul." I ride in those chariots - books - every day of my life. Perhaps you do, too.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

This week in birds - #153

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Our backyard birds are busy nesting and raising their young and so are the birds of the wetlands, seashores, and swamps. Here, a Clapper Rail leads two of her chicks on an expedition through the weeds at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.

In a story that illustrates the harm that can be done by dumping unwanted pets in the wild, a Colorado lake has been infested with thousands of goldfish. You might think that goldfish are pretty and benign, and in habitats that are designated for them, they certainly are. But in this lake, they have brought diseases that the native fish there are not equipped to deal with and they are destroying the plant life within the lake and upsetting the balance of Nature.  


But here is another view on invasive species which basically states that they are the wave of the future and that we should learn to accept them and coexist. Essentially, the theory is that the fittest species will survive and that's okay. Most conservationists do not accept that view, of course, because it legitimizes human interference in Nature's plan since most invasive species are introduced, either deliberately or accidentally, by humans.


Another example of human interference in Nature, Fukushima in Japan was the site of the disastrous nuclear accident four years ago. Since then the avian population of the area has dropped drastically.


A new study quantifies the amount of carbon stored and released through California forests and wildlands. The results indicate that wildfires and deforestation contribute more than expected to carbon emissions which may affect the state's ability to meet its goals of reduction of greenhouse gases.


The water shortage in California gets most of the headlines but, in fact, the Rio Grande watershed has been drastically depleted as a result of the drought as well and, in places, the once mighty river is nothing more than a trickle.

As it is here. This is the Rio Grande River as it flows through Big Bend National Park. I took this picture some eighteen months ago, but I feel sure the situation hasn't gotten better since then. On the right side of the river is Mexico and the U.S. is on the left.

A study of African birds in the nation of Malawi revealed that 79% of them were infected with the parasites that cause malaria.


Jonathan Franzen is best known as an author of literary fiction but he is also a birder and is prominent in conservation movements. He recently provoked a firestorm of criticism with a essay published in The New Yorker which, among other targets, criticized the Audubon Society and its study on climate change and birds. The problem that many had with his criticism is that he lauded the American Bird Conservancy, a rival to Audubon, without disclosing that he is on its fundraising board, which certainly should be taken into account when evaluating the accuracy and potential bias of his complaints.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed yet another bat species, the Northern Long-eared, as threatened.


(Picture courtesy of Reuters.)
It's not often - probably never - that you encounter a black flamingo, but a melanistic Greater Flamingo has been sighted this spring feeding with other normal-colored flamingos on the Akrotiri salt plain on the island of Cyprus. Birders are flocking from far and near to see the rare bird.

A new study evaluating the contamination of waterways by insecticides has concluded that that contamination is significantly worse than has been supposed. 


A Global Big Day is being planned for May 9. Birders from around the world are being encouraged to count and report birds on that date, which just happens to be International Migratory Bird Day. 


There are only five northern white rhinos left on the face of the planet and only one of them is male. This lone male is under armed guard 24 hours a day in Kenya to try to save him from poachers. Even so, it may not be enough to preserve the species.

(Photo courtesy of CNN.)
His name is Sudan and he is the last known male northern white rhino. He and his female companions are under constant vigilant guard.

Around the backyard:

The winner of the "Who'll be the first to fledge?" sweepstakes, again this year, as it is most years, is the Carolina Wren. One of the two pairs that were nesting in my backyard led their brood from the nest yesterday. I watched the chicks following their parents around the yard yesterday afternoon. Total cuteness! I saw at least three chicks but there may have been more among the dense shrubbery and vines. This was not the family that is nesting on my back porch. Those chicks are probably still a week away from fledging.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein: A review

Where the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems and Drawings of Shel SilversteinWhere the Sidewalk Ends: The Poems and Drawings of Shel Silverstein by Shel Silverstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When my kids were little, among our favorite books to read together was Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. Indeed, one of the best excuses for having kids was reading Silverstein's poetry!

Where the Sidewalk Ends was his first collection of poems. He had had a successful career as a songwriter, playwright, and cartoonist before someone suggested to him that he should write poetry for children. He subsequently became most well-known for such work. He wrote The Giving Tree, a favorite of ours, and A Light in the Attic, another collection of poems which my kids and I enjoyed, but we returned often to the nonsense poetry of Where the Sidewalk Ends.

I think my kids' favorite poem was Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out. The obstinate little girl ultimately "met an awful fate" because of her refusal to do her assigned chore. We also enjoyed reading about the girl who ate a whale, unicorns, crocodiles who went to the dentist, and a boy who turned into a television set. All these poems were wonderful vehicles for the imagination, and isn't that really what you want from poetry?

One of the things that made Silverstein's poems so effective for children was not just the nonsense that made them giggle and set their imaginations free but the quirky drawings that illustrated them. Silverstein had been a cartoonist before he became a poet and he always illustrated his poems with his uniquely imagined drawings.

While Silverstein's poems were often outrageously funny, they also frequently contained profound truths that kids imbibed along with the humor. Here's an example of that, a short poem that I very much liked that appeared early in the book. It is called Magic.

Sandra's seen a leprechaun.
Eddie touched a troll.
Laurie danced with witches once.
Charlie found some goblins' gold.
Donald heard a mermaid sing.
Susy spied an elf.
But all the magic I have known
I've had to make myself.

These poems helped kids - and their parents - learn to make magic for themselves and that is a gift that keeps on giving for a lifetime.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Complete Poems of Robert Frost: A review

Complete Poems Of Robert Frost, 1949Complete Poems Of Robert Frost, 1949 by Robert Frost
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

April is National Poetry Month and, in honor of that fact, I have decided to re-read (or at least skim) and review some of my favorites. For me, that always starts with Robert Frost.

I discovered the poetry of Robert Frost, as I discovered so many things, in college. In my Speech class, one of my assignments required me to deliver a speech including favorite poems. I didn't really have favorite poems. As I searched my memory for what I might use, I remembered the inauguration of John F. Kennedy several years before. The school that I attended at the time had gathered all of the students into the auditorium in assembly and played the inauguration for us on television. Thus, I saw the poet with the shock of white hair, on that snow-covered day, delivering his poem as part of the ceremony. And, all those years later, I had an epiphany.  I thought, "Ah ha! I'll do Robert Frost."

But, of course, I didn't really know much about Robert Frost and I didn't have a favorite poem of his, so I had to do a little research.

It didn't take long for me to feel a connection with his poetry. I found that it was based on rural themes and was about ordinary people, two things that were very familiar to me, having grown up in the country on a farm. Moreover, it was written in a deceptively simple manner, in vernacular that was easily understood. The settings of his poems were mostly in New England and I had grown up in the South, but it all felt very comfortable and homey to me.

That was when I first read Complete Poems of Robert Frost. I have returned to it many, many times in the years since. My book's cover and pages have water stains and there are teeth marks from a long-dead dog who took a liking to it and gnawed away one corner of the hardback. There are post-it notes stuck throughout the book, marking favorite poems. It is a book that has been loved almost to death but still it hangs together, even if in fragile condition.

There are many favorites among the poems of this book, but I return again and again to two; one because it reminds me of my own childhood when I was a rider of tree saplings and the other because it states so very simply much of what I believe.

The first one is Birches. It describes a boy swinging on birches that had been bent down by ice storms. It speaks of the joy which he derives from this simple act, this boy "too far from town to learn baseball, whose only play was what he found himself." The poet admits that he, too, was once a "swinger of birches." And the poem ends:

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

The other poem that means a lot to me, especially since I've become a habitat gardener is The Tuft of Flowers. It describes the poet going to turn grass that has been mowed for hay and seeing a butterfly flitting here and there searching for some remembered stand of flowers, now gone. As he watches the butterfly, it draws his eye to a patch of flowers the scythe had spared.

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn...

And as the poem ends, the poet feels a kinship with the mower, "a spirit kindred to my own." He had previously felt alone in the field but now he sees that we are all in this together - the mower, the turner of the grass, the butterfly, and in silent conversation with the mower who has now moved on, he says:

"Men work together, I told him from the heart,
Whether they work together or apart."

A deceptively simple poem with a deeper meaning for those who take the time to find that "tuft of flowers." That was Robert Frost. That's why I love his poems.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - April 2015

April is for amaryllises...

This one holds a secret. Can you see it? It's a little green treefrog tucked among its petals.


Another kind of amaryllis - the St. Joseph's lily.

Roses are also blooming in April. This is the 'Dortmund.' 

'Peggy Martin'

'Darcy Bussell'


'Old Blush'

Blackberries also are in bloom.

As are many daisies.

A few bluebonnets are still blooming.

And one or two pink bonnets are scattered among them.

'Tangerine Dream' crossvine is blooming, but for some reason the color just isn't as vibrant as it normally is. 

I gave the yellow cestrum a serious haircut during the winter and it has come back strong, filled with blooms.

This tub of petunias next to my little fountain is a reseeded volunteer from a 'Laura Bush' plant that I planted in the garden years ago. Every year some volunteers come up around the garden, often in the most unexpected places.

April begins our season of blooms for real, so it is a special pleasure to be a part of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day this month. Thank you, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, for hosting us once again.

Happy Bloom Day to all!

She's all in - and so am I

It was the moment that many of us had been waiting for since 2008. Hillary Clinton finally made it official. She is running for president.

I wonder about the analysis, the thought process that went into her decision. Surely, she, of all people, knows what she is facing over the next nearly eighteen months. Her enemies will be throwing every piece of shit they can put their hands on at her. She will be called everything from a liar to a murderer. She will be deemed too old, too ugly, too fat, too female, (and, also, not female enough) too shrill, and all those other adjectives that ignorant people routinely throw at women in the spotlight to try to shame them and bring them down.

Her hairstyles and her clothes will be scrutinized and criticized endlessly. God forbid she should ever wear a scrunchie!

But she knows all of this because they've already been doing it to her. They've done it now for the more than thirty years that she has been in the public's eye. Yet she is still standing. Not only that, she is the most admired woman in America and third most admired in the world, behind Angelina Jolie and Malala Yousafzai.

Truly, it must take nerves of steel and a backbone of the same material to know all of this and still be willing to put oneself forward as a candidate to lead. Hillary Clinton has never lacked courage nor the willingness to blaze her own trail. I think those qualities are factors that weigh into her standing among the most admired.

It is arguable that Hillary Clinton is the most qualified candidate who has ever announced a candidacy for the presidency. She has served as first lady, both of a state (Arkansas) and of the country, which provides a unique perspective and experience. After her years in the White House, she ran for the senate and won, and served as a highly effective and respected senator from New York, before stepping down to become secretary of state when she was called to that post by Barack Obama. As secretary of state, she traveled all over the world and in most places was greeted like a rock star, but always her main cause as secretary was the championing of rights for women in all the places she visited.

Of course, some will criticize her for her emphasis on the importance of women's rights. People like the female Republican strategist who appeared on Fox News recently saying that Clinton should not drown her in estrogen all the time. (Yes, there are female misogynists. I've met quite a few and there are certainly plenty in the national media.) I wonder if this strategist would complain of Ted Cruz or Rand Paul or Marco Rubio drowning people in testosterone every time they open their mouths. Stupid question - of course she wouldn't!

So, those of us who support Hillary Clinton, who have always supported her, had better develop our own nerves of steel for the coming months. It isn't pleasant to see someone you admire constantly called ugly names and pilloried over imaginary "scandals." But if we can persevere - we know that she can! - then there is potentially a great reward at the end of those months of bitterness: Seeing a woman inaugurated as president of our country.