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Summer Reading

Posted by Vern Edwards, 10 August 2010 · 2,367 views

I just read my umpteenth summer reading list, so I thought: What the heck. I know that we?re already past the middle of summer and it?s a little late for a list, but why not? We have a month until Labor Day. Well, almost a month. Still time to get in one or more books.

Summer?s about fun reading, so no ?professional? books and no heavy reads. These are some of my favorites of this year, new and old.

Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes (2010)

A novel about a Marine rifle company in Vietnam. Ordered to assault a hill named Matterhorn, they take it in a bloody fight and are then told to withdraw. Later they are told to take it again in an even bloodier fight. The story is told from the point of view of a young lieutenant serving as a platoon commander. It is the author?s first novel. He is a Vietnam vet and it took him 30 years to write it. It has received universally sensational reviews. I read it while in New Orleans for the French Quarter Festival and could not put it down. It was all anybody could do to get me to leave the hotel room. The characters are engaging, and the combat scenes are sensational (I won?t say realistic, because nothing but combat is realistic when it comes to combat). Gripping, sad, and ultimately inspirational.

99 Dreams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist?s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink, by Kate Hopkins (2009)

The title speaks for itself. Two gals set out to learn about whiskey. They visit Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the U.S. Fun and very informative. My favorite description is of Maker?s Mark: ?Maker?s Mark is like that blue-collar genius people run into from time to time. Sure, he follows Zen philosophy, and can discuss the intricacies of Nietzsche and Rousseau. But really? He prefers to be in his garage, working on his car.?

Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, by Bernard Fall (1968)

A riveting account of the 1954 battle that was a milestone in the revolts against European colonialism after World War II. In November 1953, French paratroopers jumped into the valley of the Nam Yung river in northwest Vietnam and seized the sleepy town of Dien Bien Phu. They built a fortress of strongpoints, which were given the names of the commander?s mistresses. (They were French, you see.) The Viet Minh army decided to engage in a ?set-piece? battle, surrounded the valley, and sealed off the fortress from ground reinforcement. The fight began in earnest in late March 1954 as the monsoons began, and it ended in mid-May. The fighting was continuous and desperate. Thousands were killed in a few weeks. Hand to hand fighting occurred throughout the battle. Near the end, a unit commander reports that he is about to be overrun and asks for reinforcement. He is told he will get none and, ?You are a paratrooper. You are expected to fight to the death.? The French were overrun at Dien Bien Phu, but they never raised the white flag of surrender. The author tells the story at the tactical level, thick with detail, and we see the greatly outnumbered and surrounded paratroopers and Foreign Legion infantry holding out against Viet Minh artillery and human wave attacks. One of the best military histories ever written. As you will see, America was very much involved. This was my second reading, in preparation for a trip to Dien Bien Phu early next year. There are two more recent accounts of the battle: The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam (2005) by Martin Windrow and Valley of Death: The Tragedy at Dien Bien Phu that Led America Into the Vietnam War (2010) by Ted Morgan. But Hell In A Very Small Place is the one to read.

Freedom Summer, by Bruce Watson (2010)

Battle takes many forms, and so does bravery. This is the story of the college students who went to Mississippi in 1964 to register Black voters. The story is scary and inspiring. Youthful idealism against what sometimes amounted to barbarism, when headlights in the rear view mirror on a dark road might mean the approach of a horrible death. I was in the Army when this happened and was totally unaware that anything like this was going on. This is the most detailed narrative of the events that I have ever read, a harrowing account of a seminal moment in American history. A fast, unputdownable read.

Empire of the Summer Moon, by S. C. Gwynne (2010)

The story of the Comanches, of the Texas frontier, and of Quanah Parker, one of the last great war chiefs. If you have never been to the southern Great Plains, you don?t know what wide open spaces really are. Vast, featureless, and from the 1600s until near the end of the 19th Century, the domain of what some historians now call the Comanche Empire. The Comanches were the fiercest and most frightening warriors on the plains. Superb horsemen, they fought other tribes (especially the Apaches) the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Texans. They would travel 400 miles to launch a raid. A Comanche warrior could launch 20 arrows in the time it took a soldier to reload a musket. They made the Texas frontier one of the most dangerous places in the known universe. Nevertheless, white settlers pushed forward into their lands, knowing they could expect no help from their government, and formed militia that would become known as the Texas Rangers to defend themselves. Finally, a Texas governor announced a policy of annihilation. One of the things I learned: the great western move, The Searchers, is based on the true story of James Parker (the basis for John Wayne's character), who searched for his niece, Cynthia Ann Parker (on whom Natalie Wood?s character was based). Taken by the Comanches in a raid in 1836, she became the mother of Quanah Parker, one of the fiercest of all Comanche war chiefs. She became a Texas legend, and he died a famous and respected old man in 1911. He and his mother are buried in the Fort Sill Cemetery in Lawton, Oklahoma.

Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions, by Mark W. Moffett (2010)

A great book about a critter that almost everyone found fascinating at one time or another. How many kids have never sat in captivation watching ants come and go from the entry of a nest? The author is a research associate at the Smithsonian. The book is entirely nontechnical and written with a sense of fascination and pleasure. Really. It?s a good read, and you don't have to read it all at once, since each chapter stands more or less alone. Good thing the little beasts aren?t bigger, like in Them! (one of my all-time favorite movies). An ant the size of a dog could move your house.

Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Considered by many critics, including Harold Bloom, to be one of the greatest American novels of the 20th Century. (Tommy Lee Jones owns the movie rights.) A violent, allegorical, apocalyptic story about a gang of scalphunters in the Southwest. Terrific prose. If you go to the bookstore, find the paperback, turn to page 50, and begin reading with ?The following day on the skyline to the south they saw clouds of dust that lay across the earth for miles,? and continue to page 54 and the last line, ?? the dying groaned and gibbered and horses lay screaming.? I have never read anything quite like it. You?ll never forget the eerie Judge Holden, although you may want to. I first read this book several years ago, but read it again after reading Empire of the Summer Moon. Full of action. Not for the faint of heart. The mysterious epilogue is perfect.

The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt (2001)

Writing at his stone house in Big Sur in the first half of the 20th Century, Robinson Jeffers wrote what many consider to be some of the finest American poetry. Out of favor for many years due to his anti-war stance during World War II and his misanthropy, he is now being remembered and celebrated. He wrote long narrative poems, like "Give Your Heart to the Hawks," "Tamar," and "The Women at Point Sur." But his most famous poems now are ?Hurt Hawks? and the profound ?Rock and Hawk,? which appear in many anthologies. His house in Big Sur is now a pilgrimage site for his fans. A shorter anthology of his works is The Wild God of the World.

The Selected Poems of Li Po, translated by David Hinton (1996)

Li Po was one of the great poets who wrote during the period known as the High Tang (712 ? 760). He is one of the revered poets of China, known as the Banished Immortal. There are many translations of his short lyric poems, but I think this is my favorite. He writes of journeys, friendships, war, and drinking. All the good stuff. My favorites in this anthology: "Looking for Yung, the Recluse Master," "Farewell to a Visitor Returning East," "Thoughts of You Unending," and the much-translated and widely anthologized "Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon":

Raising my cup, I toast the bright moon,
and facing my shadow makes friends three,
intimates forever, we?ll wander carefree
and meet again in Star River distances.

Feel free to post a comment with your own favorites and recommendations.

Vern, While I am not a voracious reader, I do have a congeries of books I have found to be entertatining. Mine too are for pure entertainment. I recently completed the Thurman Munson biography. It is a wonderful true story of the life and times of that great Yankee Catcher, Thurman Munson with a special emphasis on the last days of his life leading up to his plane crash in Canton, Ohio in 1979. The book I am currently reading is Veeck as in Wreck, Bill Veeck's autobiography. Bill Veeck owned several professional baseball teams, minor and major leagues. You can see what has made him such a pioneer. His son is still involved with baseball but unfortunately, Bill has long since passed on. You can see my theme, baseball, but both books are truly entertaining.
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Shoot, I'm still making my way through the recommended reading you posted earlier in the year with an occasional evening spent with The Government Contracts Reference Book.
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Excellent comments on Matterhorn. Saw the Karl Marlantes interview on CSPAN Book TV earlier this summer and perused several reviews on line. Saving it for the autumn, and I will probably go with the audible mp3 version.

The Dien Bien Phu book, that one in particular, has been on my list for ages. As an amateur-armchair military historian, I have yet to go "vertical" into the French Indo-China war. I took the plunge with the Algerian War and of course, one finds, as I did, how so little I knew or the wrong assumptions I had all these years - most highly recommend the definitive A Savage War of Peace; Algeria 1954-1962 by Alastair Horne. I have peppered that with several bios of Charles DeGaul and recently, Horne's, To Loose A Battle; France 1940.

Just finished Churchill's Empire; The World That Made Him and the World He Made (just released this month) by Richard Toye. Probably about my 12th Churchill book, not including about all of what he wrote himself.

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shinaku, When you read Hell In A Very Small Place, you will encounter someone you met in A Savage War of Peace--Marcel Bigeard, commander of French paratroopers. He played a heroic role at Dien Bien Phu, where he was known by his WWII nom de guerre, Bruno. He just died on June 10.

Alistair Horne is a great writer. When you get a chance, read his history of the battle of Verdun, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916.

Thanks for the reference to the Churchill book.
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