Hue 1968

Hue

Hue 1968
A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
By Mark Bowden
Grove Press/Atlantic – £20.00

According to Karl Malantes – whose astonishing novel Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2010) I reviewed upon publication – this book is ”an extraordinary feat of journalism.”

Indeed, with unprecedented access to war archives in both the US and Vietnam, and in conjunction with an array of interviews with participants on both sides, writer, journalist and reporter, Mark Bowden, herein narrates each stage of this crucial battle through a fine literary prism of multiple perspectives.

Played out over twenty-four days of the most harrowing fighting – which ultimately cost somewhere in the region of 10,000 combatant and civilian lives – the Battle of Hue was without any shadow of a doubt, the bloodiest battle of the entire campaign.
When it ended, the American debate was never really the same again.

It was no longer about winning the war in Vietnam per se, but how best to leave the country; which for all intents and ideologically political purposes, Bowden brilliantly reconstructs amid these 539 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Vietnamese Glossary, Source Notes and Index). This ought hardly be surprising given the calibre of Bowden’s writing, whose previous thirteen books include Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo.

While having been to Vietnam and seen for myself the relatively primitive, albeit deadly, organic means by which the North Vietnamese fought their American foes; I also stumbled upon the broad and inbred trajectory of vast humility. A quality, which, perhaps unbeknown to the Vietnamese themselves, is systematically endemic within the everyday fibre of their being.

As much is candidly brought to bear on numerous occasions throughout Hue 1968 – A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam; perhaps none more so than in a particularly pertinent if not poignant section of ‘Part Five: Sweeping the Triangle,’ wherein Bowden writes:

””I have something to say,” she said.
Quang asked her to unfold her arms. He was younger than her son.
”I am a wife,” she said. ”And a mother. These two” – she motioned to her husband and son – ”are guilty. It is known. They have done the nation wrong. As a mother and a wife, I am begging you for forgiveness.”
Quang let them go. Both father and son thanked him profusely. Puffed up with his own magnanimity, he told the son, ”Your mother has just given birth to you for the second time.”
Such generosity was the exception, so much so that Quang was later censured for it.
”Since they were aware of their mistakes and reported on their own son, it wasn’t necessary,” he argued in his defense. ”What mother isn’t hurt if her husband and son are in this position? It isn’t about one side or the other, it’s about being human” (my italics).
He forgave the police lieutenant who had nine children. The man had not reported himself; he had been arrested. Under the rules, it meant he had to be sent away. But Quang weighed the fate of his wife and children and told the man, ”You have to live to raise you r children. I forgive you because your nine kids are still too young. Your crimes are way too clear to forgive, but because of your children I here let you go home.”

Brittle as well as immensely (relentlessly) powerful, Hue 1968 traverses the Vietnam War in such a way that’ll make many readers sit-up and think. Not to mention maybe re-read what they’ve just read. Perhaps one of the many reasons being that it brings home what took place in Vietnam in 1968, as if it took place only yesterday – which really isn’t an easy thing to do. Let alone capture.

Replete with maps and a number of sterling black and white photographs, this book is an absolute must read for anyone remotely interested in The Vietnam War.

David Marx

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A Glasgow Trilogy

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A Glasgow Trilogy
By George Friel
Canongate – £18.00

‘I’m their referee. They rely on me for to see justice done. I’m the lawman. I’m the judge. Cause I stand above it so I can see it. Boys are like Jews, they’re different from the people round about them. And where would the Jews have been if they hadn’t had Moses to give them the Law?’
‘Ach!’ his mother derided him. ‘Playing we’ a lot o’ weans and ye call yourself Moses!’
‘They’re not weans,’ he shouted. ‘They’re innocent children. And Christ has said unless ye become as little children ye shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’
‘Oh, it’s Christ now, is it? Cried his baffled mother. ‘You’d gar anybody grue so you would the way you talk. Moses! Christ!’
She returned to the dishes in the basin in the sink.

                                                                   (The Boy Who Wanted Peace)

With a poignant procrastination from the premise of social induced turmoil, loneliness, nigh Dickensian living standards, unemployment and occasional religiosity, A Glasgow Trilogy is without any shadow of a doubt, an acute reflection of today’s (increasingly broken) Britain.

Set amid the tenements of Glasgow, the language is as loose as it is tough as it is inviting for all the right reasons – the quintessential one being: it tells the truth.

What’s more, it tells the truth without having to resort to the usual array of glamorized drug schtick appeal, sticky sex, or that of knee to the bollocks violence; uber liberal qualities of which are so often the case within the parameters of this genre of writing.

That’s not to say it’s only, purportedly reminiscent of Irvine Welsh – who readily subscribes to all of the above – although, as the opening quote does show, there is a fair bit of slightly perplexing Glaswegian patois, cunningly placed amid these three novels (The Boy Who Wanted Peace, Grace and Miss Partridge and Mr Alfred M.A.). Added no doubt, for grit infused, atmospheric sentiment.

Other than his sparkling wit and very evident compassion, what I particularly like about George Friel’s writing, is his most astute and assured way of interweaving social tragedy with comedy.

As such is most evident throughout the second novel, Grace and Miss Partridge, wherein the author takes us on a seemingly understated, albeit roller-coaster ride of literal, dour drama. The likes of which, were it not ever so (occasionally) pleasingly comedic, many might consider harks back to the likes of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or Nell Dunn’s Up The Junction: ”[…] he was so busy talking trivia non-stop in his eagerness to keep her spirits up he never let her get a word in edgeways. If she could only have got him to listen, a confession of her love would have done her a lot more good than listening to him. For all his anxiety to help, Tommy was no use to her. She carried her absurd secret as a burden God had put on her for her salvation and found strength in silence. Yet still she longed to tell her love, love that never should be told. And to whom better than her beloved? […]. Grace had no complaints. She certainly scoffed at once most of the chips from the fish supper and made a spirited assault thereafter on the cakes and biscuits, but she had little conversation. And Shelley, who was meant to provide talk by his running commentary on the party in particular and life in general, was as silent as the backcourt after midnight. The great occasion lacked the atmosphere Miss Partridge had expected it to have; there was no intimacy, no communion, no tender preparation for her confession of love, only a wee girl eating bravely and a bird in his cage snuffling and sniffing, gasping and wheezing, watching them with a melancholy eye, bowing his head to peck at his breast, shivering and flapping to no purpose.”

That’s right, Shelley (as in the great poet) might well be a parrot, but said parrot plays host to a high-octane, highly organised confession in the making.
Or should I say breaking?

That a parrot could be deemed to be ”watching with a melancholy eye, bowing his head to peck at his breast, shivering and flapping to no purpose;” is either bordering on razor-sharp madness or genius.

Either way, it doesn’t really make too much difference, because as a writer, George Friel is as organic and original a writer as fundamental hip morality will surely allow.

Of which A Glasgow Trilogy is a compassionate testament.

David Marx

Light Come Shining

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Light Come Shining
The Transformations of Bob Dylan
By Andrew McCarron
Oxford University Press – £14.49

The minute you try to grab hold of Dylan, he’s no longer where he was. He’s like a flame: If you try to hold him in your hand you’ll surely get burned. Dylan’s life of change and constant disappearances and constant transformations makes you yearn to hold him, and to nail him down.

         (‘Masked and Anonymous’)

To say that Bob Dylan has always been obsessed with death and disintegration (both personal and global) would be an understatement.

          (‘World Gone Wrong’)

I’ve published a number of Bob Dylan book reviews on this site – he even has his own section – but I have to say, this is one of the most compelling and captivating books on the artist I’ve read in quite a while. Apart from the fact that the author, Andrew McCarron, delves right into the psychological nitty-gritty of what the sub-title suggests nigh immediately, he bequeaths the reader with numerous substantial examples throughout.

In so doing, he manages to shed quintessentially quizzical light on a mesmerising subject that remains intrinsically restless to say the least.

And it is this inexorable restlessness, this transient manoeuvre of almost obsessive musicality by one of the finest living artists on the planet today, which is the (most readable) bedrock of Light Come Shining – The Transformations of Bob Dylan.

Even the book’s Prologue (‘A Case for this Psychobiography’) opens with a most apt quote from T.S. Eliot:

And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered

before going on to continue with a quotation from the personality psychologist, Henry Murray: ”[…] we are all in some respects like all other people, like some other people, and like no other people (Murray & Kluckhohn, 1953). Psychobiography tackles this last piece, the part of a person that’s unique and that may resist easy intelligibility. It asks why someone is the way he or she is – then draws on psychological theory and experimental research to address the question.”

Indeed, the numerous morph-like transformations of Bob Dylan are addressed relentlessly throughout these six, jam-packed, and very intelligently written, beguiling chapters.

As Michael J. Gilmour, author of The Gospel According to Bob Dylan: The Old, Old Story for Modern Times has since written: ”Light Come Shining is an intriguing complement to the biographical works of Robert Shelton, Clinton Heylin, and Howard Souness. The aim of McCarron’s psycho-biography is a glimpse into Dylan’s ‘inner life,’ and is a project sure to generate reactions among fans and academics alike. Reconstructing the artist from the art is always a perilous task but even those wary of such efforts will find much here to enjoy.”

‘Enjoy,’ is suffice to say, an exceedingly good descriptive word to use in relation to Light Come Shining. It might partially explain why I read it in a mere two sittings. For in wanting to find-out as it were, I inadvertently deciphered more and more and erm, more, without really knowing I was doing so.

So much so, that by the book’s end on page 193, I found myself beholding many a proclamation according to ye Minnesota Bard of open-ended discovery and redemption.
Not to mention a whole lot more besides.

An altogether terrific book.

David Marx

America’s National Gallery of Art

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America’s National Gallery of Art
By Phillip Kopper & The Publishing Office of
The National Gallery of Art, Washington
Princeton University Press – £62.95

The dedication of this Gallery to a living past, and to a greater and more richly living future, is the message of the earnestness of our intention that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on.

                                      President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1941

Very lavish and very well presented, there really ought to be more books put together like this; or indeed, more books covering an array of varying subjects within the arts.

Replete with an assortment of simply stunning as well as startling, colour and black and white photographs, these 350 pages – excluding: Benefactors 1937-2016, Trustees and Directors of the National Gallery of Art 1937-2016, Current and Former Trustees’ Council Members 1982-2016, Acknowledgements, Selected References and Index (while the penultimate pages prior to the above is A Visual Timeline, four-page pull-out) – are a more than fitting nod to a (seemingly) former way of American life.

An intrinsically wholesome, organic way of life, that is sadly, not to mention criminally on the wane throughout the country.

That said, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of a beloved cultural institution, America’s National Gallery of Art takes curious readers on a definitive inside tour through this very special museum’s remarkable history.

By way of lively prose and abundant illustrations, this richly detailed volume recounts the development of the Gallery under its four directors – David Finley, John Walker, J. Carter Brown, and currently Earl A. Powell III. In so doing, it invariably highlights the museum’s collections, exhibitions, architecture, and rather awe inspired ambience.

An ‘inspired ambience’ that was, and surely remains something of a trajectory in relation its altogether majestic founder, Andrew W. Mellon. A man whose life (as explained in the chapter ‘The First Fifty Years’) spanned: ”the abolition of slavery and invention of television, the building of the first bridge across the Mississippi and construction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Walt Disney’s Snow White, the Dred Scott decision and the New Deal.”

No surprise(s) then, that Mellon was born the same year as the Paris Exposition exalted Delacroix, and died the year Picasso painted Guernica.

To be sure, the man was as faceted as that of his era: an industrialist, a financial genius and a philanthropist of gargantuan generosity. Born into prosperous circumstances, he launched several of America’s most profitable corporations. He was therefore, a venture capitalist before the term had even entered the lexicon (eventually becoming one of the country’s richest men). Yet his name was barely known outside his hometown of Pittsburgh – until that is, he became secretary of the treasury at an age when many men consider retiring.

Moreover, Mellon was a man of myriad accomplishments, but he is perhaps, ultimately remembered for one: he founded an art museum by making what was thought at the time to be the single largest gift by any individual to any nation. Few philanthropic acts of such generosity have been performed with his combination of vision, patriotism, and modesty. Fewer still bear anything but their donor’s name; although Mellon stipulated that his museum be called the National Gallery of Art.

Could you imagine Donald Trump being as remotely magnanimous?
In fact, one cannot help but wonder if Trump would have it in him to be even a tenth as giving and generous?

Divided into four distinct sections: The First Fifty Years (with chapters including the aforementioned ‘Andrew W. Mellon: Founder and Benefactor,’ ‘The National Gallery’s War Record’ and ‘J. Carter Brown Launches the East Building’), Framing the Future (‘The Powell Era,’The Physical Museum,’ ‘Mission Expanded,’ ‘Corcoran Collection’ and ‘Growing the Collection’), The Collection (‘Selected acquisitions since 1937’) and Exhibitions (‘Special exhibitions since 1973’), this altogether encompassing collection marks a published return to beauty, elegance and grace.

Qualities so sorely missing amid so many publications of this persuasion.

Suffice to say, later chapters explore the Gallery’s new emphasis on contemporary art and its historic 2014 agreement to accept custody of the Corcoran Collection, thus giving readers and visitors a window onto the future of this national treasure.

With even the quality of the pages being something to behold, this veritable tomb comes in a protective box; which, along with the aforementioned lively prose and 730 illustrations, is what fundamentally accounts for America’s National Gallery of Art aligning readers and art lovers (in general) with a most pronounced visionary acceptance of how art really ought to be appreciated.

David Marx

A Different Kind Of Animal

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A Different Kind Of Animal –
How Culture Transformed Our Species
By Robert Boyd
Princeton University Press – £22. 95

”Robert Boyd marshals an astonishing range of scholarship, colourful vignettes, and anecdotes to argue that humans make use of insights and adaptations that we do not understand. We learn very often not by figuring out how things work but imitating others who have locally useful ”know-how.” Boyd describes the conditions under which selection favours ”a psychology that causes most people to adopt beliefs just because others hold those beliefs” (Introduction).

How exceedingly, woefully true.

”People do indeed adopt beliefs just because others hold those beliefs.”
There are countless examples scattered throughout the history of unfortunate folly; surely the most volatile of late being the fact that so much of (ignorant and myopic) North America has opted to have a cold, callous, cowardly, businessman as its leader – just because others were somehow indoctrinated to believe his vile, yet overtly simplistic, gung-ho rhetoric.

Talking of which, this book’s Introduction further goes on to clarify: ”Not all of the consequences are positive: maladaptive ideas and false beliefs can also spread via blind imitation.” To be sure, hasn’t ”blind imitation” nigh always been at the helm of the western world’s (cultural) downfall?

A Different Kind Of Animal – How Culture Transformed Our Species does much to explain why this is unsurprisingly so.

If nothing else, it’s seven chapters are more than demonstrative in deciphering that while society – to varying degrees – can be smart, ”we are not nearly smart enough to have solved the vast array of problems that confronted our species as it spread across the globe.”

All the more reason that we as a society, ought to tread a whole lot more carefully when it comes to choosing those we feel have our best interests at heart. Two very current, prime reasons being: America’s Donald Trump (for whatever reason), doesn’t believe in climate change, while the UK’s Theresa May (for whatever reason) doesn’t believe in a fair society.

And more than anything else, said two examples go a long, long way, in substantiating that we are indeed: ”not nearly smart enough.”

These 196 pages (excluding Acknowledgements, Notes, References and Index) are a fine reflection of human adaptation as seen through some sort of prism of acute vulnerability. As the author of The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, Joseph Henrich, has since both asked and stated: ”What makes us unique? Are we really just smart chimpanzees? Why is our species both so cooperative and yet so violent? Addressing these questions, Robert Boyd adroitly combines detailed analysis of diverse societies, crystal-clear experimental studies, and rich descriptions of hunter-gatherer life with the precision that only mathematics can provide […]. Boyd boldly leads us on a scientific journey to discover who we are and where we came from.”

In and of itself, we would be more than wise to take supreme note of the latter – before it’s too late.

David Marx

White Trash

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White Trash –
The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Atlantic Books – £20.00

The circumstances of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

                                       Thomas Jefferson,
                                       Notes on the State of Virginia (1787)

Disturbing in an overtly non-surprising sort of way, this fascinating read sets the record straight concerning a variant of wholly misconceived issues regarding the rather derogatory term, ‘White Trash;’ namely that of it’s umbilical, yet highly tenuous relationship concerning eugenics within the United States.

And yes, you read right: eugenics within the United States.
To say nothing of its appalling, underplayed class system.

To be sure, it might appear morosely myopic to think that Nazi Germany was the only relatively modern state to introduce eugenics as a form of socio-politico policy. A policy which promoted the biological improvement of the Ayran race (or Germanic Übermenschen) unto the everyday manifestation of Nazi political ideology.

Although make no mistake – the land of the free and the so-called home of the brave got there first: ”The British colonial imprint was never really erased […]. For their part, nineteenth-century Americans did everything possible to replicate the class station through marriage, kinship, pedigree, and lineage. While the Confederacy was the high mark – the most overt manifestation – of rural aristocratic pretence (and an open embrace of society’s need to have an elite ruling over the lower classes), the next century ushered in the disturbing imperative of eugenics, availing itself of science to justify breeding a master class. Thus not only did Americans not abandon their desire for class distinctions, they repeatedly reinvented class distinctions” (‘America’s Strange Breed – The Long Legacy of White Trash’).

Indeed, by way of overt class filtration, it’s hardly a well-kept secret that the United States had already partaken in the hideous execution of eugenics a couple of hundred years ago.

An understandably inflammatory issue, which the authoress, Nancy Isenberg, makes clear on a number of occasions throughout the thoroughly well-researched and highly analytical, White Trash – The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

In three distinct parts (‘To Begin the World Anew,’ ‘Degeneration of the American Breed’ and ‘The White Trash Makeover’), this occasionally inflammatory read, substantiates the degree to which pond-life voters – those who voted the heinous Donald Trump into the White House for instance – have nigh always been a permanent part of the American fabric.

The ideological and totally non-surprising background of which is already brought to bear in the book’s very first chapter, ‘Taking Out The Trash – Waste People In The New World,’ wherein Isenberg writes: ”The leaders of Jamestown had borrowed directly from the Roman model of slavery: abandoned children and debtors were made slaves. When indentured adults sold their anticipated labour in return for passage to America, they instantly became debtors, which made their orphaned children a collateral asset. It was a world not unlike the one Shakespeare depicted in The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock demanded his pound of flesh. Virginia planters felt entitled to their flesh and blood in the forms of the innocent spouses and offspring of dead servants.”

So much for a new way of thinking in a brave new world!

These 321 pages (excluding a List of Illustrations, Preface, Notes and Index) do much to show how poor (uneducated) whites, have always been central to America’s Republican Party.

To be sure, the country’s terrible Civil War itself was fought just as much over class issues, as it was slavery. And from there on, reconstruction pitted white trash against newly-freed slaves, which again, proved a mighty big factor in the inevitable rise of eugenics – a widely popular movement embraced by none other than Theodore Roosevelt, which targeted poor whites for sterilisation.

Said vicious circle of societal deprivation is majestically deciphered and explained throughout White Trash, right up to the present day; at the helm of which stands America’s current president and ultimate depiction of white trash, Trump himself.

He who lauds over a vast congregation of implausible ignorance and stupidity, which does much to suggest that the lunatics – or in this instance, white trash – have now taken over the asylum.

David Marx

South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland

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South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland
Lonely Planet – £17.99

Lions at waterholes, township art, clouds pouring over Table Mountain, Kalahari dunes, Drakensberg peaks, Swazi and Zulu ceremonies: Southern Africa’s famous trio is rich with adventures and experiences, culture and scenery.

                                                                     James Bainbridge
                                                                     Lonely Planet Writer

When compared to other travel guides, it does need to be said that Lonely Planet do go some way in coaxing that extra mile out of their publications. Perhaps there’s something in the layout, overall design or content, that makes this part-time traveller at least, always want to invariably reach out for their manifestation of travel writing, over others.

South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland being no exception to this thinking.

Replete with an array of maps (many of which are generally overall country maps, although several do home-in on a number of city centres such as Cape Town and Durban, Knysna and Pietermaritzburg), and the sort of colour photography that traverses everything which comes to mind when thinking of Africa’s famous trio: from the lions, zebras, buffalo and rhino that constitute its spectacular wildlife, to whales swimming in Walker Bay, not to mention Cape Dutch architecture, the Cederberg Wildnerness, vast urban areas, Knysna oyters and of course, a menagerie of cats (which, along with lions, also include wildcats, leopards, caracals and of course, cheetahs).

Indeed, like the Rainbow Nation itself, these 628 pages (excluding Index) cover most of the things that could possibly be expected from a visit to this extraordinary part of the world: ”With people from Afrikaners to Zulu living side by side and speaking 11 official languages, South Africa is undoubtedly one of the world’s most diverse countries. Pastel rondavels (round hats with a conical roof) dot the green ridges of the Drakensberg and Wild Coast, Nelson Mandela’s birthplace; Basotho shepherds clad in distinctive hats and blankets lead their sturdy ponies through Lesotho’s Maluti Mountains; and at the traditional reed dances in Swaziland and Zululand, debutantes dance with swaying reeds for local royalty. Meeting these people and experiencing their diverse cultures, all coexisting thanks to Mandela’s legacy of tolerance, will leave you with indelible memories.”

Memories indeed!

Compartmentalised into twelve different sections (Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Kwazulu-Natal, Free State, Johannesburg & Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Kruger National Park, Limpopo, North West Province, Northern Cape, Lesotho, Swaziland) and simply packed with an abundance of all the important information you’ll ever need – from best places to eat and stay, sights and activities, phone numbers, websites, a handy section on the various languages, and a (most worthwhile) section called a Survival Guide that lends itself to everything you need to know – Lonely Planet do give good value for money.

Before I forget, also included is a wildlife guide, and in the back of the book, a pull-out map of Cape Town.

So, if you intend heading to either South Africa, Lesotho or Swaziland, be sure to investigate this most crucial of travel guides. It’ll enable you to do so much forward planning before you’ve even landed; which, when you think about it, can only be a good thing.

Or, like South Africa, Lesotho & Swaziland itself, an essential thing.

David Marx