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Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

just“The bare bones of a well-told story required coherence, ironic asides and a plot as well-knit and tied together as a jigsaw puzzle and somewhere in it a detail as provocative as a cat in a tree.”

That’s from Ward Just’s new novel American Romantic (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), a well-told story if ever there was one, complete with such provocative details as a cat in a tree, a meeting in the jungle, a girl in a hammock, a car over a cliff. All play a part in the life of diplomat Harry Sanders, “a connosieur of the counterfeit and inexplicable.”

Just writes about diplomats and foreign affairs with the silky acuity that John le Carre writes about spies and espionage. As his ambassador mentor tells Harry, “our business is not a straight-line affair. We deal with curves and switchbacks, the yes that means no and the no that means maybe. We are obliged to be comfortable with ambiguity.”

Harry’s career with the State Department is marked by his first posting to Saigon in the early 1960s when his covert negotiations with a communist leader lead to disaster. The event will follow him to more manageable postings in Africa and Europe, as will his memories of a brief affair with the beautiful, restless Sieglinde. Still, his later marriage to the younger May, eager to escape her stern Vermont roots, is mostly happy, and the two move smoothly in diplomatic circles. They are liked and respected, although Harry is never the high-flyer he might have been, and May has secrets of her own. Over time, Harry’s youthful romanticism is tempered by realism, he wonders about America’s place in the world and his own. Is the cottage in the south of France a retreat or a reward? Has Harry made history or has history made him?

American Romantic is Just’s 18th novel, and one of his best. My favorite novel of the year, so far.

 

 

 

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In case you haven’t heard, today is pub day for Matterhorn, a 598-page first novel from Marine veteran Karl Malantes. Despite the title, it’s not about the Swiss Alps but about the Vietnam War. The advance hype is almost irresistible, with impressive blurbs from distinguished writers, an amazing backstory (30 years in the writing), a big discounting push from booksellers, advance praise from critics. It’s the season’s “big” book, maybe the year’s.

Back when I was a book editor/critic, I cared about such stuff. We had to be out in front of the news, first with reviews. It was an ongoing race. Even now since I started blogging, the reporter-in-me impulse wants to be in the know ASAP. This has to stop. I have mountains of unread books, some of them just released, some soon to be published and others that well, I can’t remember when they came out. They went from the top of the TBR stack to the middle as I piled on more new volumes.

Then there are all those books I want to re-read. When I first heard about Matterhorn several months back, I admit to initial disappointment that it wasn’t about the legendary peak in Switzerland. I still have my yellowed paperback of James Ramsey Ullman’s Banner in the Sky, which I loved as a kid and which led me to The White Tower, now out of print. I want to revisit them after all these years and experience again the thrill of the ascent — the rocks, the ice, the snow, the endless chasms if you put one foot wrong.

Matterhorn is supposed to be a terrific Vietnam combat novel — which reminds me of other great Vietnam books, especially Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. There’s a nice new 20th anniversary edition of this haunting collection of short stories. No, I don’t need to go out and buy it; the original hardover is on the top shelf of my blue bookcase.

I almost gave into temptation a couple of weeks ago and bought Angelology, a fat first novel from Danielle Trussoni. It has received a lot of hype, too — a more highbrow Dan Brown — and is now on the best-seller list. Great cover, but then I picked it up and read a few paragraphs and remembered why I’m not a big Dan Brown fan. I decided it could wait. After all, Matterhorn was coming.

But I’m going to wait awhile for it, too. The luxury of being an unpaid, erratic blogger. I no longer have to read every big new book just because it’s there.

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