Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers is a young adult novel for ages 9-12 or ages 12 and older depending upon maturity.  It touches upon the role and racism encountered by young African-American draftees and volunteers in the Vietnam War.  The coming-of-age novel was banned by certain school districts for its use of profanity, violence, sexual language, and vulgarity, and continually challenged by parents and teachers for the last decade.  Myers pulls no punches in this young adult novel, painting a picture of war as teens drafted in the 1960s would have experienced it and been impacted by it.

Harlem, New York’s Richie Perry volunteers to join the army at age 17 after he realizes its the best option to provide for his alcoholic mother and younger brother and that college is a dream that is too far out of reach since his father abandoned them.  He joins Alpha Company once in Vietnam and meets a cast of characters from a soldier who preaches faith to Peewee who acts as tough as he does on the Chicago streets and sees racism in every comment.

“Hot.  Muggy.  Bright, Muggy.  That was the airport at Tan Son Nhut.  We deplaned, followed Lieutenant Wilson across the field into an area in front of some Quonset huts, and started forming ranks.  It took a while.  The sergeant with the clipboard came along and tried to encourage us as best he could.

‘You faggots can’t even line up straight, how you gonna fight?’ he shouted.” (page 7)

Perry thinks a lot about what to write to his mother and his brother, Kenny, and he details every moment of his time in Vietnam as if he’s keeping a journal.  His relationship with Peewee continues to grow even though their outlooks on getting back to the World differ and their reactions to tragic events are opposite.  Death touches these men in many ways, but mostly they try to forget despite the visions that flit in front of their minds out in the field as they fight the Viet Cong.

“‘How about people in the hamlet?’ Brew asked.

‘We got to show them that we can be peaceful if they peaceful with us, or we can mess them up,’ Sergeant Simpson said.

‘Pacify them to death!’ Peewee said.”  (page 120)

Fallen Angels tackles very adult themes, but from the point of view of young teenagers thrown into a war they do not understand, are unable to describe to their loved ones, and have a hard time dealing with on a day-to-day basis.  How do you define courage? Can killing the enemy and seeing fellow soldiers die be forgotten and should they?  From the spider holes used by the Viet Cong in their guerrilla warfare against the Americans to the miscommunications and changed orders for each unit, Fallen Angels provides an inside look at this confusing war, and sheds light on how inexperienced soldiers react when facing death and superiors they do not understand.  Walter Dean Myers tackles not only morality, but also racism, courage, forgiveness, and finding oneself amidst terrifying circumstances.  The anniversary edition includes information about the author and some book club discussion questions with answers from the author.

About the Author:

Walter Dean Myers is a writer of children’s and young adult literature. Walter Dean Myers was born in West Virginia in 1937 but spent most of his childhood and young adult life in Harlem. He was raised by foster parents and remembers a happy but tumultuous life while going through his own teen years. Suffering with a speech impediment, he cultivated a habit of writing poetry and short stories and acquired an early love of reading.

This is my 53rd book for the 2010 New Authors Reading Challenge.

This is my 10th book for the 2010 Vietnam War Reading Challenge.

Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong by Kevin Bowen

Kevin Bowen‘s Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong is his first collection of poems and they focus on his memories of the Vietnam War.  Although there are moments of brutality and horrifying images, many of these poems intend to infuse the enemy with humanity — whether that enemy is a U.S. soldier or a member of the Viet Cong.  In a way these poems diverge from other war veterans’ writings in that rather than attempt to sort through mere emotional trauma, Bowen seeks to draw parallels between two nations that were once at war with one another and highlight their similarities in a way that will generate peace and forgiveness.

From “Willie, Dancing” (page 27):

When we moved south
we found comfort
nights at base in new dug bunkers,
the womb hum of generators,
artillery thud and mortars
marking time.  And whiskey,

Bowen’s lines are sparse, but use each word to its fullest potential to provide a sensory overload, much like the one he may have experienced in Vietnam himself.  Readers will hear the bombs hit the ground and feel the anxiety of the soldiers as each poem unfolds.  How did these soldiers ever “feel at home” in the jungles surrounded by the enemy?  Did they live in constant fear as the adrenaline pumped through their veins?

Poetry often tries to convey more than the lines state on the surface.  Bowen often blurs the lines of his memories with reality and myths from Vietnamese lore.  But always there is a connection made between enemies through their humanity.  For example, the lines of “Missing:” (page 34-5)

I was there that day, felt the tug,
looked down and saw my own face
looking up to me from the paddy,
searching the sky where already you’d disappeared.

Everything, even in war is connected and on some level the soldiers killing the Viet Cong were in a way killing themselves — little by little.  Not all of Bowen’s poems are from a soldier’s perspective, with poems narrated by a female voice, perhaps a wife, dealing with the far off glances, the silence, and the nightmares her lover experiences.  Readers will enjoy the wide variety in Playing Basketball With the Viet Cong, which strives to pull to the forefront the humanity in everyone and find a common ground from which each side can begin anew.

Incoming (page 22)

Don’t let them kid you–
The mind no fool like the movies,
doesn’t wait for flash or screech,
but moves of its own accord,
even hears the slight
bump the mortars make
as they kiss the tubes good-bye.
Then the furious rain,
a fist driving home a message:
“Boy, you don’t belong here.”
On good nights they walk them in.
You wait for them to fall,
stomach pinned so tight to ground
you might feel a woman’s foot
pace a kitchen floor in Brownsville;
the hushed fall of a man lost
in a corn field in Michigan;
a young girl’s finger trace
a lover’s name on a beach along Cape Cod.
But then the air is sucked
straight up off the jungle
floor and the entire weight
of Jupiter and her moons
presses down on the back of a knee.
In a moment, it’s over.
But it takes a lifetime to recover,
let out the last breath
you took as you dove.
This is why you’ll see them sometimes,
in malls, men and women off in corners:
the ways they stare through the windows in silence.

About the Poet:

Kevin Bowen was drafted at age 21 and served in the 1st Air Cavalry Division in the Quang Tri Province near the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and the Tay Ninh Province in Vietnam from 1968-1969. He is a 1973 graduate of the University of Massachusetts Boston. A former Danforth Fellow and Fulbright Fellow at New College, Oxford, he earned his Ph.D. in English Literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He worked as an aide and speechwriter for Lt. Governor Thomas P. O’Neill, III prior to becoming director of the Veterans’ Upward Bound Program at Umass Boston in 1984 . He was appointed co-director of the Joiner Center in 1984.

Playing Basketball with the Viet Cong, his first collection of poetry, was published by Curbstone Press in 1994. His poems have appeared in Agni, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Ploughshares Press, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, Witness and other places.

This is my 9th book for the 2010 Vietnam War Reading Challenge.

This is my 12th book for the Clover Bee & Reverie Poetry Challenge.

What’s New at War Through the Generations?

First, I wanted to say thank you for all the support you’ve all given me since the passing of my grandfather.  It has helped.

Second, you may have noticed that I’ve only read 8 of the 11 books I had hoped to read for the Vietnam War Challenge at War Through the Generations, and that I haven’t posted a review for that challenge since July.   I hope to have some additional reviews for this challenge read by the end of the year, so stay tuned.

Third, there have been some reviews that I’ve neglected to post due to other obligations, but in the past week, Anna and I have been very diligent about pre-scheduling review snippets, book review links on the book reviews page, new books to the recommended reading list, and guest posts.  We hope to continue this trend through the end of the challenge.

In light of that, I wanted to draw everyone’s attention to a recent Vietnam War guest post from author Phyllis Zimbler Miller about where she was during the war.  We’d love to hear your thoughts about where you or your loved ones may have been during that time as well, so feel free to comment.

Thanks to everyone participating in the challenge for their patience and understanding about the lack of updates . . . it has been a rough year, and I take the blame for this one since the Vietnam War was supposed to be my year to take care of the updates.

Final Week of the Paco’s Story Readalong

This is the final week of the Paco’s Story read-a-long, check out the discussion questions.

If you missed the first round, second round, and third round of questions, check them out.  You also can check out my responses to section 1, section 2, and section 3.

In the final chapters, the narrator takes us back to Vietnam and sheds light on some of the horrors of the war and Paco’s part in the conflict.  We learn that Paco has a specialty in booby traps and bombs, and that each member of the unit has their own tasks.  The unit is tight knit and the camaraderie is made evident, but there is a darker side to this group.

Paco and his men find a young, female Viet Cong member after she kills several of their fellow soldiers.  Unfortunately, her punishment is the worst thing a woman can imagine, and Paco takes part.  This scene is detailed and gruesome, but it serves to demonstrate how far the war can twist the human mind and its ability to discern right from wrong when revenge becomes the top priority.  It is not just revenge against the female Viet Cong for killing their men, but for all the enemies who have won battles and killed Americans and dragged them into this war.

In previous chapters, we’ve seen Cathy watch Paco from afar and flirt with him. . . tease him.  She teases him when he comes back to the Hotel Geronimo as she waits in her doorway in little more than a man’s dress shirt, and Paco’s expectation is that if he can get to her door before she closes it, they will become as intimate as they have imagined.  Her flirtations know no bounds.  One evening she leaves town, and Paco sneaks inside her room and reads her diary.  Sadly, what she says about him cuts him to the core, making him realize that his fantasies of fitting in and returning to the living are just that fantasies.

Another interesting aspect of Paco’s Story is the similarities that can be drawn between Vietnam and Boone, Texas, from the hot and sticky climate to the desolate feeling of being alone in the “jungle.”  Whether its enemy territory or a town full of people that do not want you there, both places make Paco feel ill-at-ease and out of place.  Setting plays an important role in the story and helps establish the pressures Paco continues to feel even though the war is over.

Finally, the ending of the book may be ambiguous, but it is fitting given our visit with Jesse and his penchant for traveling across the United States to experience life and forget about war.  Paco seems to be embarking on a similar path.

Paco’s Story is a novel that anyone interested the Vietnam War should . . . no must read.

Even if you aren’t participating in the Vietnam War Reading Challenge, we hope that you will join us for the Paco’s Story read-a-long.

Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann

Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann chronicles the war experiences of Paco, the only surviving soldier of the Fire Base Harriette massacre from Alpha Company.  The narrative is unusual in that Paco does not tell his own story of his survival or his recovery and ultimate return to the United States from the Vietnam War.  Though readers get to know Paco through the eyes of others and his nightmares, Paco is a vivid and lost character in search of peace.

“Paco is in constant motion, trying to get settled and comfortable with that nagging, warm tingling in his legs and hips.”  (Page 35)

Heinemann’s language is raw, scraping down to the guts and bones in his readers, making them cringe, turn away, and stand agape.  A number of readers may find the graphic scenes in this novel to be too much, but what makes them uncomfortable are the realities of war and the breakdown of humanity.  Paco struggles not only with why he was the only survivor, but how to assimilate himself back into a society he no longer recognizes once stateside.

“(A body never gets used to humping, James.  When the word comes, you saddle your rucksack on your back, take a deep breath and set your jaw good and tight, then lean a little forward, as though you’re walking into a stiff and blunt nor’easter, and begin by putting one foot in front of the other.  . . .”  (Page 9)

Paco is an enigma, which is typical of most returning soldiers from the Vietnam War.  “The intricate ironwork–the tension beams and torsion beams and, overhead, trellis-looking crossbeams–is delicate and well made” (Page 66-7) is an image that will stick with readers as they wonder about Paco and his ability to return from the land of ghosts and emerge from the memories that haunt him.

“And he’s just a man like the rest of us, James, who wants to fuck away all that pain and redeem his body.”  (Page 173)

Heinemann is a brilliant writer, meshing the surreal with the reality of Paco’s life as a dishwasher in the Texas Lunch of Boone, Texas.  Ghosts that push Paco to remember, veterans that tell their own stories, and the looks of townsfolk as he hobbles to and from work all serve to keep Paco entrenched in the jungle with the events that took his innocence and his life.  Paco’s Story is an every soldier story in the way it depicts the horrors of war and the impact of those events on the psyche of those soldiers.

If you’ve missed the read-a-long discussion, please check out my answers to the discussion questions for sections 1, 2, and 3.

This is my 8th book for the 2010 Vietnam War Reading Challenge.

A Hundred Feet Over Hell by Jim Hooper

Jim Hooper‘s A Hundred Feet Over Hell is a true account of the 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company, with which his brother Bill served as one of the Myth Makers flying single-engine Cessnas that were extremely vulnerable to artillery and other ground fire.  These men were charged with flying over hot zones and locating the enemy for bombers, giving precise coordinates for dropping bombs and napalm.

“Rather than sharing our joy at his return, Bill was angry.  Not because of the crippling wound received in an unpopular war — he accepted that as part of what he had signed on for.  The anger came from being here.  In a demonstration of uncompromising loyalty over logic, it was, he believed, a betrayal of the warrior family he’d left behind.”  (Page xi)

Hooper has captured the essence of these men and their time in Vietnam from their crazy stunts to the moments when they feared for their lives.  Through alternating points of view the stories unfold quickly as one man feeds off and expands on the story being told by their friend and colleague.  Readers will meet characters like Doc Clement and Charlie Finch, but these men are not characters, but real human beings who lived through the harsh realities of war.

“Bill Hooper:  . . . I can’t remember more of that day, save weeping in the privacy of my room.  Perhaps the saddest thing of all was that I would learn to be unemotional about killing, eventually joining others who were very good at it.”  (Page 23)

Hooper pulls no punches in the organization of this book and doesn’t seem to modify the military language these men used on a regular basis; some examples include VC for Viet Cong and DMZ for demilitarized zone, which is clearly a misnomer, to the lesser known terms DASC for Direct Air Support Control Center and Kit Carson scout for those former Viet Cong recruited to assist with counterintelligence.  Readers of military history and fiction are likely to understand many of these acronyms and terms easily, but others may have to refer to the provided glossary.  However, once they get a grip on the terminology, readers will plunge into the narrative easily, getting to know each of the soldiers and how they coped with the war.

A Hundred Feet Over Hell by Jim Hooper will remind readers of those in-the-field journalistic interviews with soldiers and those documentaries where one soldier begins a story only to be continued by another soldier, providing a deeper impact.  Each man shares their fears, their triumphs, and their more embarrassing moments.  One of the best books about the Vietnam War, not about infantry.

Please check out this book trailer to see what these men flew over enemy territory without armor or weapons.

A Hundred Feet Over Hell

Please also check out these great photos.

About the Author:

After graduating with a degree in Slavic Studies from the University of South Florida, Jim Hooper worked as a documentary research-writer for WFLA-TV in Tampa, with weekends set aside as a skydiving instructor and team captain. He gave up television after three years to devote himself full time to jumping out of airplanes, logging over 3000 freefalls and building the world’s premier skydiving center in Zephyrhills, Florida. His thirst for adventure unfulfilled, he sold the business in 1984 to realize a long-held dream of being a war correspondent and author, making his home in England and setting off for Africa.

I want to thank Lisa Roe at Online Publicist and the author Jim Hooper for sending me a copy of A Hundred Feet Over Hell for review.

This is my 39th book for the 2010 New Authors Reading Challenge.

This is my 7th book for the 2010 Vietnam War Reading Challenge.

Paco’s Story Readalong Week 3

This is week 3 of the Paco’s Story read-a-long, and the third set of discussion questions were posted on Wednesday, July 21 for Chapter 5.

If you missed the first round and second round of questions, check them out.  You also can check out my previous post for section 1 and section 2.

Paco’s Story takes a new turn with the narrator showing us how well Paco is acclimating to his new life in Boone.  He’s the dishwasher at the Texas Lunch, but his work is not all that keeps him moving.  His dreams are ripe with danger and disturbing dreams.  The narrator’s identity becomes clearer in this chapter, and the ghosts of Paco’s past are identified.

Paco seems to take to the work at the diner because it provides a routine with very clear parameters, much like those in the military.  But once asleep, Paco is at the mercy of his past and the ghosts that still haunt him.  While he hasn’t outwardly asked why he was the only one that survived the massacre, it is clear that he wonders, though in his dreams he actively keeps his head down to make sure a different outcome does not occur.

The complexity of Paco’s character shines in this chapter — his hold on the past and the tug of the here-and-now, his ease with fellow soldiers before the massacre, and his ability to become robotic and get tasks done.  However, he is still paralyzed, as paralyzed as he was in the jungles of Vietnam, unable to share the darkest moments of his life and of the war.  They are too fresh, too real.

Even if you aren’t participating in the Vietnam War Reading Challenge, we hope that you will join us for the Paco’s Story read-a-long.  Until next week.

Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa

Yusef Komunyakaa‘s Dien Cai Dau is another collection of Vietnam War poetry.  The poet, who received the Bronze Star and edited The Southern Cross, dedicates this book to his brother Glenn, “who saw The Nam before” Komunyakaa did.  His poems put the reader in the soldiers’ shoes, allowing them to camouflage themselves and skulk around the jungles of Vietnam from the very first lines of “Camouflaging the Chimera.”  Beyond skulking in the jungle, hunting the Viet Cong, Komunyakaa discusses the weight of war as soldiers trudge through the landscape with their equipment and what they’ve done and seen.  Weaving through the tunnels looking for the enemy or searching the thick forest, soldiers are constantly reminded of their emotional and physical burdens, though they find joy in some of the smallest moments.

One of the beautiful aspects of Komunyakaa’s poetry is his vivid sense of how even the most beautiful elements of nature have a darker side.  In “Somewhere Near Phu Bai,” Komunyakaa writes “The moon cuts through/the night trees like a circular saw/white hot.  . . .” and in “Starlight Scope Myopia,” he suggests, “Viet Cong/move under our eyelids,/lords over loneliness/winding like coral vine through/sandalwood & lotus/.”

Beyond the nature imagery and the immediacy of the war, some of these poems have an analytical quality much like a general planning out the battle moves.  Each move of the soldiers is reflected in the carefully chosen words and lines, and the effect is genuine, creating a suspense and fear readers would expect soldiers to experience.

A Greenness Taller Than Gods (Page 11)

When we stop,
a green snake starts again
through deep branches.
Spiders mend webs we marched into.
Monkeys jabber in flame trees,
dancing on the limbs to make
fire-colored petals fall.  Torch birds
burn through the dark-green day.
The lieutenant puts on sunglasses
& points to a X circled
on his map.  When will we learn
to move like trees move?
The point man raises his hand Wait!
We’ve just crossed paths with VC,
branches left quivering.
The lieutenant’s right hand says what to do.
We walk into a clearing that blinds.
We move like a platoon of silhouettes
balancing sledge hammers on our heads,
unaware our shadows have untied
from us, wandered off
& gotten lost.

Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa is an excellent collection that will allow readers to join the fight in Vietnam, feel the fear and anxiety of soldiers, and see just how many enemies soldiers faced — the Viet Cong and the jungle.  Komunyakaa is a poet with incredible insight from propelling emotions off the page through images to using carefully chosen words and phrases to vividly paint the scene.  Dien Cai Dau is one of the best poetry books about the Vietnam War and often reads like prose.

This is my 6th book for the 2010 Vietnam War Reading Challenge

This is my 8th book for the Clover Bee & Reverie Poetry Challenge.

Paco’s Story Readalong Week 2

This is week 2 of the Paco’s Story read-a-long, and the second set of  discussion questions were posted on Wednesday, July 14 for Chapters 3 and 4.

If you missed the first round of questions, check them out.  You also can check out my previous post for section 1.

Like the other chapters, readers only see Paco through the eyes of other characters or the unknown/ghost narrator.  We learn that Paco is on medication to keep the pain away, but how much medication would it take to keep the images of war out of your mind?

One of the most memorable passages for me is in Chapter 3:  “He [Paco] is not really asleep, hunched as awkwardly as he is, but mighty groggy from the several additional doses of medication — muscle relaxers and anti-depressants — to the point of a near-helpless stupor.  . . . Paco is in constant motion . . . ” (Page 35)

As readers move through these next two chapters we see Paco move from location to location — from the bar to the diner to the antique store to the barbershop –but in a way, he’s motionless as he sits and listens to each person or people he meets — silent.  Paco is a dichotomy in this way, and it makes him an enigma.

The narrator continues to demonstrate the reactions to Paco the war veteran and we learn a bit more about his recovery, but do we get to know Paco?  Should this story be told by Paco?  Readers may like to understand his inner thoughts, but I wonder if he thinks much beyond the moment.  He seems focused on finding a job and a place to stay, but not much else.

Even if you aren’t participating in the Vietnam War Reading Challenge, we hope that you will join us for the Paco’s Story read-a-long.  Until next week.

Paco’s Story Readalong Week 1

This is week 1 of the Paco’s Story read-a-long, and the first discussion questions were posted on Wednesday, July 7 for Chapters 1 and 2.

Paco’s Story is about the soul survivor of the Fire Base Harriette massacre where Alpha Company was obliterated.  Heinemann’s writing is raw and honest, and in the first Chapters we’re introduced to Paco through an unnamed narrator, who could be the ghost of a soldier killed in action during the massacre.  Readers learn that Paco is the soul survivor from Alpha Company, and his survival had a serious impact on a medic who until he met Paco had failed to save many soldiers injured in the Vietnam War.

The unnamed narrator is brutal in his honesty about Paco’s injuries and the devastation suffered by soldiers in the field.  He wants to tell his story, Paco’s story, even if people are unprepared to hear it or don’t want to hear it at all.  This is a story that must be told.  I wonder if that is how Heinemann felt while he was writing this novel — did he believe that this story was his calling, something he had to tell.

Even if you aren’t participating in the Vietnam War Reading Challenge, we hope that you will join us for the Paco’s Story read-a-long.  Until next week.

Join the Paco’s Story Read-a-long

I’ll be participating in the War Through the Generations Vietnam War Reading Challenge read-a-long of Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann in July.

For those outside of the Vietnam War Reading Challenge who are interested in joining the Paco’s Story read-a-long, you are more than welcome to join us.

How it will work: You read the designated chapter(s) and visit War Through the Generations on the Wednesday for the discussion questions

What you do: You read and then talk about what you’ve read so far and answer the discussion questions provided either in the comments on that Wednesday or on your own blog.

Here’s the schedule:

Week 1: Chapters 1 and 2
Discussion Questions posted on July 7

Week 2: Chapters 3 and 4
Discussion Questions posted on July 14

Week 3: Chapter 5
Discussion Questions posted on July 21

Week 4: Chapter 6 and 7
Discussion Questions posted on July 28

For discussions on twitter use the hashtag #Paco

***Oh, and here’s the button for the read-a-long: (link to image is http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1303/4679014202_5351e02497_o.jpg)


Thanks for making the button Monica!

Challenges Completed! Others Not so Much!

I joined this challenge a bit late last year, but it ran from May 2009 through May 2010 (click on the image for more information).  I completed the deep end of the challenge, which required me to read and review 11-15 books of contemporary poetry and poetics.

See the books I reviewed here.

I joined the 2010 Ireland Reading Challenge (click on the image for more information) at the Shamrock Level for 2 books.

Check out my book reviews here.

I’ve completed this challenge by reading 3 books.  Check them out here.

Ok, that’s it for the completed challenges.  For the other challenges and my progress, here you go:

I’ve read 34 out of 50 books for this challenge.  Check them out here.

I’ve read 3 out of 10 books for this challenge.  Check them out here.

I’ve read 5 out of 11 books for this challenge.  Check them out here.

I’ve read 9 out of 12 books for this challenge.  Check them out here.

I haven’t even started this challenge.  It ends June 30 and you have to read, listen or watch between 3 and 6 items.

I’ve read 4 out of 5 spinoffs/rewrites and 0 out of 6 Jane Austen originals.  Check them out here.

I’ve met the requirement to read 2 books of poetry, but I’m not sure I’ve finished a badge yet.  I’ve read 5 contemporary poetry books, which I think qualifies for a badge.  Check them out here.

I’ve read 2 out of 6 vampire books from any series.  Check them out here.

I have not started this challenge either.  I think this one is perpetual, so I may be good on this front.