This post is written in response to my offer, in Book Seasons, to provide my book list. Rather than simply post a dry bibliography, I have made the list into a story.
Literally the first book I read about Vietnam was not about the war. I credit this with setting me on a more circuitous path than I would have taken if I had begun with what, by the time I started, had become the ‘war classics.’
So I began with To Vietnam With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur. I read this because John had bought it and he was about to leave for Hanoi where he would, some months later, invite me to visit. This book introduced me to people, to food, and to beauty, and it aroused my curiosity. I was going to need curiosity in the months and years that followed.
Until John extended his invitation, the question of Vietnam was theoretical, abstract, and, given that in spite of my travels I had never been to Asia, exotic. Once it became concrete, because I had accepted the invitation before I could talk myself out of it, I began having panic attacks that bewildered and intrigued me. Something strange was happening with memory and I was not going to learn what was going on by pretending Vietnam was just another country I could visit as a tourist. So I watched the PBS production, Vietnam: A Television History, because that is how I had known that war—and, let’s face it, how I had been introduced to that country—on television. It wasn’t reading, but it was a start.
Upon my return from that first trip, sick in bed for a month from an exotic Asian flu caught from the man coughing next to me on the plane, I read Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt, which felt accessible to me somehow because it is a distinctly Vietnamese story set in Paris in the 1930s and peopled with names I knew: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Paul Robeson, and the young Ho Chi Minh.
Next came the rich and deeply satisfying Understanding Vietnam by Neil L. Jamieson, which opened my knowledge of Vietnamese culture through its literature. That took me to Robert Templer’s Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam, published in 1998, which is well written and intriguing but with Vietnam moving so fast it is now almost ancient history. I consulted Templer himself about the possibility of a more recent study and he directed me to Bill Hayton’s Vietnam: Rising Dragon. All three of these books appeal to people who want, if only for themselves, to do what American political and military leadership did not do before flinging us all into surreal chaos: learn something about the country.
I became interested in books about the position I found myself in: trying to understand something that had deeply affected my life decades earlier. I read what one reviewer called “among the first to break the long national silence about the war,” Myra MacPherson’s Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation (1984). My interest in learning about how we know what we think we know led me to Scott Laderman’s Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory. After that came Scott Laderman and Edwin Martini’s Four Decades On: Vietnam, the United States, and the Legacies of the Second Indochina War (2013) which includes essays by historians, anthropologists, and literary critics about the war’s aftermath.
Much of this writing had an academic flavor and several were, in fact, published by academic presses. I was trained as an academic, so it makes sense that I would want to learn in this way. I notice as I write this, though, that it took me a long time to start reading about the war itself. This happened for the same reason that I had paid the war only passing notice on my first trip: I wanted to begin not by trying to understand the American story, but by reaching out of myself to learn about Vietnam.
to be continued…