Nancy Doherty, Editor and Writer

Offering help and resources for writers, agents, and publishers

It’s November, when reality takes a turn for the dark, the cold and the grim. In November, more than most months, we need novels. Why is that? A few days ago I began Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and came upon one of those passages that seemed to answer a question I didn’t know I’d been asking. I found it in a scene in which the protagonist is browsing through an old bookstore, idly looking for a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid:

It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books—an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone.

And this sense, this feeling of communion, would at moments overwhelm him. At such times he had the sensation that there was only one book in the universe, and that all books were simply portals into this greater ongoing work—an inexhaustible, beautiful world that was not imaginary but the world as it truly was, a book without beginning or end.

To me, this is more than just a gorgeous way to describe why readers read and writers write. It gave me goose bumps–because I recognized that sensation.  I don’t know if I’ll manage to finish Flanagan’s novel (speaking of grim), but those two paragraphs alone are worth the price of the book.

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Richard Flanagan

More very soon, including thoughts on the novel I did finish last night, the very strange new Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.Andre Gide

You might think, given how hopeless we humans are, how condemned we seem be to repeat the worst mistakes of our history over and over, that our literature would have been completely tapped dry by now, with everything having been said too many times in the 550-plus years since Gutenberg invented the printing press. But no. Not only must everything be said again, as Gide (and historians) would have it, but people keep wanting to say it all again, in fresh, original ways. Which is why writers keep writing and readers keep reading. And listeners keep listening? There may only be a few themes out there, but if you’ve got what it takes to work the right magic, suddenly—wham! they are brand spanking new.  Just as the sun sets each night, but the way it slips unobtrusively behind my house in the evening is one thing and what went down at Race Point on Cape Cod last Monday night was something else:

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That may be a forced analogy, but I needed an excuse to share the pictures.

On late October Sundays, it’s important to sustain a reasonably good mood, isn’t it? At least here in New England, where we have to accept the fact that almost all the leaves have fallen from the trees and are wetly carpeting the yard and garden and that near-perpetual darkness will soon be upon us. It is all fine, I tell myself. Let me just flip through the depleted Times Book Review, and go plant some bulbs, a gesture of faith that spring will come again. Then maybe I’ll blog in praise of a few books to keep my spirits up. Hmm, here on page ten, David Leavitt is reviewing Edward St. Aubyn’s early novel. But wait—he is describing the past two years as “a moment when our literary scene was dominated by tepid, tediously introspective fiction.”  What? Can he really just have said that? I know he’s  trying to make Edward St. Aubyn and his Patrick Melrose novels look thrilling by contrast. Granted, the Melrose novels are a wonder, but…

Come on, David, how many writers did you just casually slap in the face? Thirty, forty, fifty? It’s hard to estimate how many excellent novels, some of them cool, some of them hot, have appeared on the “scene” in recent years. At least on my scene—where is yours exactly?

[Mental health break, as Andrew Sullivan would say:]

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Two such writers are the American nominees short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. This is the first year American writers were eligible and apparently feelings ran high on the island that Yanks were elbowing their way in where they didn’t belong and it wasn’t fair. I have no opinion, other than the general one that the more prizes for authors, the better. By coincidence I’d recently read both Karen Joy Fowler’s and Joshua Ferris’s novels. They couldn’t be more different. The one quality they have in common is their striking originality—and they’re both winners.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a coming-of-age story with a difference–the narrator’s sister, the one who disappears and causes the rest of the family to fall apart–is a chimpanzee. The book is brilliantly imagined, cleverly plotted, irresistible. I will say no more, because plot is important here.

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Joshua Ferris’s brand of originality is more conceptual and cerebral. (His first novel, And Then We Came to the End, written entirely in the first-person plural, is also remarkable.) To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, narrated by a Park Avenue dentist in a perpetual existential crisis, offers very little in the way of plot. But Dr. Paul O’Rourke, obsessive, tortured, atheistic soul that he is, won me over. (He’s given to introspection but it’s far from tepid.)  Ferris has a delightful, subversive sense of humor that had me laughing out loud. Warning: Once you read this novel, you’ll never feel quite the same again when your dentist asks you to “open wide.”

Readings on Vietnam

 

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In my last post, I promised some good books on the Vietnam War. Remarkably, as per Gide, in the last few years both an acclaimed new novel and a Pulitzer-prize winning history of the war have been published. I haven’t read the history, Embers of War by Frederick Logevall (2013). But I was enthralled by Matterhorn, which Karl Marlantes, an ex-Marine, spent more than thirty years writing and rewriting, then even more years trying to convince someone to publish. Matterhorn is the nickname of the jungle hill near the demilitarized zone with North Vietnam that a Marine company is capturing, losing, and recapturing at terrible cost for no purpose. The novel’s power is in the telling; it is shattering.

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A Rumor of War . This memoir by Philip Caputo of his experiences as a Marine lieutenant with one of the first combat units on the ground in South Vietnam is a journey into the Conradian heart of darkness.

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Dispatches by Michael Herr. A collection of some of the finest, in-your-face, searing reporting from the front lines. (Herr also co-wrote the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket.)

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A Bright Shining Lie. Neil Sheehan won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for this compelling and tragic portrait of John Paul Vann, an architect of the Vietnam War who later became disillusioned with South Vietnam and helped to leak the Pentagon papers.

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If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home

Going After Cacciato

The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien is no doubt the one Vietnam vet writer known to this generation of high school and college students. Each of these books about his war experience is remarkable in its own way: If I Die…, written soon after O’Brien returned home, is straightforward memoir. Going After Cacciato, a novel published three years later, steps in and out of the nightmare reality of war, departing for the surreal as needed. Although it won the National Book Award, the book that came out twelve years later is the author’s triumph. The Things They Carried, a collection of stories mostly featuring a character named Tim O’Brien, transcends genre. It is O’Brien’s brilliant attempt to capture the essence of war through what he calls “story-truth.”

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When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. Le Ly Hayslip was a peasant girl dozing on the back of a water buffalo one afternoon when the bombs fell on her village and her world turned upside down. Terrible events, misadventures and betrayals followed, but Hayslip, a survivor, eventually made her way to California and lived to tell this extraordinary tale.

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Buffalo Afternoon by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. An epic story of one man’s struggle with war in Vietnam and its aftermath at home by a great storyteller. As far as I can tell, it’s only available as an audiobook through Audible, but it’s worth the listen.

Coming soon: Some great–or at least entertaining–advice from novelists on how to write novels that won’t be tepid or tediously introspective, because we all want to keep David Leavitt happy about his scene.

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People are starting to forget the Vietnam War. They shouldn’t. Last week I read two news items that rattled me. One came courtesy of Sarah Wetzel, fellow graduate of the Bennington MFA program, who cited an article, http://bit.ly/1xL7NRV, about newly released records showing that Nixon, while running for president in 1968, managed to get word to the South Vietnamese ambassador persuading him to pull out of the Paris Peace talks—a treasonable offense. As a result, to quote from Sarah’s Thursday Facebook entry:

“My Dad and many of my parent’s friends were in Vietnam post 1968, post Nixon’s and Kissinger’s treason. Those that returned were damaged beyond repair. I’m just sickened anew.

“In the four years between the sabotage and what Kissinger termed “peace at hand” just prior to the 1972 election, more than 20,000 US troops died in Vietnam. More than 100,000 were wounded. More than a million Vietnamese were killed. But in 1973, Kissinger was given the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the same settlement he helped sabotage in 1968.”

On Friday the New York Times ran a story (http://nyti.ms/1p7zcIu)about the Pentagon’s plans to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnam War—at a cost of $15 million taxpayer dollars so far—and about their already up-and-running and already controversial website (http://www.vietnamwar50th.com/) designed to accompany it. Prominent antiwar-era activists and historians, led by Tom Hayden, are petitioning to have a say in both the content of the site and in the commemoration itself. Their position is that the Pentagon, which drew us inexorably, and many believe deceitfully, into the war that tore our society apart, should not now be allowed to be the official historians of their own folly.

Currently the one part of the site that could be considered history is the so-called Interactive Timeline, which attempts to present a chronology of events involving the USA and Vietnam from1945 through 1975. The timeline is styled as a book, with twelve clickable, dated headlines per double page. When you click on a headline, a new page opens with a brief explanation.  For example: “March 1, 1971. Weather Underground Bombs U.S. Capitol Building” opens to “A bomb explodes in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., causing an estimated $300,000 in damage but hurting no one. A Communist terrorist group led by William C. Ayers calling itself the ‘Weather Underground’ claims credit for the bombing, which they have carried out in protest of the ongoing U.S.-supported Laos invasion.”

These snippets of history lack proportion, context and clarity. Although they are touted as “historically accurate materials” meant to be used for educational purposes, the arbitrary nature of both the (few) antiwar events reported and the battle initiatives described make them useless as either information or disinformation.

Furthermore, these bits are interspersed among much more extensive descriptions of individual acts of valor. Of the twelve items per page, sometimes as many as ten or eleven are devoted to citations for individuals’ medals of honor. Although the website would be a perfect place to recognize medal winners by printing their photos and dramatic accounts of their heroic behavior, mixing personal stories into a timeline of the overall unfolding of the war does a disservice to both the soldiers and to history.

The man overseeing both the site and the anniversary commemoration, Lt. Gen. Claude M. Kicklighter, told the Times that “there is no attempt to whitewash the history of the Vietnam War.”  Which those of us who’ve been around since the days of daily Pentagon doublespeak on the progress of the war can translate. He means: “We are making every attempt to whitewash the history of the Vietnam War.”

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The timeline has only one entry for the month I spent in Vietnam:

“February 8, 1971. SOUTH VIETNAMESE SUFFER MAJOR LOSSES IN LAOS. The South Vietnamese launch Operation LAM SON 719, along Highway 9 in Laos.  Although they are supported by U.S. Army helicopters and logistical elements, American advisers and others on the ground are not permitted to enter Laos. The intent is to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The South Vietnamese suffer major troop losses. Accompanying the mission, Larry Burrows, a long time photographer of the war for LIFE magazine, dies when his helicopter is shot down in Laos.”

When I first read this last Friday, it didn’t register. LAM SON 719, what was that? I started to move on, then flipped back. Larry Burrows–of course. My heart started to pound. This had everything to do with me, and Joe, and where we were that day.

I should never have been in Vietnam in the first place. But I’d fallen in love with the right guy at the right time. I was working for Simon and Schuster in 1970 when Joe McGinniss’s book The Selling of the President became a bestseller. We were living together by the time his old newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, asked Joe if he would return to Vietnam to write about the winding down of the war that Nixon had promised. Joe said only if he could bring Nancy as his photographer. After much grousing, they agreed. I then had to learn how to take photos. Thirty years ago cameras didn’t automatically select the shutter speed, f-stop and focus, nor did most advance and rewind film by themselves, let alone offer a depth-of-field setting.  A single-lens reflex camera was a daunting piece of equipment. Fortunately I was too young to realize it was impossible to become a photographer in ten weeks.

What follows is an excerpt from My Brilliant Careers, my memoir-in-progress, recounting my brief Vietnam experience.

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Incoming!

I struggled to wake from the deep sleep of exhaustion when the shout came again: “Jesus Christ, incoming!”  The screen door slammed and I leapt out of bed.  Joe was no longer beside me in the Quonset hut. I heard a loud whine, gradually descending in pitch, a pause—then a ground-shaking BOOM. I instinctively rolled under the cot, scrunching myself into a ball. A few beats later Joe charged back into the room.  “Nancy, get the hell out of there!”

As I crawled out, he grabbed my arm and dragged me at a dead run for few dozen yards to an earth-covered bunker, where five or six men huddled in the dark. I squeezed in. The floor was slimy.  “Oh-oh,” the guy next to me said. “Are you barefoot?”

“Yes,” I said, panting.  “Why?”

“There’re poisonous snakes. Next time, wear shoes.”

Next time? I shuddered and began standing gingerly on one foot, then the other, thinking of my dry, snake-free spot under the bed and waiting for the sickening whine and boom of the next mortar shell. As the fog of sleep lifted, I noticed how dank and warm the air felt, and how very quiet it was. Except for the occasional mutter or rustle of clothing, the men didn’t speak.  Even the insects had fallen silent. The world seemed to be holding its breath, listening.

Through the bunker’s narrow opening I could see a few lights twinkling on the medical ship in Danang Harbor, an incongruously cheery sight.  The army press officer had pointed out the ship to us that afternoon after he’d picked us up at the air base. We’d arrived in Saigon, capital of South Vietnam, from Hawaii two days before, on January 22, 1971, Joe with a suitcase full of reporter’s notebooks and me with a shiny brown leather camera case heavy with equipment. The first thing I noticed when we walked down the steps from the plane was the air. It was so hot and thick with humidity that I wondered how anyone could think, much less function. Yet Ton Son Nhut airport, entirely run by the American military, was a welter of activity. We were met by a soldier from the MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) press office, who helped us throw our luggage in the back of an open jeep. The second thing that hit me, once we left the tarmac, was the smell—a sweet, rotting, jungly smell. The city was one sensory jolt after another–beautiful and crumbling, teeming with people, steaming with heat, stinking of diesel exhaust and excrement and the food being cooked in pots on practically every corner, buzzing and honking with noise twenty-four hours a day.

Our room at the Continental Hotel featured mosquito netting around a vast lumpy bed, a tiny woman in white with betel-nut-stained teeth who slept on a mat in the hall outside our door, and cockroaches as big as turtles scuttling across the mildewed tiles of the bathroom. That first evening I was so exhausted from travel and stunned by strangeness that when I took a shower I couldn’t muster either the energy to feel repulsed by the cockroaches or the courage to smash them with my shoe.

We had planned to take some time to get acclimated before setting out for the countryside. But the day we got there, President Nixon announced the Laotian Intervention, a new American-run offensive near the demilitarized zone with North Vietnam.  “Damn, this war isn’t winding down; it’s heating up,” Joe said when we settled on the hotel terrace with our first glass of wine. “We’ve got to go north.” He had a gleam in his eye I hadn’t seen before. Since we’d left New Jersey he’d been radiating an energy that trumped his innate shyness, that had him starting up conversations with not just other war correspondents around us but with the receptionist, our waiter, the sidewalk food vendors, and anyone else who looked like they knew about life in Vietnam. For the first time since we’d been together, he was a reporter on the job again. I felt exhilarated just to follow in his wake—at least for the time being.

So two days later we’d finagled our way by military plane from Saigon to Danang, a northern coastal city within earshot of the war. Now I was standing in a dark bunker shifting from foot to foot. Joe stood by me and pointed to the left of the harbor. “They say the shelling is coming from those hills.” Trembling slightly, I trained my eye on that patch of blackness, willing it to stay black.

“Don’t worry too much,” said a voice behind us. “I don’t think the Viet Cong really want to target the Western press corps. They’re just keeping us on our toes.” Sure enough, no more mortar shells fell near the compound. After twenty minutes or so we all climbed out of the bunker. “Welcome to South Vietnam,” one of our bunker mates muttered by way of goodnight.

When we got back to our Quonset hut, I climbed into Joe’s bed. Even though the night air was sultry, I was shivering.  Joe wrapped himself around me and rubbed my back. “That was scary,” I mumbled into his shoulder.

“I should have warned you–but it took me by surprise. Once you’ve heard the whistle of incoming mortar shells, you never forget. You start running for the bunker before you even wake up.” Back in 1968 when he was covering the war for the Inquirer, Joe had spent time uncomfortably near the front lines, and some of the men he’d grown close to were killed during the Tet offensive the week after he left.  But that afternoon when the press officer had pointed out the bunker during our tour of the compound, nothing in his tone had implied that we’d be using it that night.

“We’ll be fine,” he said soothingly.

“You’re just saying that because you got me over here—“I tickled his ribs—“and because you’re the guy.”

“Okay, okay.” He pressed against me. “But here we are and I think we’ll be okay, as long as we’re careful.  Those other poor bastards in the bunker with us are now lying alone on their thin mattresses. And we’ve got each other.” Being entwined with my true love did impart a powerful sense of protection, however illusory. We fell asleep almost at once.

The next morning in the mess hall the guy who’d warned me about the snakes came over after breakfast.  He was a cocky-looking but obviously seasoned photographer whom I’d seen strutting about the place draped with cameras the day before.  “I made you as the girlfriend right away,” he said. “It’s the way you carry your cameras; they’re too new-looking for you to be a real photographer.”

I blushed; after all, I was the girlfriend.  “I may be new at this, but I’ve got to take real photos for Joe’s stories.” I said. “So, can you spare some expertise?  Just how should I carry them?”

He put aside his swagger and spent fifteen minutes showing me how to keep the cameras safe and close to my body, loaded and ready for action, how to protect my lenses, how to bracket my shots in the field, and the fastest way to load film.  Just in time, too. Joe came back from a meeting with the press officer. He’d changed into army fatigues and gave me a set to wear. We were joining a convoy of army trucks headed north to supply the new attack in Khe Sahn. I was about to shoot my first assignment.

* * *

During those three weeks in Vietnam I had constant on-the-job training and I got a little better every time we went out. We traveled the length and breadth of the country by plane, both jet and prop, commercial, military and “Air America” (that is to say, CIA); by helicopter, both chinook and huey; and for shorter distances by boat, truck, jeep, and the notoriously terrifying three-wheeled Vietnamese taxi. Dizzyingly busy, constantly anxious and excited, alternately furious and horrified by what I was seeing, I felt I was truly living at last. Joe had eighteen columns to write; he wanted to go everywhere; to find as many different angles on the war and its effects as he could, and to illustrate them with compelling characters and colorful quotes. Any accompanying photographs would be nice, but he regarded them as secondary. This spurred me to try for images that would feel as necessary as the words.

I still have the negatives and contact sheets of the thousands of photos I took, which the AP office in Saigon kindly developed for me. They are ordered in sequence, beginning with my ride north from Danang in the cab of a supply truck. The city was a major staging area for the U.S. army and at the edge of town on our way north we passed a vast army-generated garbage dump. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of women and children were sifting through the forty-foot-high mounds. Vendors by the side of the road laid out squares of cloth displaying items from toothbrushes to T-shirts, all no doubt retrieved from the dump. We passed huts with cardboard box siding and roofs patched with flattened pieces of aluminum; one was ingeniously constructed of nothing but coke cans.

In Vietnam, the question of  whether the United States should be there was answered on a visceral level simply by looking around: everything American looked wrong.  On our descent into the country a few days earlier I’d been startled by the sight of one after another red and yellow circle dotting the vast green sea of jungle canopy.  Those, Joe said, were B-52 bomb craters. Here on the outskirts of Danang the destruction was smaller scale, but closer up the pollution seemed more revolting.

My driver on the convoy from Danang was an army corporal from South Carolina with biceps like Virginia hams. A genial enough fellow, he had no political opinions, was incurious about me, and talked about home in a sentimental, almost rote fashion. He seemed distracted; in retrospect, probably stoned. I would come to find that most of the grunts I met—many of them younger than me and I was only twenty-two—had a limited affect, ranging from mildly amused through bored to pissed off. They were happy to pose for pictures that might show up in their hometown paper, but no American woman, no matter how young and pretty, could hold their attention for long. A bestselling author didn’t interest them either. In fact, no one who wasn’t going to help get them out of there felt very important. Their psychic energy was focused entirely on staying alive. Their bland façades concealed a constant scanning vigilance; the exhausting tension of knowing that at any moment something terrible might fly at them from anywhere– a sniper, a land mine, a mortar shell from a clear blue sky.

Other than that night in the press compound,  which was pretty tame by war standards, I hadn’t yet experienced real danger, so the risks I took I took on our trip–like getting out of the truck during lunch break to capture the mists wreathing the ridge top at Hai Van pass, in the very hills (I learned after my corporal yanked me back into the cab) where the mortar shelling had come from hours before, to walking along the edge of a road in the Mekong Delta at dusk to photograph a girl on a water buffalo—I took out of naïveté, a false sense of security.

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Over the course of a week, we made our way north, often by hitch-hiking. I photographed dead bodies by the side of the road, a grinning toddler propped against a building, both of his legs missing above the knee, tuberculosis patients in a Quaker-run hospital lying two to a bed. Looking through my viewfinder, I focused on nothing except framing the best shot, capturing the telling moment.  Only later, before sleep, would I revisit the scenes and truly see them. Then the dismay, disgust and sadness would wash over me. Alone in the dark I would finally feel the horror of those two young bodies (the first dead bodies I’d ever seen), riddled with bullets and still stiff with rigor mortis, and shock at the ARVN soldiers who stood guard over them, two young men who could have been their doubles, passive and stone-faced in their sunglasses.

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On the way north we spent two days in the central highlands with a Marine company led by a fanatical lieutenant. When we arrived a group was just returning from patrol. They’d had a skirmish, killed a North Vietnamese Army soldier and returned with two prisoners. They posed, grinning, with their booty–a Soviet flag with hammer and sickle and a large pencil portrait of Ho Chi Minh.  At the evening meal the lieutenant, whose eyes shone with a disturbing zeal as he bragged about his platoon’s kills, suggested that Joe come on reconnaissance patrol the next day to see how it was done. That night we lay with our cots pushed together in the small tent they given us, whispering.

“God, I don’t want to do this,” Joe said. I was trying to massage the knots out of his sweaty shoulders as he talked about the time he’d gone on recon during his last trip to Vietnam, of the sniper fire and the relentless fear he’d felt. “And besides, this guy seems actually crazy.”

“Then don’t go.”

He shrugged me off and sat up. “There is no way I can write about what these Marines are experiencing without feeling it myself.”  I wheedled and pleaded.  But however much he longed to agree with me, he couldn’t. He lay back down and turned away.

“All right, in that case, I’m coming with you.”

He scoffed.

In the morning the lieutenant scoffed at me, too. Back then a woman going on patrol was out of the question. So the next afternoon, as scared as I’d ever been, I sat and waited for Joe in a hooch in a friendly ville the Marines were occupying. One of the soldiers on guard duty lay nearby on a hammock, flirting with a giggling young mama-san and playing with her baby. Three hours later the patrol returned. They’d encountered no NVA and fired no shots. Joe was drenched with sweat; he gave me a small smile but his eyes held a wary look, as though he couldn’t quite believe that he’d made it back. I understood something new about Joe: he had courage.

I would see that courage again. By the first week in February we’d made our way to the burgeoning Army camp outside Quang Tri, where massive preparations for the Laos campaign were underway. I slept with a group of Army nurses, who were brisk and cheerful in the lull before an onslaught of expected casualties. The next day dawned chilly with a lowering sky. The Army was flying members of the press corps up to Khe Sahn, an abandoned airstrip just south of the demilitarized zone that was being repaired to use for this new initiative. Joe and I tried to get on the Huey with a number of press people, including the famous Henri Huet, an AP photographer Joe was particularly fond of. We’d had dinner with him the night before in the giant mess tent. But there was only one seat, so we had to wait for the next chopper.

Khe Sahn that day was about as desolate a place as you could imagine. It had been the site of two infamous bloody battles in the recent past, one French and one American, and seemed an inauspicious place to launch yet another battle against the North Vietnamese. I took a lot of pictures of this ugliness—a battered metal runway in the foreground, with one thick iron strip curled up from the blast of a long-ago mortar shell; beyond that earth moving machines building a new dirt runway, and as a backdrop, mist-shrouded hills dotted with helicopters lifting off and landing. Nothing good could happen in such a place.

We made it back in Quang Tri that night. But the helicopter carrying Henri Huet, Larry Burrows of UPI, and nine other journalists and photographers never returned. At breakfast in the mess tent the next morning word raced through the camp: the South Vietnamese pilot had lost his way in the mist, strayed over a portion of the Ho Chi Minh trail, and been shot down. Many people there knew the lost men better than we did, and a terrible pall settled over the tables around us. Joe and I gripped each other’s hands tightly, heartsick. We also knew that if there had been one more seat on that chopper, we would have gone down, too.

That was pure luck. What took courage was another helicopter ride we hitched, returning from the Montagnard village of Ban Me Thuot near the border with Laos and Cambodia. We’d arranged to ride on a small Army chopper. At the last moment a major and his aide showed up at the landing pad. Again only one seat remained, but for some reason I can no longer recall, we had an urgent need to get back to Saigon. “You ride with us, little lady,” the major said, patting the spot next to him. “Your big friend can sit next to the door gunner. All right, sport?” he asked Joe.

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“Sure thing,” said Joe jauntily. The copilot handed him a helmet. He gave me an unsmiling nod and climbed next to the gunner, who sat belted to a narrow bench behind a machine gun in a little niche on the helicopter’s side. There was just room for Joe to squeeze in next to him.

I knew Joe had acrophobia. He couldn’t even stand on a stepladder to change a light bulb without feeling like he was going to fall to his death. I also knew, because the major shouted it in my ear over the roar of the helicopter’s lift-off, that we were going to do what was known as “contour flying,” staying relatively low and following the contours of the hills to make us a harder target for the enemy to hit. It made for a ride with a lot of bumps and rolls. I couldn’t see Joe but I could imagine the hell he was going through. Every so often during the ride I would hear a burst of machine-gun fire. Were we shooting or being shot at—or both?

Forty minutes later we reached our base. Joe climbed down.  He looked pale but shook hands all around, clapped the gunner on the back and thanked him for keeping him safe. No one could say if snipers had actually fired at us, and now that we were back in one piece, the question no longer interested them. After everyone had walked off to the waiting jeeps, Joe disappeared around the side of the hangar and threw up. It took him a day in our room at the Continental to recover. But he had done it, and done it in style.

Watching Joe do his stuff as a journalist was another revelation. When he was interviewing someone, the guy I knew disappeared. He didn’t just turn on the charm. As naturally as a chameleon turns green on a leaf and brown on a branch, Joe would subtly change to become whomever his subject would feel most comfortable with. At first I thought it was an affectation, the way he would drop his g’s and get aw-shucks-y with a Southern good ole boy, or stand ramrod straight and snap off the “Yes, sir’s” with the crazy Marine lieutenant. But I soon realized that he was unconsciously mirroring the interviewee. This would relax them into letting down their guard, allowing Joe to intrude into sensitive areas without ever seeming intrusive.

We had dinner one night with a very Kennedy-esque consul at his beautiful home in the Mekong Delta and Joe became so much the perfect Bostonian that the man bent over backwards to help us, escorted us around the province, and practically wept when we had to leave. At these times Joe seemed unaware of my presence; in fact, when I piped up with my own opinions, he would sometimes cut me off. I sulked; it took me a while to understand that when he was transforming himself, he didn’t want to be distracted, reminded of his Joe-ness. Some journalists–David Halberstam comes to mind—could be just as effective while inhabiting their outsized personas.  Over the years I’ve seen a few other writers and photographers subsume their egos and transform themselves when pursuing a story. I don’t think it’s an acquired skill so much as an innate talent.

I got to experience my own version of self-escape near the end of our stay, when we traveled to the resort city of Dalat, in the cool and beautiful central highlands. A century ago the French plantation owners vacationed there, allowing in only those Vietnamese who were their servants.  Now the Vietnamese occupied its graceful, balconied homes and American military personnel were banned.  We stayed with a foreign service officer whose house was lovely in the French colonial style, but also a little close to the sniper-ridden hills; all the bedroom windows were taped with X’s so glass wouldn’t spray sleeping visitors when the bullets hit.

In the morning, a Saturday, our host took us to see to the city’s huge open-air market, and it was there that I discovered the thrill—the liberation—of complete absorption in photographing.  For at least an hour I roamed that marketplace, intent on gorgeous displays of food and people, freed from self-consciousness. I took some of my all-time favorite pictures that day. One, pleasing for its geometry as well as its subject, captures a cook, face obscured by her hat, stirring dough with chopsticks, a tall stack of crispbreads threatening to topple beside her.  Another is of two old women in conical hats taking a lunch break.  They’re sitting behind a large array of spotted, overripe bananas, holding their rice bowls and chopsticks. Behind them all is in shadow, but filtered light captures the lines of the bananas, hats, chopsticks. The scene feels timeless, peaceful, even happy.

What triumph I felt back in Saigon when I turned in my film canisters and my AP friend emerged from the darkroom to say I’d taken some really great shots in Dalat.  “Well, that’s wonderful,” Joe said, “but I’m not planning to write anything about the marketplace, you know.”  I did know that, of course; maybe that helped explain why those were my best pictures.  I’d taken them solely because the scene had inspired me, not at anyone else’s direction.

After leaving Vietnam, exhausted, we flew to the island of Penang, off the coast of Malaysia, where Joe would finish writing his eighteen or so columns and we could unwind a little.  Here I learned two essential differences between writers and photographers.  Oh, the relief!  To be done and able to roam the beach and explore the town while the writer slaved over his paragraphs.  This was pure, giddy pleasure, and I never unpacked my cameras during our stay.  But then, the regret—all those photographs I didn’t take, of the street corner lepers in their wretchedness and self-possession; the saffron-robed monks in the squares; of the tiny, micro-skirted whores with their beehive hairdos flirting with huge, sunburned GI’s outside grimy bars; of the luckier girls of Saigon’s wealthier classes, who whiled away afternoons in outdoor cafes eating gelato, ethereally beautiful with their long black hair and flowing pastel ao dais. These were the images that haunted me; why hadn’t I photographed them?  I could never retake the shots I’d passed up, whereas a writer can always reanimate a scene, from a memory even decades old.  I wonder if every halfway serious photographer lives with such regrets, the albums we flip through in our heads after every trip, filled with those great photographs we should have taken, the ones that got away.

 Here are a few photos from the Dalat Marketplace:

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In the many years since that trip, I’ve come to understand the Vietnam War and it effects much more profoundly. And that is thanks to the many amazing books I’ve read by the people who truly lived the war—novels, memoirs, narrative nonfiction, history, and amalgams of all of the above like the inimitable The Things They Carried.

But this blog is far too long already.  Next time I’ll write about the great Vietnam War literature out there, still fresh, still worth reading on its own merit and worth reading as cautionary tale. I can’t help but suspect that so many of this generation’s dirty, ugly little wars were enabled and shaped by our generation’s dreadful, endless disaster of a war.

The Vietnam War must never be forgotten and for God’s sake, we can’t let the bastards rewrite its history!

Last month I had surgery on my eyelid. The bouncy young doctor kept up a stream of chatter, possibly to distract me from the scalpel hovering above my numbed eyeball.

“Your bio says you’re an editor and writer. I minored in English in college.”

“Really?” Barely moving my mouth.  “Read any good books lately?”

“Oh, I don’t have time to read. I didn’t even like to read much back then. I took English because I wanted to learn how to write.”

I wanted to kick him. But that scalpel…

I also wanted to yell: why the hell would you want to write if you don’t like to read? Who would you be writing for? And how do you imagine you could learn to write well if not by reading the masters? Would you learn to become a surgeon if you couldn’t stand to watch people cutting open bodies? How did you become so good at it (as apparently he had, which is why I was there) if not by studying the techniques of the experts?

I’ve heard it before. My son James had a friend in college who took creative writing courses with him but rebelled at having to do the readings. He only wanted to “express himself”; to be required to read the work of others felt somehow unfair. Are there a lot of people with this disconnect between reading and writing?

The best possible way—really the only way—to learn good writing is to read it, read it, read it and keep reading it. And you have to want to read it, or else go hang wallpaper or cut off someone’s eyelid because otherwise why bother? You can’t write well or edit well unless you read well. Enough said; I’m no doubt preaching to the choir.

I read constantly and I’m always on the lookout for what to read next. So I plan to continue to offer brief reviews of books I’ve just read and enjoyed,like the ones that follow. I hope you’ll return the favor in the comments section.

Featured image         Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

Eighty-five-old Maud is losing her mind. She is also struggling to solve a mystery. But is it the recent disappearance of her friend Elizabeth down the street, or the possible murder of her sister Sukey seventy years ago? Set in present-day London, this novel, classified as a thriller, is really a genre-defying tour de force. Maud’s deterioration makes her sometimes quite annoying, to the reader as well as to her family, but she is a heartbreakingly convincing creation. As both literary feat and reading treat,  Elizabeth Is Missing reminds me most of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night.

 Featured image          California by Edan Lepucki

I was lucky enough to have started this novel without reading a word about it first. So I will say only that California is compelling on many levels—as a post-apocalyptic vision (or an apocalypse in progress, as one reviewer described it), as the subtle portrayal of a marriage, as a cynical take on idealism and power, and as pure tale of suspense. Don’t read anything else about it—just get it.

 Featured image           The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Ever since Enduring Love, I have loved Ian McEwan. (Well, I didn’t love On Chesil Beach, but I endured it.) He is the least chilly of his generation of chilly, brilliant British male authors and rarely writes a less than perfect sentence. His novels grapple with big issues, even when he is being funny (as in Solar, 2007). Sixty-year-old Fiona May, the protagonist of The Children Act, is a judge in the family division of London’s high court. Although her docket bristles with nasty divorce custody cases, she must also make life-or-death rulings. Since a recent sensational one involving whether to separate Siamese twins, she has lost her libido. Perhaps because of that, on the night the novel opens, Fiona’s husband announces that he is moving out to begin a grand affair with a young university colleague. An hour later she gets a phone call for an emergency hearing on a new case. A sixteen-year-old Jehovah’s Witness suffering from leukemia is near death, but he and his parents refuse a lifesaving blood transfusion for religious reasons. Will Fiona take action on the case immediately?  What ensues as Fiona struggles to make the right decisions for the fate of the boy, Adam, and the fate of her long marriage to Jack held my interest until the very last word.

  Featured image           The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin                                                                                         

Set in the rugged lands of Eastern Washington state at the start of the twentieth century, The Orchardist is the sad tale of William Talmadge who, after being orphaned and then mysteriously losing his sister, manages to carve out a lonely but beautiful life growing apples and apricots on his land. Talmadge is shaken out of the security of his world by the appearance of two pregnant girls  hiding among his trees. He decides to protect them and the series of events triggered by this decision drive the plot.

My problem is that the plot plods; it’s a mule ride, not a train trip, to put it as Talmadge would. Coplin’s prose is astonishingly accomplished; words like lyrical, evocative and elegiac come to mind. Most of her loveliest writing is descriptive. The sense of place is vivid, the people easy to picture. Plot and character development are more problematic; silent heroes who suffer terribly take brave, reckless actions and never crack a smile can get wearying. But the bones of the book are strong, the writing a marvel. The Orchardist could have benefited from a lot of tightening. But when I reached the end, I had tears in my eyes.

Just finished:

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 All that I Love and Know by Judith Frank. A remarkable novel about love and politics large and small. It will grab you from page one. Recommended by my good friend with impeccable taste, Cynthia Crossen, at http://dearbooklover.com/.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. What starts out as a finely observed study of class, character and forbidden love in 1922 London turns halfway through into quite a thriller.

Gangsterland  by Tod Goldberg. A thriller that surpasses its genre. Funnier and wiser than Tod is in person, and that’s saying something.

Books, E-Books, Recorded Books

Of the seven novels I’ve just mentioned, I own physical copies of only two. I’ve already loaned them both to friends, which is the first, most obvious advantage to a “real” book. It has tangible, ongoing value. Besides sharing, selling or giving it away, you can reread it, display it  artfully on the coffee table or flip through it to remind yourself of the characters’ names–handy when reviewing. For many of us bibliophiles a book has value just sitting there on the shelf, where it becomes a little piece of our world, a sliver of personal history.

More practically, I can’t skip the boring parts or easily go back to check something in an e-book; I can’t shamelessly fold down the corners or use my emery stick as a bookmark. The cutesy ways Nook has for highlighting and bookmarking just don’t do it for me. If I could, I would always buy hardcovers. Paperbacks, on the other hand, are sometimes so abysmally produced—tiny, smeary type with no margins on paper so thin you can see the type on the flip side–that they make e-books look glamorous.

Sometimes, often, e-books save the day. Or the night; they’re great in bed, especially if you’ve got a lousy lamp or a grumpy bedmate. Traveling, the eyelid doc’s office–I read at least a couple of novels a week on the Nook. But when I finish a book I really like, such as the Sarah Waters, I kick myself for not buying the actual book so I could loan it to someone else who would love it, too.

As for audiobooks, I’ve been hooked since they came in huge boxed sets of cassette tapes, back when I spent hours in the darkroom and more hours driving kids here and there. I’ve always believed that a well-performed audiobook is every bit as legitimate a reading experience as a read-it-yourself book. Over time, I can’t really distinguish most of those I’ve read from those I’ve listened to. Both types seem to be stored the same way in my memory banks.

Except for the truly great audiobook performances, that live on elsewhere in memory. A few years ago the writer Lynn Sharon Schwartz and I were talking about this question of whether listening to books was as genuine an experience as reading them. She was expressing the same squeamishness that other serious writers seemed to feel for a medium that isn’t reading in and of itself. But then she mentioned Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. As it happened, we’d both listened recently to the audiobook version. Geoffrey Cantor reads the book, which is narrated by a character with Tourette’s syndrome. The performance is extraordinary, hilarious, unforgettable, way beyond what we would have gotten by reading the book ourselves.

Another striking example is the Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I started reading this delicious time-travel series when it first came out. But when I stumbled on Davina Porter’s recordings of it, I had to go back and start again. Her voices (and particularly her pronunciations of the Scottish) were so far superior to the voices in my head that they improved the reading experience immeasurably.

A quick online search on audiobooks versus reading turns up a Forbes article, http://www.forbes.com/sites/olgakhazan/2011/09/12/is-listening-to-audio-books-really-the-same-as-reading/  discussing a study that concludes that listening to audiobooks has the same effect on the brain as reading. It also found that people are more likely to stick with a book they are listening to rather than reading. I’ve certainly found that to be true; in fact, at one point while I was listening to The Orchardist I was tempted to press the stop button. I didn’t, and I’m glad. But if it had been a book, I would have closed it.

I also turned up a May 2014 New Yorker Talk of the Town piece, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-pleasures-of-being-read-to, that argues that long before books came along our brains were programmed to listen rather than to read, and they are still well-suited to that form of storytelling. The article, by John Colapinto, then turns into a rather poignant history of Recorded Books and its star reader, Frank Muller, complete with a snippet of him reading from The Great Gatsby.

I’ll close with another doctor’s visit (the last, I promise), this to the plastic surgeon who made my new eyelid. “So I see you’re an editor,” Steven Covici said. “I don’t know anything about books. But my uncle, Pat Covici, he was John Steinbeck’s editor. You could look it up.”

Once my new eyelid healed, I looked it up. Pascal “Pat” Covici immigrated from Romania at age ten and went on to an impressive career in publishing, most of it at Viking, where Saul Bellow and Shirley Jackson dedicated books to him. And on the front page of Steinbeck’s East of Eden is this dedication:

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When I set up my website three years ago, I planned to start a blog. Took me a while to get around to it. Here it is, folks. My goal is offer a mix of useful resources for writers, editors and readers; pithy quotations on relevant subjects, rants as called for (e.g., how Amazon doth bestride the world like a colossus); reviews of books I’m reading and/or listening to; excerpts of my writing; some photographs; cartoons…and we shall see what else. Infotainment? Maybe a discussion of neologisms, the good, the bad and the ugly. Also serial commas, and AP style vs. Chicago. Oh, yes, there is so much to say and so many other people to link you to! Let me warn you that, like Michel de Montaigne, “I quote others in order to better express myself.”  Most of the others I quote are far wiser and more accomplished than I, which helps.

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To start, since it took me so long to get around to this, here’s what a few writers have to say about getting going. In his 2007 article in Neiman Reports titled “Finding Time to Write,” Stewart O’Nan cites Joseph Conrad’s maxim “that there are only two difficult things about writing: starting and not stopping.” I haven’t been able to trace this back to an actual Conrad quote, but it does neatly wrap up the enchilada.

Most successful writers’ advice tends to boil down to stern variations of “just do it”:

E.B. White: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

E.L. Doctorow: “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”

Ursula K. LeGuin: “I am going to be rather hard-nosed and say that if you have to find devices to coax yourself to stay focused on writing, perhaps you should not be writing what you’re writing. And if this lack of motivation is a constant problem, perhaps writing is not your forte. I mean, what is the problem? If writing bores you, that is pretty fatal. If that is not the case, but you find that it is hard going and it just doesn’t flow, well, what did you expect? It is work; art is work.”

Jennifer Egan: “Be willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: ‘This bad stuff is coming out of me…’ Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It’s no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. That’s when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer’s block comes from. Like: It’s not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen… When I was writing The Keep, my writing was so terrible. It was God-awful. My working title for that first draft was, A Short Bad Novel. I thought: ‘How can I disappoint?’’’

The Egan quote is part of an article titled “25 Insights on Becoming a Better Writer” by Jocelyn Glei; the other twenty-four insights are also worth a gander. http://99u.com/?s=25+insights+on+becoming+a+better+writer

Doctorow again: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

And even Doctorow took a break now and then:

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Ed Doctorow and Joe McGinniss playing darts, circa 1974. (photo by N. Doherty)

Now for the good news. Charles Bukowski said: “This is very important — to take leisure time. Pace is the essence. Without stopping entirely and doing nothing at all for great periods, you’re gonna lose everything. Whether you’re an actor, anything, a housewife … there has to be great pauses between highs, where you do nothing at all. You just lay on a bed and stare at the ceiling.”

Between staring at the ceiling and just doing it there lies constructive procrastination—not writing but advancing your project or at least expanding your knowledge base (if not your mind). I plan to set up a permanent page of resource links soon but for now, here are a few excellent ones:

http://www.internet-resources.com/writers/  offers a mind-boggling collection of every imaginable link an aspiring writer might need, from dictionaries and grammar guides to writing prompts and cures for writer’s block to how to (maybe, someday) get published.

http://www.writersandeditors.com  Pat McNees’ site provides a somewhat less sweeping but more curated compendium of online and offline resources for writers and editors than the one above.

http://writerunboxed.com/   Billed as being “about the art and craft of fiction,” Writer Unboxed is chock full of wonderful advice and essays from an impressive array of writers and publishing professionals.

http://sinandsyntax.com/ Constance Hale, the author of three books about writing, edits this “online salon” about writing, in which she and a number of guest bloggers cover a range of writerly topics as small as the comma and as large as the end of publishing.

That’s it for post number one. Coming next: reviews of books by Ian McEwan, Emma Healey, Amanda Coplin and Edan Lepucki and a discussion of reading books versus listening to them. How different are the experiences? Is one somehow “better” than the other?