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Flower Of The Dragon: The breakdown of the U.S. Army in Vietnam - Richard Boyle

Doctor Rock: You know you come off with this journalist bullshit all the goddamn time, you know that? I haven't seen one article
Richard Boyle: I wrote a book! "Flower of the Dragon"!
Doctor Rock: "Flower of the Dragon"? That was ten years ago, Boyle!
Richard Boyle: It was a big exposé!
Doctor Rock: Ten years ago! What have you written since?
Richard Boyle: Articles.
Doctor Rock: What articles?
Richard Boyle: I wrote for a right wing newspaper in El Salvador about guerillas.
Doctor Rock: [sarcastic] Oh the one in El Salvador? Oh yeah, I read that, my whole family read that! Everyone saw that article, Boyle!
From the movie Salvador (1986) directed by Oliver Stone starring James Woods as Richard Boyle.

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Photo by Horst Faas

One thing that everyone needs to understand about Richard Boyle is what a big pain in the ass he is. He is brash, undisciplined, drinks too much, hangs out with women of dubious virtue, and yet for all these character flaws the man has a sense of integrity that would not let him compromise a story even when to print it put his life in danger. He did three tours in Vietnam as a war correspondent, well... not always actually while affiliated with a news organization, but let's not quibble over paperwork.

”The war in Vietnam is measured not by ground taken, as in most wars, but by the number of enemy killed.”

The difficulty with a war like this is that the Viet Cong would often just melt back into the population. US soldiers had trouble distinguishing between the enemy and the civilian population. It seems like every conflict the US military has been involved in since Vietnam would fit this profile. This blending of combatants with civilians makes mistakes easy. It is also not difficult to understand the growing frustration that any soldier would have when most of the time he feels he is fighting phantoms.

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Photo by Horst Faas.

Not being able to really see civilians as noncombatants, but actually believing that they are part of the problem, leads to tragedies like the massacre at My Lai. ”For me and for millions of my generation My Lai came as the final punch in the mouth, the end of our illusions. We could no longer say we didn’t know. The day we learned of My Lai changed our lives.” As it turns out, My Lai was not the first nor was it to be the last massacre of civilians by American soldiers.

It isn’t any wonder that a large percentage of the soldiers in Vietnam elected to tune out and light up. Grass was a problem, but heroin and Binoctal were a bigger problem. Binoctal was frying soldier’s brains. Heroin was a difficult habit to break, and as guys were rotating back to the states, their main concern was making sure they could find a dealer to keep feeding their addiction. Just because soldiers were allowed to leave Vietnam they didn’t always leave the war behind them.

One of the bigger stories that The Overseas Weekly, the paper that Boyle worked for, broke was in regards to fragging. There were distinctive dividing lines between the Lifers, mostly officers who intended to make a career out of the army, and the enlisted men who were mostly draftees. Officers were responsible for carrying out the objectives usually passed down from higher ranking officers. The problem in a war of this nature is that objectives don’t always make sense. They weren’t marching across Europe, liberating people, with the ultimate goal of stopping a madman. When a soldier in WW2 was asked to risk his life to take a hill or take point on a dangerous advancement, he did so convinced that what he was doing was helping to keep his sweetheart and family back home safe, and on a larger scale that he was actually helping to save the world.

By 1969 most of the rank and file soldiers in Vietnam were convinced that they were dying for absolutely nothing. They were absolutely right.

So what started out as occasional incidents where inexperienced or bad officers were being taken out by disgruntled troops quickly became an epidemic. Typically a grenade would be rolled in with the officer or he would be shot in the back while on maneuvers. (There were 600 officers confirmed murdered, but over 1,400 more that died under mysterious circumstances.) What I didn’t realize until I read Boyle’s book, but it actually makes perfect sense, was that the Lifers were also fragging enlisted men sometimes as a preemptive move against a potential assassination. There were bounties being raised by whole units sometimes as high as $10,000 that would be paid to the soldier who performed the murder. The Lifers were seen by the average soldier as more dangerous than the VC.

An army at war with itself.

Revolts and outright mutinies were becoming common. Boyle flew into Firebase Pace to cover an incident where a whole company elected not to participate in nighttime maneuvers. They asked Boyle to carry a message to Ted Kennedy because he was the brother of John and Bobby, and they couldn’t believe that, if he really knew what was going on in Vietnam, he wouldn't put a stop to it. “Do you think, if anyone back in the world really knew what was going on here, they’d let this madness continue?!”

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The men of Firebase Pace. Photo by Richard Boyle.

Ted was a powerful man in Congress, but he wasn’t John or Bobby, and he certainly wasn’t going to burn up political capital on an issue so large that there was no way for anyone to wrap their arms around it.

Boyle spends most of his time talking to ground troops. He was looking for truths, not sound bites. He was searching for ways to bring enough attention to what was really going on, to hopefully start moving the needle towards shutting this unwinnable war down.
He always had his nostrils in the wind, and whenever a whiff of something foul came to his attention, he was never afraid to catch the next chopper there. Although as the Pentagon became more and more aware of his journalistic endeavors, it started to become harder for him to get clearance to visit those situations of embarrassment that the military would rather see swept back into the jungle. I couldn’t help admiring his tenacity. I’ve read several books on the Vietnam era, and still Boyle revealed things to me of which I was not aware.

This book is compelling to read and is filled with Boyle’s own pictures of the soldiers who were asked to do an impossible job and of the civilians who were living in a war zone that probably made little or no sense to them. Boyle’s passionate personality comes through on every page as he tries to make everyone understand that it was long past time for our boys to come home and for the industrial war complex to start making their money on something that didn’t require the blood of our children.

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Einstein's Beach House - Jacob Appel

“I insert the bevel and draw back the plunger. I know that the syringe contains more than sodium chloride-that even as the toxic contents fill my father’s veins, he is sharing with me his final gift: the horror and thrill of saving lives.”

Reading this collection of stories reminded me that I don’t read enough short stories. I keep hearing that people are becoming more interested in short story collections because they fit so well with our abbreviated attention spans, busy schedules, and our tweet/text diminutive information needs.

Who has time to read a whole novel anyway?

Well, me for one.

Just because I make the time to read novels doesn’t mean that I should forgo the stepchild of publishing...the short story collection. After all, I’m not allowed to discriminate against short people why therefore should I be allowed to snub stubby stories.

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All the Wrong Places - Lisa Lieberman

I’ve been friends with Lisa Lieberman for about as long as I’ve been a member of Goodreads. Over the years she has frequently tipped me off to great movies and books. In particular, I’m grateful for her recommendation for me to watch Jean-Luc Godard’s amazing film Breathless. When I heard she had written a novel about Hollywood abroad in Europe during the 1950s, I dropped everything and devoted myself to reading it. I knew it would be well researched, intelligent, and brimming with all that wonderful information that I know is so beautifully arranged (unlike the clutter in my own) in her head. Instead of a traditional review, I thought it would be more interesting for me to ask Lisa a few questions about how this book evolved.

Breathless directed by Jean-Luc Godard

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A Carnivore's Inquiry by Sabina Murray

A Carnivore's Inquiry - Sabina Murray

”Sometimes you want to stop doing something, but it’s not enough to want to stop. Something else has to happen.”

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The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault

The unreliable narrator of this tale, Katherine Shea, lies to us as unreliable narrators tend to do. She doesn’t just lie to us, but also blurs the truth for herself. She isn’t a very good liar. I sussed out what was going on very quickly, and then it became more of a matter of understanding why.

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Play It as It Lays - Joan Didion, David Thomson

“There was silence. Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.”

Whenever Maria called, it was as if the ringing of the phone heralded the end of any conviviality I might have been harboring. I always had the impression when I talked with her that the Fun to Be Around Maria was dying in another room, and all I was left with was the beautiful corpse.

She was beautiful. Even though we had all seen changes to her appearance recently. So beautiful, in fact, she could still get acting jobs without too much trouble. I could see this all ending soon because she was so morose that her mood permeated the whole movie set. She had become so lost, so indifferent to everything. She was a zombie, long before Hollywood became infatuated with them.

Her relationship with men was not particularly complicated. They wanted to sleep with her, and she was rather indifferent as to whether she slept with them or not. When we had first met, I’d “seduced” her while blinded by her glamour and allurement. It was only after we were entangled that I realized that all of that was only skin deep.

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Lord of Misrule [Hardcover] - Jaimy Gordon (Author)

”She had her highborn air, dexter, and right next to it she had her lowborn air, sinister, which also came of being a Jew, an outcast, a gypsy, and not giving one goddamn. She could up and follow a racetracker, a coarse adventurer, if she so chose. Moreover you could get to her through her body. It was a black, rich, well-watered way, between rock faces.

The word podzol came to mind.

The word humus. Soil. Slut.

You could ask all you wanted of that flesh, you could whisper outrages into her ear and, no matter what she said, the flesh would tremble and fall open to you.”

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It all begins when Maggie Korderer shows up at the Indian Mound Downs in Wheeling, West Virginia, in a battered, white Grand Prix and asks for four stalls for horses. She has no idea she is about to meet a cast of characters whose names sound like they stepped out of the pages of a comic book. These people are more tangible than most real people: Suitcase Smithers, Old lady “gyp” Deucey Gifford, Kidstuff the Blacksmith, Medicine Ed, and Joe Dale Bigg.

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Wayward - Blake Crouch

”I know what they need. Perfection all the time would drive them mad. For every perfect little town, there’s something ugly underneath. No dream without the nightmare.”

We all have secrets we carry around with us. As a species we aren’t really good at keeping secrets, even those rattling skeletons that could prove detrimental to our lives. In the end, most of us end up telling somebody. You can swear someone to secrecy, but the same itch, the same need to tell someone that compelled you to tell them, is whispering to them from the corners of their brain. This powerful urge, maybe with some help from some uninhibiting wine or soul exploding sex, will eventually gain the upper hand, and those locked away words will spill. They swear that person to secrecy, and so on and so on until everyone you know...well...knows.

So the only way to keep a secret is to tell NO ONE.

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The Girl in the Spider's Web - David Lagercrantz

”It’s always the wrong people who have the guilty conscience. Those who are really responsible for suffering in the world couldn’t care less. It’s the ones fighting for good who are consumed by remorse.”

David Lagercrantz, a novelist and journalist, was asked to assume responsibility for the continuation of a trilogy of novels that frankly took the publishing industry by storm. The books left readers stunned with the marvelous insanity of the writing. More importantly Stieg Larsson created a character who is forever immortalized as one of the greatest anti-heroes to ever step out of the pages of a book.

Lisbeth Salander

It doesn’t surprise me that Lagercrantz is a little afraid of her. Who isn’t? His fear might be reflected in the fact that she is a shadowy figure in the book until about halfway through when she answers a call from Mikael Blomkvist.

”Shut up and listen,” she said.

Ahhh, yes, that’s my girl.

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The Sheltering Sky - Paul Bowles

"He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas a tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another."

Before meeting Port Moresby, I always thought of myself as a traveler, but after one particular late night discussion accompanied by inebriation, interrupted by a frolic in an exotic bordello conveniently located nearby, and then reconvened over tankards of yet more alcoholic concoctions, he managed to convince me that I was merely a tourist.

I was at a disadvantage, you see. I was not independently wealthy. I was still building a living for myself. I had three women I was seeing, all interviewing for a more permanent position as my wife. So yes, I was never able to linger while traveling, due to the fact that I always had a pressing need to return to my life, to shore up my business interests, and to keep my social relationships growing. I was, without a doubt, a tourist. Shamefully so.

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Fail Safe - Harvey Wheeler, Eugene Burdick

“The world is no longer man's theatre. Man has been made into a helpless spectator. The two evil forces he has created- science and the state- have combined into one monstrous body. We're at the mercy of our monster...”

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The Big Board from the 1964 movie.

As I was making my way through the public school system in the 1970s, they were still doing duck and cover drills. In retrospect, of course, these drills were absolutely worthless except as an effective way of convincing all of us that our lives were dangling at the fingertips of madmen. Getting under our desks and covering our heads with our hands as a way to survive an atomic blast is about as effective as holding up a tissue in front of a speeding bullet heading towards our heart.

It took me years and much reading on my own to undo most of the brainwashing that was just part of our normal psychotic relationship with the Soviet Union. My impression of Russians were that they were deranged lunatics and that our strong military was the only thing standing between them and world domination.

The Cold War.

The Nuclear Weapon Buildup.

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The Hours - Michael Cunningham

”We throw our parties; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep--it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’ve very fortunate, by time itself.”

It’s about the hours right? Those few precious hours over a lifetime when we feel we have a chance to do something special, to prove that we can do something that will forever immortalize us as someone exceptional.

It was Charlotte who pressed this book upon me. We were at a party conducted by a Mrs. Clarissa Galloway.

“I hear you are on a reading binge.” She’d leaned in close, as she had a tendency to do with me. Her lips mere millimeters away from my ear. It made me shiver somewhere in the core of me.

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The Agony and the Ecstasy - Irving Stone

”To some people stone was dead; ‘hard as stone,’ ‘stone cold,’ they said. To him, as he once again ran his fingers along its contours, it was the most alive substance in the world, rhythmic, responsive, tractable: warm, resilient, colorful, vibrant. He was in love with stone.”

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Michelangelo portrait by Volterra

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born in Florence on March 6th, 1475. It was a fortuitous time to be born. He was coming of age just as the Renaissance was beginning to take full flight. His family was an ancient family, as old as the famous Medici family, but they have fallen on hard times by the time Michelangelo’s father became the patriarch. There had never been artists in the family, so the desire, nay the need, to create that existed in the young Michelangelo did not come from tradition, but from a new flame within him.

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Vulture Peak - John Burdett

”This system carries with it the unspoken implication that once someone has been defined as an ‘object,’ it is automatically assumed to be ‘promiscuous’ in the sense that it may be bought and sold like any other object, even if the object in question is somebody’s kidney or liver--or whole body. This kind of thinking is exactly what underpinned the slave trade for hundreds of years: as soon as a captive West African was defined as ‘property.’ then he could be treated as a ‘promiscuous object,’ that is to say an object whose human rights have been magically transmuted into a money value in the accounts of the property owner. What is unclear, however, is why modern Western culture has continued to target prostitution by adult volunteers as ‘immoral’.”

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Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a Buddhist who is struggling to keep his soul untarnished by the harsh realities of existing in a corrupt system that is part of a violent world. He is under the thumb of the merciless Colonel Vikhorn who relies on Sonchai’s detective skills and his discretion in his ongoing competitive gamesmanship with General Zinna. When Vikhorn decides that he must run for provisional governor, he decides that he needs some moralistic victory to help guide him to political success. Vikhorn knows that Zinna is tied into the global illegal organ trade, so what would be more perfect than to shut down his operation and, better yet, destroy his rival completely?

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Shipwreck - Louis Begley

”The conclusion I reached came down to this: none of my books, neither the new novel nor any I had written before, was very good. Certainly, none possessed the literary merit that critical opinion ascribed to them. Not even my second novel, the one that won all the prizes and was said to confirm my standing as an important novelist. No, they all belonged to the same dreary breed of unneeded books.”

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The trouble with John North, as it is for most of us, is in his head. It is the spectre of self-doubt that begins to violate his normal sensibilities regarding himself and his work. Every award he has ever won has been pandering. Everything he has ever created is far short of where he wishes it could be. He is in the midst of a full blown mid-life crises.

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The Water Knife: A novel - Paolo Bacigalupi

“If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely f**ked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.”

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Massive Dust storms from abandoned farmland add to the misery of those left alive.

Water is going to be more expensive than gasoline.

Water is going to be more precious than gold.

Water is going to be fought over.

“Some people had to bleed so other people could drink. Simple as that.”

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Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf, Maureen Howard

“So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.”

We first meet Clarissa Dalloway and her husband Richard in The Voyage Out. Too many pages have been turned since my reading of Virginia Woolf’s first novel for me to remember that I’ve met them before. It is similar to meeting someone at a party and then meeting them again several years later. I might have a sliver of memory of meeting them before. I always find it awkward to decide to confess that I do have a vague memory of them, potentially subtly unintentionally insulting them, or brazen it out with of course I remember you (potential minefield if my slender memory is in fact wrong). There is always the option of hitting the restart button by saying what a pleasure it is to meet them.

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