A few days ago I finished reading Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches From the War. What a fabulous book! From December 1966 through May 1967, John Steinbeck traveled throughout South Vietnam and Southeast Asia as a war correspondent for the Long Island daily newspaper Newsday. Thomas Barden has collected all his dispatches, even those not originally published, in one volume. John Steinbeck tops any list of my favorite authors (in fact, I wrote about that over on the bookstore blog – check it out here) and his writing about what he observed was fascinating to me. For starters, I’m pretty naive about Vietnam and the war. I was too young when it was actually happening to comprehend much (plus NO ONE was talking about it to kids), and it was too recent to make it into any of my history textbooks. Way too high a percentage of my Vietnam War knowledge was supplied by Hollywood. So I actually learned a lot reading Steinbeck. Secondly, I was mesmerized by his writing and his thinking. His dispatches are written as letters to a former editor of the paper, so they feel especially personal and heartfelt. He writes what he observes, he questions his own preconceived notions of the war and the US’s involvement, he longs for other writers whom he respects to travel, observe and share their thoughts.
I used up practically a whole tin of page-points marking things I didn’t know or passages that I thought were particularly illuminating. As you might expect from Steinbeck, he writes equally about the humanity of the situation, for example the desperate need for and attempts to supply clean water and sanitation, and the war itself, including detailed descriptions of guns and planes and battles. It’s hard to find an excerpt to share, most of the passages I marked turn into pages. This passage was written shortly after he had left Vietnam.
I must tell you that it is a delayed-fuse emotional shock to fly from Saigon to Bangkok, from South Vietnam to Thailand. For a time we were simply confused and perhaps a little suspicious. The Thai are a smiling, friendly people, outgoing and easy. What’s so different about that? Well, Alicia, we have come from a people whose faces, whose posture, and perhaps whose souls have been wracked and battered with 20 years of war, not proud nor generous nor gallant war, but sneaking murder-terror, torture secret and nasty, designed to destroy the spirit so that it can be controlled and dominated.
And dang if the next paragraph isn’t even better, talking about respect for people as human beings, but I can’t just copy the whole thing.
So I read Steinbeck, his fiction or non-fiction, and I learn about people, and it makes me want to write because I see how his writing helps him and me make sense of the world and I want to be able to do that, too. Sigh.
Desperately searching for something else to occupy my brain, I started a book that I had picked up solely based on the cover and title, Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain. This isn’t a true review, as I’m only about 20% in, but the juxtaposition is numbing me. The book is about a group of young foreigners living in Prague a year after Czechoslovakia’s revolution. American Jacob Putnam is searching for change in himself and hoping to find it in this changing country. But all the characters seem stuck, waiting, in between; just as Prague itself seems lost finding its way between communism and capitalism. I’m stuck trying to decide whether I should keep reading. All the fervor and ideas and learning from reading Steinbeck has been sucked out of me as these listless characters in this listless place have sucked me in. Still I am finding some compulsion to keep reading, I want to keep getting dragged down with them until there’s no place to go but up.
Books sure can have amazing power over me.