The Lotus Eaters
By Tatjana Soli
St. Martin’s Press, 2010
In 1965 Helen Adams, a white American woman from Southern California, drops out of college and heads to Vietnam to be a war photographer. She has little experience with cameras, or even journalism, but goes to Saigon to better understand the death of her older brother Michael, who was killed in the war. She stays in Vietnam for the good part of ten years. The book begins in 1975, the year the war ends, and when Helen is coming to terms with both what she will do next and when to leave—when will she be sure to get the final picture? The the story then flashes back, and chronicles her ten years in Vietnam, where she learns to be a photographer and falls in love with two other photographers – an American, Sam Darrow and a Vietnamese, Nguyen Pran Linh.
I didn’t plan to read two war stories in a row, but I was drawn to this book after reading about it in a review of Soli’s latest book, The Forgetting Tree. I am intrigued by stories of photographers and liked the idea of a novel about a female war photographer in the 1960s. Soli grew up with an interest in the Vietnam War and researched female photographers who worked in Vietnam as she wrote the book. Her research and passion paid off. The Lotus Easter is engrossing and real. There were times in the middle when I momentarily tired of the war scenes, but Helen’s character and the set up are so intriguing that I stuck with the story, and I found the last third of the book to be the most emotionally powerful—when Helen finally finds her footing as a photographer and a woman in Vietnam.
Soli won the James Tait Black Prize when the book came out in 2010 and made it on to a handful of best of and notable book lists in 2010 and 2011. I look forward to reading The Forgetting Tree.
After reading an inspiring collection of books published in 2012 and 2011, I am going to focus my reading a bit more in the next month and read books that are set outside the U.S. I was curious to focus on books about expats, but have only found a handful that I have been drawn to. So some of the books will be about expats, and others will be by non-American authors.
Next week, I will be reviewing The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. A debut published in 2010 about a female American photographer who covered the Vietnam War. From there I will travel on to Russia, the Sudan and I am not sure where else yet.
If you have read a debut book set outside the U.S. that you liked, please leave a comment and tell me about it.
The Yellow Birds
By Kevin Powers
Little Brown and Company, 2012
Privates John Bartle and Daniel Murphy meet in 2003 at Fort Dix. Bartle is 21 and Murphy is 18. In 2004, they ship out to Al Faraf, Iraq where life becomes complicated, and Bartle has to live with a promise he made to Murphy’s mom to keep Murphy safe. Told from a close first person point of view, which alternates between scenes in Iraq and scenes after coming home, Bartle tells the story of his and Murphy’s time in Iraq.
This book is moving and insightful. I agree with other reviewers who have called The Yellow Birds the Iraq equivalent of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Powers writes with simple, yet poetic prose which taps into a deep emotional cord as he conveys the haunting details of war, some of which include counting the dead bodies Bartle and Murhpy see pile up in Iraq, drinking whiskey during battle and noting battle fronts that open annually as the seasons change. This is a powerful and personal story.
Powers was nominated for the National Book Award, won the Guardian First Book Award, and made it on many of the Best of 2012 lists. I wasn’t sure if I was going to read this book, as it has been reviewed in many blogs and periodicals, but it felt like a “must read” of 2012, and it completely lived up to all my expectations. Powers was a gunner in Iraq and this story feels very emotionally true. If you have a stomach for war stories, The Yellow Birds will not disappoint.
GalleyCat posted this week that Jason Mott’s debut novel, The Returned, has been picked up to be turned into a TV pilot before the book has even published. Pub date is September 2013. Even more interesting is that Mott is a poet, with two books of poetry under his belt before this first novel.
The story of The Returned is an otherworldly tale that reminds me of The Lovely Bones. Publishers Weekly reports that his elevator pitch for the book is: “A family gets caught up in a worldwide event in which loved ones return from the dead exactly as they last were in life. Lucille and Harold Hargrave wonder: Is their dead eight-year-old son’s return a miracle or an impending sign of something horrible?”
Sounds like an intriguing read. I look forward to reading it when it comes out.