• Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson **** (of 4)

    treeofsmokeIn so many ways Tree of Smoke is easier to describe for what it really is not.  The setting is Vietnam, and to a lesser extent the Philippines, in the 1960s, but it is not a war novel.  The protagonist, Skip Sands, works for the CIA, but neither is Tree of Smoke a spy story.  Rather Johnson’s award winning novel is a detailed chronicle of a number of lives over the course of the 1960s told with page-turning drive and riveting attention to detail.  Every baguette served in Saigon tastes a little different from the last.  The temperature of the tea is hot on your tongue.  The swampy humidity makes your clothes stick to you and each character’s choices in life seem preordained.  A pair of down-and-out brothers from Arizona go off to fight in Vietnam and after being discharged continue to fight enemies within and without.  A Canadian missionary heals orphans when no one else will because her bible leaves her no alternative.  The Colonel is larger than life and for a time bigger than the army until he isn’t. . Uncertainty, like much of life, pervades.  America’s role in Southeast Asia is a perfect metaphor.

  • Hellhound on his Trail by Hampton Sides *** (of 4)

    Hampton Sides gimmick as a writer is to start two or three parallel stories and watch as they converge in a single moment in history.  I strongly recommend Ghost Soldiers by the same author, the story of the Bataan death march in the Philippines.  In this case we travel with Martin Luther King Jr. during his last fateful months before his assassination.  Simultaneously we track the movements of his killer, James Earl Ray, as he prepares for the shooting.  All the while we get inside the head of J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, and lifelong enemy of King.  On the upside the author does an excellent job of recreating a time and place in American history: the devastating racism of the deep south in the 1960s and the virulent paranoia of Hoover’s cold war FBI.  Somehow, however, I did not feel the suspense.  Maybe I recall too much of the events from my childhood and the book would be more successful for younger readers and maybe it just wasn’t that suspenseful.  Everyone knows the outcome long before the first page.

  • Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes *** (of 4)

    This is such an accurate rendtion of 1960s Harlem I could smell the trash in the streets, sense the despair, hear the sirens, and feel like an invisible observer of slum-bound African Americans before civil rights. It was perfectly reproduced I could only envision the action on a black and white screen. Two black detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, search the bars, drug dens, steaming summer streets, junkyards, abandoned lots, whore houses, and jazz halls for a ring of thieves. It’s a period piece, but of a type not many people with this much insight ever put together. August 2009.

  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut ** (of 4)

    As a twenty year old soldier Vonnegut was one of the few people to survive the allied bombing of Dresden in World War II. For more than twenty years he wrestled with how to tell the story of the senseless and overwhelming destruction of a city and vritually all its inhabitants. What he decides upon is a fictional account of the absurd life of Billy Pilgrim, a soldier-nebish who travels in time and space and conjoins with science fiction characters. The book’s success is the novelty in which it portrays the absurdity of war by being an absurdist book. Or, it fails as just another late 60s acid trip of a tale. July 2008.

  • City of God by E.L. Doctorow

    Stream of consciousness, not very good, especially when compared to his other books. It’s like he wrote this one as an experiment or wrote it for other writers, rather than for readers.