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North Vietnamese soldier’s story is complex, compelling

By Lisa Newman

sorrow of war 2Bao Ninh features prominently in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s series on the Vietnam War. Ninh is a Vietnamese writer and former North Vietnamese soldier. Ninh’s novel, The Sorrow of War, is one of the only pieces of Vietnam War literature to make it out of Vietnam.

Published in Vietnam in 1991, the novel stands out for its descriptions and lack of sentimentality. Most of the Vietnamese war literature was heavy with patriotism, stories of slaughter and bravery. Not surprisingly, the Vietnam War literature of the United States could not move beyond the North Vietnamese soldier as a faceless “gook” or northing more than the “NVA” or “VC.”

Ninh weaves a complex story, told in stream-of-consciousness style. The work is a descriptive account of a solider’s experience of war, but also a love story–one not lost in the original Vietnamese title, Thân Phân Cûa Tinh Yêu, or The Destiny of Love.

The novel was controversial for the Vietnamese government–as it presented the first individual human perspective on the experience of war, the loss of human life and love, as well as life after the war–while it won great respect from Vietnamese and American veterans. American critics have compared the novel to Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929).

sorrow of war UPFirst published in Vietnam in a low-budget format by the Writers Association Publishing House of Hanoi in 1991, the book was translated into raw English by Phan Thanh Hao and rewritten by Australian war journalist and author Frank Palmos. At this point, the English translation was given the title “The Sorrow of War” and was published in Great Britain by Secker and Warburg in 1993 and in the United States by Pantheon in 1995.

Ninh has never published another book, but he reports editing a weekly literary publication in Hanoi for many years. In a 2006 interview, Ninh remarks on the changing political climate of Vietnam and the lessening of government propaganda. Despite the relaxing of tensions, he explains that writing has been difficult since the publication of The Sorrow of War.

“I became famous, so people know about me and other writers respect me…but it also affected me badly because I became self-conscious.”

As Vietnamese and Americans talk more about the war and its aftermath, perhaps it will be easier for Ninh and other Vietnamese writers to share their stories.

Collecting First Editions: ‘Matterhorn’ by Karl Marlantes

By Lisa Newman

Karl Marlantes, a decorated Marine veteran of the Vietnam war, spent thirty years writing Matterhorn: A Novel. While writing the book was its own lonely struggle, getting it published was another beast. This story is about the power of independent presses and bookselling.

matterhorn EL LEONKarl Marlantes found a publisher in El Léon Literary Arts, a small press privately funded through donations. Led by author Thomas Farber, the operation is known to run on a $200 a year travel and entertainment budget and publishes literary works that might not seem commercially viable by mainstream publishers. By the time the 700-page Matterhorn was printed in softcover and review copies were sent out, a group of booksellers got the attention of El Léon by submitting Matterhorn to a first-novel contest. Soon Farber began getting calls from larger publishers. Eventually, a deal with the independent press Grove Atlantic was made and Matterhorn was released in hardback in 2010. Behind the scenes, Grove Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin championed Matterhorn to booksellers across the country. The success of Matterhorn is due to the perseverance of its author, small presses, and the diligence of booksellers. It is a story of authenticity as opposed to overblown media hype.

matterhorn FESThis authenticity leads to a collectible book. The copies of Matterhorn printed in softcover at El Léon became advanced copies for Grove Atlantic’s hardcover edition. For collectors, that softcover is the true first edition. Matterhorn follows in the tradition of other great war novels like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’ The Thin Red Line.

Sebastian Junger, noted author, filmmaker, and journalist, reviewed Matterhorn for The New York Times:

Karl Marlantes’s first novel, Matterhorn, is about a company of Marines who build, abandon and retake an outpost on a remote hilltop in Vietnam. According to the publisher, Marlantes—a highly decorated Vietnam vet—spent 30 years writing this book. It was originally 1,600 pages long; now it is 600. Reading his account of the bloody folly surrounding the Matterhorn outpost, you get the feeling Marlantes is not overly worried about the attention span of his readers; you get the feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published. Rather, he seems like a man whose life was radically altered by war, and who now wants to pass along the favor. And with a desperate fury, he does.

Karl Marlantes followed Matterhorn with a nonfiction book on Vietnam called What It Is Like to Go to War. His reflections on Vietnam are featured prominently in “The Vietnam War,” a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Marlantes is at work on his second novel.

Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” Still Relevant

dharma bums 1962Jack Kerouac is synonymous with The Beat Generation which included Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gary Synder, Herbet Edwin Huncke, and others. This generation of storytellers and poets explored the post-World War II culture, questioning America’s mainstream values, spirituality, religion, sexuality, and drug culture.

In a “Playboy” article Jack Kerouac explained the meaning of Beat:

“When I first saw the hipsters creeping around Times Square in 1944 I didn’t like them either. One of them, Huncke, came up to me and said, ‘Man, I’m beat.’ I knew right away what he meant somehow. Anyway those hipsters, whose music was bop, they looked like criminals but they kept talking about the same things I liked, long outlines of personal experience and vision, night-long confessions full of hope that had become illicit and repressed by War, stirrings, rumblings of a new soul (that same old human soul). And so Huncke appeared to us and said ‘I’m beat’ with radiant light shining out of his despairing eyes . . .”

dharma bumsIn 1958 for “Pageant” magazine Kerouac would define Beat further as one who is in “a state of beatitude . . . trying to love all of life, trying to be utterly sincere with everyone, practising endurance, kindness, cultivating a joy of heart” despite our mainstream world of consuming and meaningless distraction.

Kerouac was a writer, but more than anything he was a storyteller. His works were not exactly fiction but tales of life on the road. He recorded the Beat generation and gave their stories to the hippie generation, showing them an alternative to suburban life. In “The Dharma Bums,” Kerouac described something different for Americans “all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I saw a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier . . .”

Jack Kerouac by Tom PalumboJack Kerouac became an icon frozen in the early 1950s helped by his withdrawal from the public eye and his early death at the age of 47 in 1969. After his death, Allen Ginsberg promoted his work to a new generation. Generations since have redefined his work for their place and time. Kerouac is still relevant today not because he or his writing was flawless but for the simple reasons that he was a keen observer of human interaction—he was nicknamed “Memory babe” as a child, his work encourages an alertness to and questioning of the world around him, his writing showed people being brutally honest with each other—people who were comfortable “letting it all hang out,” and he was a writer who was real—“a writer who has been there” as Allen Ginsberg described in Kerouac’s obituary.

Kerouac’s loose, spontaneous writing style inspired writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Henry Miller, Tom Wolfe and Michael Herr’s record of the Vietnam war “Dispatches.” Even though his fast style revealed good and bad writing, Kerouac is a reminder that serious writing can be about anything in any style of writing.

dharma bums FESince a resurgence of interest in his work in the seventies, all of Jack Kerouac’s books have remained in print. First editions of his books are scarce and valuable among collectors. “The Dharma Bums,” largely considered to be his most accessible work, will sell for upwards of a $1000. His literary and personal archive were secured at the New York Public Library in 2001, and in 2007 Penguin published the original 120-foot scroll of “On the Road,” energizing Kerouac’s work for the next generation.

Written by Lisa Newman. Original to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 20)

‘The Last Tycoon’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The Last Tycoon” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner, 1941.

F. Scott Fitzgerald published four novels and numerous short stories before his early death from alcoholism. Throughout his career, he had his critics and did not achieve his status as one of the most influential modern American writers until after his death. The author of “The Great Gatsby” was working on a Hollywood novel at the time of his death which would be published posthumously as “The Last Tycoon.”

In the early fall of 1939, Fitzgerald sent a proposal for a story to Collier’s magazine. The editor agreed to serialize the novel if Fitzgerald would send a 15,000 word advance for his approval. The screenwriting experience and his relationship with movie producer Irving Thalberg fueled his ideas for the novel but the actual writing only took a few months. With his health deteriorating, Fitzgerald failed, however, to reach the 15,000 word advance for Collier’s and instead sent in only 6,000 words. He was rejected in a telegraph but with a request for more work by Collier’s Kenneth Littauer: “FIRST THOUSAND WORDS PRETTY CRIPTIC THEREFORE [sic] DISAPPOINTING . . .”

edmund wilsonAfter his death in 1940, a longtime critic and friend Edmund Wilson secured permission from Fitzgerald’s family to publish “The Last Tycoon.” Wilson had never held back his negative criticism of the author’s work, even from Fitzgerald’s beginnings when Wilson published a satirical poem arguing that the young writer’s work was shallow and superficial. But Wilson was deeply affected by his death, expressing in a letter to Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda: “I feel myself as though I had been suddenly robbed of some part of my own personality.”

last tycoonWilson, who must have felt some regret at being so critical of what he often called a “commercial” and “trashy” writer, decided to set the tone for Fitzgerald’s legacy by preparing his last manuscript and titling it “The Last Tycoon.” It would be published in book form accompanied strategically by “The Great Gatsby” and selected short stories. In the Foreword, Wilson announced “The Last Tycoon” to be “Fitzgerald’s most mature piece of work” and “the best novel we have had about Hollywood.” Other critics followed with similar praise. Novelist J. F. Powers asserted that “The Last Tycoon” contained more of his best writing than anything he had ever done and Fitzgerald’s best had always been the best there was.”

last tycoon DECOFitzgerald’s influence, his attention to the illusive American dream, is seen in the work of Richard Yates, J. D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, and many contemporary writers. Mystery writer, Raymond Chandler, wrote that that “Fitzgerald is a subject no one has the right to mess up . . . He had one of the rarest qualities in all of literature . . . The word is charm—charm as Keats would have used it . . . It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite.” While Fitzgerald had sold less than 25,000 copies of “The Great Gatsby” at the time of his death, this book has now sold over 25 million copies worldwide.

‘The Great Gatsby’ dust cover has created its own story

In celebration of the release of John Grisham’s Camino Island, whose plot revolves around stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, Lisa has been tracing Fitzgerald’s career through his novels. You can read her examinations of This Side of Paradise here and The Beautiful and Damned here.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner’s, First Edition, April 10, 1925.

gatsby firstThe cover art for The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner) is one of the most enduring covers in book publishing history. It also said to be the most expensive piece of paper in book collecting.

Before the publication of The Great Gatsby in 1925, Scribner’s had published two novels by Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (1920) and The Beautiful and Damned (1922). Both of the dust jackets for these novels displayed rather straight-forward scenes from the novels, a man and a woman in courtship. Color is downplayed with the use of three muted shades of orange, gray, and black.

The art of the Gatsby jacket by Cuban artist Francis Cugat is remarkable for its symbolic nature, its use of color, and its fine details. Two feminine eyes float over a nocturnal Coney Island carnival scene. Two nudes are subtly reclining in the irises. A brush of glare, or perhaps a tear, in the midnight blue sky as well as the explosive light emanating from the carnival scene below suggest tragedy.

While Fitzgerald was in the middle of writing The Great Gatsby in the summer of 1924, he was shown a draft of the jacket. His reaction is famously documented in a letter to Maxwell Perkins: “For Christ’s sake, don’t give anyone that dust jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”This influence of a dust jacket on the writing of a book is one of the only recorded instances. Cugat never produced another dust jacket, but his art is still beautifully reproduced on the paperback copies that many high school students purchase for required school reading.

The Great Gatsby as a first edition (18,000 copies in the first printing) is not one of the rarest books, but the survival of the dust jacket is key. The jacket, made too tall for the book, easily chipped, which only encouraged the owner to toss the jacket into the waste bin before long. The dust jacket of The Great Gatsby is one of the most outstanding examples of increased value in a first edition. Without the jacket, a first edition may sell for under $10,000. With the jacket, the price can be upwards of $100,000.

‘The Beautiful and Damned’ looks at Fitzgeralds’ marriage

In celebration of the release of John Grisham’s Camino Island, whose plot revolves around stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, Lisa has been tracing Fitzgerald’s career through his novels. You can read last week’s examination of This Side of Paradise here.

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner’s, First Edition, 1922.

beautiful and damnedAfter the great success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald enjoyed positive reviews for The Beautiful and Damned. Many critics of the time felt that the writer had matured from the episodic style of Paradiseto a novel with a strong omniscient narrator. The oddest review, however, came from his wife, Zelda, in the New York Tribune under the title “Friend Husband’s Latest.” She wittily encouraged readers to buy her husband’s book because there was an expensive dress and platinum ring she longed for. She also admitted that she had allowed her husband to incorporate pieces of her writing into the novel: “One one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared…[it] seems that plagiarism begins at home.”

The Beautiful and Damned is a thinly veiled look at Fitzgerald’s marriage to Zelda. He admitted that he could not stop writing about his domestic life and count not bring himself to change their excessive alcoholic and spending habits. At one point after the publication of The Beautiful and Damned, the Fitzgeralds were living off $36,000 a year, which was 20 times that of the average American.

Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s agent and confidant, was a reader of his manuscripts. Unlike some of Fitzgerald’s other readers, Perkins provided constructive criticism on the structure and content of the writing. Unfortunately, he was a terrible speller and copy editor. Apparently, there was no solution to this, and first printings of all the novels and story collections are noted for copious grammatical, spelling, and factual errors. At a speed that pleased his pocket book, Fitzgerald dashed off stories for magazine publication as well. From 1919 to 1929, he increased his earnings from $30 a story to $4000 a story. From 1921 to 1922, The Beautiful and Damned was also serialized in the Metropolitan magazine in an edited form before hitting bookshelves on March 4, 1922.

As the years passed, Fitzgerald continued his excessive lifestyle. (He was known to display hundred dollar bills in his vest pockets at parties.) A moment of clarity emerged out of the chaos: “I’ve realized how much I’ve–well, almost deteriorated in three years since the publication of The Beautiful and Damned…If I’d spent as much time reading or travelling or doing anything–even staying healthy–it’d be different but i spent it uselessly, neither in study nor in contemplation but only in drinking and raising hell generally.”

What followed the tragic Beautiful and Damned was The Great Gatsby, a work that did not realize its full success that did not realize its full success until after Fitzgerald’s death at the age of 44. Unexpectedly, it also was the book that changed the way publishers marketed their books.

‘Camino Island’ and the Book Collector: ‘This Side of Paradise’

This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, NY: Scribner’s, First Edition, March 26, 1920. 

f scott fitzgeraldF. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his first novel, This Side of Paradise, as a semi-autobiographical account of his college years at Princeton University. Three more novels and numerous collections of short stories followed during his lifetime. He experienced limited success during his short life of 44 years, and regard as one of the greatest American writers came after his death. Over time, Fitzgerald’s work became synonymous with the Jazz Age, the lost generation of the 1920s, and the term, “flapper.” In a special insert in This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald wrote to the American Booksellers Association:

“My whole theory of writing I can sum up in one sentence: An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters ever afterward.”

The young author could not have proved his theory more succinctly. As a debut novel, This Side of Paradise flew off the shelves on a Friday, March 26, 1920. The first printing of 3,000 copies sold out within a week and two more printings were issued within a month. Fitzgerald had written the new modern novel, a sophisticated sequence of episodic scenes, prose, poetry, drama, book lists and quotations revolving around the life of Princeton student Amory Blaine. He wrote for his generation and commented in a 1921 interview: “I’m sick of the sexless animals writers have been giving us.” And “schoolmasters ever afterward” have been assigning The Great Gatsby, almost as a right of passage into adulthood.

John Grisham’s Camino Island (on sale June 6) highlights the high level of collectibility of Fitzgerald’s work in the form of a biblio-caper. When the manuscripts of Fitzgerald’s five novels are stolen from Princeton University, a young writer is solicited to help spy on a bookseller suspected to be involved in the heist. As a reader and collector of books, I had to do some of my own sleuthing into the collector’s world of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

this side of paradise by fitzgeraldThe dust jacket of any Fitzgerald first edition is key to its value. In the 1920s, publishers had only been making dust jackets for a short time. Readers often pulled them off and threw them away. Prior to the advent of the dust jacket, books were stamped with the title and author and often embellished with beautiful designs and gold stamped accents. The new dust jackets promoted the book, protected it, and advertised other books from the publisher. Because of this change in book design, it is very hard to find one of the 3,000 first printings of “This Side of Paradise”—a debut by a relatively unknown author—with the dust jacket present and in good condition. The era before climate control also did nothing to help preserve books.

If one is lucky enough to find a signed first edition—with the elusive dust jacket—and have the funds to call it your own, it would likely run in the six digits. That’s way beyond the budget of most collectors but these rare books and manuscripts of Fitzgerald provide the perfect impetus for one of the country’s favorite writers, John Grisham.

“The Outlaw Years” by Robert M. Coates

According to Welty’s biographer Suzanne Marrs, it was a member of the Night-Blooming Cereus Club –Welty’s close group of friends who gathered to witness the night-blooming flower and enjoy one another’s company—who suggested that Welty read “The Outlaw Years” by Robert M. Coates. Welty was so affected by Coates’s harrowing stories of the Natchez Trace that she was inspired to write “The Wide Net” and “The Robber Bridegroom.”

outlaw years BKCL FE 11.15“The Outlaw Years” is a riveting read, the story of the murderous land pirates of the Natchez Trace. Originally a maze of animal migration routes later adapted for use by Native Americans, the Trace was eventually adopted by white traders and settlers migrating South. Thieves and murderers saw this population as an easy target.

Even today, Coates brings the history of the Natchez Trace land prates to life. While “Outlaw Years” may not be the most accurate history of the Trace, Coates reveals the mood and atmosphere of the 1800s. Many versions of the blood-thirsty Harpe brothers existed and Coates simply chose descriptions which made sense to him. In his defense, Coates rescued many old histories and travelogues from complete obscurity by retelling the stories of the Natchez Trace land pirates.

outlaw years FE woodcutCoates’ list of sources are as equally intriguing as the entire book: Fulkerson’s “Early Days in Mississippi” (1885) is cited as an “excellent book of gossip”; “Ashe’s Travels in America” (1808) is noted as a “very interesting chronicle of an astonished Englishman, on a trip down to the Mississippi”; and Rothert’s “The Outlaws of Cave-in-Rock” (1924) is credited as a major source for the book.

outlaw years FE 11.15Any Mississippi bookcase would not be complete without “The Outlaw Years.” First editions are embellished with illustrations and beautiful maps on the end papers. For collectors, note that there is a book club edition also published in 1930 through the Literary Guild of America. The true first edition is published in 1930 by the Macaulay Company. However, both of these editions are desirable as “The Outlaw Years” is out of print today.

Written by Lisa Newman, Original to The Clarion-Ledger. 

Cereus Readers Book Club: January 2016 News

Night-blooming Cereus Flower at Eudora Welty's House August 28, 2013We call ourselves the Cereus Readers in honor of Jackson writer Eudora Welty and her friends who gathered for the annual blooming of the night-blooming cereus flower and called themselves “The Night-Blooming Cereus Club.” In this same spirit of friendship and fellowship, this book club was launched.

The goal of the Cereus Readers is to introduce readers to the writing of Eudora Welty–her short stories, essays, and novels–and then to read books and authors she enjoyed herself or were influenced by her. We have been reading the work of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, Katherine Anne Porter, E. M. Forster, and others.

We typically meet the fourth Thursday of every month, but we sometimes change the date as necessary. No previous reading of Eudora Welty required.

For more information and to subscribe to our e-mail list, please send an e-mail to: lisa@lemuriabooks.com.

anton chekhovWe’re beginning this year with the mastery of Anton Chekhov.

Hunter Cole, long time friend of Eudora Welty, to visit with us about Anton Chekhov. Cole will be sharing his knowledge of Chekhov and Chekhov’s influence on Welty.

Hunter Cole visited Chekhov’s homes during several trips to Russia. He organized the Welty symposium in Moscow that several Welty scholars from Mississippi attended. His friends in Russia included professors from the Gorky Institute of International studies, especially those interested in Southern American writers, and the Moscow State University Literature Department. Cole was also the marketing director of University Press of Mississippi and edited each of the Press books by Eudora Welty.

Our reading selection for January 28:

“Reality in Chekhov’s Stories” by Eudora Welty (from The Eye of the Story)

We will spend two more meetings on the stories and possible a play of Chekhov.

If you’d like to join us, please e-mail me (lisa@lemuriabooks.com), and I’ll keep you up to date on meetings times and reading selections.

Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

wherever you go there you areThe title of this book, Wherever You Go There You Are, speaks to the present moment. No matter what we think about, the present moment is truly all we have. In this simple book, Kabat-Zinn helps us to be more mindful of the present moment. This book is written for those who are new to the practice of mindfulness or those who have cultivated a meditation practice.

Buddhists warn of ignorance or mindlessness when we become too involved in the past or the future or even in the actions of others. Kabat-Zinn presents the practice of mindful meditation as a way to understand the present self as it unfolds, moment by moment. It is a practice that is beyond any Eastern philosophy. The author presents mindfulness that is self-responsible and not self-absorbed.

The book is organized into three parts: Part One provides the background to introduce and deepen practice of mindfulness into your life; Part Two examines formal meditation practice; Part Three explores a variety perspectives on mindfulness. Occasionally, Kabat-Zinn shares some poems, like this one:

The heavy is the root of the light.

The unmoved is the source of all movement.

Thus the Master travels all day

without leaving home.

However splendid the views,

she stays serenely in herself.

Why should the lord of the country

flit about like a fool?

If you let yourself be blown to and fro,

you lose touch with your root.

If you let restlessness move you,

you lose touch with who you are.

Lao-Tzu, Tao-te-Ching

This is the 10th Anniversary Edition of Wherever You Go There You Are; I hope to see a 20th Anniversary Edition. I have read other books on meditation, and they sometimes seem a little austere. Kabat-Zinn makes meditation accessible. He delivers a kindness that adults often find difficult to allow themselves. Kabat-Zinn gives us permission to stop the hectic pace of our modern lives and find a place of quiet within.

Original to Well-Being Magazine

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