Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From Bedbugs to Vietnam

I have had an idea for a post for over 2 weeks, but due to unforeseen bedbug circumstances have been unable to prize myself from exterminating, vacuuming, and laundering in combat of the scourge. Bugs, vermin in general, make me think of the post about prejudices a couple of weeks ago, and if books about insect or rodent infestation in ones abode might figure up there with some of the other “I won’t read a book about”s. I, for one, would be delighted to pick up a slender funny novel on the topic, and hope that I too might some day have a big ha-ha about my uninvited denizens.

But two blissfully ignorant weeks ago my intention was neither to write about bedbugs nor to imagine delighting in a humorous urban tale of them. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli had me googling “Cambodia during Vietnam,” “Nixon’s secret bombings,” and searching Netflix for the PBS series about the Vietnam War. Mosquito had led me to Sigiri (that wonderful Sri Lankan restaurant I happened upon on First Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Streets—BYOB) as well as some minimal research on the lengthy civil war in Sri Lanka. I didn’t love The Lotus Eaters— the story of Helen, an American news photographer who becomes consumed by the Vietnam War and falls in love with an even more obsessed married photographer. I enjoyed the book’s well-written depictions of the other reporters, soldiers, battles, and life of the Vietnamese more than Helen’s story and become interested in finding out more about the war as well as what was going on in Cambodia at the time.

One beautiful Sunday while intermittently reading The Lotus Eaters, eavesdropping on conversations, and spacing out in Tompkins Square Park, a musician-y looking dude nearby asked what I was reading. He seemed genuinely interested, so I told him, giving him a 20-second synopsis. He asked if I mostly read fiction to which I responded yes. He said that he almost exclusively read nonfiction with that slight hauteur I usually project on “primarily nonfiction readers.” He continued, telling me that he was reading a book about Ghenghis Khan and was very careful about what fiction he read. I asked him what fiction he liked. He said Cormac McCarthy but couldn’t come up with anyone else, because it was just so hard finding really good writing. I ignored that comment and told him that I, too, liked Cormac McCarthy.

I recalled our conversation when I put Vietnam: A Television Series on my Netflix queue. I figured, yes I was reading something Tatjana Soli had made up, though based on lots of research. And now her compelling story and characters were leading me to a documentary series and perhaps other nonfiction resources that would probably encompass several points of view. I’m not sure what my point is except that a novel, a story written from an author’s imagination, can also lead a reader to all sorts of factual places while allowing for several points of view and potentially a great story that has the artistry of a beginning, middle, and end.

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