My high school librarian always told me that past history has to be witnessed by those who didn’t live it in order to live on in our memories and to prevent it from happening again. I have taken that to heart in the years since by reading and watching nonfiction about events that happened before I was born.
My latest nonfiction read was Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio by Derf Backderf. This is a graphic nonfiction account of the Kent State shootings that happened on May 4, 1970. On that date, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed college students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were killed and nine were wounded in a deadly fusillade of 67 bullets.
This story is told from the perspective of the four students who were killed, as well as other students on campus and the writer himself. Ten days prior to the shooting, 10-year-old Derf Backderf was riding in the car with his mother when he saw the same National Guardsman patrolling his nearby hometown, having been brought in by the governor to hopefully squash a trucker strike. Backderf spent years doing interviews and conducting research into the lives of the people affected by the Kent State shootings. What he has created brought me to tears. Reading about their lives before the shooting, how the area was affected afterwards, and the coverup that occured had my emotions running ragged. I found this story to be troubling and concerning, and also incredibly relevant to today as dissent and protesting happens across the world.
Two things I usually do not like to read about: war and hot places. And yet I found myself picking up Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai everytime I walked past the New J Fiction shelf. I could tell by the description on the back of the book that the story was about a young girl living in South Vietnam right before the fall of Saigon, thus, it was about war in a hot place. Yet, the praise on the back cover also demanded that I “read it slowly to savor the delicious language” and cheer on “a protagonist so strong, so loving, and vivid [that fellow author] longed to hand her a wedge of freshly cut papaya.” I asked myself one question: Have I ever eaten a papaya? I don’t think so, but after reading this book I am convinced that papaya is now my favorite fruit, and that Inside Out & Back Again has my vote for the Newbery Award this year.
This story, told in verse, spends one year with ten-year-old Hà as her family undergoes the transition from their war-torn, unsettled home in South Vietnam to the the unknown and sometimes cruel world of being refugees in the United States. Ha’s environment is something I have never experienced, but her spirit and humor remind me of many of my kindred fictional friends from Ramona Quimby to Allie Finkle. Thus, she enabled me to live a piece of our world’s history that, until now, had really only been presented to me through dry history books or masculine, heated war literature.
Hà’s story in heartbreaking, but not without hope and smiles. An excerpt from Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai:
I help Mother
peel sweet potatoes
to stretch the rice.
I start to chop off
a potato’s end
as wide as
to slice off
only a sliver.
I am proud
of my ability
until I see
You deserve to grow up
where you don’t worry about
saving half a bite
of sweet potato.
In the searing debut novel The Lotus Eaters, author Tatjana Soli captures the devastation of war-torn Vietnam from 1963-1975, but also beautifully balances it with complex relationships and passionate romance.
Helen Adams has dropped out of college to come to Vietnam to work as a freelance photographer and to find answers about her brother’s death. She soon falls in love with a charismatic Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer, who takes her under his wing. As a female covering combat in this age of new-found womens liberation, Helen’s gender draws as much attention as does her cover-quality work. But Helen, just like the lotus eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, finds herself unwilling or unable to leave, even in the final chaotic days of the U.S. military’s evacuation from the conflict.
There’s romance (with two very different men) — there’s danger (with every mine-filled step) and there’s that anxious tension that keeps you hoping for their survival right up to the very end. The book is thoroughly researched (it includes a lengthy bibliography) with a perspective that only 40 plus years of history could provide.
Part travel guide, part cookbook, the best word to describe this gorgeous book is “stunning”. Koto: a Culinary Journey Through Vietnam is filled with beautiful photography, mouth-watering recipes and an eye-opening look into this complex and distant land.
Beginning with a thoughtful overview of the long history and diverse cultures of this beautiful nation, the authors then bring us to contemporary Vietnam where they lived and taught for two years. Divided into seven main food regions, the book provides a dish by dish journey through the long, skinny country. Recipes are relatively simple – very few take up more than a page – and where necessary have been adapted to the Western kitchen with ingredients that are available in most Asian supermarkets.
To page through this book is to immerse yourself in another culture on a delightful – and delicious! – journey of discovery.