The Vietnam War

By Mitchell K. Hall

Rating: 4 stars

Having been on a short course about the Vietnam war I found myself wanting to know more and the course tutor recommended this slim volume. It’s a short book (the main text is less than a hundred pages) but it clearly and concisely covers the major events and people of the war, with a timeline, dramatis personae and (very handy) list of acronyms.

The book is split into sensible chapters, starting with the roots of the war, which discuss the Vietnamese independence movement following the Second World War and American growing paranoia over Communism. Then it moves on to the growing American involvement in South Vietnam until it was fully committed. The third chapter discusses various turning points of the war, including the antiwar movement and the Tet offensive. Chapter four covers the beginning of the end, as America looks for a way to withdraw from the quagmire with some dignity and then we have the conclusion and legacy of the war.

For me, the major thing I got out of this book was the complete lack of understanding shown by America at all stages of their involvement in Indochina. Their obsession with the Cold War led them to frame the Vietnamese independence movement in those terms and their blinkers prevented them from any other interpretation. This also led them to prop up corrupt governments not just in South Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia (including, later, supporting the Khmer Rouge guerillas following Vietnamese occupation). In the end, the ‘domino theory’ was proved incorrect but only after millions of lives had been lost and millions of tonnes of bombs had been dropped.

The book is supported by extracts from various relevant documents referenced to in the main text and there is a list of further reading at the end. This book is both a great way to get an overview of the war, and as a jumping off point for a more in-depth study of the war that redefined how America thought of itself.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405874342
Publisher: Routledge
Year of publication: 1999

Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile

By Gyles Brandreth

Rating: 4 stars

I have fond memories of Gyles Brandreth and his jumpers from my childhood on TV-am and still enjoy his media appearances, even if he is a Tory. I’ve never until now encountered any of his written work but this was a pleasant introduction to it. This is part of a series starring Oscar Wilde in a detective role, solving murder mysteries, with a dramatis personae of historical characters, including Robert Sherard and Arthur Conan Doyle. The real characters are woven skilfully into the narrative and several times I had to google a character or location to see if it was real or not.

Having a good backdrop would be pointless if the story itself wasn’t up to scratch, but thankfully it is. Brandreth weaves together a tale that takes Wilde from a lecture tour of the US to a collaboration with a celebrated Parisian theatre company for a production of Hamlet. The story is fairly slow-burning with a plot that only comes together right at the end, with a twist that turns what appears to be a very pedestrian ending into something much more interesting.

The plot may be slow-burning, but the character are all very vivid, especially Wilde himself, who jumps out from the page. Brandreth also provides some context for some of Wilde’s more famous quotes which raise a smile, although whether the fiction matches the fact is harder to judge. Sherard is more muted, the Watson to Wilde’s Holmes but even he gets some excitement in the form of a duel later in the book.

I wasn’t sure if I’d like this book, bringing together, as it does, historical figures in a fictional setting, but it worked remarkably well for me, so I’ll certainly look out for others in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444724141
Publisher: John Murray
Year of publication: 2009

The Day of the Triffids

By John Wyndham

Rating: 5 stars

It’s only by chance that Bill Mason’s eyes are bandaged up the night the meteors come. And the next day, he can see but everyone who looked at the strange sight has been struck blind. And that’s not the worst problem – the triffids that have been farmed for years suddenly start to become a real menace to the masses who can no longer see their vicious stings.

Although I’ve read and enjoyed other Wyndham novels, The Day of the Triffids has been a large gap in my scientificional education, and one that I’m very glad that I’ve now filled. I was broadly aware of the plot, but not the details and although I general don’t like post-apocalyptic/dystopian novels, I usually make an exception for Wyndham, master of the so-called “cosy catastrophe”. Critics may use this to sneer at Wyndham, but I definitely feel that there’s a place for this sort of writing to explore what happens when society breaks down. And I find it infinitely easier to read than some.

Possibly the best sign of a good book is that this has stayed with me since I read it, still thinking about the logistics of the tiny number of sighted people trying to stave off the triffids, help the blind and husband resources and knowledge to rebuild civilisation as best they can. I still try and think of plans and means to help them, how the existence of the triffids would hinder that, or how different the situation would be without the triffids: with 99-plus percent of the population blind (and new babies unaffected), it makes for an interesting set of thought experiments.

The triffids themselves are wonderful inventions. They still engender a sense of horror and are delightfully creepy in and of themselves. The idea of a mobile plant that has the ability to hunt and kill humans is just a scary thought so used, as we are, to plants being immobile and docile.

Wyndham’s survivors react to their circumstances in several different ways, some of which are indications of his time and others still relevant to today. The idea of the sighted being kidnapped by groups of the blind and forced to act as their eyes is something that I can definitely see, as is the inverse. But in the end, Wyndham ends on a hopeful note, with a fairly safe and stable colony trying to preserve the knowledge that they’ve inherited and find a weapon to drive the triffids back and reclaim the world.

The Day of the Triffids is a classic that has permeated mainstream culture, and with good reason. It’s a lucid, easy to read book with creepy and memorable antagonists and for this reason has been adapted multiple times into other media. But it’s still definitely worth going back to the original

Book details

ISBN: 9781856132527
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Year of publication: 1951

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