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Short Takes

By Barbara Fisher
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2009

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KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN:
Vietnam, the Sixties, and a
Journey of Self-Discovery

By Doug Anderson
Norton, 288 pp., $25.95

Doug Anderson grew up in the racist South of the 1950s with a dad who hardly saw him and a mom who didn’t like him. When he went to Vietnam in early 1967, he felt he was doing the proper manly thing. But nothing prepared the young medic for what he found. He was an innocent about to be violated.

Joining his Marine unit, a bunch of swaggering teenagers with high-tech weapons, he learns fast how to stay alive. For his entire tour, he is awake and afraid, asleep and having night terrors, or drunk - swearing, shooting the bull, or morose. He loses all sense of time, self, morality. He loses himself to what he calls “Snakebrain.’’ “ ‘Snakebrain’ can’t see the human, only the snake inside the human.’’ While this is a useful point of view in Vietnam, it not helpful back in the United States, where Doug returns in 1968. Unable to lose the snake, he becomes a maudlin drunk; he suffers from anxiety and nightmares; he can’t sustain a relationship or finish college. He moves around from Tucson, Ariz., to New York City to Northampton, writing poetry, acting, studying philosophy, drinking.

After many years, he begins to pull himself together, traveling back to Vietnam with a group of poets to meet with Vietnamese writers. What he learns about himself, the war, and its makers seems revelatory to him, but may seem self-evident to a reader. But the descriptions of the experience of participating in the Vietnam War, of men fighting a war they don’t believe in, transgressing their own morality to stay alive, resonate now just as they did then.

THE IMPOSTER'S DAUGHTER:
A True Memoir

By Laurie Sandell
Little Brown, 256 pp., illustrated, $24.99

In graphic novel form, Laurie Sandell tells the story of her life so far. Much of her story revolves around her early adoration for her larger-than-life father and her later investigations and discoveries that cut him sadly down to size.

Even as a child she recognized that bits of her dad’s behavior puzzled her. Whenever he traveled from home, even for a day, he canceled the mail. When she happened to see the mail, it was addressed to names she didn’t know. Phone calls were often for people who didn’t live in the house. But her father’s combination of charm, charisma, and bluster seduced her into belief. She was proud to be the oldest and most trusted of his three daughters, the one to whom he chose to spin his stories. His accounts were thrilling, exciting, and almost unbelievable. He had been jailed in Argentina, where he had fought a duel; he had multiple degrees and honors from prestigious universities; he had been a hero in the Vietnam War; he was friends with Henry Kissinger.

As Laurie grew older, she became more troubled by discrepancies in her father’s tales and began to investigate his amazing life. It is no surprise to discover that his life is a series of fabrications. What is a surprise is how long it takes Laurie to admit what she clearly knew and how much longer it takes her to assess the full extent of the damage to herself and her family of their shared delusion. Most surprising is how forgiving she still is.

While the text is disturbing, the naively childish pictures make the story seem harmless. But, make no mistake, this is a dark tale.

VOICES OF THE DESERT
By Nelida Pinon
Translated, from the Portuguese, by Clifford E. Landers
Knopf, 272 pp., $24.95

Nelida Pinon, a respected Brazilian writer who now teaches at the University of Miami, retells the story of Scheherazade, the clever girl who taught and tamed the cruel and vengeful caliph with tales of Sinbad the sailor, Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, and Aladdin and his lamp. The caliph, having been betrayed by his wife, revenged himself on women by every night sleeping with a virgin and every morning beheading her. Scheherazade offered herself to the caliph to prevent the continuing sacrifice of Baghdad’s maidens. Under constant threat of death, for 1,001 nights, so the ancient story goes, Scheherazade slept with the caliph and then beguiled him with her tales within tales.

Pinon describes the process by which the storyteller opened the imagination of the all-powerful ruler, introduced him to compassion, enlarged his knowledge of the world, and entrapped him in narrative chaos. What Scheherazade demands and achieves is that the caliph learns to identify with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the female. Unfortunately, Pinon presents this marvelous and moving progress in a static narrative. There is no dialogue, no direct action, and, most grievously missed of all, no stories.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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