Michael Herr: Dispatches (1977) Literature and War Readalong December 2012


Dispatches is Michael Herr’s account of his time in Vietnam as a front-line reporter. It’s an example of what is commonly called gonzo journalism as invented by Hunter S. Thompson. The beginning reminded me of William S. Burroughs’ books like Naked Lunch or Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Pure 60s writing, fragmented, high on dope and high-strung as well. Not my cup of tea anymore. I used to read this type of books as a teenager, nowadays I prefer more lyrical approaches with a stronger narrative.

What Herr tried to do in the beginning, is make the reader experience as close as possible, what it was like to be there. I thought it was difficult to follow. I lost interest more than once and couldn’t help comparing it to Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece. I’m afraid Dispatches doesn’t hold up. On the other hand it’s not fair to compare them because they are totally different. O’Brien’s novel is a blend of fiction and non-fiction with a lot of metafictional elements. Herr tries to tell it as it was. Whatever he describes, even though it is filtered through his experience, it’s still true while O’Brien embellished and made things up. Sure, we could argue that truth is relative anyway and that’s precisely what O’Brien did argue. Be it as it may, Herr didn’t consciously change anything to make it “more real”.

Dispatches consists of 6 parts and while I had problems with the first three, I really liked the last three called Illumination Rounds, Colleagues and Breathing Out. Illumination Rounds is a series of portraits of soldiers Herr met in Vietnam and shows the wide range of people. How some of them got affected so badly by the war that they didn’t want to go back home, got addicted to it, or got crazy. They are just small vignettes but I found each of them powerful. Colleagues was equally interesting. This time fellow reporters and photo journalists were at the center of the story. The most prominent ones being Sean Flynn, Erroll Flynn’s son, a photojournalist and Dana Stone, another reporter. The two men disappeared in 1970, on the Cambodian border were they were said to have been captured by communist guerillas and were never seen again. Quite a sad story, really. Both were friends of Michael Herr and while he isn’t too outspoken it is obvious that he felt deeply when he heard about their disappearance. I attached two tributes that I found on YouTube.

Breathing Out focusses on the return home and how everything just seemed so dull. Something that you see mentioned often in Vietnam accounts is that the soldiers enjoyed being there to some extent because it was so intense.

An important part of the book looks at how the journalists were treated. Many of the soldiers were glad to have them because they wanted people to know how it really was. There were some others who hated them for being there without having to but purely because they wanted to. This was precisely the reason why others admired them. It takes guts to go somewhere like that if you don’t have to. The reasons for the journalists in Herr’s account to be there were very rarely political. Some were adventurers and Vietnam was just a way to combine making money with traveling and experiencing something nobody else had experienced.

Reading this book made me wonder what this war would have been like if it had been fought in the 80s. It’s so much part of 60s culture and was so much influenced by it. What would it have been like without the pot smoking, the music, the attitude of the people?

One part that I found extremely interesting is when Herr writes that arriving in Vietnam took a lot of adjustment at first because they had all seen too many war movies and it took a while until it sank in that this were not just pictures flickering by. I always though that was a newer problem but I guess nowadays it is video games, not movies which blur the lines.

I really can’t say this isn’t a good book but I would have appreciated it more a few years ago and if I had read it some other time. In any case, it felt very authentic, very realistic, gritty but not too graphic. However if you are looking for background information on Vietnam, that’s not the book to turn to.

Other reviews

Reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches (Danielle – A Work in Progress)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)


Dispatches was the last book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The first in 2013 is The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (2012), 240 pages – US – Iraq war.

Discussion starts on Monday 28 January, 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong December 28 2012: Dispatches by Michael Herr


Dispatches is a book I wanted to read  ever since it has been mentioned in the comments of other posts and after having read Tim O’Brien’s astonishing The Things They Carried. It’s the only book on the Vietnam war we are reading this year and I’m very keen on finding out how it will compare to O’Brien’s masterpiece.

Herr was a front-line reporter in the Vietnam war and has participated in the writing of movie scripts like Apocalypse Now and Platoon.

Here are the first sentences

There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’d lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now, that it wasn’t real anymore. For one thing it was very old. It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a Fenchman, since the map had been made in Paris.


The discussion starts on Friday, 28 December 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong November 30 2012 Meets German Literature Month: The Stalin Front – Die Stalinorgel by Gert Ledig

It is thanks to last’s year’s German Literature Month during which I read Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction that I discovered Gert Ledig’s The Stalin Front  –  Die Stalinorgel (1955).

In this novel Ledig depicts the atrocities of the Eastern Front. The fact that he is so explicit about the horrors and destruction is, according to Sebald, the reason why Ledig was forgotten and only rediscovered thanks to Sebald’s lectures and later book.

Here’s what is written about the book on the nyrb site

Gert Ledig (1921–1999) was born in Leipzig and grew up in Vienna. At the age of eighteen he volunteered for the army and was wounded at the battle of Leningrad in 1942. He reworked his experiences during the war in this novel Die Stalinorgel (1955). Sent back home, he trained as a naval engineer and was caught in several air raids. The experience never left him and led to the writing of Vergeltung (Payback) (1956). The novel’s reissue in Germany in 1999 heralded a much publicized rediscovery of the author’s work there.

Here are the first sentences


The Lance-Coropral couldn’t turn in his grave because he didn’t have one. Some three versts from Podrova, forty versts south of Leningrad, he had been caught in a salvo of rockets, been thrown up in the air and with severed hands and head dangling, been impaled on the skeletal branches of what once had been a tree.

I hope that some of the participants of this year’s German Literature Month will join us. As you can deduce from the first lines –  this is a very graphic novel.


The discussion starts on Friday, 30 November 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Maria Àngels Anglada: The Auschwitz Violin – El violi’ d’Auschwitz (1994) Literature and War Readalong October 2012

Is there anything that would make life in a concentration camp bearable? Anything that could make it worth living? Is it justified that talent will help you survive? And if you do, how can you go on living? Maria Àngels Anglada’s short and powerful novel The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz asks precisely these questions.

When Climent, a famous violinist, is invited to Krakow in 1991 for a concert, he meets the elderly Polish violinist Regina who plays on an exquisite violin. He is intrigued, he thinks he should know the luthier but, as he is told, he doesn’t. He is curious and she is keen to share the story of the beautiful instrument. The violin has been made by Daniel, Regina’s uncle, a luthier who was sent to Auschwitz. Regina was only a small girl then. She had lost her parents in the ghetto but was saved and spent the war with a non-Jewish family who let her pass as their daughter.

Daniel who is still a young man, is only saved and not exterminated right away with many others because he pretends to be a carpenter. He helps to build a greenhouse for the sadistic and despotic camp Commander and later, when the commander finds out that he is a luthier, he is ordered to build a violin for him. Another captive, Bronislaw, will have to play on it during one of the dinners the Commander gives for other Nazis. Both their lives depend on Daniel’s success. If he wasn’t such a talented and passionate luthier, he wouldn’t stand a chance to make such a delicate instrument, with hands that are rough and split from the cold and material that is far from perfect.

Working on the violin changes everything for Daniel. It isn’t only a means to survive, like helping with the greenhouse was, but it gives sense to his days, makes a human being out of him again.

The way his workshop in Poland  is described and how he makes the new violin, with so much care and love, infuses this book with beauty, despite the horrors which are evoked as well.

Every chapter begins with a quote from a historical official document in which life in the camp is rendered in a statistical and factual manner. There are reports about shootings, about medical experiments and other atrocities. This adds another layer to the book, echoes the horrors Daniel has to endure and stands in stark contrast to the beauty he experiences while remembering his old life and crafting the violin.

When the instrument is finished, Bronislaw, the violinist, plays Corelli’s Sonata “La Folia” on it. Schindler, a passing figure in the novel, tells someone about Bronislaw and he is freed and brought to Sweden.

It’s a beautifully written book but a bit light at times. I don’t know if working on an instrument would really have transformed the days at the camp like this.

The idea that two people can better their lives, maybe even save it, because of their talents struck me as cruel but realistic. It’s certainly true that those with special talents had a higher chance to live longer or even survive. What does that say about us humans.? Do we always need a reason to help? Talent, looks, frailty, illness, as long as there is something different and special. The thought made me shudder because it’s at the core of so much injustice in this world, not only in the concentration camps.

Since Corelli’s Sonata “La Folia” is so important in the book, I attached a recording. It’s a very haunting piece.

The Auschwitz Violin manages to capture the horror’s of the concentration camps without being horrifying. I think Anglada wanted to tell us that there can be beauty in the most horrible places. I hope that’s true.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)



The Auschwitz Violin was the tenth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Gert Ledig’s The Stalin FrontDie Stalinorgel. Discussion starts on Friday  30 November, 2012.

Literature and War Readalong October 2012: The Auschwitz Violin – El Violi` d`Auschwitz by Maria Àngels Anglada

Maria Àngels Anglada who died in 1999 was considered to be one of the most important Catalan writers of the 20th Century. She won many prizes and was widely read. The Auschwitz Violin – El Violi`d`Auschwitz was translated a year ago and when I saw it in a book shop I thought it’s a perfect choice. It’s slim, seems well written and tells the story of a musician and his struggle to stay human during his imprisonment in Auschwitz.

Here are the first sentences

December 1991

I always have trouble falling asleep after I perform at a concert. It keeps playing in my mind, like a tape going round and round. I was more keyed up than usual because this concert had been special: it marked the two hundredth anniversary of Mozart’s death. The recital was held in Krakow, a city of wonderful musicians, in a makeshift auditorium in the bellissima Casa Veneciana.


The discussion starts on Monday, 29 October 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Richard Bausch: Peace (2008) Literature and War Readalong September 2012

Richard Bausch’s Peace (2008) is set in Italy during WWII. An American  recon squad comes upon a group of people and a cart. A German officer and a German prostitute are hiding on the wagon. When they turn it around, the German officer opens fire and kills two of the young American soldiers. Corporal Marson shoots him, while Sergeant Glick shoots the woman in the head.

It’s the end of WWII and German troops are retreating but not without trying to take down anyone they can with them. The mountains are hostile territory, it’s cold and it rains constantly. The little troop of men is demoralized. The life of a recon squad is usually very dangerous, they have to find out where the German line is and might accidentally already be behind the lines. After the shooting of the officer and the whore, three of the men are sent on recon again. Sgt Marson, Ash and Joyner. On their way they meet Angelo, a frail and very old Italian man and force him to guide them.

Marson, Ash and Joyner are as different as three people can be. Marson is the oldest, he’s 26, married and has a child. Joyner and Ash are 20. Ash seems to be deeply traumatized by something he experienced in Africa and which wakes him every night. He seems to be a good sort but starts to annoy Marson because he wants to denounce Glick. The murder of the prostitute has shocked him and he thinks Glick should be brought to justice. While Marson agrees with him, he feels it’s not the right time and he has problems of his own. They are on a very dangerous recon mission, it’s very cold and raining. They don’t know where they are and have to rely on a man he doesn’t completely trust. Many of the Italians have surrendered, many never really participated but there are still a lot of fascists who would gladly kill them. Plus he fights a battle with his conscience. Before shooting the German officer he had never killed anyone up close and the memory of it makes him sick. Tensions between the four people would be high anyway but Joyner is an aggressive bigot, anti-Jews, anti-Communists, anti-drinking. But swearing and abusing people constantly which is a huge contradiction.

Matters get even worse when it starts snowing and they hear shots. They find a dead German and later hear more shots coming from a village where, as the old man explains, Jews are being executed.

The three men are really tested and have to go to their limits. They fight the cold, are in enemy territory, traumatized by what they have seen so far and by their conscience.

I must honestly say I was not too impressed with this book. It’s told in chapters alternating between the past of the three men, what they had experienced in Palermo and their actual recon mission. The central conflict or theme, drawing the line between justified killing and murder, is shown but it didn’t move me. The book exemplifies how much it meant for soldiers to kill, it underlines that in WWII shooting someone from up close was in no way common and could cause a huge problem, triggering moral conflicts. Unfortunetly I never felt that conflict.

It’s hard to say why this book did so not work from me. I felt Bausch wanted to tell a story that wasn’t his and I suspect he watched a few movies in order to get a feel for what it was like but ultimately I felt he couldn’t make this story his and tell it in a moving way. In this it reminded me of Coventry but looking back I’d say, I liked that much more.

I’m aware this is a bit of an uninspired review but I’m really unfazed by this book.

I hope others did read along. I’m very interested to hear their thoughts.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Victoria (creativeshadows)


Peace was the ninth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Maria Angels Anglada The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz. Discussion starts on Monday 29 October, 2012.

Literature and War Readalong September 2012: Peace by Richard Bausch

This year’s readalong is a chance for me to read some of the great novelists and authors I hadn’t had an opportunity to read before. Since I’ve first read something about Richard Bausch he was on my list of authors I must read. He is quite famous as a short story writer, his work has appeared in numerous collections and magazines. Peace (2008) is set in Italy during WWII. This isn’t a tale of the home front but from the point of view of American soldiers. It is towards the end of the war, in 1944. Critics called it one of the best books they’ve ever read. A.L. Kennedy called it, lean, compact, layered, darkly humorous, unflinching and lyrical.

Here are the first sentences

They went on anyway, putting one foot in front of the other, holding their carbines barrel down to keep the water out, trying, in their misery and confusion – and their exhaustion – to remain watchful. This was the fourth straight day of rain – a windless, freezing downpour without any slight variation of itself.


The discussion starts on Friday, 28 September 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.