Book bits

The Monitor's weekly literary roundup.

Capt. John Bissell was a US Marine who fought in the Vietnam War. His military service ended before his son Tom was even born but Tom nonetheless felt the war – always haunting his father – to be a dark presence throughout his childhood. In 2005, Tom and his father traveled together to Vietnam. Tom's book, "The Father of All Things," chronicles that trip and Tom's effort to better understand his father's experiences.

What did you most hope to gain by taking your father to Vietnam?

All my life, I felt the bitterness he had about his experiences in Vietnam. I hoped that this trip would replace the Vietnam that had existed for him as a marine with the Vietnam he would see with me, that he would experience it as something different. We've always gotten along and have always been close but obviously we are very different. I hoped that if we saw Vietnam together we could come to a place where our disagreements [about the war] would come from a place of understanding.

What was your biggest surprise on this trip?

How completely willingly my father went into this thing with me, even with his lockjawed Marine reticence. He hit the ground running and from begin to end he was thrilled to be there.

Did your father have more love for Vietnam than you had realized?

Absolutely. I was surprised by the depth of the reading he had done and what he knew about Buddhism and other aspects of life in Vietnam.

Did the US's current military involvement in Iraq color your trip to Vietnam in any way?

It did. When I asked my dad a question about the war he would say, are you talking about Vietnam or Iraq? Iraq is the ghost in the machine throughout this book.

What has your dad had to say about the book?

Obviously there's some stuff he doesn't love, but he can live with it. I think he's proud and understands that this is my effort to honor him.

What about your mom [John Bissell's ex-wife]?

My mom told me, rather heartbreakingly, that if she had had any idea that that was what was going on in his head, they never would have gotten divorced.

Do you plan to travel back to Vietnam with your father again?

Yes, absolutely. We will go to Vietnam again. But this time it will be just for us.

Three books about explorers

If time and resources prevent us from setting out to explore, the next best thing is settling into an armchair to read about those who do. Authors who use legendary navigators as their North Star inevitably recount adventure. In Henry Hudson: Dreams and Obsession, Corey Sandler traces the journeys of a man whose footsteps foretold the founding of New York City. Alongside the drama of failed and successful missions, Sandler provides historical sketches of what followed Hudson's discoveries.

Before there was Lewis & Clark there was John Ledyard, a blond, athletic man of the wilderness, friend to the Founding Fathers, and an insatiable adventurer. Legendary in his time as a participant in Captain Cook's final voyage, today he is largely forgotten. Bill Gifford reintroduces him in Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer. Gifford, himself blond and athletic (he writes for Outside magazine), follows Ledyard's intended path – Alaska by way of Russia – and delivers a travelogue along with a history lesson.

As the world prepares to descend on Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, Kate Teltscher offers the intellectually rigorous The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama, and the First British Expedition to Tibet, the story of the West reaching out to touch the East in the 1770s. In order to gain trade access to the Forbidden City, George Bogle was first sent by Britain to establish a friendship with China's neighbor.
– Kendra Nordin

Readers' picks

I'm two-thirds the way through Facing Chimeras: An Epic on Founding Jamestown by Arlouine Goodjohn Wu and find the story exciting, full of history, and a great geography lesson! And if read aloud you'd never realize it was written in poetic form if you had not been told beforehand.
– Betty Strong, Tucson, Ariz.

I just read Louise Richardson's What Terrorists Want. Ms. Richardson's expertise on terrorism and terrorist groups challenges readers to think about viable alternatives to confrontation. Richardson knows what works and what doesn't. The final two chapters detail "where we go from here" to combat terrorism. This is a book for all of us, regardless of political affiliation.
– Kathleen Free, Minneapolis

I am currently reading Tales from a Tin Can by Michael Olson, stories of sailors aboard a destroyer in World War II from Pearl Harbor through the end of the war.
– Delphine Olson, Billings, Mont.

I'm reading City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin, a tale of mystery and intrigue . Set in Berlin in 1922, Russian refugees, including the alleged survivor of the Romanov family assassination, Anastasia, emerge as a focal point for manipulation, murder, and power grabs. A German detective struggles to do the right thing and bring about justice. A twist in the plot completes this tale and leaves one out of breath. I will be sorry to see this book end. – Dianne Aisenbrey, Red Wing, Minn.

Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma kept me turning the pages. It's a powerful, disturbing, and thought-provoking book. Pollan, a professor at of UC Berkeley, examines the social, ethical, and environmental impact of how we spend our food dollars. A "must read" for anyone who eats, and that means all of us!
– Judy Park, Gig Harbor, Wash.

What are you reading? Write and tell us.

Big bucks book prize

Eight novels have been shortlisted for one of the world's largest literary prizes worth 100,000 euro (about US$134,200). Libraries from around the world – 169 in total this year – submitted the nominations for the annual prize. The final results of the International IMPAC Dublin (Ireland) Literary Award will be announced on June 14 in Dublin.

The shortlist includes:

A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry

Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes

Slow Man, by J.M. Coetzee

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foes

The Short Day Dying, by Peter Hobbs

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

Shalimar the Clown, by Salman Rushdie

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