13 June 2005

11. Idiot's Guide to the Vietnam War

Man, that was a complicated war. Lots of reasons, lots of sides, and lots of mistakes and misassumptions.

I read the book because I am teaching it to my 7th graders as the last unit of the year. We let them vote on what they wanted to learn about most, giving a ballot with 5 topics we thought we could teach reasonably well, and they chose Vietnam. I knew nothing about it beyond there were lots of sides, lots of mistakes and misassumptions, lots of reasons we got involved, and that it was complicated. I had virtually no idea what happened when, beyond what I learned in the movie theatres.

I know a lot more now, but feel that I could read the book again, or that there should be a sequel, with more detail and more primary sources. I need more information (new market: sequels to the Idiot's and Dummies Guides) and more detail.

I only chose this one to read because another teacher had a copy of it. I supplemented my knowledge with two pbs websites and a college curriculum I found online, and stayed one year above the kids. We also showed them the documentary about the Weather Underground.

Anyway. The writing style kind of annoyed me. At least three times every chapter the writer used the catch-phrase "but they were wrong." Fo example, "The VC thought the US would supply the South Vietnamese and advise them for a few years. But they were wrong." Another example, "LBJ figured the war would last two years and all he needed was a WW2 effort. He was wrong." And on and on. By the end of the book I started laughing when I saw them.

I recommend the book if you want to know a brief, light look at the war and what happened. I may look to see if they have a "Short History of the Vietnam War." I read the WW1 and WW2 books and found them to be worthwhile. The WW2 one is written by a dude named Stokesbury. A good name.

03 June 2005

10. In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov

Another book about the Arctic fell into my lap. It's the third book I've read about surviving in the cold and isolation of the North.

This was a good book. Albanov is the navigator on a seal and walrus hunting ship that sets out looking for new hunting grounds. The ship, the Saint Anna, gets locked into the ice and drifts along with the ice pack for the winter. This is normal, apparenlty, for hunting vessels to spend the winter trapped in the ice, and then get free and continue on their way in the summer. The Saint Anna though, gets locked in for the winter, doesn't get free in the summer and is looking forward to another ice-bound winter.

Albanov's relationship with the captain, Brusilov, deteriorates to the point where Albanov wants to leave and head for home. Brusilov gives him permission to build a kayak and a sled to help him get away. It takes him 90 days to go the 235 miles back to civilization. A bunch of the other sailors go with him, I think 9 in the party, but only Albanov and another make it back alive. No trace of the Saint Anna was ever found.

(Pretty much all of that info is on the dust cover, btw, so there weren't any spoilers.)

One thing that amazed me was that Albanov complains about the men in his party having apathy and laziness on their trip. He practically has to beat them to get them to collect firewood, go hunting, wake up in the morning, sit a polar bear watch, etc. Amazing that.

A second surprise was that Albanov hardly ever complains about the cold. In the Heimo Korth book (Last Frontiersman) cold is a constant predator that one has to guard against and plan for. Even in the Krakauer book (Into the Wild) he talks about the cold and desolation that comes with living in the tundra of Alaska. Only a few times does Albanov describe dangerous cold and that was usually during a gale or when someone falls through the ice. I wonder, were the men of the early 1900s hardier, or did Albanov skip talking about it because it was so obvious that it was cold he didn't have to spend pages and pages on it?

I recommend the book if you are into stories about adventure and pluck and real people figuring out how to get out of serious jams.