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THE BIG BUDDHA BICYCLE RACE

An excellent, thoughtful book about the Vietnam War.

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An unusual Vietnam-era novel that features a bicycle race along with much soul-searching.

In 1970, Brendan Leary, the hero and narrator of Harkin’s debut novel, has just gotten out of college and decides to enlist in the U.S. Air Force before he’s drafted into the Army. A photographer with some experience under his belt, he hopes to eventually go to the famous University of Southern California film school, and maybe the GI Bill will help. He thinks that his Vietnam experience will be a cushy billet, editing film behind the front lines in an air-conditioned hut. He’s wrong, of course; first of all, he’s not in Vietnam but Thailand (in an illegal military operation), and he soon finds himself filming the action firsthand, riding an AC-130 gunship as it destroys Viet Cong caravans on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The VC return the favor with fierce anti-aircraft fire. To say that Brendan is terrified every time he goes up would be understatement. The airmen are either “hippies” or “lifers”; Brendan and friends are, of course, laid-back hippies (think M*A*S*H). There are lots of drugs—anyone who only smokes marijuana is practically a choirboy—and a club scene in which Brendan, a drummer, bangs away after hours. He falls half in love with the beautiful Tukada, who works at the club—even though he has another girlfriend stateside—and spends the rest of his hitch desperately trying to save her from her own heroin habit. This is all capped with an exhilarating bicycle race among the soldiers which ends very badly, indeed. Author Harkin has had a successful career as a Hollywood cameraman, and his idea of mixing war and photography in this novel is clever. He shows how it’s the photographer’s job to make the war look good while also providing some distance. It’s ironic that both guns and cameras “shoot” people, and the pictures help to make the carnage exciting, almost attractive; the Viet Cong and their supply trucks become like simple figures in a video game. Harkin also shows how Brendan realizes, over time, that the Americans are inflicting as much damage on the Thai people as on the avowed enemy, vulgarizing a beautiful culture and trashing the economy; bar girls and masseuses make more money than local professionals, and everything is sold cheap. In a final scene, readers discover that Thai Army Sgt. Prasert, a supposed friend, has been nursing a raging hatred for Americans all along, and readers will find it hard to blame him. But in a particularly tear-jerking scene, Brendan, his friend Tom, and Tukada perform their own very loopy three-way wedding. In the end, the tone of the book seems Shakespearian, as everybody in the narrative ends up losing. And Harkin’s prose is lyrical at times: “With a hundred incarnations of Death as their companion, ground pounders never had a chance to be lonely, especially in the hot and spicy nighttime when they were caressed by their desperate mistress, Fear.”

An excellent, thoughtful book about the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Jan. 30, 2017

ISBN: 978-6-16-215132-3

Page Count: 396

Publisher: Silkworm Books

Review Posted Online: June 19, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2017

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A LITTLE LIFE

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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FIREFLY LANE

Dated sermonizing on career versus motherhood, and conflict driven by characters’ willed helplessness, sap this tale of...

Lifelong, conflicted friendship of two women is the premise of Hannah’s maudlin latest (Magic Hour, 2006, etc.), again set in Washington State.

Tallulah “Tully” Hart, father unknown, is the daughter of a hippie, Cloud, who makes only intermittent appearances in her life. Tully takes refuge with the family of her “best friend forever,” Kate Mularkey, who compares herself unfavorably with Tully, in regards to looks and charisma. In college, “TullyandKate” pledge the same sorority and major in communications. Tully has a life goal for them both: They will become network TV anchorwomen. Tully lands an internship at KCPO-TV in Seattle and finagles a producing job for Kate. Kate no longer wishes to follow Tully into broadcasting and is more drawn to fiction writing, but she hesitates to tell her overbearing friend. Meanwhile a love triangle blooms at KCPO: Hard-bitten, irresistibly handsome, former war correspondent Johnny is clearly smitten with Tully. Expecting rejection, Kate keeps her infatuation with Johnny secret. When Tully lands a reporting job with a Today-like show, her career shifts into hyperdrive. Johnny and Kate had started an affair once Tully moved to Manhattan, and when Kate gets pregnant with daughter Marah, they marry. Kate is content as a stay-at-home mom, but frets about being Johnny’s second choice and about her unrealized writing ambitions. Tully becomes Seattle’s answer to Oprah. She hires Johnny, which spells riches for him and Kate. But Kate’s buttons are fully depressed by pitched battles over slutwear and curfews with teenaged Marah, who idolizes her godmother Tully. In an improbable twist, Tully invites Kate and Marah to resolve their differences on her show, only to blindside Kate by accusing her, on live TV, of overprotecting Marah. The BFFs are sundered. Tully’s latest attempt to salvage Cloud fails: The incorrigible, now geriatric hippie absconds once more. Just as Kate develops a spine, she’s given some devastating news. Will the friends reconcile before it’s too late?

Dated sermonizing on career versus motherhood, and conflict driven by characters’ willed helplessness, sap this tale of poignancy.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-312-36408-3

Page Count: 496

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2007

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