Monday, January 25, 2010

Nonfiction Monday: Two Biographies

For today's Nonfiction reviews, I give you two amazing biographies that were both Cybil nominations this year...

Leaving Glorytown: One Boy's Struggle Under Castro Eduardo F. Calcines

In January, 1959, Eduardo is only 3, but he remembers the coming of The Voice. Suddenly, The Voice is everywhere, being broadcast for hours from every radio, speakers rigged up outside. Everyone's listening to The Voice. Then, the soldiers are on every corner. As a 3-year-old, he's first fascinated by them, but then all the adults are short tempered and there's less to eat.

As he grows up in Castro's Cuba, Eduardo gets used to watching what you say, used to hunger, used to his father being gone at labor camp (for daring to apply for an exit visa), used to the jealousy as other families get their visa and his family is still stuck. They're on a deadline for the visa. When Eduardo turns 15, he'll be drafted into the army, so once he hits 14.5, his family's no longer eligible and they'll have to stay.

We don't get enough memoirs out of Cuba, especially for teens. This one is hard to put down, as we watch the situation grow worse and worse. Unlike other communist memoirs, this one's more chilling because while Mao and Lenin and the other revolutionaries are dead, Castro isn't and the situation in Cuba has only grown worse. Not only is is a good read, it's an important one.

Book provided by... my local library

Rock 'n' Roll Soldier: A Memoir Dean Ellis Kohler with Susan VanHecke

After graduating from high school in 1965 Dean Kohler's rock band landed a record deal and then he was drafted into the US Army. The deal got dropped when Kohler shipped out to Vietnam, serving as an MP in Qui Nhon, which was a port used to off-load supplies going deeper in country. Despite the fear and death and shooting, Kohler knows how lucky he is to not be on the front lines in the jungle, to not be in the Deep Serious. Things also take a better turn when his commanding officer orders him to form a rock band. Kohler's band is soon traveling the area, playing shows for soldiers who are in the thick of things. Kohler has to balance the two sides of himself, is he a musician? Or a soldier? I deeply appreciated that there are two chapters and a epilogue that take place after he returns home. While not the focus of the book, Kohler does talk about returning home and trying to decide what to do next. Re-entry is a dimension that is often sadly left out of war stories.

One thing that's interesting for me (coming from a perspective of one who has done quite a bit of cultural and academic study of the Vietnam War) is that it takes place mainly in 1967 (1966 was spent in basic training), which was when the armchair historian tends to think things were just starting to heat up. Kohler is home before the Tet offensive. This is most obvious in the music. This is, after all, a book about a rock band. They do several covers, but when I (and, I think, many people) think 1960s, Vietnam, and Music, I tend to think of music from the late 60s, early 70s. Songs like "Fortunate Son" (thanks Forrest Gump) "White Rabbit" or "Purple Haze." Kohler's band is playing current hits-- "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" "Wipe Out" "Louie, Louie" "Louie, Louie" and "Twist and Shout." I'm thinking Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but Kohler's playing music by The Hollies.

But, in the end, that just adds to the punch of the book. So much of our focus is on the later, post-Tet part of the war. We don't pay attention the what happened before and when we do, well, it was before things got bad. Even though Kohler isn't on the front lines, this is still a book about a war and forces us to re-look at our assumptions about it. While I do think older teens will enjoy this book immensely, I wonder if they'll have that same perspective. On the other hand, if we remind them from the beginning that there was a war before 1968, that can't be a bad thing.

Book Provided by... my local library

Round-Up is over at Playing By the Book

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Serena said...

Rock and Roll Soldier sounds like a good read. Thanks for sharing it.

Unknown said...

Yes, life is full of struggles of one sort or the other. My family fled the comunist invation of Estonia and we were refugees for 10months in Sweden. No sooner were we on our feet when once again my parents uprooted themselves and travelled on again as refugees ending up in Cape Town South Africa where we had to start from scratch. So you see, I know what hardship and hunger is all about. My book, Almmi a Refugee has now been published and you can view it in Google. Best regards, Tiiu Priiliad-Kleyn.

Unknown said...

I heard this one recommended at a review committee I'm on. It sounds even better--I guess I'll have to read it now.

Anna and Serena said...

We've got this ready to post on Feb. 17. Thanks for the review and participating in the challenge.

Jennie said...

Anna&Serena-- feel free to post, but this doesn't actually count for the challenge, because I read it in 2009, I'm just reviewing it late.

Anna said...

Both of these books sound interesting. Thanks for bringing them to my attention.

Diary of an Eccentric