Monday, December 20, 2010

The Lotus Eaters - Tatjana Soli


In Homer's Odyssey, there exists a country of Lotus Eaters. The inhabitants of this land live on the flowering lotus blossom, that tastes like honey and whose effects are so narcotic that all those ingesting the plant never want to leave and return home.

I can't think of a more perfect title for this intoxicating, powerful novel about a group of photographers in Vietnam. The lotus blossom in this case being the allure of war - the thrill of danger, the desire to make a difference, the urgency of love found there. It is an addiction that some will never break free.

Synopsis: The story starts off in total chaos, confusion, panic, gunfire - the fall of Saigon, 1975. Helen and Linh, two photographers for Time, are fighting to evacuate the city. Linh has been wounded and they must find medical help or he will die. Once Linh has been ushered to safety, Helen disappears back into the city. She must be the one to capture these historic events, no matter the risk. The narcotic is still in her blood.

Twelve years earlier, Helen arrived a naive young woman, determined to photograph a war that took her brother's life. Over the years, she transforms from a terrified, bumbling child to a hardened, celebrated war correspondent, earning awards and magazine covers for photos taken that could have cost her life. Her success has not been easy. Women were considered a burden by not only the troops she embedded, but other male photographers.

We come along for this nail-biting ride, where we experience the beauty of the Vietnam countryside, the senseless and violent death of the soldier that just shared his rations with you 10 minutes prior, the camaraderie and competition between the journalists, and the dichotomy of falling in love amongst the ruins of a war-torn country.

My thoughts: I thought I'd read it all when it came to this war. For the Vietnam reading challenge alone, I've witnessed the war from the ground, from the air, from the survivors who became foreigners in their own homeland. In fact, this book sat at my bedside for most of the year (I won it from Carrie), because I really didn't think it was going to show me anything new. I've been humbled. This book rendered me gobsmacked.

Without seeming crowded or forced, the story embraces the war in its totality. It isn't just about the brutality, the confusion of our mission, the addiction to adrenaline, the heat, the smells, the bugs, the drug culture, or the aftermath, individually. It's all in there, so expertly constructed that you truly feel that you are living it, hiding in bunkers, watching executions and eating canned peaches.

And speaking of expertly constructed, this may be Soli's debut novel, but she is one talented lady. Her prose is beautiful and rich, her characters complicated and fully-realized. You finish the book feeling full - satiated with words and images - and in awe of her skill.

The general focus of the novel, of course, is the role of the war journalist. If you've ever seen the movie "The Killing Fields", you just might experience moments of dejavu, in the best possible way. Is it immoral to chase after and record such tragedy?

The journalists were in a questionable fraternity while out in the field, squabbling and arguing among themselves, each sensing the unease of the situation. No getting around the ghoulishness of pouncing on tragedy with hungry eyes, snatching it away, glorying in its taking even among the most sympathetic. "I got an incredible shot of a dead soldier/woman/child. A real tearjerker." Afterward, film exposed, they sat on the returning plane with a kind of postcoital shame, turning away from one another.

Beneath that exterior, however, is a love story. One that, because of the daily brushes with death, becomes vital, spiritual and hungry. For those of you who roll their eyes at anything involving affairs of the heart, please know that I am among the ranks of the jaded and skeptical. This was an entirely different ball game; more raw and physiological, like breathing, than mushy and predictable.

So here in the homestretch of 2010, I've discovered one of the year's best. This one is not to be missed. I'd like to thank TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of spreading the word.

Giveaway: The publisher has kindly offered a copy of this book to one lucky winner (US and Canada only). Simply leave an expression of interest in your comment with your e-mail before December 27th.

5 out of 5 stars


30 comments:

JoAnn said...

This has been getting some great reviews... would love the chance to win a copy. Thanks.
JQSteve(at)aol(dot)com

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I read this way back when before it came out and absolutely loved it. What a great storyteller.

bermudaonion said...

I got this from Vine with the intention of reading it for the Vietnam Challenge and I didn't get it done. You've made me regret that. It is near the top of my TBR pile, so hopefully I'll get to it soon. No need to enter me.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Hah! I picked the same quote for my review! :--)

Zibilee said...

I am so excited about this book, and it's my next read. I love anything to do with the Vietnam War, and something about this book just thrills and excites me. I loved your review and got even more excited when you said that this was one of your favorites of the year! I have to push through my current read quickly!!

marthalama said...

I've been wanting to read this book. I would love to be entered for a chance to win, thanks.

thedavi4(at)gmail(dot)com

Gavin said...

Wonerful review, Sandy. I would love to win a copy of this one. It has been on my TBR list for a while.

Laura L. said...

Wow, your review has me extremely interested. I would love a copy! Thanks for entering me!

Serena said...

No need to enter me, but I'll get it posted on the war blog for the Vietnam Reading challenge.

Serena said...

oops, no need to enter me...I've read and loved it.

farmlanebooks said...

I haven't really read your review as I plan to read this very soon. I just hope that I'm able to give it 5 stars too :-)

Avid Reader said...

I've been wanting to read this one! It sounds wonderful.

avidreader24 [at] gmail [dot] com

Darlene said...

Well if it left you gobsmacked then I must read my copy. Great review Sandy. No need to enter me.

LisaMM said...

Gobsmacked, now THAT is high praise!! Thank you so much for being a part of the tour. Your review is terrific. I just wanted to mention that the book is being released in paperback TODAY!

Anna & Serena said...

I've got your review listed on the book reviews page at the War blog. A snippet from your review will post on Dec. 22. Thanks for participating.

Iliana said...

Wonderful review Sandy! Definitely throw my name in the hat.

Melody said...

Great review, Sandy! Now I can't wait to read my copy!!

Julie P. said...

Gobsmacked! That's saying a lot! Can't wait to read it.

Jenners said...

Wow ... way to end the year with a bang. And I would have NEVER guessed what this book was about based on the cover. I trust you so I'm sure I'll have to read this at some point.

heatherlo said...

Like you, I'd seen this book around but didn't think much of it ... until your review, that is! Now I'm definitely interested. I'd love to win a copy.

book.addict29@gmail.com

Elisabeth said...

I did not think this was for me when I started reading your review, by the end I had decided that this was a book I should read. I am in. Thanks for opening my eyes to a book I would have passed over.

ladybook21@yahoo.com

Carrie K. said...

No need to enter me - just had to say "told ya so!" LOL :)

Alyce said...

No need to enter me since I've read it already. It was one of my favorite reads of the year too.

joan mckniff said...

I served in Viet Nam w Red Cross, 66-67, and was knocked out by this wonderful book. Retired, on a fixed income, I read library copy but would love to win a copy so I might dip into it again and again.

Nymeth said...

Excellent review, Sandy. I keep hearing wonderful things about this one.

Anna said...

No need to enter me. Just wanted to say great review, and I'm glad you loved it as much as I did. It definitely offered a unique perspective.

Melissa M said...

If it's one of your favorite reads this year, I must read it! I'd love to win a copy, but if I don't, this may be where I spend some of my Christmas book money.

Kathleen said...

How ironic that one of your last reads of 2010 may turn out to be one of your favorites. Makes me wonder what treasures I have on my shelf at home just waiting patiently to be discovered.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

No need to enter my name - I've read it and loved it, too.

I didn't make the connection to Homer's lotus eaters until it was referred to in the novel ... guess it's time for me to re-read that classic, huh?

What you say about 'addiction to adrenaline' really struck me, too. Always reaching for higher/more and wanting to prove oneself better and up to more and more challenges. Soli really took a good look at what might motivate some people to keep reaching for an ever-bigger brass ring.

Man of la Books said...

No need to enter my name, I just wanted to commend you on a great review. I thought this book was also fantastic (and have a giveaway as well).

http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=988