Updates from Book World

A drought, an unwelcome surprise, and other bookish updates.

The book drought is over

Photo: Girla Obscura

I’ve been having trouble concentrating on reading since, oh, November 9th.  Anyone else have that problem? Happily, I’ve recently started reading – and listening to – books again.

The most stunning read was a nonfiction book called Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015.  Continue reading

Update from Book World

My novel came out a little more than a year ago, and it’s still having adventures. Here are a few of them.

Authors’ Roundtable at Temple Sinai

Sinai book logo
Every year, the Women of Reform Judaism of Temple Sinai in Washington, DC hold an authors’ roundtable, which brings together some 200 book lovers for a panel discussion and then an opportunity to talk with individual authors over lunch. This year I was lucky enough to be part of the event, which included:

The discussion was expertly moderated by Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of DC’s preeminent independent bookstore, Politics and Prose. Muscatine had a long career as a journalist, and was a speechwriter and top advisor to Hillary Clinton from her years as First Lady through the 2008 election through her time as Secretary of State. Those of us on the book panel felt we could have had an entire discussion solely about Muscatine’s experiences.

There’s nothing better than talking about books and writing with people who love both. If you’re in the DC area, I suggest you check out next year’s roundtable at Temple Sinai. I’ll be there – in the audience.

Book groups!

Books that Bind book group

Books that Bind book group

I’ve been having a wonderful time meeting with book groups as they discuss Her Own Vietnam. It’s fascinating to hear readers’ responses, perspectives and insights about the novel.

Being with these book groups has reinforced something I’ve always known but can still find difficult to grasp: your novel is not a finished product. It is simply the raw material that each reader will use to create her own experience. And her experience can be something you intended, or something you never imagined, or even something you wish you’d thought of. In that way, each reader turns your book into her own.

Letters from readers

Photo: Zach Pierce mu-43dotcom

Photo: Zach Pierce mu-43dotcom

Every now and then a reader will take the time to send me a personal note about their experience with Her Own Vietnam. This one is from a man who was in one of the book groups I visited. He is a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam. Everyone else in his class also deployed to Vietnam, many of them for multiple tours. Not all of them came home.

Here is his letter.

“I wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading your book and even more enjoyed the opportunity to meet you in person and be a part of the [book group] discussion. I have read the book twice and have very much appreciated it as a thoughtful and compelling description of a piece of the world that my wife and I and others affected in one way or another by the war in Vietnam experienced in the late 60s and early 70s. Those experiences were very different depending on the specific time and role, but they left a mark on those who passed through them. We were young then but grew up quickly.

“I was never in an evac hospital and my friends who were have only fragmentary recollections of their time there, but those women and men who lived that experience for a year surely had experiences that haunted them ever after that. It’s a story that has not gotten much public discussion and your book captured well what they must have felt and experienced.

“So thanks very much. There is always some strain in revisiting those times but they are always there and I find that in one way or another I revisit them several times a week – not now as traumatic memories but as experiences that color the way I look at the world.”

Haunting Legacy

Deborah Kalb is an accomplished journalist and the co-author of the influential nonfiction book Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama. Her co-author was none other than her father, Bernard Kalb, who covered the Vietnam War.

So I was thrilled when Deborah interviewed me for her book blog.

She reached out to me because I’m participating in the annual Temple Sinai Authors’ Roundtable on February 27th, along with three wonderful writers:

  • Michelle Brafman, Washing the Dead
  • Maureen Corrigan, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures
  • Sarah Wildman, Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind

The panel discussion will be moderated by Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of DC’s venerable independent bookstore Politics and Prose.

So yes, it’s going to be book-lovers’ heaven here in Washington, DC next Saturday. If you’re in the area, please come join us.

Sinai book logo

The real thing

Photo: Chris Banigan

Photo: Chris Banigan

When you write a novel about a nurse who served in Vietnam – based entirely on research and imagination – it’s a thrill to receive a letter from a real Vietnam veteran nurse telling you what she thought about the book. I received such a letter last week. 

I don’t know the nurse, or even her name. She sent the letter to a friend, who sent it to another friend, who forwarded it to another friend, who sent it to me. (Interestingly, all of the women in this friend chain are named Susan.) I’m sharing the letter with the writer’s permission.

Oh, and that exhausted nurse in the photo? That’s not the letter writer. (At least, not as far as I know!) The photo was taken by the late Capt. Chris Banigan, during one of her two tours of Vietnam. (You can see more of her photos here.)

Enjoy the letter.

Her Own Vietnam] brought back many memories. My experience was better than many nurses simply because I was a newlywed who followed her husband, and the armies were standing down. I was opposed to the war before I joined the Army and participated in the 1969 anti-war rally in DC. (See Forrest Gump.) However, I always supported the troops.

I remember the [draft] lottery and flying over [to Vietnam] in summer greens and pumps on a commercial flight. You know you’re going into a combat zone when they make sure your dental records are updated to ID you in case of death, and you travel to your base in an armed convoy.

My husband and I were stationed together. He worked in a drug treatment center while I was in the medical wing of the 24th Evacuation Hospital [in Long Binh]. I truly have mostly good memories about my experiences: the soldiers from the bush who loved seeing “round-eyed” girls, our colleagues from all over the country, the general who allowed a best friend to stay with his dying buddy. Even Bob Hope came.

We did, however, have an armed guard at our (air-conditioned) barracks – not to defend against the Viet Cong but to keep the drunk GIs out. I was only accosted once.

We worked 12 hour shifts 6 days a week, and I was especially tired as I got pregnant (oops) the night I arrived. I, too, felt I could keep my brother out of Vietnam by being there.  I met a private in personnel who had served several tours just to keep her brothers safe.

I was found out during routine drug screening (I think they did pregnancy tests on all the women) and med-evaced out of the country and forced to leave the Army. There were several of us pregnant women on the plane (where one of the Air Force nurses was wearing a maternity uniform!) but the vast majority of the patients were drug addicts. Quite different from the protagonist’s experience, and I certainly experienced no PTSD.

The absolute hardest thing was to leave my husband in a combat zone. I was afraid one of us would die and the baby would be the only remembrance for the survivor. Luckily, he came home six weeks early in time for her birth.

Like the author, I was totally opposed to the Iraq war. It’s easy to support something in which you make no sacrifice. It all seemed like more useless death and maiming.

At any rate, thank you so much for the book. It was a good read, and I felt drawn back to my five months in country.

Update from book world

I had a fantastic experience on July 7th, reading from Her Own Vietnam for a lively crowd at Busboys and Poets restaurant in Washington, DC. The book talk was hosted by DC’s premier independent bookstore, Politics & Prose, which runs a jewel of a bookstore inside Busboys.

Here are a few of my favorite photos from the event.

Reading from Her Own Vietnam at Busboys and Poets on July 7th, 2015.

Reading from Her Own Vietnam at Busboys and Poets on July 7th, 2015. (Photo: Kate Patterson)

The crowd was engaged, and the Q&A was great. (Photo: Kate Patterson)

The crowd was engaged, and the Q&A discussion was fascinating. (Photo: Kate Patterson)

Stylish stack of Her Own Vietnam on the front counter. (Photo: Janet Coleman)

Stylish stack of Her Own Vietnam on the front counter. (Photo: Janet Coleman)

As a writer, you spend most of your time alone behind a computer. It was a delight to talk about my book with a room full of interested – and interesting – people.