Although I’ve included a bibliography of the books I read for research writing The Lotus Eaters, here is a more general list of books on Vietnam and the war. I’ve included some “musts” but also some more eclectic, lesser known works.
1) The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. If you want the single most important fictional book on the soldier’s experience in Vietnam, you will not do better than this book. Read it once and then read it again and again because it will reach you everything about Vietnam, the war, solders, writing, and “the human heart in conflict with itself.” It is filled with pain and compassion and unbearable beauty.
2) Going After Cacciato, In the Lake of the Woods, and If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, by Tim O’Brien. If you are hooked on O’Brien from the above, as you should be, then continue on with this crash course into the war. In his memoir, If I Die…, O’Brien explains his idea of story truth versus real truth: “Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.” Going After Cacciato is a complex novel about the human imagination in the face of the brutality of war. In the Lake of the Woods is a novel not overtly about the war, but rather it repercussions, its mysteries, the impossibility of there being one final truth to any story. There is an image of the main character pouring boiling water over houseplants that is as eerie and violent as any I’ve come across.
3) Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone. The war provides a perfect catalyst to the archetypal flawed, dark Stone character in this novel. It is about characters making the wrong decisions and events larger than themselves taking over. Stone is a master of mixing the personal and the political, and his prose is a thing of beauty.
4) Dispatches, by Michael Herr. This is a wonderful collection of articles written for Esquire by the journalist Herr. Besides his empathy for the soldier’s experience, his insight in to the counterculture, what distinguishes this collection from other accounts is his understanding for the paradoxical high that many of the journalists experienced during their time covering the war. This quote captures it perfectly: “Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.”
5) Requiem, by Horst Faas and Tim Page. This is a book of photography taken in Vietnam and Indochina by photographers who were killed in the conflict. Many of the pictures are the iconic ones we all know, others are little known, including ones from Vietnamese and Cambodian photographers. This was the book where I first discovered the picture of Dickey Chapelle. Amazing production values, a real piece of history.
6) The Sacred Willow, by Duong Van Mai Elliott. This is a compelling family saga of four generations of a Vietnamese family that brings out the complexity of how the Vietnamese felt about “the American war.” Avoids the political and focuses on the human.
7) Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, by Larry Berman. Although I knew from research that An was a Time correspondent, friend of almost every significant American journalist in Vietnam, and, after the war, was revealed to be a spy for the Communists, this book came out only a few years ago and was unavailable to me. I read it a few months ago and was fascinated by the previously unknown details.
8) Fire in the Lake, by Frances Fitzgerald. One of the most balanced, comprehensive studies on the war in that it explores the history of Vietnam, the culture, colonialism, and then American involvement. Essential reading.
9) Sensing the Enemy and After Sorrow, by Lady Borton. These are memoirs by a remarkable woman, one of the few Americans to work both in South and North Vietnam during the war. Borton, a Quaker, worked in a refugee camp for the boat people and escorted the first journalists to the scene of the massacre at My Lai. A rare insight.
10) An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems, by Huynh Sanh Thong. Because there is no better way to understand a people than through their art.