Thursday, November 18, 2010

November's books

#17, Aftermath by Frederick Downs and #18, Inferno by Dante Aligheri

Well, an interesting combination.

Aftermath by Frederick Downs was one of the last books I worked on in my old life as a publicity specialist/book publishing, long, long ago. Fred was an Indiana farm boy who enlisted for Vietnam at 18, went to war, and returned some time later with medals (lots of medals! including the Silver Star) and multiple scars/wounds from stepping on a land mine. When I met him, he was 38 or 40 and one of the most dynamic, interesting, charismatic people I have ever had the privilege to meet. The Killing Zone is the first part of the story, and takes him up to the moment where he steps on the landmine; Aftermath is the "after" part, where he wakes in the hospital, weans himself off pain meds, and begins a slow recovery of mind and body. He then returns home at the height of the protests about Vietnam, to be greeted cruelly at the airport with shouts of "Baby Killer," etc.

Reading this book and meeting Fred was a mind-blowing experience. I was, of course, anti-war (still am!) and grew up in a place where that was taken for granted. I remember Huntley and Brinkley and the nightly count of dead on the TV screen. I lived in a house where my parents slowly came to change their minds about Vietnam, Nixon, and "the truth," which they never hid from us kids. But Fred came from a different tradition and mindset: he felt (and still feels, I am certain) that is it an honor and a duty to serve your country--two words that have little meaning any more, to too many who use them--and has never been ashamed of his service. He was also clear: at 18 with little education in central Indiana, the Army offered him something he wouldn't otherwise get, an education and a future.

Fred lost an arm, and suffered massive injuries. And when I met him he drove fast cars, boats, and acted as an extra in films. Now he is the Chief Procurement Officer and Clinical Logistics Officer for the VHA. In our conversations, he never pushed a pro- or anti-war agenda, only a pro-veteran one, simply by being himself. So many of us think we know what should or should not happen, given war. I believe we should not have gone into Iraq, and I deplore the senseless deaths and crippling of Americans and Iraquis. That crippling is not only physical but emotional and mental, and those soldiers will suffer for a long time. So will their families. And for what?  But that is vastly different than being on the ground, in the zone, and making decisions, surviving and keeping your comrades alive. That is completely different than politics, strategy, long-term goals, and global economics: that is what Fred writes about.

Before you talk to a vet about what happened, read this. When I was in grad school, a friend who had been in Vietnam introduced me to a lot of vets. I was glad I had met Fred and read his books before she did.

I still cannot believe that I never read this in college or graduate school. And I was took courses in Italian and Comparative Literature, as well as majoring in English as an undergrad. I found the series of translations by Robert and Jean Hollander, and never looked back (on Paradiso, now). The series offers a side-by-side translation, with Dante's original Italian on the left and the Hollanders' English on the right; not only am I loving the series but reawakening my Italian skills, which had sorely lapsed.

Inferno is beautiful: Dante's storytelling skills are fantastic and the Italian is simply gorgeous. Dante wrote this as Italian was emerging as a written langauge (in 1300 c.e.), and this is a model for poetry and Italian and narrative all in one. Simply amazing!

The Hollanders are a formidable team, but the end result is accessible and moves quickly. The images evoked of the narrator's stroll down into Hell are powerful. Dante draws on Biblical and Christian ideas, but also on classical literature and his own sense of justice.

Christian or not, believer or not, one hould read Dante's epic poems for the beauty of the work and the imagination of a brilliant mind. And of course because Dante, like all good artists, challenges authority and the reader's expectations, forcing one to grow and change. Like all good books.

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