Two Recommendations

Worthwhile reading, from the newsstand and the book store

1) Usually when I mention an item in a new issue of The Atlantic, I make sure to add "subscribe!" Half schtick, half serious - and the remaining half serious too. This month, I'll say for variety: check out the newsstand version of our May issue.

This issue is about twice as fat as normal because in addition to the "regular" contents it has our annual Fiction issue with several powerful short stories, plus an essay by Joyce Carol Oates and an interview with Paul Theroux. I won't go through the whole lineup but will just say that the three feature-length "well" pieces in the issue really deserve attention for their variety of narrative and reportorial strengths. Marc Ambinder's personal-and-policy account of what it might take to deal with America's obesity epidemic, David Freed's whodunnit about the very public persecution of an unlovable but innocent man, and Howard French's vivid and original analysis of what China's new form of non-gunboat colonialism will mean in Africa -- these are illustrations of what journalism can do. I am never objective about the Atlantic, but I can be more or less arm's-length about this issue because I don't have an article in it. Check it out.

2) I mentioned several weeks ago that when I met Karl Marlantes in graduate school in the early 1970s, he was talking about his recent service as a Marine in Vietnam and his intention to write about it some day. Through most of the intervening years, he has been working on his novel, Matterhorn.


It's a long book, which I have read obsessively this past week. It is truly a magnificent work.

As almost every review has mentioned, the book's first few pages are somewhat labored, introducing a cast of characters (who after first mention are last-name-only through the rest of the book) and doing organizational setup. They do not suggest the narrative velocity and emotional and moral richness of what comes after that. I predict that if you get twenty pages in -- to roughly the episode with the unfortunate Marine named Fisher and the leech -- you will want to keep on until the ending, 500-plus pages later.

This is certainly one of the most powerful and moving novels ever written about Vietnam, and its description of combat rivals anything I have read on the topic -- by Erich Maria Remarque, Norman Mailer, James Jones, James Webb, John Keegan, Paul Fussell, anyone. I've mentioned before that my personal test for the quality of fiction is whether I find myself remembering a book -- characters, scenes, choices -- months or years after I've put the book down. I expect to remember this one.

Matterhorn is in a strict sense apolitical but can be read as a complete indictment of the Vietnam War in concept and execution (the action concerns the taking, abandonment, and devastatingly bloody re-taking of a hill that doesn't matter to either side) -- and also as the most moving description of heroism and sacrifice by men at arms. It richly deserves the acclaim it is receiving.