This blog is now retired. My new site is at: Predictably Irrational.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Book Review: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

I have had this on my list of books to read for awhile. I am not sure why. Well, I think I know. It was on one of the best of the year lists. I am sure that's how I got this one under my nose.

Because as I started reading it, I realized, it was about Vietnam.

I'm not a fan of war stories. Sure, I watched the amazing Band of Brothers and was BLOWN AWAY by the series (one of the best I've ever seen), but only with a little twist of the arm from Tim wanting to see this series.

But what kept me tied to this book, besides ego and not feeling defeated by starting a book then stopping, was that it debuts in the Philippines. And as some of you may or may not know, I lived a life in the Philippines (PI).

What I enjoyed most was the talk of the culture of the PI. The way kids approached the Americans and some, calling them "Pa-DER" (father). Talk of the Huks, which were a Communist military group in the PI, which I didn't really know much about but heard the name. And the biggest treat was reading about the Aswangs.

I grew up with family that believe in Aswangs. An aswang, based on my upbringing, are creatures: half vampire, half human, that hunt after people...especially children and pregnant women...for their blood. And even scarier for a child to learn is that the aswang can transform itself into any creature. But, the way one could tell something was not of a real being, but of an aswang, is that they end up being larger than norm.

One story told to me was that an aunt of mine (keep in mind, everyone is an aunt or uncle, whether they were blood relatives or not) was pregnant. She was sitting in her house, conversing with other family members, when an unusually large, strange dog approached her and started licking her belly. No one was fooled a chased the imposter out of the place, to which it promptly transformed into the human-vampire and flew away.

Imagine being an only child and living in an environment where this is believed. So anytime I heard sounds on the roof -- because aswangs could land on the roof of your house and roll their tongues down to suck on you -- I feared for my life.

One can tell if they are approaching by certain sounds. I recall an incident when this happened at my house and I was rushed indoors. I don't recall what I heard, if anything. I just recall the terror in my Auntie's eyes.

And garlic hung from my window. Always.

So to read about this creature in this book was exciting. And he spoke of the aswang as I believed it to be...and as the people of the PI believed it.

And since the book partly dealt with Psychological Operations during the Vietnam war, one of the ruses used was to kill someone and make it appear that an aswang was responsible. In the book, Johnson writes that this instilled more fear in the people than a true enemy of the war. How very interesting.

But it became very clear to me that it was difficult for me to keep up with the pace of the book. And by pace I mean subject matter. One of the most important pieces of this novel -- a paper written by "The Colonel" -- became significant as to why the colonel ended up ruining his career and later, being possibly murdered.

By the time I came to realize the importance of the paper, I was 3/4ths into the book with no idea where to restart and discover why it was so significant.

And then the number of characters became convoluted and except for a few, I became confused as to who was who. And why was I reading about some of these characters in such depth when they didn't seem to interact with one another? I was reading two accounts of war...well, more because I also was introduced to a double-agent from the VietCong and his friend Hao, who ended up being the TRUE double-agent. I finally figured that out. Well, no I didn't. It was described and I had no clue.

It wasn't awful and I think if one is into war accounts, this one is really good. It just didn't flow well and I ended up more confused than suspensed. And for another big book - 614 pages - I didn't want to spend _that_ much time reading something that muddled in my head.

1 comment:

  1. Your description of the aswangs reminded me to remind you about the new HBO vampire series, True Blood (based on books by Charlaine Harris). It starts on Sunday. Sounds like the book had some interesting stuff, especially for you with the PI cultural references. Doesn't sound like my kind of book otherwise (like you, not a fan of war stories, and I'm guessing our book club isn't going to pick a war book anytime soon). I still enjoyed reading your review :)