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Archive for September, 2013

A Review of Ho Chi Minh: A Life

Posted by Scott Holstad on September 25, 2013

Ho Chi Minh: A LifeHo Chi Minh: A Life by William J. Duiker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always been fascinated by Ho Chi Minh, one of history’s most mysterious yet prominent figures. I’ve read what little there is on him over the years, and then finally came across this book, William Duiker’s Ho Chi Minh: A Life. What a thoroughly researched and detailed book! Duiker does a truly admirable job of piecing together information from archives and sources from all over the world to give us the best possible picture of Ho, and he does it in a reasonably objective way.

Ho Chi Minh was born on May 19th, 1890 with the given name, Nguyen Sinh Cung, to a Confucian scholar in the Nghe An province of Annam, part of French Indochina, a colonial territory. Duiker writes a great deal about the history of Vietnam, how it had been conquered and occupied for centuries (much of it by the Chinese) and how the 20th Century Indochinese resented their French occupiers for many legitimate, assorted reasons. As young Cung was about to enter adolescence, his father gave him a new name – something customarily done then – Nguyen Tat Thanh, meaning “he who will succeed.” Thanh learned Chinese and Confucian history. He also started being influenced by displaced nationalists who wanted to see an independent Vietnam. However, Thanh felt it important to first understand their oppressors, so he began studying French and the French culture at a Franco-Vietnamese preparatory school in Vinh. Thanh’s attitudes about the French were also no doubt influenced by his father, who despised the imperial government the French allowed to rule over the three sections of Indochina.

In 1907, Thanh enrolled in National Academy, the highest level Franco-Vietnamese school in Hue, the imperial capital. He learned French, Vietnamese, and Chinese, but he was considered somewhat of a country bumpkin by his peers. Still, Thanh’s patriotic instincts were stoked while at this school. Indeed, his first direct involvement in political action came during this period as a wave of unrest swept the countryside and there were many demonstrations. On May 9th, he was beaten and fired upon by French troops during a demonstration. Thanh was dismissed from school and left Annam for Cochin China (South Vietnam) where he taught school for a period before deciding to go to France to study, leaving on a liner where he worked for passage under the name, “Ba.”

In France, Thanh took up odd jobs and started attending labor union meetings and meetings of socialists and Marxists, who supported more freedoms for colonial territories. He started writing articles under pseudonyms and publishing them in numerous media. In 1918, Thanh drafted an eight point petition to the government demanding Annamite freedom. He signed his document, Nguyen Ai Quoc, or “Nguyen the Patriot,” a name he would carry forward with him for decades to come. Eventually, the French police and secret police started taking notice, and he went to New York and London to escape their notice for awhile, before returning to France. He became rather prolific there and the voice for the Vietnamese people, as well as others. In 1924, he left for Moscow, where Lenin had radicalized Russia, a newly Communist country with great goals of expanding communism to the third world, including Indochina.

One thing I’ve always been curious about regarding Ho is whether he was a patriot fighting for national independence or a communist fighting to spread communism. The author of this book addresses this issue at several points throughout the book. He writes, “There are valid reasons for the argument that Nguyen Ai Quoc was above all a patriot. In 1960 he himself conceded in [a] short article … that it was the desire for Vietnamese independence that had drawn him to Marxism in the first place.” Yet, “there is also persuasive evidence that the young Nguyen Ai Quoc viewed Marxism-Leninism as more than just a tool to drive out the French…. Quoc believed that the struggle against the forces of imperialism throughout Asia would culminate in a global revolution.” And there you go. He was both.

Whatever the case, Quoc stayed in Moscow a very long time, studying at the Stalin School and writing things like The Revolutionary Path, his first major effort to introduce Marxist-Leninist doctrine to his countrymen. He moved from Moscow to China next, where he established himself with a network of like-minded nationalist/communists who sought Vietnam’s independence. From there, he oversaw the battle for Vietnam’s independence on behalf of both Russia and China, playing both countries against each other brilliantly – something he’d do for the rest of his life.

Rumor had it he was married to a Chinese woman and had a daughter, but he had to leave them and flee to avoid arrest by the ever aggressive French, returning to Moscow. There he set up a system for patriotic countrymen to come study Marxist philosophies and to go home to spread their knowledge. In 1941, Quoc traveled back through China under the assumed name of Ho Chi Minh, the name that would stick with him for the rest of his life. (It meant “He Who Enlightens.”) During the World War Two years of Japanese occupation in Vietnam, Ho traveled back to Vietnam for the first time in decades, to head the Vietminh Front, along with future general, Vo Nguyen Giap and others. With China’s help, they carved out for themselves some territory in northern Vietnam and solicited help from both Russia and the US, of all countries.

After the war was over, Ho declared Vietnam an independent country, much to the delight of his countrymen who viewed him as a hero. The French had other plans, and with US backing, returned to re-colonize Indochina. Ho and the Vietminh went into hiding and started conducting guerrilla warfare, eventually demoralizing the French and gaining power, ultimately resulting in the military destruction of the French at Dien Bien Phu, and France’s essential surrender, resulting in a split Vietnam, where the northern part would be governed by Ho, and the southern by a corrupt president propped up by the US, one who would later be assassinated with America’s permission and knowledge.

One thing you have to understand is this – the Vietnamese wanted a free and independent unified Vietnam, even most of the southerners. Thus, the Viet Cong, who started making their appearance in 1961 with the north’s backing. Ho continued to seek a political solution, but Lyndon Johnson would have none of it and with the suspicious Gulf of Tonkin incident, he brought the US right into the war. Something that will forever be remembered as one of the most stupid things done by a US president. It was an unwinnable war. Ho said that the Vietnamese may lose 10 soldiers for every one American soldier, but that Vietnam would outlast America, and he was right.

Ho’s influence started to wane as he aged, on into the 1960s, but even as a figurehead, he still played a large role. Power had shifted to other Vietnamese leaders, such as Le Duan, but until Ho’s death on September 2nd, 1969, he was viewed as the legitimate leader of his people and a fighter for the oppressed the world over.

The book, aside from an epilogue, ends with Ho’s death and briefly describes the end of the war, so you won’t get much information about how the war ended or why, but this book goes a long way to demystifying a mythical man of immense power and stature, and for that, the author should be applauded. Perhaps I should end this review of this strongly recommended book by citing the final paragraph in the book, a book written by a man who worked at the US Embassy in Saigon back during the war:

“Ho Chi Minh, then, was … an ‘event-making man,’ a ‘child of crisis’ who combined in his own person two of the central forces in the history of modern Vietnam: the desire for national independence and the quest for social and economic justice. Because these forces transcended the borders of his own country, Ho was able to project his message to colonial peoples all over the world and speak to their demand for dignity and freedom from imperialist oppression. Whatever the final judgment on his legacy to this own people, he has taken his place in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes who have struggled mightily to give the pariahs of the world their true voice.”

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Birthday Thoughts

Posted by Scott Holstad on September 20, 2013

Yesterday was my birthday. (Yes, I’m a Virgo.) I tried not to be too depressed at getting older. My wife and mother worked to make it a good day, so that was nice. I did some work, made some calls, read a little bit, applied for a new job. My friend Marcy sent me an electric razor as a gift, so that was nice. My mom gave me a gasoline credit card, which was thoughtful. Gretchen went all out though. She got me a lovely Godiva chocolate bar with caramel, an iTunes gift card (which I’m using right now to download the new Nine Inch Nails album), a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, and my very much desired biography of Jeff Beck, my favorite guitarist. I can’t wait to read it! Mom took us out for dinner last night at a place on the lake, and then we had some ice cream cake, which was delicious. Ended the evening with a little football on TV. Not a bad day, even though I felt down throughout the day.

This year has had its ups and downs. I got married to the love of my life, while my father died unexpectedly at my house. We went on a great honeymoon, and our house was broken into and we were robbed. I picked up a nice project management contract job, only to have the contract terminated in three months. These are the highlights. I’ve read a lot of books, especially Philip K. Dick, and played a few PC games. We discovered Me-TV and have been watching great reruns of Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, MASH, The Odd Couple, and more. Very cool. My Pittsburgh Penguins had a great year, but failed in the playoffs and didn’t make it to the Stanley Cup. Here’s hoping for this year. My UT Vols have started this season 2-1 with one of the toughest schedules in the country, while my Steelers look like they’re going to have their worst year in decades. My Pirates are in the thick of a pennant race, though, and have had their first winning season in 21 years! Gretchen has had her own job highs and lows, but she likes what she’s doing now and there’s growth potential, so that’s good. She misses her sons, who live in Maryland. Mom misses Dad, as do we all, and she’s trying to sort through that. Meanwhile, this year is the first year I haven’t had a surgery since 2009 (knock on wood), so that’s good. My health is improving somewhat, although I still have pain in areas that I can’t seem to shake. I don’t know what the coming year holds for me. I might move, but that remains to be seen. I hope to land a new job at some point. I think Gretchen and I will be spending more time with Mom than we used to because she’s all alone now. Hopefully these will be good times. Thanks to all of my WordPress followers. I have no idea why you follow me, but I appreciate it. I hope to resume book reviews soon. I’m in the middle of several very large books. Cheers!

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A Review of VALIS

Posted by Scott Holstad on September 10, 2013

VALISVALIS by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

THIS ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION!!! THIS IS THEOLOGICAL CLAPTRAP DISGUISED AS SCIENCE FICTION AND IT SUCKS! This book is SO boring, I couldn’t get past page 65. Don’t get me wrong — I love Philip K. Dick, particularly his works from the 1950s and 60s, but the VALIS trilogy is just plain bad. I had wanted, cautiously, to read this book for awhile, merely due to its reputation, but having already read the third book in the trilogy, I didn’t have high hopes for it. So, I was (not) disappointed when I attempted to read it.

The book is utter crap. It actually should start later in the novel, where the protagonist, Horselover Fat, is locked up. Horselover Fat is also Philip K. Dick in the novel, and he’s going quite mad. He narrates the story as himself and as Horselover Fat, and they’re often interchangeable and you never really quite get what’s going on to whom. There’s a lot of Dick’s 1970s drug use, but other than that, I missed his usual brilliantly crafted future worlds of androids, lasers, robots, new slang, new inventions, new drugs, new powers, and his alternate worlds we so often see.

Horselover/Philip believes he has had an encounter with God or some kind of god-like entity, which also happens to have supposedly happened to the author in real life. VALIS stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, which is the name that Horselover/Philip gives to the god-like thing he experienced. He and his few friends gather to exchange lies and ideas on theological conspiracies and other such garbage and nothing happens in this novel. I wrote in the review of my last Dick book, the “straight” lit novel Voices From the Street, that I’m just not going to give books the kind of chances I once did, like reading 215 pages of that novel before giving up in disgust. I’ll still love Dick’s work, but I’m sticking with his non-theological, pure sci fi stuff from here on out. I can’t recommend this book to anyone, even hardcore Dick fans. And if you’re just starting to read Philip K. Dick, DON’T begin with this book because you’ll lose any interest in reading his finer works. I hated this book. One star.
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A Review of Voices From the Street

Posted by Scott Holstad on September 6, 2013

Voices From the StreetVoices From the Street by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For my review of Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, one of Dick’s mainstream novels, I wrote “I feel like a total traitor, because I got through the first six chapters — to page 94 — and finally gave up. Philip K. Dick is one of my two favorite writers, the other being Charles Bukowski. I’ve ALWAYS loved his books, even if some are imperfect. This one, though, was simply dull.

It’s a well known fact that Dick hated being considered a sci fi hack and wanted to be considered a mainstream novelist.”

Well, Voices From the Street is another mainstream novel of his that was never published during his lifetime, indeed, not until a few years ago. And I tried, I really did, but I can’t finish it. I just can’t. I got to page 216 out of a little over 300 and I can’t make the final 85 pages. I’m too disgusted. There’s not ONE likeable character in this novel! Not one! It made it a grueling task to read. How can you identify with characters if they’re all so crappy?

As another reviewer pointed out, “anyone [who’s] read Dr. Bloodmoney or Humpty Dumpty in Oakland will instantly have recognized blatant similarities: a boss named Jim Fergusson and an everyday salesman/repairman named Stuart and in all three books the characters Jim and Stuart play similar roles; guilty boss and disgruntled employee.” Stuart is the main protagonist, and he’s got a good job selling TVs, moving up to management, a pretty, young wife and a baby. It’s 1950s America and he’s living the dream. But he’s unsatisfied and doesn’t know why. His boss, Jim, is a crabby, grumpy a**hole who mistreats just about everybody. Stuart’s sister is married to a massive a**hole to runs roughshod over everyone around him.

Stuart begins to become fixated on a religious movement run by a large black man named Theodore Beckeim, who has persuasive powers and believes the world is going to end sometime soon. And what happens in this novel? Not too much. Stuart goes to a health food store. Stuart gets into verbal tiffs. Stuart goes to San Francisco with an unlikeable woman named Marsha to meet Beckeim, which proves to be anticlimactic. Jim and Stuart argue. It’s BORING. No wonder Dick never got it published! Stick to your early sci fi, Mr. Dick, because that stuff is brilliant. This is horrible!

Another thing about this novel is its overt racism. I’m convinced Dick was a closet racist, although I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere. In my review of Flow My Tears, I wrote the following:

“I’m starting to notice a disturbing theme in Dick’s books: he doesn’t seem to hold black people in high regard. In this novel, black people are being sterilized out of existence and Jason seems to be glad of it. Dick also treats blacks oddly in The Crack in Space and there are pissed off, drugged out black people in Counter-Clock World. Evidently, Watts serves as Dick’s place of ultimate black fear and evil.”

I wrote those words in my review of Martian Time-Slip, a novel where we meet Martian “niggers.” Yep. In this novel, what do we see? “Chink”, “nigger”, and “kike” all appear throughout the novel, and the Golds, a Jewish couple, are particularly represented in repulsive terms. Frankly, the book is antisemitic. I don’t know if this represents Dick’s own thoughts or just were part of the times, but it’s pretty repulsive and I could do without reading about “niggers” and the like in Dick’s books.

In other reviews, I read the last part of the book picks up as Stuart sinks into madness. However, I just can’t bring myself to read it. I just can’t do it. And I’ve started VALIS already and already I’m bored. I tell ya, I’m going to stop reading lengthy portions of books hoping for something interesting to happen. I’m going to give a book something like 30 or 40 pages and if it hasn’t hooked me by then, I’m dumping it. I’m sick of reading utter crap just to get through a book. Fortunately, there are still many Philip K. Dick books I have yet to read, many of them allegedly good, so I’ll look forward to reading those. This book is not recommended and I’m being kind in giving it two stars.

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A Review of The Mourning Handbook

Posted by Scott Holstad on September 6, 2013

The Mourning Handbook: The Most Comprehensive Resource Offering Practical and Compassionate Advice on Coping with All Aspects of Death and DyingThe Mourning Handbook: The Most Comprehensive Resource Offering Practical and Compassionate Advice on Coping with All Aspects of Death and Dying by Helen Fitzgerald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got this book a couple of weeks ago because my father just died a few weeks ago. I got several grief recovery books and I think this one was the best of the bunch. It’s pretty comprehensive and easy to read, and it’s divided up into chunks so that you can go to a section that deals with your particular issues at the moment. It doesn’t have to be read cover to cover (although I did that). Among some of the helpful issues it addresses is denial (“Don’t try to fool yourself into thinking that you can avoid the process of grief.”), anger (“You may be angry at yourself for what you may have said or not said, or for not responding calmly or quickly enough, or for being healthy and alive.” It then gives tips on dealing with anger.), and more. One section that was helpful for me was the death of a parent when you’re an adult. For many people, this signifies the loss of your childhood, the loss of unconditional love, the loss of a certain sense of security, the loss of a friend as well as a parent, the loss of financial support, and more. Although there’s not a lot of coping strategies the author provides here (which I think is a weakness of the book), it’s good to see some issues I’m facing are the same ones faced by others who lose parents. That helps. The book further goes on to advise people not to make major decisions for quite awhile, which is something I’ve seen repeated elsewhere. It gives many reasons not to do so and they make sense. Another helpful section for me was on witnessing a death, particularly if it’s a sudden or violent death (such as my father’s). It was highly traumatizing, and the book advises seeking the help of a professional, but doesn’t give too many other strategies, a continued weakness of the book.

Toward the end of the book, there’s a section titled “You Know You Are Getting Better When…” and it provides a list of things you can do or will do which indicate improvement in your life. These include looking forward to holidays, reviewing both pleasant and unpleasant memories, driving by yourself without crying, when you no longer feel tired all the time, when you can concentrate on a book or favorite television program, etc. In reading this list, I’ve come to the conclusion that while I’m still grieving, I am improving, so that’s good.

I’m going to contrast this book to one I didn’t really find too helpful — The Grief Recovery Handbook by James and Friedman. It’s a pretty harsh book to read, often telling the reader that what one hears or feels is distorted, such as guilt, etc. There were some helpful things, but overall it had an unsympathetic tone which didn’t resonate with me. The Mourning Handbook had a much more nurturing feel to it and I appreciated that.

It’s a shame that anybody has to read such books at all, but I guess it’s a process of life most of us have to deal with at some point, so I’m glad I discovered this book. I’d recommend this book for anyone who’s experienced a death by a family member or even a friend. It’s a good resource and I’m glad I read it.

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Some Thoughts

Posted by Scott Holstad on September 5, 2013

I woke up in tears this morning. I woke up thinking about the many times my dad came to see my basketball games in school, as well as my football and baseball games. How many times we played catch in the backyard. How that was never going to be a possibility again. It’s been five weeks since his death and I still feel like I’m in a state of shock.

Then I started thinking about what a great packer and mover he was. He was the best. I’ve moved some 27 times, including four cross country moves. He would fly out to L.A. to help me pack up, load the moving truck, and drive it back east. Hell, he packed up my townhouse when I got divorced a few years ago and took care of that move since I was in the hospital. He was relentless. He could pack like no other. And now we’re kicking around the idea of at some point in the future moving up to Knoxville so Mom could rejoin her many friends and church there, and he won’t be around to take care of things. I’ll have to do it. I’m pretty confident I can do it — he taught me well — but it’s unsettling to think of moving without Dad around.

I met with my therapist this morning. And I just finished a book on mourning. I wonder how long I’ll mourn. Some people apparently do for years. I don’t want to be one of those people. I don’t want to wake up in tears seven months from now thinking about Dad. There’s a grief recovery class starting in October near me that I’ve been thinking about registering for, but I don’t know how helpful it will be. Mom started going to one this week, and she was surprised at just how helpful that first meeting was, so maybe I’ll give it shot. I’d like to think that I’d be relatively okay by October though. I don’t know how long this process is or will take. It’s frustrating.

I’m through making trips to Knoxville with Mom on business. It’s been going on every week, including several times a week, ever since Dad died. Now we just have to figure out a way to sell his fishing boat, and Mom will have to make one more Knoxville trip in a month or so and that’s it. Mom’s going to wait awhile on getting rid of Dad’s clothes, etc., although she might donate his books to a library.

Yesterday I mowed the back yard and the back terrace. That’s what Dad was doing when he died. It was kind of creepy. I haven’t been able to mow because of all the rain, although two weeks ago I paid a lawn service to mow the yard. I ingested a lot of dust, grass, and bugs and wondered about what Dad ingested when he was mowing before he stopped to come to our back patio for a glass of water before collapsing. I hope his brain shut down quickly like my doctor said it probably did, because it seemed to me like he was suffering for a good 20+ minutes there on my patio. My doctor said it was the body’s involuntary reflexes — that he had probably already died. I don’t know. I can’t get it out of my head. And I can’t get what he looked like at the hospital after he was declared dead out of my head. He was dark yellow. And cold. He looked frightening. And he had been alive just an hour before. It’s freaky to think about.

I deleted the last six pictures I had of Dad. Two were taken at the hospital after he died and four were taken at the funeral home when he was in a casket, all done up for Mom and me before his cremation. I just couldn’t look at them. They were so morbid. My therapist said that was a good break and will allow me to remember him as I want to and should — as a vibrant, loving father and husband. My last picture I then have of him is at my wedding reception in April. He was happy that day. That’s how I want to remember him.

I guess that’s all for now. I was going to mow the front and side yards today, but the grass really isn’t that long, so I think I’ll wait until tomorrow. I have a number of things I need to do anyway. Sorry if this blog post seems morbid. I have a lot on my mind.

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