Uncle Bardie’s Creator Spotlight: Ken Burns & The Vietnam War

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Creator is Ken Burns and his magnificent 10-part documentary series, “The Vietnam War” (2017):

The Vietnam War

By Geoffrey C. Ward & Ken Burns 637 Pages Publisher: Knopf September 5, 2017

It seems to be ancient history now. But it’s only forty-four years since the fall of Saigan when the last Americans left. Ken Burns in his ten-part documentary and his book with Geoffrey Ward have parted the curtain that divides then and now. And America left behind a country and a war that costs the lives of over fifty-eight thousand Americans and three million Vietnamese. And countless others who were injured and crippled.

Unlike his other series, this is a series about a disaster. And Ken Burns reveals just how much of a disaster. A disaster that lasted for twenty years from 1955 – 1975. Why didn’t the United States just have the good sense to get the hell out?

First of all, it was over dominoes. President Eisenhower believed that if Vietnam fell to the communists of North Vietnam, it would be the first of a series of Southeast Asian countries–Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, maybe even India–to fall to communism like dominoes.

Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon knew that it was a no-win proposition. So why didn’t they just get out? Because they didn’t want to be the first Presidents to be straddled with losing a war. And the generals were like the generals of World War I. They didn’t have a strategy to win.

Without a strategy to win, their mantra became “More. More. More.” Give us more troops. More toys. More time. We’ve got this devil under control. Till we had a half million troops in Vietnam and had spent billions, almost bankrupting the country. And the American people said, “Enough is enough.”

If the American strategy was “More,” the South Vietnamese strategy was “leave us the hell alone.” Just give us the support we need to win what we see as a Civil War. For the North Vietnamese, it was a war of national liberation. They had kicked out the French. And they were intent on getting the “Yankees” to go home. Their strategy to accomplish this was “Adapt. Adapt. Adapt.”

Ken Burns begins his story with Ho Chi Minh. In 1919, before he was a communist, he went to the Paris Peace Conference, asking that Vietnam be independent. Mostly his request was ignored. Only the French commented and their comment was “No.”

From then on, he gives us a narrative filled with primary sources and interviews from all sides. From American diplomats and decision makers. From Americans who served in Vietnam. From the journalists who covered the War. From the anit-war protesters. From the South Vietnamese who lived and fought it. And from the North Vietnamese. And like Ken Burns’ document series of “The Civil War”, the viewer–and the reader—get a perspective of the War we may never have had if Burns had not tackled it.

I had not seen the series when it first appeared on PBS. I wasn’t ready to grasp the confusion, the horror, the divisions of the War. Recently I’ve been working on a Sixties project for work, and I thought it was time I made the effort.

In the past, I have only watched the Burns’s series. This time I thought it might be a good exercise to read the book while I watched the series. I am glad I did. Much of the book was the same as the documentary. But there were times when the documentary presented things that weren’t in the book and vice versa for the series.

For instance, the Tet Offensive was covered in depth in the documentary. But the narrative of the Offensive in the book made much more of an impact.

So I highly recommend that this exercise be tried. Not only for the Vietnam War, but also for other Burns series.

It was a process that took me a month. At the end of the whole process, I walked away from the War with four feelings. The first was I wanted to know more. The second was a feeling of tremendous sadness. A third, the impact of the Wall in Washington, DC, not only on the veterans and their families. But also on the anti-war protesters.

One of the lessons that came out of the series, for me, was the veterans from both sides who had forgiven their enemies. It made me realize that there is only one way forward. it is not hate that will save us all. It is friendship and forgiveness.

Near 500 words: The Eye of the Needle


For a thriller to be successful, it must have three things: great writing, great characters and high stakes. Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle delivers on all three.

In his Ten Rules for Writing, Elmore Leonard’s number one no-no is “Never open a book with weather.” Yet that is exactly what Ken Follett does with his spy thriller.

In paragraphs that Hemingway would have been proud of, Follett opens with some really cold weather.

“It was the coldest winter for forty-five years. Villages in the English countryside were cut off by the snow and the Thames froze over. One day in January the Glasgow-London train arrived at Euston twenty-four hours late. The snow and the blackout combined to make motoring perilous; road accidents doubled, and people told jokes about how it was more risky to drive an Austin Seven along Piccadilly at night than to take a tank across the Siegfried Line.

“Then, when spring came, it was glorious. Barrage balloons floated majestically in bright blue skies, and soldiers on leave flirted with girls in sleeveless dresses on the streets of London.

“The city did not much look like the capital of a nation at war. There were signs, of course; and Henry Faber, cycling from Waterloo Station toward Highgate, noted them…”

With those paragraphs that remind the reader of the opening paragraphs in A Farewell to Arms, Follett introduces the reader to Henry Faber. Henry is a German spy, living in England at the start of World War II. He is known by the alias “Die Nadel”, The Needle. From his vantage point, he counts troop movements and other items and transmits them back to Berlin. And Die Nadel is good at his job. Very good.

Professor Percival Godliman is a medievalist. And it is going to take more than a war to get the good professor away from his Middle Ages. Though his uncle is trying to pull him away from his solitary studies and recruit him to help catch spies. Then Percival finds himself in an air raid shelter, huddling with others. He realizes he misses the comradery of being involved in a great cause. So he joins up to become the spy catcher to take Die Nadel down.

Lucy and David Rose are newly weds, heading off for their one-night honeymoon. David is a pilot for the RAF. Then their car crashes into a truck. Rose is fine but David can never walk again. So they retreat to Storm Island off the coast of Scotland. There they can hide away from the world and the war with Jo, their son.

Four years pass with Die Nadle on the run, collecting information for Hitler. Finally he comes upon some information that could change the direction of the war. With Godliman and his people on his tail, Faber and his information must reach a submarine that will take him back to Germany. He steals a boat and runs into a storm and ends up on Storm Island.

Dropping half dead at her doorstep on Storm Island, he finds Rose irresistible. So he lets down his guard. Big mistake. Very big mistake. It will be this housewife who faces down the greatest German spy of the war. The fate of civilization depends on it. And at the end of the novel, we discover an afterward that is quite logical, yet surprising. And not included in the movie.

Though I had seen the movie several times and enjoyed it immensely, the novel went deeper and gave me a fuller picture of how essential it was to catch Faber. I give the novel, and Ken Follett, a big thumbs up.

Not your same old dystopia

the The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood.
320 pages. Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition (March 16, 1998)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel. A good definition of dystopian is a utopia that backfires, thanks to humanity’s ability to screw up any dream. In other words, the more that a group of human beings try to create the perfect society the more they create an imperfect society.

Atwood’s novel is not the first nor will it be the last dystopia. Before her novel, there was 1984Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange. Recently we’ve been given updated reports from the Continent of Dystopia in the form of The Hunger Games and Divergent. I’d say that, if you are looking for a good dystopian novel, Atwood gives us about the best of what can be done with the genre.

And since the novel was published, there have been a movie and a tv series based on the book. I’d advise reading the book before seeing either because there’s so much to be missed that appears as subtext in the novel.

Labels can keep a reader away from a novel that should have a wider audience. And this is true of Atwood’s book. Yes, it can be said that the novel is feminist. Yes, it can be said that it is an attack on the patriarchal system. And yes, it can be said that it is an expose’ of certain fundamentalist religions. The problem is that, when we label a novel these things, we limit the audience for its story.

Offred is not the protagonist’s real name. She was given that name by the theocracy. We never discover her real name. Once upon a time, she lived with her husband, Luke, and her young daughter. Then the United States was overthrown by a theocracy. When the family tried to escape the new order, they were caught. Offred never discovers what happened to Luke or her daughter.

In the society this new theocracy has created, most women cannot have children. Those who have the potential to give birth are set aside as handmaidens (or concubines) for the upper classes. Offred is one of these women.

First she was taken to a re-education school, then she was placed in the Commander’s home. During her most fertile period, the Commander has ritualized sex with her to produce a child.

Atwood has used Orwellian elements in the society. The Eyes are reminders of Big Brother. The taboo against reading and words like grace and freedom are forbidden.

I was struck by how much the society paralleled certain societies these days with their religious police searching for any infraction of the rules. The society of Handmaid’s Tale has ritualized all relationships, using the rituals to prevent relationships. And infractions there are.

It seems that everyone at every level is bending or breaking the rules. The Commander breaks them by having private meetings with Offred and playing Scrabble with her. The Commander’s wife breaks the rules by offering to set Offred up with a sex partner who will make her pregnant because Big C is not up to the task.

It seemed to me that one of the major themes, if not the major theme, of the novel was the loss of intimacy. Women are not allowed to talk to each other, to create friendships. And men are locked into their roles as Commanders, Angels and Guardians. No touching allowed.

With the help of the Commander’s wife, Offred ends up having an affair with Nick, the chauffeur. If they are caught, they will both be punished. Appearing close to the end of the novel, she visits Nick. These lines gave me a sense of this lack of intimacy:

With the Commander, I close my eyes, even when I am only kissing him good-night. I do not want to see him up close. But now, here, each time, I keep my eyes open. I would like a light on somewhere, a candle perhaps…

The people in the society infringe on the rules because they are longing for intimacy, the intimacy of love and the intimacy of friendship. Maybe the loss of intimacy is the real reason behind the society’s sterility.

Atwood’s novel continues to be relevant. These days it is not some religious police that intervenes to prevent intimacy. It is technology. In this sense, Atwood has seen into the future and written a very prophetic novel, as prophetic as 1984, and maybe more so.

Episode 160: Ciara Shuttleworth!

You just never know where Uncle Bardie will show up. His review of “Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare” shares the stage with poet Ciara Shuttleworth, Thanks, John, for featuring moi in another of your great podcasts.

The Drunken Odyssey

Episode 160 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I talk to the poet Ciara Shuttleworth,

Photo by Drew Perlmutter. Photo by Drew Perlmutter.

plus Don Royster writes about how Isaac Asimov helped him to appreciate Shakespeare.

Don Royster


Camus NotebooksThe Great Shark HuntAsimovs Guide to ShakespeareNOTES

To read about Ciara’s post-residency road-tripping with Flat Jack, here is part 1 and part 2.

To read Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of The Declaration of Independence, go here.

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Will the real Rabbit please stand up?

Updike by Adam Begley.

Within the last year, biographies of three major writers of the last half of the twentieth century were published: J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer and John Updike. Without opening the pages of each book, the reader can almost sense something of the author’s life from the covers.

There is no photograph of Salinger on the cover of his biography. It is as if Salinger, even in death, is still hiding from his public. On the Mailer cover, there is Norman grinning back at the reader. We can almost imagine him saying to us, “C’mon, throw that punch. I can take it as much as I can give it out.” Like Hemingway, a writer he admired and modeled himself after, Mailer is daring us to refuse him the title of “the great American novelist”. It is a larger-than-life personality we see.

On the cover of Adam Begley’s “Updike” stands a young man in his mid-twenties, a journeyman of letters who is on his way. There is no challenge on that face, just a smile that says to the world, “I’m a nice guy,” a face that could be as Joyce Carol Oates affirmed when she reflected that Updike was “gentle, sly, clever, witty, charming”. In the middle of the book are more photographs.

Twenty-seven to be exact. For a writer 76 years old, and as well-known as Updike, I wondered why there were so few. Of all of these twenty-seven photographs, it is the one taken by his brother-in-law in 1964 that I think John Updike would have considered his best portrait, and the truest one. He sits at a typewriter, glasses on, doing what he loved best to do, writing.

Begley begins his biography not with a family history. He begins with a place. John Updike was born and raised in small town Pennsylvania where he would turn to again and again for inspiration. First, Shillington, then the farm at Plowville. His father was a school teacher and his mother was a wannabee writer. Sounds like a novel Updike might have written. Well, he did. They are “The Centaur” and “Of the Farm”, among others.

Here is the Pennsylvania boy who became a world famous and sophisticated writer, and yet in so many ways never left the Pennsylvania of his youth behind. In that, he joins Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain who never left their boyhoods behind either. He was a small town boy who went off to Harvard. Then he was in New York and at work doing the Talk of the Town for the New Yorker magazine. This most New Yorker of writers was least comfortable with New York and the parochial literary scene there in the fifties. So he left for Ipswich, Massachusetts. And there he stumbled into his subject.

Early on Updike, like Fitzgerald, earned his living writing short stories, most of them exclusively for the New Yorker magazine. But, with the novel, “Couples”, he found his footing. If alcoholism was Raymond Carver’s subject, if Ernest Hemingway’s subject was death and loss, if Scott Fitzgerald’s was money, if Flannery O’Conor’s was the religion in the deep South, and if Faulkner’s was the past, sex and adultery became John Updike’s. It also might be possible to say that his real subject was the politics of relationships, for he is a writer of the personal. What other writer would begin a story the way he begins “Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer”: “She was good in bed”?

Begley’s book does not hold back on how much sex and adultery Updike experienced. Unlike other writers bad habits, it did not lessen his power as writer. He seemed to relish in it for over a decade. Until it destroyed his first marriage. Begley gives us details that say a lot about John Updike the man. Such as a wedding ring. In his first marriage to Mary, he does not wear a wedding ring. In his marriage to second wife Martha, he wore one (p.443). But, if he failed as a husband, he made an effort to make up for it by trying to be a good father.

Begley writes about the influence of Henry Green and Marcel Proust on his style, and his growing interest in Nathaniel Hawthorne. There is a good exploration of his fictional alter egos and where they fit into ouevre. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was the self Updike might have become had he stayed in Shillington. Richard Maples was the husband and father John Updike was. Henry Bech was the literary figure Updike could have become if he had stayed in New York. Bech helped his author in his evolution and passage to the world traveler that Updike became. One can see his traveling self as Bech in such stories as “Bech Swings?” and “Bech Third Worlds It”

There are the relationships he had with other writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates , John Cheever, Philip Roth, Ian McEwan and Nicholas Delbanco. And, yes, his spat with Tom Wolfe is in the book.

Updike’s fascination with theology and a belief in God is chronicled. Though he was a churchgoer and a subscriber to Christianity, it seems all an intellectual and emotional pursuit. Somewhere along the way he decided Christian ethics was not a code he needed to live by. One comes to the conclusion that the greatest fear for Updike was that if there wasn’t a Christian God at the center of all things, he would have to face a void of nothingness. This he did not have the courage to do.

Like Jacob, like Hamlet, John Updike spends much of his creative life wrestling with an angel. Seeking an answer to the question, how can one be a sinner and sin again and again, almost as if that sin was an obsession, and ultimately gain grace. This is the reason he read Kierkegaard, read Barth, read Tillich. Even read Freud. And it is also possible that he had some familiarity with Wilhelm Reich.

This is the biography for you, if you want to know how a fiction writer uses the pieces from his autobiography. Updike was one of the most autobiographical of fiction writers who ever lived. It is almost as if he had photographic memory, not only of details but of dialogue. When it came to his literary work, no relationship escaped the mix. Nothing, and no one, was off limits.

If Updike’s life teaches anything, it is the commitment to the work a writer must make if she is to be a great writer. If Updike’s work teaches anything, it is that commitment and talent are not always enough to create a great writer. If a writer learns nothing else from Updike, it is that a good work ethic is required to be successful at the literary craft.

Updike will down the line be recognized as a master of the short story form. After reading a number of his short stories, and this biography, I am beginning to realize that Updike could be referred to as the Chekhov of the American middle class. He is that wonderful a short story writer. In story after story, there are true gems, stories like “A&P” “The Happiest I’ve Been”, “Pigeon Feathers” and “A Sandstone Farmhouse”, written a few months after his mother’s death as a memorial to her.

Unlike his novels, Updike’s autobiography does not usually overwhelm the stories. But there are stories when John Updike cannot get enough of John Updike. For example, “The Bulgarian Poetess” is one long selfie, its protagonist, Henry Bech, a substitute for Updike. At least, it’s an interesting John Updike. If a selfie can be considered pleasurable, this selfie is a pleasurable read.

Begley has written what a biography of a writer should be, focusing on the work and how the writer’s life infused that work. Not on the details that do not pertain to the work. Fiction writers constantly have the dictum “write what you know” shoved down their throats. Updike did this more than most, and may have gone too far in some cases. In this biography, the reader will see just how much.

I don’t usually read biographies. I used to but not anymore. For a very long time John Updike remained a mystery to me. I would pick up one of his novels, read a chapter or two, then set it down and not pick it up again. John Updike didn’t appeal to me. When I would see him or read an interview with him, he always seemed worth my effort and time. He seemed to have it together as a writer. So I read this biography to get a handle on why he was considered a great writer by many in the literary establishment. And why I didn’t care for his longer fiction.

Adam Begley’s biography was helpful. If I have any complaints about the book, it would be that there was not enough about Updike’s obsession with golf and the lack of a narrative about any of the golf stories. The second thing I would have liked to see was a bibliography of Updike’s works with their order and the year published. But those really are petty complaints.

All in all Adam Begley has written an extremely good biography of John Updike. By the end of the book, he has accomplished the purpose he set out to do as written in the opening sentence of the Introduction. “In addition to the relevant facts, winnowed from heaps of raw information, a biography ought to give a sense of what its subject was like to shake hands with or stand next to or drink coffee with.” In the final chapter, “Endpoint”, is a loving tribute for a man who did everything with grace, even dying. And that John Updike would have appreciated very much.

Perhaps I shall read the Rabbit books soon. Not now, but in six months or a year. If I do, that will be an affirmation to the success of the biography of this most elusive of writers.