I thoroughly enjoyed – and I think you will too – The Whitehall Mandarin, by Edward Wilson. It really is an unfairly good book and a tremendously thrilling read to boot. Its story and themes span a tumultuous decade, the ’60’s and weave themselves in and out of many of that decades’ pivotal moments. And, amazingly enough, a couple of the events I just so happen to have read an awful lot of books about: The assassination of JFK and the Vietnam war.
So, if perhaps you want to get something more out of reading The Whitehall Mandarin, either before you read it, or when you’ve finished, then have a go at a few of the books that I have read, that cover the period or incidents or places the story involves. I was born at the end of the ’50’s, so was growing up during the period the majority of the book covers. I was only very young, honestly. I remember the Profumo affair, but only because I was bored by it being in the news the whole time. I remember the Paris riots being on tv as well, but was getting ready for ‘big school’ at the time, so they made no real impression. I remember the Beatles in two ways: One being shocked when it dawned on me that is was these four lads wrote the songs I had had inside me so long I kinda felt they were English folk songs. Then once being told by my mother to get a hair cut because I didn’t want to ‘look like a Beatle,’ I also remember sitting, ok, so three ways, on the back seat of my parents’ car, on the way to holiday in the Isle of Wight, singing with my sister ‘Yellow Submarine’ and getting told off for singing ‘yella’ instead of ‘yellow.’ I never read Brideshead Revisited, but I did see the tv series and I have visited Castle Howard (if you’re English and around my age, you’ll know why), because I lived in (nearby) Leeds for 26 years.
I’m doing this unbidden, by the way. Just that the book sparked off so many thoughts and rekindled others, that I figured I’d do something about it.
Anyway, on with the show…
(Click on any of the covers and you’ll go to the Amazon page for that book)
Many years ago, I read a lot of books about the Vietnam war. I mean a lot of books. I don’t know what gripped me or why, but I did. When I moved to Denmark in 2004, I had to make some decisions, space-wise and my Vietnam books didn’t make the cut unfortunately. The ones I’m showing below, will be the ones I remember as being amongst the best – from my point of view, critics may differ – and the covers will be, wherever possible, the versions I owned.
The first on that sprang to mind when Catesby travels to Vietnam, was;
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
It was around the time when John le Carre was at his Smiley height, so hence the quote on the cover and he’s not far wrong. This cover (pictured) is the version I had.
‘Having read Dispatches, it is difficult to convey the impact of total experience as all the facades of patriotism, heroism and the whole colossal fraud of American intervention fall away to the bare bones of fear, war and death’ William S. Burroughs
‘Splendid…he brings alive the terror of combat in a way that rivals All Quiet on the Western Front’ Tom Wolfe
‘In the great line of Crane, Orwell and Hemingway . . . he seems to have brought to this book the ear of a musician and the eye of a painter, Frank Zappa and Francis Bacon’ Washington Post
‘We have all spent ten years trying to explain what happened to our heads and our lives in the decade we finally survived – but Michael Herr’s Dispatches puts all the rest of us in the shade’ Hunter S. Thompson
‘If it were only unconventional journalism, it would stand with the best there is – but it’s a good deal more than that . . . I believe it may be the best personal journal about war, about any war, that any writer has ever accomplished’ Robert Stone
Chickenhawk, by Robert Mason
This is the version I had.
‘It will stun readers’ Time
‘Compelling… A hypnotic narrative’ The New York Time’
‘Chickenhawk is one bloody, painfully honest and courageous book’ Martin Cruz Smith
‘The best book to come out of Vietnam’ John Del Vecchio, author of The 13th Valley
A Rumor of War, by Philip Caputo
Huge spelling mistake on the cover notwithstanding, this too is an excellent book.
In March 1965, Marine Lieutnant Philip J. Caputo landed in Danang with the first ground combat unit committed to fight in Vietnam. Sixteen months later, having served on the line in one of modern history’s ugliest wars, he returned home – physically whole, emotionally wasted, his youthful idealism shattered. A decade later, Caputo would write in A Rumor of War, ‘This is simply a story about war, about the things men do in war and the things war does to them’.
It is far more then that. It is, as Theodore Solotaroff wrote in the New York Times Book Review, ‘the troubled conscience of America speaking passionately, truthfully, finally’. It is the book that shattered America’s deliberate indifference to the fate of the men it sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam, and in the years since it was first published it has become a basic text on that war. But in the literature of war that stretches back to Homer, it has also taken its place as an esteemed classic to rank alongside All Quiet on the Western Front and The Naked and the Dead
Later, Catesby journeys into Vietnam and goes to Cu Chi, so I though, understandably, of;
The Tunnels of Cu Chi, by Tom Mangold
A friend of mine has just had a holiday in Vietnam and visited the tunnels at Cu Chi, which are obviously now a tourist attraction. Strange to think, I would imagine, if you read this book now.
The campaign in the tunnels of Cu Chi was fought with cunning and savagery between Viet Cong guerrillas and special teams of US infantrymen called ‘Tunnel Rats’. The location: the 200-mile labyrinth of underground tunnels and secret chambers that the Viet Cong had dug around Saigon.
The Tunnel Rats were GIs of legendary skill and courage. Armed only with knives and pistols, they fought hand-to-hand against a cruel and ingenious enemy inside the booby-trapped blackness of the tunnels. For the Viet Cong the tunnel network became their battlefield, their barracks, their arms factories and their hospitals, as the ground above was pounded to dust by American shells and bombs.
The whole of Catesby’s trip is, as I think is mentioned, reminiscent of;
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
One of my father’s favourite books he once told me. The Heart of Darkness. Or as more people know it, the film Apocalypse Now. This isn’t the version I had, but it’s as close as I can find.
‘The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across the water to bar the way for our return. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.’
At the peak of European Imperialism, steamboat captain Charles Marlow travels deep into the African Congo on his way to relieve the elusive Mr Kurtz, an ivory trader renowned for his fearsome reputation. On his journey into the unknown Marlow takes a terrifying trip into his own subconscious, overwhelmed by his menacing, perilous and horrifying surroundings. The landscape and the people he meets force him to reflect on human nature and society, and in turn Conrad writes revealingly about the dangers of imperialism.
Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
When it comes to the Kennedy assassination, there are very nearly as many theories as there are people writing books about them. For every theory, you’ll find someone declaring with absolute surety, that it could not possibly have happened that way. A lot do fall back on the official account, though I think that has been discredited so wildly, that it’s a bit like hiding behind the Bible as the true story of Jesus’ life. If you like conspiracy theories, you’ll love the Kennedy assassination. I even went to a talk about the assassination here in Aarhus, Denmark, last year. One thing you can be certain of in this case, the book covers are very nearly universally dreadful. These books are just a few of the ones (gadzillions) I have actually read.
Plausible Denial, by Mark Lane
All of my JFK books went the same way as the Vietnam ones, except this one. This is still over there on the shelf.
Oliver Stone’s JFK raised once again the question ‘Who killed John F. Kennedy?’ Plausible Denial provides the answers. The assassination of Kennedy in 1963 has been shrouded in mystery but now lawyer and bestselling author Mark Lane has collected together explosive new evidence which reveals startling information about the CIA’s role in a plot to murder the president.
The Kennedy Conspiracy, by Anthony Summers
This vividly written probe of the Kennedy assassination, internationally acclaimed when first published, has been massively revised and updated. It includes the revelations resulting from recent releases of documents long withheld by US intelligence agencies. The author produces fresh information on the deceptions of the CIA; Oswald’s trip to Mexico City shortly before the assassination; new information on nefarious activity in New Orleans; the botched autopsy of the President’s body.
Libra, by Don DeLillo
Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas. Friday, November 22, 1963. 12.30 PM.
Shots ring out. A president dies. And a nation is plunged into psychosis. Don DeLillo’s extraordinary Libra is a brilliant reimagining of the events and people surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Concentrating on the lives of Lee Harvey Oswald, some rogue former spooks unhappy with Kennedy’s presidency, and Nicholas Branch, a CIA archivist, trying to make sense of or draw inferences from the mass of information after the assassination, Libra presents an unapologeticly provocative picture of America in the second half of the last century.
Crossfire, by Jim Marrs
Veteran Texas journalist Jim Marrs pulls together a stunning wealth of facts and new evidence to reveal the glaring defects in official versions of what happened that fateful day in November 1963 when President Kennedy was shot. Backed up by rare photos and evidence from a dramatic, newly available, video sequence, Crossfire is the startling and comprehensive account of America’s most infamous crime. Disturbing by its very thoroughness, this poses and answers new questions on an event that too many people in high places have been trying to lay to rest..’
A couple I’ve got hold of recently are:
A Farewell to Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK’s Assassination and the Case That Should Have Changed History, by Joan Mellen
Working with thousands of previously unreleased documents and drawing on more than one thousand interviews, with many witnesses speaking out for the first time, Joan Mellen revisits the investigation of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, the only public official to have indicted, in 1969, a suspect in President John F. Kennedy’s murder.
Garrison began by exposing the contradictions in the Warren Report, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was an unstable pro-Castro Marxist who acted alone in killing Kennedy. A Farewell to Justice reveals that Oswald, no Marxist, was in fact working with both the FBI and the CIA, as well as with US Customs, and that the attempts to sabotage Garrison’s investigation reached the highest levels of the US government. Garrison’s suspects included CIA-sponsored soldiers of fortune enlisted in assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, an anti-Castro Cuban asset, and a young runner for the conspirators, interviewed here for the first time by the author.
Building upon Garrison’s effort, Mellen uncovers decisive new evidence and clearly establishes the intelligence agencies’ roles in both a president’s assassination and its cover-up. In this revised edition, to be published in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the president’s assassination, the author reveals new sources and recently uncovered documents confirming in greater detail just how involved the CIA was in the events of November 22, 1963. More than one hundred new pages add critical evidence and information into one of the most significant events in human history.
Not In Your Lifetime, by Anthony Summers
I think one of Summers’ others I read kinda gave the story away in the title, it was called ‘The Mafia Shot The President’, or something similar.
‘It might not be in your lifetime’, said the Chief Justice of the United States when asked whether the files on the assassination of President Kennedy would be made public. If the President was killed by a lone gunman, as the first official enquiry claimed, why can we still not see all relevant records?
Fifty years on and the murder of the century remains unsolved. Drawing on thirty years of investigation, Anthony Summers examines the case in compelling, forensic detail. He analyses the evidence for Oswald’s guilt, the Mafia connection, and the links to Cuba and reveals, for the first time, a plausible admission of involvement. This updated edition of Not in Your Lifetime is the most definitive account of one of the most intractable mystery mysteries of our time.
What do I think? It was a coup d’etat. Oswald pulled a trigger, but he wasn’t the only one and he was set up to take the fall. No doubt about it.