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Two Reviews of Self-published Books
By Min Warburton (reviewer)
Remembrances: True Stories of a Reluctant Warrior
by rg cantalupo
A Long Way Home
by Terry Raycraft
Two books, both self-published, highlight the pros and cons of self-publishing.
Ross Canton aka rg cantalupo's Remembrances: True Stories of a Reluctant Warrior is a slim poetry book—fourteen poems and two letters, one to a Vietnam buddy, and one to his first wife, Janice. The letters are letters of love, sorrow, sadness, and repentance, the essence of all true remembrance. Between the pages of poems, there are also photographs of American and Vietnamese faces. If you were there, they will take you back, but gently I think. The poems—I have read them, read them again, and then read them aloud.
"…I was done with War long before/War was done with me…" is a line that echoes and reverberates. It is, for many soldiers, a simple truth eloquently stated. "…I was done with War long before/War was done with me."
The opening poem, Remembrances, reads like a litany: "I remember the scent of the lotus/ blossoming under the bridge at / Trang Bang, more than the stench/ of the bodies crumpled along the/ bank…" In 23 lines, cantalupo ferries us through the memories he would keep, the memories he would forget. He does it with kindness to himself which is not easy for any of us to achieve. In Looking at an Enemy Hit by a Five-hundred Pound Bomb, he writes, "the small figure/apelike,/curled inside/a palm-leaf's shadow." This is exquisite writing laced with tenderness, an older man looking back at his younger self's participation in a war that clearly shredded him. And yet as he remembers, he seems to come to terms with his past, his history, and his losses, and as he does, reveals a soul that was not destroyed in a soul-destroying war.
The gift of self-publishing is that we have this book. The downside is that it's a hard book to get your hands on, often a problem in self-publishing. Poets are not salespeople—they are poets, and rg cantalupo (aka Ross Canton) is a very fine one. To order his work, contact the author at: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Terry Raycraft's novel, A Long Way Home, exposes other problematic aspects of the self-publishing business, in this case, the lack of both fiction and copy editor.
The story is simple. Ben is home from Vietnam and before going to see his parents, he takes a meandering journey across the United States, having romances and crushes, flashbacks interlaced with drug and alcohol binges. There is a cacophony of voices throughout the book—often the naive, optimistic, vaguely arrogant voices of young people—college students and commune dwellers who would never go to Vietnam. Those voices mostly work.
Where the book first goes astray is in shifting characters. Ben arrives in San Francisco where he is greeted at the airport by his friend and fellow vet, Tom, who several chapters later abruptly disappears from the story as Ben takes up with another vet, David. From a narrative point of view, the characters could easily have been combined into one. David's story is tragic, and we shift back and forth between David's and Ben's memories and flashbacks.
The story's problems become minor in comparison to factual errors in the book. Ben's girlfriend in Boston, an undergraduate, allegedly goes to Harvard; however, in 1970 (or 1971 —it is unclear which year it's meant to be) no girls went to Harvard. They went to Radcliffe. This would not change until 1977. Some women were admitted to Harvard Law and Harvard Medical School, but the undergraduate body of Harvard was all-male. This is a significant part of women's history presented incorrectly.
The time confusion: Just before his Boston visit, Ben is at Kent State during the week the four students are killed. From there he goes on to DC for the week-long protest when Vietnam Vets threw their medals onto the Capitol steps. The four students were killed in May of 1970; the Vietnam Veterans' protest followed by the testimony to Congress took place in April of 1971. Raycraft puts them in the same year, same month, a week apart. This is where, for me, the book falls apart. Historical fiction does best when it adheres to facts, especially easily verifiable facts. When the facts are wrong and the reader realizes it, the entire story becomes suspect.
The mistakes increase. When a much older Ben goes with his wife to the Vietnam War Memorial, they land at "Kennedy Airport" and take a cab into DC. No. They would have landed at Reagan aka National or Dulles. When Ben and his wife take a train to New York and are in the city, they stare at the stars, "twinkling bright white dots, in the millions…" Once again, no. Not unless they were at the Hayden Planetarium, or the power grid was down and the city was in a blackout. Because of city light, it is simply impossible to see stars in the Manhattan sky.
The final section of the book is a series of essays and appendices on Vietnam, the Middle East Wars, explosive devices, and Agent Orange. This nonfiction writing is the best in the book although, again, there are numerous errors. These errors could easily be corrected in the age of Google.
Raycraft is good at dialogue and with a professional fiction editor, he might have turned this into a better novel. Fact-checking was paramount. A copy editor would have caught the grammatical and spelling errors. That said, I also want to acknowledge that for most writers these days self-publishing is the only way to go. There are few good publishing companies left, and I am guessing the attitude of most is, "The Vietnam novel is over and done." It will never be over and done—not until every person who wants to tell their story has had the chance. And therein is the upside of Raycraft's book. He told a story, some his, some other people's, some made up, but he told a story of coming home from that war, and for that I applaud him.
The book is available at amazon.com in paper and Kindle formats.
Min Warburton is a writer, artist, editor and served as a military spouse for twenty years.