The best books on the Vietnam war and what it all meant

Why am I passionate about this?

Alice K. Boatwright has lived in the US, England, France, and India – and her career as a writer about public health, education, and the arts has taken her around the world. She began writing short stories when she was young and holds an MFA in Writing Fiction from Columbia University. Her award-winning book about the Vietnam War era, Collateral Damage, was inspired by her own experiences during the war years in the US and the time she spent working on a project in Vietnam in 1993 and 1997. She is also the author of a short story chapbook, Sea, Sky, Islands; numerous stories published in journals, such as Calyx, Mississippi Review Online, America West, Penumbra, Stone Canoe, and Amarillo Bay; and the popular Ellie Kent mysteries, based on her experiences as an ex-pat living in an English village.


I wrote...

Collateral Damage

By Alice K. Boatwright,

Book cover of Collateral Damage

What is my book about?

How many years does it take for a war to end? Collateral Damage is three linked novellas about the Vietnam War era from the perspectives of those who fought, those who resisted, and the family and friends caught between them. Now in a new edition with an introduction about the 50th anniversary of the war and discussion questions for classes and book clubs.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam

Alice K. Boatwright Why did I love this book?

I loved this book because Fitzgerald is a journalist, not a historian, so her writing is vivid, fluent, and readable. This is so much more than a history of the war. She plunges into the complex story of Vietnam’s history and culture, setting the stage for America’s unfortunate involvement and the subsequent tragic events.
Fitzgerald first went to Vietnam in 1966, and, when this book came out in 1972, it was the first history of Vietnam written by an American. The New York Times called it “A compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable to one another.” Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Bancroft Prize, and the National Book Award, it was a bestseller.

By Frances FitzGerald,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fire in the Lake as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Frances FitzGerald's landmark history of Vietnam and the Vietnam War, "a compassionate and penetrating account of the collision of two societies that remain untranslatable to one another." (New York Times Book Review)

This magisterial work, based on Frances FitzGerald's many years of research and travels, takes us inside the history of Vietnam -- the traditional, ancestor-worshiping villages, the conflicts between Communists and anti-Communists, Catholics and Buddhists, generals and monks, the disruption created by French colonialism, and America's ill-fated intervention -- and reveals the country as seen through Vietnamese eyes. 

Originally published in 1972, Fire in the Lake was the first…


Book cover of In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War

Alice K. Boatwright Why did I love this book?

Tobias Wolff is a short-story writer I admire very much, and I enjoyed his first memoir This Boy's Life, so I was very excited to read what he had to say about his experience in the Army and his tour of duty in Vietnam in the late 1960s. This book captures much of the confusing stew of boyish patriotism, confusion, disillusionment, and disgust that I heard expressed by many others in those days.

By Tobias Wolff,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked In Pharaoh's Army as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Whether he is evoking the blind carnage of the Tet offensive, the theatrics of his fellow Americans, or the unraveling of his own illusions, Wolff brings to this work the same uncanny eye for detail, pitiless candor and mordant wit that made This Boy's Life a modern classic.


Book cover of Born on the Fourth of July

Alice K. Boatwright Why did I love this book?

Ron Kovic’s story powerfully mirrors the history of the 1960s. He was inspired by JFK’s passionate 1961 inaugural speech (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. . . “); devastated by JFK's assassination in 1963; joined the Marines right out of high school to do his part and landed in Vietnam in 1965; suffered paralyzing wounds there in 1968; and became a lifelong anti-war activist by 1975.

It’s on my list because of the way it traces the dramatic arc of those times. The flag-waving kids of the late 50s came of age with bitter feelings of betrayal by the government, which forced them to participate in what many considered an unjust and immoral war.

By Ron Kovic,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Born on the Fourth of July as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A former marine paralyzed from the chest down as a result of an injury suffered in Vietnam recalls his youth, battlefield experiences, and the agonies of his slow reentry into American society.


Book cover of In Country

Alice K. Boatwright Why did I love this book?

This classic 1985 novel is a favorite because it broadens the focus to the impact of the war on the families. Set in 1984, the protagonist Samantha Hughes never knew her father, who was killed in Vietnam before she was born. Her uncle, who survived the war, is living with PTSD from his experiences there, and teenage Sam is trying to make sense of it all. The expression “in country” refers to time served at the site of a military operation (in this case, metaphorically, in Vietnam). The Los Angeles Times called this novel "A moral tale that entwines public history with private anguish."

By Bobbie Ann Mason,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked In Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bobbie Ann Mason’s debut novel—"a brilliant and moving book... a moral tale that entwines public history with private anguish."  —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“How Ms. Mason conjures a vivid image of the futility of war and its searing legacy of confusion out of the searching questions or a naïve later generation is nothing short of masterful.” —Kansas City Star

Samantha “Sam” Hughes is in her senior year of high school in rural Kentucky. Her father, whom she never knew, was killed in Vietnam before she was born. Sam lives with her uncle Emmett, a veteran who appears to be…


Book cover of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace

Alice K. Boatwright Why did I love this book?

A memoir from the perspective of the other side, this book tells the story of a young girl in Central Vietnam who was recruited into the war and, by her teens, had suffered near-starvation, torture, imprisonment, and more, in addition to losing much of her family. Later she married an American and moved to this country, but since 1986, she has helped rebuild her homeland through the charitable organizations she established. 

By Le Ly Hayslip, Jay Wurts,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked When Heaven and Earth Changed Places as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“One of the most important books of Vietnamese American and Vietnam War literature...Moving, powerful.” —Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sympathizer

In these pages, Le Ly Hayslip—just twelve years old when U.S. helicopters landed in her tiny village of Ky La—shows us the Vietnam War as she lived it. Initially pressed into service by the Vietcong, Le Ly was captured and imprisoned by government forces. She found sanctuary at last with an American contractor and ultimately fled to the United States. Almost twenty years after her escape, Le Ly found herself inexorably drawn back to the devastated country…


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A Diary in the Age of Water

By Nina Munteanu,

Book cover of A Diary in the Age of Water

Nina Munteanu Author Of Darwin's Paradox

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Why am I passionate about this?

Author Writer Ecologist Mother Teacher Explorer

Nina's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This climate fiction novel follows four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. Told mostly through a diary and drawing on scientific observation and personal reflection, Lynna’s story unfolds incrementally, like climate change itself. Her gritty memoir describes a near-future Toronto in the grips of severe water scarcity.

Single mother and limnologist Lynna witnesses disturbing events as she works for the powerful international utility CanadaCorp. Fearing for the welfare of her rebellious teenage daughter, Lynna sets in motion a series of events that tumble out of her control with calamitous consequence. The novel explores identity, relationship, and our concept of what is “normal”—as a nation and an individual—in a world that is rapidly and incomprehensibly changing.

A Diary in the Age of Water

By Nina Munteanu,

What is this book about?

Centuries from now, in a post-climate change dying boreal forest of what used to be northern Canada, Kyo, a young acolyte called to service in the Exodus, discovers a diary that may provide her with the answers to her yearning for Earth’s past—to the Age of Water, when the “Water Twins” destroyed humanity in hatred—events that have plagued her nightly in dreams. Looking for answers to this holocaust—and disturbed by her macabre longing for connection to the Water Twins—Kyo is led to the diary of a limnologist from the time just prior to the destruction. This gritty memoir describes a…


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Interested in the Vietnam War, refugees, and death?

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