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A Living Hell; The Loss of Innocence; Heads-Up 

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A Living Hell

The Philippines, 1942. War Plan Orange was Douglas MacArthur's escape plan for American troops to leave Manila before overwhelming Japanese forces landed. He declared the capital an "open city," and this allowed the outgunned Americans to safely congregate on the Bataan peninsula.

Because of its remote location, Bataan was an ideal place to make a stand against the Imperial army. Unfortunately, it was just as difficult for American supply ships to reach as it was for the Japanese. The stand lasted a long time. Both American and Japanese soldiers were starving. Under orders from Roosevelt, MacArthur was secreted out, leaving 100,000 soldiers and civilians behind.

After the American surrender, the infamous Bataan Death March began. Anyone who fell down was killed. Most did not even make it to the POW camps. Survivor Abe Abraham wrote afterward that, "the days fell on us like a relentless hammer. We were wretched animals. There was no stopping the deaths. They went on like the waves of the ocean."

Upon MacArthur's glorious return to the Philippines in 1945, a select group from the U.S. Army 6th Ranger Battalion was charged with the task of going behind enemy lines and freeing whoever was still alive in the prison camp. This mission and the survivor's stories of their incarceration is the heartbreaking, heart-stopping, borderline-unbelievable story detailed in Hampton Sides' "Ghost Soldiers"(Doubleday, $24.95).

The tedium of the camp made everyone crazy. A guy announced a Cubs baseball game every afternoon completely out of his own imagination. He always had an audience. Tommie Thomas designed the house he would eventually live in, down to the last nail. Everyone dreamed about food.

While the prisoners were living a life somewhere between panic and boredom, the rescue plan was clinically detailed. The pressure the Army Rangers were under to rescue the POWs — and how many things had to go right for their plan to work — make this book a jolt to the system.

Maybe it is unfair to the author to say that this story is so incredible it tells itself. No one reading this book can help imagining what it was like to be there and wondering if they would have made it or not. It's only been 53 years. That's not that long ago. It could have been me. Or you. —Thom Jeter

The Loss of Innocence

In Mark Jude Poirier's debut novel, "Goats," (Talk Miramax Books, $22) the world, as seen through 14-year old-Ellis Whitman's eyes, is one conceived in stifling beauty as well as harsh truth. Ellis lives in the desert of Arizona with his flaky mother, Wendy, and her gardener, Ellis' boon companion and spiritual guide, Goat Man. Goat Man, really Stephan Cagliano, is a 39-year-old who tends a small herd of goats, landscapes, and smokes pot. Through these characters Poirier is able to achieve a balance that shows both the world of innocence and experience as they move into opposition to each other.

The novel traces the lives of both Ellis and Goat Man as Ellis embarks on his freshman year at a prestigious boarding school. Balancing a beautifully descriptive narrative between the frozen landscape of Pennsylvania and the rocky desert of Arizona, Poirier shows two friends in the midst of change. Ellis, a straight-A student, initially believes in enlightenment through rebellion, but gradually becomes more like his estranged father.

Goat Man continues to live the life of a child, going on long spiritual treks with his goats and caring only for his immediate gratification. Ellis faces a choice between the life he sees for himself at Goat Man's side and the one he realizes he desires most in a rekindled relationship with his father.

As in any coming-of-age novel, "Goats" marks the progress from adolescence to adulthood, but what is most impressive is the energy Poirier builds from the complicated relationship between Ellis and Goat Man. Inherent in the actions of each character is the unavoidable, and often regretful, need for change that is a part of growing up. Painting a dazzling portrait of what is left behind when innocence is lost, Poirier touches the reader through his expert use of language that is at once sparse in style and rich in meaning. — Francis W. Decker

Heads-Up

From Blair Publishing comes "In the Footsteps of Robert E. Lee" ($12.95). This paperback guidebook mixes history and geography to help you tour the areas that were important in Robert E. Lee's career. Author Clint Johnson will be signing in Huguenot Barnes & Noble, Tues, July 10 at 7 p.m.

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