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My first read of 2018 was The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which I loved. I alternated between the Kindle version, when I could read quietly in my house, and the Audible version for when I needed my hands free: on brisk, sunny walks over crunching snow with my dog, or while folding laundry. I loved Francois Chaou’s narration, his wry delivery and the way he trotted out different voices for various characters. He was perfectly professional except for one moment when he suddenly paused and sniffed, I mean a real, good, dry-but-assertive, not-in-the-script nostrilly sniff — and I was surprised and a little delighted, reminded that there was a real person reading the book for Audible posterity.

Anyway. This may be an odd claim to stake, given that The Sympathizer is set in 1970s Vietnam and features rhapsodies about fish sauce and sharp, intelligent assertions of Asian identity, but: While listening, I thought to myself, This is the great American novel. Really. This is America, every bit as much as Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, F. Scott Fitzgerald or C.E. Morgan. This is an American story.

That’s not to diminish the wonderful Vietnamese-ness of the story. But just as the story’s narrator confesses in his opening lines, he is a man who can be two things at once, who can see two sides. The Great American Novel can quite possibly be the exact same book as the Great Vietnamese Novel.

In the same way, Krystal Sital’s debut memoir, Secrets We Kept, operates on two planes at once. It is a Caribbean novel: Sital’s parents are from Trinidad (an island that can be “traversed in a day, less than that if you know what you’re doing”), a place she has lived, visited; she’s absorbed Trinidad’s culture her entire life, through speech and food and storytelling. The photo on the book’s cover, a lush, almost Technicolor swath of pink sky and verdant palm trees, is one that the author herself took.

“Our stories are rooted in the Caribbean,” Sital writes:

our histories woven into its bougainvillea trellises with their paper-thin petals…the foliage so dense and green it’s a prismatic shade of malachite…This is a place where the intoxicating aroma of curry drapes itself around you in layers; where bake and shark sandwiches are fried on the beach…Here, people devour every part of every animal from the eyeballs to the guts and lick their fingers and pat their bellies when they are through.

When the story opens, however, Sital is worlds away, a college student in Jersey City, NJ, “a far cry from the tropics of coral and blue …The scrimp of a backyard we have now is covered in dirt.” She’s waiting for her mother to get home from her job nannying four perenially ill-behaved white children.

The back number five tacked to our yellowed front door in Jersey City swings past as my mother turns the lock into place. Salsa music from the floor below swells into the room. She and I sigh together, sick of the noise and the tight space….The snowflakes that twinkled in her hair have melted and, soaked now, her bouncy curls lie flat and greasy against her scalp.

And so, this is also a profoundly American novel. It’s the story of yet another family flung by circumstance from a beloved homeland into the vast and overbearing American-ness of America.

Secrets We Kept opens with the author’s concern about a man: her grandfather, felled by an aneurysm and hospitalized through several brain surgeries. Sital has always loved her grandfather; she has vivid memories of hiking with him through the Trinidad forest, watching him cutlass bananas from trees and swiftly behead a snake that threatens her. Why, then, do her mother and grandmother seem to have such different memories of him? Why are there such variations to their love?

In spite of this concern about one, larger-than-life man–or perhaps because of it– Secrets We Kept is a book about women. Many women’s lives worldwide are organized around the needs, care, and success of a man, and while resisting such narratives may be a current (and not un-useful) feminist literary trend, Sital’s memoir is about her family’s truth. It is a harsh, gritty truth, one which is not easy to tell. It is a story of three generations of women whose lives are indelibly shaped by domestic violence.

When it comes to re-telling this violence, Sital is unsparing. There is no, “my grandfather slapped my grandma around a little.” Scores of punches, kicks, chokings, thrown items, are accounted for — even the horrific recounting of her grandfather pursuing her grandma and beating her unconscious with a gasoline-soaked rope, as her mother witnessed in childhood.

The weight of this violence, while reading, is palpable, and gives the book something of the feel of nonfiction like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Bastard Out of Carolina, or Twelve Years a Slave, and fiction like Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood or The Great Santini by Pat Conroy. The cruelty is both inescapable and necessary.

There is both domestic violence and cultural violence in this book, with power differentials being acted out in the harshest of ways all over the island: among schoolchildren on long, rural, treacherous walks to and from school; among siblings and the half-siblings they know are “lesser” in their mother’s eyes. There is the sly sabotage of mothers-in-law and sister-in-law, setting up Sital’s grandmother to enrage her husband and knowing that a beating will result. In a local culture capable of such harshness, survival depends on the ability to throw other people under the bus. And that’s what I think struck me most about the book: its examination of how violence begets violence, pain begets pain. Sital knows, perhaps as well as anyone, that the theme of her book is absolutely timely, painful, and necessary. A culture of harm creates only more harm. But within that, there is survival. Sital’s writing is elegant, tender, brimming with feeling below the surface: a cursive bruise.

The domestic violence of the novel is perhaps the ultimate betrayal, as it upends what Sital thought she knew about her family. She’s puzzled and concerned by the love she’s been able to feel for both her father and grandfather; how could she not have known what monsters they could be? And why, she wonders, have these two men with such dark personalities always liked her, preferred her to her sister?

“I enjoyed this special privilege,” she confesses. “Both [my father and grandfather] saw something in me. I seemed to carry the essence of an old world, one they wanted me to take and carry for them.”

Is she simply a lover of history? Or does she have a particularly writerly way of thinking, seeing two sides of a story? Is she, in effect, a sympathizer?

While some women in Secrets We Kept are violent, or enable violence, men are the true villains in this memoir. “How much more did I have to see and hear,” Sital writes, “before I understood that these men on our islands would never change?”

But Sital, a mother, is married; she must feel that there is some hope for men and for marriages, for peaceable coexistence. If I could chat with Sital over coffee I would ask her how, knowing the history of her mother’s and grandmother’s marriages, she was able to enter into marriage, and what hopes and fears she has for her own daughters. Perhaps, it is distance from the islands of her mother’s and grandmother’s pain that have saved the author. Perhaps, despite its bleakness and loneliness and vastness, in a new country that cannot be traversed in anything close to a day, it is emigration that spares Sital.

Or maybe, it’s the women around her, their tough protectiveness, their willingness to finally tell their stories. In this book, and in life, women survive, and that might be one of the most important things about us.

Sital, Krystal. Secrets We Kept. Norton, 2018.

Secrets We Kept is available this Tuesday, February 20th, wherever books are sold. You can purchase it here, and read more from Krystal Sital in the New York Times (“When Immigration Agents Came Knocking”) here.

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by Lisa Houlihan Stice (Marine spouse)

Dirt and Honey (Green Writers Press, 2018) is Raquel Vasquez Gilliland’s debut poetry. Rich with natural descriptions and images, the collection is separated into four sections: Clay, Pollen, Honey, and Dirt.

Gilliland’s poems conserve the earth’s magic, preserve cultural and family stories, and reinvent history and myth. Alongside reimagined accounts of Adam and Eve, Pandora, the Amazons, and such, are poems of family (particularly mother and grandmother) and the birth of the poet’s son. In the “Clay” section, it is women who build and shape the earth:

Last night Mami and Nana

stretched their claws

in the mud.

Like ravens, they stood

dark, tall, windly.

Mud’s got a voice, you know,

and if you put your bare

feet in it, you can hear that long caw.

(from “God’s Grandmother”)

The “Pollen” section continues with origin stories with women as the creators of life and the cultivators of tradition.

My first contractions

come before the summer

gets thick with mosquitoes

and pears.

They pulse around you

as you sprout lungs.

(from “Mandarinfish”)

There is a magic attributed to carrying and birthing a child, that so much change and growth happens inside the womb. The other poems of this section connect that womb magic with the natural world and with generations of family. That growing child is as much part of the maize stories and lunch lady stories of his great-grandmother as he is from the flesh of his mother.

As the collection moves forward into the Dirt and Honey sections, female strength (“Amazons wore us / on their shields”) and dominance grows –

It’s said

God took a rib

from Adam, but someone

got that wrong down

the story-line. God

found Eve’s rib in the dirt.

This is why women bleed.

That ancient rib,

so old God wasn’t sure

where it came from— 

it calls back to the dirt.

(from “Honey and Dirt”)

The need for stories and history becomes more important with the birth of a new generation, for the new generation will continue to shape the earth. There is a responsibility and trust passed down in these poems.

About the author:

Raquel Vasquez Gilliland is a Mexican-American poet, painter, wife, mother and aspiring micro-farmer. In her work, she explores myths and folklore as well as motherhood, plants and the lineages of all things.

She was born in West Palm Beach, Florida and grew up there with her parents, brother and sister. She studied fine art for many years, specializing in painting, both in high school and college. She has a B.A. in cultural anthropology from the University of West Florida and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Rattle, Luna Luna and Fairy Tale Review, among others. Her first collection, Dirt and Honey, will be released in 2018 by Green Writers Press.

About the Reviewer:

Lisa Stice is a Marine Corps wife. It’s difficult to say where “home” is, but she currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. She is the author of a poetry collection, Uniform (Aldrich Press, 2016).You can find out more about her and her publications here and on Facebook .

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By Alison Buckholtz

It’s hard to know what Tolstoy, the go-to source on unhappy families, would have made of the Flynns. They’re the all-American Catholic brood at the center of A Catalog of Birds, a richly-peopled, old-fashioned novel about siblings and the spiderweb of circumstance that has woven them into a fixed place and time.

As the book opens, the future seems preordained for high-school senior Nell, a promising scientist, and her brother Billy, who has just returned to their home in upstate New York after a combat tour in Vietnam. But war in that far-off country may have landed a lasting strike against the Flynns. Even though Billy has come back alive—which is all the family had been hoping for during his year overseas–he is badly injured and emotionally scarred. Harrington’s depictions of post-war trauma and the former soldier’s urge toward personal obliteration are some of the most harrowing, genuine, and relevant passages in the book.

Billy’s future takes a U-turn for more ominous reasons, too: his high-school girlfriend, Megan, disappears from their small town. Megan is also Nell’s best friend, and even though Nell has information that might be helpful to police, she chooses not to tell because it would be too painful for her brother to know what really took place in his absence. Nell reveals only the minimum, and even that is cloaked to protect her family: “She’s running with a different crowd.”

As it becomes clear that Megan’s disappearance might be a murder, the understanding seeps like a noxious gas through the Flynns’ Finger Lakes farming community. For some, it’s merely unsettling; for Billy, nothing will ever be the same again.

That’s just as true for Nell, but for different reasons. She’s shadowed Billy through the woods near their home since she was old enough to walk, and he’s the one who taught her how to observe and draw all of the species of birds native to the area. He’s been her academic mentor, and she even plans to follow him to Cornell’s ornithology lab, where a professor is trying to secure scholarships for both Flynns.

Now that it’s time for Nell to come into her own—graduate high school, acknowledge a love she’s nurtured for a boy in town since childhood, and start her career—she’s in danger of being lost in her brother’s ever-darkening shadow. That’s because Billy’s disappearing, too: into drinking, into memories of Megan, into regret over an unspeakable tragedy during his combat tour. Neurological damage has left him unable to hear the birds whose mating calls and songs drew him into their otherworldly orbit, and unable to sketch them as he used to. His wings have been clipped. With no chance to soar, he sinks into despair.

Since Megan and Billy are both missing in different ways, Nell is left to cross the bridge from girlhood to womanhood alone. The question of whether or not she’ll make it to the other side gives A Catalog of Birds its lasting power. This is a disarming novel because it’s not obvious at first that the story is Nell’s instead of Billy’s. But this classic bildungsroman tracks the moral and psychological growth of a girl who starts out unaware of her own potential to sway the future in any direction. That’s one of the reasons she withholds the information about Megan, even though the facts could provide useful guidance to investigators. She only gradually realizes that she has a voice in the world and is not simply Billy Flynn’s little sister.

As Harrington negotiates plot twists and turns familiar to anyone who knows how families arm themselves for battle when a loved one’s life is at stake, her characters and her language become compelling in the most literal sense: they make it impossible to put the book down. Even the most wrenching scenes are delivered lyrically, as when Billy recalls coming back to consciousness after his accident:

The transfer to the Army hospital in Japan: the bruising landing, the shock of December cold. He’d passed out as he was moved from the stretcher to a bed, IVs taped back into place, his body like a side of beef, waiting for the next round of surgeons and the next as they set and reset bones in his forearm, elbow, shoulder, picking out shrapnel with each surgery, waiting, always waiting for the specialist to arrive and begin to reassemble what’s left of his hand.

Harrington is a generous author, and her understanding of peoples’ motivations—and the way cultural shifts inspire them to change course—isn’t limited to Billy and Nell. As she reflects on how an increasingly progressive, anti-war culture that had rooted in American cities years earlier finally reached a rural town in 1970, she also introduces the Flynns’ priest, who is threatened by the diocese with a demotion if he keeps speaking up against America’s involvement in Vietnam. Readers meet Billy’s art teacher, a divorcee who lives alone and believes that sex doesn’t involve guilt, regret, or sneaking around. And among the many Flynn siblings, there’s Nell and Billy’s older sister, a nurse who has chosen not to marry and moves to New York City to become a political activist in the Catholic workers’ movement.

Just as A Catalog of Birds sketches a community as detailed as a medieval miniature, its satisfyingly saturated portraits of each individual character, and their relationships with each other, create the feeling that the Flynns could be any reader’s cousins just a generation or two back. Fiction or family? It’s a sign of how well we get to know the Flynns that they seem like our own flesh and blood—and we care about them as if they are.

Harrington, Laura, A Catalog of Birds (Europa Editions, 2017).

Buy A Catalog of Birds here or at your local independent bookstore.

About the Author:

Laura Harrington teaches playwriting at MIT. Her award-winning plays, musicals, and operas have been widely produced across America, in Canada, and Europe, in venues ranging from off-off-Broadway to Houston Grand Opera. She is the author of Alice Bliss, a novel about a Gold Star family. Learn more on her web site.

About the Reviewer:

Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.

She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.


Filed under: Literature Tagged: Alison Buckholtz, family, fiction, Laura Harrington, novel, Vietnam, war
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By Tiffany Hawk

As a military spouse, it’s unlikely I’ll ever tire of weighty portraits of war that examine its causes, its costs, its legacies. But sometimes, I just want a novel to provide an entertaining escape. So I was thrilled to discover a more lighthearted journey through our world with Tagged for Death, the first in a series of cozy mysteries written by Air Force spouse Sherry Harris. Sure, there’s death in the title – it is a mystery – but I assure you, this book is cozy indeed.

The delightful page-turner opens with a bang when former mil spouse Sarah Winston hears a gunshot over the phone courtesy of the prank caller who has been harassing her. Sarah figures it’s either CJ, her newly ex husband, or Tiffany, the nineteen-year-old airman he knocked up after a one-night-stand.

Sarah doesn’t report the calls to the authorities because, as fate would have it, CJ is the new police chief, a job he lucked into after the Air Force asked him to retire in light of his sex scandal. Sarah tries to get on with the business of building a new life, something she seems well prepared for after twenty years of military life. Although the civilian world is an adjustment, she appears more or less content with her new apartment and her budding business as a garage-sale consultant who helps people maximize sales for a share in the profit. Navigating a garage sale, or tag sale as these Northeastern characters say, is yet another skill she honed throughout her countless moves.

Alas, Sarah isn’t able to stay out of the fray for long because while sifting through a bag of items to donate, she discovers a bloody shirt with CJ’s monogrammed initials alongside a uniform bearing Tiffany’s last name. When Tiffany is soon declared missing and CJ becomes a suspect, Sarah starts investigating on her own. Intrigue, suspense, and a dash of romance follow.

Tagged for Death is not a powerful analysis of the effects of war. It’s not a war story at all, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable escape that travels through our world of PCSs and BDUs, base thrift shops and base housing, spouse club meetings and spouse book clubs, squadron gossip and Giant Voice announcements. Refreshingly, Harris reveals military families as regular people. (Well, regular people who solve close-to-home murder cases!). These characters are not portrayed as heroes to worship or bloodthirsty killers to fear or messed up veterans to pity. They are regular people who have chosen to live with change and to bear separation in service of their country. They’re people like us.

Harris, Sherry. Tagged for Death (Kensington, 2014).

About the Author:

Sherry Harris started bargain hunting in second grade at her best friend’s yard sale. She honed her bartering skills as she moved around the country while her husband served in the Air Force. Sherry uses her love of garage sales, her life as a military spouse, and her time living in Massachusetts as inspiration for the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series. You can learn more about Sherry and her writing on her web site.

About the Reviewer:

Novelist Tiffany Hawk, author of Love Me Anyway (an “irresistible”…”behind-the-scenes look at the airline industry’s emotional side”), is a former flight attendant. She has been published in the New York Times’s “Modern Love” column.


Filed under: Literature Tagged: Air Force spouse, mystery, Sarah Winston Garage Sale Mystery series, Sherry Harris, Tiffany Hawk
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Need last-minute gifts for anyone on your holiday list? Or a scintillating New Year’s read for yourself? Here, women writers share their best, most unforgettable reads of 2017:

SIOBHAN FALLON

Days Without End, Sebastian Barry.

Ah, this novel, my goodness. With the examination of Irish immigration to the United States circa 1847, sparked by near genocide from indifferent British rule combined with the Potato Famine, as well as the exploration of American military life in all its exhilarating and mundane moments, boy did Days Without End fire up my feisty little heart.

A young Irish immigrant, Thomas, finds himself a soldier in the Army of the distinctly un-United States of America, narrating one of the ugliest chapters in U.S. history, both the years of American imperialist expansionism (read Native American Indian slaughter) and the Civil War.

Viewed as a soldier’s story, Days Without End is strikingly different from current war literature. Thomas is no guilt ridden, self-tortured man irrevocably harmed by the atrocities he’s committed. Nor does he justify his action with rousing speeches. The novel is all the more devastating and slyly brilliant for it. We want our soldiers damaged. We like to think that someone who has killed inevitably contains a dying part inside of himself. If a character is likable or good, we want to see his dark deeds haunt, and therefore redeem, allowing the reader to feel empathy, allowing the reader to forgive.

That’s not the way it plays out in this novel.

Thomas and his fellow Union soldiers are seemingly ordinary men who have seen and acted in the worst atrocities war has to offer. If they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder afterward, Barry does not dwell on it. They continue on. They appreciate beauty, they work farms, they start families, they are just happy to be alive. They might not be proud of their deeds but they accept their pasts. The one thing Thomas and his friends have in common is the belief that they have done what they needed to do in a brutal world that tried, over and over again, to kill them.

“Just surviving is the victory,” Thomas says. “That human will. It ain’t so rare. But it is the best of us.”

Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is gloriously weird. Genre and gender bending, erudite and steamy, Machado’s stories manage to defy expectation and be compulsively readable.

Here are dark tales, drenched in disappearing women, plagues and apocalypse, sex and desire. The collection somehow both celebrates female sexuality and make the reader constantly uncomfortable, voyeurs peering too close at another’s throbbing and desperate intimacy. I think that’s why the stories are so successful, they launch the reader into a realm rarely seen in fiction, and the journey, at times discomfiting, is always exhilarating.

The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence, Catherine Lacey and Forsyth Harmon

And here’s a little lighter fare, The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence, by Catherine Lacey and Forsyth Harmon. Oh, now this book is pure FUN for your pseudo-smarty-pants, literary-type friends who pretend they don’t like to read gossip magazines (like ME). The Art of the Affair is full of all the passionate dirt you could possibly dream of, with illustrations! All of the imaginable forms of heartbreak and romance, creativity and desire, genius and screw-ups, of human beings generally making a big, beautiful mess of themselves and everyone around them.

Siobhan Fallon is the author of the novel, The Confusion of Languages, set in Jordan during the Arab Spring, as well as the short story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, set in Fort Hood, TX. She and her family currently live in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.

ALISON BUCKHOLTZ (Navy wife, author)

ODES by Sharon Olds

If you can put down a book of poems whose titles include “Ode to the Hymen,” “Ode of Withered Cleavage,” “Blow Job Ode,” and “Ode to My Fat,” then you’re a better person than I am. I picked up Sharon Olds’ new paperback in a bookstore about a month ago and it’s been within reach ever since. I’ve been an Olds fangirl for a while, and this 2016 collection is no less rigorous or thought-provoking for being playful and mischievous.

WOMEN WRITERS AT WORK: INTERVIEWS FROM THE PARIS REVIEW Edited by George Plimpton, Preface by Ottessa Moshfegh

I humbly submit that the title of WOMEN AT WORK—a collection of interviews with Dorothy Parker, Elizabeth Bishop, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Claudia Rankine and many others—should be changed. Instead, I suggest INSPIRING (BUT NOT INTIMIDATING) WORDS FROM WOMEN WRITERS WHO DEMONSTRATE HOW SMART, THOUGHTFUL, HUMANE THINKERS CONDUCT THEMSELVES IN THE WORLD, GRANTING INSIGHT INTO THEIR EXTRAORDINARY TALENT FOR LITERATURE AND LIFE.  Clunky? Perhaps. But if it attracts even one more reader to these honest and serious reflections, it’s worth it.

A CATALOG OF BIRDS by Laura Harrington

It’s hard to know what Tolstoy, the go-to source on unhappy families, would have made of the Flynns. They’re the all-American Catholic brood at the center of A CATALOG OF BIRDS, a richly-peopled, old-fashioned novel about siblings and the spiderweb of circumstance that has woven them into a fixed place and time: in this case, upstate New York in 1970, following a beloved brother’s return home from the Vietnam War. Author Laura Harrington sketches a community as detailed as a medieval miniature.  Its saturated portraits of each individual character, and their relationships with each other, create the feeling that the Flynns could be any readers’ cousins just a generation or two back—and we care about them as if they’re our own flesh and blood.

 —-

Alison Buckholtz is a frequent contributor to the Mil Spouse Book Review and the author of STANDING BY: THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN MILITARY FAMILY IN A TIME OF WAR (Tarcher/Penguin, April 2009; in paperback April 2013).

Alison wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.

Some of her recent contributions to the Mil Spouse Book Review include reviews of Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Elif Bautman’s The Idiot and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends.

And now, for perhaps one of my favorite year-end roundups, a new mom, writer, and military wife shares the “Books I Started in 2017”:

SIMONE GORRINDO

I have spent the past year raising an infant – a baby girl who had serious feeding problems the first six months of her life, who screamed until 1 am for many of those months, and who, still, 14 months into her life, resists naps and won’t go down until 10 at night. I’ve also moved cross country, bought a house, survived another deployment, started an editing business and new job at an editorial firm, and even snuck some mornings to write. It’s been a totally exhausting but joy-filled year. I have done almost no reading.

What little I have done has been almost all by the glow of my Kindle app. Thank god for the Kindle app. I finished maybe four books. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to recommend any of those, so here are a few I started that truly deserve finishing. If my baby ever gives up on her night owl routine, I will return to them.

And if that doesn’t happen, please finish them for me.

Julie Buntin’s Marlena

I read a good quarter of this debut coming-of-age novel on a long plane ride. With my daughter sleeping peacefully on my chest, I became enmeshed in the sorrows of this poor, cold Northern Michigan town, and I did not want to leave it by the time I had landed. Buntin captures the youth and the painful intensity of adolescent friendship so vividly that the narrator’s memories feel almost like my own. Buntin has a poet’s eye for the world and a storyteller’s heart and mind.

Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs

My daughter is just now old enough now, just detached enough from my physical being, that I am able to re-enter the world of real, hold-in-my-hand books. What a privilege it is to turn the pages of this one. Nora Elridge’s voice is urgent, angry and visceral, and reminds me, as a woman and a writer, to be ruthless is protecting my time, my ambitions, and my dreams.

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Mary L. Doyle

I never turn down a chance to spread the word about good books. And 2017 was an especially busy reading year since I had to take any and every opportunity to escape from the reality of 2017 … if you know what I mean.

Some of the best I read this year were, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander, In Farleigh Field, by Rhys Bowen, A Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon and Janet Oakley’s expertly researched historical thriller, The Jossing Affair.

Andria told us to give her our top three books of this year. An impossible task! (Sorry! Just trying to impose order with my iron fist –Editor) So, I’m going to cheat and give you my top three picks, in no particular order, which all happen to be part of a larger series.

Scorch Series – I loved every single book in Toby Neal and Emily Kimmelman’s post-apocalyptic romance series, Scorch. All SIX books, yes six of them, are smart, well written, edge-of-your-seat thrillers that are also deeply moving love stories, each featuring one brother of the Luciano family. Trust me, it’s the kind of romance series you won’t be embarrassed to read.

I helped the authors as a military advisor on the books, so I can vouch for Neal and Kimmelman’s efforts for authenticity. Since the stories are told from different points of view in each chapter, Neal and Kimmelman split the work, each of them writing either the male or female POV depending on the book. I’d never witnessed this kind of author collaboration before and hadn’t expected it to be as successful as it turned out. These are delicious stories. Try not to gobble them all in one sitting.

The Fatal Flame – Also in my top three is another example of expertly researched historical fiction. Lyndsay Faye’s, The Fatal Flame, is the third book in Faye’s Timothy Wilde series. Wilde is a man of small stature with a hideously burned face he earned on the night both of his parents and hundreds of others were killed in a fire. The tough as nails, New York City Copper, navigates the 1840s city while displaying a soft spot for misfits and strays. The most dangerous misfit in his life is his firefighting brother, Valentine, who bloodies his knuckles in Tammany Hall brawls for the right to put out fires and save lives.

Valentine is a massive, handsome and charming, gay man who decides to run for office against a corrupt wealthy patron. Valentine is a larger than life character in this story of expertly drawn, three dimensional people you won’t want to leave when the pages are done.

The Fatal Flame is the third and final book in this series. Sometime next year, I’ll read all three of them, The Gods of Gotham, Seven for a Secret and The Fatal Flame, in a row. I think I’ll save them for a long holiday weekend or a beach vacation.

The Fifth Season- My final pick is The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, the first book in the Hugo Award Winning Broken Earth series. I’ve not read the other two books in the series, The Stone Sky and The Obelisk Gate, but I look forward to digging into them.

Jemisin starting winning awards for her fiction with her very first book and has collected a pile of them since. She’s known in the fantasy writing business for her rich world building that, not only draws place and characters and intricate plots but also culture, religion, political systems and language and it all feels naturally organic.

In The Broken Earth series, children born with the dangerous ability of Orogeny are murdered by their parents or killed by mobs if their capability to drive their will into the earth to shake the world apart is discovered. If orogenes survive discovery, they are sent to the Flucrum where they are trained to use their gifts to stop the shakes that plague the earth.

Jemisin tells the non-linear story from multiple viewpoints, all of them unique and unforgettable. She populates her world with exotically and wildly different characters, some with black skin, nappy hair, long twists, some are pirates and some are Guardians who are to be feared. I can’t wait to read the next two books in the series to see how it all shakes out … pun intended.

M.L. Doyle has served the U.S. Army both in uniform and as a civilian at home and abroad for more than 20 years. A native Minnesotan, she currntly lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the co-author of two memoirs, including I’m Still Standing: From Captive Soldier to free citizen—my journey home (2010, Touchstone) which chronicles the story of Shoshana Johnson, a member of the 507th Maintenance Company who was captured during an ambush and held prisoner in the early days of the Iraq War. The book was nominated for a 2011 NAACP Image Award in the literary category for best Autobiography/biography.

In addition to the Sergeant Harper mystery series (reviewed here on your Mil Spouse Book Review), Doyle’s other fiction includes an erotica series, Limited Partnerships, and a fantasy called The Bonding Spell, which, intriguingly, is about a woman who has an ancient Sumerian goddess living in her mind. Mary is an editor for The Wrath-Bearing Tree.

 You can learn more about M.L. Doyle on Facebook.com/mldoyleauthor, or Twitter @mldoyleauthor, and read excerpts of all of her work on her humorous and entertaining web site: www.mldoyleauthor.com. An interview between Doyle and Time Now’s Peter Molin can be found in 0-Dark-Thirty.

Abby E. Murray

This year, Sarah Sentilles’ Draw Your Weapons knocked me on my ass– I already reviewed it here on the Mil Spouse Book Review.

Some books I love, recent and otherwise, military related and otherwise:

Helen Phillips’ And Yet They Were Happy. The bright yellow cover with a quaint burning house on it drew me to this years ago and I was hooked by her deft hand at flash fiction.

Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry. When you teach writing, it’s damn near impossible to avoid what’s political. So I don’t. I brought this in to my class a month ago and it was immensely helpful, particularly the chapter on three political poems. Re-examining the relationship between writer, words and reader is never a bad idea.

Daniela Gioseffi’s anthology Women on War: An International Anthology of Writings from Antiquity to Present. I started reading this after talking with someone about how few women are represented in war-related anthologies, even those edited or co-edited by women. It’s multi-genre too, which I appreciate.

Gary Copeland Lilley’s The Bushman’s Medicine Show. I got this book after meeting Gary and read it on my back porch in October before it got cold. These poems sound good. They feel good.

Abby E. Murray teaches creative writing at the University of Washington Tacoma, where she offers free poetry workshops to soldiers and military families, serves as editor in chief for Collateral, a journal that publishes work focused on the impact of military service, and teaches poetry workshops at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Her poems can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of Prairie Schooner, Rattle, Stone Canoe, and the Rise Up Review. She lives near Tacoma and writes often about what it means to resist when your spouse is a soldier.

Terri Barnes

For books to give at Christmas, I recommend two life stories, one fictional and completely believable; the other absolutely true yet almost beyond belief. Each book is a summons to live life completely, to answer one’s calling—not in spite of difficult circumstances but because of them.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles A young Russian count, Alexander Rostov, is sentenced to house arrest in the attic of a luxury hotel in the heart of Moscow for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, the unfolding story is about freedom, love, principles, and “the difference between being resigned to a situation and being reconciled to it.” Towles weaves his story with Russian history, diplomatic intrigue, and devotion. His storytelling is so skillful that even the well-worn phrase “Round up the usual suspects” has new significance. An easy read, but not a guilty pleasure.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, is another story of principle and lost freedom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian turned spy, spent years urging resistance, both spiritual and political, to..

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With the holidays approaching, I wanted to share two books for children: Coloring My Military Life, illustrated by Air Force brat (and daughter of Mil Spouse Book Review contributor Terri Barnes!); and N is for Never Forget: POW-MIA A to Z . Both are from Elva Resa press, the leading US publisher of resources for and about military families.

Coloring My Military Life is a beautifully-illustrated book which captures the heart of being a military kid in creative and sometimes unexpected ways. Jessie Barnes’s affection and empathy for fellow military children, as well as her expansive view of what being a military brat means, makes for delightful, lively, and moving illustrations.

 

Nora, a middle-schooler who will be very sad to leave her friends at the start of 8th grade next year, said quietly, “I can’t color this one yet.” That’s okay. The picture is here. We can talk about it.

Earlier this year I caught Nora listening to the X Ambassadors song “Renegades” in her room on repeat. And I think the line, “All hail the underdogs, all hail the new kids” is what she was feeling. As my oldest, born less than a year into her dad’s military career, she will be the new kid many more times than her brother and sister.

Coloring books have an important role with me and my oldest girl. For preteens dealing with a lot of thoughts and feelings, it’s so much easier to sit and color with your mom than to stare into her eyes while she interrogates you about your tender life. I remember last spring, coloring a “Fantastic Beasts” book with Nora. The illustrations were detailed and brilliant. We colored it every day. One night, while Dave was away for a few months, I was about to turn in when Nora came downstairs. It was 11 p.m.; I thought she’d been asleep for two hours.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I can’t sleep,” she said.

I made her some warm milk and pulled out the coloring book. “Sit and color with me,” I said.

We sat and penned in intricate scales on a three-headed dragon creature. “Is something bothering you?” I asked after a few minutes.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Everything okay with your friends? Everyone’s being nice to you?”

“Yeah.”

“You feel okay about your school work? Not falling behind?”

“No, that’s fine.”

“Okay.”

We colored several minutes more. And let’s be honest, it was late and I knew my little one would be up at 5:45, and I kind of wanted to beg off and go to sleep. But I am glad I just sat and quietly colored, because eventually Nora said, “……….Today I found out what happened at Columbine.”

We live in Colorado. This was the week before the anniversary of the horrible massacre at Columbine High School, a day which is quietly school-free (a teacher in-service day) in our adopted state.

So there it was. “……Oh,” I said. “Who told you about that?”

“Mr. Falwell.”

Damn that Mr. Falwell, the insistently honest Technology teacher!

“It just makes me feel so….sad,” Nora said, coloring.

“It’s okay to feel sad,” I said. “It was a very sad thing.”

We talked a little more. I reminded her to tell an adult if she thought a fellow student was depressed, or agitated. I told her that statistically, the chance of something like that happening near her was very small.

Eventually she went back to bed.

I grant the coloring book with giving us the space and freedom to have talked that way. It gave her something to concentrate on, something to do with her hands, while we talked, and I don’t think she’d have opened up that way if I were simply peppering her with questions.

In a similar way, Coloring My Military Life, whether filled in by kids alone or by kids and parents, allows that space for thought, reflection, honesty. It is a beautiful book, and I look forward to many more afternoons of coloring with my children. And if hard topics come up, that’s alright — and maybe the point.

Teaching Children About Military Service

By Kathleen Rodgers

What’s the best way to review a book written for children? With the help of children, of course. And when the subject matter leans toward the somber and serious, in this case prisoners of war and service members missing in action, I enlisted the help of two children who live in my subdivision, a civilian community far away from bombs and bullets.

William is an athletic seventh grader who tells me he enjoys reading books he can check out from the library. His third grade sister, Kaili, loves to play dress up and wasn’t shy about speaking up as we discussed many of the tough themes in author Nancy Polette’s latest book for middle-grade readers, N is for Never Forget: POW-MIA A to Z (Elva Resa Publishing, 2017) written by Nancy Polette and illustrated by Paul Dillon, the son of a WWII POW.

A few years ago, this brother and sister duo, along with another neighbor boy, showed up on my doorstep with homemade cookies and handwritten signs for my youngest son before he deployed to Afghanistan. To my knowledge, this is the closest these kids have come to personally knowing a soldier going off to war.

So, with William seated to my left at my dining room table and Kaili to my right, we began to discuss the stark and haunting images on the book’s cover. William pointed out the guard tower and informed his sister that there was probably a soldier up in the tower with a gun pointed down at the men huddled in coats. Kaili mentioned the snow and how cold the men looked. Then she mimicked an invisible guard up in the tower and said gruffly, “I’m warning you, don’t try to leave.” Throughout the reading of the book, she put herself into the story, imagining what it would be like to be taken prisoner, to be held against her will, and wondering if her family back home would know her whereabouts and if anyone was trying to save her. That’s what a good book does: it invites the reader to participate.

As we turned to the first page, I started to explain how the book is organized using a word starting with each letter of the alphabet. Kaili chimed in and said, “Yeah, it’s sort of like another book that might say, ‘P is for Princess or M is for Monster.’” And so we began with Artists and how “artwork reflects the hardships of prison life.” In a few brief paragraphs, the author explains how a British soldier held captive by the Japanese in 1942, fashioned a paintbrush out of human hair and used berry juice to depict the harsh treatment he and other prisoners experienced during the war. Although the guards confiscated many of the secret sketches, some of the sketches survived and show the hardship and sometimes death that prisoners endured at the hands of the enemy.

Later in the book, the images of barefoot children in threadbare clothing with downcast faces, and imprisoned behind barbed wire, prompted a lively discussion about Internment Camps and concentration camps during WWII. After William read a few lines out loud from that section, we talked about what it would be like if tanks and military trucks started rolling up and down our street and yanking people from their homes. Since my intent wasn’t to scare the children, I reassured them that hopefully our present and future leaders learn from the mistakes of the past. I appreciated that the author and the illustrator didn’t candy-coat this dark aspect of our world’s history, and the presentation of the material was age appropriate and tasteful.

One illustration shows a prisoner’s hands all cut up and bruised as he sews a crude American Flag out of scraps of material. This led to a discussion about why a prisoner might put his or her life at risk to create symbols from home. Another section talked about how Americans held in captivity during the Vietnam War created “Tap Codes” that help them communicate with other prisoners throughout camp when communication was forbidden. We role-played this part. I held up a notebook to represent a wall dividing two cells in a prison camp. William pretended to be in one cell and Kaili in the other. They couldn’t see each other or speak, not even a whisper. Then they each took turns tapping on the table, and we all three marveled at how prisoners in real life came up with secret codes to communicate. We studied the “tap chart” in the book showing letters of the alphabet and how they corresponded with the number of taps that spelled out words.

In the section, Missing In Action, a special team of investigators searches through a roped off area on a hillside deep in the jungle at what appears to be the sight of a military jet crash. The hillside is bare in places and we imagined what might have happened to the pilot and crew when the plane crashed decades ago and was never found until now. Between the illustration and the author’s explanation, we learn that every effort is made to recover and identify the remains of those missing from battles dating back decades.

At some point in our discussion, I had Kaili run into my home office and bring back a small black and white POW-MIA flag I keep on my desk. We talked about the symbolism of the flag. Then we remembered that a neighbor down the street flies a POW-MIA flag everyday, along with the American flag, on a tall flagpole in his front yard. My hope is that these children will glance up every now and then when they’re riding their bikes past the house and think about the meaning behind the black and white cloth with the silhouette of a man, a watchtower, and barbed wire, flapping in the wind.

When we turned to the section about Sacrifice, I hesitated. A part of me wanted to shield these kids from the truth. In the first illustration, a uniformed honor guard stands next to the casket of a fallen service member while members of the guard fold an American flag to present to the family. On the next page, we see the family seated near the gravesite; several generations are represented. A handsome Marine kneels before a woman as she receives the flag. A young boy clings to her side while a little girl a few feet away looks on.

As the kids and I took turns reading the short passage that accompanies this section, I realized at once why this book is so important. Military kids of all ages understand the sacrifice for the most part. Many of them have lived through the trauma of sending a parent to war, and all too many have experienced the grief that comes with sacrifice, be it death or a disability. But how many civilian kids have been sheltered from the harsh reality of war? How many civilian parents talk to their young children..

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by Alison Buckholtz

What makes a relationship last?

Self-help shelves offer up-to-the-minute answers based on the latest psychology, sociology, and technology. But it turns out the solution has been around for millennia—literally from the time of the ancient Greek poet Homer, best known as author of the tales that make up the Odyssey. Spoiler: according to that epic, in which Odysseus, King of Ithaca, and his wife Penelope are separated for 20 post-war years and then reunited, a good marriage is based on homophrosyne, or “like-mindedness.”

It’s a simple enough concept.  But in the hands of the classicist, critic, and best-selling writer Daniel Mendelsohn, author of An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and An Epic, the concept he translates as “like-mindedness”—the memories two people share–becomes a profound meditation on what bonds two people over the course of a lifetime.  Not just spouses, either: fathers and sons, siblings, even friends estranged across decades who are pulled back into each other’s orbit because of experiences no one but them could understand.

It’s not an insight readers might expect from An Odyssey, in which Mendelsohn narrates how his time teaching the epic to a class of undergraduates drew his 81-year-old father, Jay, back to studying the classics. First Jay sat in as a student in Mendelsohn’s class at Bard College, and then the two took a Mediterranean cruise together, retracing Odysseus’ path and exploits. Jay died a few years after that, and their late-in-life closeness inspires Mendelsohn to find out more about his father—much like the way Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, launches his own journey to discover the truth about the man he knows only from others’ tales.

Equal parts lit-crit class, language lesson, and memoir, An Odyssey alchemizes to create its own unique and compelling sub-genre. But unlike alchemy, which sought to convert base metals into gold, each element of Mendelsohn’s experiment—his story—is already buffed to perfection.

Mendelsohn knows that many people read parts of the Odyssey in high school, but he doesn’t assume any serious familiarity on the reader’s part. That’s a welcome gesture. But as author-professor he goes one brilliant step further: he smoothly, invisibly places his readers in the seminar with his students, sketching the layout and atmosphere of his classroom at Bard College, as well as the roster of co-eds signed up for Classics 125: The Odyssey of Homer, which started at 11:15 on a cold January in 2011.

Our fellow Bard travelers include Tom, who resembles Don Quixote from a Picasso painting–so Mendelsohn remembers him as “Don Quixote Tom,” to distinguish him from another student, “Blond Tom.” There’s “Trisha of the Botticelli Hair,” “dark-eyed Nina,” and several others whose insights, questions, and conflicted feelings about the Odyssey over the course of the semester animate and advance our own understanding of one of the West’s most lasting works of literature.

And of course, there’s “Daddy” –Mendelsohn always refers to his father as “Daddy”—in a chair that’s angled awkwardly away from both the teenage students and his own son, the authority figure.

Jay may love the classics, but he doesn’t like Odysseus. “I don’t think he’s a hero at all,” he announces early in the term, declaring Odysseus a disastrous leader who lost his twelve ships, failed to protect any of his troops, and frequently cries. The crying is especially galling to Jay, who was in the Army during World War II. He maintains a stoicism about military service that carried through to decades of a different kind of service as faithful husband, father of five, and loyal employee of Grumman, the aerospace company near his home on Long Island.

That dedication to duty kept Jay from pursuing his own interest in the classics, as well as other professional goals he’d once targeted. That was what Mendelsohn and his siblings had always thought, anyway. As son gets to know father during the class and the cruise, hints of new narratives nudge aside long-accepted stories.  But it’s hard to pierce a legend, even when it’s just generation-old family lore.

Although the two men grow closer, overcoming much of the distance they used to feel, Mendelsohn’s still-incomplete understanding of his father prompts him to seek even further. So after Jay’s death, Mendelsohn schedules a series of visits to his father’s long-time friends and close relatives to piece together the events that influenced Jay’s approach to life, which is so fundamentally different from his own.

Although the lit-crit and linguistic threads are woven just as tightly into the texture of An Odyssey as the more traditional elements of memoir, they don’t overwhelm. That’s because Mendelsohn doesn’t lecture, either as a character or a narrator.  His storytelling leaves room for other teachers—including his current students, his former professors, and relatives who decode multi-layered family myths.

All of these relationships, no matter how long they were left untended, are grounded in like-mindedness–nourished by memories, loyalty, love, or some combination of the three. They continue to yield an emotional bounty, even after a half-century. That may not sound like a long time compared to what transpires in the Odyssey, but for mere mortals, it’s epic.

P.S.: Penelope

Sure, Odysseus is the hero of one of the West’s most famous stories. Sure, Homer and the question of authorship has polarized critics for centuries. But what if it’s Penelope—the loyal, long-suffering military wife—who you want to know better? There’s no sidling up to her at the O Club’s monthly spouse coffee. But there’s something even better: Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, a re-working of the Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view.

This Penelope, a spirit wandering through the asphodel of the Underworld, may not have a body, but she is nonetheless all too human. For starters, she nurses a life-long grudge against her beautiful cousin, Helen of Troy. There’s good reason for this:  Helen is the ultimate frenemy. Her passive-aggressive cuts (“Divine beauty is such a burden. At least you’ve been spared that!”) make Regina, the alpha Plastic from Mean Girls, look like Anne of Green Gables.

Penelope loves Odysseus, but she’s also practical: she realistically assesses his faults and foibles, adjusting her own responses accordingly. For example, it’s sometimes assumed that Penelope did not actually recognize Odysseus when he came home from his 20-year sojourn, reappearing in the guise of a beggar.  In Atwood’s re-casting of the myth, Penelope knows. “As soon as I saw that barrel chest and those short legs I had a deep suspicion,” she says. But she’s calculated that it’s better to hide that awareness. “The hardness of my heart was a notion I was glad to foster…as it would reassure Odysseus to know I hadn’t been throwing myself into the arms of every man who’d turned up claiming to be him.”

Penelope’s as good an actor as Odysseus is; she plays into what she knows what her husband really wants from his wife. And she’s right.  “Odysseus grinned—he was looking forward to the big revelation scene, the part where I would say ‘It was you all along! What a terrific disguise!’ and throw my arms around his neck.”

Penelope has been faithful to her role since she was King Icarius’ daughter, biding the time until she transitioned from child to wife. She knows how to act because when you’re 15 and your father picks the winner of a race to marry you off to, you do what’s necessary to survive your fate. She always holds part of herself back, remaining watchful as an owl. Nothing escapes her notice.

Well, almost nothing. And therein lies Penelope’s unraveling, the one that haunts her afterlife. Once Odysseus slaughtered her suitors, he hanged Penelope’s 12 maids-in-waiting—young women she loved, gently manipulated, and then failed to protect. Quite literally, she has never gotten over it.

If you don’t remember the part of the Odyssey that recounts the maids’ hanging, you’re not alone. But once Penelope recounts it–and these maids narrate, Greek chorus-style, the story of their downfall–it shifts the plates of Homer’s story so seismically that it doesn’t even seem to belong to Odysseus anymore.

Mendelsohn, Daniel. An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic. Knopf, 2017.

Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. Canongate U.S., 2006.

Buy An Odyssey here, and The Penelopiad here, or at your local indie bookstore.

About the Reviewer: 

Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin, April 2009; in paperback April 2013). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.

She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.


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by Lisa Stice

Kersten Christianson’s Something Yet to Be Named (Kelsay Books, 2017) travels through Alaska and the Yukon, but the poems are as much about the in between as they are about place. They explore boundaries and hug the curves of scenic routes. Christianson again and again trudges her way through the harshest terrain and coldest temperatures toward beauty and the warmth of friends, family, and self.

Paused here between the stairs of the Alaska

Commercial Company Store and Cab Alley

in the vacuum of North wind, I hear—

above murmuring motors of early morning

vehicles and the hum of the building—

snow.

And, I can’t help but pause and think, “How beautiful.” Alaska of the local is far more picturesque than the Alaska I’ve seen as a tourist. From the five times I’ve visited, I’ve come away with broad sweeps of landscape, staying close to highways and main roads, visiting only in July when you just might need a light jacket.

There’s more to this collection than describing place and all the in-betweens, though. It’s much deeper than nature poetry for the sake of purely appreciating a place. It’s about thriving on the unpredictable.

Here on the island, the autumn rains

pound incessantly, winds

shake the shingles, snow dusts

the high peaks of the Sisters

and, in deference to falling leaves,

my dahlias bloom.

It’s about how sharing experiences helps us bond with others.

Eugene and Julian swim one day

in mirrored high mountain lakes

and the next in the open sea.

At Old Harbor Books, Liz tells me

of 10-inch banana slugs.

She marvels at the 5-inch pea pod

I’ve plucked from my parents’ garden.

It’s about being your own company in times of isolation.

I rise early

in a quiet house

under the dark sky

to tend dogs and savor

the morning’s coffee;

bitter-tinged and hot.

What I found most intriguing about this collection is that where I would expect conflict, there is none. The poems confront tensions – remoteness, isolation, keeping relationships strong – and grabs ahold of them to remold them into something solid. I get the sense that the dependability of tension is a comfort of its own sort and that personal strength comes from finding the joys and beauty in what might at first appear harsh.

Christianson, Kersten. Something Yet to Be Named. Kelsay Books, 2017.

—–

Buy Something Yet to Be Named here

Learn more about Kersten on her blog

About the Author: Kersten Christianson is a raven-watching, moon-gazing, high school English-teaching Alaskan. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry through the Low-Residency Program at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2016. Her recent work has appeared in Cirque, Tidal Echoes, The Fredericksburg Literary & Art Review, Inklette, On the Rusk, We’Moon, Sheila-Na-Gig and Pure Slush among other literary journals.  Kersten co-edits the quarterly journal Alaska Women Speak.  When not exploring the summer lands and dark winter of the Yukon Territory, she lives in Sitka, Alaska with her husband and photographer Bruce Christianson, and daughter Rie.

About the Reviewer: Lisa Stice is a Marine Corps wife. It’s difficult to say where “home” is, but she currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, daughter and dog. She is the author of a poetry collection, Uniform (Aldrich Press, 2016).You can find out more about her and her publications here and on Facebook .


Filed under: poetry Tagged: Alaska, Kersten Christianson, Lisa Stice, nature, poetry, women writers
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