I’ve noticed a rise in the publication of chapbooks (or maybe my increasingly busy life has made me take more notice of chapbooks lately). For those who are time deficient, the 40 or less pages fit in nicely between picking the kiddo up from school and taking her to speech therapy, or working on my own writing and taking the dog for a walk, or any other two routine activities. And chapbooks are a special treat that can often show another side of an established author’s talents (as chapbooks can be a place where authors venture into subjects and styles not explored in their full-length collections), immerse the reader in a highly tightened theme, or give the reader a taste of an up-and-coming author.
In my upper elementary and middle school years, I was a devotee of everything Lucy Maud Montgomery. I read all of the Anne of Green Gables series and all the L.M. Montgomery books I could get my hands on in the U.S. Then, on a trip to Canada when I was 12, I bought all the rest of the L.M. Montgomery books. Needless to say, I was beyond excited about Anne with an E (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) by Michelle Bratten.
Anne fans will delight in this book, but you don’t need to have Anne of Green Gables in your reading history to enjoy or connect with this collection. This is not the Anne Shirley of the turn of the twentieth century; this is an Anne Shirley for the turn of the twenty-first century. Bratten’s poems embody the spirit (sometimes lonely, always bold, feminist, ect.) of Anne. There is a power in the poems. This Anne “knows / the answer to life is not hidden in her breasts / or even the sky. It is answered by how she chooses / it to be written” (from “The Fall of Anne”).
About the Poet:
April Michelle Bratten was born in Marrero, Louisiana. The daughter of an USAF active duty father, April grew up traveling and living across the United States and abroad. Her travels have greatly influenced her writing over the years, particularly her three-year residency at Incirlik Air Force Base, Turkey. She currently lives in Minot, North Dakota, where she received her BA in English from Minot State University. You can find her poetry in Southeast Review, THRUSH Poetry Journal, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Stirring, and others. April has been the editor of Up the Staircase Quarterly since 2008 and she is also a contributing editor at Words Dance Publishing, where she writes the article Three to Read. Three to Read highlights recent poetry and poets in online journals around the web.
The raw chaos of the inner self is captured and given an order of hope in Rotterman’s lyrical poems. In Dirt Eaters, there is a tension that is pulled right up to its breaking point. And brokenness can be its own kind of strength.
The two poems titled “Light-rope” set themselves as two antipodes: one, in which the speaker is in “[her] own made-up dark;” the other, in which light verges on explosion as “a neutron star, / the crush of twenty times twenty into one, centers dense with rupture.” And that is the pulse of the entire chapbook. Darkness threatens to become light, light threatens to become darkness, and there is a power in it all that at first seems chaotic, but reveals itself to be determined and in control.
About the Poet:
Eliza Rotterman grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and holds an MFA from the University of Oregon. Her poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Poetry Northwest, and Los Angeles Review, and she was awarded the Kay Evans fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.
Flight rises out of a history of race issues, oppression, and fear to move into a future with new language and new visions of the world. For this chapbook, the title poem is about September 11th, but as the title of the collection, Flight goes beyond that day. Reading Flight is like encountering a bird who just realized its wings can carry it anywhere.
“Using the Laws of Motion to Explain Ferguson” does just that, but the impact is far greater than a physics experiment:
the acceleration a of a mass m
by an unbalanced force F
is directly proportional
to the force
and inversely proportional to the mass
or a [knee-jerk reaction] = F [ired shots] / m [ichael brown]
Each poem is complex yet precise in its telling of the world and its history. Each poem travels beyond its individual moments to something beautiful and hopeful.
About the Poet:
Chaun Ballard was raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and San Bernardino, California. He holds an MFA from the University of Alaska–Anchorage, and his poems have recently been published in Anomaly, Columbia Poetry Review, HEArt Online, Rattle, and Pittsburgh Poetry Review, earning nominations for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Although he calls Alaska his home, for the past eight years he and his wife have served as educators in the Middle East and West Africa.
For a couple of years now, I’ve been curious about the Military Family Museum in Tijeras, New Mexico, and have been in correspondence with its director, Circe Woessner, who hit me up for some names of military spouse fiction-and-poetry writers about a year ago when she said she was designing a milspouse exhibit. I gave her some names, and many writers who’ve been featured on this blog ended up contributing to the museum exhibit, as well. I think we were all a little curious as to what the finished exhibit was going to be like. As the closest of any of us to the museum itself, geographically, I’d been plotting to get to there somehow and report back– but at 400 miles away, I was just not quite close enough!
Finally, a family vacation to the Grand Canyon this past week provided the opportunity to pass by Tijeras, a suburb of Albuquerque, and visit the Military Family Museum in person.
The museum sits just off big-sky I-40, in a New Mexico landscape dusty, windblown, and golden-brown, but with the first mint-green leaves appearing on otherwise bare, white trees–a welcome and lovely sight that hasn’t reached Colorado Springs yet. Its building is a small adobe ranch house that once belonged to a woman named Molly, who must have been well-liked, as the bar next door is named after her.
Circe, an Army wife-and-mom, was outside bustling about, and she waved us down, shouting, “I saw your license plates!” A powerhouse of pure energy, I don’t think she stopped moving the entire time we were there. I don’t think she actually sleeps. The museum is a passion project for her, one she dreamed from the ground up, and her creative vision is evident in every aspect. Her entire family is involved; many times, pointing things out in the museum, she’d say, “My dad hung those up,” or, “I got my mom to make those for me.” She quit her job with the VA a while back to concentrate on the museum. Her husband, former Cavalry, was slightly nervous about this, but supportive.
Circe told us the museum is meant to be experiential; visitors are invited to contribute, participate, touch. When we stepped inside, we were instantly surrounded by artifacts that have been sent in by hundreds of service members, spouses, and military kids, items at once familiar and different from many in my own home. The main floor has been transformed into a sort of symbolic military-family house, with all kinds of objects (uniforms waiting to be ironed, boots by the fireplace, cupboards full of beer-steins and mugs from Germany, Japan) placed where they might be in any home, but in larger numbers, or displayed in ways that add meaning to their functionality.
photo by Circe Woessner
I got this.
There’s something about the layering that’s meaningful in an unexpected way. Instead of one family’s portraits on the mantle, there are dozens of families’: service members’ official portraits, family photos. Instead of one type of uniform in the laundry basket, there are several: Army, Air Force uniforms folded and stacked. Military spouses have contributed handmade potholders which hang above the stove. Prayer flags made by female veterans in an art workshop hang from a beam.
The museum is patriotic, in its way, but not stuffy. There’s love of country-and-citizens without jingoism, machismo, or strident nationalism. No isms! Instead, it’s creative and honest. The bathroom, again in a stroke of inspiration on Circe’s part, has been made into an exhibit about the struggles of addicted veterans and family. There, printed panels hang, describing addictions to various substances along with concrete tips for what to do in the event of an overdose. Along the walls are portraits veterans have sketched of themselves in a therapy session. Guests are invited to open the drawers and take bracelets, pamphlets. The space beneath the sink, again symbolically, is filled with empty bottles–because such things are hidden. Next to all the promotional bands and buttons in adjacent drawers, overspilling in cheerful yellow-and-blue, the installation seems to be having a conversation about the many tries people make at recovery, and how easy it can be to look well on the outside when the inside is falling apart.
Circe shows a pair of jeans made by a military kid in recovery.
Is this what you’d expect at a military museum? It wasn’t what I had expected.
I was a little bit blown away.
Further exhibits showcase military-child experiences throughout the years:
Air Force Ken and Navy Barbie, as modeled by Soren and Susanna!
Be still, my heart: mil kids.
Here’s the former Army uniform of MSBR contributor and poet, Caroline LeBlanc:
At a desk, visitors can fill in postcards about their military experiences–or responses to the museum in general. Circe reads them all. She’s received over 600. Some are positive, or nostalgic; others are “people saying, ‘You’re a bunch of warmongers!'” Circe laughs. People can express what they like. Tolerance is the name of the game here. But I don’t think this museum is a war-mongering one.
It would be hard to cover all of the exhibits in one blog post, so I will try to give an overview. There’s an “In Memoriam,”..
“Sometimes, even now, I wake up before dawn and forget I am not a slut,” Kayla Williams writes, in the prologue to her memoir Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army. In the first chapter, “Queen for a Year,” she elaborates: “RIGHT INTO IT: Sex is key to any woman soldier’s experiences in the American military…I mean sex while in Iraq. At war. While deployed.”
I read Williams’s memoir over a decade ago– it was published in 2005, and so precedes Brooke King’s War Flower: My Life After Iraq (Potomac Books, 2019) by fourteen years. The two authors, both Army veterans, share some very similar struggles, womanhood within a macho military culture chief among them.
I’ll get a few of the other, more-obvious similarities out of the way first: The two authors–as have many from the military sphere– cleverly manipulate Army slang for all its potential irony, harshness, and cutting humor (“Queen for a Year” refers to the boost-on-a-hotness-scale a female servicemember can reasonably expect during a male-heavy deployment, while “War flower” is, as King describes, “a term coined during Operation Iraqi Freedom…to describe a female soldier [usually enlisted] who has miraculously survived a mission and/or deployment without sustaining physical injuries”).
There are similarities in the womens’ retelling of their early years, too. Both describe dysfunctional (though often colorful and sometimes affectionately-recounted) family backgrounds featuring hippie fathers, and an early childhood need for toughness, especially in the face of physical pain. Williams recalls learning her first word–“Hot!”– after touching a stove, a toddlerhood language-breakthrough, rather than tears, being her mode of dealing with the situation–perhaps fitting for a future linguist. King cites a pain tolerance so high that she leaves a piece of shrapnel in her leg after a mortar attack and is impervious to the effects of multiple epidurals during a harrowing childbirth experience.
These traits all make for engaging reading, the sort of necessary, riveting bravado any military memoir is going to offer its armchair readership (though these memoirs are certainly far more than that, multifaceted and nuanced in their plumbing of the war experience). But it’s the handoff Williams’ book makes to King’s that interests me most.
For all the similarities in what they contain, it’s an omission from Rifle that might provide the biggest opening for a memoir like War Flower. I heard Kayla Williams speak publicly on an AWP panel in Los Angeles in 2016 (“Iraq Veteran-Writers Ten Years Later: Words After Words After War,” moderated by Peter Molin and also featuring Colby Buzzell, Maurice Decaul and Ron Capps), in which she mentioned that there was one thing she sincerely regrets having left out of her first book: the fact that she, as did many other soldiers, had sex while deployed in Iraq. It was the exclusion of this fact, rather than the fact itself, about which she seemed conscience-stricken. To paraphrase: Williams said she did not write about it in detail at the time out of the fear of reinforcing a negative stereotype of women in the armed forces, who are damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t. Williams’ book was one of only a very few female-soldier narratives at the time, and so she feared her words might have a disproportionate influence.
What I took from Williams’ regret was that back in the early 2000s, she intended this omission to protect her sisters-in-arms, but that later, in 2016, she was concerned it had been more self-protective. I would argue, however, that Love My Rifle, with its accessible, often casual explanation of military gender-relations and culture, and its no-nonsense straight-talk about sex (“they stared at our tits all the time“; “he was an asshole and a lot of women like assholes,” “the PX in Iraq sells condoms. The general attitude is: ‘Don’t get caught'”), paves the way for the rawer, pain-strafed narrative of War Flower.
Now, to back up just a tiny bit and give Williams the credit she’s not giving herself: to my mind, she does “write about it,” on page 21:”The guys were there for the taking too. And we took. I took.” The meaning of “I took” is pretty clear, and at the time of reading, I honestly did not know how much braver, literarily, anyone could have expected Williams to be. Love My Rifle is an exceptionally brave memoir. Then I read War Flower, and realized: Oh. There is also this kind of brave.
Brooke King opens her memoir with one of the gutsiest moves I’ve encountered in a long time: by putting herself on trial. In the opening scene, she has been court-martialed for a relationship with a married officer, James, which took place on their deployment to Iraq and which has resulted in King’s pregnancy with twin boys. She does not mince words, repeating the accusatory cadence of the charges for the reader the way they were chanted at her, in language that somehow toes the line between pearl-clutching Puritanism and rote, exhausted judgment. It’s an interesting choice for many reasons, not least of which is that it’s openly challenging the reader. It’s taking a gamble. King’s prologue stands right up in your face and wants to know where you stand, is this going to offend you and end up back on the shelf, huh, or can you hack it? (Now, to be perfectly honest, as a military spouse, reading about deployed officers’ baby-making trysts is not generally my first choice of relaxing reading material, but anyway, it wasn’t meant to be relaxing and also, I felt sympathy for King in this opening scene.) This was honesty. I knew I was reading a book that was going to be honest.
From the scene of the trial, King takes us back in time to her initial arrival in Iraq. These sections of the book are the more expected, first-person-in-wartime parts of the story. King makes another interesting choice, however, which is that the scenes in Iraq give us what feels like an unadulterated version of her 20-year-old self. Every other word is “fuck” and her main preoccupations are homesickness, an interest in her own capacity for violence that turns fairly quickly to revulsion, and in-scene details of some of the more traumatic parts of the deployment. “We’ve done enough for these fucking A-rabs,” King tearfully tells her sergeant, Sgt. Lippert (a fascinating “character” and one of the best-wrought in the memoir), in an early scene; this does not sound like the King who comes later, but thank God we don’t all sound like our 20-year-old selves. Again: it feels honest. King describes the horror of recovery missions, gathering severed body parts and putting them into separate bags. It’s truly painful to read, each of her descriptors hitting home. She tells the way the bags crinkle as their contents settle, and the surprising reverence with which kind-of-an-asshole Lippert handles them, gathering up a fallen bag when King cannot, cradling the dead soldier’s head.
The story of King’s personal war is a necessary one for understanding the sections that come after. She expresses the frustration, sorrow, and sense of loss that many other soldier memoirs have. “We didn’t know the names of the streets or which roads led to nowhere,” she writes, of Iraq. “When shit hit the fan, sometimes we didn’t know which direction to fire the bullets.” They are there until the military lets them leave, or they die, a situation that gives King a sense of kinship with veterans of previous wars but especially Vietnam.
Where King’s memoir diverges from more common first-person-shooter accounts is in its creative-nonfiction forays into the minds of other people, other casualties of war. (This is not to say that traditional memoirs by American service members haven’t often shown great concern and sympathy for the victims of personal or political violence–they have.) In brief but frequent chapters that read like standalone flash-fictions, King allows herself to inhabit the minds of a dozen other people: an Afghan girl she often saw in the marketplace but never spoke to. A plural legion of Vietnam veterans. A pair of dog tags, starting out as inanimate objects but gradually endowed with judgment, sympathy, and memory. Most heartbreakingly, a three-year-old boy tortured and starved by jihadists. “Nassir’s dazed eyes from the dimly lit room do not reveal to him that his captors, the men who run this place, are walking in to strip him of his clothes.”
These sections are the “cooked” to the memoir’s “raw,” to utilize an anthropological concept Peter Molin has riffed on and which has now gained some traction of its own. I like both sections, but I like the “cooked” ones best. They are often quite lyrical and beautiful, precise and sparkling with heartsick clarity. They stand out from the first-person war sections to remind the reader, as King must have reminded herself, that she is far from the only victim or casualty of this war. It’s not a comforting knowledge, and it is not supposed to be.
Adding occasional comic relief (or at least the relief of affection) to the narrative are scenes with King’s loving, “fucked-up” family, who are concerned about her upon her return from Iraq and trying their best to jostle her from her depression. Her father and grandparents are more clearly wrought than any of the male love interests in the memoir, and despite the hardship of King’s childhood, these sections are enjoyable to read. They’re also key in showing us who King is: a responsible older sister who, at age ten, cooked dinner for her kid brother and talked her dad out of a suicide attempt; who unwittingly dropped acid in marshmallow form at age nine at a Grateful Dead concert; who shields her Italian nana from the truths of war and pours her grandpa a Johnnie Walker because they both know what it’s like to need some time tucked inside themselves.
Another group of sympathetic folks enter King’s life when she decides to work toward a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. Her fellow writers encourage her to ditch thinly-veiled fiction to work on memoir.
I had found out about my pain, unleashed it on the page, and realized for the first time in my life that it was okay to hurt while writing, that the best part of a story is when the writing leans into the pain on the page instead of leaning away….I was molting my war skin and becoming something entirely different.
It’s this sense of becoming something different that elevates War Flower and allows for the feeling that two authors and a host of ghosts might have written the book: Iraq-war King, post-Iraq King, and the small cohort of souls who drop in, briefly, to explain themselves. The kaleidescopic effect is powerful and points to another Iraq war-writer progenitor, Brian Turner. Whether or not he’s the friend King mentions in “IED,” describing an experience that sounds a lot like the basis for Turner’s “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center” (although the franchise [Home Depot here] and timeline [2010 or before] probably do not add up), the influence of Turner with all his Whitmanesque multitudes seems to inhabit the latter pages of War Flower. King’s epilogue, “Present Arms,” rings with homage to the closing pages of Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, though the scenarios are different: rather than a Sgt. Turner who, “because he is dead…will remain at his post,” haunting his own life from above (“two bright forms sleeping side-by-side in the bedroom”), “zooming in sometimes, switching camera angles and lenses, collecting data, checking his gauges,” King imagines a ceremony in which her company gathers to say good-bye, calling her name before the small altar of her boots, rifle, dog tags, helmet, and photo.
The air will be still as the silence of the formation stands rigid. Some will hold back tears. Others will bend their knees slightly to keep them from buckling under the weight of their own body…”Taps” will play long and slow.
In King’s case, having shed her war skin, the ceremony is to honor the fact that she’s gotten away.
A first-generation of war writers has shown that this is possible: multiple stories within a war, multiple lives within a person. Bravery, both in person and on the page, from dozens of writers like Kayla Williams and Brian Turner, has helped spur books like War Flower, which in turn has pushed the envelope into further reaches of creativity and imagination, further spins on the old war story. I am interested to see what the compassion and honesty of War Flower make possible, both for King in her future work, and for other young writers.
Love, regret, sex, death, mistakes, forgiveness–it’s real in the military and everywhere, and nothing is easy, but people contain a million things, and the beauty of writing is that the author decides what to keep, and what to let get away.
There aren’t many genuine literary thrillers out there, especially among today’s memoirs. Sure, there are narrative twists that lead to unexpected epiphanies—but fewer and fewer books whose plot and pacing compel me to page ahead of my place in the text, panting for answers.
Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love does that by telling a remarkable story with the empathy and eloquence that characterize Shapiro’s previous nine books. That number includes at least three memoirs. So it’s reasonable to ask a simple question: What could be left to say?
Inheritance adds significantly to Shapiro’s body of work while plugging into some of our culture’s most pressing concerns–identity, technology, and medical ethics, among others. Although her story is unique to her, it offers a way of thinking about our changing, uncertain times.
It’s a hard book to discuss without spoiling the surprises that make it such an exciting read, and I’ll try not to give too much away. Inheritance opens as Shapiro, at age 54, receives DNA test results that are dramatically inconsistent with her understanding of who she is. The new facts of her life are so impossible to believe that she pursues new test results from several additional companies, and the quest for the truth is her only anchor in unfamiliar, terrifying territory.
“I latched onto facts,” she writes. “I ran through these facts as I tried to fall asleep each night, as if recounting them might help me make more sense of things. But what I was really doing was unspooling a narrative fifty-four years long.”
Shapiro is finally forced to understand that her genetic history speaks its own “inconvenient truth.” This conflicts fundamentally with her personal identity, shaped by generations of relatives who were Orthodox Jews–many of whom held prominent roles in the community and were influential authorities in their time. The portraits of these communal leaders—grandfathers and grandmothers, aunts and uncles–line the walls of her home and dictate (almost literally) her self-image, her relationships, and the traditions she’s passing down to her son.
So when her genetic analysis offers a different life story to tell, it upends her world. It seemed to Shapiro “as if I had been swept into someone’s novel—someone’s melodramatic novel—and I was a playing a character rather than living my life.”
While still in the fog of disbelief, she commits to suss out the what, where, and how of who she is. In the process, she also unearths the why. Gradually, answers to questions that she had never before been able to articulate power Inheritance forward as it heads in directions that explore the history of reproductive medicine, the legacy of secrecy, and the power of denial.
As Shapiro seeks to redefine family in a way that’s relevant and honest, some of her lifelong relationships unravel. But other family ties weave new patterns, and these –braided with truth alongside sentiment—give her the strength to keep narrating an unknowable future.
About the Author:
Dani Shapiro is the author of four memoirs, Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Dani’s new memoir, Inheritance, was just published by Knopf.
Her books span diverse subjects from her tumultuous upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish community and the tragic death of her father to her explorations of spirituality and the nature of our deepest relationships.
She contributes regularly to the New York Times Book Review and is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler. A portion of Slow Motion was broadcast on This American Life.
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.
Katie Sise has written a beautiful yet chilling novel that focuses on a small town with four women who are connected through family and friendship. Cora O’Connell, a woman who concerns herself with perfection, finds out her husband has allegedly cheated on her with their twin toddler’s babysitter. If that is not enough, the babysitter goes missing and readers are pulled into to a whirlwind of secrets from Cora, the babysitter’s mother, Laurel, Cora’s best friend, Jade and Cora’s mother, Sarah.
The structure of this novel is told from the individual perspectives of Cora, Laurel, Jade and Sarah. This structure does not leave the reader wondering what is occurring in the lives of these women and it allows for the story to stay in constant motion. Each woman will reveal their true desires and their struggles, keeping the reading fully engaged in the story.
Katie Sise focuses on a myriad of themes to include perseverance, the struggles of motherhood, honesty and grief. The biggest struggle these women face is not being open with each other, which will cause some riffs along the way. Sise proves her ability to write an incredible thriller in under 400 pages; perfect for those readers who prefer shorter novels.
Not only will readers appreciate the chilling edge some of these characters possess, they will also relish in the plot twists this novel features in bulk. Sise ensures her readers do not encounter any monotonous details throughout the story.
With relatable characters who are facing realistic issues, readers will find it difficult to put this novel down. Readers may learn a thing or two of what it is like to suffer in silence and the importance of speaking out even if it means exposing their life is far from perfect.
We Were Mothers is perfect reading for those who enjoy a balance of scandal, depth and believable characters.
About the Author:
Katie Sise is a New York City based author, jewelry designer, and television host.
About the Reviewer: Ashley Mouzzon is a 24-year-old Army Veteran and Army Spouse who recently graduated from Thomas Edison State University with a Bacherlor of Arts Degree in English. Currently Ashley is a graduate student at Drexel University.
Liv and Lynne Constantine created a novel told from two different perspectives of women who could not be more opposite. One who dreams of living a life overflowing with wealth and the other who is doing her best to keep her head afloat.
On the surface, The Last Mrs. Parrish is an exceptional book club read as it seems to have the perfect amount of detail mixed with an entertaining plot. Surprisingly, this novel goes well beyond the surface, diving deep into the lives of Amber and Mrs. Daphne Parrish. Amber, a young woman who is obsessed with everyone else’s life except her own, seeks out Daphne, a woman who appears to have everything she could ever want.
As Daphne and Amber build a friendship, readers will be engaged in the events that transpire chapter by chapter. The novel contains an excellent build up, revealing what Amber is truly seeking in her friendship with Daphne; it is certainly not lavish vacations or endless invites to fancy parties.
The closer the women become, their dishonest relationship allows for disturbing secrets to boil violently to the surface. Constantine delivers a well written psychological thriller that can be easily digested in one day.
With themes such as strength, infidelity, and a mother’s love, this novel is an outstanding portrayal of how everything is not as it appears to be. Constantine forces readers to ponder whether we truly know what goes on behind closed doors. Also, readers will come to understand how far a mother will go to protect the lives of her children even when it seems she has no place to turn.
The Last Mrs. Parrish is a powerhouse story that will leave the reader with their head spinning in the best way!
About the authors:
Liv Constantine is the pen name of internationally bestselling authors and sisters Lynne Constantine and Valerie Constantine. Separated by three states, they spend hours plotting via FaceTime and burning up each other’s emails. They attribute their ability to concoct dark storylines to the hours they spent listening to tales handed down by their Greek grandmother. THE LAST MRS. PARRISH is their debut thriller.
About the Reviewer:
Ashley Mouzzon is a 24-year-old Army Veteran and Army Spouse who recently graduated from Thomas Edison State University with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English. Currently Ashley is a graduate student at Drexel University.
Here it is, three-quarters of the way into January, and I am just rolling up with my “Best Reads of 2018” list. Hypocrite that I am, I hounded (or at least politely invited) other military wives and female veterans to submit their lists, while slowly considering mine. I loved all the lists that came in–varied and fun, with some women echoing the same books in list after list–Tara Westover’s Educated, anyone?–in a way that was informative as to the trends and movements of the past year.
I was comforted by the suggestion that my belatedness may simply be a serial-blogger trait, for Jennifer Orth-Veillon of the WWI Centennial blog also, rather recently, sent me her own list. This encouraged me to write mine up now as well. So here we are, recommending!
In her typical fashion, Jennifer’s list is in-depth and thought-out, and I admire her for this personal quality that cannot be curbed even when someone asks for a “short list.” I’m sharing hers here now, finally, and mine as well, and then I think we can officially send everyone off on a Happy New Year of enjoyable and varied reading.
JENNIFER ORTH-VEILLON‘s Most-Recommended Books of 2018:
1. The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason. Before the outbreak of WWI in 1914, Vienna was home to the world’s most dazzling intellectual and cultural circles. Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl, Leon Trotsky, and Theodor Herzl rubbed elbows at smoky cafés during the day.Oskar Kokoschka, Adolf Loos, and Gustav Klimt might have been found together watching waltzes at evening parties held in opulent houses. Adolf Hitler, an aspiring painter, lingered bitterly at this society’s edge. Austrian author Karl Kraus, in his obituary for the assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, described the country as the “laboratory for the Apocalypse.” Into this world was born the precocious, awkward Lucius who couldn’t have been less interested in society, art, or politics. Breaking free from his rich, influential family’s obsession with status and tradition, Lucius went to medical school where, before he gets a chance to put his hands on patients, joins the military and is sent to a rural Carpathian village to serve as a “doctor” to Empire soldiers fighting the Russians. He leaves, believing that his family will finally embrace him as a glorious war hero, but when he arrives the village, Lemnowice, he realizes he has no idea what to do with the wounded patients who have been abandoned in a falling-down church in sub-zero temperatures. His guide, a rifle-bearing nun, Margaret, teaches him how to operate, amputate, and prevent lice infestation. Together, they make a formidable medical team working in unimaginable conditions. When they begin treating Horvath, an amputee for what will become known as “shell shock” and PTSD by analyzing his drawings, the nun and unofficial doctor fall in love. The Winter Soldier gives readers an unflinching look at medicine in wartime as it delves with virtuosity into the details of sucking chest wounds and gangrene. Mason, who is a psychiatry professor at Stanford, also sheds light on the first discovery, acknowledgment, and treatment of the invisible wounds of the psychic trauma from war. From catastrophe and hardship rises a riveting story full of suspense, beauty, and heartbreak.
Listen to NPR’s great interview with Daniel Mason for more about The Winter Soldierhere.
2. Transcriptionby Kate Atkinson. Like Michael Ondaatje’s recent novel, Warlight, Transcription by Kate Atkinson takes on the murky underbelly of England’s WWII-era spy network. Julie Armstrong is an aimless young woman at the outbreak of war and is lured into joining M15, the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency. Her main task is to transcribe conversations held in an M15-bugged apartment that serves a meeting place for enemy affiliates. Her first major physical assignment is to pass as an anti-Semitic German sympathizer to infiltrate a group that wants to aid Hitler in bringing down European Jews. She succeeds and moves on to other assignments, which involve murder and bloodshed. When the war is over, the ghosts – real and imagined –haunt her present life working in a TV production studio. She dates, goes to parties, and seems to enjoy her life as a young single professional woman with the exception that she is always expecting someone to come and take revenge for her wartime work, someone to “finish her off.” Some critics have compared Atkinson’s work to Alice in Wonderland and rightfully so; the first chapters take us down a rabbit hole as they vacillate achronologically through five decades. At times, the reading gets frustrating as characters and plotlines just seem to just…go away unfinished only to surface again in the most improbably places. However, this feels more like technique than disorganization. As anyone who has read a good espionage novel knows, spies live their lives in shadows instead of sunlight. When the light gets too bright and shade goes away, they have to choice disappear in all of their contours and forms.
3. The Boat Runner by Devin Murphy. Another WWII book, this time set in wartime Holland. A young boy, Jacob Koopman, from a prosperous, seemingly happy family loses his brother in the great flooding of Rotterdam, which was unsuccessfully implemented to prevent the Nazis from taking over the important port. Shattered by the loss, he begins to help his Uncle Martin, a member of the Dutch Resistance, carry out violent missions on the Netherlands’ complicated network of waterways. He becomes jaded when he loses his mother in an Allied raid on their town and joins the German Navy. An expert boat handler, he becomes the Nazi’s star submarine maneuver when he blows up a British ship carrying thousands of men and becomes subsumed by guilt. While he is receiving his highest-order medal for the operation, his uncle comes to see him under the guise of a Nazi and helps him escape. In a harrowing trek across Germany back to the Netherlands during which almost dies several times, he witnesses the horrors of Hitler’s Genocide. Like Mason’sThe Winter Soldier, The Boat Runner spares no detail as he describes the violent scenes of war. The book carries a strong moral message, but it has enough grit to make it a riveting tale about war crimes and the impossibility of redemption.
Jennifer Orth-Veillon holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Emory University and curates the WWrite blog from the perspective of a writer, scholar, teacher, and French-English translator specializing in the literature of war and the experience of the American veteran. She has led writing workshops for veterans on university campuses and has taught over twenty courses on different modes and mediums for war veteran memoirs. For two summers she served as a teaching assistant to Dr. Mark Facknitz’s James Madison University’s summer abroad program on the Great War and modern memory, which took place at various WWI memorial sites in France, Belgium, and England. In her writing and research, she seeks to understand the complexity of war through its shifting place in cultural memory and history.
Andria here again. Hello. Well, a huge amount of my reading time this year has revolved around my son’s fifth-grade Battle of the Books team. I am one of the two parent coaches, along with a mom named Miss Hester. I am envious of her literary name. Anyway, Miss Hester and I, along with the TAG teacher and twelve fifth graders, have been reading 40 (forty!) classic YA novels and we spend Friday afternoons discussing the books and quizzing each other. It is delightful. We will take it to the mat against other fifth-grade teams from throughout the region at Colorado College in April.
I have been impressed to see the range of (often very serious) topics these books cover and the way these 10 and 11-year-olds process them. Also, just seeing these kids read forty books on their own time outside of school is pretty inspiring. (The school loans out all of the books, so cost is not an issue.) We have read a novel set during Hurricane Katrina. Books that deal with alcoholic parents (yikes!). Books about the Civil Rights Movement. Native American cultures. Slavery. Girls living under the Taliban.
I was excited to discover that the novel Fish in a Tree features a main character who’s a military brat and who has managed to hide her severe dyslexia because of changing seven schools in nearly as many years.
Some discoveries: Fifth graders are very goofy but can be quite serious about books. Fifth grade boys look like tiny babies compared to the girls. Bridge to Terabithia is every bit as phenomenal a novel as it was when I was in fifth grade and Where the Red Fern Grows is still gonna make you cry like a baby.
Alright! On to grownup books: I don’t think I can hold a candle to Jennifer here, but in any case, here were some of my best reads and listens of 2018:
This is not meant to sound in any way pretentious. I wanted to try to recapture my early love of big Russian novels this year (Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, and a new addition, novels and stories by Turgenev–I liked Fathers and Sons very much), and so far it has been working great, although it may be more of a five-year project. I’m very much looking forward to reading some critical studies of these novels once I’m finished, but I’m making myself simply absorb the work first (especially enjoying all of the often-very-funny character studies) as a sort of odd backwards motivation. (One of my favorite insults from Karamazov is when one character refers to Alyosha as what my version translated as, “a little religious weirdo.”)
Karamazov has been my favorite so far, which surprised me (I was sure I’d love Anna Karenina best again), but it’s so intense and spiritual and grief-filled a book–composed in very large part of people having arguments with each other–that I’ve really enjoyed it, switching back and forth between the audio version and the written. (Learning that I could speed up the reader’s pace on Audible has also been a boon for me.) Even though I’m keeping myself from any critical commentary until I finish, I did remember that Dostoyevsky wrote it, in isolation, after the death of his beloved three-year-old son, and so a scene where Alyosha watches Elder Zosima interact with a woman who has recently lost her child was quite devastating to read, but so beautiful for its still-raw feel and its sheer compassion. The mother is distraught. She’s left home and traveled three months on foot to get to Zosima, whose powers of healing are legendary.
I can’t forget him. As if he’s standing right in front of me and won’t go away. My soul is wasted over him. I look at his clothes, at his little shirt or his little boots, and start howling. I lay out all that he left behind, all his things, and look at them and howl….If only I could just have one more look at him, if I could see him one more time, I wouldn’t even go up to him, I wouldn’t speak, I’d hide in a corner, only to see him for one little minute, to hear him the way he used to play in the backyard and come in and shout in his little voice: ‘Mama, where are you?’
[aw crap, now I’m all teared up again]
But here is the beautiful part; Zosima tells her, “This is the lot that befalls you mothers, on earth. And do not be comforted, you should not be comforted, do not be comforted, but weep.”
Do not be comforted, but weep. Though much editing surely took place later, it is like reading Dostoyevsky working through his grief in real-time. The bitterness of the passage feels so human. It’s such an extraordinary book.
I’ve long been bewildered by the extensive negative news coverage of the Department of Veterans Affairs, where I formerly worked and continue to get all my medical care. My confusion does not stem from a misplaced belief that there are never problems at VA medical centers: human error is virtually unavoidable, and in a system that serves over six million patients a year, it seems inevitable that some of them will have negative experiences. Nor is it because I don’t believe in the value of journalists and members of Congress holding VA accountable: I fully recognize the benefit of oversight for continual improvement. Rather, my puzzlement stems from the vast gap between the relentlessly downbeat media stories and the data showing VA consistently out-performs other sectors of care in quality, safety, effectiveness, timeliness, and other measures – despite serving an older, sicker, and poorer population – at lower cost.
Those interested in an in-depth exploration of America’s largest integrated health care system would be well-served to read Suzanne Gordon’s paean to the Veterans Health Administration, Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans (Cornell University Press, 2018). Gordon brings the deeply valuable perspective of someone who has many years of experience reporting on the broader healthcare landscape to this project. Unlike short pieces by journalists who must cover multiple beats in a competitive media landscape, she has the background and depth to move beyond superficial coverage using VA’s self-reported data to compare individual VA facilities to one another, and instead takes on the far more complicated task of assessing VA in comparison to other care systems on a wide range of topics, from primary care to suicide prevention to geriatrics. Crucially, Gordon also identifies ways in which VA improves health care for all Americans, such as by training 70% of medical residents and conducting tremendous amounts of research – which has resulted in advances including the nicotine patch, implantable cardiac pacemaker, and best care practices implemented nationwide.
Gordon explains how VA has been at the forefront of implementing best practices ranging from integrating mental health care into primary care, interdisciplinary pain management, providing training and supervision on challenging treatment modalities like prolonged exposure (PE) therapy, and more. She explores in depth the unmatched rehabilitation support VA provides to enhance functioning among veterans with spinal cord injuries, impaired vision, and amputations. And Gordon highlights the non-medical services that VA provides to connect veterans experiencing homelessness or legal problems with vital resources. Interwoven in the data she gleaned from her documentary research are the voices of both VA health care providers and veterans receiving care at VA who she interviewed at sites across the country, which keeps the text engaging and accessible for lay readers. Additionally, she intersperses the topical chapters with short, in-depth profiles of people whose passion for serving veterans is inspiring: a VA volunteer, a neurologist learning cognitive behavior therapy, an occupational therapist exploring how bikes or nature can improve outcomes, and Memphis police officers developing a new crisis intervention model with local universities and VA.
There has been a significant push in recent years to dramatically increase the amount of care veterans receive in the private sector – pressure that has increased under the current administration. Gordon examines whether this is realistic, ultimately concluding it is not. She cites a survey of 15 metro regions that found an average wait time to get a first appointment with a physician was up to 24 days – compared to five days to see a VA primary care doctor. The situation is worse in rural areas and mental health care: the private sector does not have the capacity to absorb millions more patients. Gordon also addresses little-known components of the VA system that privatization is unlikely to replicate, such as its system for managing disruptive behavior (unlike in the private sector, where providers “can and routinely do ‘fire’ patients who are uncivil, threatening, or physically violent,” VA is required to provide the full range of medical services to eligible veterans). And she brings into sharp focus the reason we know so much about the very real challenges admittedly VA wrestles with: the required transparency that comes with being part of the public sector, “accountable to Congress and the public for administrative errors, personnel failures, or clinical mistakes, in a way that the health care industry in general is not.”
By the concluding chapter, readers are likely to be convinced that VA is “a system worth saving.” We are currently at risk of slowly decimating the VA, a uniquely strong system that provides top-notch care to a population that carries a heavy health burden. Veterans deserve a system that can provide high-quality, comprehensive, integrated care for their war injuries, which VA delivers. Gordon’s excellent volume demonstrates why we must not only fight to keep it strong, but should even use VA as a model for completely revamping America’sprofoundlybroken health care system. Rather than buying into anti-government, pro-privatization rhetoric, all those who want our servicemembers to be able to access top-notch care once they leave the military would be well-served by reading Wounds of War and pushing back – hard – on the insidious attacks on VA, an incredibly successful government agency that makes a profound difference in the lives of millions of Americans.
About the author:
Suzanne Gordon is an award-winning journalist and author. She has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Nation, The Washington Monthly, The American Prospect, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, JAMA, The Annals of Internal Medicine, The BMJ, and others. She is the co-editor of the Culture and Politics of Health Care Work series at Cornell University Press.
Kayla Williams is currently a Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. She is the author of the books Love My Rifle More Than You, a memoir of her time in the Army, and Plenty of Time When We Get Home, about her family’s journey to recovery after her husband’s combat injury.
Peter Jackson’s WWI documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old, opens with black-and-white footage of young soldiers marching in a line, headed to an unknown destination. Their faces, as they pass before the camera, are alternately proud, hesitant, intelligent, baffled. The footage lightens by degrees until their forms whiten and blur and they seem to slip away.
It’s a combination of the highly individual, the particular–each of these very distinct people–and also a scale of loss that gives the moment a palpable, silencing power. There is nothing jingoistic about it, no nationalism, not even machismo; just the pace of their (digitally altered) steps, seeming (whether this was truly the case or not) jaunty and good-natured as they confront whatever horrors, pain or joy awaits them.
They Shall Not Grow Old - Official Trailer (2018) - YouTube
For the next several minutes, as veterans’s voices begin to relay their experiences of the war, the footage remains 2-D even as it is colorized. Sitting dutifully in a Colorado Springs theater in my 3-D glasses (which, like most nearsighted people who’ve forgotten to put in their contact lenses, I had to wear over my regular eyeglasses–DOUBLE GLASSIN’ it like some nerd in a nineties movie), I waited for the 3-D images to start, feeling my usual resistance at what seems a bit like manipulation. There is something about 3-D films that make it hard for me to take them seriously, as if I’m about to go on a Disney ride. But the moment when They Shall Not Grow Old first switches into 3-D is quite sudden, a sleight of hand, placing a small group of young soldiers right in front of you, their faces alert and mobile and apprehensive, mugging a little for the camera. (One of the more charming aspects of the documentary is that being filmed was very new to most of the soldiers, and when confronted by a camera they simply could not play it cool. They keep sneaking glances, nearly blushing, totally at a loss as to what they should be doing. “Move around!” the cameraman would sometimes shout.) The effect creates, as Jennifer Orth-Veillon notes, “a collective experience that more closely resembles theater than film in its closeness to the human experience of war.” There is a timeless quality to it, as if you could be watching a show about Vietnam, or maybe even (if amped up with much higher-tech kit) the recent wars.
They Shall Not Grow Old is a very human film, and to that end it makes some very good choices. The first, and perhaps most important, is that the sole source of narration is the veterans themselves. There is no documentary voice-over, not even a whiff of Benedict Cumberbatch or Morgan Freeman. Given that Jackson could have taken the film in any direction (his assignment was to use selections from the 600 hours of interviews and 100 hours of film footage from the Imperial Museum), this was an inspired and meaningful choice. The soldiers’ recollections, mostly taken from interviews conducted during the 1960s and 1970s, voice the entire film, and to his credit, Jackson thanks the oral historians themselves for their foresight and action in an acknowledgement at the end.
The footage itself is the most-talked-about feat of the work, and it is truly remarkable how alive the soldiers come when granted color, space, and modern-looking motion. The extreme high-definition can have its oddities–the ground seems almost to move or pulsate in the foreground–but one gets used to it. Some editorial tics of Jackson’s also become irksome–his penchant for sprinkling red poppies into the background of nearly every field, for example, as if he had some quota to meet, and which could have been more powerful with a much lighter hand; his possible over-messing with the soldiers’ teeth (surely most of them did not have perfect teeth, but it appears that Jackson and his team used every close-cut shot to render teeth almost theatrically goofy and splayed, to the point where it feels overdone). In a thirty-minute mini-doc at the end, which everyone in our theater stayed for, Jackson, looking startling Hobbit-like, barefoot and chunky-ankled in a way no female director could ever get away with (or at least flaunt), and bursting with understandable pride in his accomplishment, walks the viewer through the painstaking process of restoration and verisimilitude, and it is truly fascinating, or at least it is to a layman like me, who feels accomplished when navigating a WordPress site.
Jackson is well-known as a WWI geek extraordinaire; he owns dozens of period uniforms and even weaponry, showcased in the mini-doc. Knowing this, I was expecting a more in-depth film; I expected to learn some things I did not know. That is not, however, the point of this film, which was surprisingly non-academic. If you’ve read even a few WWI novels or nonfiction accounts you will find nothing that surprises you here. But that doesn’t diminish the power of hearing from, and seeing, the soldiers themselves. For example: There is one section of footage where soldiers, crouching behind a low hill, look utterly terrified. They are waiting to make a charge on the Germans across the way, and their fear is plain on their young, twitching faces. In the extra at the end, Jackson visits this spot now, and mentions that most of the soldiers in that shot were likely in the last thirty minutes of their lives, and it was so sad–that kind of galling, horrifying sadness– I didn’t even know what to do with myself. The endnote of the film is a simple, almost startlingly understated message from the veterans themselves–in their gravelly, elderly voices, which at least give us the solace of knowing that they survived the Front–about avoiding war. Roughly every other line is told by a different voice.
There may be right on both sides,
but I think war is horrible.
Everything should be done
to avoid war.
I still can't see
the justification for it.
It was all really rather horrible.
I think history will decide,
in the end,
that it was not worthwhile.
There were a few moments during the film in which I wondered if Peter Jackson hadn’t perhaps been giving slightly too much power in shaping the way his audiences will see WWI, much in the same way he’s done with the works of Tolkien. The similarities between the two, in Jackson’s hand, are almost alarmingly similar, but I’ll leave that to my friend Rob Bokkon to comment on in the upcoming issue of Wrath-Bearing Tree (Rachel Kambury, another expert on Tolkien and the Great War both, will also discuss the film. I haven’t seen what either of them are writing yet, so I’m quite eager for January 7th to roll around, though I do know that Rob will be discussing some of the work of Otto Dix in relation to Jackson’s vision, and, having done a really enjoyable independent study with Professor Charles Altieri at UC-Berkeley on the wartime art of Dix, Marc, and Macke, I am looking forward to this in particular).
Some of Jackson’s incredible level of influence comes from necessary choices he and his team had to make to pare down the sheer volume of material. With hundreds of hours of content to account for, he/they decided to narrow the film’s gaze onto the experience of the average British soldier on the Western front. Jackson apologizes for this briefly in the “extra” at the end, explaining that he simply had no space to allow for the experiences of, say, the flying forces, the Navy, women (many of whom served as nurses; Jennifer Orth-Veillon of the WWI Centennial Blog highly recommends Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone, which she says may be her favorite work to come out of the war), or the thousands upon thousands of colonial troops who constituted what was truly a world war. This all makes sense, editorially speaking, and it honestly did not occur to me during the viewing of the film to feel at all slighted as a woman, because the film is about those who fought the war, and from the research I have done, though it has hardly been exhaustive, I have never come across any evidence of women fighting, either disguised as men or otherwise, though millions of womens’ lives were surely shaped, changed, or ended early by the conflict. So, for me at least, omitting women (although they are occasionally referenced as worried, chiding mothers to be disobeyed, or glib, fun-loving prostitutes; fun-loving as in it’s somehow assumed that they love being prostitutes) was not a major or unforgivable problem.
However, the sheer whiteness of the film did make me uncomfortable, and still does, and in fact is something I cannot quite get past. It seems that Jackson would have to have employed some kind of willful ignorance in order not to spend at least 3 or 5 minutes on the “well over four million non-white men mobilised into the European and American armies” — cited by the British Library homepage itself, which also calls this number “a conservative estimate.” These were not just colonial troops, though their contributions were legion; documentaries have been made, and books written (such as Stephen Bourne’s riveting, thoroughly researched labor of love, Black Poppies) about black Britishers who served either openly or by “passing” in the Army, many of them dying in combat. Their stories are so truly fascinating, and in many cases well-documented (many via oral histories just like the ones Jackson used), that the film would have lost nothing in at least mentioning them. There is one split-second of footage near the beginning of the film which shows black faces, I think from a colonial army, but it’s so very fast that you would miss it if you blinked, and it’s never discussed, and the voices in the film seem uniformly white. To suggest that the only people of color supporting Britain were colonial forces is also an error, for many black British citizens did as well, which might have been more in keeping with Jackson’s self-made parameters, and their accounts are easily accessible online and elsewhere.
This may be a very unfortunate blind spot for Jackson. Re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy post-Christmastime with my children, as we always do to fill the holiday void over these longest nights of the year (and which we all very much enjoy), I was struck yet again not only by the extreme whiteness of his cast but the insistence of the benevolent characters’ nearly across-the-board, vibrantly-blue eyes, and the fact that the villains of the film are almost all dark-eyed. Orlando Bloom, naturally brown-eyed but a “good” character, wears blue contacts. Christopher Lee, playing vessel-of-all-evil Saruman, has nearly black eyes. At one point in The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo hide on a hillside near Mordor, and a soldier of the Haradrim–a recently-arrived, Sauron-allied southern army, the ones who ride the Oliphants–stands threateningly near them. The camera zooms in on his ominous, exotic, chocolate-colored eyes. And etcetera, and etcetera. I’m not trying to demonize Jackson here; I do not necessarily think he is some closet bigot; but once you start noticing these patterns in his work it’s nearly impossible to stop. If anything, he may simply fall prey to dated tropes of good and evil without realizing their implications. (Interestingly, The very conservative National Review calls They Shall Not Grow Old “The Movie of the Year,” with Rich Lowry claiming that “Jackson deserves more than an Oscar, he deserves a medal.”) In any case, coupled with the end product he’s made with They Shall Not Grow Old, it seems just a little too easy for Peter Jackson, in the late year 2018, to disregard those who don’t fit his ossified representations. At the very least, he should begin to understand the importance that representation has for various communities and make some effort to support it, either in his fiction or-non. Presenting the First World War to a layman public, many of whom may not watch a documentary on that conflict again, is a great responsibility, and one I’d develop an ulcer trying to undertake myself — but a huge part of that responsibility is in representing the participants, not just for the sake of their own memory, but for the sake of our modern ideas of service and service members today.
It seems that Jackson’s approach to the narration of the film was to lay out several categories of an average soldier’s experience and find five or six excerpts to back each experience. For example, the first category could be described as “enthusiasm for enlistment/doing my part/nostalgia for service life” and consists of perhaps nearly a dozen individual soldiers recounting their initial reasons for joining up, nearly indistinguishable from one another:
I can only say one thing,
I wouldn't have missed it.
It was terrible at times,
but I wouldn't have missed it.
Oh, yes, if I could have
my time again, I'd go through it
all over again because
I enjoyed the service life.
I could only say that I have never
been so excited in my life,
this was like a boy going
to the play the first time.
I never realised there was
anything unusual about it.
There was a job to be done
and you just go on and did it.
It seems very important to Jackson to create the idea of a British recruit who’s pragmatic, cheerful, patriotic, and slightly naive, but shouldering up under his burden nevertheless because there was simply a job to be done. It’s quite possible that the majority of young recruits were exactly this way, or that the ones who lived into their eighties and nineties to recall their experiences for an oral historian remembered things this way. But the effect of “backing” each of his categories or chapters (some others might be “The Newness of Bootcamp,” “The Discomforts of the Battlefield,” etc.) with half a dozen to a dozen synonymous voices creates a slightly odd uniformity to the thing, a sense of top-down research, as if these men’s voices are proving or vindicating what Jackson already believes or knows.
The blue-collar, game, good-sport soldier Jackson promotes in his film may well have been the majority, for all I know–or, again, this may be how they saw themselves in their twilight years as they recounted their experiences. It’s a starkly different picture than that painted in most of the WWI literature of the time, which was written for the most part by still-young or midlife men. These authors often strive to differentiate themselves by education, family line, courses of study, interests, athletic achievements, hobbies. In Good-bye to All That, Robert Graves begins (as was more a fashion of his era than ours) with an exhaustive survey of his family line dating back to his maternal great-grandparents, noting that his maternal grandfather was a physician, his paternal, a “remarkable mathematician…[and] leading authority on the Irish Brehon Laws”; that his family has a “persistent literary tradition” full of archaeologists, classicists, mathematicians, poets, a Professor of Greek, the discoverer of the eponymous “Grave’s Disease,” and on and on. Siegfried Sassoon, similarly, gives long accounts of his studies and his reads, both on the battlefield and off. Of course, this is to be expected–these are writers!, not the average soldier Jackson’s interested in. Still, I would have enjoyed some slight differentiation by anything other than facial feature–which the footage does handily on its own.
There is one account from They Shall Not Grow Old which does stand out — a veteran who recalls his particular interest in nature and botany:
To someone like myself,
who was interested in nature,
after the horrors that man had
made of the battlefront,
I was immensely delighted to find
shell holes in which I picked
lilies of the valley and larkspur,
and I pursued Camberwell Beauties
and swallowtail butterflies
along the banks of the Aisne river.
Here, my ears perked up: I was interested in this man! But these were the only lines he was given.
While I understand that Jackson’s aim was to give a broad overview of the British soldier’s experience, I generally shy from soldierly portrayals that erase nuances of education, intelligence, interpersonal gifts–because I think these are too seldom, in popular culture anyway, attached to the notion of service members. Jackson’s template is certainly not a nation of iron-pumping, supplement-swilling Chris Kyles heading out to blow away 1600 Saxons, but it’s certainly not a nation of Private John Bartles or Phil Klays either. Neither would be accurate, but a smattering of each might be more so.
In any case, as a filmmaker with a highly honed skill set in such things, it’s perhaps understandable that Jackson devotes the vast middle part of the film to recreating the WWI battlefield experience, through sound effects, images, and description. He wants you to hear the five-nines and the Big Berthas, to see the fallen horses and the cratered landscape. If he could make you smell it, he would (but yikes, no thanks). That’s what he does well, and there’s no denouncing his skill in it.
When They Shall Not Grow Old comes to Netflix or some other watchable locale, I do hope that many people I know will watch it and weigh in, and prove that I’m just a crotchety, ruined English major. Despite my reservations, which I’ve maybe spent too much time on here, I still think the film worth watching simply for those glimpses of so many faces that have been lost to history–either in the war or the hundred years after. Not a single of those men remains living, but their individual vibrancy and life shines through the expressions on their young, quizzical, possibly very-good-sport faces, and the fact that they live on now in film is the only thing that can bring a slightly happier or at least comforting notion to the idea of never growing old.
It’s early yet — look for two reviews of the film, as I mentioned, in our January 7th Wrath-Bearing Tree!— but here are a few discussions of They Shall Not Grow Old from a friend and from strangers:
Jennifer Orth-Veillon, World War I Centennial Blog: “My proximity was not only to the soldiers on the Western Front but to another population of soldiers– still-living soldiers and veterans…sitting so close to me I could hear the rustle of their popcorn bags.” I really like hearing her account of growing up a civilian in a military town and going home to watch this film.
A friend fittingly recommended Nobody Is Ever Missing as “a really messed up Eat, Pray, Love.” A woman runs away from her husband, life, family in Manhattan—literally runs away, without telling anyone—with a backpack and a one-way ticket to New Zealand. She’s not so much consciously attempting to escape her problems as attempting to extricate what she sees as her problem self from the lives of others, and to quiet the turmoil she likens to a wildebeest rampaging inside her. She hitchhikes. Sleeps in gardens. Works on a farm, in a commune. Makes and loses friends. Tries to forget her sister’s death. Wonders if she herself is really alive at all. Lacey’s prose is stunning, and while clearly not a feel-good book, Nobody Is Ever Missing holds a magnifying glass to the anxiety, rage and helplessness bred from tragedy and loss—or sometimes just being human. I read this while in a bit of a dark, tumultuous place myself and related to the anti-heroine more than it was comfortable to admit. But this world can be dark and tumultuous, and it’s refreshing to know you’re not the only one with a wildebeest in your belly.
Part memoir, part true crime, wholly complex/provocative/profound/arresting/[insert complimentary adjective here], Marzano-Lesnevich has crafted one of the most dynamic books I’ve ever read. The Fact of a Body unspools from a confession video the author watches as a young law student. The tape unlocks something in her. She becomes obsessed with the case: 26-year-old Ricky Langley’s 1992 sexual assault and murder of 6-year-old Jeremy Guillory. Marzano-Lesnevich recognizes that something deeply unsettling intertwines her own past with Langley and Guillory’s stories. The book is an exploration into the facts of what happened to Guillory and to Marzano-Lesnevich at the hands of her grandfather, but more so it’s an investigation of how we each align and shape and feel the facts through our unique lens of identity, experience and perspective. Stories cannot be distilled into a series of simple, linear facts, Marzano-Lesnevich discovers. Stories, like life, are messy and twisted—and constantly evolving; earlier this year the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed Langley’s second-degree murder conviction. The case is currently in appeals.
Note: If you’re looking for a good audiobook, this one is read by the author herself, and her voice is like the velvety guide on my meditation app.
Brian Castner had already earned my respect as a human willing to do things most can’t fathom. As a reader, I would follow him anywhere: through two tours in Iraq with Explosive Ordinance Disposal in his memoir The Long Walk, to Ebola reporting from Liberia, and now on a 1,125 mile canoe paddle across Canada on the Mackenzie River, tracing the voyage of explorer Alexander Mackenzie in his search for the Northwest Passage. Mackenzie led his cross-continent expedition 14 years before Lewis and Clark, yet I had never heard of the Scottish fur trader before Castner introduced me to him. I imagine Castner is filling in historical gaps for many readers, and his skill as a reporter is evident. What makes Disappointment River so engaging is Castner’s skill as a memoirist. As he paddles, as we read, Mackenzie’s journey intertwines with his own. We are in both canoes, hundreds of years and alternating chapters apart yet looking at the same all-consuming river, tar sands and remote villages, battling the many of the same threats (I would have turned back at the first mosquito storm, much to my own Scottish ancestors’ dismay). By the Arctic Ocean, I, like Castner, have learned and come to appreciate much.
Lauren Halloran is a former Air Force public affairs officer who spent nine months deployed to Afghanistan as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team.
Her mother was a nurse with the Army reserves who served in Desert Storm. Lauren is completing a memoir about growing up in a military family and her experiences during and after her deployment. She earned her MFA in creative writing at Emerson College in Boston. You can read her review of Ross Ritchell’s The Knife (“Wishing it Was You, Glad it Isn’t”) in the May 2015 Mil Spouse Book Review.
This memoir is on almost every single end-of-the-year list (including this one, three times over! -Editor), and the designation is deserved. From the first page, I was taken with Westover’s story of her otherworldly and dangerous childhood on a windy Idaho mountain. The outlandish anecdotes and lyrical prose were what often kept me reading, but what sets this book apart is its heart, Westover’s complicated love for the people who raised her and hurt her.
Part memoir, part investigation into the culture of fear that surrounds parenthood in America, this book got me through my early breastfeeding struggles with my second baby: I read most of it on my Kindle, pumping at 3 am while watching my newborn sleep. For a book about fear, it is strangely calming, and that has everything to do with Brooks’ voice, which is smart, funny, and deeply vulnerable. Brooks showed me how this culture of fear has helped to make parenting a competitive sport, and made me realize that maybe I’m not the only one having trouble meeting parent friends at Story Time in such a climate.
Ng’s novel about family dynamics and racial tensions in a quiet, well-to-do Ohio town is masterful. She navigates the book’s interconnected family stories with an omniscient voice that reminds me of the great Victorian authors. Guided by this voice, every minor and major character here is worth our fascination, even – or perhaps especially – the town itself. I could not put the book down.
Simone Gorrindo’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, SELF,Tablet, and The Huffington Post, among other publications. She holds an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University, and has received fellowships and grants for her writing and reporting from the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Georgia Council for the Arts, the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, and the Scripps Howard Foundation. She currently lives in Tacoma, Washington with her husband, two children, and pup, Paddy. You can read her review of Artis Henderson’s memoir, Unremarried Widow, in the March 2015 Mil Spouse Book Review.
This is a novel I return to over and over again, because the backdrop against which it’s set is so familiar and comforting. Jane Austen is timeless, and Persuasion covers much of the modern milspouse experience: Falling in love with a man in uniform, enduring the pain of long separations, reveling in the friendship of other military families, and relying on our partners’ unfailing and steadfast love to see us through. It’s the perfect deployment read.