June is a good month for weather and books. And if you like to keep up on what military spouses are writing, as I do, this June promises to be particularly rich. From practical advice to poetry to edge-of-your-seat fiction, the landscape of milspouse writing is blooming like a wisteria that’s just feeling those first summer rays.
Let’s start with the practical: a fantastic guide for parents of military kids, Seasons of My Military Student, by Amanda Trimillos and Stacy Allsbrook-Huisman. It’s out June 1st from that big-hearted powerhouse of a press, Elva Resa, publisher of many military-family-focused books. Seasons aims to provide parents with tools to help their children through multiple moves and life changes, acknowledging the hardships of this lifestyle while also celebrating the unique resiliency of the military child.
I’m a Navy wife now, but as a kid, I lived in the same town for my first 18 years and, cozier still, my parents were public-school teachers who somehow managed to teach at every single school I ever went to. (My high-school math teacher would read embarrassing call slips aloud, to the snickering of my peers: “Andria, your trombone and your lunch are in your dad’s classroom.”) So to raise three children in a lifestyle that requires they move, on average, every two years (sometimes more and sometimes less), where schools and towns and teachers are perpetually new, has given me plenty of moments of worry and second thoughts: will my kids have no “sense of place?” Will they make only “geographical friends,” not the lifelong connections I was lucky enough to make?
Just prior to a move from Illinois to CA, 2011.
Seasons doesn’t claim that any of this will be easy, but it does offer outstandingly warm, perceptive, and practical suggestions for making transitions as rewarding as possible for our military kids. It divides the average experience of a military kid’s move into four “seasons”: the Seasons of Leaving, Arriving, Growing, and Thriving. It lets parents know what to expect from their kids in these various times — the good and the bad — and how best to support them.
Central to this support is the creation of an Education Binder, and let me tell you, this was a revelation for me — I have paltry collections of documents, immunization forms and a few report cards and the like, but Seasons walks you through the creation of a bona fide Binder that could either be the most meticulously crafted tome you lug from one city to another over twenty years or, perhaps, a vital lifesaver, intercepting any of the many, many roadblocks that could be thrown your way. I’m now leaning toward the latter, for I certainly have arrived at many a new school with my kids only to find contested yet again that one booster shot my daughter missed at 18 months old (during, of course, a move) which the pediatrician signed off on because we made it up at three years — or — the Learning Plan that was made for my son when he was allowed to take reading at a grade level above his own — or — the list goes on and on. With multiple children, multiple schools, and moves coming sometimes as close as every 18 months — I’m a convert now. I am going to pay serious attention to creating binders for my three kids.
Seasons helps parents tackle not only these bureaucratic annoyances of military moves, but also helps them understand the natural feelings children experience during profound change, and provides solutions that are both practical and charming (help kids find creative and age-appropriate ways to stay in touch; plan goodbye parties because saying goodbye is an important and healthy part of transition). There is even a chapter that addresses those hardest of circumstances, the injury or loss of the active-duty parent. While nearly unthinkable, this is a necessary component of military life to face, and Seasons meets it compassionately and head-on.
Sometimes, I have found myself rushing over a child’s feelings during a move — not because I am trying to be callous, but because I can see the larger picture while they are focused on the immediate, and because I simply have so much on my to-do list. Other times, I focus too much on a child’s potential sadness when they are actually doing pretty okay! Seasons is an excellent reminder of the ways we can be particularly attuned to our children during times of stress, without either unnecessary drama or a brushing-aside of important feelings.
With at least a handful of moves still in store for my kids, I’m grateful that this book found its way to me. It is sensible, warm-hearted, and full of the exact kind of experience that we early-and-mid-career military families need to help guide us through these delicate, critical years — when our spouses’ active working lives coincide with the most memorable years we have with our children. I used to think, sometimes, that it wasn’t fair that so much dovetailed at once — kids’ first steps, husbands’ deployments, starting kindergarten, cross-country moves — but for military families this is the world we live in, where very big, disruptive moments live right alongside the quiet, cherished ones. Seasons of My Military Student allows us the emotional space to work out our fears while reassuring us that, while this way of life may not be easy, it has its own unique and hard-earned rewards.
Talk about the big moments and the quiet ones: for a more lyrical take on these, I recommend the beautiful recent collection of poetry from Lisa Houlihan Stice, Permanent Change of Station. Any military spouse will chuckle instantly at the title, a classic military misnomer that dubs as “permanent” a military family’s temporary move to a new locale.
Stice is a Marine wife with a preschool-age child and a knack for mining the fissures and pretenses of military life. Whereas her first collection, Uniform, concentrates on the strangeness of military culture– the fancy-dress balls and BBQs and martial rituals that feel so odd to those raised outside them — Permanent Change of Station is a more focused meditation on homefront life in all its sweetness, ennui, and sharp moments of clarity and change. A reader gets the sense that the poet has settled into a parenting life that is both more cooperative and collaborative — her daughter is older now, no longer an infant — but that she is also deeply conflicted about what it means to parent and create within a culture whose touchstones don’t line up with hers. In what is both a nod to and a complication of the “seasons” of move and change, she names “Our Nine Situations”:
…3. contentious ground
where we want to be forever
waits until retirement
4. open ground
we can say where we’d like to go
and just hope it’s assigned
…6. serious ground
relatives are voices on the phone
people we see twice a year
…9. desperate ground
we call this our home
even though it isn’t
Oh, man, I know that feeling — the strange hollowness of a lifestyle acquiesed to and yet, sometimes, resented. Couple that with the heady, once-in-a-lifetime emotional swell of early parenthood, and you have an onslaught of observations that feel deeply familiar to me. But these poems are far from bitter: they are knowing and smart and sometimes self-protective, sometimes vulnerable; the heartbeat of everyday life runs through them.
As you read, you can begin to feel the rhythm of the poet’s days: walking familiar paths with her daughter and her dog; playing games; reading bedtime stories. “My heart beats/ to the tune/ of glasses,” she writes, “the chime/ of a simple life.”
Other times the understated beauty of this seems to startle her, become fierce: “we are raising fire,” she writes, in “Daughter:” “a shock-headed girl/ in this cold season.” Her husband is away: “…Daddy patrols/ someone else’s night.” Meanwhile, tucked into their own, faraway night, are the poet and her daughter and her dog, whiling away hours that are both endless and precious, days that move too fast and too slow. Stice writes, “if only we could/plunk minutes, seconds,// into mason jars…
if only we could
open those jars
when we need the time
but we can’t
Permanent Change of Station is a satisfying, moving, bittersweet collection of poems that feel entirely real and lived — like reading the journal of an intelligent, thoughtful soul and joining her in her days. If writing and reading are acts of empathy, both, then there is surely much worth to be found walking in the poet’s shoes in Permanent Change of Station.
Finally, as we approach June and all its promise of reading in lawn chairs and enjoying late evening sunsets that stretch a little later every night, here’s a reminder that Siobhan Fallon’s beautiful, funny, riveting novel The Confusion of Languages is out in paperback on June 5th.
It’s the perfect, engrossing read for your beach afternoon or sunset evening or even just sweating in a car waiting to pick your child up from some fatiguing summer activity. You can pound it back in two nights like a Long Island Ice Tea or you can just sort of sip along like a little glass of amaretto — I’m not going to tell you how to do it, only promise you that this tale of two American military wives in Jordan during the Arab Spring is intriguing, perceptive, and funny as hell, and feels so real that you’ll be desperate to know what happens at the end. My own mom, not a military wife by any stretch, could not stop commenting about how much she was enjoying it, and how she was just “sucked in.” I was sucked in, too. Fallon is a master storyteller and her quirky, believable characters could practically walk right into your living room. Pre-order now, anywhere books are sold.
by Alison Buckholtz
Warriors fight battles. Writers craft stories. But when the warrior is also a writer—like Will Mackin, author of Bring Out the Dog, a short story collection based on his multiple deployments with a Navy SEAL team in Iraq and Afghanistan—nothing is as it seems. In a landscape illuminated by the hazy, green glow of night vision goggles, familiar literary terrain feels as foreign and full of possibility as another language. In these inventive, perceptive, and compassionate stories, that’s exactly the point. And Mackin is just the translator America needs right now.
I opened Bring Out the Dog confident I already had the vocabulary required to understand the impact of 15 years of combat tours on America’s troops. As a Navy family (my husband flew the same kind of aircraft as Mackin around the same time), our most meaningful milestones are tied up with America’s longest war. I’ve tracked the new generation of warrior-writers with great interest because the fiction, nonfiction, and memoirs emerging from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts–like Redeployment, Plenty of Time When We Get Home, Fire and Forget, The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, Thank You For Your Service, and What Have We Done, among many other worthy titles—signal a shift in the way war is experienced and understood by combatants and civilians alike. That shift may eventually alter the way war is committed to and fought.
Bring Out the Dog isn’t concerned with that, at least not explicitly. Its only agenda is to demonstrate that the real drama of war takes place far from the battlefield, in the minds of the soldiers readying themselves for the fight and processing its aftermath. The 11 stories here take place in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also, importantly, in North Carolina, Utah, and Virginia Beach, where the narrator’s unit is engaged in pre-deployment workups. These are critical elements of the combat cycle, in part because of the way relationships among soldiers evolve when they’re out of the war zone and yet still beholden to each other.
But Mackin presses beyond his own nuanced, moving portrayals of male friendships and battle buddies, and then past the deft and unexpected glimpses into his narrator’s inner world. He starts to transcend the genre of “war writing” as his narrator describes the fleeting, searing moments that bond him to some Iraqi and Afghan civilians in the heat of battle. This is from “Rib Night,” which takes place in Sharana, Afghanistan, after his unit’s A-10s have strafed a home and a woman from inside “ran downhill into our ranks, her screams no different from laughter”:
I saw her twisted face by starlight. I saw smoke rising from her house as an infrared blur on night vision. She reached out to me, which I shouldn’t have allowed, because she could’ve triggered my rifle, or pulled the pin on one of my grenades. Instead, she touched my arm, and her grief transferred wholesale. I sensed the absence of her father and son, and I felt her wish that I could bring them back. Had I wished hard enough she might’ve felt me wishing the same thing.
Capturing this and similarly intense interactions, Mackin introduces the idea that a human experience, however foreign to one’s own, can be conducted from one person to another—even in the most challenging circumstances–if one is receptive. Mackin and his narrator (he has spoken in interviews about the degree to which these stories are autobiographical) are both receptive. Even in the most morally ambiguous situations, Mackin crafts magical moments in which two people on different sides access each other’s agony. These depictions don’t offer hope; that would be incompatible with this particular war. But by allowing the warrior to connect with his civilian self, the civilian readers among us can connect with warriors. The experience of moral injury is transferred to us–people who have never been on the battlefield–through reading.
Although each of Mackin’s stories is its own universe—with an atmosphere and corresponding sense of dislocation unique to the situation—they can also be read together as a chronological portrait of a career that scrapes away any possibility of self-delusion. In “Crossing the River No Name,” set in Khost, Afghanistan during a night-time ambush of the Taliban, the narrator realizes early on that something crucial has changed:
This was the type of mission that earlier in the war would’ve been fun: us knowing and seeing, them dumb and blind. Hal, walking point, would’ve turned around and smiled, like, Do you believe we’re getting paid for this? And I would’ve shaken my head, like No. But now Hal hardly turned around. And when he did, it was only to make sure that we were all still behind him, putting one foot in front of the other, bleeding heat, our emerald hearts growing dim.
The “emerald hearts” are an allusion to the green glow of the soldiers’ night vision goggles, which turn landscapes into something a gamer would recognize faster than a G.I. The goggles register individuals’ heat signatures, and in many of Mackin’s stories they read like an aura, or personal subtext. “Whereas everybody else’s infrared signature appeared bright, and, therefore, a little desperate in the cool night air,” he writes, one soldier’s, Hal’s, “seems muted”—hinting, perhaps, at Hal’s eventual fate.
Just as these stories alternate between locations stateside and in combat zones, mimicking the tempo of today’s military service, some of the same characters (like Hal) reappear across the stories. As these soldiers get to know each other during successive deployments, we get to know them, too. Readers scouting the scene learn who’s afraid of water, who dislikes a certain candy, whose ability to stay calm can salvage unit morale. While the soldiers store away each nugget of information to determine who will save or sink a mission, readers of Bring Out the Dog are also hoarding the intel. Because in a world where nothing is as it seems—war zone or not—today’s warrior-writer may be our best guide in the dark.
About the Author:
Will Mackin’swork has appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, Tin House, and The New York Times Magazine. His story “Kattekoppen” was selected by Jennifer Egan for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2014, and his essay about being an extra on Breaking Bad, published in GQ, was nominated for an American Society of Magazine Editors “Ellie” award. Mackin’s debut collection of short stories, Bring Out the Dog, is on sale now, at your local independent bookstore and wherever books are sold.
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.
In Greg Berlanti’s new coming-of-age film, Love, Simon, a young, gay man becomes anonymous pen pals with another gay student at his suburban-Atlanta school. When their correspondence is leaked, threatening the genuinely sweet and budding romance, Simon is forced to come out to his family and friends before he is entirely ready to do so.
There’s much to appreciate about the film. First of all, it’s the first big box-office film to feature a gay teen character, which alone makes it hard to approach with too harsh an eye. Secondly, if you are a sucker for epistolary anything, you’ll be charmed: Simon and “Blue’s” letters to one another are heartfelt, sincere, and feel completely age-appropriate for two high schoolers with old souls and deep hearts. Nick Robinson as Simon Spier channels Matthew Broderick’s “Ferris Bueller” down to the confessional brown eyes and denim jacket.
From the start, it’s easy to see that Simon’s sexuality is the only envelope Berlanti wanted to push — and that’s enough on its own. Even so, the squeaky-clean feel of the film can be almost startling. Simon’s parents are attractive and loving, almost hyperactively hetero; his home, I’m not joking, looks straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog with its chalkboard-paint walls, multi-textured throw pillows, and bazillions of immaculate French windows. The Spiers exist in a sort of beautifully individualistic white-America nuclear-family vacuum untouched by religion, tragedy, or even extended family (why does he have no grandma?! there must be a grandma somewhere).
Simon, too, is reassuring. He has decent taste in music (the Kinks! Elliot Smith!) that even parents can approve of. He is not wearing eyeliner and stealing his mama’s bras and embarrassing his dad in public. And this is important: Because while Love, Simon does very little that is revolutionary, its very power lies in the extremely clean-cut, almost sanitized world it puts forth. The film is the perfect, easy “in” for helping a mass culture embrace the idea of homosexuality. It is endlessly reassuring. It is squeaky-clean and beautiful and suffused with excellent lighting. The soundtrack, curated by Jack Antonoff of Bleachers, is upbeat, sweet, and feels like first love.
And as a viewer, you root for Simon — you really do. The first time he signs his real name to an e-mail, instead of an alias, I teared up a little. And there are many important messages that I think are valuable for kids struggling with a dilemma like Simon’s: that even after you come out, you will still be the same person you were before. That familial love has the potential to be the most powerful force of all.
There is just one glaring problem with the film, and it gradually became too overpowering for me to ignore: Love, Simon does not treat young women well, and it knows and cares nothing for young women’s self-determination and sexuality. (Antonoff insisted, enthusiastically, to Entertainment Weekly, “The film feels like it’s for everyone. It’s the first thing I thought when I saw it: There’s just something here for everyone.”)
L-R: Nick, Leah, Abby, Simon
But is there? Everything about Simon is treated with kid gloves. His thoughts, his fears, his budding male psyche, are delicate, precious things, and we are meant to relate to them at every turn. The film is concerned with Simon, and Simon is concerned with himself, to the detriment of several of the other characters, most notably his two female friends, Abby and Leah, whose emotions are traded to protect Simon when it’s convenient for him. In the end, Love, Simon is yet another film that keeps the audience’s attention and empathy centered squarely, insistently, on a white male protagonist.
Here’s how Simon first gets into trouble: A fellow “thespian,” the thoroughly repugnant Martin, discovers Simon’s unattended Gmail account in the school library and screenshots a series of emails which reveal Simon’s sexual orientation. A quick thinker, he uses them to blackmail Simon in an effort to gain access to Simon’s friend, Abby.
It’s understandable that Simon would be terrified — this secret will change many aspects of his life, because no one, from his picture-perfect family to his close group of darling, wholesome friends, suspects that he is gay. Even so, Simon’s almost immediate willingness to sell poor Abby down the river is startling. He instantly puts underway a plan to help Martin gain access to Abby: at a party that weekend; at the Waffle House where they will be rehearsing lines, and so on. He discourages his good-hearted friend, Nick, from pursuing a relationship with Abby, even though he knows Abby likes Nick; and then he sets his friend Leah up on a date with Nick, even though no good can possibly come of it for the emotionally vulnerable Leah, who’ll get her hopes up only to realize that Nick, like Simon, is totally into someone else.
The film seems to think that our allegiance is squarely enough with Simon to render only blackmailing, skeevy Martin, in this long charade of competitive matchmaking, unlikable. But, I’m sorry to break it to Simon: his utter lack of empathy for, and even awareness of, female emotion renders him pretty darn unlikable too. When it comes to the feelings of the women around him, he is a blunt, stupid board of a human, colliding with things that surprise him — female love, female anger — but worst of all, he doesn’t even seem to try. He does not seem to think it’s required of him to imagine how his female friends feel. The pressure on Abby is so intense in the film to be a good soldier, a good comrade, and donate female attention to Martin, that it made me squirm in my seat. Where would this end: would Abby have to pity-fuck him?
At one point Simon shouts to Martin, in frustration, that revealing his own sexual orientation was supposed to be his thing, it was supposed to be his to control, to reveal on his own terms. Certainly this is only fair, but then why is his female friends’ sexuality so clearly less-theirs to control?
The women in the film — as well as all of us in the audience — are constantly requested to consider Simon’s feelings, from the movie’s first seconds to its final, glossy salvo. How is Simon doing? How does he feel? Leah and Abby are constantly checking in. We, the viewers, are, too. How is Simon–is he depressed, lonely, uncertain? How is Simon today?
Lock up your daughters: not for the reason that you think
Part of me can understand how this cleverly turns a common television trope on its head: If I were a gay man, I think I might be frustrated by the scores of movies and sitcoms in which gay men have served mainly as sounding boards and one-man therapists for pretty, conflicted, midlife career women (My Best Friend’s Wedding, Will & Grace, and on and on). I’ve had grown women tell me, “I wish I had a gay best friend!,” which seems like code for “I wish I had a servant-hairdresser with excellent taste who would drink wine with me every night and adore me no matter how whacked-out I occasionally get.” However, it also seems to me that such a wish on the part of women has grown out of a cesspool of toxic masculinity, a frustration with the lack of empathy, creativity and support shown by many heterosexual American men. Because at the end of the day, we are all, overwhelmingly, asked to consider, above all else, the feelings of men. The more silent and Neanderthal they are, the better: Good Will Hunting, Manchester By the Sea, Hostiles, Braveheart… The only thing that can really undo a man is a woman, and the only thing that can save a man is a woman. It’s a line of thinking that is not only played out, but it gives men the ultimate pass. And it has always been dangerous.
This is “Walk Up” culture: a culture of support for the male psyche that comes, overwhelmingly, from concerned female peers. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, as a conservative substitute for the school walkouts held across the nation, some districts and administrators advocated “walking up” to the troubled students in one’s school: the loners, the quiet kids — the possible, future shooters. While the idea of kindness and compassion is thankfully not new, this fresh take had the ludicrous tinge of being offered as an alternative to actual legislative action and adult support for students who feel endangered in their school environments.
Furthermore, who do proponents imagine is doing the “walking up” in such a scenario? As my friend, English professor Amanda Fields of Hays State University, has pointed out, the vast pressure of this effort can only be felt by young women — the young women in any given American school who are worried about the mental and emotional states of the young men around them; girls who feel guilty about a bad breakup, a boy they politely shunned, some kid they really didn’t want to go with to the sophomore dance. Is that grieving, unpredictable white male now going to shoot up his school with his dad’s legal AR, and is it up to this sixteen-year-old girl, between choir practice and math tests, to single-handedly prevent it?
Surely, the onus is not on our elected officials, our school administrators, or our president; it’s not on the NRA or a pervasive gun culture that’s shown itself to be grossly opportunistic at every turn. It’s on young women! While they may not have been the entirety of the problem (some blame must at least rest on the shoulders of young, white men), perhaps they can be our solution!
At no point in the film do we feel that young Simon is going to shoot up anything; his jokey, daffily liberal dad (Josh Duhamel) surely does not own a firearm.
But Martin’s dad might. And that could be very bad. Martin’s got all the markers: he’s unbalanced, over-the-top, needy, white, and extremely sensitive. He really might — it crosses your mind as you watch — he really might shoot up the school if talented, beautiful Abby is too harsh in her rejection.
Of course, Abby insists to the people around her, “Martin’s really not so bad! He’s kind of fun.” Abby is a Good Girl extraordinaire. I know what that is like because I am one, too. I know what that is like because my middle school went through one of the first school shootings in the nation, in the early nineties. Listen up: good girls cannot prevent school shootings. The only match for a bad guy with a gun is not a good girl with a heart of gold.
For all his blindness to his female friends’ emotion in Love, Simon, our sweet protagonist does get a brief comeuppance near the film’s end. Still, it’s a slap on the wrist considering the emotional damage he did his female friends and even the potential danger he put Abby in. (Simon repeatedly refers to Martin as a “creep” and advises him to be less of a “creeper,” all while continuing to machinate dates between Simon and Abby. Who’s the creep, Simon?)
Simon’s status as most-deserving-of-audience-empathy is quickly restored, even after a short dressing-down from his friends, when two idiot jocks interrupt the school’s remarkably calm cafeteria hour to impersonate Simon and another “out” student, Ethan, who is black. (Ethan, far more flamboyant than Simon, has been out for some time, but it’s only when Simon’s secret is revealed that the vice-principal, Mr. Worth, quietly dons a small gay-pride pin. This also begs the question — are there any lesbians at this goddamn school?!) Simon’s friends, including the very recently-wronged Leah and Abby, watch with welling eyes as Simon is publicly embarrassed. But the jocks doing the embarrassing are so obviously in the wrong, so garish and stupid, and the rest of the student body so obviously supportive of Simon, that the scene cannot possibly ring true for a large number of gay students throughout the U.S. and the world who find themselves in much more hostile daily environments.
Still, the quick dismissal of the jocks’ mis-stepped parody is cathartic, and a relief. Yes, yes– this is homophobia — shut that shit down. It’s not good for anybody. So, while the jocks’ swift and entirely deserved punishment may feel a little too good to be true (surely one of them has a parent on the school board? or who’s, say, a former football coach who garners great local affection?), it is in keeping with the just, wholesome after-school-special feel of the movie as a whole, one which delves somewhat bravely into tricky issues but reassures us that we will always, together, emerge on the fair and right side.
In fact, I had the sense, while watching Love, Simon, that maybe I was actually watching a very successful movie for middle-schoolers. And while it may not be high praise to say that what you think you’re watching is actually a terrific movie for immature people, it certainly doesn’t negate the film’s purpose. If there’s even one young, white gay kid saved by ‘Love, Simon,’ then the whole enterprise was worth it. I hope those boys absorbed and fed on every word. Let’s just hope the young, impressionable women watching did not absorb quite so much.
Like many people, I’ve been enjoying the recent inundation of movies based on superhero characters, particularly those directed by under-represented groups in the comic book world — Wonder Woman, Black Panther. What I think has struck me most about these films, and the comics they’re based on, is their shared fantasy that, somewhere on earth, secret worlds exist, inhabited by groups of under-represented people.
In both Themyscira and Wakanda, groups of people who’ve had power systematically robbed from them over centuries are granted a secret life where their true power and worth is understood. This trope operates as both an equalizer, and as a gatekeeper too. While it aims for an equalization of power, it also sets up a barrier that lets the underrepresented group control how well it is known. Themyscira and Wakanda are not readily accessible. They hold themselves back. They control their representation and they will call your number when they are ready, in the order received, thank you very much.
And so in this way — having seen all of the recent superhero movies with my daughter, and now Love, Simon, too — I’m almost relieved that Love, Simon missteps so hugely when it comes to young women. I feel almost reassured by its utterly male vision and the fact that this vision cannot know us.
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.
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
They pulse around you
as you sprout lungs.
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 –
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 .
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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”:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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