Get There Soon: Settling Down After a Nomadic Life

Reviewed by Terri Barnes (Author, Air Force wife)

Before I heard about Sarah Smiley’s latest book, I used the words of her title in a conversation about my new hometown, where my husband and I moved when he retired from active duty last year.

“We’re not from here,” I said, “but we got here as soon as we could.”

The next day I was introduced to Sarah’s new book, Got Here As Soon As I Could: Discovering the Way Life Should Be. It was not the first time Sarah’s words about her military life encapsulated my own. In her columns and books, she’s been doing it for years.

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Sarah’s family and mine are separated by a few hundred miles and more than a decade. She found her forever home in Maine. Mine is in South Carolina. Her children are growing, and mine are grown.

Yet, we have much in common. We’ve both moved around a bit. We’re homefront veterans of multiple deployments. We’re military brats turned military wives and writers of the military experience.

Part of this experience is finding a home, choosing a place after a lifetime of having our place in the world chosen for us. Sarah and her husband, Dustin, live in Bangor, Maine, and plan to remain there after Dustin’s upcoming retirement. Some of the columns in Sarah’s new book pay homage to their adopted home state and the reasons they adopted it, but the book is more about the qualities of home than the location.

Like Sarah’s previous three memoirs, this one is told in excerpts from her syndicated column, drawn from her own life and the lives of her husband and three sons. Her other books are mostly about marriage, deployment, and parenting, all with a military flavor. She makes readers cry by baring her soul and her own insecurities. She makes them laugh out loud without resorting to punchlines or hyperbole. Sarah’s seamless writing and compelling stories are all here, but her focus has shifted. Her family has reached a turning point common to all military families, the transition into civilian life, but her book isn’t a “how to.” No tips here on choosing a forever home and putting down roots in five easy steps.

It’s a “hope to” for a nomadic culture seeking a sense of place. Sarah’s story of falling in love with Maine gives military families assurance that home is out there, waiting to welcome us after a lifetime of wandering.

She expresses the dilemma of those who have lived everywhere, yet are from nowhere: “Ironically, the one place that has ever really felt like home for me is the one place I can never actually call ‘home.’ I’ll never be a Mainer, always ‘from away.’”

Here, in my new corner of the world, the term is, “from off.” No matter how long we live here or how much we love it, we’ll always be from somewhere else. In spite of this poignant truth, Sarah’s stories indicated that the Smiley family can be at home in Maine, even if they’re not Mainers.

While reading Got Here as Soon as I Could — and you should read it — you may feel the attraction of Maine, because honestly Sarah makes it sound like a little slice of heaven. But her words hold more important attractions: love and marriage, a boy and his dog, neighborhood and family, a man and his coffee cup. This book is a celebration of the qualities and affinities with which a family can transform a strange town into a home, no matter where it is.

Get there soon.


Buy Got Here as Soon as I Could


 

About the Author:

Navy wife Sarah Smiley is the author of a syndicated newspaper column and of four memoirs: GOT HERE AS SOON AS I COULDDINNER WITH THE SMILEYS, I’M JUST SAYING, and GOING OVERBOARD.

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In 2014, Sarah was awarded the American Legion Auxiliary’s prestigious national Public Spirit Award.

Sarah has been featured in Parade Magazine (Mother’s Day cover feature), The New York Times Magazine (“Confessions of a Military Wife“), O Magazine, GoodHousekeeping, Military Spouse Magazine (cover feature) and Newsweek.


 

About the Reviewer:

Terri Barnes is the author of Spouse Calls: Messages From a Military Life and is the special projects editor at Elva Resa Publishing.

Terri_Barnes

A well-respected columnist, Terri is the writer and creator of the weekly Stars and Stripes column Spouse Calls, which first appeared in 2007. Now published in print editions worldwide and online, Spouse Calls serves as a voice for military spouses and families, through personal stories, incisive interviews, news analysis, and interaction with readers. Terri has been a member of the Washington, DC, press corps and has contributed to several other books about military life. Her work has appeared in Air Force/Army/Navy TimesThe Huffington Post, and Books Make a Difference, as well as newspapers, magazines, and base publications in many of her adopted hometowns around the world.

Terri’s expertise in military life comes from long experience. Her father was a Vietnam veteran and career military man. She married her Air Force husband, Mark, in 1985. They have three (redheaded!!) children, Will, Jessie, and Wesley, born in military hospitals in Texas, Guam, and Arizona, respectively.

Terri  is a cum laude graduate of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she studied journalism. She and her military family have lived in eleven states, two foreign countries, and one U.S. territory.

Living in the Great Moments: A Review of Victoria Kelly’s ‘Mrs. Houdini’

by Caroline LeBlanc (poet, Army veteran-and-wife)

Mrs. Houdini is an engaging addition to the tradition of books that seek to put flesh onto historical, but often obscure, women attached to famous men.  After a quick introduction to Bess Rahner, the German Catholic vaudeville singer, and Harry Houdini, the Hungarian Jewish vaudeville magician, the book tells quickly of their whirlwind engagement and marriage.  Thus begins the story of the Houdinis’  journey—told in chapters that hopscotch between the 1890s to 1944—from poverty and obscurity on the entertainment road in America and Europe, to celebrity, high living, and debt in their New York and Hollywood homes.  Additionally, in later life, the Houdinis were contemporaries and acquaintances of a number of celebrities who make appearances in the book, including Jack and Charmain London, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lady Jean Doyle.

mrs. houdini

Even beyond their different religious backgrounds, the couple’s families could not have been more dissimilar.  Bess’s rigid Roman Catholic mother rejected them outright. Harry’s warm Jewish mother embraced Bess as a daughter. Harry’s family figures large in their story, mostly because of his extremely close relationship with his mother, the widow of a poor rabbi.  Both Harry’s and Bess’s sisters were important figures in their lives, and particularly in Bess’s life after Harry’s death.

From the beginning of their life together, Bess was subsumed into the passions of Harry’s life. Harry had driving ambitions, but he was shy off stage. Bess was his confidant, social ambassador, and ardent supporter.

In 1926 Houdini died at the age of 52, from a ruptured appendix after a vicious punch to the abdomen by a mysterious visitor. It is not clear if this visitor was a simple blowhard or an agent of spiritualist revenge. On his death bed, Harry tells Bess, “We have to look for each other, Bess. Don’t give up.”

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author Victoria Kelly

After Harry’s death, Bess had several obsessions, including recovering from the debt he left behind, supporting other magicians, particularly in her New York City Tearoom, and above all, making contact with Harry after his death.  To this last end, she held many séances until 1936 when she staged the last public séance in order to put public interest to rest.

Bess smoothed her white skirt and looked at the men. “Harry was too grand a magician to come back only to shake little bells or write his name on a piece of slate,” she told a reporter named Charles Radley. “He lived in the great moments, and now he is gone.”

“Do you think, if he can see us, he is laughing at the attempt?”

Bess shrugged. “I suppose I’ll ask him when I see him.”

While Harry was obsessed with escaping both physical and spiritual bonds, he was also as an adamant opponent of the Spiritualist pre-occupations before and after the First World War. Still, the spiritualist interest in contact between the dead and the living is the cornerstone of the Houdinis’ story, as told in Mrs. Houdini.

Little is made of Bess’s Roman Catholic background, but it is an important undercurrent through the book, from the discussion of miracles in Chapter 1, to her concern that their childlessness was punishment for their stage séances early in their careers.  Despite this, Bess turned to séances to connect with Harry after his death. Finally she has enough of personal uncertainty and public curiosity, and takes the strongest stand on her own behalf in the entire book.

My whole life, I have believed. Believe in the sacraments, my mother said, and I did.  I believed. Believe we’ll be famous, Harry told me, and I did. Believe people will come see the shows. Believe Holly wood will embrace us. Believe I will come back.” Her whole body ached; she could feel herself growing older, the slight papering of her skin, the slow laboring of her heart. “But I’m tired of believing. I just want to know.

Because of his profession, Harry had many secrets, most of which were known to Bess, who saw what others did not. According to Kelley’s telling of the story, the last public séance was designed to divert public scrutiny from Bess’s most satisfying private discovery of Harry’s most closely held secret—a secret which more than assured Bess that Harry had contacted her.  But this secret constitutes the most interesting turn in the book, so I’ll let the reader discover it between the book’s covers.


About the Author

victoria kellyVictoria Kelly graduated from Harvard University, Trinity College Dublin and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review and Alaska Quarterly Review, among others.

She is married to a Navy fighter pilot and has written two books of poetry, When the Men Go Off to War and Prayers of an American Wife, which won the 2012 Coal Hill Chapbook Contest.

Learn more at www.victoriakellybooks.com.

 

About the Reviewer

Caroline_LeBlanc_3A frequent contributor to the Military Spouse Book Review, Caroline LeBlanc is a former Army nurse turned Army wife-and-mother. She co-produced & wrote the script for Telling, Albuquerque (part of the national Telling Project), a 9/11/2104 testimonial theatrical event where military veterans and family members perform their own stories.

Since relocating to Albuquerque in 2013, she has hosted a writing salon for women military veterans and family members. In 2011 Spalding University awarded her an MFA in Creative Writing. Her poems have been published in her 2010 chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle, as well as online and in a number of print journals. Her art work has also been included in a number of Apronistas Women’s Art Group shows in the Albuquerque area.

For the Mil Spouse Book Review, LeBlanc has also written about the nonfiction compilation Baby, It’s You and two poetry collections, Local News from Someplace Else and The History of Bearing Children. She also took part in an interview here.

On Writing My Novel, We Held the Fort, by Theresa Owen

by Theresa Owen

Stacy gave up her career in Washington to join Mike at Fort Bragg. Following the attacks in 2001, she took the lead of the Family Support Group for her husband’s Airborne infantry company during a deployment to Afghanistan. She became the contact point, source of communication, aide and calm for military families during a war while raising her husband’s ‎ belligerent preteen daughter alone. The wives babysat each other’s children, buried each other’s dead, argued, gossiped and prayed. Then Mike came home. Unable to readjust to civilized life, he spiraled into self-destruction and was about to ruin their lives. This was different than previous redeployments. Something had changed.

we held the fort

Smoking Joe is the most badass officer I have known in this generation, and his wife Beth is the most effective and genuine military spouse I knew.  I was fortunate to work with them twenty years ago at Fort Bragg and was thrilled to see he recently commanded all of the 82nd Airborne Division, then moved on to the Pentagon this year.

Beth was one of two wives who inspired the character of the battalion commander’s better-half in my latest novel, We Held the Fort.  I have no doubt she could run Fort Bragg on her own if need be. Having such a dedicated couple still serving our military gives me hope for its future.

We Held the Fort is my attempt to show the dedication many military spouses give and how their struggles are unique.  I also tried to depict the cultural changes which are debasing our military.  Everything that happened in this novel is something I witnessed or experienced.  Because there is nothing more attractive to me than a man with a cause, and wearing boots, I dated military men for ten years before deciding to move to Fort Bragg.  And ultimately, I moved there because I was offered a teaching job in a poor district.  Despite Fayetteville being a dumpy town in the middle of nowhere, life was incredibly meaningful there for me.  I loved being a military wife. My two sons were born at Fort Bragg.  I volunteered to help military families in hopes it would keep my husband safer.  Unfortunately, my life with the military came to a heartbreaking end.  It was not a heroic end, nor was it uncommon.

The military and other uniformed services have developed a dark side over the past twenty years.  Painkillers, antidepressants and steroids are rampant and encouraged.  Have an injury?  Take a pill and carry on. Marriage is falling apart?  Take a pill and carry on.  Need that Army Strong look?  Take a pill and carry on.  These temporary solutions are creating larger long term problems and destroying lives. Domestic violence in military families and rape of fellow soldiers have increased dramatically.  Now military members returning from combat sit through short intervention talks just before being released, but if a soldier claims to have concerns, he is held back from going home. So the returning soldiers nod their heads, sign away the military’s responsibility to their actions, and carry on.

This novel does not discuss possible reasons for these changes, but simply tries to expose them for conversation.  Remaining silent to what I have witnessed would be accepting misconduct and I can’t do that.  Although there is a broader cultural issue, I find the current Army mission is indicative of the wrong direction it has taken: “To fight and win our Nation’s wars by providing prompt, sustained land dominance across the full range of military operations and spectrum of conflict in support of combatant commanders.”  Considering this statement does not mention the nation’s protection, nor the honor of our servicemen or citizens, but rather the taking of land ‘in support of combatant commanders,’ it is prophetically fitting for a time of perpetual war. 

My fellow military spouses: your sacrifice was beautiful!  

My next book is an historical novel about the life of Dr. Mary Walker, the only woman decorated with the Medal of Honor and whose name is on the awards given to Army spouses for exceptional service. 


About the Author

teresa owenTheresa Owen was decorated with the Walker Award for her volunteer service to the US Army as a Family Readiness Group leader, a position she held through two combat tours. She studied social sciences at Cal Poly, education at University of DC, taught in schools around the world, raised two sons and continues to write.

Three Books of Poetry: Washing the Dust from Our Hearts, Icarian Flux, and FOB Haiku

Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry & Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project

“They talked and talked and sold me,” writes one of the women poets, Massoma, featured in Washing the Dust from Our Hearts. “They talked and talked and beat me. … I was not a good bride. I was not a perfect woman, because I was thirteen….My head exploded, full of their talking.”

In Washing the Dust, women from seven of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces share their stories. Their voices are poignant, urgent, and clear.

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The women are referenced by first names only; sometimes, just an initial. It’s obvious that they fear retribution for speaking out, for writing, but that a taste of this freedom has been too sweet and that they are unable to stop.

I write of my pain, my broken heart…

I will lose my strength

and the stunning world

that I create for myself in writing

 

If I fail to tell my stories of struggle

I will lose myself

These poems are full of humanitarian awareness and a budding feminism. It might strike the American reader as simple, this feminism, its basic goals, and for that we should be grateful; for our own feminism — equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights– must seem, to the women in Afghanistan, like gilding the lily. Their desire is to get an education, to be free from the burqa, to marry the young men they choose. To not be stoned to death  for looking the wrong way or for talking to a friendly male stranger while out in the street.

Don’t laugh!

Don’t speak loudly!

Don’t look at men!

Shut up!

These women dream of freedom, but they care for the men in their lives. They cook for their sons, kiss their husbands, send family members off to war.

Army uniforms become threads

of mourning — white cloth, like snow, snow, that covers every mother.

Snow comes, permeates our families, our hearts,

alights on our destroyed walls and windows.

And with the deepest feeling, I and others

know these coldest of snows.

What remains in my mind after reading the poems in Washing the Dust is the pure humanity of these brave women, the way their circumstances have hurt and changed them, but also the way they have survived. They feel loss and pain; they rejoice in calm, quiet moments. They are moms and sisters and daughters. They are just like us.

That first woman, Massoma, sold off as a bride at thirteen, reflects:

My head exploded. My head exploded…

But I love my infant, my family. …My baby

laughs and I laugh. Life laughs, and I am happy.

—-

Icarian Flux by Colin Halloran

I’d enjoyed Halloran’s first poetry collection, Shortly Thereafter (focused around his deployment to Afghanistan), so I was eager to read his second, Icarian Flux. While it deals only obliquely with issues of war and service, Icarian Flux does delve into the mind of someone who finds himself, post-deployment, young and adrift — and utterly, painfully conscious of himself and the world around him. The ghastly wonder of the world seems to have knocked him, for a time, off his feet, and everything that is beautiful is also horrible in its own way. (And vice versa.)

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Colin Halloran

Many young people, certainly, have found themselves staggering in the face of loss, change, and love. Halloran is aware of this, creating a democratic vision of human awareness and longing that encompasses far more than a war-trauma narrative. “I lost God in the sunset,” the poet writes in “I Talk to Stones”:

With my religion sunk into the Gulf with the sun, people reasoned I would find it in the sands of war.

But I lost it on an evening stroll, finding it only falsely since….

Anyone can lose God on an evening stroll, rather than in a Humvee or a firefight. Is it worse, Halloran seems to ask, to lose your faith in one way rather than another? The generous and empathetic tone of Icarian Flux suggests that the nature of suffering is fluid, and that no one path to pain trumps any other.

The narrator of these poems often feels isolated, solitary. (“I guess I love control more than most,” he muses. And: “i sat on a front porch in Albany, a stranger to those walking past.”)  At such moments his observations are pointed and honed; minutiae appeals to him; he realizes this, and pokes fun at himself. His humor is always on target.

But Icarus doesn’t fall alone: what burdens him, he realizes, burdens many. In “Rain Fall,” he writes:

Your solitary descent

becomes bigger than yourself:

communal

alone among the many,

also alone.

Embracing poetic convention and allusion, Halloran also protests these devices as if to find a shorter route to the heart of the matter.

Must it all be metaphor?

Let Icarus fall….

Let us gaze in awe as he tumbles,

a heap of melted wax and feathers

and boy.

The flourishes of poetry are all here, but at heart, what falls is a boy.

The core of Icarian Flux feels to me conscious, tender, puzzled, defiant, kind — a lot like youth, if youth were filtered through a voice with uncommon intelligence, scope, and life experience. Icarian Flux works both as a complement to Shortly Thereafter and as its own, stand-alone rumination on a life’s pull toward darkness, its protest against gravity, its flirtation with and devotion to light.

—-

Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire

I happen to know Randy Brown (a.k.a. “Charlie Sherpa”) as the funny, astute blogger behind Red Bull Rising, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the knockout punch of his poems in Welcome to FOB Haiku.

FOB Haiku

Certainly, many of the pieces are funny, particularly the haiku. These pithy poems hold much more than they at first let on, and I laughed out loud at many of them.

Take care of your feet.

Dry socks are better than sex

Out here in the field.

and in “your drill sergeant writes haiku”:

Sergeant White is black!

I am Sergeant Brown! I’m white!

Do not mix us up!

 

You are all ate up

like a soup sandwich, soldier!

Where! Is! Your! Weapon?!

 

Or, in my personal favorite, the very darkly funny “jody stole your haiku tools”:

Jody got your pay,

stole your woman and your house.

But you still have Rex.

—-

Randy Brown served twenty years with the National Guard and then embedded with Iowa’s Red Bull units in Afghanistan as a journalist in 2011. Anyone who’s gotten through a full career with the military knows well its trials, its whims, its bureaucracy, and can enjoy rolling their eyes along with him. But Brown can write poignantly of the United States’ role abroad, too, as in “night vision”:

We may own the night, after all,

but we are renting their country by the day.

and, in the sonnet “on the runways of Kabul”:

Magazines will cover what he’s wearing:

The emperor’s new clothes we’re sharing.

—-

There’s one poem, though, that has moved me ever since I first read it, in another publication, some months ago. “Static” is about a Navy Corpsman (medic) trying to communicate with his very young son, apparently from the distance of deployment. Every time I read this effing poem, I tear up. [F*ck! It is happening now. -Editor] Its simplicity belies a whole world of loss, patience, waiting, love. The whole world of a small child distilled through a parent’s hopeful questions.

Instead of speaking louder, I’m told

I should dial into your distance,

quietly fine-tuning our conversations

as if I am cracking a safe.

 

How was your day, over.

Did you make any new friends, over.

Daddy loves you, out.

—-

Noack, Lori, editor. Washing the Dust from Our Hearts: Poetry & Prose from Writers of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Grayson Books, 2015.

Halloran, Colin. Icarian Flux. Main Street Rag, 2015.

Brown, Randy. Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. Middle West press, 2015.

State of Wonder: Leslie Hsu Oh Discusses Leigh Ann Henion’s ‘Phenomenal’

By Leslie Hsu Oh

Named an editor’s pick by O, The Oprah Magazine, Backpacker, and Barnes & Noble Review, Leigh Ann Henion’s New York Times best-selling book Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World is now available in paperback.

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Leigh Ann Henion proves that it is possible and essential to be a wife and mother and still see the world. Her memoir opens with the birth of her son and her honest confession that she “cannot help but mourn the loss of something I can’t place. I have an inner emptiness — literal and figurative — that I’ve never felt before. It’s as though nourishing his life has built a new chamber in my body that is now cavernous and empty, waiting to be filled…I have never felt more alone.”

It is this voice — unflinching bare bone self-examination —that keeps me hooked through her pilgrimage in search of wonder. Three years before her son is born, Henion witnesses the monarch butterfly migration to Mexico on assignment for the Washington Post Magazine and realizes that she’s missing out on nature’s most spectacular shows. On her first trip after her son is born to see the bioluminescence bay of Puerto Rico, she learns that “nature has the power to completely disarm people.” In the lightning storms of Venezuela: “an admission of human frailty and the perfect magnificence of earth, the universe, time, in a way that removes the masks of humankind’s many religions to reveal their connectivity, the fact that we are — in the end — one.”

And if these revelations don’t strike a chord within, Henion introduces infrasound and indigenous ways of knowing on a burning volcano in Hawai’i. Beneath the Northern Lights of Sweden, Henion asks: “If I want to trust nature, to trust life, I can’t always be trying to control it. Haven’t I learned this by now? Isn’t this, like, a main rule of parenting? Will I ever really be able to just do the best I can and then just let go?”

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Leigh Ann Henion (right)

On the great wildebeest migration in Tanzania, Henion realizes that if she were not having phenomenal experience after phenomenal experience, she would not be parenting her son in a way that awakens him to using plants, and landmarks, and symbols to make his way in the world. “If I were not being led by wonder, it is not the source from which I would teach.”

It is this parallel journey that Henion has with her son that lies at the core of this book. Henion says in an interview, “My son is seeing trees for the first time and discovering pine cones and rocks and everything was amazing. And I was seeing the solar eclipse, northern lights, and everything was new and amazing…and then we were able to come together and explore together with that sense of wonder.”

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Henion ends her memoir with an unforgettable image of her son wrapped up in a blanket in her arms gazing up at the night sky and whispering something she learned on one of her trips, “We’re stardust.”

***
Not only does Henion place her readers in these visceral scenes of experiencing phenomena which she defines as “that which is amazing and that which is observable,” she also introduces us to shamans, indigenous leaders, reindeer herders, phenomenon chasers, people who are happily living what some call the “unconventional life.”

Henion writes in her introduction, “I had no idea there were lay people from all over the world, from all walks of life, already going to great lengths to undertake the sorts of phenomena chases I’d dreamed up. Some took odd jobs to stay under the northern lights. Others left white-collar positions to make time for swimming in glowing, bioluminescent bays. There were people who braved pirates to witness everlasting lightning storms, stood on volcanoes, stared into solar eclipses. They trusted their instincts, followed their passions, willfully shaped their days into the lives they most wanted to lead.”
Humphrey, a guide she meets in Tanzania, says this about his life: “I am free! I can go anywhere I want and look for things. I can move! There’s no stress — not that kind of stress when you are confined. I am never bored. To me, that’s what freedom means.”

A clinical psychologist named Kate, whom Henion meets in Australia, explains that eclipse chasers make choices that allow them to be in the right place at the right time. “I think people put restrictions on their lives. They perceive: I can’t do this because I don’t have the money. I can’t do this because of whatever…But if you’ve got that passion, if you’ve made that choice, it will happen.”

This is ultimately the gem I’ve uncovered rereading this book in times when I doubt the unconventional choices I’ve made in my life. Or worse, I miss out on the freedom that Humphrey speaks about when I decide not to do something because I think I can’t afford it or I’m worried about what other people think.
In particular, Henion bravely addresses what all of us mothers wrestle with: “does being a good mother mean devoting every drop of my being to my child, or does it mean being true to my spirit in a way that illustrates that there is more than one way to live a good life? Motherhood affects everything, but does it have to change everything about who I am and what I choose to pursue?”

As a travel writer and a soon-to-be mother of four kids, I berate myself with these questions all day long. It’s especially heart-wrenching, when well-meaning friends or family tell me that I shouldn’t do something because I’m a mother or that my decision to have so many kids means that I should always prioritize motherhood over my career. A Wisconsin Public Radio interviewer once said to Henion: “The script in our culture tends to have being a mother and being an explorer as mutually exclusive roles. You’re supposed to get your wandering and adventuring done before you have kids and then you’re supposed to nest and settle down.”

Critics have actually asked Henion how she could “abandon” her child or husband for a week, or whether she felt guilty about leaving her son “especially when he was just a baby, to go off on this wonder pilgrimage?” I, too, am asked these questions when I’m on assignment. It makes me wonder how often mothers are asked “what about the kids?” when they have to travel somewhere for work, and how often fathers are asked that question. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever asked my husband whether he feels guilty abandoning his wife and three kids when he’s out-of-town five days every week?

Here’s her graceful response, which I’ve posted on my wall: “I think a lot of people will look at this journey and think it’s self-indulgent. I had to wrestle with this. All my life I was told that women can do anything. When I became a mother, I felt like that suddenly changed. There seems to be a who-does-she-think-she is to just go chase an eclipse. When we talk about following a script, that doesn’t follow a script. When you’re a new mother and you go to a professional conference for a week, it doesn’t seem like people would talk about that how awful it is that she went to a conference. But if you swim in a bioluminescence bay in Puerto Rico, it seems somehow self-indulgent. It doesn’t follow a script of what you’re supposed to be doing of what’s acceptable. It’s interesting because it is actually my job as a travel writer. I’m on a work trip. That really gets to what it is that you want to do, that you think you can’t because it’s not what you’re supposed to do even though it’s what you feel called to do. When people read Phenomenal, that’s what I hope they will ask themselves.”

So tell me, what do you want to do that you think you’re not supposed to do?

And if traveling and exploring might be your answer, consider Henion’s suggestion to see the next total eclipse which will cross the entire country on August 21, 2017. She says, “The highest number of Americans in a century will be able to easily reach its path. This is something people go out on ocean liners or fly to tiny islands to see, and it’s going to be within driving distance for millions. A great resource is greatamericaneclipse.com. I saw a total eclipse in Australia. It’s a tremendous experience; you’re seeing the face of the sun. And to witness it with other people, you viscerally experience interconnectivity.”

Henion, Leigh Ann. Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World. Penguin, 2015.

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Buy Phenomenal here

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About the Author: Leigh Ann Henion is the New York Times best-selling author of Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World, about how she chased eclipses, migrations, and other natural phenomena around the globe to reawaken her sense of wonder.

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Phenomenal was named an editor’s pick by O, The Oprah Magazine, Backpacker, and Barnes & Noble Review. Elizabeth Gilbert called it a “gorgeously written and deeply thoughtful memoir,” and The Sydney Morning Herald declared that “even a cynic reading Phenomenal will yearn for a taste of wonder.”

Henion’s essays and articles have appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, and The Washington Post Magazine, among other publications. She has received a variety of accolades for her work, including a Lowell Thomas Award, and her stories have been noted in three editions of The Best American Travel Writing. Henion lives in the mountains of North Carolina.

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About the Reviewer: An adventurer in her own right, Leslie Hsu Oh is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has been named among the distinguished stories of the year by Best American Essays.

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Leslie’s nonfiction articles are often concerned with nature, wilderness exploration, parenting, and native cultures, as in “How Canoes Are Saving Lives and Restoring Spirits” for Smithsonian and “Important Lessons About Giving from Alaska” on Today.com. She has written extensively about the joys and challenges of combining her love of wilderness adventure and native culture with the raising of three small children.

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This review of Phenomenal is one of four reviews and interviews Leslie has contributed to the Military Spouse Book Review, all dealing with the theme of preserving one’s own inner wildness in the face of loss or challenge. You can read her review of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child-which, with its Alaskan setting and themes of loss and hope, resonated strongly with her– here 

I lost my mother and brother to the same disease when I was twenty-one. Eowyn Ivey’s language makes me forget for the moment that I’m motherless: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black.” It transports me to Alaska, a place I still call home even though I only lived there for seven years while my husband was with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

an interview with Christime Byl, author of Dirt Work, here; and an interview with Leigh Newman, author of Still Points North, here (“Write About the Place You Miss”).

As a mother [now] raising a nine-year-old, six-year-old, and one-year-old in the Washington, D.C. area, I’m often frustrated that I can’t give my children experiences like hiking with crampons on a glacier at the age of two when we lived in Alaska.

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Hold Tightly to Your Stories: Tracy Crow’s ‘On Point’

by Amber Jensen (National Guard)

Military stories can be difficult–to write, and to share–but they are important. And that is why Tracy Crow’s On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story is an essential book for all of us linked to the military community.

When my husband, Blake, shares stories of his military service, they seem to come tumbling out. Like the (in-his-words) funny war story that slipped from his lips, reaching me via the echoing phone connection between Baghdad and Sioux Falls, SD, before he could even think about what he was telling me. When the words ran out, he paused, and then whispered, “Why’d I tell you that? I never should have told you that.” And then my words ran out. I didn’t know how to respond.

Not all of Blake’s military stories are sad. But when he tells a funny story, I don’t laugh like an insider, like someone who gets it. Even though my relationship with Blake has spanned basic training, AIT, years of drill, a deployment, and now ten years of VA medical claims, there are a lot of things about military experience that I just don’t understand. So, I understand why military personnel might hold tightly to their stories. Why they so often only come tumbling out. Unexpectedly. Surprising the story teller almost as much as the listener.

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But that is also why I’ve come to understand just how important the sharing of those stories is. And that is why Tracy Crow’s straight-forward approach to On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story is so necessary.
Crow gets it. She gets the military experience, and she gets writing. She invites us in by relating those moments when she doubted her own story, struggled through the writing process, and faced the personal and professional challenges of publication. She pulls us along by sprinkling excerpts of military stories throughout—examples of stories we can relate to and writing we can learn from. Then, at the end of each chapter, she translates those stories and examples into short journaling exercises that encourage both reading and writing practice—a crucial combination. A student in the Veteran’s Writing Program I lead at SDSU praises the way Crow’s examples and explanations make writing more relatable, explaining that in class he is given rules and guidelines, but through On Point he is able to imagine how those are relevant to his story.

Because the exercises in On Point start from the very beginning of the idea-generating process, and link the writing process directly to reading and learning from other writers’ style, the book is appropriate for very beginning writers, but it holds value, too, for writers like myself, who have been trudging through their stories for years. On Point offers insights that have rejuvenated my work, like thinking about progressive complications and the emotional charge and energy shifts within scenes. And On Point reminds me of the importance of my story, because I have continued, throughout ten years of writing, to doubt the importance of our story as a military family. Sometimes we need encouragement, and Crow’s book provides that along with the tools to move beyond a pat on the back and into the process of putting words on the page.

Crow writes in the introduction to the guide: “My wish is for On Point to inspire you to write about your military experiences and, more important, to grant you permission. Your story matters, even if you don’t yet fully believe so.” Military stories do matter. Each of our stories matters.
For all of us who have lived the military experience as servicewomen, servicemen, or soldiers, or as parents, siblings, spouses, or children of military personnel, the process of writing can help us develop understanding, make connections, and heal. In Crow’s words:

“Writing about your military experiences, even if you decide to turn your true stories into fiction, will help you develop a deeper understanding about your life, your decisions, and the motives behind your decision because meaningful writing comes from identifying meaningful patterns. Meaningful writing requires a self-awakening. When we write, we’re training ourselves to search deeply for motive behind choices, whether we’re writing about ourselves in a memoir or essay or about the characters within our military short story or novel.”

But military writing extends beyond the military community, and its benefits reach out beyond those of us tied to military experience. Military writing documents history as well as personal experience. That combination is what our country needs so that citizens removed from the military experience might begin to understand what it means to serve our country. What it costs to go to war. What it means to carry those experiences with us as we walk among the majority of our citizens who seem not to understand. Which is the point of sharing stories. Through writing, we document, explore, connect, and reflect. Through reading, we learn, empathize, connect, and understand.

On Point leads an important step in the right direction to making the military experience more visible to ourselves and those around us.

Buy On Point here

Buy Tracy Crow’s memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine

About the Author: Tracy Crow is the author of the award-winning memoir, Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine; the military conspiracy thriller, An Unlawful Order, tracy-crow-bio-photo-for-eyes-right2under her pen name, Carver Greene; the true story collection, Red, White, & True: Stories from Veterans and Families, WWII to Present; and the new writing text, On Point: A Guide to Writing the Military Story, in which Crow combines her skills and experience as a former Marine Corps officer, award-winning military journalist, author, editor, and professor of creative writing.

 

About the Reviewer:

image3Amber Jensen’s writing has been featured in 0-Dark-Thirty and I Am: Twenty-Seven. You can find an earlier interview with Amber Jensen here on the Military Spouse Book Review, July 2015.

The Devil in His Own Home: Matt Gallagher’s ‘Youngblood’

“How do you defeat the devil in his own home?” wonders Rana, the beautiful and tragic daughter of a sheik in Matt Gallagher’s Iraq War novel Youngblood.

It would make for a great rhetorical question if not for the lives of the civilians and American military that hang in the balance. Thrown together by circumstances that can seem alternately noble, fruitless, and absurd, these two groups of people–local Iraqis and American soldiers–are forced to spend their days marking time, circling each other, hoping to stay alive so that they can — what? Well, find somewhere else to go and survive, I guess.

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Put down that radio, son!

Kudos to Matt Gallagher for taking these two groups of people, often described by the general public in ways that make them seem bluntly, blandly at odds, and giving them the particularity and nuance that make them feel real. Gallagher, a former Army captain and author of the memoir Kaboom! (2010), knows well the variation among soldiers (by rank, region, education, personality) and Iraqi locals (by roughly the same). He uses this to his novelistic advantage, creating a web of characters whose backgrounds and motives must have been carefully plotted out. As in a great old noir novel or film, each of these characters wants something from the other, mistrusts one another, is scheming in some way, out of either aggression or self-protection. Sometimes, motives are clear; other times you can’t quite pin them down, and neither can the book’s narrator, the well-meaning, slightly muddled, youthfully self-absorbed Lieutenant Jack Porter.

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author Matt Gallagher

The events of the novel hinge on a local mystery that Jack at first assumes to be legend and nothing more: the marriage of an American soldier to a local sheik’s daughter some years prior. The soldier, Rios, is presumed dead, having been (according to locals and to Jack’s main rival, Sgt. Chambers) driven wild by his love for Rana. Like Lt. John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, he began to “go native.” (“Some men can’t act rationally when there’s poon involved,” Chambers explains, wistfully.)

As the novel opens, Rios’s body has never been found, and Jack plays sleuth in order to help locate it. Partly, Jack wants to do “one good thing” while in Iraq; also, he’s bored out of his mind, and his little noir diversion gives him something to do while providing comic effect. (“Sing me a song and make it good,” Jack tells a source, who merely “looked confused.”)

A northern California boy whose older brother joined the Army first, and with great distinction, Jack joined up “to believe in something the way he had. To know idealism as something more than a word.” The brothers’ parents are made both horrified and proud by their sons’ military service (strange bedfellows of emotion I know well from having informed my own pacifist, northern-CA parents that my high school sweetheart-turned-husband, whom they’d known for years, was joining the military in 2004). Will, Jack’s older brother, is the typical Type-A, hard-charging firstborn, but even he had “lost that belief somewhere along the line, somehow,” whereas Jack, in a laconic, jaded youngest-child’s manner, muses that he “doubted [he’d] ever had it.”

Jack makes for a fine narrator and he certainly feels realistic–his parents’ divorce is referenced in a factual, mutedly-sad way, and surely our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the first generation of soldiers shaped overwhelmingly by divorce. You can make more or less of that as you see fit, but for me, details like that make Jack seem like any smart, liberal, and slightly adrift LT I might have come across in my eleven years as a military wife. It also makes him (and this is praise!) the least interesting character in Youngblood (with the exception of Marissa, his weepy, physically fit, book-loving girlfriend back home).

It’s the Iraqi characters themselves who truly capture my imagination. In Youngblood, they are unique, fascinating individuals, and it takes someone who knows a lot about the intricacies of local diplomacy to write them this well. Sure, you have the usual shepherds and badly-burned little girls (American soldier-writers use nothing more frequently as metaphors for their own personal horror than injured little girls, often to meaningful effect), but Gallagher imbues what could be stock characters with life that just sizzles. Even a teenage shepherd boy in a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt, through the patient-but-increasingly-frustrated LT Jack’s eyes, speaks volumes about the way the soldiers and Iraqis regard one another, and how some of the deepest hurts come from the two sides feeling wronged in tiny ways, perceiving a lack of basic gratitude or politeness. The shepherd boy “frowned as we passed, even though we’d waited for him and his herd.” There he is, this boy, caught at his parochial livelihood while consuming American culture with some measure of longing or respect (we assume) — and yet staring down his occupiers who are patiently waiting for him in armor and vehicles that cost more money than this young man could ever fathom. And Jack thinks that if the kid could just smile, could have some gratitude or some freaking respect, everybody would feel better. Which they probably would.

That kid’s just a blip in the novel, but there are other Iraqis who are allowed to live extensively within its pages. There’s Haitham, the town drunk, and possibly a fanatical and plotting cleric. The Barbie Kid with his pink sweatpants and cooler. There’s the falafel man with his cataract eyes and stinky feet, toes poking out of sandals like “little gnarled knives” (BTW, would you want your falafel made by a man with such reeking feet?!), possibly far more dangerous than he seems. There’s Snoop, and oh, you will adore Snoop!, LT Jack’s funny, streetwise, American-rap-loving Arabic interpreter.

And then there’s Fat Mukhtar, a young village leader who serves, like most of the Iraqis in the book, as both assistant and rival to the Americans. In perhaps my favorite scene, Jack, overwhelmed by pressure and frustration, challenges Fat Mukhtar to a game of “Big Buck Hunter” in the mukhtar’s video-game-and-mini-fridge-filled man cave, while the senior officers and village elders are meeting. The absurdity, the details, are hilariously wrought: “The war didn’t matter any more. Wiping the grin off the mukhtar’s fat face did.” And my favorite visual image:

Fat Mukhtar’s face quivered with anger, and he started to walk into me, belly first, until I raised a peace sign and pointed to the screen. He rearranged the green shotgun under his armpit in a stream of Arabic vulgarities. As we waited for the sixth round, blocky letters of GET READY formed on the screen. We crouched in the wait, his feet parallel like he was at the O.K. Corral, mine staggered and clenched as I’d been taught in training.

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I was relieved and impressed to find that the Iraqi women in Youngblood are equally well-drawn. Rana, the beautiful widow, is gentle-natured despite the loss and confinement she has endured. She isn’t conniving like some of the other Iraqis, but she’s not guileless either. Her boredom is without coarseness; it has managed to tamp her down, but not dull her. Her sense of humor and restraint feel pitch-perfect.

Her opposite on the spectrum may be Alia, the short, chubby cleaning lady and hooker for hire, whose constant presence –mopping, sweeping, watching LT Jack through doorways and windows–unnerves him. If this were Game of Thrones she’d be The Spider; she knows more than anyone else. (I laughed when Alia catches Jack watching her watch him, as if “her spider-sense had tingled”). Alia’s powers of observation make her a possibly-sinister counterpart to Gallagher-the-novelist himself, and it becomes clear that Alia can spin a pretty good yarn. With her penchant for detailed storytelling, heck, I’d read Alia’s novel any day.

As a war novel, Youngblood is refreshing. Sure, it tackles the sense of ennui and frustration that all books about modern American soldiers must address, but it’s also far more than just Jack Porter drinking lukewarm Rip-It and having headaches. When Michiko Katukani describes the novel as “urgent,” I agree: there’s an urgency within Youngblood‘s pages, although for me, that urgency is not so much about the Rios and Rana mystery or even concern for Jack Porter, but rather a desire to uncover the fascinating power balance in the “hellish” village of Ashuriya, Iraq, where people have endured for centuries, where they are sometime victims of circumstance but also world-wise and smart, where any upper hand must be exploited no matter how small; where power and personal advantage are everything, and where yet another occupation is, like all those that have come before, something that will pass.

Gallagher, Matt. Youngblood (Atria Books, 2016).

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Buy Youngblood here

Read Michiko Katukani’s review in the New York Times, an interview with Matt Gallagher in The Rumpus, and a review of Youngblood by Peter Molin on Time Now.