The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War

“They said he was home, but no one had proved it.”  — Benjamin Busch, “Into the Land of Dogs”

David Foster Wallace has said that fiction creates “one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.” He’s talking specifically about reading fiction, but I think–despite most fiction writers’ prideful assertion that their work is art, never “therapy,” and, damn it, not even “therapeutic!”–that writing fiction can have the same effect. Writing in isolation, then putting that work out into the world, having it met halfway (if you’re lucky), is somehow both the nurturing and annulment of loneliness all in one.

The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, a new anthology of fiction by veterans, is often about loneliness. It’s also often very witty, dark, moving, surreal, absurd, and gut-wrenching. Each of the 25 standalone stories, by writers well-known within the veteran-writing community and beyond, is its own unique experience; each voice is different; each will make your head spin in a slightly different way, and will leave you with a different aftertaste: sadness, relief, horror, or a headshake and a dry chuckle. But in trying to think of a cohesive way to describe these stories, what I kept coming back to was the characters’ loneliness, which keeps many of them in a kind of purgatory. They are neither still at war nor truly back at home. This theme has been explored before, sure, but most commonly in nonfiction. The Road Ahead is most successful, even dazzling, when its contributors allow their imaginations full, fictional reign. In these stories, some male writers take on the challenge of writing female protagonists, and quite a few American writers delve into the Iraqi or Afghan perspective (Kristen L. Rouse, Maurice Decaul, David James). The results are very good, with all of these authors writing fiction that is both an artistic practice and an effort of empathy. In other stories, most notably the exciting run that starts with Matthew Hefti’s “We Put a Man in a Tree” and continues unabated to the end of the book, experimentation takes the form of surrealism, or a Southern-Gothic bleak humor (Adrian Bonenberger’s “American Fapper,” and yes, that means what you think it means), or pure poetry (Decaul’s “Death of Time”). Here, the stories gain a momentum and darkness that make them riveting.

roadaheadbook

There’s a soldier who carries his Warrant Officer’s decapitated head through the Afghan desert after a helo crash, helmet and all, wanting to bury it so it will be safe from Taliban and dogs, in Benjamin Busch’s contribution, “Into the Land of Dogs.” (It’s creepy, surreal, sad, and also darkly comical, perhaps a somewhat perverse nod to Tom Hanks’s “Cast Away” character who spends his days with his volleyball, Wilson. But what if Wilson were a human head?!)

There’s a story narrated by the ghosts (!) who taunt and bait a veteran, egging him to violence and feeding on his psychic pain (“We Put a Man in a Tree”). There’s a Marine who fakes his own combat injury–even though he’s already injured–because he’s terrified he’ll return home without a combat ribbon (Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades”). Lauren Halloran’s protagonist is an Air Force mechanic, freshly home from a deployment her jealous stateside boyfriend couldn’t quite hack, who commences her reentry into civilian femininity with a plan she calls “Operation Slut.”

The tragicomedy hits its zenith with Eloise, a brilliantly-written wounded warrior’s wife in Brandon Caro’s “The Morgan House,” forced to take part in a pizza-party-of-pity she doesn’t want, while her kids run amok and her triple-amputee husband chides her for being obese:

“Eloise here, she can eat enough for both of us, ain’t that right honey?”

“Don’t mind him.” She rolled her eyes, as though she’d heard the rib a million times already. “He gets this way when he’s whacked out on them pills.” She paused for a moment and laughed forcibly before adding, “Which is pretty much all of the damn time!”

These are veterans imagining other veterans, imagining civilians, imagining veterans’ wives and people with either less or (hopefully) more of a burden than they, themselves, carry.

Through fiction, they look loneliness, deceit, human frailty, and hope in the eye. Here’s David Foster Wallace again:

Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

I can’t speak to all of those, here on this blog. But fiction? Absolutely.


The Road Ahead is quite lovely as a work of art, from cover to cover. With wry, elegant interior illustrations by Benjamin Busch, it stands alone as an artifact and keepsake, and is simply a beautiful book.

I love the idea of illustrations accompanying short stories; it adds both gravitas and flair, and somehow makes the story feel more complete. The act of illustrating a story, kind of like a different form of note-taking, also deepens the experience for the reader as well. So I made myself doodle while I read, and while my illustration skills are amateur indeed, it was a fun exercise — almost like being back in elementary school and drawing pictures along with your book report. (And if this blog is not a glorified book report, I don’t know what is.)

road ahead

I want to say a few more words about the stories that made the most impact on me, before I take my leave.

There are five women veterans featured in The Road Ahead, and all of their stories are worth reading. From Kayla Williams’s grieving Sgt. Kate Stevens, trying to find solace in casual sex, to Teresa Fazio’s narrator, concerned about her attraction to an enlisted man who seems, somehow, less sturdy than she, each story examines femininity in the context of war.

The one exception to this theme is Kristen Rouse’s “Pawns,” which is different for the effort Rouse makes to contemplate people very different from her: a former Afghan commando named Nasir, now defector and truck driver trying to live a life of peace, confronted with a former enemy (an old man who is now a friend) and a young Jihadist who confounds and angers him. Nasir, passing the time playing chess and hoping the Americans will let their vehicles through, is drawn back into dark memories of a failed mission he barely survived.

rouze

if God wills it

The boy stared with cold eyes at Nasir. ‘Taliban would pay your family if you explode yourself,’ he said.

Nasir froze and felt a chill shoot through his body. Then his face flushed with anger. ‘Taliban would pay my family one time. I pay my family each truckload I deliver. I came back to my country ten years ago to make my family’s life better, not worse. The Taliban have nothing for my family that I do not already give them,’ he said, growing angry.

‘The Americans are infidels,’ the boy said.

‘The Taliban are no better,’ Nasir said.

‘God is the greatest,’ the boy said.

‘God is the greatest,’ Nasir replied in a harsh tone.

‘I will be a foot soldier for Islam,’ the boy said.

‘Who has filled your head with such foolishness?’ Nasir asked.

Matthew Hefti’s  aforementioned “We Put a Man in a Tree” stands out for its many bold moves, most notably its narration by the group of ghosts who have attached themselves to a man named JJ, rooting for his self-destruction. From Nadir, who is seven, with a white nightgown and “darkened red tummy…elegant, like the flag of Japan,” to Ray, who “never stops smiling with gritted teeth….no one came and saw him in the home,” these ghosts follow poor JJ, tormenting him, whispering to him when he looks in the bathroom mirror, throwing rocks at him til he goes blind. He does not seem entirely aware of them, only of the effect they have on him. But Hefti still manages to work in a dark humor that, at times, made me laugh out loud:

‘How are you weird?”‘[JJ asks ‘X,’ the kid who confides in him at a bar/restaurant]. You seem like every other twenty-one-year-old kid I’ve ever known.’

‘Twenty-two,’ X said. ‘And I don’t feel I can tell you.’ He looked down into his beer for a long time. ‘But then again,’ he said. ‘I feel you’d understand. The thing is, I still have my V-card.’

…Over and over the kid apologized, and JJ said, ‘Stop it. That’s great. I stand in awe of you. You really don’t have to apologize. I’ve been there.’

We jumped in, of course, and asked, ‘How is he not weird?’ and ‘How can you really say you’ve been there?’

hefti

he still has his V card

From there, the story takes a shocking turn, and I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it kind of kept me up for about half a night. As did Brian Castner’s “The Wild Hunt,” which gave me an actual bad dream (THANKS, CASTNER), but I mean that as a compliment.

Benjamin Busch’s “Into the Land of Dogs” also stuck with me, for its surreality, its post-apocalyptic feel (man wandering in the desert with his compatriot’s head), and its gorgeous, precise language. One section of the story echoes the phrase “He found…he found..” in a sort of lulling voice, almost making the post-apocalyptic desirable. “He found belongings left along trails from the south….He found a house sitting like litter at the base of the ashen valley, saved by solitude.”

busch

this dog is disappointed there’s not more meat on that bone

He thinks of the men who perished in the crash: “His body was torn in ways blood couldn’t imagine…No one was buried complete.” Like Jacob wrestling the angel, he fights a vulture in hand-to-hand (wing?) combat.


In his discussion of The Road Ahead, Peter Molin of Time Now asks how war lit will change in this post-Obama era, the age of Trump. He notes, “The Road Ahead points more clearly to where we were on November 7, 2016, than to where we are going after January 20, 2017.” I had this same impression, but perhaps would not have known how to vocalize it. The stakes are escalating, Molin notes. And it’s true that there is a certain indulgence to the feel of The Road Ahead, a playfulness that has little to lose. What will veterans’ fiction look like in the age of Trump?

I have no solid answers, but I do have a few guesses. First, the risque play of the sexual power differential is going to take on a very different feel; I felt this shift almost immediately with the recent election, while watching the HBO series Westworld. What had felt like daring forays only weeks before felt suddenly, after Trump’s victory, distasteful and unwelcome. Suddenly, violence against women, no matter how campy or self-aware or absurd, did not feel at all funny. Would Bonenberger’s story “American Fapper,” terrific as it is, have been written immediately after a Trump victory? How about PJ Frederick’s “The Church?”

During Obama’s presidency, too, there was an almost odd whimsicality to media in general, to advertisements and music videos and the like. Self-expression was everything! What could go wrong? You’re the fat kid at the prom? Go ahead and dance, everybody will love you for it! You’re a man who wants to wear some makeup? You go, girl! People will respect you!

Alas, as we have seen, an entire culture does not change that quickly. For the past eight years, when it comes to political expression, a sort of whimsical, twee, collective nostalgia or empowerment seemed to fit the bill. Just be yourself, and society will catch up to you! Trump’s victory has shown that “society,” unfortunately, is far behind. All that time that adorable twenty-somethings were dancing around in Coke ads, thrilled to be themselves, Trump’s America was watching. Waiting. Ready to rip those little snowflakes a new one, like the cadre of ghosts in Matt Hefti’s story. You’re doing better, you’re working on your life, you’re in recovery? Loser, joke’s on you.

With Trump promising a defense budget bloated and inflated beyond Henry Kissinger’s wildest dreams, and veterans guaranteed, or maybe enslaved, to a war that will simply never end, war fiction will surely take a new direction. The stakes are higher, and things may get more serious.

I hope the war writing of the future doesn’t lose its humor. I hope the kid gloves are not on too tight.

The one thing I feel confident in? That these veterans’ voices will continue to be perceptive, funny, witty, heartbreaking and wise. That, I’d bet money on. On that, I’m 100% sure.

—–

Bonenberger, Adrian and Castner, Brian. The Road Ahead. Pegasus Books, 2017.

Buy The Road Ahead here.

Cruel & Lovely World: Susanne Aspley on Writing, Life, Humor, and the Authority to Tell the Tale

by Mary L. Doyle (Army veteran, author)

Full disclosure, Susanne Aspley is not just a friend of mine, she’s a sister. I say that because we served in uniform together and aside from blood relationships, wearing the same uniform while enduring service in butt-crack parts of the world can bring a closeness that is unachievable any other way.

Most recently, the butt-crack part of life we’re sharing is that of finding the right words to put on the page. We commiserate together, encourage each other, and now that she has released her latest work, I get to celebrate it with her and share in her excitement. I’m so glad the rest of the world can now read this book.

The first time Susanne handed me her work to read I was nervous. I knew she could write. I’d read plenty of her work as a journalist. I just didn’t know what she would do when it came time to write a novel. As it turned out, Ladyboy and the Volunteer was easily one of the best books I’d read in a while. Susanne won a bunch of accolades for it, deservedly so, and I couldn’t have been happier for her.

Over the last several months, like any good author, Susanne struggled with her latest book, Granola, MN. I’d get email and text messages from her screaming that she didn’t know what she was doing, that everything was shit. Weeks later she’d be happy that her main characters, Allison and Toby, had worked things out, only to grow frustrated with them again. All the while I looked forward to reading the story because I knew that if Granola was anywhere near as interesting and funny and quirky and brilliant as Ladyboy was, I’d be looking forward to hours of reading enjoyment.

Granola

I’m happy to report that Granola, MN, is Aspley at her best. It’s a story of love and healing told with a kind of humor that sometimes sneaks up on you and at others times smacks you in the face. She shows us a world through the eyes of someone who is unapologetic about her naiveté which means she moves through life with an artless candor that is amusing and heartbreaking at the same time.

Just when you thought a topic might be something growing a little bit stayed, a little bit worn down, maybe something you thought you understood, Aspley gives us a completely unexpected viewpoint that makes it fresh and absorbing. I admit to reading this in small bits then going back to it like a treat I hoarded because I didn’t want it to be over. Lord knows, I needed a laugh at the time. If you feel like that at all, you’re going to want to read this.

Here is the blub:

Allison Couch has her hands full dealing with the assorted flakes, fruits and nuts in the small town of Granola. One summer morning, Toby Davenport moves back home. A young, black, Afghanistan War veteran, he has a heart of gold but a guilt-fueled addiction. Together, they take on parades, pit bull rescues, game show auditions, driving lessons, building inspectors, racism and falling in love. Heartbreaking, slapstick, and rambunctious, life never goes as planned. But there’s always hope, in Granola, Mn. 

It’s a fantastic book. One I hope you’re going to enjoy as much as I did. And here’s what Susanne has to say about it.

The last time I saw you was when we were attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention in Washington D.C. I know that wasn’t your first AWP but it was the first where you were on a panel and your first time meeting up with the strong military writing community that has sprung up around that convention. What did you think of the experience?

awp_randy_room_eric

Susanne Aspley (with Eric Chandler) at AWP 2017

For the past year, my social life consisted of sitting behind a computer, banging my head on the desk as I dealt with Allison, Toby, Grandma and the rest of the character in Granola. I enjoyed their company and miss them, but I gave them a happy ending so I know they are okay without me. I then managed to crawl out into the real world and attend the AWP Conference in D.C. Writing is very solitary, so what a delight to interact with real people! Real writers! Real poets! Once there, I hardly felt worthy. I felt the ‘imposter syndrome’ that many writers say they feel when surrounded by such talent. Specifically, meeting authors and poets that I truly admire who write about war, and subjects related to war, had me nearly tongue tied. However, I was welcomed into the pack of veterans, active duty, military spouses and family members who write. Each and every one was supportive and encouraging, the way the military community usually is. I look forward to next year when I can spend more time learning and laughing with them.

Your novels, both Ladyboy and the Volunteer, and Granola, MN, take a rather irreverent look at the world. Even the most tragic and ugly aspects of humanity are looked at with a hint of humor and a unique perspective. Is that how you see life? Is it easier for you to explore some of the difficult themes you conquer by looking at things in this way?

Humor is an emotional release. When something is bad, it’s a way to process the pain so it becomes tolerable. It deflates what is bad to a manageable level. Soldiers in the field are a good example of this. In my books, the characters are constantly being tossed back and forth between tragedy and comedy. But that’s the duality of life. Ridiculous and serious, cruel and lovely. However, humor is also extremely subjective. When writing it, you run the risk of sounding offensive, juvenile or just stupid.

5 Aspley trio

Aspley (lower left) and her children

Just about everyone in this story has a tragic past and Ally seems to take all of that history into consideration when she thinks about them. What are you telling us in terms of human interaction?

 In the military, the term, ‘in the shit’, means being in combat. In the book, Toby was very much ‘in the shit’. Mr Whitehead, Morton and Sheldon were all ‘in the shit’, over in Vietnam, WWII and Korea, respectively. However, many characters have been ‘in the shit’, which doesn’t involve combat.

For example, the character Zach. When he’s on the porch talking to Allison, it’s funny and tragic at the same time. He’s never been in combat, but obviously he’s knee deep ‘in the shit’ with his baby and wife. And Allison has been as well. I think everyone has been ‘in the shit’ at some point in their lives, some deeper than others. We have no idea what’s going on with the people we encounter every day.

There are many themes of mental illness in this book, from depression to suicides. Some of that mental illness is portrayed as quirky, while other aspects are serious and life threatening. What was it about this topic that made you want to dig into it? What did you hope readers would learn?

 I can write with great experience about depression and alcohol abuse. I hit rock bottom eight years ago. I have been hospitalized, in treatment and in jail because of service connected depression and alcohol abuse. I threw it all in the book for Toby and Allison to deal with. And they do. Toby gets the help he needs in the end, and it works for him, because he is willing to work at it. I want vets who are still struggling to know some days are better than others, but there is always hope if you accept the help out there and work at it daily.

From pit bulls to guinea pigs, animals play a large role in this story and they seem to have the same kind of attention to personality as the human characters in your books. The way your characters play off the animals seems to reflect on their character as well. Why is this?

In my opinion, how people treat animals is a direct reflection on their moral character. In Granola, Allison and Toby rescue a pit bull on their first ‘date’. In Ladyboy and the Volunteer, the old man rescues his dog, Scabby, from the horrific dog meat trade that still happens in Thailand.

I believe if someone sticks a firecracker up a dog’s nose or forces them to fight till death, the owners are twisted individuals who have no right to be in a civilized society. They probably victimize people as well. Minnesota passed a law to allow prosecutors to charge animal abuse/cruelty on a felony level. Prior, the most they could charge was a misdemeanor. We can thank Colonel/MN Senator Don Betzold for getting this legislation passed. Betzold was a JAG officer in the 88th Army Reserve.

Toby and his mother are the only black people in this small town. As a white author, do you feel you have the authority to write about such topics?

I have no authority whatsoever. But I live in a world with black people so have black people in my book. I can’t get in his head what it’s like to be black, but I can relate to him being a veteran, struggling with depression and drinking too much. That’s how Toby and I, as the writer, relate.

I can relate to Toby’s mom, Mrs. Davenport, as a single mom. In the book, when Allison goes over to talk to Mrs. Davenport after the accident, Mrs. Davenport expresses regret she didn’t make a bigger issue out of Toby’s depressive behavior at home. But as a mother, I get that. We want our kids to figure things out on their own. But there’s a fine line when you have to step in before it’s too late.

What made you want to explore these themes of racism? Do you worry about facing the same kind of backlash with this book and the black community?

 In 1995-96, I was married to an Arab-American. He was Palestinian Muslim. His sisters and dear mother wear a hijab. With him, I experienced racial ignorance toward him and nastiness toward me. We often handled it with humor, which would defuse the situation. But, quite honestly, he was extremely anti-Semitic. He held contempt toward another group of people as well. And that wasn’t right, either.

Our country is very racially divided. The story is written first person, present, from a young, white woman’s point of view. I’m not young anymore but still white, so feel okay writing from this perspective. Keep in mind, I’m not relating to Toby as a young black male. I relate to him as a veteran, to his depression and drinking too much. Those things don’t care about color or age or nothing. Besides that, I think Toby is a just a really great guy.

Regarding backlash. I’ve already received a hate mail for having a pit bull on the cover of Granola. I was told to get my ‘facts straight’. The gentlemen directed me to a dog bites org website. Well, if you don’t like pit bulls, or the fact a white author wrote a book with a black character, then don’t read Granola, Mn. If you don’t like Thai ladyboy prostitutes, then don’t read Ladyboy and the Volunteer.

One of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes is:  “As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”

Granola, MN takes place in a small town filled with characters many people might recognize. Did you have a particular Minnesota town in mind when you wrote the book?

 Granola is based on the small town of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where I grew up. Scottsbluff was filled with wonderful ‘characters’. It was mostly white, but (my guess) 25% Mexican. They were originally migrant workers for the sugar beet fields who eventually immigrated permanently. There was also a large population of Native Americans. Growing up there, us kids didn’t have a problem with race because we were too busy having fun.

Your first book, Ladyboy and the Volunteer, explores the world of transgender people and you faced a bit of backlash from the trans community about the book. What was that like?

 I heard from several prominent American transgender women after the book came out. When I wrote back, we engaged in respectful conversation regarding my experience with my real life friend, Christine. Christine was a ladyboy. In Thailand, based on what I experienced with her, this is considered a third sex. Not a man transitioning into a woman, or man dressing up as a woman, or a man identifying as a woman. Christine was a complete and whole third sex. Using the word, transgender, is the best word to translate this in English. She, Velveeta and Samantha, were a third sex. The book better explains all of this.

ladyboy2

I received a negative review from a book critic who is a former Peace Corps volunteer. Apparently, my Peace Corps ‘experience’ book didn’t match his expectations on what a Peace Corps ‘experience’ should be. Ladyboy and the Volunteer could have easily been a memoir. Five years ago, I pulled out a box of over 40 handwritten diaries I wrote during my service in Thailand. I made up the fat German and the mysterious briefcase thing, but most other scenes in the book are events that happened. Many parts of the book are transcribed word for word from my diaries. One of my favorite (and true) parts is the tuktuk driver in Bangkok, after I got robbed. He didn’t speak English, but his fatherly kindness was universal. It’s something my own dad would have done.

Ladyboy earned you a McKnight award. Did this recognition inspire or intimidate you when you started writing your second book?

I am grateful and humbled that some people like my style of writing. Not everyone does, and that’s okay. Writing a book is like raising a child. You pour your heart and soul into it and when it’s time, you push it out the door into the real world. You hope it succeeds and doesn’t get judged harshly.

What else would you like to add?

The bottom line/intention of me writing this book is I want people to smile. Life isn’t easy. It’s disappointing. It’s dispiriting. It’s like, why even bother getting off the floor because everything is so fucked. Then something amazingly beautiful happens, like the old lady bumbling up to the grocery store, and she gives you the sweetest little smile for no reason, and you realize, wow…It’s all going to be okay.


About the author:

aspley3Susanne Aspley is the author of the novels Ladyboy and the Volunteer and Granola, MN.

Aspley retired as a Sergeant First Class after serving 20 years in the US Army Reserve as a photojournalist with tours in Bosnia, Cuba, Kuwait and Panama.

Aspley also served in the Peace Corps, Thailand, 1989-1991. She then worked in North Yorkshire, England as well as Ra’anana, Israel.

She holds a degree in English Lit with a minor in Film from the University of Minnesota and is a graduate of the Defense Information School, Ft Meade, MD. Retired, she enjoys her kids, rescued pit bull, and surly cat in Minnesota.

About the interviewer:

Mary

Mary L. Doyle has served in the U.S. Army at home and abroad for more than three decades as both a soldier and civilian and calls on those experiences in much of her writing. Mary is the award winning author of The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, The Sapper’s Plot, and The General’s Ambition, in the Master Sergeant Harper Mystery Series; The Bonding Spell, a new urban fantasy series and the co-author of I’m Still Standing; and A Promise Fulfilled, memoirs that tell the stories of strong women warriors. She has also penned Limited Partnerships, an adult romance series now released in omnibus format. All of her books are available on Amazon.com.

I’ve Heard That Sound Before: the 1950s Sound in Modern Music

Note:  I write about 1950s music on the “Fifties Culture” page of my book web site The Longest Night, but those posts can be hard to find. So here are my most recent thoughts on fifties music, and I’ll put them up on The Longest Night in a few days. – Andria

Sometimes, when performing her 2011 hit “Rolling in the Deep,” British singer Adele opens with her own rich, glossy vocals: “There’s a fire burning in my heart…”

But other times, the stage stays darker a little longer, and the voices of her backup singers lead in, with a crisp,  haunting a capella–“Rolling in the deep… tears are gonna fall…,” sounding for all the world like a Top 40 hit from 1959 or the early sixties, and you’re tricked into listening for the voice of, say, Martha Reeves or Diana Ross to come in and join them.

It’s a one-two punch that works: “Rolling in the Deep” was Billboard’s top single of 2011, and, receiving my much-smaller-scale personal nod of approval, is one of the few Adele songs I listen to voluntarily. You’ve got the distantly familiar, strong-but-feminine backup sound combined with the steamrolling vocals of Adele busting in on top, fully intent on beating your poor heart like a pinata. (“You had my heart inside of your hand,” she sings, “and you played it to the beat.” Ouch!)

Simon Reynolds, writing for the New York Times the year of the song’s release, notes

The song is basically 1960s rhythm-and-blues tightened up with modern production. Everything about “Rolling” — its melody and lyrics, Adele’s delivery and timbre, the role played by the backing vocalists — gestures back to a lost golden age of soul singers like Etta James and Dusty Springfield.

And he’s right; this is where I think the song gets its power. Reynolds, however, is not a fan of this development. “Once pop music was something by which you could tell the decade, or even the year,” he complains, “but listening to the radio nowadays is disorienting, if you’re searching for a sound that screams, ‘It’s 2011!'” This sounds a little funny now that it is 2017, of course (although people like me may still be behind the times enough to be searching for a song that screams that it’s 2011), but Reynolds (author of the interestingly-titled Shock and Awe, which is not about Bush-era military decisions but rather about the rise of glam rock) is serious about his concern with the “atemporality” of today’s pop music, a lack of a clear and definable 2000’s sound, which he sees as stemming from both the staggering backcatalog of music available on iTunes, You Tube, and so forth, as well as our Spotified ability to tailor our listening to sounds and singers we already know we like. (Intelligently, he links this to our fondness for instant-nostalgia apps like Hipstamatic, which grant us a shallow ability to artistically channel the past, perhaps without understanding it.) All the musical epochs are getting jumbled up, he seems to say, and it’s diluting whatever could have been a clear and distinguishable 2000’s music.

Reynolds could not have predicted the rather ominous cast his concern with dilution would take in today’s neo-fascist political environment. And, as a music geek/snob, it’s practically Reynolds’ job to disparage the listening public for their broad tastes and to lament something about modern music; I almost appreciate him for it. But from the production end, I think most modern bands worth their salt still know their influences.  The Bleachers sound like the late seventies and early eighties to me, The Weeknd often channels Michael Jackson, Carly Rae Jepsen sounds like Debbie Gibson. One smart blog I found by pure coincidence– the humorously-titled “Trip to the Outhouse,” whose Texas-based writer seems to be former Air Force, for what it’s worth!– caught the similarity, intentional or not, between Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and the heavy, pounding beat of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Kaw-Liga” (a connection the blogger made, Mr. Reynolds should note, by listening to Sirius Radio). Now that’s a throwback influence! Perhaps there are just more influences than ever before.

Nice connection, “Trip to the Outhouse,” whoever you are!

In any case, I’m not wandering this world searching for the song that screams that it’s 2011 or even 2017; for the purposes of this blog I’m interested in 1950s music, which has, happily for me, already happened. And it’s music that continues to reverberate through what we hear today, in ways that may be “throwback” but which I’d argue are also innovative. Such nods to the past can be campy, like Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats; mass-market-calculated for an emotional teenage audience, as with Taylor Swift; or an intelligent and moving homage, in the case of Leon Bridges.

I’ll start with Bridges–a staggeringly talented 26-year-old (!) singer/songwriter from Ft. Worth, Texas — because his sound and style unabashedly, and most consistently, channel the 1950’s and ’60s:

Interestingly, he’s the same age as Taylor Swift (also born in 1989, a year she must find significant in, hopefully, some way other than her own birth, for she titled an album after it).  While Swift crisscrosses genres and musical epochs like Spotify on fast-forward, perhaps exemplifying the Hipstamatic syndrome Reynolds laments, one thing is consistent to my ear: her yearning, egocentric, emotionally overblown lyrics. Sometimes they focus so intently on her own reflection-in-the-mirror regarding a relationship (multiple songs reference her “cherry lips”…she’s “standing in a nice dress” — the English teacher in me wants to write, “Be more specific, please!”) that they feel quite genuinely like the thoughts of someone who was born in 1989.

But other times, her pure, almost senseless longing, and vague but affectionate descriptions of her young-man-of-the-moment, feel quite directly channeled out of 1950s music.

“He’s so tall, and handsome as hell,” she sings, in “Wildest Dreams. “He’s so bad, but he does it so well.”

Where have I heard that before?

Try the Shangri-Las, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”:

Well what color are his eyes?

I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.

Is he tall?

Well, I’ve got to look up.

Yeah, well I’ve heard he’s bad.

Mmm, he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil.

Or try “He’s So Fine,” by The Chiffons:

He’s so fine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
Wish he were mine
That handsome boy over there
The one with the wavy hair

He’s a “soft-spoken guy, also seems kinda shy.” (Well, that’s refreshing! At least he is not just the bad boy. And though he goes unnamed, it’s better than just calling him “Mr. Lee,” which, now that I am a parent, creeps me out to no end.)  But in any case, the young man’s vague description, coupled with the singer’s intense desire, is a recipe for mass-market dollar signs that perhaps no one has used as successfully as Swift. She’s so bad, but she does it so well.

***

How about some fifties-inspired camp?

There are several influences at play here in the video for Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats’s “S.O.B” (though the lyrics would never have made it on the 1950s airwaves), but the idea of rockin’ in a jailhouse was perhaps done most popularly by Elvis Presley in 1957.

Rateliff also riffs on Johnny Cash’s famous Folsom Prison and San Quentin performances, but the addition of self-deprecating humor shows he doesn’t think he is the Man in Black, nor is he trying to be. He and the band perform with a sort of blank absurdity–the group-therapist drummer in an utterly depressed blue sweatshirt amuses me in particular– that feels modern and very funny, while also hearkening obviously back to musical predecessors.

***

Last of all: This is not a 1950s reference, but I’m adding it in from a storytelling perspective:

“Cleopatra,” by the Lumineers, uses an older mode of storytelling that I enjoy very much. I have to credit my 11-year-old daughter with pointing the song out to me, because in general I find the Lumineers a little saccharine. “Mom,” she said, “this song is interesting, because it’s a man singing like he is this lady Cleopatra. I mean, he’s singing the words the way Cleopatra would tell the story.”

The poor child probably regretted this observation instantly because I launched into an excited, annoying, possibly pretentious monologue: “Well, Nora! That’s from a folk singing tradition! Men and women often sang from the point of view of one another. And you know what? I bet we can trace that to the Bible. Like the Psalsms: people basically stand together in church and recite each other’s confessions and stories. They know that they are not King David, of course, and yet men and women alike recite his words from his point of view. Or like Paul: ‘When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.’ Men and women both say that. Right?”

And she was probably like, “Fine, Mom. Can we listen to some Taylor Swift?,” once again proving that she is probably smarter than me, and that Taylor Swift may be smarter than us all.

I don’t think this video really adds much to The Lumineers’ “Cleopatra,” other than a typical high-def commercial-type tearjerker thingy-ding . But the song itself is quite lovely.

I was Cleopatra, I was young and an actress
When you knelt by my mattress, and asked for my hand
I was sad you asked it, as I laid in a black dress
With my father in a casket, I had no plans

And I left the footprints, the mud stained on the carpet
And it hardened like my heart did when you left town
But I must admit it, that I would marry you in an instant
Damn your wife, I’d be your mistress just to have you around

But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life
And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time

There’s a storytelling, even tonal similarity, I think, between, say, some of the best Joan Baez and this particular Lumineers song. Sometimes the feel is what matters, and you don’t need a fancy music video to get to it. Sometimes, like my daughter Nora, I just hear something and think to myself, I like that.

If You See Me, Say Hello: AWP War Writers, 2017

Originally, I wasn’t going to attend the AWP conference this year: I thought maybe I’d save some money, stay home. Then, sometime around December, I felt very strongly that I wanted to go. There was a political aspect to it, sure; I was feeling as apocalyptic as anybody else with a brain; I wanted to connect with like-minded, literary individuals; and I was enticed by the notion of a hotel room and continental breakfast (I am easy to please). But even more that that, I just thought: All these people will be together, and I like them, and I want to say hi.

Not saying “hi” suddenly seemed like it would be really depressing.

So I went, and I said hi. Boy, did I ever. Happily, I was able to reconnect with old friends — including the one writer-pal I once had here in Colorado Springs, Angie Ricketts (author of the terrific memoir No Man’s War), who left CO last year because some strange glitch in her brain makes her love Indiana. The fun, sarcastic, slumber-party energy of rooming with Angie, who had me doubled over laughing many times and who has a cool-girl tip to solve my every problem (“Put your hair way up high on your head while you sleep and you won’t get a line in it! Higher than that, higher! Here, I have dry shampoo you can use! Here, I poured you some wine!”)  was equalled only by the delight of sharing the room with another mil spouse writer whose work I admire tremendously: Marine wife and poet Lisa Stice, author of the collection Uniform, who turned out to be as sweet and smart as anyone can be and, even better still, loves dogs. We talked about our dogs late into the night. I mean, in case my kids read this someday, we talked about how much we love our charming and well-mannered children. But also we talked about dogs.

(Also, this should reassure my husband, who must imagine that writers’ conferences are scenes of crazy debauchery, that I spent my wild, wild nights whispering to my roommate in the dark, like a middle-schooler, about dogs.)

awp_lisa1

Lisa Stice, Marine wife and poet, dog-lover, posing here with vertical rectangles

But, wait, this was a literary conference. And on that front, it delivered, to a degree that surprised me even more than I’d hoped. There was something liberating about AWP17 — maybe the way we were all blowing off political steam, but equally, I think, because of a change in the face of war writing, a move away from the stricter “first-person-shooter” narratives and into creative fronts that feel freeing, energizing, inspired. At a panel moderated by Peter Molin (“From Verse to Stage and Screen: Veterans Adapt”), Benjamin Busch (Dust to Dust) talked about zombie films and read what Molin described as “an intriguing scene about the peeling of an orange”; Jenny Pacanowski filled the room with her “Combat Dick” [bad pun? I’m in a cafe right now. I don’t feel like being academic -Editor]; Brian Turner led us in a group hum that, from a performance standpoint, had surprisingly respectable results; Jay Moad put his hat on backwards and channeled a disgruntled, bitter, and ultimately moving character from his play Outside Paducah. At another panel (“Citizen-Soldier-Poet: Using Poetry to Bridge the Civil-Military Gap,” led by Randy Brown), Air Force pilot and poet Eric “Shmo” Chandler got gutsy and read a poem that rhymed! We were liberated from stuffiness, from overcritical hyperthink. The feeling seemed to build as the conference went on, and panel-wide I felt like audiences were responding to it. At Molin’s panel the crowd laughed, applauded, asked questions; it was the best panel I’ve attended (take note, AWP majordomos!), and I’m sure I’m not the only one who left mind-abuzz with possibilities.

awp_group2

“From Verse to Stage and Screen: Veterans Adapt,” with Peter Molin, Benjamin Busch, Jenny Pacanowski, Jay Moad, Brian Turner

So the veteran-writing world seems full of vitality, with collections like The Road Ahead bringing many of the most-respected veteran writers together again for an encore literary tour, and an exciting forthcoming anthology, It’s My Country Too!, by Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow, promising to, finally, tell the story of female veterans in a comprehensive way.

But, because this is my little niche here on the Mil Spouse Book Review, I was thrilled to see that military-spouse writers are also entering new frontiers of creativity and quality. We were a rare breed a couple of AWPs ago, but I’m seeing signs that mil spouse participation in publishing and literary-scene-making is on the rise.

awp_ladies1

Yours truly; Army spouse/daughter/writer Angie Ricketts; veteran Kayla Williams; Navy wife and memoirist Alison Buckholtz, with whom I wish I could have talked longer!, author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War

Inside the book fair, I met Abby E. Murray, one of the editors of the new online lit mag Collateral, which is affiliated with the Unversity of Washington, Tacoma, and which showcases “high quality creative writing and art that explores the impact of the military and military service in spaces beyond the combat zone.”

awp_colateral_5

Marine wife & poet Lisa Stice, left; Abby E. Murray, of Collateral, right

This mission statement makes me very happy; while the “Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul”-style writing that comprises the bulk of mil spouses’ publishing contributions certainly has value for many people, Collateral‘s emphasis on quality and creativity underscores a desire on the part of many military-spouse authors to join the more artistic eschelons of literature. Collateral‘s first issue features fiction by Stephen O’Shea and poetry by the likes of Lisa Stice, Jehanne Dubrow, Jennifer Conlon, and more, and there’s so much in it that is so good, I might have to write about it here separately. Not all contributors are military spouses, but the bulk of them seem to be, and in any case, it’s exciting to see more avenues open up for the literary-minded mil spouse writer. The fact that Collateral had so many high-quality contributions is exciting as well.

Mil spouse writers are continuing to put out works of longform as well as their own poetry collections; just off the top of my head, I can cite Elyse Fenton’s Sweet Insurgent (March 2017);  Kathleen M. Rodgers’s Seven Wings to Glory (April 2017); Siobhan Fallon’s upcoming novel, The Confusion of Languages (June 2017); and Jehanne Dubrow’s Dots & Dashes (August 2017), the description of which already has me wriggling in my seat:

Looking to Sappho and Emily Dickinson, the poet considers how the act of writing allows her autonomy and agency rarely granted to military spouses, even in the twenty-first century. Dubrow catalogs the domestic life of a military spouse, illustrating what it is like to live in a tightly constructed world of rules and regulations, ceremony and tradition, where “every sacrifice already / knows its place.”

***

On a more personal note, AWP17 granted me the opportunity to meet some writers I’d been hoping to cross paths with for ages: literary giant-with-a-heart-of-gold David Abrams, who is refreshingly humble and very funny; he gave me hopeful insights into the possibilities for married and family life post-military, as his wife, Jean, and his three kids were along for the whole ride of his Army career. (It will be the same for me, having married my high-school sweetheart long before he joined up, and for our kids, our oldest having been born while he was still in Intel school. We’re only halfway done, gosh darn it!). (David’s second novel, Brave Deeds, comes out in August and you can pre-order now, like I did!)

Another generous literary citizen, Matthew Komatsu, and I talked spirited children, literary agents, and literary gambles. Jenny Pacanowksi and I connected, though briefly, over (this will not surprise anyone by this point) our love of dogs, although I have yet to get a tattoo of my Springer spaniel on my shoulder to compete with her striking likeness of a former pet Mastiff. I was so happy to finally meet both Matthew Hefti (my book-b-day buddy; his gorgeous novel, A Hard and Heavy Thing, came out about the same time as my own book, and, p.s., his short story in The Road Ahead is terrifically scary and thought-provoking, worth the price of admission on its own) and his delightful rideshare, See Me for Who I Am’s David Chrisinger, who told great funny stories with a self-deprecating wit.

AWPDay3_3.jpg

Angie Ricketts, Teresa Fazio (wish we could have talked longer!!), David Chrisinger, Matt Hefti, Benjamin “Don’t Judge a Book By its Movie” Busch, Mary Doyle

Of course, I also got to hang out with some of my old favorites again, especially Peter Molin, blog-inspiration-extraordinaire, smartest man in the room; the wry and funny Mary Doyle; Brian Turner, the world’s most brilliant teddy bear; weird and wonderful Benjamin Busch; fierce, intelligent Kayla Williams; Coast Guard vet Tenley Lozano and her beautiful service dog, Elu; Rachel Kambury, who wrote a war novel while in high school!; sweet and delightful nonfiction writer Lauren Halloran and poet husband Colin Halloran, whom I got to see perform for the first time, and he’s terrific!; inspiringly-dedicated Jerri Bell; talented-as-heck Jay Moad who made me a kickass Bruce Springsteen CD, which in my little world is like a secret handshake of kindred-ness. I hope these folks don’t mind my characterizations; these writers are all so distinct individually, but so much fun as a group. They are committed to their craft–to pulling others up along with them instead of falling prey to pettiness or competition–and to working for change and doing good in the world.

It’s pretty remarkable. I’m glad I got to say hi.

***

–> Hey, war-writers: I put all my photos from AWP up on a separate blog for you to see and download as you like. Enjoy!: https://awpwarwriters2017.wordpress.com/

For some other recaps of the AWP17 war-writing experience, here’s Peter Molin on “Time Now,” Eric Chandler on his blog “Shmotown” (that title alone makes me very happy),  and Matt Komatsu.

AWP: War Writers, Day 1

awp_bookfair_enteringawp_sculptures_1awp_elu_ear

Tenley Lozano and Elu, of courseawp_elu_tenleyvwp_booth_firstawp_vwpbooth1

Jerri Bell, Eric Chandler:awp_vwpbooth2awp_randy_citizensign

Randy Brown:awp_randyatpodium

Frances Richey, Tessa Poppe:awp_randy_room_tessa

Suzanne Aspley, Eric Chandler:awp_randy_room_ericawp_randy_room

Lisa Stice, with colorful background:awp_lisa1

awp_group2

Peter Molin, Benjamin Busch, Jenny Pacanowski, Jay Moad, Brian Turner:

awp_group1

awp_peter_room

awp_peter_ben3

T-Shirt Throwdown:

awp_peter_ben2

awp_peter_ben1

awp_peter_room2

awp_jay_paducah1

awp_jay_paducah

awp_jenny_podium

awp_brian_talking

awp_benjamin_busch_podium

Brian Turner makes us laugh,

awp_brian_podium_groupand then makes us hum:

awp_brian_humming

awp_brian_humming2

David Abrams, rockstarrin’ it and signin’ books:

awp_davidabrams1

awp_davidabrams_brianturner

Collateral Literary Journal, for family members of military, out of Tacoma, Washington:

awp_collateral_4

awp_collateral_2

awp_collateral_1

awp_colateral_5

awp_collateral_3

awp_collateral_jehanne

Mary Doyle, Matt Hefti, Eric Chandler:

awp_doyle_hefti

Kayla Williams, David Chrisinger:

awp_david_kayla

 

An Unconventional Review of ‘Uniform’ by Lisa Stice

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Rodgers (novelist, Air Force wife and Army mom)

In the introduction to the new collection, Uniform (Aldrich Press 2016), poet Lisa Stice says, “For Marines and their families, speaking up about frustrations is viewed as unsupportive and, sometimes, as unpatriotic. My husband can even face consequences for my speaking up.”

And so begins what Lisa calls “the long-needed conversation.”

uniform

The moment I heard about this new book over at the Military Spouse Book Review, I knew I wanted to read it. Although my husband, an Air Force fighter pilot, retired twenty-five years ago, I still identify myself as a military spouse. Like they say, once a military spouse, always a military spouse.

If I could add a subtitle to this book, it would read, Uniform: How to Make Do. Because the military lifestyle requires that we make do with what we have…and sometimes with what we don’t have.

Instead of writing a traditional review, I opted to pull my favorite lines from the collection into one compilation, in no certain order, starting with the one line that caused me to sit up and take notice:

but where was my training?

 

the bugle will cry

 

because we never know

what might hurl

through our doorways

 

so we hesitate to answer

the knock on the door

the unexpected phone call

 

we want to thank you for your sacrifice

wine glass upside down

 

the gold star spouses answer the roll call

childcare will not be provided

 

you get military discounts–

you should be happy

packing and unpacking

suitcases, boxes

In your wooden fearlessness

 

You don’t have to be a poetry snob or aficionado to appreciate this collection. Both the military spouse and the service member will relate to each offering. As for civilians, I highly recommend Uniform to those who care about our military and wish to understand our culture.

About the author:

stice_profileLisa 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 .

***

 

 

About the reviewer:

kathleen rodgers

Kathleen M. Rodgers is a former frequent contributor to Family Circle Magazine and Military Times. Her third novel, Seven Wings to Glory, releases April 2017 from Camel Press. Keep up on Kathleen’s news at http://www.kathleenmrodgers.com.

d

Homefront Journal: Not Invisible

By Amy Bermudez (Army)

“What’s that?” A scrawny sixth grade boy asked me in the middle of class. Don’t they always ask things unrelated to the topic at hand in the middle of class?

“It’s a pin,” I told him in my authoritative teacher voice.

“I know,” he rolled his eyes. “What does it mean?”

My hand instinctively traced the outline of the pin worn on the collar of my shirt. It’s a tiny rectangular flag, red outline on white, blue star in the middle, yellow ribbon at the top.

“It means that someone I love is deployed,” I told him, in a softer, less exasperated tone.

“Oh.” This answer seemed sufficient. But after a long pause he said, “What’s deployed mean?”

My heart swells and sinks at a response like this. How wonderful that this child doesn’t know, hasn’t been touched by the reality and pain of deployment. He’s so protected from it that he doesn’t even know that the word means. In the greatest irony of my life, I briefly wish that I was a middle school boy. (Don’t worry, it was very brief.)

And how lonely for me, and all of us muddling through deployments, that we can feel such weight and fear and struggle. Our pain invisible. This is why I wear the pin. I don’t want to be invisible. I don’t want to be a secret. Others can forget that somewhere many time zones away a soldier shivers in the dirt waiting for something to happen, waiting for nothing to happen.

*

In November my best friend flew from Texas to Tennessee so we could spend time together. We walked my dogs and watched Friends and went to a concert. We went to the Farmer’s market. It was what I needed. It was normal.

Walking between aisles of vacuum sealed tempeh and candles made out of wine glasses I got a text from my battle buddy, a coworker whose husband is also deployed.

“Did you hear what happened?” she asked

I hadn’t.

What happened was a suicide bomber in Afghanistan killing Americans participating in a 5k at Bagram Airfield.

I froze, standing still while peopled milled around looking at handmade crafts and raw milk. That was me one minute ago, shopping and happy and normal. The reality of war doesn’t stop. I felt sad and scared and overwhelmed. I swallowed my tears.

My best friend saw my distress. I told her what happened. My voice was too loud. People looked at me. My husband isn’t even in Afghanistan. My friend’s husband was safe. But other people’s spouses weren’t safe. They were injured. They were dead.

“Are you ok?” She asked me.

“Yeah.”

But am I?

*

Deployed means that everything is normal until it isn’t and I don’t know if or when, so I wait.

Deployed means I don’t know if the person I love is safe. I’m sad about spending holidays apart and sleeping alone each night, but I’m intensely afraid for his safety. He’s been safe so far, but safe is an illusion, so I wait.

Deployed means I am alone. Sometimes it’s a little alone, and other times it’s a lot. I have people who love me and take care of me, but they are all far away. I’m alone in this town and in my experience, so I wait.

Deployed means I am starting over by myself. We arrived here together only two months before he left. I’m trying to find my way at work and friends and I don’t want to be here, but my worries feel trivial in comparison to weeks without a shower or hot meal. I want it to be over, I want him to be home, and all I can do is wait.

*

I felt hot with anger when someone told me, “oh only 6 weeks left? That’s not that bad.” My smile tight, I changed the subject.

What I wanted to say was, “Would it feel ‘not bad’ if you had to spend the next 6 weeks without your spouse? Now multiply it by infinity, and take it to the depth of forever, and you will still have barely a glimpse of what I’m talking about.” Okay, so that last part was from Meet Joe Black (I have a lot of time on my hands to explore the recesses of online streaming), but I felt the chasm between us was so wide, military families and civilian families.

That same day my mom made almost the same comment about it being not much longer, but in the pause that followed she added, “But I know it doesn’t feel that way,” and I wanted to cry with happiness that someone, somewhere understood.

I am not invisible.

But to stay this way, visible, I have to tell my story, even the painful parts.

Like the fact that I haven’t mowed the lawn in too long. In my defense, I went from living in an apartment to living in a town with rocks instead of grass, to living in a house with too much grass while my grass-cutting expert is on the other side of the globe. I can never get the mower to start. I tried so long one day that I got calluses and started to cry before giving up.

Two lightbulbs in the kitchen need to be changed but I can’t bring myself to haul in the ladder from the garage and buy new bulbs from Home Depot. I know it’s not hard, but gravity feels so heavy, and I can’t imagine climbing up the ladder rungs.

I live in fear of the dashboard lights coming on in my car. I got a blowout on the interstate two days before my husband returned from his last deployment. I’m not sure what I’ll do if something like that happens again, only this time I’m stranded in a place with no friends, no back-up.

This is my struggle. This is my deployment experience.

This is me, no longer invisible.

 


Amy Bermudez is a teacher, writer, distance runner, avid reader, and blogger originally from Texas, currently stationed in Tennessee. Her husband serves in the Army.

She has written previously for the Mil Spouse Book Review’s “Homefront Journal” and has also reviewed several books, including We Are Called to Rise and Alice Bliss. And [this is yor Editor speaking], she may be one of the hardest-working military spouses I know (though she would deny it); I believe this is her family’s third long deployment just since the time she began contributing to this blog.


amystephen-1