Kayla Williams (Army veteran; director of the VA’s Center for Women Veterans)
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: “an intricate, imaginative, compelling work that explores issues of gender, race, parenthood, and humanity with an unusual combination of compassion and unflinching honesty. I’m recommending to folks who like sci-fi, want to read more works by women of color, are interested in how to survive major societal upheaval, and don’t need clean answers.”
“Can I do a kids’ book, too?,” Williams asked, rather endearingly (Yes! – Editor), and suggested this:
Pete and Pickles by Berkeley Breathed: “a love story between a practical pig and a free-spirited elephant that will bring joy to children and surprise adults with the poignancy of its subtle rumination on loss and life.”
Kayla Williams is the director of the VA Center for Women Veterans. She is also the author of two acclaimed books, Love My Rifle More Than You and Plenty of Time When We Get Home.
Jane Blair (Marine Corps veteran)
“The Horse Latitudes by Matthew Robinson takes a very fresh voice on writing about the Iraq war and his experiences serving there.
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen, is another fiction must read, told from the perspective of communist double agent in the military. It is arguably one of the best-written books in the last several years and is a page turner.”
Jane Blair is the author of the “riveting” Hesitation Kills: A Female Marine Officer’s Combat Experience in Iraq.
Lauren Halloran (Air Force Veteran)
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown
Recommended for sports fanatics, history buffs, suckers for inspirational underdog stories
The Boys in the Boat is not a book about rowing; it’s a portrait of an era, a coming-of-age story, and a triumph of character. If you liked Michael Lewis’ The Blindside or Moneyball, you’ll love this merger of sports, science and history. Take nine working class boys from the Pacific Northwest–one in particular who’s low on family and prospects but high on heart–against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Add a fascinating look at the rise of the Nazi party and their propaganda strategy. Throw in technical craftsmanship that changed the art of the rowing shell, a tough-love coach, an against-all-odds ascent above classicism and media bias–and ultimately the 1936 Berlin Olympics. As a Seattle native I enjoyed the regional history, but this book is far larger than the University of Washington crew team. Regardless of where you’re from, you’ll come away with tremendous respect for the sport of rowing and faith in the power of the human spirit.
A Fort of Nine Towers: An Afghan Family Story
by Qais Akbar Omar
Recommended for students of history or war, romantics, poets
I was enchanted by this memoir of growing up in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, Mujahedin and Taliban rules, and initial American invasion. Qais Akbar Omar is quickly thrust from carefree boy flying kites from his grandfather’s roof to young man helping his family survive in the midst of a growing, ever-shifting war zone. The world needs more “insider” stories like this, and the content alone will grab you, but Omar’s storytelling and poetic style will charm you. Through his eyes we witness the atrocities of war up close, but also hope and beauty. Part family story, part sweeping history and folklore, part travelogue, this book will at once change the way you think about Afghanistan and resonate deep in your soul.
Lauren Halloran has essays in the recently-published Retire the Colors as well as The Road Ahead and It’s My Country, Too!
Jerri Bell (Navy veteran)
(I really enjoyed Jerri’s thoughtful writeup here. She may have gone beyond two books, but that is what I expect from Jerri. 🙂 Her tribute to poet Ilyse Kunetz is especially moving, as is her attention to recent poetry in general, which I aim to read more of. – Editor)
Jerri is third from the left
“I spent the first half of 2016 re-reading scholarly work on American military women, and scrabbling through women veterans’ memoirs, letters, journals, and other documents so co-author Tracy Crow and I could finish the manuscript of It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan. After all that nonfiction, I needed a change of scenery. Like poetry. Here are two great collections:
Paul Klee’s Boat, by Anzhelina Polonskaya (translated by Andrew Wachtel). Five of Polonskaya’s poems, in translation, appeared in the summer issue of Pleiaides, and I was hooked by the way she packs emotional punch in spare language and vivid images. Having been on assignment in Russia when the submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea with all hands lost, I particularly appreciated the sequence KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM. Paul Klee’s Boat, a side by side dual-language collection, allows readers of Russian to enjoy both the oral elegance of Polonskaya’s original Russian and Wachtel’s deft, intelligent translation.
At a “war writers’ dinner” at a conference in Minneapolis, I chatted for an hour with Ilyse Kusnetz without realizing she was a prize-winning poet. She introduced herself as an English teacher in a college, and she spoke lovingly of her students’ insights into literature and her admiration for her colleagues. For an entire hour, she never said one word about her own writing. A year later, her husband Brian Turner invited friends to read her essay “The Secret Kiss” in Guernica’s “Kiss” series. I was devastated to learn that she had end-stage, terminal cancer. Her poem “Harbinger,” published a month later in Rattle , felt like a punch in the gut.
I grabbed a copy of her prize-winning collection Small Hours a few days later, and have been reading and re-reading it. Ilyse left us in body on September 13, but her spirit continues to deliver new, small, unexpected gifts in her writing. Turner recently announced that he’s publishing a second collection of her poems. I’ll be pre-ordering.
Fiction is my favorite form of escape, and three military thrillers by Navy veterans did not disappoint. Jeffrey Hess’ Beachhead is a gritty, gravelly, and laugh-out-loud funny noir novel with a protagonist who wouldn’t be out of place in a bar with Mike Hammer and Sam Spade. Anne A. Wilson’s exciting, helicopter-centric novels will delight aviation aficionadoes without losing the lay reader in the rotors and levers. Clear to Lift , set in the Sierra Nevadas, combines derring-do, search and rescue, and steam in secluded hot springs. Kathleen Toomey Jabs’ debut novel Black Wings , based loosely on the 1994 death at sea of aviator Kara Hultgreen, features crisp writing, vivid descriptions of life for women at the US Naval Academy just a few years after integration, and a surprising but satisfying ending. Both of the latter novels feature Navy women as protagonists: unconventional women in unconventional situations.
Brian Castner’s book All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer reads like a military thriller, but it is serious nonfiction: both a tribute to a lost friend and a thoughtful consideration of the ways in which modern warfare has become shockingly personal. Castner’s sentences are masterpieces; his understanding of suspense and story structure kept me up with the book until the wee hours and in my pajamas until the afternoon of the next day. I simply could not put it down until I read the last word. It was the best nonfiction book I’ve read in several years, and my pick for best book in any genre that I read in 2016.”
Jerri Bell is co-author (with Tracy Crow) of the forthcoming book It’s My Country, Too!: Women’s Military Stories from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan. I have mine pre-ordered; you can too.
Terri Barnes (Air Force Spouse)
“We recently moved to the Charleston, South Carolina, area, and this year some of the most memorable books I have read happen to be by local authors, a happy coincidence that I didn’t realize until now.
Bret Lott is a Southern transplant like me, a professor at the College of Charleston, who is perhaps best known for his novel, Jewel. I read a more recent collection of his essays, Letters & Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian. His thoughts on how even the most creative processes are rooted in experience resonated with me, as a writer and a journalist. He writes:
‘(W)hen something we have seen or done or felt or been told … strikes us in such a way that we want to turn to an expressive form to try to create after it, there has to have been something inside that original moment worthy of our imagination, worthy of that snagging of our creative impulse. I believe there has to have been some there there that makes us turn to an act of creation after having experienced that moment.’
The other South Carolina writer I encountered – by finding the book in a Little Free Library in my neighborhood – is Sue Monk Kidd. I finally read The Secret Life of Bees, and I certainly wondered why I waited so long. I expected a coming of age story, and it is, but I didn’t expect it to be so much about forgiveness, love and the persistence required for both. It’s a beautiful book. After reading it, I went back through and copied favorite passages into my journal. This book also reinforces the importance of telling stories, a concept every writer loves to hear. One of the characters in the book, August, says:
‘Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.’
Reading The Secret Life of Bees gave me a craving for honey … and more beautifully written books!”
Terri Barnes is a military spouse of 31 years and the author of Spouse Calls: Messages from a Military Life. She was the author of the very popular Stars and Stripes column of the same name since 2007, retiring just last year. Of her book, she has written: “My hometown isn’t a geographical location, but a place in American culture that is invisible to many people. My family lives in the hometown of military installations and military communities.”
Rebekah Sanderlin (Army spouse)
“My favorite reads this year: ‘Burdy‘ – by Karen Spears Zacharias. I couldn’t wait to read this book because it’s the sequel to Zacharias’ amazing, award-winning “Mother of Rain” and, if anything, ‘Burdy’ is even better than the first book. Both are set in a post-WWII Appalachia and the dialects and habits of the characters remind me so much of my own Appalachian relatives. ‘Burdy’ is a deeper dive into the story of a Melungeon healer who is something of an oddity and outcast in her community. Both books would be great gifts for anyone who is interested in Appalachian culture, or who just loves Southern literature.
As a side note, Zacharias is a Gold Star daughter who has written extensively on military and veteran issues. Her father was KIA in Vietnam.
I took a big, bucket-list, trip to South Africa this year and wanted to read something to get me in the mood for the trip, so I bought J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace,’ which won the Booker prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature when it was published in 1999 — then I got too busy and didn’t read it until after the trip. No matter, it’s an absolutely gorgeous book that I would have loved just as well if I’d never set foot in South Africa. The story explores a white, middle-aged college professor’s attempts to grapple with his own failings, against a backdrop of racial unrest. It would make an excellent gift for anyone who loves literary fiction or is interested in present-day South Africa.
I can’t remember when someone first told me I should read Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces‘ but I’m pretty sure at least 100 other people told me to read it after that person. I ignored them all. Finally, this year I bought a copy and it took me most of the year to pick my way through it. This is not a light read. At all. Campbell took several years off from life and spent them as a hermit, reading pretty much everything that existed on philosophy, psychology, mythology and religion. He overlapped and compared all of the world’s insights and traditions to come up with a framework for what makes a character a hero and the elements that exist in every good story. You might not get thanked for giving someone this book, but if they ever get around to finishing it, the writers and deep thinkers in your life may credit you with helping to change their entire worldview.
Rebekah Sanderlin has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Huffington Post, PBS.org, and more. Learn about her work at rebekahsanderlin.com.
Tenley Lozano (Coast Guard veteran)
“This past summer, I spent six weeks backpacking and car camping in Western Washington with my dog. We would hike during the day, then set up camp in the early afternoon and relax. During those quiet moments in camp, I listened to audiobooks while my dog napped. Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, read by the author herself, held my attention during many long afternoons in Olympic National Park campsites. I loved hearing of her struggles and successes as a female scientist, and she deftly wove biology facts about the lives of trees with memories of her own experiences. It was especially moving to read about her dedication to trees and other plants while camping among old growth forests, or driving on the Olympic Highway and watching truck after truck full of lumber heading for the ports. Hope Jahren did an excellent job narrating her memoir, and the stories of her career, friendships, and family life are entwined with those of the plants she strives to understand.”
I also really enjoyed listening to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife. This novel takes place in a future society in the United States where water is the most precious commodity. When cities are cut off from the resource, the residents are forced to relocate. Almarie Guerra does a fantastic job bringing the characters to life, and I couldn’t help but see this world as a very real possibility of the future. ”
Tenley Lozano is a former Coast Guard Dive Officer who graduated from Sierra Nevada College with an MFA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) and works as a naval engineer in San Diego. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter, and visit her website to see her work.
Terri Barett (Air Force veteran)
Note: Terri happens to be my mother-in-law, which is why all her favorite books of the year were gifts from me. 🙂 Call me the Book Doctor. I know what you like.–Editor
One of my favorites was ‘Fallen Land‘ by Taylor Brown – a gift from you, I might add. The prose was stark and beautiful. The depiction of the challenge to survive in a lawless land after the Civil War was well done and thought-provoking. The ending was not quite plausible, in my estimation, but tied up the story nicely.
I also liked another recommendation by you: ‘The Sisters Brothers‘ by Patrick deWitt. The characters are quirky and the writing style is fun. It was an entertaining read.
Terri Barett is an Air Force veteran and avid reader who lives in Minnesota.
Lisa Stice (Marine Corps spouse)
Thank goodness for Lisa Stice, a poet, bringing the poetry reviews! Here are her two favorite books of 2016:
“What a strange, complicated year. Of all the books I read in 2016, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poetry collection The Boys of Bluehill (Wake Forest University Press, 2015) whisked me away from all the daily stress and major disappointments while spotlighting all the goodness. It’s a book I needed. Chuilleanáin’s wistful perspective and her playfulness with natural elements lift the weight of heavier themes of loss, religion and regret. The disappointments and the joyous are equal, are in the past and ahead of us. We must “let it go, / let it lie until it is blown to the river; // do not look back to see whose hand / finds it, or where it is hidden again when found.
I also found a lovely companion in Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions, 2015). A large section of her poetry collection is on the topic of moving to a new region, a topic I know quite well. She writes of the alien landscape in the new place, her struggles to adjust and of her dog her gives her unconditional support as she attempts to adapt. Limón’s juxtaposition of the beautiful with the ugly is so honest that I found myself nodding in agreement at the turn of each line.”
Lisa Stice is the author of the “clever, musical, unflinching” poetry collection Uniform.
Kristine Schellhaas (Marine Corps wife)
Orphan Train: A Novel, by Christina Baker Kline: “I was immediately drawn to this book because of the little known history of orphans being sent on trains for adoption across the US in the early 19th century. It’s a beautiful story of friendship, second chances, and resilience.”
The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, by Kelli Estes: “This book is set in Puget Sound in 1886 and paints a picture of the newly immigrated Chinese in the area and their relationships with the locals. It’s a story of perseverance in dark times and made me think about the legacy I’d like to leave in my own life.”
Kristine Schellhaas is the founder of usmclife.com and the author of the “heartbreaking and powerful” 15 Years of War: How the Longest War in U.S. History Affected a Military Family in Love, Loss, and the Cost of Service.
Caroline LeBlanc (Army veteran)
“My reading this past fall centered around my fall pilgrimage, with a group of Jungian/Bodysoul Rhythms colleagues, to a number of prehistoric caves in Southern France. Two books about the caves were particularly intriguing and timely given the state of our world: THE MIND IN THE CAVE by David Lewis-Williams, and CAVE PAINTINGS AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT by David S. Whitley.
Related, and engrossing, fiction is the ‘Bruno, Chief of Police’ series by Martin Walker. While several of the books incorporate cave history and lore, most of the stories are simply set in the Dordogne regions of Southern France. They are full of details about regional and French life including historical (particularly WW II), culinary (wine, truffles, pate), equine sports, village life, immigration issues, and EU/local tensions. Informative, as well as entertaining.”
cave art replicas by Caroline LeBlanc
Caroline LeBlanc is an Army veteran, poet, playwright, Jungian scholar, and advocate for military families.