Salad Days: Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night,” and the Predicament of Dinnertime

Dave took the past week off work to spend with us. We all just reveled in it! We took in the Natural History Museum, went to a pool party, and on Wednesday he even took the big kids to Disneyland (!! — I stayed with Zanny, who had a nasty little head cold all week). He’s also been taking care of all kinds of stuff on the business end, like packing, and planning things for his team, finalizing his will (standard operating procedure), practicing using Face Time with the kids from one room of the house to another. (“I don’t know how to use Face Time,” I said. He said, “Don’t worry, I showed Nora.” He’s been saying that several times a day, which should probably worry me, but if anyone will hold this place together it’s Nora. She’s eight, and she’s our techie.)

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 We also hired a groundskeeper. Her habit of working without pants is unorthodox, but we appreciate her spunk.
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Just kidding. Her job is actually Director of Morale.

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I’ve been putting Dave through the paces with my Honey-Do list, too, asking him to hang a heavy, framed picture we’d had in the garage for a while, and to show me how he gets the baby’s car seat in so tight, and remind me where he keeps the charger for his iPod, which I get to inherit during his absence (yeah, I’ve had my eye on that thing for a while). He’s been reminding me about bank accounts, garbage day (changes on holidays — sheesh, I knew that), and on and on.

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I’ve tried cooking some of Dave’s favorite meals this week (when he’s away from home, he never cooks for himself, only eats in the galley. LAZY!). I’ve been having conflicting thoughts about cooking as we lead up to this deployment. I was raised by a mom who worked full-time and then came home and made delicious Italian meals from scratch. Our family’s big on “real food,” home-cooked food.

Half the time, I’m all for this. I get all excited — I’m gonna cook great, healthy dinners, and my kids will have plates full of brightly colored vegetables, and they’ll learn to enjoy real tastes and reject the chemical-tinged temptations of junk food!

And then the other half of the time it’s the exact opposite, and I find myself in a hot, messy kitchen begging the kids to stop running through it so they won’t get burned or impaled by something, and I realize that when I set this pasta-with-pine-nuts concoction in front of them one will invariably blurt, “How much do I have to eat?,” another will be suddenly seized by the need to urinate and will spend half of dinnertime clanking around in the bathroom, and a third will work diligently for fifteen minutes picking each and every expensive little pine nut from her fettuccine with a barely-concealed scowl of disgust, as if they are ticks on a dog.
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 Well, Dave thought this was good, anyway.

So the uppity little angel on my shoulder is trying to convince me that I must keep up the home-cooked meals in Dave’s absence, to show my kids that good food is love and good food matters ….. while that slippery devil on the other shoulder is whispering, If paper plates and microwaved nuggets are so bad, do you really want to be right?

It didn’t help that I saw Jon Favreau’s new movie, Chef, this past week.

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It spoke, shall we say, to the better angels of my nature (at least that one on my shoulder, pestering me about food). In Chef, Favreau plays the talented Chef Carl Casper, who’s fired from a choice restaurant gig because of his creative stagnation and a hilariously hostile exchange with a snobbish restaurant critic. When life gives him lemons, he makes lemonade (or at least a really mean mojito) by going rogue in an affable and affirming way — buying a food truck and taking his best friend Martin (Jon Leguizamo) and his adorable son, Percy, on a cross-country cooking tour.

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Percy, who, like my Nora, has tech savvy that far exceeds her parents’, brings their new operation success by tweeting, Facebooking, and many-other-social-media-things-I-can’t-remember-ing their exploits so that a line of devotees awaits them at every stop.

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Sofia Vergara is also in this movie. Pictures like this make me think we have a lot in common — you know, being everyday moms and all.

Chef is a fun, sweet date night movie, with great shots of New Orleans and Miami, lots of good music (Favreau and Leguizamo’s rendition of “Sexual Healing” is still making me chuckle — Dave turned to me and hissed, “Do you remember, like, driving around in the car with your mom and hearing that on the radio? Can you believe we all did that??!”). The whole film was kind of like a long, happy music video. I was never too concerned about any of the characters, but I was happy to see them happy, you know?

But what Chef did best, perhaps, was remind me of my favorite food-movie of all time: Stanley Tucci’s Big Night. Oh, that film, that film!

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Released in 1996, Big Night’s got all that mid-nineties earnestness we’re way too cool for now, but it’s such a good, bittersweet story. It contains some of my favorite music and most beloved little vignettes of all time. The two leads are played by Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub, with Ian Holm, the gorgeous Isabella Rossellini, an appropriately pensive Minnie Driver and an adorable Allison Janney as the supporting cast. (It’s also got singer Marc Anthony in a very early role — he must be something like twenty — almost without spoken lines, but still memorable as the sweetly beleaguered line cook, Cristiano).

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The opening scene of that film, with Cristiano arriving to work (set to a gorgeous Claudio Villa song,  Stornelli Amorisi) is a pure pleasure, but the closing scene is nearly hallowed ground for me, and I can’t even think about it without getting goosebumps.

 

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In some ways Big Night is the opposite of Chef: where Chef is glitzy and full of social media, Big Night is set in the fifties, among a group of people for whom the telephone still seems like something to get excited about. Where Chef rides high on the thrill of upward mobility, Big Night wrangles with the sadness of immigrants who are watching their dream, and all that they have, slide through their fingers. But both movies share a similar value system, which is that there’s nothing more important than love and family, and that for some people, the truest way to show love is through making someone a damn fine sandwich.

So where does this leave me as I decide how to approach all my duties in the upcoming months? I can’t say for sure. Maybe I can alternate a good home-cooked meal on china one night with, say, three nights’ worth of pizza on paper plates (those really biodegradable ones they sell at Sprouts, that turn back into soil practically while you look at them!). Stanley Tucci would think pizza’s a respectable choice, right?

I can just show my love through food sometimes, and other times I can demonstrate love through playing a board game, or making sure everyone’s showered and clean, or, hell, sweeping the floor, ’cause let’s be honest, I don’t do that for my own entertainment. Thank goodness there are many ways to show you love someone, and that you don’t have to be on-the-ball with every single one all the time. Maybe that’s really the gem hidden within Big Night and Chef: that love is about all the little things. It’s about being there, it’s about showing up. It accumulates over years and years, and sometimes you might misfire, or peter out, or just biff, but as long as you keep coming back and trying again, day after day, you’re all gonna be all right.

Book Review: We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

Reviewed by Amy Bermudez (Army)

When I find a book that I love, my first reaction is to gush about it. I try to tamp down my excitement (nothing is worse than the oversell!), but in this case it’s particularly difficult. I recently read We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride, and all I want to do is rave.

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McBride includes the following note on the inside of the book jacket:

“…I wanted the reader to walk away believing that, with all our faults, human beings are worth something.”

She succeeded! She managed to produce something uplifting but not cliché out of bad choices, horrible moments, and painful consequences. A tall order!

The book tells the intersecting stories of four different characters in the most effective use of multiple narrators that I’ve seen in a while. Not all the characters are explored equally, and I appreciated that. Roberta, the volunteer Court Appointed Special Advocate, doesn’t warrant extra pages. Bakshim, the third-grade son of Albanian immigrants, on the other hand, rightfully took up plenty of space in the book. His voice was unique and his value system came off as authentic. He worries about things like being the line leader, the funny crossing guard, and being embarrassed by his father.

I didn’t expect to find myself relating to Avis – the middle-aged divorcee and Vegas native – but I did. She clings, perhaps too tightly, to her family following the conclusion of her son’s third overseas deployment. Our final narrator is Luis, a soldier returning stateside following a difficult combat deployment full of regret.

The multiple narrators approach in this book isn’t a gimmick; it’s a tool to look at the humanness behind each action. Where McBride could have faltered and given away too much, she built suspense. Instead of boring us with too much backstory, she created interesting characters that she slowly exposed.

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author Laura McBride (photo, Simon & Schuster)

The novel is set in Las Vegas, where McBride lives. Although I’ve never been there, I’ve gotten a crash course in desert living over the last year. Her descriptions rang true. There’s something about these towns that are hundreds of miles apart, dotted by suburbs with rock lawns and gleaming pools, under the oppressive heat of never-ending summer that weathers the people who live there much like it shapes the sand dunes. I appreciated that the characters were, at least in part, products of their environment.

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Las Vegas (Wikipedia photo)

It’s impossible to talk about the book and not mention the 2004 movie Crash. Both have multiple intersecting storylines. Both zero in on big topics like race, war, and family. Both are excellent. The difference is that Crash is the collision of multiple huge moments. In contrast, We Are Called to Rise shines the light on the tiny particles that swirl around one moment. McBride gets how good it feels when your mom scratches your head, how important an inside joke is between friends, how sweet a teacher’s words are on the first day of school.

Avis sums up the beauty of the book when she remarks toward the end, “It all matters…What is most beautiful is least acknowledged. What is worth dying for is barely noticed.”

McBride, Laura. We Are Called to Rise. Simon & Schuster, June 2014.

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Read an interview with Laura McBride in USA Today

(On publishing a first novel at 53: “It’s thrilling; sometimes I think this is happening to someone else. But it’s also uncomfortable to have done something so personal that’s now so public. It’s an odd sensation.”)

Buy We Are Called to Rise

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About the Reviewer

Amy Bermudez is a writer, teacher, and Army wife currently stationed at Fort Bliss. She loves running, reading, and ice cream (but maybe not in that order) and writes a popular blog, Army Amy. Her Instagram is delightful. Some of her published articles include “Our Military Family, Our Reality” on The Huffington Post,  “Moving is Not Following” on Spouse Buzz, and the very funny “You Bring the Turkey, I’ll Bring the Menorahon NextGen MilSpouse. She has a really adorable dog named Geronimo.

Book Review: Courtney Maum’s I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You

by Emmy Curtis [Air Force]

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A few years ago I read a delightful Young Adult book called Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins. Perkins’s Paris was shiny and bright, just as it so often is in books and movies. It is the Paris of a visitor, not a resident; a Paris that is romantic and old and perfect and that looks great in a Woody Allen movie. It is the Paris I prefer, by a long shot, but it is not the real Paris.

 Paris, much like Virginia, is for lovers

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You shows the Paris I know. As I started this book, I found myself taken by the similarities to a situation I found myself in years ago: a British woman, married to a French man and living in Paris.

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The book is about an ex-pat British artist, Richard, who is having an affair with an American woman, and finds himself distraught when she leaves him to marry a British chef. It is in the midst of this heartbreak that his French wife, Anne-Laure, discovers the affair, and when she leaves him, he suddenly realizes what real heartbreak feels like and endeavors to win her back.

This is a story that a friend may tell you about a friend of a friend. It has no plot point, no twists, no real surprises, but it almost documents the machinations of relationships, through betrayals, disappointments, and victories. It was an easy, if mildly uncomfortable read. Because the situation is so prosaic, you can almost place yourself in Richard’s life and empathize with his feelings and reactions (even if you’ve never considered cheating on your significant other!).

Paris is an esthetically pleasing city, no doubt, but this book correctly depicts it as I found it all those years ago. A little claustrophobic, a little unforgiving to any feeling you have other than romantic love. The city envelops you like a shroud when you are down, pressing you further and further into a funk, which I thought the author showed perfectly in her narrative.

 

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 author Courtney Maum

 

As a Brit, there were some wince-inducing vocab slips, enough that they sometimes took me out of the story. The American author introduced a La-Z-Boy into a UK middle-class household, which would be very unusual (yes they are sold there, but are not at all prevalent), and had British people talking about ‘windshields’ (they’re windscreens in the UK!). There were several other instances that I noticed enough at the time to think, “What?”

Anne, the French wife and lawyer, introduces herself as “Anne-Laure de Bourigeaud, Esquire” to another French person. Esquire as a denotation of one having a legal degree is uniquely American. No way would a French person, let alone a woman (in Europe it denotes a man of ‘gentle’ birth), say that.

So for me, the author definitely showed an American perspective in the narrative although, other than Richard’s mistress, there was only one minor character (shown on the page one time) who was American. It really made the book US-centric, when in fact a book about an Englishman and a French woman, set in France, shouldn’t be. And sometimes that interrupted my enjoyment of it.

Still, this was an accomplished debut. It is definitely a book to put on your reading list…especially if you’re American!

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Maum, Courtney. I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. Touchstone, June 2014.

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Courtney Maum in Publisher’s Weekly (“what’s so wonderful about life: these up-and-down moments”)

Courtney Maum talks marriage (it’s “freakin’ awkward”) and first-novels  in Metro

Buy I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You

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About the Reviewer:

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Emmy Curtis is a US Air Force wife, an editor and a romantic suspense writer. An ex-pat Brit, she quells her homesickness with Cadbury Flakes and Fray Bentos pies. She’s lived in London, Paris and New York, and has settled for the time being in North Carolina. When not writing, Emmy loves to travel with her husband and take long walks with their Lab. All things considered, her life is chock full of hoot, just a little bit of nanny. And if you get that reference…well, she already considers you kin.

Pre-Deployment Fun Tour 2014

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The Johanson Family Pre-Deployment Fun Tour 2014 has begun! Here’s our attempt to pack half a year’s worth of family time into Dave’s one week off work.

We started by taking the big kids camping on Palomar Mountain. (My mom stayed with Susanna, who’s two. We’d already taken Nora and Soren camping by the time they were two, but we are wiser now. My memories of chasing a toddling 16-month-old Soren all over a campground in Missouri while a gang of drunk, bearded biker dudes swore and cursed about 10 feet away …. and then trying to get little Soren to fall asleep in the tent, feeling his hot breath on my eyeballs for hours and hours while he repeated, “HI. HI. HI” in my face and I pretended to be asleep …. have finally scared me straight).

We drove east from San Diego, gradually gaining altitude past wildfire-charred hillsides and through Indian reservations (the La Jolla and Luiseno bands) on our way east.

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We stayed at Doane Valley Campground, named for an 1880s pioneer named George Doane who composed poetry — all of it, apparently, about the many “school marms” he had courted and been rejected by.

(One of his little ditties was posted on a placard — something like “I like apples and clams, But what really moves my soul are the school ma’ams.”)

Kids, can you feel the rejected spirit of George Doane in this here meadow? He is among us still, wooing the “school ma’ms.”

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Another, more upstanding local from the days of yore was an escaped slave named Nathan Harrison, who lived as a free man in the valley, raising hay and hogs, from the 1880s onward, and was thought to have been 101 when he died. I am glad he got a good, long time as a free man.

We pitched our tent and went for a walk around the pond, where bullfrogs croaked and mama ducks settled in with their babies.

Don’t let us bother you, mama

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Don’t bother me. I’m serious about mallows

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It was a nice, warm night, and other than a toddler who threw a mega-fit downrange around 11:30 p.m. (not our kid, so who cares!) , it was a peaceful one. Come morning, we had hot coffee over the fire

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and the kids went nuts over those little boxes of cereal you can buy in 10-packs at the grocery store, which we only get when we go camping. They were perhaps more excited about the little boxes of sugary, non-organic cereal than they were about any other part of the camping trip. All evening they’d talked about which ones they’d choose, swapping and bartering (“If I get the Frosted Flakes then you can have the Corn Pops. But if you get the Froot Loops then I want the Cocoa Krispies”…) After they’d cherry-picked the selection, Dave and I were left with the handful of healthful cereals they’d passed over. “What do you think would happen,” Dave mused, “if I mixed the Corn Flakes with the Special K?”

“Knock yourself out,” I said.

He shrugged and grinned. “You only live once.”

Life is short. Enjoy your cereal.

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 And if you’ve got it, flaunt it — in the case of Soren’s shorts-and-knee-socks combo. Kid’s got some serious gams.

Our morning’s adventures took us to the Palomar Fire Tower, built in the 1930s. Lookouts here spotted two of the recent San Diego wildfires first.

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 Now that’s a hat

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 The charming interior, with original stove and fixtures

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This is where the lookouts sleep

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From there we checked out the Palomar Observatory — its 200-inch Hale Telescope was the largest in the world until 1993. It’s responsible for the discovery of quasars and gave scientists the first direct evidence of stars in distant galaxies.

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Here’s what it looks like at night, when it’s open. Amazing! (This was a picture on the wall —  no visitors, only scientists, after 4 p.m.)

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Well, what more could you ask for in a weekend (ducklings, and telescopes, and hiking, and the cereal selection of our dreams)? It was time to head home. The closest restaurant was a crunchy-but-hip, vegetarian biker-stop, where we had fried-egg sandwiches and meatless tacos slathered with avocado and sour cream. It was very good!

Fortified, Dave was ready to come to the aid of some folks whose VW bug had fritzed out on the switchbacks.

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Dave rallied another young, able-bodied bystander and they helped the driver and his son push the car, at a good clip, up the steep hill. Then the driver and his family (which, I almost forgot to mention! included a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever — one for my list!) hopped in.

“I hope they can get the car going!” the kids said. A mile or so down the road, our own kids buckled in and finally underway, the Bug zoomed by us, its family waving as they passed.

I’m thankful for this week of compressed family time. Camping was great, and I have photos to show the kids a few months down the road. And I can look back on this weekend myself, if the next few months get a little slow — I can think about the fresh smell of the pine needles around our camp site, and looking down from the top of the fire tower with the kids, and Dave and Soren playing catch in the parking lot, and the kids’ joy over their silly little boxes of cereal — and hopefully it will keep me from adopting the spirit of poor, lonely George Doane, with his limericks about “school ma’ams,” because I really don’t think a foray into that genre will help me with my own writing goals. (“I like toast and I like jam, But what I really miss is my Navy man.” No. If it comes to that, someone, please, stage an intervention.)

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All posts about our family’s experience with deployment are collected in Our Deployment Journal.

Book Review: Wynne’s War by Aaron Gwyn

(reviewed by Andria Williams, Navy)

In the last few months, I’ve read a lot of war literature, mainly because people keep sending me books to review (if you are one of those people, thank you!). I’ll admit that literary fiction in general is what I love, and I never expected to read so much war lit, but when you run a blog called the Military Spouse Book Review and you are a glutton for free books, people just keep sending you stuff. In this instance I was glad, because if I hadn’t been sent a copy of Wynne’s War by Aaron Gwyn, I might have passed it over, and I would have missed a thrill ride of a novel.

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Wynne’s War is a Western, but Aaron Gwyn is gutsy enough to have set it in the mountains of modern Afghanistan, making it a book about the recent war, too. I wondered how he’d dodge all the questions about authenticity and voice and appropriation that necessarily come up when one is writing about soldiers: he does this by giving the novel a whopper of a plot that frees him from some of the journalistic-and-moralistic tendencies of war writing, and allows the reader the enjoyment of good literature, with all the richness of story and character that it should contain.

Wynne’s War concerns itself with a young Army Ranger named Elijah Russell (a name that rings both messianic and plain ol’ country) who, in the heat of battle, rescues a beautiful appaloosa horse from a bullet-riddled public square. Nearly killed by the RPG fired at him, Russell recovers to learn that Army brass have noticed his little stunt (which handily showcased the riding skills he’d gained growing up on an Oklahoma ranch, grandson of a famous horse trainer) — thanks to the BBC journalist who recorded the whole thing from across the street.  Russell is pulled from his unit to join a group of Green Berets  in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border, where his new job will be to break a band of untrained horses so that the Green Berets can ride them on covert missions.

It’s a dream job for Russell, and the bonus is that he gets to bring his battle buddy Wheels along, and he meets a girl on the firebase — the somewhat damaged (but not inconveniently so) beauty Sara, a medic who’s trying to keep her own past suicide attempt under wraps.

Also a dream — or maybe a nightmare — is Russell’s larger-than-life platoon leader, the eponymous Captain Wynne. Wynne is a legend for having come back from being pronounced dead after a firefight to spit right in the attending medic’s face. He left a six-figure career on Wall Street to join the Army. Like Crocodile Dundee, he tames wild beasts using the power of his will. His men worship him. He is….. the most interesting man in the world!

Except that he really is. And as time goes on Russell realizes that Wynne might be an ascetic warrior-priest risking his life for a higher ideal, or he might be a mercenary leading his men to their deaths solely for personal gain. Don’t you want to read to find out?

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Aaron Gwyn, author of Wynne’s War

Let me get down to a bit of the nitty-gritty. First off, at least so far as this sheltered Navy wife can tell, Gwyn nails the military details. He interviewed dozens of Rangers, Greenies, and other veterans for research, and, in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, hints that he undertook a sort of Philipp-Meyer-like, Method-Author brand of study: “I’m a big believer in the idea of sense-memory,” he explained, “and of physically experiencing as much as possible in order to accurately portray a profession — in the case of this novel, soldiering.” Gwyn’s obsessive penchant for detail gives you that all-important confidence in the storyteller, a nebulous quality less-confident writers would pay good money to attain. Very rarely, it gets to be a little much (did I really need to know that Russell’s issued clothing includes “Four pairs of North Face pants in… ‘dune beige.’ North Face fleece in gray and black. North Face thermal jackets. Long-sleeved T-shirts from REI”? I was starting to feel like I was going through some Lake Tahoe yuppie’s closet).

Such “TMI moments” are few and far-between, however, and overall the details are fantastic.  The dialogue made me a believer, too; it’s colorful and gritty (during Wynne’s legendary near- death experience, he’s said to have been “circling the drain,” nearly “fucked the monkey,” and so on).

The Rangers who populate the story are interesting and strange and well-drawn:

Wheels had a dotted line tattooed around his neck, clavicle to clavicle, above which the crooked words CUT HERE had been inked in caps. He said he didn’t want his parents seeing him beheaded on Aljazeera, and Russell agreed it’d make for sorry programming.

“You’d shoot me, right?” Wheels asked. “If we got taken?”

“Might shoot you anyways,” Russell told him.

 Ah, man-banter — that hallmark of soldier stories. And it works; you root for this buddy-cop pair, Russell and Wheels, up against, and shepherded by, the inscrutable Captain Wynne.

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As protagonists go, Russell serves the same purpose as, say, Nick in The Great Gatsby or Marlow in Heart of Darkness — if Nick were, you know, a modern-day Army Ranger (he was a veteran!). Captain Wynne is as fascinating to him as Gatsby was to that novel’s narrator, though they have less of an emotional bond.

Russell’s the quiet heart of the novel, but he’s often just going along with its events.  He is also, as Peter Molin smartly described Billy Lynn, “the kind of guy who always knows a little more or a little less than everybody else.” He’s an upstanding fellow from humble origins, doing his best, and when he’s not shooting “Talibs” or taming horses, he’s downright submissive. He isn’t sure what compelled him to rescue that appaloosa in the first place; he’s not sure what draws him to Sara; even during their one furtive sexual encounter he’s almost maddeningly passive, nearly paralyzed on a medical table while Sara startles him out of a dead opiate sleep. (If that isn’t a jock dream for you, I don’t know what is. Also: doctor-patient privilege?!)

I could talk about this book all day, and hopefully sometime soon I’ll find another person who’s read it so I can corner them and gently abuse them with my strong opinions. It made me want to write an essay on the idea of “children of adversity,” which is what Capt. Wynne claims all successful Special Forces members are; this is an idea I’ve come across dozens of times recently, from Billy Lynn to Christy Clothier’s recollection of what her drill sergeant shouted during Basic (“I know that you have been beaten, hurt, abused! Why else do girls join the military?”) Sweet Russell fits the “child of adversity” profile perfectly: father killed by a train (!) when he was a toddler; abandoned by a druggie mom he hasn’t seen since he was seven. The interesting twist is that possible-monk/madman Captain Wynne himself  — high-school all-American, Princeton-educated double-major in religious studies and finance, hedge-fund manager — seems to be the lone character who is not a child of adversity. Of course, there could be things he’s not telling us.

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War literature sometimes seems to get slightly bogged down in trying to answer the question: What was it like? (To which, unfortunately, the answer usually is, You can’t know what war is like unless you’ve been in it — probably true, but a slammed door for any author who hasn’t been in combat themselves.) True war-chronicle-writing remains the province of veterans, and this is as it should be — but fiction, novels, are fair game. Gwyn prods the assertion that you can only know what you’ve lived, and write what you know, as early as the novel’s opening quote from Cormac MacCarthy: “His father had said that no man who has not gone to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said that he supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so.”

Aaron Gwyn has, like most of us, not gone into war on horseback, or into war at all, but that doesn’t  matter — he shows that it’s possible to bring a whole world to the reader, within a hair’s breadth of the real thing, not for the sole purpose of mimicry but for the higher purpose of art.  Sure, we can’t understand war and we can’t understand horses, but who really understands life, either?

In the words of Captain Wynne: “And yet, here you sit.”

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Gwyn, Aaron. Wynne’s War. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2014.

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a book review — and a look back to the 1950s

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I was so happy to receive this book review from a retired Army Occupational Therapist, Gwen Buteau (written with her daughter, Gail). Gwen served in the Army in the 1950s and was also an Army wife for her husband’s full career. She was kind enough to share some pictures from her training  at Walter Reed Hospital in the 1950s. (You can click on the pictures to see them better.) 

Gwen has reviewed Mary Pope Osborne’s My Secret War: The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck from the “Dear America” series (similar to the “American Girls” series, but without the dolls!). I read the book myself and thought it was just perfect for girls in the 4th – 9th grade range; it’s a sweet and exciting coming-of-age tale of an eighth-grade girl, Madeline Beck, who’s living on Long Island in 1941. Madeline’s father is a Naval officer who is at sea during the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She describes homefront efforts such as victory gardens, rubber and tin collections, and women entering the work force (“if you have ever sewed a button on a shirt, you can be a spot welder!”). The excitement comes in when she inadvertently witnesses Nazi operatives who’ve made it into Long Island Sound on a U-boat and are burying explosives on the beach. With the urging of her childhood-friend-turned-sweetheart, Johnny, she reports what she’s seen to the FBI, and saves the day.

Thank you so much, Gwen, for contributing this review!

For more on women like Gwen who served in the 1950s, see this interesting historical web site.

— Andria

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My name is Gwen Buteau. The military has always been an important part of my life. I served in the Army in the mid-1950’s as an Occupational Therapist. Here I am as a new 2nd Lieutenant during training at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

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My husband, whom I met at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, was an Army Infantry officer, and later went on to serve until retirement in the Army reserves.  My brother grew up to be an Army Airborne Ranger. My father was a Navy man, serving first in his youth as a yeoman writing the ship’s newspaper on the USS Nevada, and then again during World War II as a commissioned provost marshal.

I would like to recommend the young reader’s book My Secret War – The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck by Mary Pope Osborne to your blog followers and their children, especially their daughters. [Readers might be familiar with Mary Pope Osborne from her popular “Magic Tree House” series — so popular, in fact, that when we were stationed in Virginia, “Magic Tree House” audio books were given out with Chik-Fil-A kids’ meals! – editor]

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It is part of a larger grouping of fictional history books in the “Dear America” series published by Scholastic Inc. In them, young girls talk about their lives in diary or journal style during critical moments of our nation’s past, such as the Civil War or the Oregon Trail crossing. Each book ends with a brief epilogue and then a short chapter featuring pictures, charts, songs, maps, etc.  illustrating American life during the time of that book.

My Secret War was important to me because I really related to the protagonist, Madeline Beck. I was the same age as her in 1941 and I experienced many of the very same things she talks about in school and at home before and after the Pearl Harbor bombing. I kept a diary just like her, and also followed the unfolding of the war very closely like her, cutting and pasting front page newspaper articles into big scrapbooks I still have today.

Madeline’s father was a Naval officer serving overseas in the book, and so was mine. My dad was gone so much in fact that when he returned home he barely recognized my brother and I because we had grown so much! As I read her entries, I was reminded of the emotions I felt about missing him and wanting so much to be a part of the war effort on the home front as a way to help him. Letters to and from Madeline’s father are a major focus of her writing, and I felt the same about my dad and have saved many of his letters from then.  I think young girls today whose fathers (and mothers!) are serving away from home will be able to relate to this too, and that could help to make Madeline’s touching story even more personal, meaningful and relevant.

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Reviewer Gwen Buteau. Are you eating your hearts out over those classy uniforms, gals??! 

I believe the book’s author, Mary Pope Osborne, does a good job throughout of speaking in the honest voice of a young WWII-era girl who, on one hand,  is dealing with the tender challenges of youth and first love, while on the other hand tries to comprehend and be strong in the face of the frightening world event into which her family is thrown. One criticism is that I wish the author would have woven in more stories about all the important volunteer efforts local communities were organizing and participating in to support our service men and women abroad. Still, I think military families today will appreciate this tale and the author’s portrait of life’s struggles at home while a parent is away, and the family bonds that can be deepened in the effort.

I love this, Gwen! It’s so true — deployment can be a trial for families, but it can have a deepening effect overall, too. Thank you so much for sharing this.

Book Review: “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Reviewed by Pastaveia St. John (Air Force)

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If you’re looking for a book with drama, romantic flair and a dash of suspense — then look no further than Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In Americanah you get the life story of the main character, Ifemelu. You get to experience her having sex for the first time and not understanding the hype about it (sadly, it wasn’t all that great), interracial dating, emotional infidelity with a married man (her first love, Obinze). As for the other characters, there’s a suicide attempt and a tragic death by aircraft.

The story Ifemelu tells is one of truth, her truth and the way she views the world. More or less it’s about her not finding her place in society. She leaves her home country of Nigeria because she didn’t fit in and now, after being in America for 13 years, she wants to retreat back to Nigeria because she feels she doesn’t belong there, either. She hopes to reconnect with Obinze. The book utilizes several flashbacks to explain the relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze. It goes into detail of Obinze’s adventures in London, while Ifemelu was in America, and his deportation back to Nigeria.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu is armed with a savvy aunt, Uju, who is no stranger to drama herself. Uju helps Ifemelu find work, illegally, using a social security card from the aunt’s friend. Ifemelu lands a job as a nanny for a white family, where she befriends the mother, Kimberly. Ifemelu  develops a romantic relationship with Curt, a young, white, wealthy man who loves her dearly, but she doesn’t feel “accepted” in his world.

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He was upbeat, relentlessly so, in a way that only an American of his kind could be, and there was an infantile quality to this that she found admirable and repulsive. (p. 242)

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She quickly realizes that her naïve daydreaming of America and the reality of her day-to-day life are very different.

What’s a girl to do? Why not break up with Curt and start a blog called Raceteenth, or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black and write about topics such as Not All Dreadlocked White American Guys Are Down or Badly-Dressed White Middle Managers from Ohio Are Not Always What You Think.

Ifemelu finds Blaine, the all-around perfect black man, but she doesn’t fit into his world either.

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He told her which grains had protein, which vegetables had carotene, which fruits were too sugary. He knew about everything; she was intimidated by this and proud of this and slightly repelled by this. Little domesticities with him, in his apartment on the twentieth floor of a high-rise near campus, became gravid with meaning…and she imagined a crib in the bedroom, a baby inside it, and Blaine carefully blending organic fruits for the baby. He would be a perfect father, this man of careful disciplines. (p. 384)

When he played selections from his complete John Coltrane, he would watch her as she listened, waiting for a rapture he was sure would glaze over her, and then at the end, when she remained untransported, he would quickly avert his eyes. (p. 387)

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They break up and she goes back to Nigeria where Obinze, her childhood love, lives with his wife and child.pastaveia1

There came a point in the book where Ifemelu started to get under my skin — when she self-sabotaged her relationships because of her own insecurities. She constantly pushed the men who cared for her away because in her mind she was still longing for the perfect fit, unconsciously.

Mil Spouse Review: So, Pastaveia, I was wondering: Did you get the sense that she needed to be with someone Nigerian, to reconnect with her roots, or that she needed to be with Obinze? (I think she needed to be with Obinze, but maybe I’m just being romantic about it!)

Pastaveia: [It seems like] she was longing for both Obinze and Nigeria. I’ve worked in the field of psychology for about six years and though I don’t have a Ph.D, I’ve found that we as humans will find ways to self-sabotage things because we are afraid of what we really want. Sometimes we know exactly what it is we want, crave or need. And other times it’s buried so deep within us it takes years to discover because we’ve gotten so clever at disguising our feelings or we’re just in denial.

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Nigeria became the place she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil. And, of course, there was Obinze. Her first love, her first lover, the only person with whom she had never felt the need to explain herself. (p. 7)

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Mil Spouse Review: Pastaveia, you, like Ifemelu, have a popular blog (Be Fearless). Did the fact that Ifemelu was a blogger resonate with you in any way? I thought it was funny when she put up her first blog post, checked it later, saw that nine people had read it, and then instantly took it down! Did you enjoy the fictional blog posts in the book? Have you ever been self-conscious about blogging, or has it come pretty naturally to you?

Pastaveia: I loved them [the blog entries]! To me they seemed like good skit material for Key and Peele or SNL. It would be interesting to see them acted out.

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From ‘To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You Are Black, Baby:’  You must nod back when a black person nods at you in a heavily white area. It is called the black nod. It is a way for black people to say, ‘You are not alone, I am here too.’ -Americanah, p. 274

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When I blog, it comes from a place of inspiration. I can relate to her on that level but I’d never pull a posting based on the thoughts and comments of others. I started the blog to overcome my fear of the self-editor.

Mil Spouse Review: Well, that is really admirable!

Pastaveia: For me, sharing my financial journey was very personal because people don’t talk about money with their friends and family openly but everyone wants to spend tons of it. Sean and I want to start a family in the next few years and I would like to stay at home, but I don’t want him to feel pressure to work just to pay bills. I want him to feel that he’s actually taking care of his family, not our past mistakes with credit cards.

Wow, that’s probably way more than you wanted to know.

Mil Spouse Review: Not at all — that’s why I asked!! Thank you so much for your review. I enjoyed Americanah immensely, myself, and it was really fun to hear your take on it.

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Pastaveia St. John served twelve years in the Air Force. She writes a funny and inspirational blog called Be Fearless. Check her out on You Tube — I loved this video where she explains why she started her blog and video series, and she has all kinds of great life reminders (don’t listen to the fear troll!).  You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.