a weekend at the movies

First things first: Did y’all hear that a veteran won the National Book Award for fiction? That’s just about the highest honor a fiction writer in this country can get, so hats off to Phil Klay to winning for his short story collection Redeployment.

Redeployment

Redeployment joins a long list of illustrious writing by and about the military (Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, and Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War being among my favorites). Klay, a Dartmouth grad, served in Iraq. You can read a smart and humble interview with him here.

—–

Now, for some fun. I don’t get out to the movies much these days, but this weekend I was lucky enough to go twice! The two films I saw were polar opposites, but I enjoyed them both:

Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed. Directed by Dan Gilroy.

 Nightcrawler is a thriller, so much so that I never got around to unwrapping the Werther’s Original that I clutched, like a little old lady, in my lap. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a lonely, socially-hindered young man who, hard up for work, begins videotaping various crises and accidents for the local news station. He soon learns that his contact at the station, Nina, is looking for sensational pieces to drive up ratings. His complete lack of social scruples gives him a strange aptitude for this line of work, but how far will he go?

K72A3451d.tifGyllenhaal lost twenty pounds for the role and grew his hair into a greasy, lank bob which he ties back, Steven Seagal-style, when things get hot. He manages to infuse everything from his clipped affect to his generic gray jacket with creepiness — even those gorgeous baby-blues are off-putting, burning too bright at all the wrong moments. He perfects a quick, vacant smile that only serves to highlight how out-of-touch he is with any real emotion. Perhaps the first moment of the film when we realize we’ve really lost Lou is when he arrives early to a car accident scene and moves a corpse to achieve a more artistic “frame” for his shot. Excitement lights up his face — this is a moment of achievement for him, realizing his talent, knowing he’s got something good; but, sadly, he’s good at something that’s repellent to almost everyone else on earth.

For a young man who’s imbalanced from the start, this new, dark art can’t be a healthy preoccupation. While the film’s core message is a scathing indictment of the bloodthirsty nature of local-news programming, there’s another interesting question contained within, which is: How much smut can we personally absorb before it begins to change us?

Lou has almost no meaningful contact with other people; he tells Nina that he “is on the internet all day” and that he “loves watching [his] own work.” His weird, porous mind soaks up an inordinate amount of trash day and night, and while he’s an extreme case, it’s a little chilling to think of all the people out there who spend their days in the company of a steady strobe-light of media filth: car jackings and sex scandals and murders and distant wars and feverish, inflammatory political commentary. For my last couple of years in high school, I volunteered with elderly shut-ins — dropping by and picking up their groceries and whatnot. These were sweet people, but their worlds had become very small, and a common refrain among several of them was, “The world is so awful these days.” I don’t blame them for feeling that way, but at the very least it was a little sad that they spent their last years stressing out about violence that would most likely never have touched them. There’s so much emotionally vacant programming at our fingertips, more than ever before, and there are people in the world who spend most of their time in its company. Lou Bloom is a worst-case end product.

The film pulls you along, and lest you think it’s all brooding, there’s a Die Hard-worthy car-chase scene near the end that will have you on the edge of your seat. This one’s a thinker and it’ll creep you out — not the worst way to spend a Saturday night.

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— Big Hero Six, directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams

My two older kids saw this movie a few days ago with my mom, but they loved it so much that they asked to go again. I didn’t know if I was in the mood for an animated film, but I was glad I went along to see this quirky, artistic, hopeful movie about  six makeshift superheroes who band together to stop a super-villain motivated by revenge.

At the movie’s heart is Hiro, a 14-year-old tech genius who is befriended by the robot his beloved older brother completed shortly before his death. Initially skeptical, Hiro comes to realize that the robot — a sweet, inflatable white “healthcare companion” called Baymax — contains more of his older brother than he had thought.

hiro_baymaxHiro and Baymax

When Baymax inadvertently discovers that one of Hiro’s own inventions has been stolen and mass-produced to meet the needs of the villain, Yokai, the two unlikely heroes band together with four friends — forming the six heroes of the title — to stop him.

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(I was delighted that T.J. Miller, who plays Erlich Bachman in HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley,’ had a role as the goofy, enthusiastic Fred, who may have more of a superhero lineage than we originally know.) All of the characters are innovative and funny in their own way; my kids and I laughed out loud many times.

Another creative aspect of the film is its setting in the fictional city of San Fransokyo, a San Francisco- Tokyo hybrid (heavier on the California than the Japan, but with elements of both). I read somewhere that Pixar had to create a supercomputer just to contain all of the details of San Fransokyo, and I can see why.

BIG HERO 6

It’s beautiful, with its hills and bays and the unusual, tethered fans that sway above the city. (These add a fun dimension to Hiro and Baymax’s top-speed first flight).

But what I think sets Big Hero Six apart is its core sweetness, its message of love and forgiveness despite great loss. The villain, Yokai, acts out of revenge; Hiro would like to get revenge too, but would one act of hatred cancel out another? There’s an image near the end of the film, where Yokai is trying to get his revenge — destroying all that his rival has built through the use of a teleportal that’s sucking the building up into the sky — that struck me with its power. What does this image call up for you?

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The shiny glass, the bright blue sky, the fluttering paper — this seemed so focused that it had to be intentional, and yet, in the middle of an action scene, it wasn’t heavy-handed. Still, it stopped my heart for a second. Comic books and action heroes have a long history of exploring themes of good and evil, mirroring cultural movements and concerns — Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay deals with this — and I couldn’t help but feel that Big Hero Six was doing this, here, in a way so skilled and compassionate that it kind of blew me away.

If only the human soul were finite enough, like Baymax’s, to be contained in a computer chip.

When Hiro and Baymax have to part, and Baymax tells Hiro “I will always be with you,” my six-year-old son — always tenderhearted at the movies, and probably missing his daddy — bowed his head and wiped sweet-little-boy tears with the backs of his hands.

Bookends of Life: Diana Bletter’s ‘A Remarkable Kindness’

I first contacted Diana Bletter when our two novels were listed in the same ‘Publisher’s Marketplace’ blurb — the first sort of public notice when a novel sells to a publishing house. It was like having a little book birthday (maybe an early birthday, but close enough!), so I looked up my new peers to see what they’d written. Diana seemed so personable and interesting, and we agreed to do guest interviews on each other’s blogs. Mine appeared here.

Here are some words from Diana about writing a first novel, riding a motorcycle from New York to Alaska, being a military wife and keeping the faith.

Hi, Diana!

Your first novel, A Remarkable Kindness, will be published in summer 2015 by William Morrow/ Harper Collins. Congratulations! Can you tell me a little bit about that book?

A Remarkable Kindness is the intertwined stories of four American women who are members of a burial circle in a small beach village in northern Israel. As they participate in this ancient, powerful Jewish ritual for the dead, they come to understand what it means to truly be alive…

'kindness' book

I am a member of a burial circle in an Israeli beach village—similar to the one in my novel. I moved here from New York twenty years ago. There are no funeral parlors in Israel and communities take care of their own deceased people. Women take care of dead women and men take care of dead men. It is considered the greatest of all good deeds—the most remarkable kindness—because the dead can never thank you.

Since this is a small village, most of the time we know the deceased. We dress the dead in simple linen shrouds and say traditional prayers. It is an incredibly powerful ritual. At first it seems morbid but I believe that birth and death are bookends of life and we can’t shy away from witnessing either experience.

How long did it take you to write your novel? Did you go through many drafts?

I thought of writing this book after one of the first burial rituals I ever attended. I walked into the small burial house (it’s located in the corner of the local cemetery) and there were three other women there. I’m a journalist always on the lookout for a good story and I thought, “Wow, this is a great story!” Four American women who somehow wind up miles away from home in Israel. Four fascinating stories of love and grief, sorrow and acceptance.

I wrote the first draft in 2005. Then life (and a war) got in the way. I took the novel out again in 2013 and rewrote it. The characters remained the same. There’s Lauren, a spoiled yet unflappable maternity nurse from a wealthy family in Boston who accidentally winds up in Israel. Emily, her artistic best friend, who is determined to make a new life for herself after her first husband leaves her. Aviva is a sensuous, strong former Mossad agent struggling to come to terms with the death of her eldest son and husband. And Rachel, a young optimistic woman from Wyoming who comes to Israel to try to help only to find herself caught up in the Israel-Hezbollah 2006 War.

After the war ends, the question burns: How do we come to accept life on life’s terms? In the midst of sorrow, how do we find beauty in the world?

You have also written a memoir, The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle. (Did you really ride a motorcycle from Long Island, NY to Alaska?! What was that like?) How was the process of writing a memoir different from that of writing a novel?

I always joke that a stunt woman who looks just like me rode her motorcycle to Alaska. I still can’t believe it, either. Riding a motorcycle from New York to Alaska and back again was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. (Among other scary things!) Doing the one thing I feared most (as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “you have to do the thing you think you cannot do”) made me unafraid of just about anything. Fear controls you until you really face it and move through it. Once you do that, it loses its power over you and then you are free.

As for writing a novel versus a memoir, both require the same discipline. But writing a novel is much more fun because my characters sometimes said or did things which surprised me!

You’ve mentioned that you are a soldier’s wife — has that had an impact on your writing?

First, I want to say that I salute and honor and respect all the soldier’s wives and families who are reading these words. Your loved ones are defending America and I am filled with admiration for your/their sacrifice. In Israel, there is a military draft for young men (three years) and young women (two years). Each Israeli Memorial Day in May, there is a nation-wide siren that goes off and people in the entire country stop whatever they’re doing and stand silently to reflect and pay homage to the military services. It’s like a gigantic game of “Freeze!” No matter where you are, you stop. Even the train stops on the track. This gives people an awareness that we’re all in it together.

My husband served in the Israeli Military for many years as a combat soldier and then in reserve duty and our children — we have six children — served. I strongly believe that citizens can give back to their country in some form of national service as a sign of respect and gratitude.

As a soldier’s wife, I enjoyed hearing my husband’s stories, both good and tragic. I’m reminded that life is filled with inspiring, incredible stories.

I enjoy your blog, “The Best Chapter,” which focuses on making today the best part of your life. Recently, you wrote about avoiding self-pity: “Our minds take us where we want to go.” This seems like a useful attitude for a military spouse, and I think I’ll be writing that one down! Do you have any other bits of advice that might be especially applicable to military families?

As a mother and wife of soldiers, I told myself often, “Don’t jump ahead of God.” There were many times when I was petrified about losing a loved one but I kept reminding myself, Stay in now. Now, everything is OK, and I tried to steer my mind away from worst-case scenarios. Worrying doesn’t help down the road. I tried to stay “prayed up” and strong.

It’s hard not to slip into resentment and mutter, “Oh, if my spouse wasn’t away, I could be a regular person and I wouldn’t have to do such-and-such.” I try not to tell myself the back-story again and again, and instead just focus on the task at hand.

The husband of one of my friends in New York went to Iraq in 2009. Kelly told me she could either (in her words) “complain and get fat” or do something for herself. She started exercising while her husband was away which kept her mind off his absence and gave her a personal goal. I admire her practical way of handling the situation. (Her husband, by the way, came back safe to a fitter, happier wife.)

Well, that is a good way to end! And here is the trailer for Diana’s book:

Bletter, Diana. A Remarkable Kindness. Harper Collins, 2015.

yourself I see, great as any

Well, here it is almost Veteran’s Day, the most immediate significance of which is that it’s my beautiful mother’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Mom!

IMG_8346—–

Like many people, I’ve always felt an ambivalence toward military-themed holidays — I appreciate them, but they often just highlight their own inadequacy or fail to strike a balance between heavy-handed patriotism and (particularly now with the supreme venting mechanisms of social media) far-leftist disgust. In a more personal vein, they might churn up my usual feelings about being a military spouse who was raised in a basically pacifist family. My dad was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. His father was a WWII veteran. It could not have been too easy for either of them. When I was in high school, I remember my dad telling me about how he tried to convince my grandpa that he didn’t want to go to war. My grandpa, an old-school kind of guy from West Virginia, did not support my dad’s resistance. They did not have any particular religious background to claim lifelong pacifism, and the only grounds my dad could use to qualify as a C.O. were for someone in his family to vouch that he had always had a conscience that would put him at odds with going to war. When my dad asked my grandpa to vouch for him in court, my grandpa refused.

So, as my dad tells it, he showed up for court alone. When it was his turn, he saw a door open at the back of the room and in my slipped my grandpa, who couldn’t go through with his own hard-hearted protest. My grandpa did testify on my dad’s behalf, and my dad was granted C.O. status. He served out his time working as a psych-tech in a mental hospital that housed some of California’s most troubling individuals — people who could not be trusted with pencils, or dental floss. He was attacked by patients more than once. When his service was up, the Marine who processed his paperwork told him that he had served his time as well as most people who had gone out of the country to do so.

That’s my dad’s story, not mine, so I can’t speak definitively to any of it (and I hope I am telling it right), but it always informed my thoughts about service and what it means. In recent weeks I’ve returned to some old poems and stories I read years ago, feeling around for whatever moments of clarity they once gave me, and they didn’t disappoint. I have no real way to gather them around the theme of Veteran’s Day other than to say that they meant something for me, and if you like you can read them and see if they do the same for you.
—–

Here’s part of a long(ish) poem that makes me think about the obligation of writers in a difficult world.

From “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich

…I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

——

Writing that Makes me Think About Observance (Yusef Komunyakaa) and Lack Thereof (Katherine Mansfield):

Facing It – Yusef Komunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way–the stone lets me go.
I turn that way–I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

I was lucky enough to get to sit across from a table many years ago and hear Yusef Komunyakaa read his poetry, in a small workshop class at the University of Minnesota. He and fellow poet Heather McHugh were visiting, and there was an amazing fruit tray that the Creative Writing Department had sprung for for the occasion, and all that was required of us was to sit and hear beautiful words and eat amazingly-fresh-for-Minnesota tropical fruit. Those were the sorts of opportunities I once routinely had! I haven’t had the pleasure of being among a group of writers in over a decade, but I’m hoping that will gradually change a little as circumstances permit.

Now, for the opposite of Komunyakaa’s poem, or, as I’m thinking of it, “Don’t Stop on My Account”:

Katherine Mansfield, “The Garden-Party”

“Dead when they picked him up,” said Godber’s man with relish. “They were taking the body home as I come up here.” And he said to the cook, “He’s left a wife and five little ones.”

“Jose, come here.” Laura caught hold of her sister’s sleeve and dragged her through the kitchen to the other side of the green baize door. There she paused and leaned against it. “Jose!” she said, horrified, “however are we going to stop everything?”

“Stop everything, Laura!” cried Jose in astonishment. “What do you mean?”

“Stop the garden-party, of course.” Why did Jose pretend?

But Jose was still more amazed. “Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.”

“But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate.”
——

On Sacrifice

I would not be surprised if this song, “Youth Knows No Pain” by the Swedish singer Lykke Li, were soon used in a war movie. The high-adrenaline beat, the loaded lyrics, the sightly blurred sound — I can see it in a heavily stylized film, a “Jarhead”-type piece where the images it’s played against suggest that youth indeed have known plenty of pain.


(The song is what I’m after here, so forgive the slightly distracting video, which gives the impression that the world’s moodiest dinner party is about to end very badly, perhaps in a game of stoner Clue where one of the band members is found lifeless in the parlor, beside a candelabra — I’m betting on the piano player, who looks as if he is about to burst into tears. He knows he’ll be the first to go. Anyway, now that I’ve called all this to your attention, please ignore it and focus on the song, if you care to. Because I think what the song is saying, at least to me, is important. Spending a few minutes at the Wounded Warrior Project web site made it clear to me that youth has known plenty of pain; I thought of sharing a few of their images here but somehow, given the ease of my own life, it made me feel cheap. I invite anybody to check out their organization, however.)

Come on get down
Come on get down
Make a mess, make a vow
Come on get down
Come get down
Mighty youth, here and now

——-

And now, there’s no one better to end a Veteran’s Day post with than that most beautiful chronicler  of the Civil War, Walt Whitman.

Nearly a decade ago, when we were stationed in Virginia, I attended a morning small-group church meeting with a good friend. Everyone was very nice, but it was more conservative and evangelical than I was accustomed to. As an ice-breaker, we were asked to go around the room and name one famous person we would like to have lunch with. Several of the responses were, “George W. Bush” (president at the time), and [televangelist] Beth Moore — responses that were met with murmurs of affirmation.

At any rate, it was my first time at the group, and when it was my turn to answer who I’d like to have lunch with I froze for several seconds and then blurted, “Walt Whitman.”

The kind ladies in the group went silent. I could see the chirpy group-leader trying to think of something positive to say. I couldn’t tell if they perhaps didn’t remember who Walt Whitman was, or if they knew and were horrified. My friend, trying to come to my aid, explained, “She’s from Berkeley,” and the group leader, unsure of what to say to that, finally settled for a cordial, “Well, welcome, Andria.” I mumbled my thanks, though I felt like a little bit of a freak, and when I went home and related this to Dave he sighed in sympathy and said, “You could have faked it just a little bit, for once.” But I couldn’t have. I’ll never disown you, Walt.

How Solemn As One by One
(Washington City, 1865)

How solemn as one by one,
As the ranks returning worn and sweaty, as the men file by where
stand,
As the faces the masks appear, as I glance at the faces studying the
masks,
(As I glance upward out of this page studying you, dear friend,
whoever you are,)
How solemn the thought of my whispering soul to each in the ranks,
and to you,
I see behind each mask that wonder a kindred soul,
O the bullet could never kill what you really are, dear friend,
Nor the bayonet stab what you really are;
The soul! yourself I see, great as any, good as the best,
Waiting secure and content, which the bullet could never kill,
Nor the bayonet stab, O friend.

The Waiting: ‘Stateside,’ ‘Wife and War,’ and the Hale Koa

This post is several weeks in the making. For two months I’ve been carrying around Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside and Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War (both collections of poetry) — reading them furtively during over-too-soon toddler naptimes, thumbing through with a beer on precious evenings after the kiddos have gone to bed, even lugging both books on planes over 3,000 miles of ocean.

3,000 miles of ocean? Who am I kidding, I never go anywhere!

But, wait — I did! Amazingly, wondrously, I got the opportunity to meet up with my husband in Hawaii for two full days a few weeks ago.

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I was excited about the opportunity, but I also felt guilty about it. In fact, I felt so guilty about it at first that I considered staying home. I knew the kids would have loved to see their dad, but we couldn’t afford five plane tickets, and besides, I selfishly wanted some alone time  on the plane with books with my husband. And I also know full well that most military spouses don’t get to see their husbands halfway through a short deployment. But, thinking of my own little family, I decided that if there were a way we could make this easier we should, and besides, six months of single parenting (or being without your kids, in my husband’s case) is not the easiest thing, and we’re in this for a while so we need his career to be sustainable. So I decided to go. I postponed writing this up because I wanted to wait until a friend’s husband was back from Afghanistan — she’d been so kind and supportive even though her husband left six months before mine did, and I thought that if I posted my giddy vacation photos in the last weeks before her husband got home I’d feel like a real sh*t. Now that he’s home (yay!), I feel better about posting!

So, for the mere price of six months apart, Dave and I got a two-day vacation at the amazing Hale Koa hotel in Honolulu. It’s a gorgeous hotel run by the U.S. Army, and it’s for servicemembers and their families. I wish I could fly every servicemember in history there for a full week. It was that beautiful!

IMG_8779House of the Warrior (and their support staff!)

IMG_8771Okay, so we had a wonderful time, just loungin’ around, reading by the pool and on the beach, hiking along some cliffs

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IMG_8794My Carnival Cruise Lines/Kathie Lee Gifford “If They Could See Me Now” moment

and eating a lot of terrific Japanese food. And I did have 12 hours of plane travel-time alone with books, which in itself felt like a spa vacation. My entire carry-on was a back-breaking load of books: The Art of Fielding, Moby Dick, The Orchardist, Stateside, and Wife and War, plus my own writing notebook and pens, and the pad of paper I took from the Hale Koa (I might be a little bit of a hoarder). After having to say good-bye to my husband at the Honolulu airport, I comforted myself on the ride home with all my books.

Which brings me to Stateside and Wife and War. There’s a reason I’m writing this review in a long, personal narrative kind of format, and that’s because both poetry collections speak of intensely personal experiences. They’re not meant to be read at arm’s length, with a monocle and a terse little frown. Stateside and Wife and War were both written by Navy spouses weathering long deployments in which their husbands could not have been considered “safe,” and both touch upon broader themes of loss, longing, disconnection, tragedy, and reunion. Reading them, I saw much that was familiar: the initial struggle to wrap one’s mind around a deployment, the dread, the long boring wait, the anxiety, the reunion. And there was much also that was beyond my experience: deployments longer than a year, dangerous tours, difficult “reintegrations.”

But when I read, there’s no way to keep what I’m reading from spilling all out of the pages into my life and into what I’m thinking. Just as lines I’ve read come back to me all day long, aspects of my life slip into the pages of what I am reading, and that seems to me what writers would want — a life for their words beyond their own minds, the computer screen, the page. Why else share it?

——–

Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside is an elegant, slim volume, almost classical in feel. The poems deal within the relatively small timeframe of a deployment, with perhaps a little time on either side, and so the book feels like a small, quiet journey.

stateside2      stateside3author Jehanne Dubrow. Photo, Shane Brill

The first line in the book, from the poem “Secure for Sea,” is a definition: “It means the moveable stays tied.” And with that Dubrow sets up the essential tension of the collection — that her husband is moveable and she is not. He will be going to sea, far away and to an unstable place, and she will be set into a role women have inhabited for thousands of years, that of the wife waiting at home.

Dubrow examines every facet of this tension across the book’s 43 poems. Is a sailor heading off to sea a romantic ideal? Yes, and Dubrow touches on this. Is there also an essential killing-of-romance necessary to survive a deployment? — well, yes, that too, and she smartly explores this in the quintessentially romantic form of a sonnet called “Nonessential Equipment.” As her husband discards the trappings of love — poems, perfume, his beloved dog, almost his wedding ring, and, of course, temporarily, his wife — the poem becomes an anti-sonnet, like the old joke about a country song played backwards (he gets his wife back, he gets his tractor back…).

She also tries on the character of a modern-day Penelope, in a central set of poems that I greatly enjoyed. Literature about the recent wars has gone many times back to ancient Greece and Sparta for inspiration and even explanation, but much of this takes itself too seriously or focuses on political misjudgments-and-failures (fair game, but restricted from the outset). Dubrow takes a more intimate, wry approach, setting her Penelope in modern situations that highlight both the noble history and the absurdity of a long wifely wait. “Penelope” tries on lingerie, she takes little Telemachus to the mall, she goes on a diet.  The poems highlight all that is stubborn and faith-filled and beautiful and possibly a little dumb about waiting, waiting, waiting for one man to return.

——–

I thought about Stateside while I prepared to, very briefly, see my husband again before another separation. In the weeks before this reunion, I identified with her characters’ boredom and the weird, slow erosion of self-esteem that seems to accompany a deployment.

On an island called America,

start fantasizing of the sex

you had with him. Go shop for bras

and lacy thongs at the PX,//

black garters, bustiers, a cream

that leaves your body woven silk,

a self-help book for self-esteem,

a bag of M&Ms, skim milk//

to keep you thin, and Lean Cuisine

(you hate to cook for one).

Siobhan Fallon touches on this in several of her stories, too — that a deployment is a sort of long, socially acceptable obsession. Whatever strong, busy woman you’ve become, whatever interesting set of friends or successful career — when your husband is on deployment it colors everything, defines everything. It’s a strange, low lid over your world. You get bumped back, every time, to the anti-feminism of waiting and preening and staring at yourself in the mirror at 1 a.m. and realizing how much those three-kids-in-six-years have changed you (okay, maybe that is just me), and will your husband remember how much they have changed you, or will he be startled afresh when he sees you again? The reunion, the big reunion! — it’s on the horizon, and you don’t want to disappoint! In a blog post written in the weeks before her husband returned home, Amy Bermudez described his homecoming as feeling “like a wedding,” and I knew exactly what she meant.

A whole culture springs up around the mortal fear of disappointing deployed men. In Fallon’s story “You Know When the Men Are Gone” (first in the book of the same name), the women living on-base turn a blind eye to a fellow wife’s barking, oversized dog, and even to  borderline child neglect, in the interest of the man at war: “No, they would not be responsible for the grief her husband would feel when he came back, having survived the year in Iraq, to a home without a dog. They could not play a role in his disappointment and so they went without sleep, cursed under their breath, banged the ceiling or floor with brooms, and smacked their palms against frail drywall.”

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There are some ways in which I still feel uncomfortable as a military wife, as if I’m just dipping my toe into a role meant for someone else. As I read Dubrow’s poems I felt a sense of belonging at the same time as I identified with her moments of alienation. Her descriptions of certain Navy locales, in all their haze-gray-and-underway-ness, were very familiar (particularly those in Virginia’s Tidewater region, the first duty station of our Navy career. Virginia felt like another planet to me when we arrived, but was slightly more comfortable for my husband who, having spent formative years living outside Baltimore, was used to the funny, brash, populous, history-steeped culture of the mid-Atlantic states). Dubrow’s poems took me right back. I remembered hiking at First Landing State Park, which was weird and swampy until it opened into a stunning view of the Chesapeake Bay. I’d jotted lists of intriguing place names like Birdneck, Princess Anne, Witchduck.

I also empathized with Dubrow’s sense of being an outsider in a world so wholly military-industrial. Unless you are from a military background, it’s hard to prepare for living on or adjacent to a busy Naval or Marine base. big_ships1We’ve lived next to to both Dam Neck and Little Creek, and when Dubrow talked about seeing the ships outside her window, smelling diesel fuel from shore, I felt a surge of unexpected nostalgia for that very particular world which still feels vivid to me.

Nora and I passed many hours lined up along the canal by our apartment, watching the hovercraft roar by and waving to all the sailors standing on the decks of the small amphibs. We sat on the beach and watched SEALS do their morning run-swims in the cold, misty sea water, with osprey diving overhead, a treat for the early risers. We met Dave for lunch on-base, and I was saluted for the first time, which, given my egalitarian upbringing, felt very odd.

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All our lives, I’d been the world traveler, my husband the kid who’d never left the States. I’d been to Japan, Italy, even Africa, because my parents believed that travel was the best education. He’d been to the memorials of D.C. and the old battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg. Now we’d switched places — he in a career which would take him around the world; myself, at home day and night, with no family or old friends, no writer buddies, but a beautiful baby in a crappy-as-hell apartment surrounded by very young soldiers and their multiple pit bulls. And I was transported back there when I read her poem “Swim Test,” about something familiar to me from my husband’s own descriptions (mandatory swim tests where the sailors have to demonstrate that they can use their pants and shirts as inflatables by removing them, tying the legs together and blowing air into them).

She’s talking about her husband’s swim test here, but I felt the numbness of an early deployment all over again, the pain that is being the one who must wait, who doesn’t get to move:

The hardest part is playing dead, to be broken,//

inert, when what the body wants is motion,

to kick like a sprinter toward the finish line,

at least to tread water, not to breathe it in.

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Now all this brings me to Amalie Flynn’s Wife and War. Whereas Dubrow’s poems are tightly controlled within classical structures, Flynn’s tone is looser and more immediate. I think these collections do well to be considered side-by-side but not necessarily compared, so I’ll share a few thoughts about Flynn’s book here.

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Wife and War is, on one level, a narrative of trauma — it opens with the collapse of the Twin Towers, which Flynn herself witnessed, and continues on through the related hardships of the following years (a husband’s deployment, loss of pregnancies, difficulty of her husband’s return home). But “narrative of trauma” sounds a little oppressive and I don’t think this collection is oppressive at all — it’s more like getting a front-row seat into an intelligent and sensitive mind, one that’s enduring several years of hardship. Despite the book’s 406 pages, it flew by, partly because of its format (verse, with a lot of white space on each page), but also because it was simply very readable. Weeks or months are often encapsulated in a paragraph or a page.

amalieflynnAmalie Flynn

It’s almost like a journal, this book, a journal in verse — which is fascinating to me because it would never occur to me to record thoughts and feelings in verse, but I am delighted that some people do. There are the big moments of the book, the Twin Towers and the news that her husband is going to war, and then there are small moments which are rendered so well. When Flynn’s husband leaves for good, she recounts laying beside her two-year-old son to sleep:

And I lay on the floor, next to him, my son, next to his bed. Wanting to be right there, when he wakes up and sees, for the first time, sees that his father is gone.

In what I thought was one of the more beautiful passages in the book, she describes the intensity with which she misses her husband.

I can’t really explain how I long for him, my husband, for his body to be here, stretched out next to mine, in our bed, one side of his face lit up and legible, by the glow of the alarm clock, or his clothing, his socks and shirts and pants, all of it, left on the floor, there, as he climbs in, climbs in to find me.

…And, how, sometimes, I just want someone to open me up again. Read me like a book, word by word, hip by hip, sentences and paragraphs and legs, to keep on reading me, page by page, until he is done.

Damn. If that isn’t how you write longing, I don’t know what is.

When Flynn’s husband does return home, the distance between them does not easily close, and there is a long spell of tension in the poems. “I am not feeling grateful today,” she writes in one of two entries for July 2009.

I feel like you are my business partner, my husband tells me, after, after we are done, cleaning up the kitchen, after we check on the children in their beds, and now, as we lie here, next to each other, in our bed. And I am exhausted and he is unfulfilled , because he wants it to feel different, this marriage, us, what we are doing here.

This is an honest and careful look at a marriage, at the work that goes into keeping two adult people together, and most of it is not pretty or sweet or playful. That is what makes this memoir feel like life: a book of days, in which sometimes the pattern feels like bad-bad-bad-good-bad and sometimes the order is more like good-good-bad-good-good — the ratio can feel unbalanced but it must even out, like flipping a coin and getting ever closer to 50:50. And then, because we are human and not pure victims of chance, it somehow surpasses that 50:50 to get to something better, bigger, and worth fighting for.

Later we will go to our son’s school, where they have a garden. It is a small square where the children are growing tomatoes and peppers and beans.

And we will see him, first, our son, before he sees us, standing in the center, holding a shovel, one hand over his eyes to block out the sun, so he can see, see what is growing, at his feet, and when he looks up, he will see us.

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I’m grateful that Stateside and Wife and War kept me company for those several weeks — longer than I intended, but not longer than I wanted them around — on planes and in the van (turning pages quietly so as not to wake the baby) and on my couch.

If there’s anyone out there who made it to the end of this blog post: thank you.

I am home now, back from my two days in paradise and back to real life: puzzle pieces and sharp little Legos all over the floor, lunches to make and floors to sweep, a toddler with a head cold and a nice track of spring-green snot running from her nose to her upper lip. Just as reading gives you space to make sense of everything else, so does a brief vacation. Children are growing, books are waiting to be read, and when I think of my husband in the airport, waiting to watch me go through the security line, my heart skips a beat with happiness: all this has happened, we’ve been all these places and started over and charged ahead, and we are still going, and we are still young.

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Jehanne Dubrow, Stateside. Northwestern University press, 2010.

About Jehanne Dubrow

Amalie Flynn, Wife and War, 2013.

About Amalie Flynn

 

Related, in the index of my mind:


Tennessee Ernie Ford, “The Girl I Left Behind Me” — a parting song that dates back to at least the late 1700s. I always sing it to Susanna — “That sweet little gal that pretty little gal, the gal I left behind me…”


Tom Petty, “The Waiting”

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you get one more yard
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

Oh don’t let it kill you baby, don’t let it get to you
Don’t let it kill you baby, don’t let it get to you
I’ll be your bleedin’ heart, I’ll be your cryin’ fool
Don’t let this go too far
Don’t let it get to you

Book Review: “Her Own Vietnam” by Lynn Kanter

(Reviewed by Caroline A. LeBlanc, Army wife & mother, former Army Nurse, and retired psychotherapist who has worked with military service members and families for over twenty years.)

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Anyone who follows the topic knows that, even today, women veterans often are not recognized as veterans, nor do they always appreciate their own veteran status. Many men as well as women who served in Vietnam also went to great lengths to forget their veteran status. Some were successful in this repression of combat trauma and their mixed feelings about their service, until our present generation of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan triggered their old “stuff.” Another reason Vietnam veterans forgot or hid their war service was to avoid verbal and social abuse by very hostile anti-war activists—from hippies to college professors. The atmosphere was much different from the “Thank our troops” encouraged today.

Imagine what it was like during the Vietnam War some forty-plus years ago. Most male troops were draftees in the Army or men who enlisted in other services rather than be drafted. They were all but guaranteed at least a 1 year tour in the jungles of Vietnam. Women service members, whose numbers were significantly fewer than today, were all volunteers in the armed forces, if not Vietnam. Most, but not all, of the women who served in country were Army or Air Force Nurses.

Her Own Vietnam is the youth to middle age story of Della, a woman from a single parent, working class family, whose only chance at nursing school was to sign up for Army sponsorship. Not surprisingly, she naively—and mistakenly—trusted the recruiter’s promise that she would not be sent to Vietnam unless she volunteered. The main story line meanders between a young Della in her early 20s, her service as a combat trauma nurse in Vietnam in 1969-70, including to her return stateside, and an early 21st century Della in her 50s, juggling the roles of daughter, sister, divorced mother, nurse on an Oncology ward, and a veteran with re-awakened PTSD.

kanter_photoauthor Lynn Kanter (from lynnkanter.com)

Through Della’s story, Kanter, whose research for the book included interviews with Vietnam combat nurses, paints a compelling and largely accurate picture of nurses, nursing in general, and military nursing, including combat trauma nursing. The book’s second thread is Della’s post combat life, traced from the time of her return from Vietnam to the time when a letter from Charlene, a nurse with whom she served in Vietnam, triggers Della’s flashbacks for the first time in years. The story of their friendship—the salvation it offered in Vietnam, how it was fractured at the time of Charlene’s premature return to “the world” for her KIA brother’s funeral, and how it picks up, almost 4 decades later, where it left off—is the third major thread in the book. Charlene’s story as an African American nurse, though less detailed, takes the reader from the realities of the racial climate of the 1960s to her, contrary to racial stereotypes, affluent modern lifestyle, subtly contrasted with Della’s comfortable but much less prosperous circumstances.

Scenes located in Vietnam contain graphic images of wounded soldiers, and what was required of the nurses who cared for them. On first reading, these passages sounded a bit pedantic to me. I wondered if it was because Kanter, who is not a nurse, was trying to describe realities she knew only second-hand. On second reading I found these sections down right captivating. I came up with two hypotheses about my different responses. First, a number of images are so graphic that they are numbing enough to paralyze. Second, as viewers and readers, we are used to encountering similar graphic images in the context of male combat tales where the adrenaline kicks us past our numbness into a hope that something or someone will save the day. Usually new action moves us through the numbing terror. We don’t spend a lot of time with the dead or dying. Perhaps we even grasp at the time honored glory of war.

No such promise or hope survives in Della and Charlene’s combat hospital. The wounded just keep arriving, in waves as endless as the ocean’s. By the time injured bodies and souls arrive at the field hospital, the futility of hope is apparent. The damage is done. The price of warfare is all too obvious. The fighters’ adrenaline has subsided. Many of those not too badly injured despair about their return to battle. Those too badly injured for return to duty, face death, long recoveries, and/or a life of debilitating injuries. The adrenaline drains out of them with their blood, their lost limbs, and their paralyzed bodies. Doctors, nurses and corpsmen pump enough adrenaline for their battle to save lives, but it is not adrenaline that energizes a reader the same way the flash of bullets, the suspense of capture, escape, or victory does. With these realizations, things clicked for me. Kanter has captured not only the facts combat trauma nurses had shared with her, she has also captured their weight in the bodies and souls of these women (for then they were primarily women) at the time and throughout the rest of their lives. And, as reader, it weighed me down as well.

In mirror fashion, Kanter’s story of two Vietnam War nurses elucidates and comments on the experience of many modern day combat veterans and combat health care veterans. Veterans’ ambivalence about, and often refusal to, talk about their traumatic experiences. Their self-medication with alcohol or other mind altering drugs. The self-destructive spiral many never escape and the residue that the veteran lives with even if s/he does break free. The families’ ambivalent, awkward, even insensitive and intolerant response to their veteran member who has returned home dramatically changed by war. The inhumanity of war—necessary or not—which much of society prefers to deny. The invisibility of women veterans, and way the system, as well as many male veterans, disregard the service and needs of women veterans.

Neither does Kanter shy from sexuality issues: the sexual harassment of women in the military or the consensual sexual relationships in combat areas—the latter, a concern for many military spouses waiting while a husband or a wife are in lonely, high-stress, high-contact deployment situations. Della and Charlene might have been angels of mercy, but their time in hell tarnishes each of them in various ways. Hit and miss references to their harassment by service men, officers and enlisted, begin on the plane to Vietnam and continue through in country scenes. Kanter gives more in-depth treatment to the reality that deployed troops often assuage fear and loneliness in ways that betray loved ones at home, generate guilt, and affect existing or future relationships. Interestingly, during their 21st century reunion neither Charlene nor Della can remember the name of the helicopter pilot who was a young Della’s first lover. Both she and he were surrounded by carnage and death and the constant possibility of their own deaths. This vignette nods at the fact that in deployment situations, service members, male and female, may share the most intense life, death, and sexual experiences without ever learning much more about each other than an “operational” nick-name. In my ideal world, military wives and women service members would feel a sisterhood, but, as portrayed so well in Her Own Vietnam, the lines of a song of the era are often more apt: “when you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” Reality often undermines my hope for womanly solidarity.

In fact, men are conspicuously peripheral in the lives of these self-sufficient women. Della’s father abandons his young family leaving his sister and her mother, who wait tables, to raise Della and her sister. Della’s adult sister is in a stable and loving lesbian relationship. Della’s ex-husband is helpful, kind, and fair but “ex,” and in his single appearance, he claims she never really let him in. Plus, he falls apart in emergencies. She does not know the real name of her lover in Vietnam or the many one-night stands during her post Vietnam years lost to alcohol. Even Charlene’s husband is off at a medical conference when Della visits. This lack of a significant manly presence could fill another review.

Spell binding as Kantor’s book is, several things tripped me up. There are small medical inaccuracies which, I’m sure, would bother no one but a nurse. Some of the dialogue between the women is a bit too snappy and witty, perhaps to lighten the content of the intense exchanges. While everyone is witty at times, routine snappy repartee begins to sound scripted. Lastly, some of the health care back story has a didactic flavor. Unfortunately, one of the places where this happens is in the last few pages of the book when, after a serious car accident, Della’s daughter receives what Americans now consider routine trauma care. The somewhat redemptive fact is that many improvements in trauma care over the centuries have grown out of methods developed to care for the catastrophic injuries incurred on battlefields. Vietnam established a new benchmark in this regard. In Her Own Vietnam, Della sits with her daughter and muses over the fact that, because of what was learned during the war, such things as plastic IV bag have replaced the archaic glass IV bottles used at the beginning of the Vietnam war. The musings felt stale after the vibrancy of a story that had kept me turning pages. I wish Kanter could have found a more engaging way to end this powerful and important story.

However, none of these limitations significantly tarnish Kanter’s imaginative and lively writing, and the way she evokes compassion rather than judgment for her characters. Her Own Vietnam will captivate you, and bring you to tears. It will also give you a deeper understanding of what military nurses endure both when they care for injured service members and over the course of their lives, as well as some of the things family members who love them go through. I believe you, like me, will not want to put the book down.

Kanter, Lynn. Her Own Vietnam. Shade Mountain Press, Albany, NY, 2014.
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About the Author

kanter_photo Lynn Kanter is the author of two previous novels, The Mayor of Heaven and On Lill Street. Her short stories and essays have been published in a number of journals and anthologies. She lives in Washington, DC with her wife, and works as a writer for a national social justice organization called the Center for Community Change. Her web site lists her hobbies, rather charmingly, as “reading, raging against injustice and being sarcastic.”

About the Reviewer

Caroline_LeBlanc_3Caroline LeBlanc, MFA, MS, RN is a former Army Nurse, an Army wife & mother, and retired psychotherapist. As the Writer in Residence at the Museum of the American Military Family since 2012, she wrote the script for the museum’s Summer 2014 exhibit, Sacrifice & Service: The American Military Family. She co-produced & wrote the script for Telling, Albuquerque (part of the national Telling Project), a 9/11/2104 testimonial theatrical event where military veterans and family members perform their own stories. In 2014 she directed & performed in 4 Voices on the 4th, a collaborative spoken word performance with three other women military family members.

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

Buy Her Own Vietnam here in paperback or e-book format, or here in Kindle

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More from Caroline LeBlanc in the Military Spouse Book Review:

“Still, the Sky Clears: Two Poetry Collections”

“Many Forms of Service: An Interview with Caroline LeBlanc”