Happy Holidays!

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Dave sent some photos of the holiday decorations going up on his side of the world.
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Decorating, and work too:

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Here’s how things are looking around here:
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Care for an oddly-crunchy cookie? We like lots of sprinkles (or,as Susanna calls them, “spreckles”).
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Our best wishes to everyone, near and far, home and away, for a wonderful holiday season and a happy, happy New Year!

Andria (and Dave, Nora, Soren, and Susanna too)

Fiction Favorites, Part II: ‘Dear Committee Members’

“This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of this campus,” Professor Jay Fitger writes in Julie Schumacher’s newest novel, Dear Committee Members. “I’ve known Ms. DeRueda for eleven minutes, twelve of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up and completed one of my classes.This young woman is certainly tenacious, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

dear-committee-members

Professor Fitger is probably the last man you would ever want to ever write something so delicate, regulated, and diplomatic as your letter of recommendation — for anything. After two-plus decades in academia, some looming life disappointments, and the increasingly punishing burden of bureaucratic paperwork he’s being forced to produce, Fitger is firing off letters of recommendation, dutifully, for anyone who asks them of him, but don’t thank him yet — what those letters might contain is anyone’s guess. His honesty is hilarious and refreshing: “Mr. Duffy Napp has just transmitted a nine-word e-mail asking that I immediately send a letter of reference to your firm on his behalf,” Fitger writes, of a particularly unhelpful Tech Help employee. “His request has summoned from the basement of my heart a star-spangled constellation of joy, so eager am I to see Knapp well established [elsewhere].”

Remarkably, as these letters accumulate, a bittersweet portrait of Fitger emerges, and a cast of characters — each with their own desires and failures — takes shape. Will Fitger reconcile with the giants of his past, from the mentor he once worshiped, to his ex-wives-and-girlfriend (the deeply hurt Eleanor, the bitter Carole, and the patient, stalwart Janet)? Will he be able to secure a prestigious fellowship for his sole remaining grad student, Darren Browles, whose promise he touts even as Browles’s prospects grow gloomier by the day?  Will anyone in the novel live up to the early promise of his or her life?

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The friendly, oddball people-watching (and-skewering) gives Dear Committee Members its smart and perfectly-timed comedy. I laughed, no lie, on every single page. Its larger themes give it heft. Who doesn’t wish they had done something more with their life; who doesn’t regret a few things they’ve done or said? And despite all the politics, backbiting, drudgery, and thanklessness of academia which Schumacher lampoons so well, there remains a respect for the final work of art as something greater, more meaningful, possibly worth all the effort and toil. “You and I,” Fitger writes to Eleanor, “are in the business of believing in, and promoting, things that don’t yet exist…I can already envision the moment when I open Troy’s new book and find within it, among the acknowledgements, your name and mine; and we both know how beautiful the book will be, how clearly it will speak to something within us — some previously unarticulated thought or reflection that, once recognized, we will never want to be without again.”

Put together, Jay Fitger’s collection of letters may be his opus magnum (and Schumacher’s as well). “I recall,” he writes to the Dean, “…that as much as you detested my [letters of recommendation], you found them more engaging than any of my novels.”

Schumacher, Julie. Dear Committee Members. Doubleday, 2014.
—-
p.s. I highly recommend this book as a gift for anyone in your life with a good sense of humor, and for anyone working in an academia or office setting. They’ll recognize characters in these pages, and they’ll laugh out loud.

p.p.s. I should mention that Julie Schumacher was my advisor in the Creative Writing department at the University of Minnesota some years ago; being no Jay Fitger, she was wonderful in the role, generous with her time and enthusiastic about her students (to whom she has dedicated her book). She once told me I had “a weird imagination” and she did, indeed, write me more than one letter of recommendation.
—-
Buy Dear Committee Members here and here
Julie Schumacher’s web site

Dear Committee Members on NPR

Scriptorium Review of ‘Dear Committee Members

Book Review: Stories Around the Table

Reviewed by Kathleen Rodgers

Publisher: Elva Resa Publishing, October 1, 2014

Edited by Terri Barnes (author of the book Spouse Calls and a columnist for Stars and Stripes)

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From the moment I saw the cover of Stories Around The Table, I knew I had to have this book. The friendly setting of folks gathered around a table appealed to me on so many levels. And because the book is published by Elva Resa Publishing, I knew it would be quality through and through.

Over forty writers have contributed to this moving collection of personal essays that draw you right in. Each writer has a unique voice and a different take on what it means to be a military spouse. Some writers are household names and others are seeing their names in print for the first time. Each entry is written with emotional impact, and you will find yourself laughing, remembering, or grabbing a tissue and pausing to reflect on something that grabs at your heart and won’t let go.

This book is a perfect gift for anyone who has ever married into the military. It will also appeal to military brats or to civilians who wish to understand the strong bond military families share with each other.

I’d give it six stars if I could!

————–
About the reviewer:

kathleen rodgersKathleen M. Rodgers’s work has appeared in Family Circle Magazine, Military Times, and many other publications. Her second novel Johnnie Come Lately is forthcoming from Camel Press (2/1/15). Her debut novel The Final Salute was featured in USA Today and has been reissued in paperback and e-book by Deer Hawk Publications September 2014. She is a military wife and mother.

photo, http://www.kathleenmrodgers.com

Your Holiday Gift Guide from the Mil Spouse Book Review

Today, I’m playing matchmaker. Are you looking for a great read for someone on your gift list? Here are some of the books that were most-loved by your helpful mil-spouse contributors over the past year. I’ve listed them by type and theme so you can match ’em up with that gentle soul who’s just waiting for the right book to come along.

1. A Redemptive Human Interest Story Set in Las Vegas

‘We Are Called to Rise’ by Laura McBride

reviewed by Amy Bermudez

moi    “All I want to do is rave [about this book],” said Army wife Amy Bermudez in what was possibly our most glowing review of the year:We-Are-Called-to-Rise

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.”

 

2. A Well-Spun Story with Colorful Characters, Set in an Independent Bookstore

(a.k.a., What’s Not to Like?)

‘The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry’ by Gabrielle Zevin

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reviewed by Jenny Fiore

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“It’s clear Zevin loves and knows literature, and damn, can she tell a sweet story. Not saccharine but heartwarming and colorful and quirky in all the right ways. Little revelations. Great dialogue. Solid pacing. Plausible yet magical.”

 

 

 

 

 

3. Fans of Westerns, Big Vistas, Action, and Horses and/or Plants:

I read four novels set in the American West this year and for anyone on your list who likes such things, I can wholeheartedly recommend Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist, Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War and Philipp Meyer’s The Son.

Handily, I wrote those out for you in an ascending order of violence without even realizing it. Just a little public service I like to provide, because you know the person you’re giving a book to — think twice before giving those last two to your grandma. Then again, your grandma might be hip as all hell. I don’t know her! In any case, these were all such innovative, exciting books, Wynne’s War being perhaps the most intriguing of them all as a modern Western set in Afghanistan. Brilliant.

4. Travel Writing, Memoir, Disaffected Professor Leaves Italy for a Job in Kurdistan

‘Picnic in a Minefield’ by Francesca Recchia

Suzanne Schroeder said: “I can’t stress enough how quickly Recchia is able to create a place for the reader to enter, and to engage with her experiences in Erbil, the city where the university was located. The author’s academic discipline is urban sociology, so she’s well-equipped to notice the small details of social interaction.

One of the strongest and most memorable scenes for me was the chapter “Of Women, Men, and Love.” Recchia writes about her encounters with Kurdish women (and men), capturing the intense suffering their society has experienced but also their immense resilience.”

5. For the Fact-Loving Geek

‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell

Tipping-Point

reviewed by Pastaveia St. John

pastaveia1Throughout the book, Gladwell effortlessly shares a wide variety of stories – from how infectious agents such as syphilis increased due to the heavy use of crack cocaine, to an uptick suicides in Micronesia due to trivial or embarrassing reasons (such as seeing a boyfriend with another girl, or getting caught in an extra-marital affair). Social epidemics, he claims, have the same effect as health epidemics.

Gladwell explains things in a simplistic way, which makes you wonder, “Why hadn’t I thought of that before?” If you’re in the mood to learn new tidbits about life and gain a new perspective on social phenomena, this is your book.

 

My Fiction Favorites Part 1: Philipp Meyer’s ‘The Son’ and Rufi Thorpe’s ‘The Girls from Corona del Mar’

In these last few weeks of 2014, I wanted to make sure to mention a couple of books I read which, though I didn’t get a chance to review them here, made a big impression on me. I think — pardon me as I get a titch commercial-minded — any of these would make fantastic holiday gifts for the readers you like best on your list. In the next few days I’ll also re-list, by category, a few of the books our mil spouse contributors enjoyed most over the course of the year (or at least the last 9 months since this blog began) in case you need a little gift-giving inspiration. Books really do make the best gifts!

Without further ado, here are a couple of my fiction favorites that have gone, thus far, mentioned by many but unmentioned-by-me:

The Son by Philipp Meyer
Empires rise and empires fall; that’s fascinating enough in itself, but when you look closer, at the lives which populate those empires, that’s when you have a novel.

The Son came out in 2013, but it’s in paperback now, so it’s handy for gift-giving if you don’t want to break the bank. Not to brag, but I have the hardcover and with its faint, scratchy, wild-horse cover and deckle-edges pages, it’s a beauty.

the sonStill, the fine-looking book can’t hold a candle to the story contained inside, a multi-generational saga of a Texas oil-and-ranching family, the choices they make, and the consequences of those choices. At the story’s heart is Eli, known as “The General,” captured from his homestead by Comanches at the age of thirteen and unexpectedly thriving because of his ability to adapt. Eli’s chapters were my favorite, with their traditional-Western flavor and the sheer amount of action contained within. Eli’s life among the Comanche is absolutely riveting and researched down to the tiniest detail; I would not be surprised if Philipp Meyer could tell me how many eyelashes one of the Comanche’s horses had. An early scene, where Eli’s family waits through an afternoon and evening for the inevitable Comanche raid they know will come, feels like The Last Supper meets The Red Wedding. There’s enough dread and terror in those pages to make your blood run cold. And yet you will eventually come to care for the perpetrators of this violence, which is one of Meyer’s writerly gifts and also one of the statements he is making about the ever-shifting landscape of a place like the American West.

Philippauthorph-210author Philipp Meyer

Other chapters are narrated by Eli’s son, Peter, a reluctant land baron, and by his granddaughter Jeannie, who must adapt in her own unique way when her husband’s untimely death throws her to the head of the family business and fortune. I think Meyer writes terrific female characters (Lee, in American Rust, was likewise well-done, and some aspects of her character feel like an early sketch of Jeannie). As for Jeannie, she’s a feat: strong-willed, human, believable. She knows that, to keep her family’s empire and legacy alive, she must cut away all the parts of herself that are remotely soft and feminine (without, of course, becoming ‘butch,’ which also wouldn’t play well with her crowd). The cost of this success is her children, and though she can see at times what has gone wrong, she is also frustrated and perplexed by the chasm between herself and her family.This honesty is something I’ve always appreciated about Meyer’s writing: the cost of everything is laid out in no uncertain terms, and everyone is both running from something and paying for something. Fate and chance will pull their strings, but actions are stronger than either. By the time you reach the closing line, which is so well-done that it remains one of my favorite last-lines of all the books I can remember, this philosophy — and the story — will feel so marvelously complete that you won’t wish to change a thing.

 — The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe

Here’s a change of pace from the high testosterone of The Son, but don’t let the title (or cover) fool you: Rufi Thorpe’s first novel is not some frothy, girly beach book. It’s a serious, thoughtful, and wonderfully-written debut about the way we know (or don’t know) the people closest to us.

coronaMia and Lorrie Ann have grown up together in the small, gritty SoCal hamlet of Corona del Mar, and Mia has always envied Lorrie’s grace and kindness — a core goodness that seems to be the hallmark of Lorrie’s personality. Her family is, so far as Mia can tell, close-knit and loving. Why, then, does one tragedy after another befall Lorrie (we’re talking real tragedies: the death of her father, the birth of a severely disabled child) while Mia is able to skip through life scot-free?

Mia is troubled by the unfairness of these events, and strives to get to know Lorrie better even as Lorrie seems to be slipping through the cracks. Is it possible that even she, Lorrie’s best friend since childhood, knows very little of the person she holds most dear?

corona1author Rufi Thorpe

Thorpe’s writing is incredibly smart and tender without being flowery. By the time I was halfway into the novel I could tell this book was inspired, that this was the work of a novelist firing on all cylinders. Highly recommended for anyone on your list interested in philosophy, motherhood, and/or female friendship. Or just give a copy to the same person for whom you bought The Son, just to balance things out. Some of the same themes — choices and consequences, sacrificing oneself or sacrificing another — traverse both books, making them a fascinating pairing, like, you know, the best holiday wine and cheese, but for your brain.

Meyer, Philipp. The Son. HarperCollins, 2013.

Thorpe, Rufi. The Girls from Corona del Mar. Knopf, 2014.

“A Cloud Hanging Over Everyone”: My Dad Writes in About His C.O. Experience During Vietnam

On Veteran’s Day, I posted some snippets of poetry and literature with an eye toward veterans and the military (bits and pieces from Adrienne Rich, Yusef Komunyakaa, Katherine Mansfield and Walt Whitman). I also mentioned briefly my own family history as it pertains to the military– my grandpa’s WWII Army service in the Signal Corps in the South Pacific, my father’s equally brave draft deferment during Vietnam, my own husband’s Navy service and our life as a military family. It’s a military lineage that I’m sure many others share; I’m not, at least on this blog, interested so much in what was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about anyone’s decisions (everyone had their own reasons and was well-aware of the consequences) as I am the historical portrait this paints of three generations of Americans and their relationship to various phases of national life and the actions of our large military. WWII ushered in our nation’s role as international policemen, a role we were celebrated for in my grandpa’s time and are often reviled for today, and, interestingly, both my dad’s experience and my husband’s have been direct descendants of the major policy shift that occurred during WWII.

I grew up in a staunchly anti-war family, with parents who had both to some degree protested the Vietnam war, but I see my entrance into a military family now not as a reaction against them (I had no reason to react against them) but, weirdly, due in part to the fact that my husband is, in temperament, quite similar to my father — quiet, focused, kind and responsible. But when you marry a man with a 1960s sense of respect and thoughtfulness in the early 2000s, apparently, that kind of man is not some Aquarian revolutionary but rather the sort of careful kid who ends up going into the military. In short, my parents may have raised me too well. Joke’s on you, Mom and Dad (ha ha ha — love ya).

In any case, the mention of my dad’s service on my blog struck a chord with him; his draft deferment was a major turning point in his life and perhaps one of its major defining moments. He wrote me a response, simply laying out what had happened during that time and how it affected his life from then on out. Writing this out seems to have been rather cathartic for him but it’s also downright interesting, and a very American story, and part of the story of our family, so I asked his permission and am sharing it here. Also, turns out my dad is a pretty good writer! How about that.

Through this straightforward narrative I think my dad captures a lot of the turmoil and the national pain suffered during the Vietnam War, the way it crystallized young mens’ decisions, and the legacy that war has left us here half a century later. Thanks, Dad, for writing this.  — Andria

——

My Conscientious Objector Experience

by Robert Williams

The year after high school, one of my childhood friends, David Fielding, was killed by a sniper in Vietnam. Shortly after that, another friend of mine from Boy Scouts, Bobby Uyesaka, was killed in Vietnam. I remember David’s mom pleading on the phone with my mom to never let me join the military, then going to David’s funeral a couple weeks later. I went away to college the following year, in part to have a student deferment from the draft. I must say the draft, in time of war, really forces you to take a hard look at your values as well as what is going on in our government both politically and morally.

To be granted conscientious objector status, one had to apply for a hearing at the local draft board. The criteria was that you had to prove that you had a history of strong belief in non-violence, and that it was against your belief to kill another person, even in war, with the exception that you could do whatever you had to to protect your family or self if you were under attack on home soil. Your case was helped considerably if you were a long time attending member of a pacifist church like the Quaker Church.

In the late 60’s, the U.S. was being torn apart by the intense emotions surrounding our involvement in Vietnam. Every day on the news there were body counts of Americans killed, and many more Vietnamese. Why were we there? To keep Vietnam from becoming Communist, leading to “the domino effect” and collapse of the free world? The war eventually was looking to be one that could not be won despite more and more Americans being sent, more B-52 bombings, more agent orange defoliation, and eventually the loss of 56,000 American lives and far more Vietnamese lives.

Personally, I was conflicted. I truly felt that I could not kill another human who was not a direct and lethal threat to me or my family. I also felt that I did not want to die for a war that was a disastrous mistake. I questioned myself. Was I just chicken and ducking out of something that less privileged youth couldn’t avoid? I knew, though, that I was not going to be a part of this war, whatever it took. I had even seen a sympathetic orthodontist who said he could put braces on my teeth, which was enough to avoid the draft. In the meantime, as graduation from college approached, I was ordered to report for my physical, in preparation for being conscripted.

About this time, I was granted a hearing before my draft board in Santa Barbara to see if I could be classified conscientious objector. You were allowed to bring a witness to testify as to your character and to substantiate your claims. I chose to bring my father. Dad was a WWII vet, a member of the American Legion, and one to run the flag up every morning. (This is a detail I remember vividly because when, throughout our childhoods, we visited my Grandpa Williams, we grandkids were always treated to some special time with my grandpa when we’d go outside in the evening and help him pull the flag down by its rope and pulley. He’d unclip it from the rope. Then we’d hold one end, he’d hold the other, and he’d walk toward you while folding the flag into a perfect triangle and tuck it inside a wooden box until the next morning, when he would take it out and raise it up again. To my knowledge, he did this every day of his life, and I can still remember the feel of walking out to the front of the house with him, hearing the music playing on his garage radio, seeing whatever piano he was working on in the garage [he was a piano tuner/repairman, having earned his degree on the GI bill, and the license plate on his red truck read, “ITUN4U”]; he was quiet and pleasant as we’d pull the flag down, smiling his dimpled smile [he was tall, had a head of handsome silver hair and looked a bit like Andrew Jackson].– Your Nostalgic Editor)

[My dad] told me that whatever I did, “Do not leave the country!”

In the previous year I had read a book by William J. Lederer titled Our Own Worst Enemy published in 1968. Lederer was a 1936 US Naval Academy graduate, and a junior officer on a river gunboat that patrolled the Yangtze River. This book was a first hand account of the incredible corruption by the higher ups, and the senseless risk to young American lives ordered to go on patrol. I told my Dad that I thought he should read it, and to my amazement, he did. Even he was now questioning what we were doing in Vietnam.

Back to the draft board. I went before the members of the board, and very nervously explained why I was a conscientious objector. I had a love for all living things, I was a patriotic Boy Scout, I went to the Methodist Church with my family through childhood, and I could not take part in the military that killed people on foreign soil who were not a threat to Americans. I told the board that I had brought a witness to testify, but they refused to hear him. One of the high points of my relationship with my father is when he came to the draft board with me, prepared to testify to my character. As predicted by my draft counselor (a Cal Poly college professor), I was immediately sent my 1-A notice, the classification for imminent draft. I had one last hope, though, and it was an appeal to explain why I thought my draft board was in error. Appeals had about a one in fifty chance of overruling the draft board. My appeal was successful, mainly on the grounds that the board had refused to hear my witness.

Now that I was 1-Y, conscientious objector status, I would be doing a two-year service for my country. I could wait for the draft board to find me a job, or find one myself that met its criteria. The jobs could be ones such as folding towels at the YMCA [Dad! Jesus! Why did you not choose folding towels at the YMCA??! — Editor], doing custodial care at institutions, conservation work, or working with the very old or young. I took matters into my own hands and did two years work as a Psych Tech at the nearby Atascadero State Hospital. Because the hospital had a need for new personnel (not many liked the working conditions), I was allowed to serve there. Work at the hospital was no picnic, as it housed a fifty-fifty mix of the criminally insane and mentally disordered sex offenders. The setting was maximum security prison, but unlike prisons, there were no armed guards, weapons, or mace. Ironically, I found myself in a violent setting having to do take-downs, and enduring Sunday punches out of the blue. My ward charge, a Vietnam vet, once told me, “Don’t let anybody tell you that you didn’t serve your country.” Jerry Randall, I will always appreciate you for that comment. I survived my two years of CO duty, and the draft was ended the same year in 1973.

The whole war was a cloud hanging over everyone, especially those of draft age. So many lives were interrupted and altered by the events of the time. For me, I didn’t go to work as a microbiologist after graduation; instead, I began a career in teaching. I came through just fine. While a psych tech at Atascadero, I used part of my time doing adult ed with the patients, and enjoyed this role. This eventually led to working with adolescents at Napa State Hospital, getting degrees in teaching, and going to the public school system for 22 years at Napa High.

atascaderomy dad is second from the right, standing row. Not visible here: the blazing red of his hair, a legacy shared by my two daughters.

I attached a picture of my Atascadero State Hospital psych tech trainee class. Can you pick out which five of us were conscientious objectors?

Love,
Dad

Book Review: Picnic in a Minefield by Francesca Recchia

Reviewed by Suzanne Schroeder

In Kurdistan, things are not always as they seem.

Travel writing has an old and sometimes great legacy. The best travel writing has a simple outcome: it encourages the reader to become curious about the place it portrays. Whether the reader takes an atlas off the shelf or Googles the places described, the author has accomplished what he or she set out to do.

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Francesca Recchia’s memoir Picnic in a Minefield more than succeeds in this regard. It’s a brief book, only 187 pages, but what a narrative is found in that space! Recchia, an Italian academic, left Europe disillusioned with a university system that she thought more concerned with political connections than with promoting intellectual development. An ad on an academic e-list led Recchia to the recently founded University of Kurdistan Hawler (UKH) as a lecturer in social sciences.

One of the new university’s goals was to practice progressive exchange in the classroom, to promote critical thinking, and to move away from the memorization system that characterized earlier educational practices. At her new job, Recchia found that she had significant freedom to engage her students in what she calls “the philosophy of small steps.”

Francesca-Recchia-150author Francesca Recchia, from http://www.foxheadbooks.com

Prior to reading this book, my knowledge of Kurdistan was basically non-existent. My interests tend to concentrate more on Afghanistan, and that’s reflected in my reading choices. So when I started Picnic in a Minefield, I was something of a blank slate. I knew the Kurds had suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein’s regime, and, more recently, that the Kurdish peshmerga were fighting the Islamic State. That was about the extent of my knowledge. But shortly after reading Recchia’s description of a visit to one of Saddam Hussein’s now-abandoned summer palaces, I went online to compare pictures of it to her account. To my delight, her prose completely captured the place.

I can’t stress enough how quickly Recchia is able to create a place for the reader to enter, and to engage with her experiences in Erbil, the city where the university was located. The author’s academic discipline is urban sociology, so she’s well-equipped to notice the small details of social interaction.

One of the strongest and most memorable scenes for me was the chapter “Of Women, Men, and Love.” Recchia writes about her encounters with Kurdish women (and men), capturing the intense suffering their society has experienced but also their immense resilience. Recchia took her male and female students on a field trip to a traditional chaikhana, or tea house, where women are not forbidden but simply do not enter out of custom. She conducts a class here with her students, sitting at a table in the window, drinking tea and discussing ideas. It’s a beautiful anecdote about how education can challenge assumptions without some operating sense of “cultural superiority.”

Another charming encounter is a day trip Recchia takes with the young women in her class. They prepare a traditional meal, have fun, dress up in the Kurdish-style outfit that her students have given to her as a gift, and take pictures that the girls carefully choreograph. It’s a nice example of young women in a conflict-ridden region being able to enjoy both youth and “normalcy.”

Of all the stories in the book, the one that captured my attention most was short and simple: Recchia meets for tea with a fellow academic. It’s a perfectly ordinary occurrence, but this is, after all, Iraqi Kurdistan following a war. The scholar she meets with is described as “fascinating” with the “mild manners of a gentleman from another era.” But he and his brother are “both known to be actively involved in militant Islamic politics.” Recchia and the professor spend time discussing Derrida, Foucault, and Structuralism. I won’t say how their meeting concludes, but Recchia’s account is a beautiful, brief description of the contradictions of life, heightened by the vagaries of time and place.

If I could make a required reading list for any person venturing off to work in an NGO, Picnic in a Minefield would be at the top of it. Recchia’s observations of NGO work and workers are some of the most intelligent and honest I’ve ever read. She challenges the “see no, hear no, speak no evil” paradigm that exists around the areas of humanitarian aid and development. There are appalling examples of ignorance in the field, but no one wants to come forth to condemn those who “do good.” Recchia has enough established credibility — through her experience as a university professor and as a traveler who strives to understand the country she’s found herself in. She offers her criticism with intelligence and sincerity. With her background, she has the higher ground when describing the utter foolishness that affects not just young, inexperienced aid workers, but the larger structure in which they operate.

Recently, NBC correspondent Richard Engel profiled a female peshmerga commander in a report from the town of Kobane. I would encourage those whose curiosity is piqued by such a report to dig further and read Picnic in a Minefield. Narratives are not formed in isolation; there are certainly brave women fighting with the peshmerga, yes, but they didn’t appear as a corrective to the Islamist State in the past six months.

It is no fault of the author’s that it was difficult to find a satisfying conclusion to this book — the return of conflict to the region prevents this. Still Recchia does find a way to end her story by quoting the second woman to join the peshmerga in 1979. The now-elderly woman’s closing thoughts on the cause for which she fought show that beyond ideologies and politics, some motivations are universal.

Recchia, Francesca. Picnic in a Minefield. Foxhead Books, August 2014.

—–

Suzanne Schroeder is an independent analyst with a focus on Afghanistan and insurgencies. Her background is in humanities, with degrees in Film and Art History from Smith College and the University of Rochester. She left humanities, changed direction, and now concentrates exclusively on issues related to the Afghan war. She is currently working on a project on school poisonings in Afghanistan. She will also be paticipating in an upcoming interview with the documentary photographer Louie Palu for the Sources and Methods podcast, http://www.sourcesandmethods.com/.