Here, four friends of the Military Spouse Book Review offer their recommended reads for the New Year. For birthdays, anniversaries, holidays all year long — consider giving a great book!
In a special mini-feature, our first two contributors, Jehanne Dubrow and Alison Buckholtz, provide suggestions that may be of particular interest to Jewish readers.
The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish:
This gorgeous novel reminds me-in all the best ways–of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Moving back and forth between the small Jewish community that lived in London in the 1600s and two historians of Jewish history in the modern era, the book explores what it means for women to hunger for knowledge and education. I loved this book so much that I was sad when I finished it.
Survivor Cafe by Elizabeth Rosner:
I trained in Holocaust studies, so I’m always interested in finding new books of creative nonfiction that treat the Shoah in startling, rigorous ways. Elizabeth Rosner’s Survivor Cafe certainly does that. Displaying ample knowledge of the scholarly and literary field into which she’s entering, Rosner’s book adds to the canon, exploring intergenerational transmission of trauma and the challenges that language must face in struggling to represent horror.
Eternal Life by Dara Horn:
I’ve always been a great admirer of Dara Horn’s work and highly recommend her earlier novels, including In the Image and The World to Come. Her latest book follows a pair of doomed lovers from the early moments of Jewish history to our current era, the two of them forced to die in fire and be reborn, over and over again. Beautifully written, intellectually engaging, both speculative and rooted in the real world, Eternal Life is a fascinating, bittersweet novel about the possibility of love after so much grief.
Jehanne Dubrow is the author of seven poetry collections, including, most recently, American Samizdat, and a work of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes. Her eighth collection of poems, Simple Machines, won the Richard Wilbur poetry award and will be published by the University of Evansville Press. Her work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Pleiades, and The Southern Review. She is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas. You can find out more about her work at jehannedubrow.com.
Alison Buckholtz Recommends:
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
The memoir Inheritance opens as the 54-year-old Shapiro, a celebrated writer of multiple memoirs whose Jewish identity is central to her work, receives DNA test results that are dramatically inconsistent with her understanding of who she is. The new facts of her life are so impossible to believe that she pursues new tests with several additional companies, and the quest becomes her only anchor in unfamiliar territory.
Shapiro is finally forced to understand that her genetic history speaks its own “inconvenient truth.” This conflicts fundamentally with a sense of self shaped by generations of relatives who were Orthodox Jews — many of whom held prominent roles in the community and were influential authorities in their time. After her genetics reveal a different story, she’s determined to solve the puzzle of how she came to be. That’s when Inheritance becomes a thriller, suspenseful and surprising as the best mystery.
As Shapiro seeks to redefine family in a way that’s relevant to our lives today, some of her lifelong relationships unravel—but the new connections strengthen her hold on future that’s honest and true.
Milkman by Anna Burns
This award-winning novel has racked up all the glittering prizes (including the 2018 Man Booker Prize) for the best reason possible: It’s original, groundbreaking, and gloriously eccentric. It also happens to be fun to read.
“Middle sister,” the otherwise unnamed narrator of Milkman, is living in a society where sunsets are subversive and facial expressions are meant to be “temporary, provisional” as a means of protecting oneself. Burns is offering not a portrait of a dystopian future but of a very real past—Belfast and the paramilitary streets of Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. In its focus on one young woman’s life—a life no one in her orbit believes is notable, much less extraordinary—Burns captures the stifling atmosphere that is an inevitable result of political extremes and suffocating social norms. As middle sister strains to escape those bonds, a heroine emerges who surprises no one more than she herself.
All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen
Spoiler alert: this memoir, a moving look inside a world rarely seen by outsiders, is heartbreaking. The author was raised as a Hasidic Jew in one of the most closed-off communities in America, but his curiosity about what’s outside those strict boundaries compels him to leave behind everything familiar to him—including his wife and children.
Deen is an insider-turned-outsider, which to me is an irresistibly appealing quality in a narrator. He’s sensitive and thoughtful when sharing details about his community and its freighted, tragic history; there’s no bitterness, and never an attempt to elevate himself at the expense of others. He’s just as fair when delving into his own past, which includes a father with a devastating mental illness and cruel teachers at a religious boarding school. For Deen, nothing is stable except his own sense of not belonging anywhere.
But then he goes to the library—where he discovers books that hint that his sense of displacement isn’t a terminal condition. The Internet then introduces even more possibilities for a future that’s light-years from anything he’d ever imagined. Shedding layer after layer of his identity as a Hasid is agonizing, especially when he loses his children to a pitiless custody arrangement. Deen’s tale is one of the most memorable stories in an ever-growing genre of books and documentaries by ex-religious Jews, and one that will haunt you for a long time.
Cinderella Liberator by Rebecca Solnit
“Once upon a time there was a girl named Cinderella.” So far, so familiar, right?
But this is not your mother’s Cinderella, or even your own. This Cinderella, just as worn down by work and injustice as the original, one day utters a request for help. She doesn’t know who she’s asking, and she has no reason to think her supplications will change anything, but a fairy godmother appears: With a wave of her magic wand she transforms lizards into footwomen, mice into horses, and Cinderella’s patched, worn work dress into a beautiful ballgown. “It was made out of silk and it sounded like water when she moved, and it looked like the sky at the end of the day, blue and then deeper blue and then so blue it was almost black, with pale clouds drifting by,” Solnit writes. “She looked like a girl who was evening, and an evening that had become a girl.”
At the ball, Cinderella meets Prince Nevermind. She leaves a slipper behind, of course, and when Prince Nevermind later knocks at her door, she makes herself known. Each, they discover, needs a friend. In an ending reminiscent of the Atalanta tale from “Free to Be You and Me,” the iconic 1970s album of stories about gender equality, Prince Nevermind and Cinderella ask each other what their dreams are, serving as each other’s rescuers by nourishing their mutual hopes and supporting their ambitions. As they help each other become their truest selves, their generosity touches others. Even the cruel stepsisters come to see that “There is always enough for everyone, if you share it properly…There is enough food, enough love, enough homes, enough time, enough crayons, enough people to be friends with each other.”
It’s a touching twist on a fairy tale that’s ready to be updated. No one is better suited to the task than Solnit, whose books and essays on feminism and current events have made her one of the most indispensable writers of our confusing era. Now, she has gifted readers with Cinderella for our time—or, more specifically, a time we should strive to be worthy of.
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War(Tarcher/Penguin). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications. As an advocate for military families, she has appeared on NBC Nightly News, NPR, and in national news stories. Her L.A. Times op-ed, “An ‘It Gets Better’ for the troops,” was the inspiration for a national public service announcement campaign about military suicides.
She received an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Virginia and a B.A. in English Literature (Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She also completed a year of undergraduate study at Trinity College, Dublin. In 1997-98 she lived in Jerusalem, Israel as a recipient of a Dorot Foundation postgraduate fellowship. She now lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband, an active-duty Naval officer, and two children.
Well, friends, 2019 was the year I became a crazy person (or perhaps a crazier person?). This fiction writer, who spent a lifetime cultivating a cool indifference to military history, suddenly became rabidly obsessed with the life and times of General George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Bighorn. I joined niche Facebook pages (full of lovely, brilliant people) and paid dues to associations, covered the walls of my office with photographs and maps, and have bought, at my last count, more than one hundred and twenty-five books that deal with the particulars and participants of the battle.
And the reason I became so disturbingly hooked?
Because of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, the feisty, charming, smart, and tiny spouse to the above mentioned general. I happened upon the Wikipedia account of her devoted life, went down every conspiracy theory rabbit hole surrounding the hotly contested accounts of what happened at the Little Big Horn, and am currently working on a novel about her life and times.
Libbie followed her husband from the outskirts of Civil War battlefields to icy prairies, proud to be one of the only spouses allowed to always travel with the men. From drafty, inhospitable, barren forts, she watched grasshoppers eat every green thing for miles, learned to put gun shot in the hem of her skirts to keep them from whipping around her head, and wrapped herself in fabric, head to toe, to keep out vicious mosquitoes during hot summers. She met Presidents, Russian counts, Native American chiefs, was shot at, and helped save drowning soldiers during an apocalyptic Kansas flood. At a time when the Army gave no allowances for spouses and food was scarce, she found a way to scrape together and create festive dinner parties, plays, musicals, and military balls.
When her husband died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, Libbie was determined to defend his reputation and did so until her own death, nearly fifty-seven years later (she never remarried). Part of that effort included writing three memoirs (THREE MEMOIRS!!!), the first of which, Boots and Saddles, is my favorite.
And for the flipside of Libbie’s idyllic memoirs of life with her fun-loving husband, I read Monahsetah: The Life of a Custer Captive by Peter Harrison, edited by Gary Leonard.
In November, 1868, George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Calvary attacked a village of Southern Cheyenne on the banks of the Washita River in Oklahoma. They took fifty-eight women and children captive in an effort to leverage other Cheyenne and Native American tribes to move into the reservations. Harrison and Leonard present a very compelling case that Custer chose one of the captives, Monahsetah, the daughter of a chief killed during the Washita Battle, as his lover. Monahsetah stayed with the Seventh Cavalry for the duration of the time these Cheyenne were held by the U.S Army (from November 1868 until April 1869), accompanying them for a long winter scout to Texas, and helping negotiate the freedom of two white female hostages from a Cheyenne village. She is mentioned and noted for her beauty in both Custer’s own memoir, My Life on the Plains, as well as in Libbie’s books (though any intimate relationship with Custer is not, of course). But more than allotting Monahsetah a mere footnote in white American history, she is developed as a bold and capable woman, offering insight into the day to day life of the Southern Cheyenne before their roaming ways were taken from them.
Lastly, Custer’s Trials by T.J. Stiles is the perfect bridge to the books above. The Pulitzer prize winning author’s sweeping biography not only reveals Custer to be heroic, contradictory and deeply flawed, but also illuminates how fraught and at odds the United States of America were during the bloody years between the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Covering our government’s many failures during Reconstruction and our shifting policies and ‘treaties’ with Native Americans, lit through with gorgeous writing and anecdotes that breathe, I felt like I relearned a vital but often overlooked period of my country’s history.
Siobhan Fallon is the author of You Know When the Men Are Gone and The Confusion of Languages. For more on her current Custer craziness, please follow her on Facebook and Instagram, or check out her website at www.siobhanfallon.com.
As a lover of all things Lewis, when I saw this book I knew I had to read it, and it did not disappoint. Patti Callahan has written a well-plotted, carefully researched novel about the life, loves, writing, and faith of Joy Davidman, who influenced and was likely a co-writer on at least one book with her husband C.S. Lewis. Admirers of C.S. Lewis will find little to disappoint here, unless they don’t like to hear how much he was influenced by the woman who became his wife. As for me, I love Joy even more for knowing more about her spirit, strength, and intellect, as well as her humility. I read her book, Smoke on the Mountain, some years ago. This book made me want to read it again, as well as her other work, including her sonnets, which appear throughout the book. Brava to Patti Callahan Henry for bringing Joy Davidman Lewis to life and to light.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
Is the narrator of The Clockmaker’s Daughter a murderer, or was she a victim? This is a ghostly tale, perfect for evenings by the fire, will keep you guessing until the end. I listened to the audio version, and narrator Joanne Froggat (of Downton Abbey fame) gets every voice and nuance just right. Author Kate Morton weaves together so many wonderful elements: history, mysteries of all kinds, complex characters (many to love, a few to hate for all the right reasons) an intricate plot, and lovely language. This is a well-told and compelling tale with a satisfying, bittersweet ending.
I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott
I enjoyed every line of this book. In this collection of essays, Mary Laura Philpott looks deeply at her life, finding meaning in small things without murdering to dissect. I was captivated by everything from her reaction to the true story of The Little Mermaid (Yes! What kind of insanity is that for little girls?) to “EVERYTHING HERE IS KEEPING ME FROM BUNGEE JUMPING.” Her writing is deceptively simple, clear, and resonant. It’s effortless reading, which means much effort went into the writing. None of this description does justice to this wonderful book, but maybe it will make MSBR readers curious enough to want to read it.
And a few others I really enjoyed this year:
Swing Time by Zadie Smith, http://www.zadiesmith.com/books. (Fiction) A story about cultures, identity, and growing up before it’s too late.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean, http://www.susanorlean.com/author/books/the-library-book/ (Nonfiction/history) Did you know about the fire that destroyed the Los Angeles City Library? Fascinating history of the library and how it rose from the ashes.
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, https://www.lyndamullalyhunt.com/books/fish-in-a-tree/ (Tween/Fiction) A girl in a military family struggles in her new school and learns how to trust friends and teachers who want to help.
Terri Barnes is a military spouse and mother of three grown children. She is the author of Spouse Calls: Messages from a Military Life and senior editor at Elva Resa Publishing, which specializes in books for military families. Read more about Terri’s work and writing at https://www.terribarnesauthor.com/.