‘Your Name’

In ‘Your Name’ — Japan’s top film of 2016 — a teenage girl named Mitsuha lives in a remote, traditional fictional town called Itomori. Itomori is beautiful — mountains rimming a huge lake — but Mitsuha longs to get out.

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Mitsuha is a sweet girl, not naturally rebellious, but the opposing roles of her family members’ public service have begun to stress her in different ways. Her estranged father’s mayoral candidacy makes her feel exposed, while her grandmother’s traditional religious beliefs bring mockery upon Mistuha by some of her mean, “cool-girl” classmates — particularly when they spy her helping to prepare the ‘kuchikami no sake,’ traditional sake made from the spit of a virgin, for her grandmother’s offering to the gods.

In frustration, Mitsuha runs to the bottom of the shrine’s stairs and screams, “I wish I were a handsome, teenage boy in Tokyo!” The wind whips her words away and her cheeks redden, anime-style, with a vertical scribble of blush. But her wish will come true, with a twist: she begins a regular, involuntary swapping-of-bodies with a teenage boy named Taki. Suddenly she finds herself waking up in Taki’s bed, riding the Tokyo subway, navigating by cell phone.

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And Taki — who does not seem to necessarily have had any prior wish to inhabit the body of a rural adolescent girl, but is remarkably game about it once he figures out what’s going on — finds himself, for a day at a time, living in Mitsuha’s body, wowing her PE basketball team with sudden major skills, walking to school along rural roads, and every morning (in an understandable sight gag for what’s, at its most basic level, a YA film) groping his newfound breasts.

It sounds a little comical, and as a plotline would not necessarily have lured me in on its own merits, except that writer-director Makoto Shinkai makes some decisions that elevate the film well above typical rom-com or animated-film fare. The second half of the movie opens into a much larger rumination on human connection, empathy, and the delicate interplay of individual and collective memory. “I feel like I’ve been living in a dream about someone else’s life,” Mitsuha thinks — and what is reading a novel, or watching a film, if not that?

On an immediate level, the plot hinges on a not-unheard-of cinematic question: What if you could go back in time and prevent a tragedy, save the life of someone you love?

On a larger level: What connects us? How do things that have happened to other people — tragedies so large they reach the level of legend, that are buried deep in cultural memory — often feel so resonant to us, so moving and so huge? Is that empathy? Is it something else?

My personal entry point into the film: I’ve had a soft spot for Japan ever since taking place in an exchange program there in the 8th grade. A dozen other 8th graders and I got to travel to the town of Otofuke (O-TOFE-kay — not Oto-fookey as our well-meaning principal helplessly called it, no matter how many times we corrected him) on Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, after having hosted Japanese students in our northern California hometown earlier that year. Otofuke toed the line between suburban and rural, with modest houses, potato fields, mountains, schools. We twelve bumbling, slightly pimply and awkward American pre-adolescents were welcomed with an openness and generosity that was humbling. We even had to put on kimonos (at least, the girls did) and deliver speeches to the mayor, written out phonetically, in Japanese. Then we had a talent show that ended with everyone singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

In feel, if not quite in visual splendor, Otofuke came to mind again as I watched Mitsuha tend to her chores and walk to school with her little sister. She calls Itomori “the sticks,” and it must feel that way to her, but it’s based on Japan’s breathtaking Lake Suwa and the artwork for it is stunning: watercolor vistas of mountains, layered clouds, shimmering lake and fields which provide a respite from what, in other scenes, feels to me like an occasional stylistic over-cropping.

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Likewise, the film’s cityscapes of Tokyo are gorgeous, featuring many real locations such as the Suga Shrine and Shinanomachi Station, and are rendered in exquisite detail — a brisk contrast to the sleepy natural/spiritual world of Itomori.

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The underpass in Shinjuku, Tokyo, as shown in ‘Your Name’

Luminous and layered, the artwork actually reminds me a lot of the images from anime-inflected Big Hero Six, for which a whole computer was dedicated just to the development of the world of Sanfransokyo. Interestingly, the two films also share a concern with time-space travel and lost loved ones.

In any case, ‘Your Name’ is worth watching for the visuals alone. I’m no expert on anime, and perhaps for that reason I find some of its conventions a little distracting (the occasional gaspy breathiness and penchant for overreaction, the enlarged quivering eyeballs and slightly fetishistic schoolgirl thing). But, Taki and Mitsuha are so endearingly rendered that I could easily move past what must be an American English-major’s desire for gritty realism and enjoy their characters in all their fumbling, well-meaning, adolescent confusion and joy.

The score is entirely written and performed by the Japanese band, the Radwimps, a name that makes me chuckle every single time I think of it.

The Radwimps have plenty of talent (I listened to them for a whole afternoon, and you can, too – within minutes you will easily forget that you cannot understand a thing they are saying, unless of course you speak Japanese) and they match the emotional tenor of the film perfectly.

At first shocked by the body-swapping that’s taking place, Mitsuha and Taki soon move into attitudes of genuine friendliness and curiosity. They write notes for one another to find when they wake up. They coach one another through life decisions — particularly Mitsuha, who finds that, to Taki’s slight chagrin, his female crush at work is suddenly charmed by his new “feminine side.” Mitsuha — a little delighted by her unexpected power — uses this to arrange a date for Taki, who struggles to live up to the femininity he’s accidentally acquired. The joke is funny but meaningful, too.

Director Shinkai links all that is natural and gentle with the feminine — as with Mitsuha’s all-female family (her sister and grandmother), tending to the shrine and to nature, whereas Taki lives in the bustling, sharp, angular city — in an essentialist way that might make some hard-core feminists raise an eyebrow. But the generous nature of her and Taki’s gender exchange, the primacy of Mitsuha’s point of view to the story and her strength which equals Taki’s, gradually make that less pressing. Shinkai, anyway, seems much more concerned with the idea of union and connection. He uses thread as a visual nudge toward this idea throughout the film. Mitsuha, her sister, and grandmother weave at a traditional loom, and the red ribbon she wears in her hair (with its parallel in Taki’s red bracelet) is prominent in scene after scene. Mitsuha ties it into her hair every morning; when Taki’s inhabiting her body it serves as a little sight gag, always tied haphazardly and falling to the side. In more urgent moments of the film it takes on a much larger and even dynamic presence, sweeping around them and connecting them.

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You can only imagine my delight, poking around on Google Translate, upon learning that the Japanese word ito means “thread or string,” while mori, of course, is self-explanatory.

Which leads us to the serious part of the film: During Itomori’s annual star festival, the comet the townspeople gather to watch will split, and one part of it will fall upon the town, destroying it and leaving a vast crater in its wake.

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Taki realizes that he has been living just ahead of Mitsuha in the future — three years, in fact — and that he has a chance to save her, if only he can go back, find her, and convince her.

This is where the film lifts into something larger than a teenage love story and into a commentary on tragedy, humanity, and cultural memory. You can’t help but feel the horrible inevitability as the comet splits and dives toward Itomori, the broken thread. The visuals from the star festival are breathtaking, the Radwimps are on point, singing their hearts out; and the gentleness with which the message is delivered is so touching and genuinely humane that [can a reviewer admit this without losing face?] I was a little choked up.

Shinkai’s brilliance lies in the fact that his references have multiple touchpoints. While the moment of the comet’s strike clearly suggests the hit of a bomb — a few brief seconds, but very powerful ones, of billowing clouds and irrecoverable, monumental loss — there are other, more recent references that a Japanese audience might feel very keenly, such as the 2011 tsunami, in which nearly 16,000 people died.

In what seems a very Japanese fashion, there is no overt finger-pointing from Shinkai. We all know that, at least when it comes to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what took place was no natural disaster but its polar, man-made opposite. Shinkai is perhaps more gentle and more generous, here, than he needs to be. But his focus on the human side of loss is undeniably moving.


Here Be Dragons: On Dual Parenting After a Life of Military Separations

Reviewed by Amy Bermudez (Army)

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Here Be Dragons: A Parent’s Guide to Rediscovering Purpose, Adventure, and the Unfathomable Joy of the Journey bills itself as a parent’s guide, but I think it’s so much more universal than that. Annmarie and Ken narrate alternating chapters as they recount their journey from college co-eds to a family of five in the span of 17 years with 11 (yes, 11!) moves in the middle of it all.

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Author Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh and daughters

Annmarie worked as a teacher with challenging students and her husband was in the Navy. They both eventually moved on from those careers, but you can tell that they answered a calling to forge a difficult path. I really loved that! Hat tip to people who choose the tough road. They shared their wisdom through all of life’s changes and challenges, and that’s what I was needing to hear. (Not to mention, the writing is beautifully lyrical; you don’t need to be going through a tough time to appreciate it.)

Part of me wished that they shared more about their marital struggles. That’s probably just because I can’t relate to parenting struggles, and for all I know, there weren’t that many marital issues. Besides, it would be particularly tricky water to navigate if you are writing a book with and still married to a person and you are re-telling fights from years past. I admire the way the Harbaughs approach life and writing. I kind of want to be Annmarie. (In a Freaky Friday way, not in a creepy Silence of the Lambs way.)

The book resonated with me so much that I ended up passing it along to a dear friend who is not only a fellow Army wife but also a new mommy. I don’t know that she’s gotten the chance to read it much (see that whole new mom thing), but I hope that as she also navigates life’s challenges, that she appreciates the humor, wisdom, and wit as much as I did in Here Be Dragons.

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The Harbaughs

You will love this book if you are in the military or a family member, if you live a topsy-turvy life, or if you appreciate a well-told tale.

My favorite part was everything about the family dog! The book is so not about the dog, but I read that last chapter with tears in my eyes, nodding my head, and petting ol’ Geronimo. (My old dog turns 11 in July. 11!) I also really enjoyed the section about the family’s struggle after their second child was born. I could relate to the haze that can temporarily settle over your life and cloud out everything else.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5! This was a can’t-put-down book for me, and I can always use more of those on my nightstand.

Buy Here Be Dragons

About the Authors:

From the book’s Amazon page:

harbaugh1Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh is a mother, teacher, and dog lover — and an above-average cook and below-average housekeeper. Both a dancing queen and a brick house, she is an avid reader of cooking websites, fitness magazines, and articles that promise she’ll lose weight fast. Annmarie earned her National Board Certification in English Language Arts, holds a masters in urban education from Yale University, and has been a beloved teacher at half a dozen high schools from Florida to Seattle.  Annmarie’s writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, New York Observer, and on National Public Radio.

harbaugh2Ken Harbaugh has flown reconnaissance missions off North Korea, researched war crimes in Afghanistan, and deployed in response to natural disasters both at home and abroad. He co-founded ‘The Mission Continues,’ an award-winning nonprofit that empowers military veterans to find purpose through community impact. He is currently the president of Team Rubicon Global, an organization that provides veterans around the world with opportunities to serve others in the wake of natural disasters. Ken’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Yale Journal of International Law. He is not as funny as his wife.

Annmarie and Ken live in Avon, Ohio with their three children and an assortment of dying houseplants. Follow them at DadvMom.com, an online community dedicated to the proposition that couples can love one another and their children at the same time. Mostly.”

About the reviewer: 

 

moiAmy Bermudez is a writer, educator, and Army wife currently stationed in Tennessee. Some of her published articles include “Our Military Family, Our Reality” on The Huffington Post and “Moving is Not Following” on Spouse Buzz. She has reviewed Alice Bliss , Here, Bullet, and We Are Called to Rise for the Mil Spouse Book Review.

 

a season without thoughts

Sometimes the balance between everyday life and trying to make art, or write, feels unequally stacked. A few months alone with children can feel like you are being told: “It’s a few months before you can have thoughts again. It’s a few months before you are going to make anything worthwhile. Sorry. Just live in the moment for a while, even though that’s not in your nature.”
 
Living solely in the moment can be difficult when there are things you want to make. There’s a world of words and ideas you want to participate in, but they feel out of reach. Sometimes you chide yourself: “You big baby, it’s not like you work in the diamond mines! Suck it up.”
 
I’m behind on a novel deadline. I’m behind on a deadline for a writer I mentor, though he’s been incredibly cool and understanding about it. Like everybody else on earth, I’m behind on five million personal goals (books I want to write about, things I want to read, laundry I need to freaking do).
 
But I kept all children and pets alive and healthy today. I took care of a friend’s child and got her and my own kids to school. They ate reasonably healthy lunches. They did their homework. They played outside and didn’t do a grotesque amount of screen time (only borderline grotesque). They had showers and baths. Susanna shouted, “I found you a SURPRISE!!!” and brought me a penny. I threw the ball for our dog so she wouldn’t go bonkers. And I did sneak in a tiny bit of poetry reading while the kids played, Elyse Fenton‘s ‘Sweet Insurgent’ and Lisa Houlihan Stice‘s ‘Uniform,’ and they were absolutely the perfect, perfect things for me to be reading today. I am grateful for people who have also weathered stretches where it was very hard for them to make art, either because of work or school or wartime or parenthood or illness or who knows what, and I am holding their example close today.

The Gumshoe Wore Combat Boots: M.L. Doyle’s Sergeant Harper Mysteries

Once I started in on author M.L. Doyle’s “Master Sergeant Harper” mystery series, featuring career soldier Lauren Harper, they were so much fun that I devoured one after another, thanks to my insidious enabler, Amazon Prime. Set in far-flung locales like Bosnia, Honduras, England, and Germany, each novel or companion short presents Master Sgt. Lauren Harper with a mystery she must solve, with risk to both her own life and to the lives of other people caught up in the greed and violence of those in positions of either local, or institutional, power.

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author M.L. Doyle

 

Writing mysteries set among the day-to-day operations of mostly non-combat, deployed soldiers is a rather brilliant premise by Doyle; when you have a number of often-very-young people interacting with one another (and with a local population) away from home, someone is going to get in trouble. If they are lucky, the trouble is only absurd or inconvenient for everyone involved, but if they aren’t so lucky, there could be a real mess.

That’s where Master Sgt. Lauren Harper comes in. Her career in public affairs has given her a nose for situational nuance and interpretation, as well as a very good camera — all of which come in handy.

The first Master Sergeant Harper mystery, The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, opens in Bosnia in the mid-nineties, where Harper is part of a NATO peacekeeping mission. The “peace” ends within the first few pages, however, when Harper returns to her trailer after a day in the field and finds one of her soldiers, Specialist Virginia Delray, brutally murdered. Delray and Harper weren’t exactly friends, but Harper carries some guilt about not having helped “her soldier” more. As Harper herself becomes a suspect and the murder investigation seems hopelessly misled, she takes a larger role, which hinges on some of the photos on Delray’s camera — luckily, preserved by Delray’s grieving but proactive boyfriend. The photos help uncover a much deeper ring of violence and exploitation, a circle of trouble that nearly costs Harper her life.

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But it also brings her closer to an unlikely friend and eventual lover, the charmingly rough-around-the-edges Sergeant Major Harry Fogg, a British bachelor-with-a-heart-of-gold. He appreciates Lauren from the get-go; she is good at many things and one of them is preparing tea, and you can almost hear her smiling to herself beneath his admiring gaze: “I pulled out several selections of teas and watched Fogg’s reaction as he realized I wasn’t messing around.”

This relationship with Harry helps spare Lauren the pain of her earlier, ill-fated crush on a superior, Colonel Neil McCallen. McCallen reveals himself to be a bit of a spineless ninny and a narcissist, but something about his flaming red hair and facial scar appeal to Lauren, who has used excuses over the past couple of years to avoid being alone with him — mainly out of a general sense of protocol, and not exactly guilt over poor “Michelle and the boys” who are waiting at home, with Michelle due in another three months. As with many of the other backstage issues raised in Doyle’s books, deployment infidelity–either real or imagined– and the somewhat prickly dichotomy between the military spouse waiting faithfully at home, and the single female soldier spending months or a year in the field with a man who may consider himself a temporary bachelor, is rendered with a light touch but serious reverberations, and it’s just one of the many things Doyle does well.

Thank God, anyway, for Harry Fogg, who plays a major role in getting Lauren out of the scrape she’s in near the end of the novel (though the bravest course of action is taken by Lauren herself). “Scrape” is putting it too mildly: Doyle gives Lauren a taste of the degradation and even slavery which most Americans will hopefully never  experience. It’s a serious and poignant move, a statement on the freedoms many people worldwide, especially women, do not have, and the lengths to which people will go to try to escape their circumstances, even if that requires serious gambling with their lives and their security. Doyle’s mystery novels have tension and underworld crime in spades, but they are also smart, politically-savvy and politically-invested. The author’s empathy is with the underdog and her writing has a particular concern for the plight of women and girls, both in and out of uniform.

As I was saying: along comes Harry, the British badass (from along line of British badasses; his mum, Rosalind Fogg, received the Victoria Cross for working as a spy during WWII and escaping capture). (Harry, unlike our president, loves people who get captured! — Bad joke  — Editor) Harry’s gruff but tender good nature and easy humor also provide levity. He and Lauren have a welcome and diverting sexual tension which span the mini-book in between The Peacekeeper’s Photograph (“Canceled Plans”) and its follow-on,  The Sapper’s Plot. Doyle is an expert at keeping a plot moving while she, for lack of a better term, leads you on a little. Harry and Lauren are desperate to meet up again, but how is it possible, with her now stationed in Honduras and he back home in London, drinking brandy with his neighbor’s cat? Oh, Harry will find a way. Just you wait and see. And his eventual, impossibly romantic reunion with Lauren is totally worth it.

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As a character, Lauren Harper is refreshingly believable: practical, smart, and good at her job, but still human enough for the occasional relationship entanglement (some of which pop up again to rankle her later). Her responsible nature comes in part from having helped raise her younger sister, Loretta, with whom she’s very close. Despite her patience and professionalism, she’s not above sputtering the occasional “fuckin’-A” or “What the freaking…” when she’s handed a particularly maddening situation. And, perhaps in a way that only a soldier with multiple remote deployments can, she appreciates a well-built latrine:

A wide wooden bench sat in the middle of the structure with four four positions, two on each side of the bench, back to back. Each position was separated from the next by a couple of feet of space and upright plywood walls, giving each seat at least the illusion of privacy in the make-shift toilet. You wouldn’t be able to look your neighbor in the eye, but you’d know they were there.

Porcelain seat covers and short wooden poles stacked with plenty of toilet paper made the latrine one of the nicest I’d ever seen in a jungle…First Sergeant Dodd had a latrine to be proud of and that was no small thing in my book.

Doyle, an Army veteran and Reservist, must have smiled to herself writing these lines, poking a bit of fun at the personality quirks that inevitably develop from decades-long military service.

Such description also puts the reader right into a scene. I had never read a book set on a military installation in Bosnia or Honduras before; Doyle has both lived some of this experience and done her research, and the result is engaging writing with a character you can root for, in a place you may never have imagined.


Doyle, M.L. The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, (Vine Hill Road Press, 2013).

—–,  The Sapper’s Plot, (Vine Hill Road Press, 2013).



MaryM.L. Doyle has served the U.S. Army both in uniform and as a civilian at home and abroad for more than 20 years. A native Minnesotan, she currntly lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the co-author of two memoirs, including I’m Still Standing: From Captive Soldier to free citizen—my journey home (2010, Touchstone) which chronicles the story of Shoshana Johnson, a member of the 507th Maintenance Company who was captured during an ambush and held prisoner in the early days of the Iraq War. The book was nominated for a 2011 NAACP Image Award in the literary category for best Autobiography/biography.

Her other co-authored memoir tells the life story of Brigadier General (retired) Julia Cleckley, the first African-American female general of the line in the U.S. Army National Guard .  A Promise Fulfilled, My life as a Wife and Mother, Soldier and General Officer, chronicles Cleckley’s journey, from joining the Women’s Army Corps, to becoming a military general. Doyle’s web site describes: “The story details her journey to success while facing the most devastating losses a woman can endure, the loss of a husband and of a child.”

A Promise Fulfilled was published in January, 2014 and is available at all online retailers.

In addition to the Sergeant Harper mystery series, Doyle’s other fiction includes an erotica series, Limited Partnerships, and a fantasy called The Bonding Spell, which, intriguingly, is about a woman who has an ancient Sumerian goddess living in her mind.

 You can learn more about M.L. Doyle on Facebook.com/mldoyleauthor, or Twitter @mldoyleauthor, and read excerpts of all of her work on her humorous and entertaining web site: www.mldoyleauthor.com. An interview between Doyle and Time Now’s Peter Molin can be found in 0-Dark-Thirty.

Bingo, Sparklers, and a Lobotomy: Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’

[CONTAINS SPOILERS]

In Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, ‘Get Out,’ a young black man, Chris, goes to visit his white girlfriend Rosa’s family. “Do they know I’m black?” Chris reluctantly asks, as they pack for the trip.

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Rosa lovingly, teasingly, tells him not to worry. She reassures him: “My parents are not racist.”

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They are not racist

Chris and Rosa drive out to the Armitage’s remote estate, with its welcoming, sweeping front porch and — if you, like Chris, are attuned to such things — eerie plantation-style columns. And at first, Chris’s future in-laws seem nice, welcoming, a little socially awkward. Then they reveal the rotten heart of racism at their core, and Chris finds himself ensnared in a maze of horror.

In other words: maybe another day in modern America.

—-

There are many things to appreciate about ‘Get Out’: Its humor, for starters. Jordan Peele is half of the comedy duo Key & Peele, whom my husband introduced me to maybe five years ago. (We even paid full price to see ‘Keanu’ in the theater — their very odd comedy about a straight-laced guy and his pothead friend going undercover as gangsters in search of a missing kitten [the titular Keanu!].

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It wasn’t a great film, but we might have liked it if we were completely high. Alas, we were not.) In any case, Peele (right) has a terrific sense of the absurd, and impeccable comedic timing, so it’s no surprise that, in ‘Get Out,’ Chris’s suspicions about the family he’s visiting unravel at the perfect pace, with the occasional sighting of an apparently brainwashed fellow black person — accompanied by the iconic horror-movie violin screech!— making me laugh out loud every time.

The casting, too, is perfection. I don’t know if I have walked out of a movie in recent years and instantly blurted, “That casting was perfect!,” but I did here.

You’ve got British actor Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, playing a loving boyfriend who has some serious misgivings about his white girlfriend’s family, but bravely stays on the scene longer than he should.

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He can’t shake the feeling there’s something weird about these people

His earnestness in getting along with these horrifying potential in-laws rapidly becomes preposterous, but that’s the fun side of the movie. It’s reminiscent of any of the “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner” genre, including the very silly but enjoyable (am I allowed to say that on a literary-type blog?) “Meet the Parents,” where poor Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) persists in his goodwill towards his insane, former-CIA father-in-law (Robert DeNiro) despite his fiance (Teri Polo)’s complete obliviousness to the acuteness of his discomfort.

Bradley Whitford makes no wrong character moves as the most smugly liberal of them all, Rosa’s father, a neurosurgeon in a black turtleneck and cords, whose head is so far up the ivory tower that he finds everything that comes out of his own mouth bemusing and wry.

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“I would have voted for Obama a third time”

His wife, Missy, is a psychiatrist/hypnotist, played by Catherine Keener, whose soothing voice and occasional habit of spacing out and then all-too-quickly-recovering makes you wonder about her from the get-go.

Rosa has a brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), who comes on the scene as a no-holds-barred, raging fuckup. He’s probably a cokehead or into some more evolved drug I don’t even know of, and he looks like shit. He is obviously the family embarrassment except that he is just stupid enough to be useful to them, latching onto their warped ideals with devoted, unreflective seriousness. He is horrid and despicable and almost sad. Another brilliant move, though I hate to say it myself: he has the freckled face and hands of the classic film slaveowner or overseer, all those Davises and Washingtons and Williamses who, sadly, once spread their slavers’ names in a persistent antebellum diaspora.

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Dude, do not pick sharp things up

There’s the assemblage of strangely vacant-eyed black servants on the property, who spark Chris’s suspicions immediately although he’s oddly slow to feel real fear.

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Mom always loved the kitchen

You can look forward to a hilarious dialogue between himself and the black groundskeeper, who speaks in an odd antiquated diction (the reason will become clear later) and who is just so bizarre I could not keep myself from laughing. But Chris’s response is befuddled and very modern; he mentions the groundskeeper to Rosa, speculating that maybe the guy likes her or something? he had a very weird vibe?

And I can’t go without mentioning Rosa herself: Allison Williams, who is perfect for her role as the classy-but-sexy girlfriend, loving toward Chris, believable and chipper and sweet. She’s the perfect girlfriend for a photographer; you cannot imagine a bad picture with her in it.

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“I would never let anyone talk like that about my man”

Rosa is always rolling her eyes, apologizing for her embarrassing parents, and she tries, rather lamely, to buffer the more uncomfortable conversations. She seems to be on Chris’s side. But when the whole thing flips, her sudden change in manner is impeccable, almost robotic. Within seconds of selling Chris down the river she ties her hair back in a pert ponytail, almost unconsciously, and she’s down to business. It’s a great, tiny gesture on the part of Williams. And you have never seen anyone eat dry Froot Loops and drink milk out of a straw with such a strange and chilling precision.

Any lover of film or fiction feels an instantaneous joy learning that a party scene is on the horizon. Yes (nerd fist-pump!), the dinner party!: from The Last Supper on, a hotbed of intrigue, spilled secrets, unholy alliances making themselves clear. Someone is gonna get drunk. Someone is gonna feel a burning desire for someone else, or a burning hatred, and some fool has just got to make a speech….

Peele writes his own party scene with a nod to probably half a dozen others, but this one is funny and horrifying in its own, new way.

The brilliance of the party scene in ‘Get Out’ is that every white person Chris meets — all the Armitage family members — seem supportive and well-meaning. Instead of blurting anything obviously racist or hostile, they appear so embarrassingly thrilled that Chris is there that they speak to him without any semblance of a filter.

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Look, here comes Chris!

It’s somehow both hilariously awkward and, if you are white, gallingly incriminating at the same time. “He loves Tiger Woods!” one sweet-looking, gray-haired Armitage family member gushes, pointing to her elderly husband. And the man, seeming relieved that this is out in the open, smiles and nods. “I do!” he says. “I do!”

Another woman with a gorgeous Isabella Rossellini vibe, in a slinky dress and accompanied by a far-too-old-for-her husband, asks Rosa point-blank if “it’s really better with…,” then squeezes poor Chris’s bicep.

Rosa, getting to play the good cop at this point, appears horrified. “Let’s go for a walk,” she says, leading Chris away.

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Time for Bingo, sparklers, and a lobotomy!

Peele’s genius move is that the members of the Armitage family are, in general, not saying anything inconceivable. They just seem incredibly un-self-aware. The first words out of their mouths go from zero to sixty and spatter whatever closet curiosity or uncouth soft racism they think of, things no “woke” person would ever say aloud.

And plenty of people would not, I imagine, even think these sorts of things at all, at least not “seriously.” But enough of them have, or might someday, or occasionally do. Let’s remember, as Kendra James points out in her piece for Cosmopolitan (“‘Get Out’ Perfectly Captures the Terrifying Truth About White Women”), that 53% of white American women voted for Trump. (BARRRRRF! -Editor) And that’s what makes this scene’s supreme discomfort so pointed and so sad and, maybe — let’s hope not, please let’s hope not — so accurate.

“What Becky Gotta Do to Get Murked?” asks professor Kinitra D. Brooks, in a piece on the blog VSB (Very Smart Brothas). (And no, this is not a blog I will even pretend to have been familiar with before now, but it’s really, really funny and, as advertised, very smart, and certainly makes my own blog look like the looseleaf notes of a middle-schooler.)

Brooks points out that, though most of the film’s characters die in gruesome ways (it lives up to its “horror” genre in just the last third), Chris cannot bring himself to kill his ultimate betrayer, Rosa.

This reluctance on Chris’ part is particularly notable in the horror genre, in which it is commonplace, expected even, for white women to be killed in increasingly graphic ways. As pop culture scholar Janell Hobson says of this moment, “It’s almost as if brothers are still scared they’ll get lynched if they demonstrate any violence towards Becky—even cinematically.” Why does the film depict a black man so unwilling to pull this trigger?

It’s a great question, and one that’s answered remarkably well in its comments section (there’s something refreshing — a smart online comments section!). One reader, “Vanity in Peril,” has this analysis:

As the protagonist puts his hands around Rose’s throat (somebody in my theatre screamed, “curb-stomp that white bish, crip-walk on her azz!”—to a round of applause) she begins to smile. I saw this initially as her trying to use her white feminine whiles to disarm him but I also interpreted it as whiteness feeling self-satisfied that their assumption that the black man is inherently violent, even when 100% justified, is correct. In that moment I saw a switch over wherein Chris decides to let the white woman die cold and alone on the side of the road. A death that she owns, caused and escalated by her own actions. I saw it as implicating whiteness.

Holy shit, that’s just a blog commenter there.

I agree with “Vanity in Peril’s” take: that in ‘Get Out,’ the burden of guilt needs to remain firmly on the white people. In this film they are the bad ones, and the story works that way. To show Chris as some kind of a monster at the film’s end, even if horrible Rosa deserves it, would muddy the film (which is otherwise quite complex) in a way that it resists being muddied.

Secondly, and this is just speculation here, while Peele may have wanted to make Rosa the true villain of the film, he does not appear to have some heart full of hatred toward white women, and he has a sort of chivalry toward women in general. Dude, I can respect that. (Although now that I think about it, Anna Faris’s character in ‘Keanu’ — a blonde “Becky” if there ever was one — bites the dust pretty hard and graphically in that movie!) Both he and his comedy partner, Keegan-Michael Key, are biracial; their standup bits about their “white moms” are hilarious and affectionate.

Peele is also married to a white woman, Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Chelsea Peretti (another show my husband introduced me to! That man has his finger on the pulse!). Peele and Peretti are expecting their first child. (By the way, while I guess this is neither here nor there, Peretti is a childhood friend of SNL‘s Andy Samberg; maybe you’ve seen this picture of him sitting in the back of her mom’s car in middle school; it’s always made me chuckle, because I like little historical tidbits like that.)

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Comedians Chelsea Peretti and Andy Samberg, back in the day

In any case, this is not about trying to prove that Jordan Peele actually loves white women, and so we should feel okay about ourselves. No, no, no (to quote “Georgina” in the film) — we are fully culpable in every bit of soft racism that Peele suggests. BUT, going back to the film itself here: the script sides so unequivocally against the Armitages that the viewers will hate Rosa whether Chris kills her or not. She is a despicable fake; her professions of love for him as she lies dying ring almost laughably false. Even I wanted her to die, if only because she is such a TERRIBLE GIRLFRIEND!!!

Chris’s character remains unsullied, and Rosa is left like the deer on the side of the road that they hit on their way to her parents’ in the first place.

I am going to be completely honest here. There were moments when, watching ‘Get Out,’ I felt bad about being a white person. I felt like I must be an oblivious, steamrolling, uncool loudmouth, making anyone of color feel uncomfortable, blasting my way through the space around me. It was not a good feeling. But I guess I can just sit here and play my tiniest-violin-in-the-world about it, because in the big scheme of things, what do I have to lose?

“Why black people?” Chris asks Jim Hudson (played by Stephen Root!!!!), a gallery owner who’s apparently “scouted” him for the Armitage family’s nefarious plan, and  whose cerebral cortex will be implanted into Chris’s brain.

“Who knows?” Hudson replies. And then he goes into a whimsical but rather stunning mini-monologue: Maybe white people just want to be what they cannot. They want to be cooler, stronger, faster. Who really knows?

Just like the Armitages, blurting whatever taboo racist assumptions come into their weirdo heads, Peele puts assumptions about white people out there, too. He lays it all on the table. It’s pretty brave.

But maybe not as brave as going into your future in-laws’ house in the first place, against your better judgment, when your friend told you to just…. GET OUT.

 



 

p.s. One of my favorite Key & Peele skits is “Continental Breakfast,” which is just nerdy and punny enough, with a dash of physical comedy, to delight the likes of me. I can almost promise that you will laugh. Please enjoy:

The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War

“They said he was home, but no one had proved it.”  — Benjamin Busch, “Into the Land of Dogs”

David Foster Wallace has said that fiction creates “one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved.” He’s talking specifically about reading fiction, but I think–despite most fiction writers’ prideful assertion that their work is art, never “therapy,” and, damn it, not even “therapeutic!”–that writing fiction can have the same effect. Writing in isolation, then putting that work out into the world, having it met halfway (if you’re lucky), is somehow both the nurturing and annulment of loneliness all in one.

The Road Ahead: Fiction from the Forever War, a new anthology of fiction by veterans, is often about loneliness. It’s also often very witty, dark, moving, surreal, absurd, and gut-wrenching. Each of the 25 standalone stories, by writers well-known within the veteran-writing community and beyond, is its own unique experience; each voice is different; each will make your head spin in a slightly different way, and will leave you with a different aftertaste: sadness, relief, horror, or a headshake and a dry chuckle. But in trying to think of a cohesive way to describe these stories, what I kept coming back to was the characters’ loneliness, which keeps many of them in a kind of purgatory. They are neither still at war nor truly back at home. This theme has been explored before, sure, but most commonly in nonfiction. The Road Ahead is most successful, even dazzling, when its contributors allow their imaginations full, fictional reign. In these stories, some male writers take on the challenge of writing female protagonists, and quite a few American writers delve into the Iraqi or Afghan perspective (Kristen L. Rouse, Maurice Decaul, David James). The results are very good, with all of these authors writing fiction that is both an artistic practice and an effort of empathy. In other stories, most notably the exciting run that starts with Matthew Hefti’s “We Put a Man in a Tree” and continues unabated to the end of the book, experimentation takes the form of surrealism, or a Southern-Gothic bleak humor (Adrian Bonenberger’s “American Fapper,” and yes, that means what you think it means), or pure poetry (Decaul’s “Death of Time”). Here, the stories gain a momentum and darkness that make them riveting.

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There’s a soldier who carries his Warrant Officer’s decapitated head through the Afghan desert after a helo crash, helmet and all, wanting to bury it so it will be safe from Taliban and dogs, in Benjamin Busch’s contribution, “Into the Land of Dogs.” (It’s creepy, surreal, sad, and also darkly comical, perhaps a somewhat perverse nod to Tom Hanks’s “Cast Away” character who spends his days with his volleyball, Wilson. But what if Wilson were a human head?!)

There’s a story narrated by the ghosts (!) who taunt and bait a veteran, egging him to violence and feeding on his psychic pain (“We Put a Man in a Tree”). There’s a Marine who fakes his own combat injury–even though he’s already injured–because he’s terrified he’ll return home without a combat ribbon (Elliot Ackerman’s “Two Grenades”). Lauren Halloran’s protagonist is an Air Force mechanic, freshly home from a deployment her jealous stateside boyfriend couldn’t quite hack, who commences her reentry into civilian femininity with a plan she calls “Operation Slut.”

The tragicomedy hits its zenith with Eloise, a brilliantly-written wounded warrior’s wife in Brandon Caro’s “The Morgan House,” forced to take part in a pizza-party-of-pity she doesn’t want, while her kids run amok and her triple-amputee husband chides her for being obese:

“Eloise here, she can eat enough for both of us, ain’t that right honey?”

“Don’t mind him.” She rolled her eyes, as though she’d heard the rib a million times already. “He gets this way when he’s whacked out on them pills.” She paused for a moment and laughed forcibly before adding, “Which is pretty much all of the damn time!”

These are veterans imagining other veterans, imagining civilians, imagining veterans’ wives and people with either less or (hopefully) more of a burden than they, themselves, carry.

Through fiction, they look loneliness, deceit, human frailty, and hope in the eye. Here’s David Foster Wallace again:

Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.

I can’t speak to all of those, here on this blog. But fiction? Absolutely.


The Road Ahead is quite lovely as a work of art, from cover to cover. With wry, elegant interior illustrations by Benjamin Busch, it stands alone as an artifact and keepsake, and is simply a beautiful book.

I love the idea of illustrations accompanying short stories; it adds both gravitas and flair, and somehow makes the story feel more complete. The act of illustrating a story, kind of like a different form of note-taking, also deepens the experience for the reader as well. So I made myself doodle while I read, and while my illustration skills are amateur indeed, it was a fun exercise — almost like being back in elementary school and drawing pictures along with your book report. (And if this blog is not a glorified book report, I don’t know what is.)

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I want to say a few more words about the stories that made the most impact on me, before I take my leave.

There are five women veterans featured in The Road Ahead, and all of their stories are worth reading. From Kayla Williams’s grieving Sgt. Kate Stevens, trying to find solace in casual sex, to Teresa Fazio’s narrator, concerned about her attraction to an enlisted man who seems, somehow, less sturdy than she, each story examines femininity in the context of war.

The one exception to this theme is Kristen Rouse’s “Pawns,” which is different for the effort Rouse makes to contemplate people very different from her: a former Afghan commando named Nasir, now defector and truck driver trying to live a life of peace, confronted with a former enemy (an old man who is now a friend) and a young Jihadist who confounds and angers him. Nasir, passing the time playing chess and hoping the Americans will let their vehicles through, is drawn back into dark memories of a failed mission he barely survived.

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if God wills it

The boy stared with cold eyes at Nasir. ‘Taliban would pay your family if you explode yourself,’ he said.

Nasir froze and felt a chill shoot through his body. Then his face flushed with anger. ‘Taliban would pay my family one time. I pay my family each truckload I deliver. I came back to my country ten years ago to make my family’s life better, not worse. The Taliban have nothing for my family that I do not already give them,’ he said, growing angry.

‘The Americans are infidels,’ the boy said.

‘The Taliban are no better,’ Nasir said.

‘God is the greatest,’ the boy said.

‘God is the greatest,’ Nasir replied in a harsh tone.

‘I will be a foot soldier for Islam,’ the boy said.

‘Who has filled your head with such foolishness?’ Nasir asked.

Matthew Hefti’s  aforementioned “We Put a Man in a Tree” stands out for its many bold moves, most notably its narration by the group of ghosts who have attached themselves to a man named JJ, rooting for his self-destruction. From Nadir, who is seven, with a white nightgown and “darkened red tummy…elegant, like the flag of Japan,” to Ray, who “never stops smiling with gritted teeth….no one came and saw him in the home,” these ghosts follow poor JJ, tormenting him, whispering to him when he looks in the bathroom mirror, throwing rocks at him til he goes blind. He does not seem entirely aware of them, only of the effect they have on him. But Hefti still manages to work in a dark humor that, at times, made me laugh out loud:

‘How are you weird?”‘[JJ asks ‘X,’ the kid who confides in him at a bar/restaurant]. You seem like every other twenty-one-year-old kid I’ve ever known.’

‘Twenty-two,’ X said. ‘And I don’t feel I can tell you.’ He looked down into his beer for a long time. ‘But then again,’ he said. ‘I feel you’d understand. The thing is, I still have my V-card.’

…Over and over the kid apologized, and JJ said, ‘Stop it. That’s great. I stand in awe of you. You really don’t have to apologize. I’ve been there.’

We jumped in, of course, and asked, ‘How is he not weird?’ and ‘How can you really say you’ve been there?’

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he still has his V card

From there, the story takes a shocking turn, and I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it kind of kept me up for about half a night. As did Brian Castner’s “The Wild Hunt,” which gave me an actual bad dream (THANKS, CASTNER), but I mean that as a compliment.

Benjamin Busch’s “Into the Land of Dogs” also stuck with me, for its surreality, its post-apocalyptic feel (man wandering in the desert with his compatriot’s head), and its gorgeous, precise language. One section of the story echoes the phrase “He found…he found..” in a sort of lulling voice, almost making the post-apocalyptic desirable. “He found belongings left along trails from the south….He found a house sitting like litter at the base of the ashen valley, saved by solitude.”

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this dog is disappointed there’s not more meat on that bone

He thinks of the men who perished in the crash: “His body was torn in ways blood couldn’t imagine…No one was buried complete.” Like Jacob wrestling the angel, he fights a vulture in hand-to-hand (wing?) combat.


In his discussion of The Road Ahead, Peter Molin of Time Now asks how war lit will change in this post-Obama era, the age of Trump. He notes, “The Road Ahead points more clearly to where we were on November 7, 2016, than to where we are going after January 20, 2017.” I had this same impression, but perhaps would not have known how to vocalize it. The stakes are escalating, Molin notes. And it’s true that there is a certain indulgence to the feel of The Road Ahead, a playfulness that has little to lose. What will veterans’ fiction look like in the age of Trump?

I have no solid answers, but I do have a few guesses. First, the risque play of the sexual power differential is going to take on a very different feel; I felt this shift almost immediately with the recent election, while watching the HBO series Westworld. What had felt like daring forays only weeks before felt suddenly, after Trump’s victory, distasteful and unwelcome. Suddenly, violence against women, no matter how campy or self-aware or absurd, did not feel at all funny. Would Bonenberger’s story “American Fapper,” terrific as it is, have been written immediately after a Trump victory? How about PJ Frederick’s “The Church?”

During Obama’s presidency, too, there was an almost odd whimsicality to media in general, to advertisements and music videos and the like. Self-expression was everything! What could go wrong? You’re the fat kid at the prom? Go ahead and dance, everybody will love you for it! You’re a man who wants to wear some makeup? You go, girl! People will respect you!

Alas, as we have seen, an entire culture does not change that quickly. For the past eight years, when it comes to political expression, a sort of whimsical, twee, collective nostalgia or empowerment seemed to fit the bill. Just be yourself, and society will catch up to you! Trump’s victory has shown that “society,” unfortunately, is far behind. All that time that adorable twenty-somethings were dancing around in Coke ads, thrilled to be themselves, Trump’s America was watching. Waiting. Ready to rip those little snowflakes a new one, like the cadre of ghosts in Matt Hefti’s story. You’re doing better, you’re working on your life, you’re in recovery? Loser, joke’s on you.

With Trump promising a defense budget bloated and inflated beyond Henry Kissinger’s wildest dreams, and veterans guaranteed, or maybe enslaved, to a war that will simply never end, war fiction will surely take a new direction. The stakes are higher, and things may get more serious.

I hope the war writing of the future doesn’t lose its humor. I hope the kid gloves are not on too tight.

The one thing I feel confident in? That these veterans’ voices will continue to be perceptive, funny, witty, heartbreaking and wise. That, I’d bet money on. On that, I’m 100% sure.

—–

Bonenberger, Adrian and Castner, Brian. The Road Ahead. Pegasus Books, 2017.

Buy The Road Ahead here.

Cruel & Lovely World: Susanne Aspley on Writing, Life, Humor, and the Authority to Tell the Tale

by Mary L. Doyle (Army veteran, author)

Full disclosure, Susanne Aspley is not just a friend of mine, she’s a sister. I say that because we served in uniform together and aside from blood relationships, wearing the same uniform while enduring service in butt-crack parts of the world can bring a closeness that is unachievable any other way.

Most recently, the butt-crack part of life we’re sharing is that of finding the right words to put on the page. We commiserate together, encourage each other, and now that she has released her latest work, I get to celebrate it with her and share in her excitement. I’m so glad the rest of the world can now read this book.

The first time Susanne handed me her work to read I was nervous. I knew she could write. I’d read plenty of her work as a journalist. I just didn’t know what she would do when it came time to write a novel. As it turned out, Ladyboy and the Volunteer was easily one of the best books I’d read in a while. Susanne won a bunch of accolades for it, deservedly so, and I couldn’t have been happier for her.

Over the last several months, like any good author, Susanne struggled with her latest book, Granola, MN. I’d get email and text messages from her screaming that she didn’t know what she was doing, that everything was shit. Weeks later she’d be happy that her main characters, Allison and Toby, had worked things out, only to grow frustrated with them again. All the while I looked forward to reading the story because I knew that if Granola was anywhere near as interesting and funny and quirky and brilliant as Ladyboy was, I’d be looking forward to hours of reading enjoyment.

Granola

I’m happy to report that Granola, MN, is Aspley at her best. It’s a story of love and healing told with a kind of humor that sometimes sneaks up on you and at others times smacks you in the face. She shows us a world through the eyes of someone who is unapologetic about her naiveté which means she moves through life with an artless candor that is amusing and heartbreaking at the same time.

Just when you thought a topic might be something growing a little bit stayed, a little bit worn down, maybe something you thought you understood, Aspley gives us a completely unexpected viewpoint that makes it fresh and absorbing. I admit to reading this in small bits then going back to it like a treat I hoarded because I didn’t want it to be over. Lord knows, I needed a laugh at the time. If you feel like that at all, you’re going to want to read this.

Here is the blub:

Allison Couch has her hands full dealing with the assorted flakes, fruits and nuts in the small town of Granola. One summer morning, Toby Davenport moves back home. A young, black, Afghanistan War veteran, he has a heart of gold but a guilt-fueled addiction. Together, they take on parades, pit bull rescues, game show auditions, driving lessons, building inspectors, racism and falling in love. Heartbreaking, slapstick, and rambunctious, life never goes as planned. But there’s always hope, in Granola, Mn. 

It’s a fantastic book. One I hope you’re going to enjoy as much as I did. And here’s what Susanne has to say about it.

The last time I saw you was when we were attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention in Washington D.C. I know that wasn’t your first AWP but it was the first where you were on a panel and your first time meeting up with the strong military writing community that has sprung up around that convention. What did you think of the experience?

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Susanne Aspley (with Eric Chandler) at AWP 2017

For the past year, my social life consisted of sitting behind a computer, banging my head on the desk as I dealt with Allison, Toby, Grandma and the rest of the character in Granola. I enjoyed their company and miss them, but I gave them a happy ending so I know they are okay without me. I then managed to crawl out into the real world and attend the AWP Conference in D.C. Writing is very solitary, so what a delight to interact with real people! Real writers! Real poets! Once there, I hardly felt worthy. I felt the ‘imposter syndrome’ that many writers say they feel when surrounded by such talent. Specifically, meeting authors and poets that I truly admire who write about war, and subjects related to war, had me nearly tongue tied. However, I was welcomed into the pack of veterans, active duty, military spouses and family members who write. Each and every one was supportive and encouraging, the way the military community usually is. I look forward to next year when I can spend more time learning and laughing with them.

Your novels, both Ladyboy and the Volunteer, and Granola, MN, take a rather irreverent look at the world. Even the most tragic and ugly aspects of humanity are looked at with a hint of humor and a unique perspective. Is that how you see life? Is it easier for you to explore some of the difficult themes you conquer by looking at things in this way?

Humor is an emotional release. When something is bad, it’s a way to process the pain so it becomes tolerable. It deflates what is bad to a manageable level. Soldiers in the field are a good example of this. In my books, the characters are constantly being tossed back and forth between tragedy and comedy. But that’s the duality of life. Ridiculous and serious, cruel and lovely. However, humor is also extremely subjective. When writing it, you run the risk of sounding offensive, juvenile or just stupid.

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Aspley (lower left) and her children

Just about everyone in this story has a tragic past and Ally seems to take all of that history into consideration when she thinks about them. What are you telling us in terms of human interaction?

 In the military, the term, ‘in the shit’, means being in combat. In the book, Toby was very much ‘in the shit’. Mr Whitehead, Morton and Sheldon were all ‘in the shit’, over in Vietnam, WWII and Korea, respectively. However, many characters have been ‘in the shit’, which doesn’t involve combat.

For example, the character Zach. When he’s on the porch talking to Allison, it’s funny and tragic at the same time. He’s never been in combat, but obviously he’s knee deep ‘in the shit’ with his baby and wife. And Allison has been as well. I think everyone has been ‘in the shit’ at some point in their lives, some deeper than others. We have no idea what’s going on with the people we encounter every day.

There are many themes of mental illness in this book, from depression to suicides. Some of that mental illness is portrayed as quirky, while other aspects are serious and life threatening. What was it about this topic that made you want to dig into it? What did you hope readers would learn?

 I can write with great experience about depression and alcohol abuse. I hit rock bottom eight years ago. I have been hospitalized, in treatment and in jail because of service connected depression and alcohol abuse. I threw it all in the book for Toby and Allison to deal with. And they do. Toby gets the help he needs in the end, and it works for him, because he is willing to work at it. I want vets who are still struggling to know some days are better than others, but there is always hope if you accept the help out there and work at it daily.

From pit bulls to guinea pigs, animals play a large role in this story and they seem to have the same kind of attention to personality as the human characters in your books. The way your characters play off the animals seems to reflect on their character as well. Why is this?

In my opinion, how people treat animals is a direct reflection on their moral character. In Granola, Allison and Toby rescue a pit bull on their first ‘date’. In Ladyboy and the Volunteer, the old man rescues his dog, Scabby, from the horrific dog meat trade that still happens in Thailand.

I believe if someone sticks a firecracker up a dog’s nose or forces them to fight till death, the owners are twisted individuals who have no right to be in a civilized society. They probably victimize people as well. Minnesota passed a law to allow prosecutors to charge animal abuse/cruelty on a felony level. Prior, the most they could charge was a misdemeanor. We can thank Colonel/MN Senator Don Betzold for getting this legislation passed. Betzold was a JAG officer in the 88th Army Reserve.

Toby and his mother are the only black people in this small town. As a white author, do you feel you have the authority to write about such topics?

I have no authority whatsoever. But I live in a world with black people so have black people in my book. I can’t get in his head what it’s like to be black, but I can relate to him being a veteran, struggling with depression and drinking too much. That’s how Toby and I, as the writer, relate.

I can relate to Toby’s mom, Mrs. Davenport, as a single mom. In the book, when Allison goes over to talk to Mrs. Davenport after the accident, Mrs. Davenport expresses regret she didn’t make a bigger issue out of Toby’s depressive behavior at home. But as a mother, I get that. We want our kids to figure things out on their own. But there’s a fine line when you have to step in before it’s too late.

What made you want to explore these themes of racism? Do you worry about facing the same kind of backlash with this book and the black community?

 In 1995-96, I was married to an Arab-American. He was Palestinian Muslim. His sisters and dear mother wear a hijab. With him, I experienced racial ignorance toward him and nastiness toward me. We often handled it with humor, which would defuse the situation. But, quite honestly, he was extremely anti-Semitic. He held contempt toward another group of people as well. And that wasn’t right, either.

Our country is very racially divided. The story is written first person, present, from a young, white woman’s point of view. I’m not young anymore but still white, so feel okay writing from this perspective. Keep in mind, I’m not relating to Toby as a young black male. I relate to him as a veteran, to his depression and drinking too much. Those things don’t care about color or age or nothing. Besides that, I think Toby is a just a really great guy.

Regarding backlash. I’ve already received a hate mail for having a pit bull on the cover of Granola. I was told to get my ‘facts straight’. The gentlemen directed me to a dog bites org website. Well, if you don’t like pit bulls, or the fact a white author wrote a book with a black character, then don’t read Granola, Mn. If you don’t like Thai ladyboy prostitutes, then don’t read Ladyboy and the Volunteer.

One of my favorite Kurt Vonnegut quotes is:  “As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”

Granola, MN takes place in a small town filled with characters many people might recognize. Did you have a particular Minnesota town in mind when you wrote the book?

 Granola is based on the small town of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where I grew up. Scottsbluff was filled with wonderful ‘characters’. It was mostly white, but (my guess) 25% Mexican. They were originally migrant workers for the sugar beet fields who eventually immigrated permanently. There was also a large population of Native Americans. Growing up there, us kids didn’t have a problem with race because we were too busy having fun.

Your first book, Ladyboy and the Volunteer, explores the world of transgender people and you faced a bit of backlash from the trans community about the book. What was that like?

 I heard from several prominent American transgender women after the book came out. When I wrote back, we engaged in respectful conversation regarding my experience with my real life friend, Christine. Christine was a ladyboy. In Thailand, based on what I experienced with her, this is considered a third sex. Not a man transitioning into a woman, or man dressing up as a woman, or a man identifying as a woman. Christine was a complete and whole third sex. Using the word, transgender, is the best word to translate this in English. She, Velveeta and Samantha, were a third sex. The book better explains all of this.

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I received a negative review from a book critic who is a former Peace Corps volunteer. Apparently, my Peace Corps ‘experience’ book didn’t match his expectations on what a Peace Corps ‘experience’ should be. Ladyboy and the Volunteer could have easily been a memoir. Five years ago, I pulled out a box of over 40 handwritten diaries I wrote during my service in Thailand. I made up the fat German and the mysterious briefcase thing, but most other scenes in the book are events that happened. Many parts of the book are transcribed word for word from my diaries. One of my favorite (and true) parts is the tuktuk driver in Bangkok, after I got robbed. He didn’t speak English, but his fatherly kindness was universal. It’s something my own dad would have done.

Ladyboy earned you a McKnight award. Did this recognition inspire or intimidate you when you started writing your second book?

I am grateful and humbled that some people like my style of writing. Not everyone does, and that’s okay. Writing a book is like raising a child. You pour your heart and soul into it and when it’s time, you push it out the door into the real world. You hope it succeeds and doesn’t get judged harshly.

What else would you like to add?

The bottom line/intention of me writing this book is I want people to smile. Life isn’t easy. It’s disappointing. It’s dispiriting. It’s like, why even bother getting off the floor because everything is so fucked. Then something amazingly beautiful happens, like the old lady bumbling up to the grocery store, and she gives you the sweetest little smile for no reason, and you realize, wow…It’s all going to be okay.


About the author:

aspley3Susanne Aspley is the author of the novels Ladyboy and the Volunteer and Granola, MN.

Aspley retired as a Sergeant First Class after serving 20 years in the US Army Reserve as a photojournalist with tours in Bosnia, Cuba, Kuwait and Panama.

Aspley also served in the Peace Corps, Thailand, 1989-1991. She then worked in North Yorkshire, England as well as Ra’anana, Israel.

She holds a degree in English Lit with a minor in Film from the University of Minnesota and is a graduate of the Defense Information School, Ft Meade, MD. Retired, she enjoys her kids, rescued pit bull, and surly cat in Minnesota.

About the interviewer:

Mary

Mary L. Doyle has served in the U.S. Army at home and abroad for more than three decades as both a soldier and civilian and calls on those experiences in much of her writing. Mary is the award winning author of The Peacekeeper’s Photograph, The Sapper’s Plot, and The General’s Ambition, in the Master Sergeant Harper Mystery Series; The Bonding Spell, a new urban fantasy series and the co-author of I’m Still Standing; and A Promise Fulfilled, memoirs that tell the stories of strong women warriors. She has also penned Limited Partnerships, an adult romance series now released in omnibus format. All of her books are available on Amazon.com.