For Better or Worse, Wrapped in the Flag: Rachel Lynch’s Novel ‘The Dependants’

reviewed by Andria Williams (Navy)

In Rachel Lynch’s first novel The Dependants, a trio of British Army officers’ wives living in military housing endure their husbands’ deployments to Afghanistan.

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Here in the U.S., we use the word “dependent” as both an adjective and a noun: someone who is dependent on another person can also be a dependent. In British English, dependant is a noun only, and refers specifically to the spouse and children of a military member. The three dependants featured in Lynch’s novel are Maggie, Jane, and Chrissy.

Let’s start with Maggie, because the novel does. Maggie is a young mother of two who is, quite simply, at her wit’s end. She’s struggling with parenting a difficult three-year-old daughter and toddler son; she feels she’s given everything up for the Army, including any career hopes she’d ever had; and she’s consumed with resentment over the fact that her husband volunteered for this dangerous tour of duty.

Next there’s generous, likable Jane, mother of four, whose marriage is rock-solid. Jane’s not happy about her husband’s absence and fears for him daily, but her attitude toward her own predicament remains alternately bittersweet and dryly comical. She tumbles into bed in his PJs, drinks a little too much, cheerfully encourages other women to buy vibrators (and she’s got the brand to recommend). She’s mostly patient with her kids and goes along to the gym gamely with Maggie even though she finishes off most workouts with a nice, big slice of cake. When she witnesses what she fears is the beginning of Maggie’s infidelity, then, we have grown close enough to her viewpoint to feel her shock and dismay at the same time as she is relieved to finally see her friend in some way happy.

The oldest and most experienced of the three wives is Chrissy, whose husband Jeremy is the Commanding Officer. As devoted to the Army families back home as her husband is to his men in the field, Chrissy makes the unusual decision to live alone in The Patch, the regular Army family quarters, rather than take a fancy Colonel’s house elsewhere while her husband is gone. Some of the wives find this off-putting and strange, but as Chrissy attends one funeral after another and assumes a heavy psychological burden in doing her husband’s work at home, the other women gradually come to respect her.

Over their husbands’ seven-month deployments, the three women will weather a variety of challenges and temptations, from Maggie’s infidelity to Chrissy’s emotional exhaustion. They don’t know from one minute to the next whether or not their husbands will make it home, and the reader doesn’t either, so this tension runs constantly beneath the entire novel.  We know from page one, though — which opens with the radio reporting three more soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan — that the decisions these women make and the fates that befall their husbands will have repercussions far beyond just the time these families live together in The Patch.

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Author Rachel Lynch (www.austinmacauley.com)

Rachel Lynch, the author, is a former Army wife herself; the book’s jacket mentions that her family moved ten times in their twelve years with the Army. Throughout the novel, you can feel the tension that many military wives feel in their love-hate relationship with the institution that dictates much of their families’ lives. For young Maggie, this struggle is hardest. In fact, her anger toward Mark, and the Army in general, is sometimes  startling:

It made her stomach churn and she remembered the moment when he had delivered the news like an excited puppy that he had volunteered to command troops in Afghanistan. Volunteered? What was wrong with her? What was so ugly and undesirable that he would want to leave his wife and children to kill strangers and satisfy politicians and generals in Whitehall? Something had died in her that day.

I was worried at first that Maggie might be too bitter for me to hang in there with for long. Her daily life, with all its struggles, was so realistically wrought that I could feel myself starting to grow a little bleak along with her. But Maggie soon starts to pull herself out of her dark hole through a new prescription for anti-depressants, a nightly bottle of wine, and a revitalized interest in both exercise and younger men.

Maggie’s humanness is believable, and where she had scared me off a little at the start, I soon found myself invested in what would become of her and her family. The scenes where her husband Mark returns for a two-week R & R in the midst of his dangerous deployment were heartbreaking and very well-done. Everything is touch-and-go. At first, Maggie finds herself nearly fearful of being with him, and their first attempt at intimacy is a bust. The second try goes much better, with a good bit of steamy sex thrown in. But a family day trip proves most harrowing of all, as Mark finds himself unequipped to handle his preschool-aged daughter Bethany’s strong emotions. When Bethany acts up in the car, he spanks her on the leg, hard. It’s something Maggie has fantasized about at darker points in the deployment — having him on hand to swoop in with some kind of decisive corporal punishment that Maggie lacks the energy or resolve for herself — but when he does do it, the effect is mildly sickening for all of them. From that point on his stay at home never regains the sweetness of their early intimacy, and part of Maggie is relieved when he returns to Afghanistan. It’s sad, bittersweet, and well-done, and I have to commend Lynch for having the insight and fortitude to pull it off.

Overall, The Dependants is a heartfelt look into the lives of Army wives, from someone who’s been there. I cared about these characters and I wanted to see them reunited with their husbands in the way we get to enjoy in You Tube videos and the nightly news. Rachel Lynch knows better, and we’re not treated to that kind of ending. But what she gives us is, in its clear-sightedness and compassion, worth much more.

Lynch, Rachel. The Dependants. Austin Macauley Publishers, 2014.

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Buy The Dependants

Read more about The Dependants here

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About the author:

Rachel Lynch was a history teacher for over a decade and after having her family decided to become a personal trainer. Her husband’s job as an Army officer has moved her family ten times in twelve years. Rachel has been writing since she was a teenager but this is her first novel. She is now settled with her family near London after finally saying goodbye to army life. — Austin Macauley Publishers author page

Secrets and Bravery: A Review of Kathleen M. Rodgers’s Novel Johnnie Come Lately

by Jodie Cain Smith (Army)

I begin reading many books, but I don’t finish many books. In fact, the bookshelf in my office is crammed full of abandoned books. Why, you ask? Why would a woman who makes her living with words stop reading? Well, when I am left to be nothing but a curious reader searching for a compelling story, I look for questions. When I find no questions in the story or characters or, disappointingly, my questions are answered too easily, I stop reading and move on to the next book in my stack. Thankfully, Kathleen Rodgers offers up questions aplenty and quickly in her latest, Johnnie Come Lately; questions that aren’t fully answered until the last page. Oh yeah, I finished this one. I had no choice.

In fact, I only had to meet teenage Johnnie in the prologue to be sucked into her story and the multitude of questions the few pages offered. Immediately, I had to know who this young woman was, why her mother ran off, what was the root cause of Johnnie’s bulimia, did she ever recover, and how on earth did her Uncle Johnny and boyfriend Clovis die? I turned the page to Chapter One searching for answers, but was thrust into the world of a forty-three-year-old version of Johnny Kitchen, married woman and mother of three.

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Stop! What about the teenager from the prologue and the decades in between? I had to know, so I was relieved to discover that Kathleen Rodgers is clever. Using a journaling device unlike others I have read, the details of Johnnie Kitchen’s life unfolded in haunting language on the pages. In her journal, Johnnie wrote letters to herself, her adult self and teenage self, complete strangers, and the ghosts of her past, pleading with them to reveal their true purpose in her life, to forgive her past transgressions, and to soothe her grief for losses she can never recover.

Within the pages of Johnnie Come Lately, I discovered an unlikely optimism, a tale of hope. Thank goodness! As a military spouse, I am turned off by weakness and incompetence. I want everyone, especially the women in my life, to know their inner strength and use it. I have no use for whining or pessimism or a defeatist attitude. Yes, I have high expectations, but Johnnie fulfilled those expectations.

I must admit I was afraid Johnnie Kitchen was going to drown in her own faults and shortcomings, but I was wrong. What I found in her, despite her many failings, were optimism and faith that would keep her moving forward, fighting her inner demons, and searching for answers to her many questions. Her eternal hope was especially present when the problems in her marriage, challenges faced and posed by her children, and secrets of the past would be easier dealt with by not dealing with them at all. Johnnie Kitchen, this woman with so many secrets to hide, becomes the bravest of all Rodgers’ characters by exposing herself and challenging the shortcomings in those she loves the most.

By the end of the novel, Johnnie Kitchen had become my friend, one that I am sad to be without now that Johnnie Come Lately is off my nightstand and back on my shelf, every word devoured.

Rodgers, Kathleen M. Johnnie Come Lately. Camel Press, 2015.

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Buy Johnnie Come Lately

Visit Kathleen M. Rodgers’s web site or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

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About the reviewer:

Jodie Cain SmithJodie Cain Smith, an Army spouse and author, spent her childhood exploring the shores of Mobile Bay with her three siblings. As a teen in Mobile, AL, Jodie’s grandmother told her the gripping story of an adolescence spent in 1930’s rural Alabama, the rumors surrounding her parents, and the murder trial that would alter her life. The tale took root in Jodie’s memory until at last it became The Woods at Barlow Bend, her debut novel to be released November 19, 2014 by Deer Hawk Publications.

While attending the University of South Alabama, where Jodie earned a BFA in Theatre Arts, she met her husband Jay. They began their life on the Army road in 2001 and have not stopped moving since. As an Army Wife, she has lived in six different states from the extreme heat of Texas to the blizzards of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she earned a MAE in School Counseling at Northern Michigan University.

When she is not living in the fictional worlds she creates via her laptop, Jodie can be found onstage and in the studio working as an actress and teaching artist.

Jodie Cain Smith’s short stories, feature articles, and columns have appeared in The Petigru Review, Chicken Soup for the Military Spouse’s Soul, The Savannah Morning News, and the Fort Hood Sentinel.

To learn more about Jodie Cain Smith and her thoughts on ruling, renovating, and escaping her corner of the world visit her blog The Queendom or her website, jodiecainsmith.com.

Book Review: Steal the North by Heather Brittain Bergstrom

 Reviewed by Jenny Fiore (Army, Special Forces)

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Heather Brittain Bergstrom’s debut novel, Steal the North, bridges two contrasting locales from the author’s own life—rural eastern Washington and urban northern California. It’s rich with setting, beautifully and authentically described. It also has some nice wordsmithing, plenty of likeable characters, and just enough drama to keep readers plugging along.

Emmy is a bright but cloistered 15-year-old living in a bohemian apartment with her single mom in Sacramento when she learns that she has more family than just her mom. Why the dark secret? You’ll quickly find out, for Bergstrom has not written a suspense thriller or mystery here. It’s a love story, set into motion when Emmy is summoned for an unlikely journey north to participate in a healing ceremony for the aunt she never knew she had. Early on, readers learn that Emmy’s mother had 15 years earlier been outcast by the church conducting said healing ceremony—for being pregnant out of wedlock. She fled. She disconnected. And she never looked back, until now.

To enjoy the story, readers will at times have to suspend disbelief: Several of the main players’ actions seem unnecessarily extreme or incongruent with the rest of their character. Think fundamentalist Christian child turned pregnant teenager turned truck-stop hooker turned college professor. You’ll be fine if you can stop asking questions like why has this seemingly smart, kind, and hardworking couple been living in the same trailer park for 15 years and only just begun talking to their next-door neighbors? And hopefully you can, because it’s all worth it to meet Reuben Tonasket, the teenager whose aunt lives in that same trailer park. In Reuben we meet the 21st-century American Indian teenager. Bergstrom’s treatment of his character—and his romance with Emmy, a 15-year-old white girl from Cali—is filled with some unique and much-deserved complexity.

A love story between two teenagers, the book will appeal to more than a teenage audience. Parents, particularly of tweens and teens, may find themselves conflicted as Bergstrom gives them a birds-eye view of a teen relationship that turns sexual and all-consuming. Reading about this relationship presents many opportunities for maternal eye-rolling, but at the same time tugs at heart strings with that delectable fruit of young love that just might be true love.

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An award-winning fiction writer, Bergstrom weaves her tale using first-person narrative, with different characters narrating different chapters. None of the major characters is flawless, but all have more than just a handful of redeeming qualities, giving readers many inlets for becoming emotionally connected with the story. (Readers are bound to appreciate one character or another, if not all.)  Certainly some character-narrators are more developed and complex than others, making them more believable and accessible to the reader. This unevenness in Bergstrom’s delivery creates a push/pull dynamic with the reader that makes it easy to put the book down at chapter changes but hard to quit the book as a whole.

Recommended for readers who can tolerate rotating narrators, who love place as much as plot, and who seek sentimental yet well written tales of love, both familial and romantic. This one is worth popping in your swim bag if you’re looking for a story that’s neither too light nor too heavy a read.

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Bergstrom, Heather Brittain. Steal the North. Viking, April 2014.

Read a Q & A with the author here. (“I have never lived in a town with a bookstore,” she says. On her fundamentalist Baptist childhood:  “I remember, as a teenager, rafting down the Snake River in a long dress… I was educated through the tenth grade in an unaccredited basement academy by deacons’ wives, some of whom, like my mom, hadn’t even finished high school themselves.”)

Buy Steal the North

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About the Reviewer:

Formerly the publications director for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC, Jenny Fiore now spends most of her time redirecting used underwear into hampers. A proud stay-at-home mom, she’s slowly returning to her former career in writing and editing. Jenny is a Pushcart Prize special mention honoree for literary nonfiction, and her more noteworthy writing appears in Brain, Child and BRAVA magazines. She loosely blogs at http://themomplex.net/ (This is your editor speaking: Military wives might especially enjoy the honest humor in “More Depressing Than a Sad Santa” — oh my God, the banana lady! — and “Not Enough Mom to Go Around,” but my personal favorite may be “Pinterish: Kinda Sorta Making Something You Saw on the Web,” which could probably, hilariously and somewhat sadly, encapsulate my own entire stay-at-home-mom experience. – Andria).

Jenny is also the author of the essay collection After Birth: Unconventional Writings from the Mommylands (Possibilities Publishing, 2013).  Her essay “A Year at the Lake,” about her Green Beret husband’s 15-month deployment when their daughter was a toddler, appears here.

Book Review: We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

Reviewed by Amy Bermudez (Army)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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author Laura McBride (photo, Simon & Schuster)

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

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Las Vegas (Wikipedia photo)

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

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

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

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Read an interview with Laura McBride in USA Today

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

Buy We Are Called to Rise

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About the Reviewer

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

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

by Emmy Curtis [Air Force]

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

 Paris, much like Virginia, is for lovers

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

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

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

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

 

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 author Courtney Maum

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You

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About the Reviewer:

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

Book Review: Wynne’s War by Aaron Gwyn

(reviewed by Andria Williams, Navy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aaron Gwyn, author of Wynne’s War

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

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

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

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

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

“Might shoot you anyways,” Russell told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wynnes-war

Boston, books, and love that lasts

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This Memorial Day weekend had my husband and I traveling — without the kids!! — to Boston to attend a friend’s wedding. It was quite an experience to board a plane in sunny, ultra-casual Southern California, where the golden hills and bright blue sky seem to foster a sort of perpetual blissed-out amnesia — and then land just a few hours later, 3,000 miles away, in a brick-and-cobblestone, history-steeped city where no one was wearing Cali shirts or  Vibram Fivefingers, accents honked across the narrow streets like horns, and Pinkberry and “CorePower Yoga” have hardly made a dent. (Horns were also honking, in addition to accents. Bostonians are impatient drivers.)

Add to this the fact that the fabulous wedding we attended was an intricate, breathtaking affair in the high Boston tradition, and it was quite a welcome little culture shock.

And we were, as usual, running late. Memorial Day weekend also seemed to coincide with Harvard graduation and a cheerfully boisterous indie music festival.

My poor husband grappled with impossible traffic (we had driven in from New Hampshire, where we’d been staying with my uncle) and when we finally found a metered parking space, we didn’t have enough quarters.

Luckily, I learned that there is no more honorable pursuit in Bostonians’ eyes than trying to make it to a wedding. (Everywhere we went, if we just blurted, “We’re trying to get to a wedding,” people would shout, “Oh my GAWD! Here are some quarters/ get in front of me in line/ etc. You’ve gotta get to that wedding!”) And indeed, when I sheepishly approached a family and asked to exchange a dollar for four quarters, after their initial glance of suspicion at my request the husband and wife did shout almost in unison, “Oh, my GAWD! No, keep your dollah! Take the quartahs, you’ve gotta get to that wedding!”

So, yes, we made it to the wedding.

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Saved by the nice people with the quarters. That’s Dave lookin’ smooth, and me lookin’ like Christmas.

I am fairly certain we were the only military couple there, surrounded by  Harvard profs (like the groom) and musicians and artists and architects (and lots of teachers too, which made me feel at home!). The bride and groom made elegant remarks, danced the foxtrot, and were whisked away in a white horse-drawn carriage (after which a member of the wedding party cried out, “Now THAT’s a Boston wedding!”) Little signs proclaimed that their signature cocktail was the Kir Royale (Dave joked, “I think our signature cocktail is milk.”) But everyone was so kind and friendly that we never felt out-of-place, and could just enjoy all the classiness that surrounded us. It was very sweet to see my friend so happy, moving on to another chapter of her life.

Before we could get back to our own ongoing and somewhat intense life-chapter (the three kids!), we had to spend the night in Boston. With the parking situation so bad, Dave actually had to park on the nearby Coast Guard base (thank you, Coasties, for the hospitality!).

My friend the bride, a master of thoughtful and meticulous planning, had taken the time to recommend custom lodging for many of her guests and for us, that was the Mariner’s House — a small, historic hotel “for active members of the seafaring services.”

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 “Founded in 1847 by the Boston Port and Seamen’s Aid Society, Mariners House was and remains a respite where seafarers and their families can find comfortable, affordable lodging and meals, professional guidance and religious counseling. In addition to the inn itself, Mariners House offers a breadth of services designed specifically to address the needs of professional mariners. ” (from the web site)

The lodge was historic, clean, simple and cozy — and affordable. Just our style. In the morning we elbowed our way to the register at Mike’s Pastry and enjoyed the best croissants we’d ever tasted.

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IMG_4936Amaretto cannoli, whoopee pies, German brownie and black-n’-whites to go…

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We collected our car from the Coast Guard base, admiring their pretty white ships — so much nicer than the Navy’s functional, endless gray. (Haze gray and underway!)

*          *          *

It was the perfect weekend to read two of the most-opposite books on the planet: Courtney Maum’s I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You and Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War. Honestly, those books could not have been more different — a smart, frothy, hilarious novel about an artist in Paris trying to reclaim his wife, his integrity, and a very special painting — and a vivid, edge-of-your-seat modern Western set in Afghanistan. (Review of Wynne’s War forthcoming — I loved it.) They were each just what I needed, such satisfying books that I was not remotely tempted to watch the in-flight movie on either arrival or departure.

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You is not officially out until June 10th, and another military spouse has already clamored to review it, so I won’t do a full review here– consider this an excited little nudge in the direction of Here’s a great summer read.

A great summer read, but the perfect thematic read for a wedding weekend. It occurred to me during my friend’s wedding that part of the purpose of such ceremonies, nearly as much as the act of sealing the betrothed couple, is the refresher course on commitment it gives everyone in attendance. Watching two people take that big step, you remember when you took your own, and how you felt about your partner back at that new and daring time. It’s kind of like getting a fidelity-booster-shot.

Fun Here Without You has a similar effect — the literary equivalent of watching When Harry Met Sally (a classic if ever there was one!).  The novel is about a man named Richard who has, through his own error, lost his wife, and the funny and fumbling road he takes to try to get back to her. He’s looking for a grand gesture, the one big act that will sweep her off her feet — but along his journey he learns that it’s actually the everyday gesture, the little act of patience and love, that builds a marriage. He starts out lamenting “the dead cell cast of seven years of marital fidelity”: “How did married people do it without cheating? Sweating and grunting and drooling on their pillow nightly side by side, expected at some point to reach over and caress the person who had become as familiar and uninteresting as an extension of their own arm, and fuck?”

But Richard begins filming his parents and their friends, sitting back-to-back and while they talk about love and devotion.

“And what do you love most about her?” My father looked up at the camera when I said this.

“She’s kind,” he said. “She’s silly. She doesn’t get uptight.”

“And what do you dislike?”

“…She’s not, you’re not — she’s not a good driver.”

…Mum twisted around in her chair again. “Well, that can’t be all, George. Personally, I have a lot of them! He’s a hummer, but he’s only got one tune. And he never puts the top back correctly on the malt bottle. ..But he’s a good dancer. …And he makes the bed in the morning, how many people can say that? And you know, he doesn’t disappoint me.”

As Richard studies the importance of kind gestures, he recalls a picnic his own wife, Anne-Laure, made years before, on the day he realized that he loved her.

On that particular Sunday, she’d suggested a bike ride out to Barrington beach and promised me a picnic…In common Anne fashion, she had everything prepared: a blanket, towels, a small umbrella just in case, and a cooler full of treats…[She got me] with the care she put into this picnic, the things she’d done to transform a Sunday afternoon into a moment that would make me look at my life and realize that I wanted her with me, in it. Always.

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(Somehow, my own obsessive picnicking habit does not have such an intoxicating effect on my own husband. This is my picnic basket. You can click on the picture to enlarge. You know you want to. And yet, Dave merely tolerates this — my endless Tupperwares and balls of tin foil and my crowing about “how much money we’ve saved!”  — as other families walk past unwrapping round hamburgers and scarfing steaming boats of French fries. How can he not see this picnic basket and look at his life and realize that he wants me in it? Always?!)

Watching the care with which my friend had planned her own wedding — the church service, the hymns, the signature cocktail, the 1940s and ’50s music on the dance floor — I realized that she was making a statement about her life with this other person, and doing it with great care. She and Anne-Laure would make great friends.

And me and Dave? We are great friends, too. If the little things matter, then he is a champion. Halfway through our six-hour flight I wanted to use the restroom, but the line at the back of the plane was six people deep. I pointed this out to Dave who said, sweetly and inexplicably, “Oh, do you want me to wait in line with you?” And I almost laughed, because it would never have occurred to me to ask someone to keep me company in a boring, crowded plane-restroom-line. But still, he thought of that. So I just smiled at him, because I knew that whether I was dancing at a wedding or waiting in a line on an airplane, nobody would make better company than him.

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Courtney Maum, I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You. Simon & Schuster, June 2014.

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