The Unsubstantial Air: Review by Tim Bazzett


Back in 1997 Samuel Hynes published a book called THE SOLDIERS’ TALE, a ground-breaking study of the lot of the men who fought in the two World Wars and Vietnam and how war lastingly affected them. His method was to closely examine the letters and journals as well as the poetry, memoirs and other literature produced by combatants and veterans of those wars. New York Times reviewer Gardner Botsford called it ” A first-rate piece of work in every way,” an assessment I agreed with wholeheartedly.
But I think this one is even better, and I hope I can explain why. With his latest book, THE UNSUBSTANTIAL AIR, Hynes turns once again to a study of war, but this time with a much narrower and  more personal focus. This time he examines the aviators of World War I, those “daring young men in their flying machines.” Aviation was barely out of its infancy when the hostilities began in Europe in 1914. France had a kind of primitive air force, but the United States (which did not enter the war until 1917) had no such thing. But young men in the States had already begun a love affair with flying, and many of them could not wait to get into the adventure and ‘romance’ of flying in a war. So they enlisted in the air services with France, England, or Canada. The earliest members of the legendary Lafayette Escadrille are featured prominently here, as well as the wealthy, thrill-seeking Ivy League pilots who were among the first to volunteer their services and later figured prominently in the US Air Service.
Sam Hynes spent several years researching this book, reading unit histories and immersing himself in the letters, diaries, journals and published and unpublished memoirs of the pilots who flew those flimsy, still evolving machines. Most of them were very young, still in their teens and early twenties, confident not only in their skills, but of their own immortality. Sadly, if predictably, many of them did not survive the war. The letters he shares are often filled with the kind of innocence, excitement and wonderment found only in those whose experiences have been very limited.  An early example is one from  Stuart Walcott who describes the assortment of American volunteers he is training with at a field in France –
“… more than a hundred at this one school, and the oddest combination I’ve ever been thrown with: chauffeurs, second-story men, ex-college athletes, racing drivers, salesmen, young bums of leisure, a colored prizefighter, ex-Foreign Legionnaires, ball players, millionaires and tramps.”
Hynes, a young Marine Corps pilot in the Pacific during WWII, ‘gets’ this, and throws in his own assessment –
“That’s what big wars do: they bring together young men who would not never meet in ordinary civilian life, dump them together in barracks and tents, and in foxholes and airplanes, set them marching to the same drum, fighting in the same war. It was like that in my war too; until I went to flight school, I had never met anyone who went to Yale, or came from Texas, or pitched in the International League, or drove an MG. Or a girl who drank Southern Comfort. I met them all before I was done. War is a broadening experience.”
And THIS is the kind of commentary that makes THE UNSUBSTANTIAL AIR such an intensely personal and  eminently readable kind of history. Hynes succeeds in making himself a kind of contemporary of these fliers from a hundred years ago. In reading their letters and diaries and reflecting on them and then remembering his own days as a combat pilot, he has entered their company, become one of them.  With passages like the one above I was taken back to my own military experiences during the Cold War and early years of Vietnam.  Brought up in a small town in Michigan, I was suddenly thrust into the company of young men – boys, really – from New York, Missouri, Texas, Wyoming, California, Oklahoma, and other states. We trained together, lived together in cramped close quarters, and traveled together to faraway foreign places – Turkey and Germany, in my case. And yes, we met girls who drank liquor and beer, girls quite unlike the ‘nice’ girls we’d grown up with. Such things are covered in Hynes’s chapters: “Abroad I: First Impressions”;  “Abroad II: Getting Acquainted”; and “Abroad III: End Games”.
This history-cum-memoir aspect of THE UNSUBSTANTIAL AIR manifests itself repeatedly. At the end of the chapter, “Looking at the War,” which looks at the various kinds of work and planes that the pilots were involved with, Hynes agrees that the fighter pilots were the best, the most ‘romantic,’ and says –
“A generation later, small boys like me, who wore helmets and goggles to school in the winter, would run around the school yard at recess, their arms stuck out like wings, uttering what they hoped was the sound of machine guns and shouting,  ‘Look at me! I’m Eddie Rickenbacker!’ or ‘I’m the Red Baron!’ And when our war came along, we’d know that we had to be pilots – not just any pilots, fighter pilots, because they were the heroes, they were the solitary knights of the air who fought their war personally, one plane against the other.”
And again, when Hynes discusses how, when a pilot dies, he is honored in two ways. One is the official military funeral. The other is more personal –
“… someone – a friend, a tent mate – assumed the task of sorting the dead man’s possessions, dismantling his life as a flier, now that it was over. There won’t be many personal items – a few photographs, a watch or a fountain pen, some letters from home, perhaps – for the folks at home to cherish … And the sorting, like the military funeral, will be a reassurance that a man you lived with and flew with has been treated with due respect, which is all you can do.”
These deeply felt personal touches in this unique history of these pioneer military aviators occur repeatedly – in the way Hynes often uses the present tense, and even the future tense, a stylistic method that puts you in the moment, a kind of “you are there” feeling; and also when he uses a first person and second person viewpoint, versus a constant objective and omniscient third person. Here’s a sample –
“… many pilots become casualty statistics: dead or wounded, or missing, or shot down and captured and made prisoners of war. If you read their letters and journals, you’re bound to take some of those losses personally. You’ve followed these young men from college to flight school to a squadron at the front; you’ve felt their eagerness and witnessed their triumphs and mistakes. And now, suddenly, their war stories end, or are interrupted, and you feel their absence. Having come this far in the company of these pilots, I could make my own muster of the lost – the ones I’d like to have flown with.”
And he does, listing the names of just a few of the pilots featured throughout his book: Walter Avery, Ham Coolidge, Joe Eastman and Kenneth MacLeish, summarizing their brief flying careers, and – in some cases – too brief lives.
And finally,  in an even more personal summing up of his research and the writing of this book –
“I come to the end of this story of the flying game with a feeling of admiration for the men I have met here, but also with a certain sadness. Like old Nestor in the ODYSSEY, I look back on the war and think, ‘So many good men gone. How young they were, how promising those young lives that would not be lived out … And what good guys they were – funny, risk-taking, good friends and good fliers.’ War is a cruel devourer of the young. And flying is a gamble that even the best pilots don’t always win.”
I could feel Sam Hynes’s sadness as he said good-bye to all these young men he’d come to know through their letters and diary entries; and as he no doubt said good-bye again to friends lost in his own war more than sixty years ago.
THE UNSUBSTANTIAL AIR is history, a deeply personal history of the best kind. Yet another “first rate piece of work” from Samuel Hynes. And then some. Thank you, Sam. My highest recommendation.
Tim Bazzett, author of the Cold War memoir, SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA
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Book Review: Something that Feels like Truth by Donald Lystra

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Something that Feels like Truth: Stories, by Donald Lystra. DeKalb, IL: Switchgrass Books/NIU Press, 2013. ($15.95, 290 pages)

In reading Donald Lystra’s story collection, SOMETHING THAT FEELS LIKE TRUTH, I was struck by its overall air of quiet thoughtfulness, a quality not often found in contemporary fiction, particularly the shallow sort often topping today’s bestseller lists. Because there are no werewolves or vampires here, no scenes of bloody violence or bodice-ripping passion. Indeed the only aberrations you’ll discover in these stories are the unspoken thoughts and suppressed desires of outwardly ordinary men and women, living their lives of quiet desperation, silently straining toward some undefinable other – wishing and wondering as they fill their finite days with mundane mind-numbing jobs and activities.

This yearning quality, this “Is That All There Is?” feeling permeates many of Lystra’s stories, beginning with the first, “Geese.” Its protagonist, Glenn, tries to remain aloof from the scary spectre of his brother-in-law’s “exploratory” surgery, but then, in agreeing to put down the man’s ailing old dog, is suddenly confronted with his own fear of isolation and death. “Nothing about today seemed normal, nothing at all,” Glenn thinks as he talks to his wife on the phone. “I heard her breathing on the wire. My heart was going like crazy. ‘Don’t hang up yet.'”

That wondering if there might be more to life continues in other stories: with Tom, a laid-off factory worker in “Marseilles;” with Norm, a night shift bus driver in “Hesitation;” and with Eleanor in “The Five O’Clock Train.”

The theme of the heart, as a fragile physical organ, crops up throughout the collection too. One of the stories, about a bitter, divorced architect is titled, for obvious reasons, “Bypass.” Following a visit from his ex-wife, Frank touches his scarred chest, feeling “deep within, the reassuring buck and shudder of his imperfect heart.” And the protagonist of “Speaking of Love Abstractly” has undergone an angioplasty. Recently separated from his wife and tentatively attracted to his much younger French tutor, Harold asks his doctor if his heart is healthy enough for sex. The tutor is young – and French – enough that she doesn’t know who Walter Cronkite is. She’s given no first name in the story, identified only as “Mademoiselle Carnot.” Puzzled, I wondered fleetingly if perhaps this were a gentle jest on Lystra’s part, combining carnal (as in carnal knowledge) with Bardot (as in the French sex-kitten actress from the fifties that only older men like myself and Lystra might remember). Nah, probably not.

There is too a push and pull between innocence and experience found scattered among the stories. Several could be considered coming of age tales – “Reckless” concerns a young boy on a hunting trip with his father; in “Treasure Hunt” a seventeen year-old grapples with family loyalties; in “Scout” a boy worried about his father’s serious illness discovers a derelict’s dead body. And in “Family Way” (the story which spawned Lystra’s critically acclaimed novel, SEASON OF WATER AND ICE), twelve year-old Danny’s attention is divided between his own sexual awakening, his parents’ failing marriage, and a new friend, a pregnant teenager.

The final story in the collection, “Bridge,” will make comparisons to Hemingway inevitable. In it, a sixty-something year-old makes a long-postponed pilgrimage to Seney in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to retrace the journey of Nick Adams in “Big Two-Hearted River,” the story first published in Hemingway’s collection, IN OUR TIME, more than eighty years ago. The protagonist in Lystra’s story, identified only as “the old man,” is hoping to find something out about the truth of Hemingway’s story, to bridge the gap between fact and fiction, and in so doing, to make some sense of the choices he’s made in his own life.

Hmm … Looks like I’ve somehow managed to invoke Thoreau, Blake, Hemingway, and even Peggy Lee. But the truth is these pieces are pure Lystra – every one a perfectly polished gem of storytelling. There are no fillers or discards. In fact, each of these sixteen stories holds, somewhere within it, SOMETHING THAT FEELS LIKE TRUTH. If you are looking for serious fiction for grownups, read this book. I recommend it highly.

 

By Tim Bazzett

 

Tim Bazzett is the author of five books including his recently published “Booklover, A One-Year Journal of Reading, Reflecting & Remembering.” He resides in Reed City, Michigan. More information and/or to order his books, see his website here.

 

 

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Book Review: Breach of Trust by Abdrew J. Bacevich

breachBreach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (American Empire Project), by Andrew J. Bacevich. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013 ($26, 256 pages)
Andrew Bacevich’s latest offering, BREACH OF TRUST, is going to make a lot of people squirm – if people read it, that is. Because in this book he tells us flat out that an all-volunteer army in a democratic society simply does not work, and that the present system is “broken.” It is bankrupting our country, and not just financially, but morally. He tells us that Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the longest and most expensive wars in U.S. history, have evoked little more than “an attitude of cordial indifference” on the part of a shallow and selfish populace more concerned with the latest doings of the Kardashians, professional superstar athletes or other vapid and overpaid millionaire celebrities, reflecting “a culture that is moored to nothing more than irreverent whimsy and jeering ridicule.”

Bacevich cites General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, who spoke about having “skin in the game,” meaning that when a country goes to war every town and city should be at risk. McChrystal went on to say the unthinkable: “I think we’d be better if we actually went to a draft these days … for the nation it would be a better course.”

Horrors! That dreaded “D” word finally uttered aloud. Well, I’d say it’s about damn time. And Bacevich agrees, noting that in his many speaking engagements over the past ten years “I can count on one hand the number of occasions when someone did NOT pose a question about the draft, invariably offered as a suggestion for how to curb Washington’s appetite for intervention abroad and establish some semblance of political accountability.”

And, lest anyone should deduce that BREACH OF PROMISE is just one more partisan snipe at the infamous “Bush Doctrine,” I should point out that Barack Obama does not escape criticism here. Bacevich points out that in spite of his presidential campaign rhetoric and promises, “when the war became his, President Obama proved less inclined to criticize its conduct.” Moreover Obama even put his own spin on the Iraq fiasco, calling it, finally, “an extraordinary achievement,” resulting in the emergence of “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” Huh? I mean, HUH?!

I am sure that there are a lot of Obama supporters, like myself, who have been less than happy with the President’s knuckling under to his many deeply invested military and government advisors on how he conducts – and continues – the still-no-win and continuingly deplorable situation in Afghanistan.

This is not a big book, size-wise. It doesn’t take long to read. But it took me longer than expected because I spent so much time underlining things, making margin notes, and dog-earing pertinent pages. Because it’s that kind of book, the kind that will leave you feeling simultaneously stimulated and enervated, excited to learn that FINALLY someone has had the gumption to say that this professional standing army thing is not working. That it goes against all the principles of a democratic society. That, as General McChrystal suggested, if war is indeed necessary, then there must be “skin in the game” – that an army of truly representative citizen-soldiers should be fielded. Not to mention sacrifices made at home, INCLUDING tax hikes to finance the war.

Bacevich recognizes, however, that such measures, particularly a return to the draft will be a hard sell, and makes a couple of suggestions.

“One approach is through conscription, with ALL able-bodied young men and women eligible for service but only SOME actually selected. Imagine a lottery with Natasha and Malia Obama at age eighteen having the same chance of being drafted as the manicurist’s son or the Walmart clerk’s daughter..”

His other approach would be “a program of national service,” which would include opting for military service or some other opportunities, like the Peace Corps or volunteering to work with sick, elderly or poor. “Some national service personnel might carry assault rifles; others would empty bed pans or pass out bed linens.”

BREACH OF TRUST will probably not be a big hit at the Pentagon or in the halls of government, but by God it should be required reading at the very least for everyone who serves on the Armed Services Committee in both Houses of Congress. Because Bacevich is right. Our army of professional soldiers is at the breaking point; it is in fact already broken. And waging endless wars on borrowed money (to be paid by future generationS) is not only fiscally irresponsible, it is morally wrong. Period.

BREACH OF TRUST is a disturbing yet necessary read. I give it my highest recommendation.

Tim Bazzett is an author and book reviewer living in Reed City, Michigan. His books may be found here.

“How can I not mention this latest memoir from Tim Bazzett? On the cover of “Booklover: A One-Year Journal of Reading, Reflecting & Remembering,” he stands next to a stack of books he’s read and right there, smack at knee level, is my own “An Open Book.” Bazzett has been chronicling his life in a series of digressive reminiscences, starting with “Reed City Boy” and “Soldier Boy” … If you like memoirs, check out this latest installment …”

Michael Dirda
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and critic for The Washington Post, and author of the classic midwestern memoir, An Open Book

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Book Review: A Voice from the River, by Dan Gerber

voiceI have been aware of Dan Gerber’s work for forty years or more, mainly because of his early collaboration with Jim Harrison in publishing the Sumac literary magazine and also some books under the Sumac Press imprint. This was back in the late sixties and early seventies, before Harrison broke big with his LEGENDS OF THE FALL and went on to become a prominent figure in American letters for both his fiction and his poetry. Gerber’s work, on the other hand, has gone largely unnoticed by American readers. This is partly, I suppose, because his output has been sparse and uneven in quality. I remember reading, back in the seventies, an early Gerber novel, OUT OF CONTROL, about auto racing, which was not particularly good, and I hadn’t read any of his work since. There hasn’t really been much, most of it thin volumes of poetry.

But now here’s this novel, A VOICE FROM THE RIVER – new to me, but it’s actually been around since 1990, first published by Clark City Press, out of Livingston, Montana. It was reprinted in 2005 by Michigan State University Press, the alma mater of both Gerber and Harrison, as well as Tom McGuane, the third member of what was once considered a triumvirate of promising young literary lions out of East Lansing. McGuane, like Harrison, has gone on to considerable success as an author.

Gerber, however, has continued to languish in the ranks of middle tier writers. Poetry has always been a hard sell in America, and Gerber has published only four books of fiction in a stop-and-start writing career that now spans nearly fifty years. During most of that time he also served on the board of directors of the Gerber foods empire, which probably ate up a lot of his time and may also have been a kind of soul-sucking experience for a man who has aspirations to a writer’s life.

Here’s the thing though. When he wrote A VOICE FROM THE RIVER he was obviously drawing heavily on his own experiences as the unwilling scion of a successful business. At the same time, there is enough invention involved to make this a beautifully wrought work of fiction. Protagonist Russell Wheeler is a WWII veteran who returned to his small Michigan town to head up a paper business inherited from his father. Russell’s son Nick is a disaffected veteran of Vietnam, uninterested in the family business who wants to run an art gallery. Russell is haunted by three years spent living with a tribe of stone-age cannibals who rescued him and nursed him back to health after his plane was shot down over the mountainous jungles of New Guinea. Nick has his own demons after serving a tour as a transportation and graves registration officer responsible for the disposition of dead and wounded. He finally simply walks out of his job with the family business, leaving his wife and daughter behind, and moves to New York, where he begins a new life with another woman and plans to open an antique store. Russell, whose wife had left him years before, becomes romantically entangled with his son’s abandoned wife, Lesley. When this part of the book emerged, I was immediately reminded of one of Updike’s RABBIT books; I think it was the last one, RABBIT AT REST, in which Harry has a brief affair with his son Nelson’s wife. But there’s a difference. While Updike’s Rabbit was always something of a rascal, running on animal instinct, Gerber’s Russell is a romantic, who finds himself deeply in love with Lesley, wrong as he feels it might be. There is an empathetic elegance in evidence here, a tenderness, which wasn’t there in the Updike story. What perhaps makes the two stories seem more alike, however, is the fact that both men are very conscious of the effects of aging and the inescapable fact of death.

In a passage which gives the book its name, Russell remembers his aborigine rescuer and friend, Kopa Ki, proudly calling out into the river gorge and hearing his echo, saying: “It is the voice of my spirit from the river … It tells me that I am still with the living … That I have not yet been taken by my ancestors.”

Both Russell and Nick feel that same sense of time passing, of urgency to do something important with whatever remains of their lives. And in their own ways, they both break away from the ties of family and business. And therein lies a beautiful tale of love, loss and redemption. Gerber definitely got his stuff together for this, his most “recent” novel. Some of the elements he has lived, and some are artfully invented, but this is simply one hell of a riveting story. The ending seems right, perhaps even perfect. A VOICE FROM THE RIVER, is a beautiful book. Very highly recommended.

 

A Voice from the River, by Dan Gerber. Livingston, MT: Clark City Press, 1990 ($12.95, 196 pages)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: Flashes of War by Katey Schultz

flashes2In FLASHES OF WAR, her first book, Katey Schultz , barely bending the boundaries of the exacting subgenre of “flash fiction,” gives  us honed-to-the-bone, gut-wrenching glimpses into the lives of soldiers and civilians irreparably damaged and torn apart by the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

My unrefined reaction to these largely ultra-short stories written by a young woman with no personal experience of combat or war was a wondering and respectful “Holy crap!” How in the hell did she DO this? How did she get herself so completely inside the heads of these soldiers, using such indisputably genuine GI language and thoughts? And even more amazingly, how did she pull off the same hat trick when it came to the other side? Because yes, there are stories here which are about  civilians caught in the middle of these seemingly never-ending horrors. There is the Afghan mother trying to understand the collateral death of her small son in “My Son  Wanted a Notebook.” And in “First Commander,” there is the small but savvy Iraqi boy scrambling for scraps in the dust of  the Americans who “look so tall and wide that just being next to them feels like resting in the shadow of a cloud.” And the voice of a father trying to protect his family in war-torn Fallujah (“Refugee”),

There are non-combatant casualties from our side too, like Lillis, the grieving single mom in “Getting Perspective” who finally begins to accept her loss –

“But I can tell you my husband died in Iraq and I’ll say it out loud: one, because it’s true, two, because he wouldn’t want me keeping quiet about something that important, and three, because it sounds like the start of whatever happens next.”

In “The Waiting: Part II” home front military spouses arrange their lives to support each other, “Like making sure at 6 o’clock we’re on the phone, so we don’t turn on the television and listen to more of that bad-news-IED-no-further-details kind of talk.” This moving one-page piece evoked echoes of Siobhan Fallon’s fine, interlinked story collection, YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE, as well as the underrated TV series, “Army Wives.”

But the best stories here, I thought, were those told from the perspective of the soldiers. It’s difficult to pick standout pieces, because they are all excellent. I was especially moved by a few though. “WIA” stands out, as a seriously wounded soldier on a medevac transport plane fears he will die – until the nurses came, who “darted like swallows from cot to cot, a silent gentle army whose only mission was to keep us alive.”

And there is Becca, a Walter Reed patient who has lost an arm, yet banters with a friend who has lost both legs and jokes, “I’ll trade ya injuries.” (“Amputee”)  Or Stephanie, who can’t wait to follow her older brother into the service and also ends up muitilated and crippled, her grieving parents at her bedside asking, “What happened? What happened? What happened?” (“Deuce Out”)

In “The Quiet Kind,” the longest of these thirty-one stories, Nathan, trained in close-quarters killing, struggles to reconnect with his wife and small daughter, tortured by nightmares of what he has done, knowing that his “is the quiet kind of PTSD.”

FLASHES OF WAR is simply an outstanding piece of work. I tried to think of comparable books, and, oddly, one that sprang first to mind is a collection of great stories recently published by fifteen veterans of these wars called FIRE AND FORGET. Another is the critically acclaimed novel by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, THE WATCH. The truth is though, this “flash fiction” treatment of the wars of our time is totally unique. A brilliant debut and a marvelous achievement of research and imagination. Highly recommened. Bravo, Katey Schultz!

Flashes of War: Short Stories, by Katey Schultz. Baltimore, MD: Apprentice House/Loyola University Maryland, 2013, 188 pages, $16.95

– Tim Bazzett, author of the Cold War memoir, SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA, lives in Reed City, Michigan.

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Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, 2013 Edition

Fire and Forget is an absolutely terrific collection of stories by fifteen exciting new writers, all products of the recent and current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fully a third of the writers have already published their own books. Siobhan Fallon’s book of connected stories, YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE, has already garnered much deserved critical acclaim. Her story, “Tips for a Smooth Transition” adds a valuable chapter to her earlier oeuvre of the unavoidable miscommunication, disconnect, and struggles with loneliness and infidelity that occur between absent or returning soldiers and their spouses, left behind either alone or with small children.

It’s hard to pick a favorite entry here, but I loved Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” maybe because of its dialogue of authentic GI language filled with all its political incorrectness which nevertheless brought guilty guffaws from me as I read it. I’d offer an example, but it’s too filthy for most of my review venues. And yet the same story, with the narrator’s fear of public places and the dilemma of dealing with a dying and beloved dog made me wince in empathy. Jacob Siegel’s “Smile, There Are IEDs Everywhere” shows three veterans of widely divergent backgrounds reuniting in New York City for a drunken binge. The difficulties of that “smooth transition” are glaringly displayed in the course of that evening.

In “Play the Game” Colby Buzzell (author of the memoir, MY WAR: KILLING TIME IN IRAQ) offers a chilling portrait of a futureless veteran who is probably suffering from PTSD, living in a transient LA hotel, drifting aimlessly between dead end jobs. Roman Skaskiw’s “Television” presents a well-meaning but naive young lieutenant who has yet to learn that war is about more than just the killing portrayed in video games.

Gavin Ford Kovite’s story, “When Engaging Targets, Remember,” gives us a thinking, college-educated soldier who fears he may think too long about the Rules of Engagement he has been given, thus endangering his own life and those of his fellow combatants. Then there is “The Train,” Mariette Kalinowski’s story of a female vet who obsessively rides the subways after having watched her best friend killed in front of her by a suicide bomber. Who says there are no women in combat?

“New Me” by Andrew Slater, and Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” both deal with veterans who have been mutilated, traumatized and damaged who are trying to find their places in an apathetic civilian society. “Roll Call,” by David Abrams (author of the novel, FOBBIT), is the shortest and yet perhaps one of the most affecting of all the stories in the collection because of its subject: a unit memorial service for a fallen comrade. Like Phil Klay, Abrams has mastered the obscene, often hilarious, jargon of the enlisted man. Perry O’Brien’s “Poughkeepsie” gives us the poignant plight of a lonely soldier who has gone AWOL to find a pen-pal who, he learns too late, wants nothing to do with him.

Ted Janis’s “Raid” shows most effectively how too many combat tours can burn a man out, while Brian Turner (author of the poetry collection, HERE, BULLET) offers a dream-like look at a patrol lost in seemingly endless desert dunes in “The Wave that Takes Them Under.”

The final two pieces in the book are by its two main editors. Matt Gallagher (author of the memoir, KABOOM), in “And Bugs Don’t Bleed” paints an effective mini-portrait of a burned-out, deeply damaged vet, faithless women and greedy, predatory civilians who claim to support the troops. But as one character says, those troops “have been completely abandoned by the rest of the country.” Roy Scranton’s “Red Steel India” (an excerpt from his as yet unpublished novel, WAR PORN) shows the boredom and monotony of perimeter guard duty and the distrust and petty cruelties the soldiers show toward their Iraqi counterparts. (The tone of Scranton’s story brought to mind Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s fine novel of the Afghanistan war, THE WATCH.)

I know I can’t even begin to do justice to the excellence and variety of the veterans’ experiences brought together between the covers of FIRE AND FORGET. So I’ll just say this. There is not a clinker in the bunch. Every story deserves its place in this landmark collection. I will remember these names and will be watching for them.

Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War(edition 2013), edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher

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Tim Bazzett is retired from the federal government and now lives in Reed City, Michigan. A lifelong booklover, he has published four memoirs and a biography. His reviews and essays have appeared in several Michigan newspapers and he has been a guest on Michigan public radio and TV. For more information, visithttp://RatholeBooks.com  .

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“The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe

endlifeWatching a parent’s gradual decline and death to pancreatic cancer is certainly a somber subject, but somehow Will Schwalbe’s story of his mother’s last two years in The End of Your Life Book Club becomes more of a celebration and a tribute than you would have thought possible. You end up almost envying the author for the special close relationship he shared with his mother, a well-known and much-loved champion of causes.

Schwalbe is a very talented writer, and his approach to telling the story of his mother’s final weeks, months and years is unique. He describes how they formed a book club of two and discussed their literary choices whenever they could, but mostly while his mother was being infused with toxic chemo treatments or waiting to see her doctors. Always close, the two became even closer as they used their mutual love of good books to learn more about the world, themselves and each other.

While I might have wished for more details about the author’s own life and the rest of his family, I had to admire how he kept to his own clearly defined focus – the importance books and reading had always held in his family. This made their story unique, even as the discussions of books and writing allowed you ever deeper into their system of beliefs and ideals. The author’s sexual orientation – he is openly gay – is not avoided but it is not emphasized either. Even that aspect of their story is elucidated through books, as Will tells of discovering the books of Christopher Isherwood during his college years.

At first I found the ‘books’ aspect of the story more interesting than that of Will and his mother. (Indeed, the literary allusions are scattered everywhere and many of the books are discussed at some length, and there is a bibliography at the end of the book.) But I quickly found myself wanting to learn more about the life of Mary Ann Schwalbe, a truly remarkable and one-of-a-kind woman. The end, which you of course knew was coming from the start, is nevertheless very difficult. There is a point in the final weeks of his mother’s life, where Will is ready to tell her how much he loves her, but instead he tells her how proud he is of her. At first he berates himself for this sudden change, but then he reconsiders, figuring she already knew he loved her, but how often does a child tell a parent how proud he or she is of that parent? A good point, I think.

As a confirmed and lifelong reader, I was already prepared to love this book. But as a son, I was not prepared for its emotional impact. This is good writing about a painful and difficult subject and completely deserving of its success. Highly recommended.

 A lifelong book lover,  Michigan resident Tim Bazett has published four memoirs and a biography. His reviews and essays have appeared in several Michigan newspapers and he has been a guest on Michigan public radio and TV. For more information, visit http://RatholeBooks.com.

 

 

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