Soldiers’ Tales

Fives and Twenty-Fives: A Novel, by Michael Pitre, (Bloomsbury USA), 400 pages

We’ve just passed the centenary of the start of World War I, which has inspired a wealth of articles, books, and commemorations. I wonder, though, whether any of us are capable of really understanding that war on an individual, visceral level. It’s the need for this sort of understanding—for a full recognition of what it is we are asking our youth to do when we send them to war—that inspires the best war literature. For World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun are examples of books that accomplish this. This year the young adult novel Stay Where You Are and Then Leave has accomplished something similar, focusing on the son of one of the soldiers engaged in that war.

The conflict in Iraq (Operation Enduring Freedom—in retrospect, that name can be read as hubris or a distressingly nihilistic sort of humor) doesn’t yet have a “classic” literature in the sense that World War I does, but that literature is emerging. Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives is a striking example of that literature, and it certainly deserves long-term recognition as a classic.

Fives and Twenty-Fives focuses on the lives of three characters, depicting these through a series of first-person narratives interwoven with “official” documents that also address these characters’ experiences. These characters are all part of an engineering team responsible for filling potholes in occupied areas—but filling potholes doesn’t just mean filling potholes. Each of these potholes also houses an IED (improvised explosive device) that must be disarmed before the roadwork can begin. In addition, many of these potholes are part of a larger attempt to immobilize U.S. forces, rendering them vulnerable to attacks in addition to the IEDs. As one character puts it, this work is “an endless game of three-card monte with the enemy triggermen, for whom killing bomb-disposal technicians [is] a top priority.”

Donovan, a young lieutenant responsible for leading one of these road crews, is hindered (as well as embarrassed) by his lack of military experience. Doc Pleasant, the medic for that crew, faces the impossible task of trying to return bodies to wholeness after explosions and fire fights have torn them to pieces. “Dodge,” their Iraqi interpreter (pseudonyms were assigned those working in this role to prevent reprisals against their families), loves heavy metal music and, before the war broke out, was writing a thesis on Huckleberry Finn. Initially, it’s a bit difficult sorting out this tri-fold narrative, but the narrators’ voices are distinct enough that this problem is resolved as the book progresses.

I found the character of Dodge striking because of both the particular difficulty of the work he’s asked to do and because the simple fact of who he is complicates a great many assumptions readers are apt to have about Iraqis. Early on, an American trainer succinctly describes Dodge’s responsibilities: “Those guys over at Engineer Support shoot up a lot of cars by accident. You’ll go and apologize for them.” Dodge is also expected to deliver the compensatory money given after the killing or maiming of Iraqi civilians. His knowledge of Iraqi politics is nuanced; he recognizes the internal divisions left over from the Saddam era that make any sense of national unity an impossibility. He’s also able to debate the merits of Metallica and speaks a startlingly colloquial English..

As one might expect, Fives and Twenty-Fives makes for a brutal sort of reading, which is precisely why this such a valuable book. Writing cannot begin to replicate combat experience, but truly fine writing can at least give readers a glimpse at the vast desolation and destructiveness of combat, a sense of standing at the edge of an unseeable chasm of almost infinite width and depth.

In the afterword, Pitre acknowledges “all those Iraqis who risked everything for a chance at a free society, and a life at peace” as well as “[a] generation of Marines [who] will grow old wishing we’d done better for you.” For the sake of these two groups and for the sake of our individual and national spirits, this book deserves to be widely read.

The Miniaturist: Magic, Piety, and the Pursuit of Profit in 17th Century Amsterdam

The Miniaturist: A Novel, by Jessie Burton, (Ecco), 416 pages

You know the kind of novel that leaves you crying and smiling, with you imagination soaring? The kind of novel that you don’t want to close, so when you get to the last page you find yourself leafing back to the opening again? Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is that kind of a novel.

Set in 17th Century Amsterdam, The Miniaturist depicts a society that is rigidly religious and tightly focused on the bottom line. Neighbors watch each other for transgressions that could carry criminal punishments: the making of gingerbread people, deemed too similar to Catholic idols, is forbidden. Sweets are eaten in secret to preserve one’s image of self-denial. At the same time, Guilds strictly enforce limits on the professions that can be pursued by individuals, bringing riches to the few and leaving most poor and unable to move to more profitable careers. In an afterward discussing incomes at that time, Burton tells us that “By the last quarter of the 17th Century, 0.1% of the Amsterdam rich owned about 42% of the total wealth of the city.”

This novel is set within one of the wealthier Amsterdam households, peopled by an interesting mix of characters. Nella, just eighteen and recently married, lonely in the city she’s just moved to; her husband Johannes, kind, but distracted; Marin, her sister-in-law, controlling, fiercely religious and determined to present the proper front to those around her; Cordelia, a surprisingly outspoken servant girl rescued from an orphanage; and Otto, Johannes’s manservant, originally from Dahomey, whose status as slave or employee or ward is unclear. The relationships among these characters are complex, all of them determined to hide parts of themselves from the others.

The time period and characters are fascinating in themselves, but Burton throws in a dose of magic (or is it menace?) in the form of a miniature cabinet given to Nella by Johannes and replicating in detail the home they live in. At first, Nella finds the gift insulting—a child’s toy given to a bride who should be treated as an adult. However, with little to do, she begins to order pieces for the cabinet from a local miniaturist. When her first order is delivered, it contains all Nella requested, but it also contains pieces she didn’t request, pieces that suggest their household is under close observation for purposes unknown.

I’m hoping that brief summary gives some sense of the pleasures in store for readers of The Miniaturist. The characters grow increasingly compelling as their secrets are revealed. The uncertainty about the cabinet at the center of the story builds steadily. Each chapter seems a new revelation or presaging, making this one of those books that you shouldn’t start late in the evening when you’ll be going to work the next morning.  I often divide books into two categories: those that one can put off reading until they’re issued in paperback and those that need to be read now, while they’re still in hardback. The Miniaturist is one of the latter. Don’t wait to give yourself this pleasure; pick up a copy as soon as you can and start reading.

The Necessity of Reading that Hurts

Sad Peninsula, by Mark Sampson, (Dundurn), 352 pages

Mark Sampson’s novel Sad Peninsula is a painful read, not because of any failings on his part, but because of the subject the novel deals with: rape and sexual violence. The chapters alternate between past and present. In the past, we follow the story of a Korean girl, Eun-young, abducted by the Japanese to serve as a “comfort woman” during World War II. In the present we move among the community of expatriate ESL teachers in Korea. Within this (primarily male) community status is accorded based on sexual conquests—who can seduce and sleep with the most Korean women? There are exceptions, one of whom is Michael, who falls in love with a Korean woman and is committed to understanding and learning to function in Korean society.

While this is a painful novel to read, it is also a very worthwhile read. The history of the “comfort women” needs to be told and retold precisely because it is a painful history, the sort that societies attempt to wish away through forgetting. Eun-young, the former comfort woman, describes her experience tersely: she was raped thirty-five times a day for two years. At the war’s end, she finds herself on the periphery of society because of what’s perceived as her participation in sexual activity, never mind that Eun-young never consented to this endless barrage of abuse.

The author, who lived in Seoul from 2003 to 2005 describes in the foreword  the “many young men in the expatriate teaching community who behaved in ways they wouldn’t back in their home countries…. While most of these [sexual] interactions were, technically, consensual, there was an aspect to the way these young women were seen and treated by the teachers, that awakened something in my imagination.” That something was the parallels between this predatory present-day activity and the story of the comfort women, whom he didn’t begin to learn about until after his return to his home country, Canada.

In many ways it seems audacious for a man—and a Canadian man at that—to try to represent the experiences of the comfort women. On the other hand, this kind of cross-cultural understanding, the placing of one’s self into the experiences of others, is essential to a world in which sexual violence may someday be eradicated. Within the novel, Sampson seems to be acknowledging the freighted nature of the task he is undertaking by showing his central present-day character, Michael, researching the comfort women’s lives despite objections from Koreans. Michael’s behavior is seen as  both genuine and insensitive, which is just how readers might view Sampson’s fiction.

As I said at the start, this book is a painful read; however, the pain of this reading is what makes the reading necessary. If the reader feels uneasy about this fictionalized treatment of the subject, there are a number of non-fictional resources to turn to, many of which Sampson lists in a substantial afterword. By reading both fiction and non-fiction accounts the reader will have an opportunity to understand this horrible moment in history (and horrible moments in the present day) both intellectually and emotionally.

Underrepresented Latina Lives

The Amado Women, by Désirée Zamorano, (Cinco Punto Press), 240 pages

The publisher of Désirée Zamorano’s The Amado Women is Cinco Puntos Press—a publisher I’ve just discovered, but I’ll be on the lookout for any new works they publish. I have been lucky enough to receive electronic ARCs of three of their latest books. Cinco Puntos describes its mission in this way: “With roots on the U.S./Mexico border, Cinco Puntos publishes great books which make a difference in the way you see the world.” Based on my reading of the first of the three ARCs I’ve received, I have to say that they’re accomplishing that mission quite nicely.

The Amado Women, set primarily in 2001-2, follows the adult lives of three sisters and their mother. All of them are middle-class Latinas. The sisters, Celeste, Sylvia, and Nataly have taken very different directions in life, becoming estranged from one another. Celeste is an investment manager and more affluent than the others. Sylvia is a mother of two daughters and has husband who isn’t around much—and wose ife would improve markedly if he were around even less.  Nataly is an artist getting by on her day job. Their mother, Mercy, divorced her philandering husband years ago and is committed to her job as a grade school teacher.

While the sisters’s relationship is rocky, they can become fiercely protective of one another in times of crisis. This tension between resentment and loyalty drives the novel. As they face increasingly difficult challenges, their loyalty becomes increasingly important.

Zamorano has explained that part of her purpose in writing this novel was to present Latina women living lives beyond the few stereotypical roles assigned to them in most fiction and film: sexy temptresses or impoverished immigrants. In other words, this isn’t a novel that reflects the way the larger world perceives Latinas; it’s a novel that clearly depicts a reality many Latinas live, one which popular culture is largely blind to. Zanorano’s determination to broaden popular perceptions of Latinas is well-suited to the mission of Cinco Puntos Press.

Zamorano is also a playwright, and the dialogue in her novel reflects this fact. The voices of the characters are distinctive and genuine, easy for the reader to hear in her own head as she makes her way through the novel. The quality of this dialogue is matched by the quality of the women’s internal monologues. The book moves between action and reflection skillfully, creating a balance between the two.

The Amado Women is an engaging powerful read, one that I strongly recommend. I’d also recommend looking for additional work by this author and from this publisher.

Everyday Enlightenment

The Story Hour: A Novel, by Thrity Umrigar, (Harper), 336 pages

We’re only in August and The Story Hour is the eleventh novel I’ve put on my ten-best-in-2014 list. I know that’s a bit problematic from a numerical sense—but I also know that The Story Hour has to be on the list, even if I haven’t figured out yet what to cut.

The Story Hour takes readers on a cross-cultural journey. Lakshmi, an immigrant from a small, impoverished village in India, living with a husband who despises her, attempts suicide and is treated by Maggie, an African-American therapist raised in Brooklyn and now living in a small east coast college town with her Indian immigrant husband, who is a professor of mathematics.

The lives of these two women are both very similar and utterly different, which is what gives the novel its impact. The message here isn’t a vaguely humanistic “gee, we’re all so similar when we don’t focus on the differences.” Instead, it’s more along the lines of “we can’t assume we understand each other, but we can have a sense of commonality while exploring our differences respectfully.”

In the same way that the boundaries between similarity and difference are blurred in this novel, the boundaries between the therapist-client relationship and genuine friendship are also blurred. Lakshmi, unfamiliar with therapeutic practice can’t help but think of Maggie as a friend; Maggie realizes early on that, given her isolation in a foreign culture, Lakshmi may have more need for friendship than for therapy.

Thrity Umrigar navigates these similarities and differences deftly, creating a story that undulates like ribbons on the wind: repeatedly drawing together and moving apart. As the reader observes the choices both characters make, she’s afforded an opportunity for reflection. The complexity of Lakshmi and Maggie’s situations can remind the reader of the complexities of our own lives.

Ultimately, the message of this novel is about the value of the everyday, the ways that love is most clearly demonstrated in the small, automatic gestures with which we fill our lives. The Story Hour does have drama, but the drama is there as a foil to the commonplace, which takes on a preciousness we seldom see in it.

Time spent in the company of Lakshmi and Maggie is time well-spent. The reader will also find that it’s time spent well with her own self.

Long Years on the Border

The Invention of Exile: A Novel, by Vanessa Manko, (Penguin Press), 304 pages

While there is a story underlying Vanessa Manko’s The Invention of Exile, the novel is not so much a narrative as a meditation. The plot is simple enough. Austin, a Russian immigrant, and Julia, a native-born American meet, fall in love, and are married traditionally with a promise ritual, rather than legally.

It’s the early 1920s and the U.S. is in the first of a recurring tide of panics about the Red Menace. The members of Austin’s Russian social club are rounded up, he is inappropriately labeled an anarchist, and he is deported to Russia, with Julia accompanying him.

As Russian communists begin to win the civil war, the two flee—first to Constantinople, then to France, and finally to Mexico because of its proximity to the U.S.—hoping that they can return to the nation where they met. After some effort, Julia and the three children are given visas to return. The family is assured that it will only be a matter of a few months before Austin has his visa as well. Those few months turn out to be fourteen years.

Though it’s written in third person, the bulk of the novel takes place within Austin’s mind as he waits in Mexico City, hoping for his visa. The story unspools in a series of reflections that move back and forth in time. This is both the novel’s strength and its weakness. Austin’s internal monologue is beautifully rendered in an almost elegiac way. Using Austin’s memories as a starting place, the reader is invited to contemplate a variety of complex topics: national identities, the nature of citizenship, the cruelty of bureaucracies, the structure of family, and the maintaining of familial relationships over lengthy temporal and geographic distances.

However, given Austin’s years of frustrations, one memory of uncertainty or separation follows another and the mood is bleak, leaving the book intellectually rich, but emotionally monotonous. My attention and reading speed varied as I moved through the book. When I was alert and up for a bit of philosophizing I could move through it quickly and with engagement, but whenever I was a bit tired my reading speed slowed and I lost focus, the novel feeling like a dark, unseeable river moving past me at a turgid pace.

The Invention of Exile is an interesting read, but it makes demands that not all readers will want to meet, particularly those more used to narrative-driven fiction.

A Lesbian, Punk Rock Journey

Pissing in a River: A Novel, by Lorrie Sprecher, (The Feminist Press), 258 pages

I promised the women in my head that I would get to England even if it killed me.

That’s the kind of sentence that rivets a reader, and that’s how Lorrie Sprecher opens her novel, Pissing in a River (the title is taken from a Patti Smith song). The novel follows Amanda, the woman with voices in her head, as she builds a life for herself as an activist and a musician and covers the period from the beginning of the AIDS crisis through George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

The women in Amanda’s head are brown-haired Melissa and another, darker haired woman whose name Amanda doesn’t know. Both have British accents. They are supportive voices, by her side during times of crisis, and she moves to England twice—first as a study abroad student and later on a tourist visa with plans of gaining residency—at their urging.

The first part of the novel covers Amanda’s time as a study abroad student, her return to the U.S. and the years during which she pursues a Ph.D. in Literature while participating in early ACT UP demonstrations. The narrative arc here isn’t particularly strong, but it gives readers a chance to become acquainted with Amanda, to see her drive for justice, love of literature, obsessive thinking about (among other things) Old Testament themes, and her deep commitment to the art and politics of punk rock.

The novel picks up in the second half as Amanda builds relationships with both a best friend and a lover during her second stay in England. These three women are survivors of violence and who have turned to one another for the love and support that allows them to carve out space for themselves in a world determined to ignore or denigrate their political values and their identities as lesbians.

The punk rock that Amanda loves serves as a sort of sound track for the novel. She quotes lyrics and emulates the playing of her favorite guitarists. Long passages of the novel list bands, albums, concerts:

I had [my friend in London] listening to the Dils and X from Southern California; M.I.A. from Las Vegas; the Dead Kennedys, Rancid, Romeo Void, and the Avengers from San Francisco; Hüsker Dü and the Replacements from Minneapolis; Dag Nasty, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains from Washington, D.C., and the first REM album.

These constant references to both U.S. and European bands can be enlightening, but they can be demanding as well. Readers will want to pause repeatedly to hunt down samples of these artists’ works, which adds texture to the reading experience, but also feels a bit disruptive.

My feelings shifted often as I read this novel. At times I was moved by it; at other times the first-person narration felt more like summary than memory. But, having finished reading it, I find my assessment of the novel is steadily improving. Sprecher, through her characters, has wrestled with significant challenges of our time, particularly the challenge of being represented by a government one disagrees with and feels powerless to change.

The fact that the three women at the center of this novel create a family among themselves is nothing short of a triumph. This accomplishment doesn’t mitigate the violence and injustice of contemporary life, but it does affirm for readers the possibility of finding a source of support that makes acknowledging and responding to this violence and these injustices possible.


I received a free electronic ARC of this novel for the purpose of review from its publisher.

Working Mother

The Objects of Her Affection: A Novel, Sonya Cobb (Sourcebooks, Landmark), 352 pages

Sophia, the central character in Sonya Cobb’s The Objects of Her Affections is almost uncomfortably familiar: a Pittsburgh mother of two small children attempting to run a struggling home business while her husband travels extensively for his work as a museum curator. Regardless of careers or geographical location, most of us have observed the challenges posed by this sort of “normal” life, even if we haven’t lived it ourselves. Add into the mix a slightly over-priced, older house, bought with a variable rate mortgage at the peak of the housing bubble, and you can predict where this novel is going.

What you can’t predict is how Sophia responds to this situation. Having always handled her family’s finances, she decides that keeping up the mortgage payments is her responsibility. Her solution? Start stealing minor pieces from the museum at which her husband works and selling them to a dealer in New York.

Because Sophia doesn’t have the art history background her husband does, she accidentally steals a piece that’s important enough to be missed—which introduces the FBI to the story.

This isn’t a novel of high-end crime a la The Thomas Crown Affair. It’s much less flashy than that, a tale of family pressures and the mistakes that are sometimes made in response.

One of the best aspects of this book is the characterizations. The premise may sound a bit unlikely, but Cobb’s characters, especially Sophie, ring true. The reader can believe that Sophie’s backed herself into a corner where art theft seems like her only option. And being backed into a corner of unsustainable mortgage payments is all too easy to understand these days.

One of the things that I like about Sophia is that she isn’t always likeable. She plays her cards close to her chest, even with those most deserving of her trust. Her judgements of others come quickly. Nonetheless, her good intentions and concern for her family make it difficult for readers to become too critical of her.

If you’re looking for a piece of “women’s fiction” (a term I’m deeply ambivalent about) that moves beyond the usual expectations while keeping the relationships among its characters at its center, you’ll be quite pleased with The Objects of Her Affection.

An Anatomist and Enemy Alien in Eighteenth Century London

The Lazarus Curse: A Doctor Thomas Silkstone Mystery, by Tessa Harris, (Kensington Books), 352 pages

The Lazarus Curse is the fourth volume in Tessa Harris’s Dr. Thomas Silkstone mystery series. It’s the first of these novels that I’ve read—and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more.

Thomas Silkstone is a surgeon and anatomist in London, shortly after England’s defeat by its American colonies. Silkstone is highly capable at his craft; he’s also an enemy alien. He’s accorded respect and distrust in equal amounts.

In this novel, Silkstone has been hired to inventory the samples from a scientific expedition recently returned from Jamaica. Of the three scientists who traveled on this expedition, two have died, the third has disappeared, along with a key journal of their observations, and he’s feared dead.

Along with this central mystery, Silkstone finds himself wrestling with a number of other problems which force him to confront the acceptance of slavery in Britain, despite a judicial ruling years earlier determining that those who enter the country as slaves have a right to demand their freedom. Just as in our own time, the letter of the law and its actual practice are at odds. As Silkstone tends slave owners and their slaves he is confronted with the violence and dehumanization at the heart of the institution. What he formerly viewed as an abstract issue of justice is now an immediate and distressing challenge.

Harris also gives us a love interest, Silkstone’s former fiancee, the widowed Lady Lydia Farrell. Following her husband’s death, Lady Lydia’s son has become a ward of the crown, which means she can no longer consort with Silkstone because of his enemy status.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on, and Harris balances these different plots adeptly. Too often, series novels either require familiarity with previous volumes or overcompensate by providing unnecessary backstory. The Lazarus Curse does neither of these. Harris’s portrayal of characters is rich enough that the reader quickly comes to know them—and this knowing allows the missing pieces of their stories to be inferred.

While Silkstone sorts out many of the problems he’s confronted with, he doesn’t quite manage all of them. Clearly Harris is already planning volume five in the series. Given her knowledge of this historical period and her skills as a writer, I’m looking forward to reading it.

Tales from a Pathologist

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, Judy Melinek and T. J. Mitchell, (Scribner), 272 pages

It seems to me that if one is sentient, one can’t help but think about death a great deal. We all think about death differently of course. Some of us flee it, some of us glorify it, some turn it into entertainment, some eagerly await the next life. But I think we have a shared reason for thinking about death. We cannot control death, so we compensate for that lack of control with a desire for understanding—whether scientific or spiritual.

Among those looking for understanding are forensic scientists, anthropologists, and technicians. They come to the human body after death has occurred in an effort tell the story, to provide certainty, if not comfort, for those left living. Julie Melinek, one of the authors of Working Stiff, has made a career of this search for truth. (I want to note here that the book is coauthored by Melinek’s Husband, T. J. Mitchell, but as Working Stiff is written in first person from Melinek’s perspective, I’ll be referring to her when discussing the book.)

A significant body of forensics-for-laypeople literature has emerged over the past few decades, and Working Stiff is an excellent addition to this genre. Melinek originally pursued a career as a surgeon before realizing that she wanted a specialty more conducive to a sane family life. As she noted at one point, almost every surgeon has a cot in her office for catnaps between emergencies, but a pathologist’s patients are already dead. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t take her work seriously, just that she values being able to do her work when she’s at her best, rather than in response to the chaos of medical crises.

The work Melinek does is fascinating, a sort of problem solving simultaneously pursuing knowledge, justice, and compassion. She doesn’t treat some lives as more valuable than others. Death comes in many forms to many people, and in every instance Melinek is similarly focused on uncovering the narrative underlying each death. She writes about overdoses, accidental deaths, deaths resulting from medical error, murder (and her explanations of the differences among these categories is remarkably precise, much clearer than the brief list I’ve offered here).

Working Stiff succeeds not just informationally, but stylistically as well. Melinek’s voice is both professional and relaxed, conversational and informative. At work, she spends a great deal of time explaining complex physiological information to ordinary people, and this makes her an excellent writer. Books in this genre can feel like collections of disparate narratives, sort of a “if this is Tuesday, we must be in the brain case,” if that isn’t too irreverent. While Melinek does focus on different classes of deaths as she moves from chapter to chapter, the narrative thread of her book—the well-defined time span of two years’ work—keeps these topics from feeling isolated from one another.

The narrative flow becomes particularly effective—and particularly important—in the last few chapters, when she describes the process of working to identify human remains after the attack that caused the collapse of the World Trade Center. She gives us a sense of what this work is like over time: not just one challenging day, but months of such work. She describes moving between “ordinary” autopsies and mass casualties.

This book is precise, and it is graphic as a result of this precision. It doesn’t make for light reading, but it is compelling.