More Than a Tour of Duty

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Youngblood, by Matt Gallagher

War novels tend to be nihilistic, with elevated existential passages; not always well written, but punctuated with graphic passages that leave the reader all too aware of the toll war takes on humanity. Almost no modern war novel, then, leaves the reader with a sense of winning or losing; instead reminding that “only the dead see the end of war.”

Gallagher follows suit in this tradition, his “youngbloods” trying to make sense of the unwinnable Iraq War. He’s a former Army captain who served in Iraq, and his protagonist, a green lieutenant in charge of a platoon as the U.S.’s fated role in nation-building is winding down. As with many if not most of the now aging Viet vets, they want to do what they can while managing to stay alive until their tour is over. This lieutenant, Jack Porter, is the younger brother of a decorated officer, and he serves to some degree confined by his brother’s reputation.
Jack is a quick learner, demands and earns the trust of his men, but with an exception: he’s saddled with a veteran sergeant, Daniel Chambers, who turns out not to be the homicidal guy he seems at first. Chambers does have his own demons to deal with – obsession over a friend who died in Iraq under mysterious circumstances, his body never found. Jack, on the other hand befriends the daughter of a sheik, who proves a source of information that helps keep the platoon alive.

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In Gallagher’s hands we see these men doing what they can to find Iraqis they can trust in carrying out their duties – sometimes fruitful, at other times not, the relationships between the Iraqis complex and tribal. One gets the feeling that Jack and Chambers – and the Army in general – are groping, trying to find the sense of the war, of life in Iraq, as if blind men.

Gallagher, in his attempt to portray a panorama of the American experience in this war, sometimes overreaches in his vignettes and character portrayals, but he’s wise enough to shy away from combat and combatant cliches. All things considered, this is a fine, moving novel that those struggling to understand that fated war should read and read again.

My rating:  19 of 20 stars

 

Language: Rich With Humanity and Ambiguity

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What is there about writing that attracts us writers so? Most of us are compelled to write, but that doesn’t really answer the question, does it?

Part of it is the love of language – the music and rhythm of it. I used to ride the city bus in Atlanta, listening to the Hispanic women talk. Didn’t understand more than one word out of twenty, but it didn’t matter; it was the words spilling from mouths, rising and falling to high and low pitch.

And there’s a certain ambiguity to language. If you’re a punster, you know what I mean. Language is simply a series of signposts to give you the idea intended. As Wittgenstein wrote and taught, language is simply a method for negotiating meaning.

And perhaps a more convoluted answer to the original question here is: story. How could we tell stories without language? Signing, you say? Well, that’s its own language, isn’t it? Music itself? Sure, and dance and painting. All these tell stories. But then were were considering writers.

Some people are virtually compelled to live by story. I have a  (slightly) older friend to whom I occasionally put questions. His response? “Well, let me tell you a story.” We are, I think, morphing into a more right-brained world, and rather than analytical, objective responses, we tend today to more and more prefer our answers in the form of story. There, we each take home what we need and leave the rest to be parsed in different ways by others.

Writers out there, wouldn’t you rather tell a story, rich with humanity, which shines though language’s ambiguities? Readers and listeners, wouldn’t you that be the case, too?

 

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Willie Is a Friend of Darn Near Everyone

 

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Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die – Musings From The Road, by Willie Nelson

This book comes to me from the hands of an old friend, a guy involved in the entertainment industry, a fellow who shares much of my view of life, who has frequently gifted me with silly, nonsensical things.

Silly and nonsensical things? You’re not saying a book by Willie, the reigning sage of country music and a true American treasure, is silly and nonsensical, are you? Well…yes and no. All right then, you ask, what is the book like?

Sometimes, within all the meaningful books and great literature around you, there might just lie a whimsical work. One not too deep, perhaps humorous, something that’s meant to purely entertain, without all the pedantry of deep literature, and with the import of an underinflated tire. I do admit that that’s what Nelson accomplishes in Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die. He’s referring in the title, of course, to his pot smoking habit, and he tosses that one off as easily as the many overused, corny jokes he shares with the book’s readers.
Willie’s not one to dwell on self-importance; in fact, this book is more about his family and friends than himself. In it he comes across as an engaging band member, a life-long friend of many, and a man who dearly loves his family. In fact, he’s ceded a large number of the passages in the book to his wife and children.
I often get rid of books that don’t teach me something about the world, about life, about writing, and I could easily put this one in that category, but I’m going to hang onto it. One day I’ll enjoy watching someone peruse my library, my collection of the finest and best, and sizing me up based on the books I own. Then I’ll smile at his or her quizzical reaction in finding this one stuck among them.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

 

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I’m on the horns of a dilemma. Okay, I won’t use such a creepy cliche again. Ever. Promise.

I’m writing a novel that’s vaguely autobiographical. The advantage to fiction – at least in this case – is that I can assign my history to a string of characters, sort of a literary shell game.

Now a lady friend is encouraging me to stop that. Write a memoir if you’re going to put so much of your own history into a piece of writing. People don’t want fiction anyway, she continues. They want the real. The truth.

That’s from the reader’s standpoint, though, not the writer’s.

Readers out there, what’s your preference? Memoir or  perhaps an even better story though the voice of fiction?

 

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

To Read Or Listen, That’s The Question

 

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This week, when a technician stopped by to install a security gizmo for me, he quickly made note of my book collection and bemoaned the fact that as a newlywed he hardly had time to read any more. But, he added, I listen to audiobooks now when I’m on the road.

So I offered him a free copy of an audiobook for my story collection, Sam’s Place, and he gobbled it up. (NOTE: I still have a few free audiobook copies of that book, so if you want a copy, let me know. It’s the complete book, not a teaser.)

But as this article makes clear, there are no clear cut advantages to either print or audio books. For myself, I think reading a book, whether print or digital, requires a bit more participation by the reader than audio, but that’s a close call.

Let me know what you think.

 

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Appreciating the Writer

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I just finished reading a short article in Esquire about the late Jim Harrison and his writing life, and a couple of things resonated strongly for me – as I’m sure they would for any serious writer.

Before “Legends of the Fall,” Harrison, his wife, and two daughters subsisted on some $9,000 a year. Think of that. I remember one dry period of my life following a divorce when I lived on chicken livers and rice, but I never had the pressure of supporting a family on so few dollars.

A publicist I’m currently talking to just made me aware of a writer living in my area who, following her MFA and a prestigious award, lives in an Airstream.

I used to bemoan the lack of support society provides for engineers (when I was one). One day, I kept saying, engineers, who provide the nation’s infrastructure, safe water, and many other aspects of modern life we take for granted, would make the kind of money Lady Gaga makes. We would someday command salaries comparable to those of professional athletes.

It didn’t happen. Probably never will in this society. This is an indictment of our collective values. Much of our society goes gaga over someone like Donald Trump, but trash talks the likes of John Kerry, who risked his life in Vietnam in ways you and I wouldn’t even consider and now dares to try to make peace with a political enemy.

The other thing that sticks out in the Esquire article is the manner in which “Legends” came about. So much of a writer’s output is the result of sketchy ideas, vague direction, and months of hard work in making these bits and pieces into works of art. But it’s the “accidental” arrival of some works – like “Legends”. Like Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” Like Kerouac’s “On the Road” – that keep us writers digging, searching, continually trying to open to the little spirits sitting on our shoulders that sometimes give us such stories complete and amazing. As Harrison says, you have to simply be there when the little guy is ready for you to take dictation.

 

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A Detective’s Achilles Heel

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The Guise of Another, by Allen Eskens

I like mysteries, especially if they’re well written, and Eskens has been flirting with a literary version of the genre in his first two books. In many ways, The Guise of Another extends his command of the genre; in at least one other way, though, flaws have cropped up. “(NOTE: this isn’t a plot spoiler) Some 2/3 through this one, his protagonist, undercover cop, Alexander Rupert, shows one archetypal police failing (seduction by drug money) and he’s seduced by a woman he’s just met. I won’t comment of the former, but the latter mystifies me. A cop as savvy as Alexander wouldn’t be seduced as blatantly, even if it means a few more plot twists to the reader. But to give you a brief summary of the story:

Alexander has been indicted for taking drug money, something he’s good at denying, and his wife Desi has been leaning toward an affair. Alexander’s brother Max, also a cop, seems supportive, but his berating is getting under Alexander’s skin. Through a series of chance encounters only a cop would be faced with, Alexander becomes embroiled in a case involving yet another murder, which puts his own life in danger. Alexander is stalked by a hit man, Drago Basta, as our Alexander tries to uncover the truth about yet another man’s death.

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Eskens handles this story’s twists artfully until he folds under the aforesaid woman’s wiles. Tests and plot upsets are what make detective stories go, but they must seem realistic in context, and this particular one fails muster. It’s a good read otherwise, though, and well written enough for the fledgling mystery writer to learn from.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.