I’m hesitant to recommend The Story of a Brief Marriage because it is so bleak. Not the marriage itself, however very brief and tragic it is, but the setting, in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka, which is regularly bombed by the army and where everyday life is about dead bodies, amputations without anesthesia, and general despair. I almost closed the book after twenty pages of horror.
But if you persevere, you will encounter a wonderful scene of the husband taking an improvised bath next to the well, washing away months of grime, and delighting in the simple pleasure of being clean, with trimmed fingernails and hair, and clean clothes. It’s a magical moment. But it’s just a few pages long.
The Dhow House has many strengths: a wonderfully tropical island setting off the coast of Tanzania, a shadowy group of Islamist terrorists, a forgotten extended family, carefully researched birds, and spies! But I found the story unexpectedly slow-moving and focused on the minute feelings of the heroine, for whom I could not get to fully care, whether to love her or to hate her. A more patient and introspective reader may like this book more than I did.
The author of Shoot Like a Girl: One Woman’s Dramatic Fight in Afghanistan and on the Home Front was a helicopter pilot for the National Guard who flew search-and-rescue missions in Afghanistan and undertakes to share her training, her combat experience, and her fight to eliminate the military’s rules that exclude women from serving in combat roles. It’s quite a ride! Sadly the writing is only serviceable, replete with sometimes impenetrable military acronyms, and often boringly detailed when she recounts her (otherwise thrilling) missions. Still, I enjoyed the peek into what life is like for women military pilots.
Can one write a book about war that doesn’t talk about weapons? Yes, and Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War proves it. Instead, the author talks about the labs in Natick, MA, that test fabric for uniforms (and gently makes fun of the specialists’ outstanding New England accent), how a wedding dress designer can get interested in mittens with one finger for snipers. Other topics are more challenging, showing how a different lab uses cadavers to test armored vehicles, how surgeons reconstruct penises lost to real bombs, and how doctors use maggots to clean wounds. A strong stomach is recommended! Still, there are plenty of humorous moments as when we learn that powered bug juice is a good tool to minimize toilet odors in submarines. Who knew?
Rachel Starnes’s father worked on oil rigs and was gone for weeks at a time, on dangerous missions. She hated it. So what does she do? She marries a Navy pilot who deploys on long, dangerous missions. In The War at Home: A Wife’s Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible), she talks about how she copes with the frequent moves, the deployments, raising children on her own, and, candidly, or her struggles with depression. It’s not a downer, not at all. There are some hilarious moments and the author never takes herself too seriously.
Ah! The perils of extending an article into a book, even a very short book. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging would be a glorious op-ed on how to treat returning veterans, by enfolding them into a community not just of them, but of all of us, miles above the bland “Thank you for your service” accolades that make me queasy when I hear them, and may well ignite rage in the recipients. Alas, the author starts with long and mostly unsupported pontifications on how traditional, tribal societies are much superior to our own. Perhaps it is true in the way that they support returning warriors, but surely not in every way. And the high percentage of violent deaths in many tribal societies, including the ones cited by the author, is not exactly encouraging. It’s too bad that the central message is obscured, namely that by drawing combatants from a small portion of the US population and isolating them further upon their return we provide a deplorable level of support for them to reenter civilian life.
Carthage starts with the suspicious disappearance of a young college student in conflict with her family and the suspicious conduct of a vet who, just a few weeks before, was engaged to her sister. The rest of the book tells the story from the points of view of the various actors, a story I don’t want to give away but can be safely assumed to include her parents’ divorce.
The story did not really work for me, whether the unveiling of what really happened to the woman or the tortured life of the accused vet — and especially not the mother’s embracing of the vet while she knows that he probably killed her daughter. Beautifully written, with a strong plot, but I could never suspend disbelief to get carried by it.