Dear Lucy: A Novel

This wonderful work of magical realism was one of my favorite debuts for 2013. It was just released in paperback this week so if you missed it the first time around here’s my review.

dear lucy

Simon & Schuster, April 2014

 

“There are words that I am looking for and when I find those words I will know that they were the words I was looking for, to tell people about the shapes of things inside me.” 

As Dear Lucy begins there is a sense that the narrator, Lucy, is a bit off. Her determination to be acknowledged as good and useful is extreme and the lengths to which she goes to be heard become almost violent. It’s a bit unnerving and immediately grabs the reader’s attention. Lucy is unique, but in what way? Very quickly we learn that Lucy is a “bad sort of girl”. She lives with Mister and Missus on a farm because she was too difficult and different for her mother to handle. On the farm she does chores, one of which is getting the eggs for breakfast from the chicken coop. She loves the eggs and the fact that they give their life for hers. Unfortunately, when she doesn’t follow Mister’s instructions and the eggs break she is no longer allowed near the coop. This triggers her over-reaction, because being a “good girl” is all Lucy wants. If she is, her mother will come back to get her. She promised and if there is one thing Lucy believes in, it is the power of a promise.

Debut author Julie Sarkissian creates one of the most unique voices in fiction in Dear Lucy, in that Lucy is developmentally disabled. She comprehends the world in absolutes and with limited understanding. When she learns that if left unbroken eggs become chickens she secretly takes several, bundles them up in a soft sweater and puts them in her drawer. Every morning she takes them out and gently holds them, talking to them, thinking that this is part of “the secret of growing”. When Missus discovers the rotten eggs and takes them away she is inconsolable—she believed she was giving them life.

There are two other narrators in Dear Lucy. One is Missus, with her own secrets. She has the same abiding belief in the power of family but unlike the clear waters of Lucy’s mind, hers is much deeper and muddied. If Lucy is all surface then Missus is a sinkhole—nothing to see until it is too late. The other narrator is Samantha, a troubled teenager who is pregnant. Like Missus, she has much going on beneath the surface but like Lucy she is still open and giving. Her kindness towards and interest in Lucy makes them fast friends. From each, the other learns that she has value despite what she has been told. Unfortunately, it is also from Missus and Samantha that we hear the harsh realities of life, but for Lucy, in not being able to understand either the subtlety or darkness of human emotions, there is only the simple fact of love and family.

To sculpt a character like this requires great emotional delicacy but also technical skill. Crossing the line into caricature is a hazard but it is not a line Sarkissian approaches. Instead, Lucy is a young woman who, while not able to finesse a bad situation or see past the next moment, knows what is right. When Samantha and her baby disappear she knows she must find them and bring them together again, because that is what makes a family. However, she has promised her mother she would never leave the farm so when her mother returns she would be able to find her. The conflicting promises tear at her until the appearance of an unusual new friend named Jennifer. Jennifer’s assertive nature and ability to speak so only Lucy can hear her, provide the street smarts and plan-of-action that she needs.

Sarkissian’s ability to move between the clear simplicity of Lucy’s mind to the more complex intentions of others means that Dear Lucy will capture the reader at many levels. Inasmuch as there is no duplicity in her thoughts there is an abundance of it in the world around her. After Samantha has her baby and Lucy embarks on her efforts to make everything right, events accelerate and the true nature of each character is revealed. The ever-earnest Lucy takes the initial action she needs to, but is unable to formulate a plan beyond that. For the reader, Sarkissian’s simple but powerful prose merges us so deeply with Lucy that we not only feel the depth of her emotions but her uncertainty about what to do. We, too, are left in a place of not knowing what will happen next.

 

Casebook: A Novel

casebook

Alfred A. Knopf, April 2014

 

From the time he is 9-years-old Miles Adler-Rich is a snoop. Not just a hanging around snoop, a hiding walkie-talkies and wiring-an-extension-into-the-family’s-phone-line snoop. Initially, he just wants to know if his parents are going to relent and let him watch Survivor but when his efforts to know all fail and they announce they’re getting divorced, it becomes something more. His mother begins dating. Eli is a mathematician like herself but he lives in Washington D.C. and is undergoing a divorce himself. Still, his ardor is rewarding and he has an ability to say all the right things despite a somewhat dorky and unromantic outer appearance. His appearance inflames Miles’ inquisitive nature combined with a son’s protective instincts and his surveillance becomes a compulsive habit. He enlists the help of his friend, Hector, whose intelligence and crush on Miles’ mother makes him highly incentivized to create plots and drama where there might be none.

Casebook by Mona Simpson, is presented as a vanity press book printed in the back room of a comic book store in California. Miles and Hector are acknowledged as the authors of the manuscript, which is also evidenced by Hector’s footnotes to some of Miles’ comments with which he disagrees. The book is a “casebook” of their work scoping out Eli, the boyfriend. When, as the years pass, bits and pieces of Eli’s story don’t add up, Miles takes to sitting in an empty room underneath his mother’s therapist’s office and listening to their sessions through the heat vent. It’s not that he hates Eli and wants to discredit him it’s that, to Miles’ black/white teen mind, there is no room for misunderstanding or ambiguity. Either you want to marry my mother or you don’t. When enough time has passed and incongruities are rampant Miles and Hector decide to take the next step and hire a private detective. At this point, whether they mean to or not, the teens are moving into very grown-up situations and games turn into serious matters.

I had been too suspicious. Hector and I both. And for all our suspecting, we didn’t really know anything until we saw hard evidence. All our suspicions hadn’t protected us from the bad truth.

 Simpson is gifted at writing the flotsam and jetsam that floats through the minds of her characters in such a way as to trigger instant recognition in the reader. Just as she did for teenage girls in Anywhere But Here, so Simpson does for teenage boys in Casebook. The novel may end with Miles as an adult but the physical passing of time pales in comparison to his mental and emotional growing pains. There are all the illicit thrills of seeing girls you like and the horror of having a friend find your mom sexy. There are deeper issues of sexuality and wanting to fit in and all are written with the careful, kindly hand of an author who knows how to portray even the smallest of emotions with compassion. It is to Simpson’s credit that her prose takes something as potentially ludicrous as two boys dabbling in the mysteries of adult relationships and imbues it with the seriousness they themselves feel. She gives weight and credibility to their emotions yet leaves space for those of us who have already passed through those years to commiserate. Casebook may be presented as a how-to spy book but there is no mystery to the tender adventures of Miles—just the bittersweet drama of growing up.

A Paris Apartment

paris apartment

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, April 2014

 

Apparently, this is the week for Paris, as it is once again on my reading list as the subject of a new novel. And, again, it is based in fact. A Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable takes the ultra-intriguing facts of a Parisian apartment that lay undisturbed from before WII until 2010 and layers it in with the fiction of American furniture specialist, April Vogt, who is called upon to appraise the furniture and bric-a-brac.

The timing on this request is perfect because April is in a bit of a muddle about her marriage. Her wildly successful and wealthy financier husband has admitted to a one night stand and April is not certain where this leaves her marriage. She arrives in Paris muddled about her personal life but is instantly swept off her feet by the treasures she finds in the mystery apartment. She is not so enraptured by the inheritor’s lawyer, a jaunty Frenchman who seems to enjoy aggravating her and smoking in the apartment, sometimes at the same time. As she begins to go through the piles of belongings left behind she comes across stacks of ribbon bound paper and, in trying to determine the provenance of any of the pieces, starts to read. At this point the narrative splits between modern day and the late 1800s, when Marthe de Florian was given the apartment by one of her lovers. Soon, the contents of the journal have superseded April’s interest in the antiques and she is drawn into Marthe’s glamorous but unstable life.

The basic premise of an untouched Parisian apartment filled with items from the Belle Époque (late 1800s) is so compelling that it almost writes itself. Add to that the discovery of a painting by Giovanni Boldini, a famous artist of the time, that had never been seen before and was not even known to exist and you have all the ingredients for an unstoppable piece of fiction. Gable goes one step further and integrates Marthe’s life into the findings of the apartment, giving the reader an up-close look at one of the most artistically exciting times in French history. The world was changing so quickly that you could have a stuffed Mickey Mouse doll (one of the first ever made) sitting next to a stuffed ostrich next to some of the finest furniture ever made.

Some of the modern day plot does not have the same aura of mystery and expectation—confused wife gets unexpected reason to journey away from cheating husband and figure out life for herself.  Nor is it particularly nuanced in its progress: Confused wife will meet a jaunty Frenchman and begin to experience lust and desire again. What will she decide to do? This, combined with much attention on some of the lewder facets of performance art in the Belle Époque diminishes what is, by itself, an exciting concept. Maybe I’m just a furniture and history geek but descriptions of an ormolu or a writing desk made by Marie Antoinette’s cabinetmaker  are more interesting than a performer whose sole talent is farting.

Gable covers a lot of terrain in A Paris Apartment and there is little doubt of the research she must have done to write not only of the apartment’s contents but of Marthe’s life. These make the novel fascinating but the contemporary, personal journey of April is less so. For everyone experiencing the lovely beginnings of spring this would be a good, light read for an afternoon in the park.

The Shadow Queen

shadow queen

Doubleday, April 2014

Louis XIV may have been a fascinating king but thankfully for readers, author Sandra Gulland prefers to focus on the woman behind the man. In The Shadow Queen, that woman is Athénaїs de Montespan, an aristocratic beauty who is able to pull the King’s interest away from his longtime mistress and claim him for herself. Forget the Queen, apparently she is too shy and speaks little French and is, therefore of no consequence. Unfortunately, for Athénaїs, Louis is a man whose need for beauty is constantly changing and difficult to satisfy in the long term. In order to maintain her power over him Athénaїs needs someone she can trust with her secrets and rely on to help her keep the King’s attention—at any cost.

To that end, we are introduced to Claudette des Oeillets a performer who meets Athénaїs when they are both still young girls. They form a bond that follows them through one’s rise to power (even if hidden) and the other’s desperate attempts to keep herself and her family alive. Although Athénaїs is the mistress of the King and leads a life of unparalleled luxury, it is Claudette’s story that makes The Shadow Queen such gripping reading. After her father’s death when she is thirteen she is left to take care of her family. Despite the antipathy of the church to actors, Claudette decides to take her family to Paris to try and work again in theater. Once there, she does manage to get work and her mother is able to act at the famed Marais Theater. Gulland’s vivid imagination and copious research mean that the back streets and back stages of Paris come to life. Playwrights such as Racine, Moliere and Corneille battle for the King’s favor in an effort to ensure their success. In the same way that there are two worlds at court, there are two in the theater—what goes on onstage and what is happening behind the scenes. Gulland doesn’t hold back the details in any of these worlds, giving the reader full access to the illusion and to the toil that makes it happen.

This is especially true in Claudette’s life with Athénaїs. Whatever the spoiled chit wants, she gets and it is Claudette who does the getting, no matter how distasteful or onerous the task. Athénaїs is part of a widespread circle at the court of Louis XIV that believed in alchemy and, according to rumors, much worse. Gulland again draws on historical fact by introducing the character of Madame Voisin and the potions she mixes potions to keep the King attached to Athénaїs. When a new, much younger woman arrives at court Athénaїs is driven to take steps that Claudette cannot condone but must endure for the sake of the money she is paid.

It is the almost constant disparity between the life of Athénaїs and Claudette that makes The Shadow Queen such a marvelous escape.  Athénaїs is spoiled and self-absorbed, completely unaware of Claudette’s life and what she sacrifices in her service and Claudette has no understanding of what the King’s patronage means for Athénaїs. Brought together by chance, held together by fate, will they be pulled apart by one dangerous act? And if so, who will pay the price?

Astonish Me

astonish me

Alfred A. Knopf, April 2014

Joan Joyce is a dancer who has wanted to be a ballerina her entire life. Unfortunately her desire outweighs her talent and so she is relegated to the corps. The center stage she longs for does not become hers until she is the woman who helps a young Russian dancer escape from the Soviet Union to the United States. She had seen Arslan Rusakov dance in Paris and had kept in touch with him via passionate letters about ballet until he lets her know he is leaving his country. For Joan, the chance to be with him and to bring him to the same company where she dances is the culmination of her dreams.

She has been dancing since before her fifth birthday, and she realizes that the beauty radiating from him is what she has been chasing all along, what she has been trying to wring out of her own inadequate body. 

Maggie Shipstead’s novel, Astonish Me, follows Joan, Arslan, and Joan’s friend Elaine throughout their lives as dancers, and, in the case of Joan, as a woman who decides to pursue another path. When her love affair with Arslan fades, she returns home to her high school best friend, Jacob Bintz, they marry and settle into a quieter life. In this way Astonish Me cycles back and forth through the mundanity of Joan’s current suburban life and the intensity and excitement of the life of a dancer. Much of the novel is taken up by the rigors and language of dance. This is interesting but as the story continues and Joan moves out of the dance world and into the world of being a mother and a ballet teacher, the novel feels less sure footed. Somehow the juxtaposition of the young Joan in New York City and the older Joan in Southern California with her life as wife and mother causes the novel’s tempo to drag.

The uneven pacing and abundance of ancillary stories in Astonish Me gave it the feel of a short story collection but, with the final chapters the novel begins to gel. The ending, when it comes in the final quarter of the book, is the soloist and draws together all the elements. To carry the ballet theme a bit further: much of the novel feels like the practice and disjointed rehearsals that lead to a performance. The good news is that Shipstead executes the truly difficult moves, resulting in a poignant conclusion.

Woke Up Lonely: A Novel

woke up lonely

Graywolf Press, paperback release April, 2014

 

Many people have experienced loneliness in their life but for Thurlow Dan it was a call to organize a movement. The Helix is his solution to the isolated insulated lives we live—a reach-out-and-connect-with-someone group with no ideology beyond sharing and human interaction. Unfortunately, it is this lack of forethought that has landed Thurlow in some big trouble in Fiona’s Maazel’s novel, Woke Up Lonely. On the surface, his group is a success, with chapters spreading out across the United States and more people joining all the time.

It cost only ten dollars a head to be here, but the reward was priceless. The idea, thus: Come in with your best friends, whose lives are as alien to yours as yours is to them, come in steeped in the tide of loneliness and despair that grows out of precisely these moments when you’re supposed to feel a part of things, because, after all, you’re hanging out with your best friends. Come in a wreck, leave happy. 

A closer look reveals that what he wants most is to be reunited with his government agent ex-wife and their daughter, whom he has not seen since she was an infant. Little does he know just how interested in him the government is and that, in fact, his ex-wife has been tracking him since she left him, aided in her surveillance by a master of disguise who creates ingenious masks that change the landscape of her face and body—to the point that she masquerades as Kim Jong-il, when Thurlow makes a misguided trip to North Korea.

Unfortunately, the situation on both sides has reached flare point. Esme, Thurlow’s ex, is running out of ways to protect her earnest but clueless ex-husband from a government crackdown and he is running out of reasons to live without her and their daughter. Both embark on a plan to resolve these issues, which implodes to darkly hilarious effect. Unfortunately, Esme’s plan involves four civilians who think they’ve been hired by the Department of the Interior but suddenly find themselves assigned to penetrate Thurlow’s compound in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Woke Up Lonely is a highly inventive, unpredictable satire that looks at the two most basic emotions, fear and love, and runs with them through a cast of characters that is odd and endearing. In Esme, Maazel’s terse prose comes to life, as a woman who seems unable to deal with the emotion of love, and so spends more time running away from Thurlow than she does with him. She’s a brilliant undercover agent but her extensive use of disguise applies to her own emotions, as if, in being so many different people for different reasons, she no longer knows what is real for herself. The only constant is her fierce desire to protect her daughter, even when she doesn’t know how to relate to her.

Does she really need to know there are people out there who cannot help but destroy each other? Or that, for all my efforts to forget you, replace you, bury you, I have failed on all counts? I have been with many people since we split but have abandoned myself to none of them. Not even for a second. But I want our daughter to know different. I want her to think life is full of chances, not just one. 

For his part, Thurlow is a hapless man, at once both spoiled and sensitive. The success of the Helix means that he is no longer physically lonely. He has designated Traveling Companions (TCs) who fulfill any teenage desire he might wish to indulge and are discarded and replaced when he becomes bored. At the same time, he has the self-awareness to know where he went wrong with Esme and to see what is happening to the Helix. He is simply incapable of focused action.

I started up a few meetings here and there. The idea? Show up. Talk. Share something of yourself. Get to know your neighbors. What I did not know then is that there are politics in numbers, and that when you bring the isolates together, sometimes they want to discuss the state of our union, to say that our lawmakers are charlatans who should be deposed and that only a sundering of this menace can return us to the values touted in the Bill of Rights. 

Maazel assembles this group of loners and misfits in a way that reads like a twisted spy thriller in the beginning, with nefarious forces, a mysterious underground world and high tech surveillance. It is only as the novel progresses that the simpler and more human aspect of each character is revealed. For some their innermost desires will never be fulfilled but for others the emotion of love will be captured, even if only for a moment.

Frog Music: A Novel

frog music

Little, Brown and Company, April 2014

 

In 1876 San Francisco was engrossed in the story of Jenny Bonnet, a young woman found murdered in a small town outside the city. She preferred wearing men’s clothes and made her living catching frogs to sell to restaurants. Author Emma Donoghue found her equally compelling and made her murder the subject of her new novel, Frog Music. Donoghue enlivens the story by connecting Bonnet with another, more well-known woman of the time, the famed Blanche Beunon, an exotic dancer from France, whose accommodating nature also made her a charming escort. Unfortunately, like many industrious women of her time, most of Blanche’s earnings go to supporting her “fancy man”, Arthur, who has a fondness for gambling and get-rich-quick schemes.

Blanche and Jenny meet when Jenny runs into her while on her bicycle. Despite their obvious differences, they strike up a tentative friendship. Jenny is a person of many questions but few answers. She shrugs off Blanche’s inquiries about her own past but gets Blanche to reveal that she and Arthur have an infant son, who is being “nursed out, on a farm, for his health.” It is only when Blanche decides she wants her child with her, that things become less than très jolie for the couple. Arthur’s lack of fatherly instincts and interest in getting a job while she stays home with the child lead her to believe she would be better off without him. So, she leaves San Francisco to find Jenny who often visits the outlying towns in hopes of better frog catching (a highly prized delicacy in the restaurants of the time). It is shortly thereafter that Jenny is murdered and Blanche is so certain of who is guilty and why that she makes it her priority to bring that person to justice.

Donoghue is no stranger to historical fiction and, once again, she does a top-notch job conveying the sights and sounds of a booming but still rough San Francisco. The summer of 1876 was particularly difficult as there was both a heat wave and a small pox epidemic swept through the city. This was enough to inflame an already agitated populace against the Chinese immigrants who filled the slummy neighborhoods, even though they were in no way responsible.

Donoghue creates Blanche as a woman with a quick mind and the drive to succeed but beyond that key elements of Blanche’s story did not add up, namely that she ever felt any deep friendship for  Jenny or that she suddenly discovered how much her baby meant to her. The same characteristics that make her successful also make her wildly self-absorbed. When she does retrieve the infant from the hovel where he has been kept, she finds anything to do with him to be distasteful. Jenny perplexes her with her ability to exist outside the world of luxury and convenience and the fact that she shared nothing of her past with Blanche is telling. The mystery aspects of Frog Music kept me reading (and ultimately surprised me at the end) but, for as real as the descriptions of San Francisco felt, the characters felt false.

The Word Exchange

word exchange

Doubleday, April 2014

 

A meme (/ˈmm/ meem) is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. – Coined by Richard Dawkins, 1976 (Wikipedia)

 

If you are a lover of the books and the printed word (and my guess is you are or you wouldn’t be here) then The Word Exchange, author Alena Graedon’s debut novel, reads like your worst nightmare. Imagine that in the not-too-distant future we have all but abandoned libraries, book stores, and books of any kind. Any and all the information we need to run our lives is available on a marvelous little electronic device called a Meme, produced by the Synchronic electronics company. The advanced and intuitive processing capabilities of the Meme mean that there is less and less need for any thought processing on the part of the individual. And like any good corporation, Synchronic is working on the next generation of device, to be called the Nautilus, which integrates with the users’ neuronal structures through cellular fusion, making every thought a command.

Memes even have an app called the Word Exchange for all those pesky words that might come up in text or conversation that you no longer remember. For a tiny fee, it gives you the definition, ensuring that you always sound smart. This is an unpleasant and unacceptable situation for Doug Johnson, the editor at one of the remaining dictionaries in the world. As a lexicographer, words are his life and despite being considered difficult and old-fashioned, he fights back hard against those who see the Word Exchange as a tool to make people smarter, pointing out that

“You’re restructuring supply lines. Understand? Once you go down that road, you can’t go back again. The road’s gone.”

His daughter Ana works with him and when he fails to meet her for dinner before the release of the dictionary’s newest edition, she goes back to the office to find him. He is not there but her search takes her to the building’s basement where she sees large groups of people burning the original files that comprise the definitions for every word in the dictionary while others, with small devices on their foreheads, are replacing the meanings of words in the dictionary’s electronic index with new terms bearing no relation to the original word. She doesn’t find her father but begins a quest to do so and to avoid these people who are beginning to exhibit the strange trait of being unable to speak clearly. Their sentences are sprinkled with words of gibberish. Before long this mysterious phenomena is spreading and has been dubbed “the word flu”.

Graedon does a stellar job creating a literary maze of a world gone crazy. It would not be difficult with a concept like this to descend into dystopian madness but Graedon has no need for such theatrics—reality is unnerving enough. Even as the epidemic grows with larger swathes of the population unable to speak intelligibly Graedon keeps the novel from having a Mad Max feel. Instead, she takes a young woman’s fears about her father’s disappearance and layers that very real concern with the surreal event of watching the world she knows shift around her like quicksand. Reading The Word Exchange is like reading any news about advances in technology today. Sounds hard to believe but…wouldn’t it be marvelous? Or maybe…the cellular fusion capabilities of the Nautilus mean that a server virus can be downloaded and uploaded ad infinitum, allowing it to spread from one person to the next virtually unchecked. No matter where you stand on technology, Graedon’s linguistic finesse makes The Word Exchange smart and scary reading.

Here are what other bloggers are saying about The Word Exchange:

The Steadfast Reader

Books Speak Volumes

Love at First Book

River City Reading

Cara Hoffman- A Letter

cara hoffman

By and large this blog is composed of book reviews, author events, anything bookish. I don’t extend myself into the political or economic arenas because I’m not always savvy enough to know what I’m talking about. But sometimes I do raise my head from a book long enough to see something I believe needs to be shared. On Wednesday I reviewed Cara Hoffman’s new novel, Be Safe I Love You, which highlights the trauma being inflicted on our armed forces by a war that will not end. Just making it home is not enough. These young men and women often return damaged—either mentally or physically or both—and the system we have in place is grossly inadequate.

Be Safe I Love You is fiction but this letter, from Hoffman, which I only discovered today, is not. It is real and it is heartbreaking. And the fact that another veteran, suffering from PTSD, shot and killed three soldiers and wounded sixteen others at Fort Hood on Wednesday is one more indication that the system is broken. If our government is going to blithely get us into these conflicts it must commit to finding working, effective solutions for the protection of the people who fight.

                                    ——————————————————-

Dear Reader,

I wrote Be Safe I Love You to show how war affects not just the men and women who fight, but whole families and communities. Homecoming is never a simple joyous parade. Some folks return intact and some don’t. And most people are unaware more American soldiers and veterans have committed suicide in the last decade than have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their families live not just with the aftermath of these deaths but with the painful and complex mix of terror and sorrow that come before them. A lot of research went into writing this book, particularly on women soldiers, but some of the writing was closer to the bone.

My older brother enlisted when he was in his teens, became a paratrooper, remained in the National Guard, did two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and worked for many years as a military contractor. Before he joined the army he read a lot of science fiction and had a gift for physical comedy. We played mad libs and built forts.

When I was in middle school he returned home on leave, unrecognizably fit, and proceeded to teach me—a nerdy four-foot-six eleven-year-old—how to kill someone. How to punch them in the throat or push my thumbs into their eyes. How to fight with everyday objects, how to jump off a roof or out of a moving car.

These were not skills I could employ in the school library where I spent most of my time. To this day I have never needed to jump out of a moving car or off a roof or to kill a person with a plastic drinking straw. But I have a very clear understanding of what combat training makes of a home.

It has been eighty years since the publication of Journey to the End of the Night, Louis Ferdinand Celine’s seminal novel based on his life during and after World War One. The points Celine made in Journey have been made many times since: that “war is a racket” and “upstanding citizens are hypocrites” are common themes in literature. But few novels have so relentlessly and remorselessly attacked the sacred concepts of heroism and sacrifice without somehow pulling the punch at the last minute, ultimately romanticizing war as a thing that gives life meaning, war as an inevitability. The first thirty pages of Journey should be required reading for us all. But it’s the following 450 pages where Celine depicts the dark absurdity of life after combat that make the novel resonate. Where he talks about what war does to the people who don’t go and fight.

Be Safe I Love You is about war and family. About the bonds between siblings. About trauma and resilience; and what is sacred and what is not.   

It is a picture of the lives of military families, especially women soldiers;

an homage to Celine whose work I love and believe unparalleled;

and an elegy for my brother who taught me to survive the things he taught me, and for whom I am still waiting to come home.

 –Cara Hoffman

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Additionally, Hoffman recently wrote this op-ed piece for the New York Times about female veterans. Excellent and timely reading.

The Things She Carried

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