Some of the best summers are those filled with journeys, reunions and good food. We hope that all three figure into your summer plans this year. As it happens, those themes also happen to be featured prominently in some of the books that our trusty independent booksellers are recommending for your summer reading pleasure.
This year's warm-weather picks come from Lucia Silva, the book buyer at Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif; Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee, Wisc; and Rona Brinlee of The BookMark in Atlantic Beach, Fla. Happy reading!
Siobhan Fallon's husband, an Army major, has been away for half of the six years they've been married — deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. The experience has not been wasted on her. She gives us a rare insider's view of the domestic face of war in her powerful, eye-opening debut collection of eight loosely linked short stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone.
Fallon's stories, set in "the Great Place" — Fort Hood, Texas, the largest Army post in the United States — focus on the terrible strain of long separations. She vividly captures the loneliness and anxiety of months of waiting, and the anticipation, nervousness and unbroachable chasms surrounding soldiers' returns, with both husbands and wives unable to speak of what they've endured.
Her characters include Capt. Roddy's wife, Ellen, battling both breast cancer and a difficult teenager, and Kailani Rodriguez, who, when she doesn't hear from her husband Manny for weeks, hacks into his e-mail, where she finds disturbing evidence of infidelity with a female soldier. Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash, whose work in Iraq is filled with "lies and lies and lies, the shifty informants with their misinformation and subtleties lost in translation," sneaks home on an unannounced leave in search of "a single and undeniable truth," determined to establish with certainty whether his wife has been cheating on him.
Two particularly moving stories involve Spc. Kit Murphy, whose wife, Helena, greets him after he returns seriously wounded from the inferno of an improvised explosive device, or IED, with the announcement that she's leaving him: "I love you, but I don't think I can do this anymore. I want to be home." In a later story, he visits the desolate 26-year-old widow of Sgt. Schaeffer, whose body shielded Kit from the worst of the flames. Josie Schaeffer asks urgently, "Did he mean to save your life?" In other words, did her husband knowingly sacrifice his life and, by extension, her own?
Fallon's inside scoop on this closed community is an advantage, but her literary prowess is the major draw; she skillfully wields fiction to penetrate more deeply than even the most finely observed reportage. Her psychologically nuanced portraits show extraordinary sympathy for both the deployed soldiers and their transplanted families soldiering on alone, far from their own families and friends, however flawed their devotion. In the moving, engrossing title story, we share Meg Brady's fascination with her aloof new neighbor, the beautiful, unhappy Serbian war bride, Natalya, and her twin toddlers. Meg, like many of the wives in Fallon's stories, questions whether the constant separations are a sustainable way of life for her. Noting that Staff Sgt. Torres divorced his first wife after meeting Natalya in Kosovo, where she was cutting hair at the base, Fallon writes, "They knew she could happen to any of them."
You Know When the Men Are Gone is written with verve and nerve. Each story is planted with carefully calibrated, emotionally explosive devices that detonate on cue, bringing flashes of truth. And like the deployed men they illuminate, you keep thinking about them when they're gone.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought in an age of embedded reporters, soldiers' blogs and YouTube videos from both the battlefield and the home front.
Debut author Siobhan Fallon employs the more traditional, low-tech medium of short fiction to describe the lives of soldiers, and especially their families, in her new collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone. Fallon is a military wife herself, and her new book is based largely on the experiences of Army families in Fort Hood, Texas. Fallon received an MFA from the New School in New York City, and she'll soon be leaving for Jordan, where her husband, an Army major, will be stationed.
When soldiers leave on a deployment, she writes, their spouses somehow manage. They improvise. They take the strangeness and make it normal. In her stories, wives have to deal with oil changes and home repairs — as well as loneliness, the crises of adolescent kids and sometimes infidelity and death.
"As soon as the brigades start rotating out, you have this eerie sort of quietness," Fallon tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "And you just start to notice that there are more women and children because you don't have the balance of the males. Suddenly, you're just very aware of the families."
Those families, she says, learn to adapt while their soldiers are away. And sometimes, when their soldiers return, they pretend like they're starting all over again.
"When the soldiers come home, the spouses want to have a fresh start," she says. "A lot of times, the soldiers really don't want to share all of the experiences with their spouse from when they were in the war zone. But then when they come home, it's like starting anew, so it gives this whole feel of a new life starting."
On the fishbowl effect of an Army base
"The spouses are made very aware that their actions on the home front have an effect on their soldier at all times. An army base is a bit of a fishbowl, and I don't want to say that people are in each other's business, but you're hoping that your neighbors are doing OK. And when you think they might not be, people have a tendency to try and help them out. And that could be seen as nosy or it could be seen as being really responsible, but it's a fine line and because it's such a small world, I think the wives are aware of presenting a stable life."
On finding it hard to socialize with civilians
"From my experience, you have so much in common with the other spouses that so much is already understood when you've formed those friendships. You've been through a deployment before, so you have that in common right away. And especially in a place like Fort Hood, where so much of the community is military to begin with, you're surrounded by spouses who have so much in common with you that it's just easier to form those friendships, instead of the civilian friendships that would include the husband that you suddenly don't have."
On why there are some things in the military, like asking a military spouse for a loan, that are just unheard of
"If a spouse is having some kind of money problem, that might not look or reflect well on her husband and how they're keeping their finances. If she asks another spouse in her husband's unit [for a loan], it might get to the chain of command that somebody's having money troubles and then it reflects poorly on the soldier. So there are certain things that spouses might not always want to share, especially with strangers or people who aren't their closest friends."
On the difficulties of deployment
"Each time, I forget how much I would depend on my husband for these small details in my life that I didn't even realize he was doing. And then suddenly he was gone and I would have no idea what plumber we used or how to turn off the furnace — these things that I can't even call him to find out. So it's definitely a tremendous readjustment when your soldier leaves. And it's almost as big of a readjustment when he returns, because after a year, you've actually finally figured out how to be independent. ... It's natural that there would be a little tension in that situation."