978-0-393-07799-5 – W.W. Norton – Hardcover – 336 pages – $26.95 (ebooks available at lower prices, paperback edition to be published in May 2016)
Janice Nimura’s Daughters of the Samurai is a wonderful book about an extraordinary and little known episode in modern Japanese history. In 1871, soon after the Japanese civil war that led to the modernization of the country, the Japanese government decided to send five young girls to the United States to educated. They were sent along with a delegation of diplomats and civil servants, with a very specific mission to be educated in modern Western ways and then to return to help create new generation of men and women to lead Japan. While each of these young girls had been raised in very traditional samurai households, they were all displaced from their families and clans. Three of the girls stayed the course, while the other two girls went home.
On their arrival in San Francisco, and later, traveling across the country, the Japanese girls became significant public celebrities, written about by newspapers across everywhere. It’s incredible to imagine what it must have been like for the girls as well as for the American public, who had never seen anyone from Japan before.
Sutematsu Yamakawa, Shige Nagai, and Ume Tsuda all were raised in middle class or upper middle class homes in the United States and grew up in many ways as typical American schoolgirls, despite their obvious differences from their American friends and family members. Within the families and then in the various schools and colleges they attended, they developed lifelong friendships and connections, and after their ten year sojourn was completed, they returned home to Japan almost as foreigners.
They had started their sojourn in America in radically cross-cultural environments and experiences, then learned a completely new culture, only to return home as yet again out-of-place foreigners, this time in the culture they actually came from. Their unusual experience gave them an incredibly unusual perspective on Japanese culture. As adult women living in a still male dominated society struggling with the tension between modernity and tradition, they each determined to revolutionize women’s education and lead their country forward. Ume Tsuda, in particular, made a significant impact on Japanese education that continues into the modern era.
It’s impossible not to be captivated by these incredible women and their life stories, both in the United States and in Japan. Nimura’s narrative is fascinating and compelling; she brings to life what was once an obscure piece of history, and through the lens of these interesting women, a period in both American and Japanese history of great change in every aspect of culture.
After reading Daughters of the Samurai, it’s impossible not to want to share the story with anyone who will listen. I am fortunate that I was able to talk about it with the author herself. This is a book I am happy to recommend to readers.
Janice Nimura graduated from Yale and then moved to Japan with her new husband, where she lived for three years, became proficient in Japanese, and later earned a Masters degree from Columbia in East Asian Studies, specializing in 19th century Japanese history. At one point she stumbled across a book written by Alice Mabel Bacon (originally from New Haven) called A Japanese Interior, which is about Bacon’s visit to Japan in the 1880s. Alice Bacon’s story captured Nimura’s imagination. She learned about Sutematsu Yamakawa Oyama, Bacon’s foster sister and Vassar’s first Japanese graduate; Ume Tsuda, whose pioneering women’s English school Alice helped to launch; and Shige Nagai Uriu, the third of the little girls who arrived with the Iwakura Mission in 1872 and grew up in America, and then took up the challenge of researching and writing about this amazing episode in modern Japanese and American history.
Author website here.
I seem to have an inordinate interest in books about the Holocaust, doubtless because I think about my unknown relatives who perished in Lithuania and Poland during WW II, and feel somehow that knowing what happened to other Jews in that awful time will help me imagine the story of what happened to my own relatives. It’s difficult not to wish that there were more accounts of heroic escapes from the Nazis and their allies in every country they occupied, but more often than not, the stories we do get to know are deeply sad, frustrating, or horrific.
Martin Goldsmith’s parents came to the United States in 1939 from Germany, having survived the Nazi regime only because they were classical musicians who played in the Kulturbund, a special group of Jewish musicians that entertained other Jews in Germany (that was the subject of Martin Goldsmith’s last book, THE INEXTINGUISHABLE SYMPHONY: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany).
This new book, Alex’s Wake, is principally the story of Goldsmith’s grandfather and uncle, who tried to escape Germany in 1939 on the ill-fated journey of the German luxury liner, the SS St. Louis, which took more than 900 Jewish refugees (at their own expense, paying high prices to the German steamship company) across the Atlantic, first to Havana and then, having been turned away by the Cubans, to the USA and Canada, which also refused the refugees entry to their countries. This meant that the ship had to sail back to Europe, where amazingly and after great effort, the refugees were accepted by England, Holland and France. Only those who went to England truly escaped, however, as soon after the Germans overran both France and Holland, and these forlorn, long suffering escapees were once again under the thrall of the Nazis, who now could kill European Jews without restraint.
Goldsmith’s father suffered lifelong guilt for not being able to rescue his father and brother (and one must imagine, also his mother and sister, whose stories are really not told here, but who also were murdered in the war). That guilt was ineffably passed on to the grandson, and this book is Martin’s attempt to expiate that guilt, and to understand as much as it is possible, the story of his family’s travails more than 70 years ago.
Goldsmith and his wife traveled to Europe, spending six weeks retracing the journey of his antecedents, Alex and Helmut Goldschmidt. That journey forms the structure of the book, around which is built the narrative of his family’s formerly happy and successful life in Germany, their struggles to escape the Nazis, the terrible journey of the SS St. Louis , and especially moving, the detailed tracking of Alex and Helmut’s terrible time in occupied France where their hopes were truly lost, and where, after great suffering, they were transported to Auschwitz and finally their deaths. Along the way, Goldsmith learns a great deal about his family’s life in Germany, meets many interesting people, and in fact helps to change the lives of others as well as his own.
This is a fine example of narrative nonfiction and while at times painful, well worth reading. Goldsmith’s improbable effort to expiate his family’s guilt and suffering brought forth forgiveness and a sort of transcendence both for himself and others involved in the story, and the book’s honesty and beauty in the face of pain enables us to overcome the sorrow that inevitably arises when experiencing a story of deeply felt pain and loss. He’s an engaging writer and memoirist, and a fine storyteller.
Martin Goldsmith has been a radio host for public radio and Sirius XM, where he now is director of classical music programming and appears on the Symphony Hall channel. Goldsmith has also sung with the Baltimore Opera Company and the Washington Opera. He has also acted in Washington-area theaters, including Arena Stage. His music reviews have appeared in the Washington Post and he is the author now of three books, including Alex’s Wake.
Website for the book is here. Alert – we had a really good conversation so this interview runs slightly long at almost 42 minutes.
Doing this podcast has been great fun for me. I’ve gotten to read some wonderful books, and have met and talked to well over 200 interesting and intelligent writers. Now I can add having a conversation with one of my favorite baseball pitchers to the rewards of being a literary podcaster not long after having the honor of interviewing a Man Booker award winning author (Anne Enright).
Jim Kaat was a Major League pitcher from 1959-83 with the Washington Senators (1959-60), Minnesota Twins (1961-73), Chicago White Sox (1973-75), Philadelphia Phillies (1976-79), New York Yankees (1979-80) and St. Louis Cardinals (1980-1983).
Kaat was an amazingly durable left-handed pitcher, winning 283 games against 237 losses, with an ERA of only 3.45 (that’s average runs allowed over nine innings) and 2,461 strikeouts in 4,530 innings. Kaat had his best year in 1966 while with the Twins, going 25-13 with a 2.75 ERA and 205 strikeouts in 304 innings over 41 starts. Jim was a three-time All-Star and a winner of 16 Rawlings Gold Glove Awards for best fielder at his position, 12 of which ran consecutively from 1962-73. Both Gold Glove marks were long-standing records for pitchers until being eclipsed by Greg Maddux (13 consecutive from 1990-2002, 18 overall).
Kaat’s career spanned four decades and seven U.S. Presidential administrations, and at the time of his retirement in 1983, his 25 years of Major League service were a record. Since then, only Nolan Ryan (27) and Tommy John (26) have logged more seasons.
After all those years of playing baseball at a really high level, Jim went on to become a talented and skilled baseball announcer. He worked first in the minor leagues but showing a natural skill as an observer of the game, he quickly moved up to the big leagues, broadcasting first for the Minnesota Twins and later many years for the New York Yankees. After he retired from his second career, he made another comeback and is still working today as an announcer for the MLB network. For his broadcasting work, Kaat won an Emmy in 2006 for “On-Camera Achievement” after being nominated for two Emmys the previous year for “Outstanding Live Sports Coverage.”
If These Walls Could Talk is an enjoyable collection of anecdotes and stories, organized loosely around the positions on a baseball team. It’s mostly about the Yankees, and New York fans will love this book, of course. But there is much more in this book than Yankees stories – in it, Kaat tells his own story in his natural and appealing manner. Anyone who appreciates baseball will find these stories told from the perspective of a 60 year veteran of the game to be compelling and engrossing.
It was great fun for me to have the chance to talk to one of my heroes, Jim, “Kitty” Kaat. Thanks Triumph Books for publishing this fun book. And to those Hall of Fame voters on the Golden Era committee – please vote Jim Kaat into the Baseball Hall of Fame – he deserves to be there!
This interview with the talented essayist Marion Winik is unusual, as it is about three different (short) books Marion has published with the relatively new digital publisher SheBooks (“Every Woman Has a Story”). Since Winik, for a long time composed audio essays for NPR’s “All Things Considered” (archived here), she is pretty smart about doing interviews, so I thought we would be able to cover these three books, as well as talking a bit about SheBooks and Marion’s career as writer. I think she did a great job on all counts. I’d recommend a visit to her website too, lots of links, current information, and general literary goings on.
The three short books from SheBooks we talk about in this interview, all of which reflect Marion’s wonderful wit and stylish writing:
August in Paris is a collection of travel stories told with great humor and affection, “from lost teenagers and missed connections to overpriced drinks and gambling mishaps.” I don’t know how she does it, but she keeps her bearings throughout.
The End of the World as We Know It collects nine essays about parenting and family, beginning with the story of her second wedding and subsequent move to rural Pennsylvania. She covers a broad range of subjects, from blended families, to having kids in her 40’s and eventually to dealing with the legal problems that sometimes arise with teenage boys. Very much along the lines of her NPR pieces.
Guesswork is a collection of essays about memory and identity. One of my favorites, ”The Things They Googled” looks at search engines and their effects on our lives. These eight essays will inspire you to reconsider your own history and sense of self from new angles: how treasured places and objects fit in, how your life as a reader shapes who you are.
You can purchase these and other books directly from SheBooks (they already have a really extensive and impressive list of publications) here or from Barnes & Noble, Amazon and probably other ebook retailers, all at reasonable prices. Buy direct and you support the publisher and its authors.
Marion Winik’s (very abbreviated) biography in her own words:
“I was born in Manhattan in 1958 and raised on the Jersey shore. I graduated from Brown in 1978 and got my MFA from Brooklyn College in 1983.
Throughout my childhood and into my twenties, I wrote poetry. Some of it was published in two small-press books. In the late eighties—by which time I was living in Austin, Texas with my first husband, Tony—I began writing personal essays.
These days I live with my daughter Jane and our dachshund, Beau, in the beautiful Evergreen neighborhood of Baltimore. What a fabulous, underrated town this is. I teach writing in the MFA program in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts at the University of Baltimore. I write a column at BaltimoreFishbowl.com, and have a new memoir from Globe Pequot Press. It’s called Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled Through The Joys of Single Living.”
And here is something about the digital publishing start up, Shebooks: a curated collection of short e-books written by women, for women. All of our stories are easy to download and read on any digital device—and so good you’ll finish them in an hour or two. We like to think of ourselves as an e-book boutique, the kind where you’ll always find a story to fit your busy life.
Whether short fiction, memoir, or journalism, all Shebooks are handpicked by discerning magazine and book editors and written by women you either know of or will want to know. And because we offer our e-books by subscription as well as individually, you need never be without a great story to read.
As anyone who listens to WritersCast knows, I’m always interested in new publishing models. SheBooks certainly represents one of those new models. I think we will revisit them in a little while to see how this venture turns out. I hope it works – we need more digital publishing that tries to break out of the existing structures and models to try out different approaches to engaging with readers.
Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream – 978-0062282668 – It Books (HarperCollins) – Hardcover - $26.99 – ebook versions available at lower price, paperback to be published March 17, 2015.
What a wonderful read this book is! The first thing you need to know is that I love old cars. I love stories about the people who love them, and rebuild them. But I also know that most old car stories are of limited interest to most people who don’t love old cars. Still – and yet – Auto Biography is much more than an old car story. Earl Swift is a terrific writer – trained as a journalist, which shows in his writing. He is clear and to the point. He never buries the lede. He gets close to the characters he writes about and portrays them brilliantly. And it’s impossible to put this book down once you get into the story, which just keeps going and going to a startling and rewarding end.
So yes, the book is about a car – a 1957 Chevrolet (one of the most iconic cars of our time) that Swift was able to trace from its first owner to its last. But it’s really about all the people who ever owned the car, and most crucially, it’s about Tommy Arney, the owner of the car when Swift begins his story. And Arney is a dream character for any writer, larger than life, complex and compelling. He is impossible to resist and Swift goes all the way in bringing us up close and personal with this incredible all-American character.
It was an incredible joy to read this book. As it happened, I was simultaneously reading a history of the automobile industry and for me, this book was by far the better book. It tells the story of what cars mean to our lives, how the cars we drive can capture our hearts and become our souls. I really enjoyed talking to Earl about this book and the story of how he came to write it is well worth listening to.
If you are interested in the way Americans live today, this book is one you must read. And if you just like a good story and you liked the way Hunter S. Thompson told them, this book ought to be perfect for you. Author website here, worth a visit.
“The story he tells of the car’s owners and, in particular, anti-hero protagonist Tommy Arney, is so detailed and informed by such thorough reportage I had to use Google to make sure Swift wasn’t embellishing — and I mean that as a compliment . . . . It’s the best contemporary book I’ve read about automobiles since A.J. Baime’s Go Like Hell, and I enjoyed the hell out of that.”
Matt Hardigree, Jalopnik.com
Longtime journalist Earl Swift wrote for newspapers in St. Louis, Anchorage, and for 22 years in Norfolk, where his long-form stories for The Virginian-Pilot were nominated five times for a Pulitzer Prize. Since 2012, he’s been a fellow of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia.
He’s also the author of four other books of narrative nonfiction–THE BIG ROADS, a lively 2011 history of the interstate highway system and its effects on the nation it binds; WHERE THEY LAY: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers, for which he accompanied an army archaeological team into the jungles of Laos in search of a helicopter crew shot down thirty years before (2003); JOURNEY ON THE JAMES, the story of a great American river and the largely untold history that has unfolded around it (2001); and a 2007 collection of his stories, THE TANGIERMAN’S LAMENT.
Castle McLaughlin: A Lakota War Book from the Little Bighorn: The Pictographic “Autobiography of Half Moon”
A Lakota War Book from the Little Bighorn: The Pictographic “Autobiography of Half Moon” (Houghton Library Publications)- 978-0981885865 – Paperback – Peabody Museum Press – $50 (no ebook version of this title!)
I was so excited by this book, I had to read Castle McLaughlin’s A Lakota War Book from the Little Bighorn several times over, studying the brilliant and beautiful reproductions of a nineteenth-century ledger book of pictographic drawings by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors that was found in 1876 in a funerary tipi on the Little Bighorn battlefield after Custer’s defeat. There is so much richness in McLaughlin’s story of the almost miraculous discovery of this document in Harvard’s Houghton Library and her subsequent years-long study of the book, together with Butch Thunder Hawk, historian of the Lakota Sioux, it was, for me, completely engrossing.
Nineteenth century journalist Phocion Howard acquired the book from one of the soldiers who took it from the battlefield, and later added his own illustrated narrative to the original pages, and had it bound in new leather with his own invented interpretation of the illustrations made by Cheyenne and Lakota artists.
Howard’s fabricated story had the seventy-seven Native drawings made by a “chief” named Half Moon, but McLaughlin persuasively argues that these beautifully made drawings, mostly of war and courting exploits, were drawn primarily by six different warrior-artists, some of whom she is able to identify with some certainty as historical figures who fought the invading settlers during Red Cloud’s War in 1866-1868.
These wonderfully evocative and powerful first-person illustrated scenes reflect a native view of the historic events of the plains tribes’ war for survival in this terrible period of American history. For the Lakota and other Plains tribes, art played an important role in recording and preserving their narratives of events of pre-reservation, pre-conquest tribal life, so books like this one provide a uniquely meaningful record of their lives.
McLaughlin tells the long story of the Howard book, provides detail and analysis of its cultural and historic significance, and places it within the context of Lakota and Cheyenne culture of the Plains during their fight against the invading Europeans. There is so much exciting work here for anyone who wants to know more about the events in the American west, where cultures clashed for nearly two centuries. During this time, Lakota, Cheyenne and other Plains tribes created a war based culture whose actual nature has not been fully understood. Most of our view is colored by images of that era framed by dime novels of the time and romanticized films of the 20th century. The ledger books give us an opportunity to see and experience this fraught period through actual Lakota and Cheyenne eyes, which is complicated and challenging. They also illustrate how warriors of that time appropriated the physical objects of their opponents as a way to capture their power as well.
The illustrations themselves are incredibly beautiful, and the stories they tell us, as interpreted by McLaughlin and Thunder Hawk, are completely engrossing. Getting a chance to talk to Ms. McLuaghlin about this book and her experiences as a social anthropologist was a great honor for me.
There is a great review of the book by Thomas Powers in the NY Review of Books, which is accompanied by excerpts of the art here.
Original exhibit of the book materials described here.
Castle McLaughlin is actively involved in the Nakota Horse Conservancy, which preserves some of the descendants of Lakota and Cheyenne horses. More about that here.
What an incredible book. Tough, loving, uncompromising. So much power in this book, admittedly at times, very painful to read, and stunningly honest to the point of extremism. But Jowita is such a fine writer, it is impossible not to admire this book and despite all the terrible things she tells us about herself, that she is alive, and able to speak her truth is incredible.
You know that any book with a title like this is going to be amazing, but there is no way to get through this book without being thoroughly bowled over, and depending on one’s tolerance for witnessing someone else’s painful mistakes, perhaps more than in any other book you will ever read. And yes, Jowita is completely and terrifyingly honest about herself and her misadventures throughout.
It’s valuable to understand that when Jowita first wrote this story, she wrote it pretending it was a novel. She had to get through that ironically deep denial as part of her ability to understand herself, one assumes. And that is part of the power of this book, that the author is able to uncover layers of denial, fear and guilt to get to a place where she can be honest with herself, and by telling that story to the world, reach a kind of absolution, a place in herself where she can be able to reconstruct herself, not forgiving, but finding the parts of her persona that are who she is not drinking. This is very powerful reading and a book I recommend no matter what you feel about yourself or others who are drinkers, addicted, lost, or found.
Short summary: Three years after she gave up drinking, Jowita Bydlowska found herself drinking again – at the party celebrating the birth of her son. Thus begins the harrowing tale of her descent, once again, into full blown alcohol and substance abuse. You have to read this one for yourself. Go buy this book, prepare yourself for a powerful experience, and read it now. Another good interview with the author on NPR here. And Jowita’s website, worth a visit – “I was born in Warsaw, Poland. I moved to Canada as a teenager. I live in Toronto with my little family in a little house. I write, write, write (compulsively, happily, unhappily, obsessively)” here.
Ladette Randolph is both an editor and a writer; she is currently the editor of the fine literary magazine Ploughshares, whose founder, DeWitt Henry, I interviewed about that magazine’s history, and she’s written a total of four books and edited three more. She was previously an acquiring editor at University of Nebraska Press and earlier, the managing editor of Prairie Schooner. She has received four Nebraska Book Awards, a Rona Jaffe grant, a Pushcart Prize, a Virginia Faulkner award, and has been reprinted in Best New American Voices.
Ladette grew up and lived much of her life in Nebraska. In this really well written and beautifully composed memoir, Leaving the Pink House, she tells the story of her life through the houses she has lived in. At first, the book appears to be a relatively straightforward memoir of buying a dilapidated farmhouse to fulfill a dream of country living (the day after September 11, 2001), and the complication of leaving the pink house she and her husband had already turned into the house of their dreams.
But Randolph is writing to understand herself and where she comes from. Leaving one beloved house for another that is full of potential (for good and bad) spurs her into exploring her past life through the houses in which she lived. And she essentially tells herself – and her readers – where she came from, and how she became the person who is able to love and inhabit her own being in the present by exploring her life through the houses in which she lived from her early youth onward.
Randolph grew up in small towns in Nebraska; her father took his family with him as he worked to become an evangelical minister. Randolph tells us what it was like for her to experience the world through the lens of fundamentalism as she grew up and then into her early adult years. She experiences a series of awakenings, tragedies and struggles, all told without over dramatization and alternating with the mundane and always challenging work of remodeling the old house in the country and preparing to move from the pink house.
It’s an engaging and perceptive form of storytelling and much like a remodeling job itself, we learn with her as she goes through the work of tearing down and rebuilding the structure of her life. I greatly enjoyed reading this book, vicariously experiencing her challenges and accomplishments, and learning about her life experiences. Then having the opportunity to talk with Ladette about it only amplified my interest in her writing. Her active and informative website is here (and worth a visit).
Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (Post*45) – 978-0804784160 – Stanford University Press – Hardcover – $27.95 (ebook versions available at substantially lower prices)
This book has turned out to be one of the most influential on my recent thinking about publishing and how it should work, proving that history can tell us a great deal about both the present and the future. Grove Press was immensely influential in changing American culture from the 1950s through the 1980s, and remains meaningful today, with its massive backlist representing the golden age of the literary avant-garde of that time. Its longtime owner and spiritual leader, Barney Rosset, has been an almost mythic hero to many who got into publishing because of what he accomplished with Evergreen Magazine and Grove Press. How a publisher could become so powerfully influential makes for a terrific and inspiring story.
Grove’s accomplishments and innovations are legion and well documented by Loren Glass in this book. While Counterculture Colophon is written as an academic history, and sometimes Glass falls prey to academic terminology that may put off the non-scholarly readers, I was happy to overlook the academic jargon and focus on the compelling story he tells of Grove and what it has meant for modern publishing.
This heroic and sometimes tragic saga reminds us of what it means to be a passionate and committed publisher. It’s difficult for anyone alive today to believe that up until the 1960s it was illegal to publish and sell literary books that included sexually explicit content. Battles were fought – and finally won at great expense - by Grove Press against the US government and many local jurisdictions over DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and William Burroughs’ notorious Naked Lunch. These cases literally led to “the end of obscenity” and created the groundwork that has enabled modern literary publishing to flourish in our time.
Rosset and Grove, together with myriad editors and publishers in Paris, London, San Francisco, and New York, were at the heart of a revolution in publishing, both in content and in form that in many ways inspired and led directly to an equivalent revolution in the overall American culture, that reverberates today. Grove was at the heart of political, cultural and literary ferment in North America, introducing new voices not only from here, but from around the world, to American readers. Rosset more or less invented the trade paperback, and was a leader in introducing trade books to be used as supplemental reading for college courses, of course hitting its stride at the very moment that the Baby Boom generation went to college. The magazine and press brought an emerging set of writers to an emerging generation of readers, inspiring and changing the way millions read and thought about writing, politics, theater and art. Grove Press was as much a cultural institution as it was a publisher.
And, importantly, what this book most strongly highlighted for me is the meaning and power of a publisher’s brand. It is widely accepted that most publishers today have no identity with readers. Grove Press and its house literary journal, the Evergreen Review, were made into powerful and coherent brands that recognized the publisher as enabled it to introduce formerly unknown writers and artists to their audiences. Using graphics, typography and a consistently subversive publishing program, Grove was able to become a recognized brand for readers, the power of which, seemingly very few publishers have understood or been able to duplicate.
Counter Culture Colophon is a book I strongly recommend to anyone interested in contemporary literature and of course, publishing. Loren Glass was able to interview Rosset and many other principle players in the story of the press. And for many, it will be a truly inspiring tale.
Loren Glass is a Professor of English at the University of Iowa. There is a really nice video of Glass speaking about Rosset and Grove at the Chicago Humanities Festival here. (55 minutes)
Sean Davis grew up in Oregon, joined the Army after high school, went to art school for awhile, had an unsuccessful relationship with an attractive woman, and was working at an unsatisfactory job as a highway worker on September 11, 2001. The next day he walked into the Oregon National Guard recruiting office and re-enlisted, on the working assumption that he would be contributing to the greater good and giving himself a sense of direction and meaning. He had no idea he would soon end up on active duty in Iraq on the front lines of the war trying to figure out how to be a sensitive warrior in a strange country.
Davis is a talented writer and exceptional memoirist with a keen eye for details and a wry sense of humor. In Iraq he lost his best friend in an ambush and was himself critically wounded. He returns home after a lengthy period of recovery to deal with the aftermath of his experiences and suffers through what we now know is so common for the veterans of our seemingly endless recent wars, alcohol and drug dependency and a minimally helpful support system. Somehow, Davis managed to rediscover the interior place where his art comes from and was able to rebuild his life. He now has a family, an advanced degree, is actively an artist and a writer, and has created a nonprofit organization (A Rock or Something Productions: “veterans getting veterans into the arts”) to connect other veterans to the healing power of the arts.
Davis recounts the seeming insanity of daily life in the war zone with humor and clarity, and clearly cares deeply about the civilians he encountered in Iraq as well as the men and women with whom he served. As an example, the wax bullets in the title were what was used in training exercises in Kuwait prior to active deployment – to save money. Evidently it escaped the thinking of military planners that in the plus 100 degree temperature there, the bullets would melt, fouling the soldiers’ guns, wasting time and endangering their lives. This is not the only example of how things go wrong for US soldiers and the Iraqi people in the midst of the war, which Davis describes with a soldier’s sense of black humor.
His description of what happened to him after he returned home is terrifying and powerful. When he does rediscover himself, we are right there with him, joined with his indomitable spirit to become someone better, someone who can be alive and present and fully engaged in the beingness of humanity.
The Wax Bullet War is a beautiful book, incredibly moving and compelling. I’d recommend adding it to the short list of great books about war and specifically about the real experiences of soldiers who fight and then must live their lives in time of peace. Put aside some quiet time to read it and let it sink in. Sean Davis website. Publisher Ooligan Press website.
Sean Davis bio: Sean Davis is an artist, writer, and returning veteran of the Iraq War. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Portland State University and an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. His previous work includes the novel Motivation and Toleration, published under the name Ian Avi, as well as contributions to the Portland Mercury, Nailed Magazine, and Split Infinitive. He has appeared on 60 Minutes and is one of the cofounders of Hubris Press in Portland, where he lives with his wife and daughters.