by Phil Klay

About halfway through Redeployment, I started to appreciate how much I was genuinely enjoying this short story collection by Phil Klay. On its face, it’s not a book that would typically compel me, short stories usually aren’t my thing and war stories are even more than usually not my thing. But the combination of these two genres worked for me.

Each of the 12 stories in this collection is narrated by a participant of the Iraq War, some coming to us straight from Iraq, others from back home. Most of these narrators are Marines — like their author who served during the surge — but a couple of my favorite stories in the collection involve a military chaplain and a foreign services officer (an employee of the state department). We meet each at a critical point and take our leave when the moment has passed.

In her essay The Nature and Aim of Fiction, Flannery O’Connor said, “[Beginning fiction writers] are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and to want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people …” In other words, a beginning fiction writer wants to convey a social meaning, they have a bigger message, an agenda, beyond telling the story of their characters.

As someone who has tried to write fiction based on her own experiences in a politicized environment, I often think about Flannery O’Connor’s words. The temptation looms large to want to Say Something of meaning and importance to the reader about all the craziness you’ve been through. You want to share some of the hard-won insight you’ve accumulated over years of quiet observation and internal analysis. You’re desperate for everyone to know what you think you now know. You want all those big, broad, unfleshed ideas to find a home on the page.

Phil Klay doesn’t fall victim to these temptations. He understands that his job is to be conscious of people and let his characters tell their stories. There are bigger ideas at work here, but they emerge organically through the tales of individuals. That’s why his book is so good and why even a naysayer like me could not only read, but also enjoy, two genres I typically avoid.

In the interest of full disclosure, my one disappointment with the collection was that it didn’t feature any female narrators. It would have added an even richer element to the book to see the war through the eyes of a female soldier, government employee or serviceman’s relative. But this is what we do when we like something – we start to consider ways we would have made it even better.


Dept of Spec

Lover's DictionaryDept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill


The Lover’s Dictionary
by David Levithan

Back in December, The New York Times told me that Dept. of Speculation was one of the ten best books of 2014. As you know, I’m wont to believe the NYT. So I added my name to the lengthy library hold list, behind a legion of other Berkeley-ites who’d managed to toss aside their copies of the Book Review and rush to their computers faster than I (don’t let the graying peacenik image fool you, they can be an aggressive group when it comes to critically-lauded literature). Now that it’s March, the decks have apparently cleared; Dept. of Speculation arrived this week and a few other selections from the NYT Best Of list are headed my way shortly.

Being a delayed gratification type, this kind of build-up tends to sweeten the pot for me and I cracked open Jenny Offill’s slim little volume with the added enjoyment of knowing I’d had to put in my time on the waiting list. Immediately, the book felt very familiar. Not familiar in a “this author totally knows me” kind of way, but rather, familiar in a “I’ve read this before” kind of way. The other book that came to mind was David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary, another slim little novel with a lot of similarities to Dept. of Speculation.

Both books are novels that are structured like long-form poems, elliptical and lyrical in their narration. Both books use the 2nd person throughout large portions of the story (from DOS: “I remember that day, how you took a $50 cab from work, how you held me in the doorway until I stopped shaking.”) Both books involve similar themes about love, commitment and relationships (and a major plot point I won’t reveal here).

Of the two, I preferred The Lover’s Dictionary. This is not to say I disliked Dept. of Speculation, but I find it interesting that Levithan had written a similar (and in my opinion, more compelling) book a few years back, yet its acclaim seems to have started and ended on my local bookstore’s Staff Picks shelf.

Why had one book received considerable critical praise and the other—as far as my Google machine can tell me—had not? I’m going with snobbery. While David Levithan is a prolific and commercially successful YA author for whom no tears need be shed, his credentials aren’t nearly as literary as those of Jenny Offill. I don’t mention this as a judgment on either writer, each of whom is expressing themself as they best see fit, but I am judging those who judge them. (Apologies for beginning to sound a bit like the “I appreciate that you appreciate me” commercial.)

Tell me I’m crazy, tell me I’m paranoid, tell me I have baggage – I’ll agree with you on every count – but I can’t help feeling a bit disheartened by my assessment. Does this mean I’m planning to nix my NYT Book Review? Negatory, as the kids say. But I will be paying closer attention to the staff picks at my local bookstore.


Life+Would+Be+Perfect+CoverLife Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House
by Meghan Daum 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided that (dictionary be damned) perfectionism isn’t really based on the assumption that things are ever going to be exactly perfect; it’s more a pursuit than a quest with an end. Most of us are willing to acknowledge that perfection is mythical and unattainable.

So what exactly is this pursuit of the perfect all about? I think it’s more like a complicated form of rationalizing. We don’t necessarily have to believe that things will ever be truly perfect to remain firmly devoted to the belief that if we can just get a liiiiitttttle bit closer to our ultimate vision, well, then we can at least live with that. We can be more content, we can be happier, even if we can’t reach the zenith. And let’s face it: the pursuit is the real thrill, a thrill that can’t possibly be matched by its outcome. Because within the pursuit lies the potential. Reality often involves some level of disappointment.

Which leads us to the topic of real estate. It’s been an interesting ride for my peers and I, coming-of-adulthood during the recent booms and busts of the housing market. We had all kinds of weird ideas about how and why one should possess their own little corner of the planet. For a certain demographic to which I belong, there was a time when one could have easily mistaken our real life financial transactions for a game of Monopoly. I can remember an actual conversation in which someone declared that by purchasing my condo in 2002, I “had won.” I’ve been all over the game board since then.

For some, housing–whether rented, owned, borrowed or bartered–is a simple matter of economics: a straightforward business transaction and nothing more. My housing has always been more emotionally significant than that. I can probably trace this back to approximately the seventh grade, when I took up residency in my parents’ attic guestroom a la Greg Brady. I could go on at some length about how and why that little garret still ranks as one of my all-time favorite dwellings. I could probably write an entire memoir about the housing in my life and it would come down to the same basic premise that is at the heart of Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House: housing equals identity.

I’m so glad, though, that Meghan Daum saved me the trouble and wrote her housing memoir instead. In fact, it was one of those books that I related to so strongly, I’d almost hesitate to recommend it to anyone else for fear they might not relate and my true insanity will be revealed for once and for all. I’m pretty sure that only a fellow OCDer could truly appreciate the painfully detailed cataloging Daum undertakes over virtually every one of her 18 (yep, I said 18) moves without becoming annoyed. But within the craziness lies a hysterically funny and sharply insightful narrator who isn’t afraid to let us all know how nuts she really is.

Okay, you’ve read the disclosures. Here are the keys. The rest is up to you.