TJ’s Household Haiku Challenge: Windows

Windows. What I can see from mine, and what that leads me to think about:

Chugach in my sight

Ungulates not fond of snow

Will soon join us here

For some reason I also thought about the homes where I live, many of which have gigantic windows unadorned by curtains, something that perplexes me, as I could never tolerate such openness. With some sort of treatment, perhaps; then I could open and close at will. But to be so vulnerable to prying eyes at all times–that would be invasive and my skin would crawl.

What I see through those windows would, of course, be very different to what others, looking from the opposite direction, would. But what about eyes–mine and others’–focused on the interior? Anyone’s interior. Perhaps what makes this most unsettling is not only that outsiders looking into the homes of others become privy to the most intimate moments occupants experience, but also that the windows provide a camouflage we rarely consider.

Windows. What they reveal.

Unaware of eyes

gazing into their retreat

laughter; unfeigned joy

What they might mask.

Through windows are seen

lovely rooms, rich decor, not

the thunder within

Do windows serve as a conduit between people? Or are we subject to the pathways they set out, not really knowing where a journey might begin or end?

Mud mirror work window Gujurat, India
Mud mirror work window Gujurat, India

Mirrors of time, they

decorate our lives, cooling

the desert passions

gujarat window
Gujurat window*

Memories of what

we see, through time we drive to

final destiny


*See Gujurat window and mud mirror work for more details


Book Review: The Emperor’s American

The Emperor’s American
by Art McGrath

emperor's amiThe adventures of Baltimorean Pierre Burns, in his telling of them in The Emperor’s American, start out with a bang—literally. The first words of the opening chapter are, “The ship was ablaze” and author Art McGrath keeps us on the edge of our seats until the very end. The book is divided into chapters, not all necessarily ending with cliffhangers, but infused nonetheless with a tincture of sorts, leaving readers reluctant to let go at natural stopping points. Perhaps Burns’s circumstances—unusual to say the least—play into that, or it could be where they lead him.

Written as a letter from Burns to Napoleon’s surviving brother, Joseph Bonaparte, who has beseeched Burns to set to paper his experiences as an American in the emperor’s army, the novel takes readers through a bit over one year of life as a French soldier.

Pierre Burns, whose French mother raised him modeling a hatred for the English, never knew his French-born Scottish father, whose brutal murder during the American Revolution also informs Pierre’s perceptions. So it is that when his merchant ship is attacked by the British and sinks off the coast of northwestern France, he is recruited into what history later knows as the Grande Armée, a force preparing to invade England.

At the start, I didn’t know what to expect of Burns, whose strong personality in the hands of a lesser author might have endangered his likeability. However, he is equipped with a balanced self awareness that enables him often to recognize the effect his words may have on others, and an ability to evaluate himself with a fair amount of honesty.

In retrospect, I can’t really blame Monge for his attitude. The open officer’s slot should have allowed him to move up to the number two slot in the company. Instead, a foreigner who became an officer that very morning was to usurp his place, at least until I permanently assumed my duties as Ney’s aide-de-camp, which might not be for some time, unless the invasion commenced sooner than everyone thought.

McGrath’s dialogue, which is not only strong and succinct, but also punctuated with perfect expressive indicators, also adds to reader experience:

I gasped. “Would they be so foolish?”

Jomini nodded. “If they think they can catch the Emperor, yes….”

Ledoyen, who had listened to this explanation, jumped back in where he left off with Jomini.

Jomini shook his head patiently, like an indulgent schoolteacher.

Throughout the novel, as Burns tells us his story, we are actually able to see how characters respond, as if we were also watching rather than only reading about them. His words bring to life their actions, via McGrath’s ability to put same into simplified words that create a repertoire of complex actions, not unlike watching a skilled actor utilizing true-to-life gesticulations that match the words he hears or speaks, or the emotions he feels.

As events unfold and readers are more and more drawn into Burns’s narrative, we forget it is a letter being written and the story becomes ours. Burns shares with us his mortifications, such as when he is rebuked in front of the entire company; his infatuation with a young woman at first inaccessible to him; the methods of war he learns and his growth within that knowledge; and details of encounters that terrify as well as contribute to his expertise as a soldier and swordsman. Periodically we are given a reminder, though within methods that embrace us, rather than reveal our reading of the attachment to a letter to someone else. “How,” he asks at one point, “do I draw this scene for you[?]”

In an unexpected combat experience, following the explosion of a saboteur ship, Burns and others chase an escaped killer into a nearby warehouse.

Long shadows danced ahead of us and on the walls from the light. The dirt and pebble floor crunched under our feet as we walked . . . For some reason I felt more fear there in the dark hunting one man than fighting dozens in that house months before. Possibly the darkness cast shadows on the mind and the silence gave us time to dwell on what could be waiting for us, the same fate that met that infantryman outside with his head bashed in.

It is this access to Burns’s vulnerability as well as his strength of character, his willingness to reveal his fear but determination to stand tall that contributes to readers being able to relate to him and thus, develop a rooted interest in how he fares. McGrath pulls off the first-person flawlessly; it is truly as if he is transcribing the actual words as Burns speaks them. In so doing, he develops a sympathetic character, neither arrogant nor overly self-effacing, who speaks to our own experiences, as contrasting as they may be to his.

As the year progresses and Burns is involved in a number of activities, all the characters continually look forward to the invasion they so fervently train for. For better or worse, life goes on and Burns participates in it, even engaging in some illegal dueling, which to me were the amongst the best scenes in descriptive and action terms, not to mention the emotive fury for all parties. Burns, like McGrath, is a watcher of people and the patterns they engage in, using them to his advantage and eventual victory.

As the overall tension builds, Burns utilizes this method in the broadest of ways, also using intuition in his judgment calls. Not everyone trusts his judgment, however, and some are outright hostile to it. These are men with a great many more years experience than he, and they know the conflict in ways he, a newbie to the country and fighting forces, will ever do. As the framework of the larger story enclosing all the inner pieces grows more apparent, the question remains as to whether Burns can reconcile the outcome with an outlook held onto for a lifetime. What if the French lose? Perhaps more importantly, what if they win?

While the Napoleonic era isn’t one I have studied extensively or, truth be told, ever really had great interest in, it is worth noting again how much this book held me. The idea of post-revolutionary Americans fighting in Napoleon’s army is an intriguing one, though McGrath has much more at his disposal than an initial fabulous idea to keep it all going. I am a great admirer of saying a lot with a little, and for this book that means two things: one, the depth of many of the characters is established artfully even with only a few appearances; and two: the longer passages, especially battlefield scenes, some of which really are quite long, kept my attention and interest as Burns analyses for us his perceptions and what they mean to events taking place. Burns—or McGrath, I’m not entirely sure which—has a way of explanation that fascinates as it reveals facets non-combatants never had cause to consider, linking them in significance one to another. While the end is satisfying for the momentary ramifications, there is more to Pierre’s story on its way, and you will want to read it.

McGrath has truly used his skills to his own advantage, to his eventual victory.


Historical Note:

The Emperor’s American sees Burns and the rest of the Grande Armée VI Corps marching out from their  position beginning August 27, 1805. While not every unit left on the same day, they did proceed forward in time to their next engagement. Stay tuned for March to Destruction and events of the War of the Third Coalition.


art mcgrath

Art McGrath lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he is a journalist as well as re-enactor and member of the Brigade Napoleon and the 3me regiment infanterie de ligne–the French 3rd Infantry regiment of the Line. The Emperor’s American is the first in a series following the adventures of Pierre Burns.

Learn more about Art McGrath and The Emperor’s American at his author page.


This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location.


Book Review: Like Chaff in the Wind

Like Chaff in the Wind (Book II in The Graham Saga) by Anna Belfrage

It is Matthew Graham’s misfortune that Like Chaff in the Wind opens not only in an unwelcoming city, but also one in the grips of a day “cold and dreary in the icy January winds.” This unfortuitous beginning, already weighed down by an ongoing battle between Matthew and his estranged brother, is not aided by the former’s apprehension over a recent row turned violent and the consequences that now seem to be stalking him.

The brothers’ past history includes a son born to the woman first married to Matthew and later Luke, with the child’s birth in close enough proximity to the transition to cast doubt on which is the biological father. This being 1661 Scotland, paternity testing is not an option and the most recent sibling battle ended with Matthew angrily and unceremoniously slicing off Luke’s nose. While not unprovoked, his action was foolhardy, especially given Matthew’s long acquaintance with his brother’s rage.

chaffTherefore when Matthew sees and is threatened by his brother on this same day, is inclined to draw up papers transferring guardianship of his family to his brother-in-law should anything happen to him, and then ignores that in-law’s plea to follow up on this straight away…well, in this reviewer’s case the result was an immediate red flag and a burst of raised voice when less than a page away Matthew’s life is dramatically and cruelly altered, perhaps forever, if he cannot find a way out.

His brother having had him abducted and set on a path to indentured servitude in the colonies, forever may not be very long, given the conditions leading to the short life spans of these unfortunate souls. Thus it is that Anna Belfrage, especially if the reader has already become acquainted with the Grahams in book one, A Rip in the Veil, manages so quickly to arouse the passion of readers, who, if they are anything like this one, caution Graham and then curse his foolishness, knowing they will soon lament his horrible fate.

The speed with which Graham is abducted—it happens before one can really settle into the book—reflects the rapidity that Matthew must bitterly marvel at as he hunches on the captor ship, recalling the short time between Simon’s warning and this event going down. His wife, Alex, wastes no time in setting a perilous rescue operation into motion and as her own ship pulls away from the docks, Simon, Matthew’s attorney and brother-in-law, watches her with a prayer in his heart.

Such a little thing on all that water, totally in the hands of our Lord, blown hither and thither like a chaff in the wind. He sighed and pressed his hat down on his head.

“Dear Lord, hold Your hand over them and keep them safe,” he prayed. “Turn the light of Your countenance unto them and guide them back home.”

It should be noted here that home for Alex, while indeed Scotland, is torn between two times, for she had been dragged into this era from the 21st century during a freak thunderstorm in which the veil of time had been torn, the separateness blurred and she transported over. It had been a frightening and dangerous transition as she navigated her way through her new—old—time, with Matthew as her new companion and eventually, husband.

Misfortune seems in constant pursuit, what with conditions of the time and Luke’s unrelenting hatred and desire for revenge. Indeed, as Simon regards her, she is like helpless chaff, blown asunder while other pieces of her family lay in front of and behind her, none knowing if her mission will be successful or they might ever see another again in this life.

Like Chaff in the Wind reads in part as if we have stepped into living history: not only do we witness the events as they occur, but Belfrage also captures the humanity (or lack thereof) in various characters with their own perceptions of how to move forward. Some have given in to the cruelty, hoping to get on as best they can and perhaps see the end of their contracted time and still be alive. This is not Matthew’s way, but the author judges no one, including those close to him who sacrifice precious parts of their selves for the sake of survival.

Belfrage also captures the day-to-day order of business that provides readers with a clear sense of how people really lived at this time—ordinary people. Alex visits the registrar, her companion Mrs. Gordon garners income as a midwife, officials and citizens are co-operative and not. Like our own time, 17th century Virginia also has its share of hustlers, backstabbers and other ne’er-do-wells, the actions of whom serve as a springboard to mysteries Alex has to clear her way through, learning how to detect and use every bit of cunning that she has in the process. Though she is free in terms of servitude, she must also dodge plenty of bullets to remain so, for enemies are made and unmade, loyalties shift and prices are paid in a seemingly unending parade of bargains linking people together in ways she has yet to understand.

Fortunately, not all in this strange place are motivated to trip her up and bouts of providence provide realistic balance, more from an author so well acquainted with her eras that one might be forgiven for believing she herself has stepped out of one to record these events. Alex, with similar advantage, being from a later century and somewhat well equipped to move forward, nevertheless is not given entirely smooth passage as she has doubts and questions of her own lives that follow her down the path of this entire journey. Some of these, she knows, will revolve around the question of What now? if she is successful in retrieving her lost Matthew. After what he has had to endure, would he be able to recover? Could they get back to who they were before?

One favorite element of Like Chaff in the Wind—indeed, the entire series—is the varied nature of Alex’s adaptation to her new/old time and how she carries out her tasks despite having been used to entirely different methods. Observing her engaged in running the household, managing travel plans and activities, raising her children, interacting with her family, advocating for their needs, readers appreciate her honesty and Belfrage’s treatment of her characters in that while nothing is really very easy, there also are no extraneously difficult moments in this life: it is all kept very real with narrative and dialogue that fit with each other seamlessly.

In this particular installment of The Graham Saga Belfrage gives us mystery, crime, romance, history, time travel and, a special treat for this reviewer’s interests, a nautical theme. Her ability to manage this much subject matter, very complicated sets of relationships, events in two eras and intersecting plotlines is truly second to none.

ripBeing a sequel is never an easy task: A Rip in the Veil opening the saga as magnificently as it does, readers will wonder what audiences universally do. “Will the second be as good as the first?” Like a younger sibling it must compete for attention, carefully avoiding such traits as mimicry and overcompensation in the quest for individuality. In parenting these two books, Belfrage and readers can rest assured they have no need of worry re: a rivalry anywhere near to that of Matthew and Luke. These siblings indeed are their own individuals, but also complement and recommend one another. Fascinating tales, the only unsatisfying element will be the wait for the next one.


Read my review for A Rip in the Veil (Book I in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for The Prodigal Son (Book III in The Graham Saga) (with author interview)


Anna Belfrage can be found on Amazon, Amazon UKTwitter and Facebook. You can also learn more about Belfrage, her characters and her world at her website and blog, which also contains details about her upcoming series.


This post previously appeared in 2014 on the blog’s alternative location.


Friday Night Flashback: Alice Dreaming, Diamond Eyes

Lewis Carroll
My favorite picture of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll

As a child I was hugely in love with Alice in Wonderland and delighted when I found anything at all Alice related. Perhaps it was the talking animals, or maybe the rhymes. Even at that young age I loved words and the way Alice’s creator played with them delighted me to no end–I roared with love at the logic puzzles I could never figure out, and the shapes of his characters enthralled me. I acquired a copy of The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll, and can still remember the red cover with golden lettering on the front. Inside that book were worlds I visited and studied for hours upon hours, reciting the words and creating my own dialogue and separate stories, even writing out some of my favorite scenes, filling dozens of notebooks in the process.

real aliceAt one point I discovered Anne Clark’s The Real Alice, a find that exponentially widened my world, balancing in its pages a lifetime of literature, history, art, genealogy, mathematics, poetry and photography, all wound within stories of people’s lives as they grew and aged, loved, hurt, obsessed, engaged in feuds and criss-crossed the staggering lines demarcating social class, family boundaries and cultivated friendships.

It happens that one of the years during this time I somehow started to draw, unusual for me because I wasn’t (and remain) not very good at it. Poetry was more my speed, and in fact I filled a great many notebooks with that as well. I felt at home with poetry, as if I were cushioned by the comfortable words, held in in a protective embrace with each advance into the opening up of inner worlds. Art? I simply never gave it much thought.

I no longer remember which drawing was my first, or what thought persuaded my pencil to paper in sketching movements; all I know is that today I carry with me a small portfolio of drawings I’d done, some silly, some serious, all attempts at my own or copies of others’ work. I can recall sitting on my bed (near the fish tank that held two hamsters named Sylvie and Bruno), contented with the world as I engaged in my notebooks. Oftentimes memories are punctuated by remembered products of this era, or I see something (or my son and his own productions), reminding me of a particular drawing.

In this case, I recalled and went searching for this one~~

My drawing Alice
When specifically calling up the recollection, I want to say this is copy of a picture I’d seen in a book that I strongly suspect to be Clark’s. The swirls to the left and right appear to me quite Lewis Carrollish, and I vaguely recall not being able to duplicate them exactly. (They are just lines, right? Still, for some reason I couldn’t get it.) I thought I remembered that this in fact is a drawing by Dodgson of Alice Liddell, the small girl for and to whom the story was first told. Finding out for sure was a snap~~

drawing alice liddell
“…remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer-days.”

The quoted words beneath the actual picture drawn by Dodgson appear, as you can see, in the same journal page as the drawing, and must be what inspired me to write a particular poem, memory of which is what got this particular flashback started. I actually wrote at least two poems about Alice Liddell, one influenced by her years as Alice Hargreaves and as she grew older and eventually passed away (1937) in a world far different from the one she shared with her sisters as a young girl.

But tonight is for the “happy summer-days”:

Alice on the wavy seas
dark hair tossing on the breeze
eyes a-dreaming, gleam alive
gazing upward towards the sky
Alice dreaming; diamond eyes,
with friends’ intoxicated sighs.
They pluck the stars where angels roam
to place them in their hair like combs.
Running, laughing through poppy fields
picking flowers with happy squeals.
In Wonderland they play at home
resting eas’ly on golden thrones
Forevermore, a tale to sing
basking in life’s pleasant spring!

This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location.


TJ’s Household Haiku Challenge: Glass

A little over a week or so ago I took up a new challenge–haiku–by way of TJ’s weekly household prompt, in that instance a piano. It was a lot of fun and as we go along he may find he has created a monster as I play at encapsulating everything I can think of into 5-7-5.

Hey, when I had a toddler in the house I was fairly skilled at making up impromptu rhymes and songs about peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, items to chew on and stinky feet, all to the tunes of favorite kid songs. So this should be fun.

This week’s prompt is glass.

Thunder and lightning

Driven to the ground, with tears

On jagged pieces

looking out wet window

Watching through its fog

As you walk away from me

I see all clearly

OK, let’s look at something a little more, shall we say, celebratory?

Whatever goes in 

your goblet, make it worthy

And may it be fine!



Author Interview: Yancy Caruthers (Northwest of Eden)

Northwest of Eden by Yancy Caruthers

Click here to read my review for Northwest of Eden

Every so often we stumble onto a book that seems to have been destined to cross our paths; one such for me was Yancy Caruthers’ Northwest of Eden. I’m exceedingly grateful to the friend who gifted it, for along with it she passed to me the gift of witnessing compassion, laughter and glimpses into a world I didn’t know much about, but should.

Northwest of EdenI knew before I was halfway through I would be reviewing this magnificent work. Less than 200 pages, it is accessible and gripping, but ought not to be mistaken for a breezy beach read. Filled with insight and questions, the sights, smells, events, colors (or sometimes desert lack thereof) will provoke laughter and tears as it, in the words of a recent reader, “takes you deep into Iraq.” An Amazon top reviewer called it “M.A.S.H for a new century,” and Soldier of Fortune magazine printed a five-page excerpt in November 2014.

Northwest of Eden is now on my forever shelf, and it will be a definite re-read. I also look forward to more by this author.

To read my review for Northwest of Eden, click here

We are so fortunate here at Before the Second Sleep to have been paid a visit by Yancy Caruthers, who so kindly answered a few questions.

The “About” section of Northwest of Eden states, “[Yancy Caruthers] soon found himself back in the desert writing this story.” Would you say you’re an “accidental author,” as that sentence seems to imply, or have you always planned to write?

This memoir took seven years to complete. Did others in your environment know you were writing it? What made you want to write this particular book?

Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

Let me answer both of these questions at once. During my first deployment, I kept a journal for my children. It was full of everyday, meaningless things, along with terrifying accounts of what was happening. I sealed it in an envelope where it remains today, unread. When I returned to Iraq again as part of a hospital unit, I knew I wanted to write for a public audience. I knew there would be intense experiences, but I didn’t know what they would be or when. For example, I knew there would be a time when a Soldier or Marine under our care would die. I didn’t know when, but I knew it would happen, and I wanted to capture that moment so that others could understand the experience. By writing about my life as it happened, I noticed something strange was happening: instead of just existing, I focused more on my own reactions as well as the reactions of others. I paid more attention to my own Soldiers. I think it unintentionally made me a better leader.

Apart from the obvious immediate influences on your writing, what else informs how and what you put to paper (or the screen)?

I’ve learned a lot from my best friend, Sam, who I also my cover artist. Sam is a writer as well, and he’s been at it a lot longer than I have. We’ve been best friends since second grade, so if a passage reads badly, he’ll tell me what he thinks I need to do to make it better.

Northwest of Eden references violence committed and some rather heartbreaking passages—these events occur in a war zone, after all—yet there also are moments of great humor and wit. Were you at all concerned this might put some people off?

HH-60 Black Hawk, Photo by SSG Dayan Neely, Courtesy Yancy Caruthers (Click for full article)
HH-60 Black Hawk, Photo by SSG Dayan Neely, Courtesy Yancy Caruthers (Click image for full article)

Not at all. That was a reflection of how it was. Humor, sometimes of the darkest kind, is one way that people cope with that kind of stress and heartache. If there isn’t a mechanism, then people go cold and stop caring about their jobs. When lives are at stake, that’s the last thing anyone wants. My team and I were a bunch of clowns in the off-time, but we cared about what we did – we laughed hard, but we trained hard, worked hard, and cried hard when it didn’t go right. It made us human.

What is the most important thing you believe readers need to know about your book and genre?

Truth. For good, bad, or ugly, that’s the way it was. It’s different for combat troops, drivers, or pilots, but my story is mine. War is horrible and stupid and unnecessary in every sense of those words, but the people around me were the way I made it through. Maybe I’m not quite intact, but I made it. That’s the thing to keep in mind about reading a war story. It requires an open mind. Each story is what it is.

Where do you hope to take your writing in the future? Would you like to try your hand at another genre?

Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers
Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

I’ve told my story, and I’m trying now to tell the stories of others, which has been different and fun and a little sobering. My current work in progress is called “Medic!” and it is a series of six true stories about military medics in each of the living wars. I’m finished with Desert Storm (Part 4) and Iraq (Part 5) is coming out soon, but finding older vets willing to talk about WW2, Korea, and Vietnam is a lot harder. The subject of Part 6 will be the hardest to find – I am looking for someone who served in Afghanistan who was a small child on 9-11 and not old enough to remember what it meant.

Do you listen to music as you write? What kind of music do you like?

I’m a big 80s music fan, but I prefer quiet time to write. Background noise is okay if I’m on a roll. I draft about 1,000 words/hour at full throttle, but average only about 3,000/week of final product.

Type or longhand?

I type, unless I hit a wall. Then I’ve been known to print out a few pages of hardcopy and sit in bed, writing all over it in longhand. The two actions seem to be a different part of my brain, and when one is stuck, the other sometimes works.

E-books or paperback?

Both. The future might be in e-books, but I love to talk to people, so I do lots of public events and book signings. As a result, e-books are only about 40% of my sales. I’m trying to figure out what works for me in promoting my online presence, but most venues have so far turned out to be snake oil.

Any writing quirks?

I’m very easily distracted, because I think in 3-D and I’m always thinking about unimportant stuff. Facebook is the bane of my writing existence.

Any projects currently on deck?

As I work on “Medic!” I’m getting in front of several veterans’ groups. I’m hoping to do a big publicity push on Veterans’ Day this year. One of my area communities does a big festival and I am working to be a part of that.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Just that writing isn’t always fun, but the process should be. It’s about telling a story. The likelihood of writing a great book, posting it online, and selling a million copies without ever opening the shades is just not realistic. I love getting out, talking to people, and speaking in front of groups. Anyone who wants to write seriously should be doing the same. It isn’t always comfortable.

Yancy Caruthers, thank you so much for joining us here today, and I wish you great success with Northwest of Eden as well as all your future endeavors. It’s been a pleasure.

About the Author:

Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers
Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

Yancy Caruthers is an Iraq war veteran, registered nurse, retired Army Reserve officer, and former U.S. diplomat. He is the author of Northwest of Eden, a memoir of his second deployment as the second-in-command of an Army emergency room in the heart of Anbar province. He lives with his family in southwest Missouri.

Yancy is currently working on “Medic!,” a series of true stories about combat medics in each of the living wars. They will be released separately as e-books and eventually combined under one cover, assuming the author doesn’t get distracted.

You can learn more about the author and his works at his website, at Facebook or follow him at Twitter. Northwest of Eden is available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

Note: This post has been updated to include purchasing and review links.


I would also like to extend a deep thank you to Yancy Caruthers for his unflagging patience with my questions on- and off screen, and for his service and continued dedication to others.



Book Review: Northwest of Eden

Northwest of Eden by Yancy Caruthers

Tomorrow: Interview with author Yancy Caruthers

Northwest of EdenThe cover images for Northwest of Eden drew in my eye as connections formed: outline of Iraq, Red Cross and Red Crescent symbols and helicopter, all indicating military emergency medicine. But what about that chair? I was sufficiently intrigued by it and the main theme to open the book and from the beginning was entranced.

Author Yancy Caruthers writes in this memoir of his time in northern Iraq, serving as second-in-command of an Army emergency department, flight nurse and leader of the station’s air transport team. Anbar, al-Asad airbase’s location, is also the home of Fallujah, at the province’s eastern edge on the Euphrates and location of the 2004 ambush and gruesome murder of four civilian contractors. Ramadi, too, sits within Anbar’s provincial lines and saw internecine tribal fighting, breakdown of law and order and street battles, and grew to be the center of Iraqi insurgency, followed by the 2007 surge, when Caruthers begins his second deployment.

Opening near the end of a 27 + hour flight to Kuwait, during which he and a comrade commit ordinary acts under a duress borne of desperation, the book takes us with the reservist to Camp Buehring, a staging post, before moving on to Combat Support Hospital (CSH) al-Asad, where he will spend the next year. For many readers it may be unsurprising to find the “nuclear sun” and its oppressive heat referenced frequently as he and others attempt to transition into an environment so unreal most people simply cannot seem to grasp it.

Kuwait’s climate was the closest thing to Hell the planet had to offer, so even several hours after dark, the outside air was still hotter than my inside air. It reminded me of burning leaves in the back yard—sometimes the pile would burn hot enough that I would have to turn away. Here, there was no place to turn to.

I had tried to explain the heat to people back home, and inevitably someone would ask, “But it’s a dry heat, isn’t it?”

I would reply, “So is your oven, go ahead and turn it on low and stick your head in it…for a year.”

Desert outside Camp Buehring
Desert outside Camp Buehring about which a colleague laments, “You can’t see anything for miles.” Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

Upon arrival at al-Asad:

I stepped off the bus next to the housing area, and blinked against the dust. The air was thick with it, flavored only by the stinging hint of the smell of burning shit.

As the reality settles in and Caruthers simultaneously bides his time and gets to know his new unit, he shows us around with well-crafted dialogue and narrative that informs us of the amenities at Asad (known to Marines as “Camp Cupcake”), navigates the procedure for utilizing electricity without causing a fire and introduces some key figures who will be part of the year to come.

Although we already received a taste of military humor—the interior of a cargo jet used to transport troops, a “canister,” is said to be “what the inside of a can of whoop-ass looks like”—there is lots more to come. Caruthers had by this time already captured me, though I worried a little we might begin to see people who grow so hard on the outside as a protective measure that they become almost unlikeable. It wasn’t until later I realized I had at this point already deeply bonded with the book: this story and its individuals were so important to me it mattered; I cared if they became people even they wouldn’t want to be.

As it turns out, not only does this not occur—and one can’t help but credit his leadership skills for this—but also Caruthers has a way of relating events as if we were sitting across a small table from him: his words convey the tone in his voice, the sensation of hesitation in the moments he describes, and the anticipatory way in which the outcome hangs in front of us, veiled, so that putting the book down isn’t an option, for we simply must find out what happens next. And when he returns to a previous topic of discussion, we lean in closer at that small table, crying out, Yes, that’s right! because the previous threads had drawn us in tightly, but we are thrilled to be given another glimpse at how they tie together.

Humor is a large part of this procedure, though Caruthers expresses it in a natural, unforced manner, and readers will indeed laugh a great deal. Lots of what he writes is funny either because it just is, or it may reveal insight into human nature when dealing with a variety of circumstances. My previous fear about angry people taking over the narrative disappeared quickly, and I settled further into a book I could not bear to pause.

Even the author reveals himself at times to have been surprised by events in which people sought relief. One passage tells of a subordinate who asks for advice; Caruthers believes he might be having issues with leadership or at home, though the problem was actually much bigger.

“[Sir,] I need to get back at Koen, but…[i]f I strike out on my own without the proper guidance, I might accidentally kill him.”

 “And you suspect that I am both diabolical enough not only to possess this knowledge that you seek, but also to give it to you to use for your own nefarious purposes?”

 “That pretty much sums it up.”

 “I can help you, Padawan. Do you have any Oreos?”

 As time goes on we see pranks more and more involved and recognition of when someone was in on one or anticipation of oneself being the next victim. There is a sort of sadness to the whole thing, yes, because they are carried out by people bored silly during the down times of emergency feast or famine, and also reveal the need to escape the reality of their current environment. But, too, they represent the determination to retain a hold on a side to life that makes us whole. The refusal to succumb to soul-crushing desolation shows us a strength of character that makes us care about them more than we already do.

Map w T-E
Arrow points to al-Asad; SSE are Ramadi and Fallujah, on the Euphrates River (Click to enlarge)

None of this, of course, is to say that Caruthers doesn’t ever become angry—I’d be worried if he didn’t. Toxic leadership, higher ups whose arrogance gives rise to territorial decisions, a condescending preacher with an obtuse manner, the prolonged deaths of people who never had a chance, celebrities overconfident of their own understanding of war—these are some of the circumstances he and his colleagues have to work through and humor becomes a tool as necessary as any of the equipment on the Blackhawk.

The author has nothing to prove—at least not to readers. He doesn’t hesitate to let us in on some of his moments of doubt, physical pain or heartache, even while he has a strong resolve and the spine to stand up. Through all of this he openly speaks of his ongoing competition with a damaged chair, dogging him through his deployment with a continuity much like that of the broken leadership ailing their unit, and responding to it similarly: in a variety of ways.

He also paints pictures with words. In a theatre of war this may come as a surprise to some, but many elements of life still apply, and to see beauty amongst war machines and deathly horror embeds a portion of who one is into the place where they are: “The sun had dropped behind the mortar walls, but a gap in between allowed the deep orange sunset to breathe though and silhouette the Cobra attack helicopter on the adjacent pad.”

Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

As we see throughout, Caruthers also is always honest with readers and doesn’t pose as anything he is not. Never surrendering his compassion, his words and experiences remind us that strength doesn’t always mean that once a soldier’s tour is over, he or she goes home intact—or even alive. But if they do make it through, it will be having picked up a knowledge that always comes with a price. For better or worse change arrives and he addresses this late in the book with a curt statement that made me laugh aloud.

In the end, nothing is easy to define at al-Asad, so contradictory is it all, not least of which remains the awareness that massive bloodshed has occurred and countless lives lost in areas not far from the speculated location of the Garden of Eden. The fertile crescent embracing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the easternmost portion of which leads to the Persian Gulf near modern-day Kuwait, is said to be the site where

out of the ground the Lord God made every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

—Genesis, 2:9

Caruthers tells his story without attempting to diffuse these contradictions—it is what it is. Evil has soaked into the ground God fertilized, the tree of life is surrounded by death and destruction, upon a bountiful land dwells poverty so destitute it stunts the growth of children, and knowledge requires awareness of the terrible as well as the good. Neither are we as readers spared this paradox: the tears flowing from our eyes will convey merriment as well as pain.

Northwest of Eden gathers the recollections of a man who spent one year under conditions most of us could hardly imagine, let alone participate in. Many of us believe we know as much as we need to about the war, and don’t hesitate to make commentary upon it. The reality is that no one knows it like the men and women who served in it, and Yancy Caruthers shares with us what he saw and experienced: the additional conflicting nature of trying to aid and comfort military and civilian alike when others went to so much effort to kill them.

It is an enlightening book and recommended for anyone interested in the war, military medicine and relationships. But more than that, it will have a universal appeal because it is about humanity, and what we do with ours.

caruthers about pic
Photo courtesy Yancy Caruthers

About the Author:

Yancy Caruthers is an Iraq war veteran, registered nurse, retired Army Reserve officer, and former U.S. diplomat. He is the author of Northwest of Eden, a memoir of his second deployment as the second-in-command of an Army emergency room in the heart of Anbar province. He lives with his family in southwest Missouri.

Yancy is currently working on “Medic!,” a series of true stories about combat medics in each of the living wars. They will be released separately as e-books and eventually combined under one cover, assuming the author doesn’t get distracted.

You can learn more about the author and his works at his website, at Facebook or follow him at Twitter. Northwest of Eden is available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.


Note: This post has been updated to include photo credits and purchasing links.


Friday Night Flashback: A Novel Exploration: No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Today’s flashback opens up a new series I’ve decided to call “A Novel Exploration.” It will briefly and in a manner lighter than typical, casually chat about a work and reach out to literary connections (text to self, books or world). This is a technique used in teaching literacy, but can also be a fun way to more deliberately explore novels, their characters and the ideas we find within them, especially when talking about books with friends.

In a way, referring to this practice as “novel,” or out of the ordinary, is a misnomer because, really, we engage in it all the time without consciously acknowledging that we are. Once we begin to realize how much we actually do it, though, it is sort of novel because we’re now approaching it in a different way, with a new perception on the process–maybe because the discoveries we make can bring so much more pleasure to the reading, and indeed, living experience. One of my favorites is trying to make food items or copy recipes that have appeared in a story. 

This particular piece was written several years ago for a university class, though it never really saw the light of day. Since that time many more Alexander McCall Smith books have been released–so many, in fact, I’ve lost track of what has come out and which ones I’ve read. But they are fun and flow smoothly, and those who populate McCall Smith’s works are easy to care about.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Original Blog Title: What You Need to Open a Detective Agency

Money, of course. But also: compassion; intuition; friends to help you get things like typewriters; a good supply of red bush tea; a place to set up shop; and a vehicle.

Wait 'til you read about the alligator
Wait ’til you read about the alligator

Precious Ramotswe has inherited money from her late Daddy and with it purchased the building to set her agency, a corner plot on Zebra Drive and a tiny white van to get her around. Proudly being a lady of traditional build, Mma Ramotswe sometimes worries about the stress on it; nevertheless the loyal automobile carries her across the pages and through readers’ minds as she makes her way round Gaborone, up and down the Molepolole Road, to Francistown and to and fro each day at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on Kgale Hill on the edge of the largest city in Botswana.

Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is somewhat misleading in that it reads with ease, but is filled with the details of a complex society rich with the nuances and understanding of a bustling economy grown from towns named after tribal chiefs, a cast of characters as varied as in any large and historical city, and mysteries that bubble under the surface. Mma Ramotswe is hired to “track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is that of a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witch doctors” (from back cover).

Gaborone City Scape
Gaborone City Scape

Mma Ramotswe captured my heart because she is honest and caring, though not easily duped; she sees through so many situations, but remains patient enough to reserve assessment; and she values the traditions and ways of her culture while placing value in the future. Throughout The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency readers develop a greater understanding and awareness of Botswana culture, societal habits (even including such elements as particular gesticulations), history and its major players, and even its Achilles heel, the AIDS epidemic, discussed in tactfully delicate tones so as to offset the idea of a one-paradigm Africa while simultaneously maintaining respect for the realities in the lives of the many people affected by the disease. What brings all this together for me is the sheer ordinariness of it all: I have always been someone intrigued and interested in different cultures, but above all I want to know what the “regular” people do. What kind of toothpaste do they use? What are their shopping habits? What insights could I get from glimpses into decorating styles of their homes, inside and out? Smith satisfies these curiosities of mine, not merely for the sake of traveler voyeurism, but to help one gain a greater understanding and appreciation of people who are different–and yet the same–to many or most of us.

No 1 ladies Detective

I was delighted to discover, after I first read the book in 2001, that there was a sequel and still later I found a whole series waiting for me. Even now the author seems to have plans for more adventures of Mma Ramotswe, and I’ve read most books in his other series, as well as his stand-alone works. McCall Smith, a Scot who grew up in Africa, is a rather prolific writer, with titles ranging from the ones I’ve mentioned here, to others such as Forensic Aspects of Sleep and The Criminal Law of Botswana.

I’ve been intrigued enough to do a little research on my own regarding the country known as “the success story of Africa,” and have come across a wealth of information that exemplifies the way children expand their world when they read: from one paragraph they may learn two new words, from a chapter of a new world, and from the entire book a whole new set of questions. I’m so happy to write here that it remains an exciting prospect for me as well, when I read books and they open up doors to knowledge I never knew existed. What is it they say? What you never knew you never knew.

A few links that may be of interest to you regard:

Unity Dow, a Botswana attorney who succeeded in her litigation to render the citizenship laws of her country more equitable–previously a married woman could not pass her citizenship to her children. (The briefs linked here are rather long, but the language is straightforward and accessable.)


Botswana Gazette, a national newspaper. There also are foreign newspapers published in Botswana–magazine, press and Internet.

Alexander McCall Smith also maintains a web site, dedicated to his works and projects, here, with a lot of factual as well as fun information. I’ve wandered through it a few times and thought or wondered several things such as, I love to say the word Molepolole or Is Tlokweng, as in Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, pronounced Klokweng, with the same start sound as our Tlingit? I’ve also tried a variety of African bush tea (it’s delicious; I take it sans honey) and briefly written with a person from Gaborone, the capital.

Now I am about to read this first in the series again, and it will probably be an entirely new exploration.

Images from the opening sequence of the television series


Note: This post was updated to correct the author’s surname, which is McCall Smith, and not Smith. My apologies to Mr. McCall Smith.

Book Review: A Rip in the Veil

Stay tuned for reviews of all The Graham Saga installments

A Rip in the Veil by Anna Belfrage

tee und kuchPreviously having read and enjoyed The Prodigal Son, third in The Graham Saga series, I approached this first book with assurance and excitement. It is, after all, where the adventures begin, where the rip in the veil dividing time(s) occurs, at least in the case of Alex Lind. From my previous reading I knew she’d gone tail spinning through time back to the 17th century following a freak thunderstorm, though further details, of course, remained unknown to me. Reading the first sentences of the novel, I was very aware of my transition into the beginning, and that enticingly soon these details would be revealed. I am quite sure anyone who has ever read Belfrage’s Saga out of order—which can be done—will understand.
Belfrage delivers and then some—wasting no time in getting her tale going, readers recognize what Alex herself does not, and her responses to them artfully contribute to the flow and continuity of the story as the author inserts detail clues for readers’ benefit: “Sahara heat in Scotland—okay, that was an exaggeration, but it wasn’t far off” tells us where these events take place and the technique is used throughout the book, sparingly and subtly, also economically lending insight into players’ personalities.

ripThe most apparent location these hints appear would be in some of the dialogue, which informs readers of how much each character knows about various events. In this way and others, Belfrage weaves a complex story, pleasurable and fascinating to follow—and I do mean fascinating: there were a number of occasions that gave me pause as I stopped to consider implications, how something could work, what might it mean in reality, and so on. The author’s prose lends credence to such a possibility, too: described with verbiage so on target and believable, responses and consequences so plausible, not an extra or out-of-place word, it becomes real as readers as well are drawn into the vortex with Alex, mysteriously and frighteningly into another time and, really, another place.

“Are you alright?” Matthew asked Alex.
“Yes,” she said shakily.
“Do you know him?” He cocked his head at the groaning shape.
“Yes you do!” Two penetrating eyes fixed on her.
Alex shook her head, taking in a battered face, a dirty flannel shirt and jeans that seemed to have burnt off at calf length. He looked awful. The skin on what she could see of his legs was blistered and raw, made even worse by a large flesh wound. But he was here, an undoubtedly modern man. . . One person dropping through a time hole she could, with a gigantic stretch of mind, contemplate. Two doing it at the same time was so improbable as to be risable[. . . .]
[The man’s] eyes stuck on Matthew. . . . His eyes widened, his mouth fell open, he cleared his throat and gawked some more, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a cork.
“Where the hell am I?” he said. “Where have I ended up?”

Indeed, sense of place is a strong element in Alex’s story and we see some overlap in time, eliciting more questions that contribute to an urgent sense of need-to-know. I also longed to learn how those Alex leaves behind react; here, too, Belfrage does not disappoint. Initially alternating with some frequency between her new/old world and the time she has left behind, gradually the narrative settles into Alex’s story within her current surroundings, only periodically bringing readers back to those seeking answers as to her whereabouts. This reflects Alex’s perspective of the experience, as she begins to make a life in this strange place she has landed.

Perhaps the most significant element Belfrage employs throughout the book, this literary reflection of a character’s reality does extra duty as it is simultaneously employed with temporal distortion—texting her father from 1658, muttered comments Alex has to explain away—and a spot of pastiche, whereby her 21st century words, ways, songs, clothing names (djeens, Matthew calls jeans) are imported backwards in time. Alex herself often brings this distortion to readers’ attention with her questioning of her new world (which is actually old) and how she could be there, given that at this time, she has not yet been born. Nor have any of her family, so how could they be searching for her? What may be the most satisfying yet, and perhaps a little surprising, is Belfrage’s manner of writing about time travel—writing mostly in the destination era being the largest contributor to the sense of surprise—utilizing postmodern technique to do it. Moreover, her interweaving of the various strategies is absolutely seamless.

Through the book, we get hints of Alex’s history awareness as she periodically betrays, to readers only, her knowledge of what is to come in this historical era. The temptation for an author to lean on this type of understanding must be great; fortunately for readers and characters alike, Belfrage does not rely on it. In fact, she shies away from it in most instances, as Alex determinedly seeks to make her way in this era with more natural supports—and, of course, to avoid accusations of witchcraft. When readers may expect some historical event to be referenced, Alex moves on; she has learned quickly.

Prodigal Son coverAs Alex learns what she needs to in order to survive—including about Matthew’s vengeful younger brother Luke, and the wife once paired with Matthew himself—she also begins to see much in Matthew, joining forces with him to live a life of integrity in the face of religious persecution and inconceivable human cruelty. Alex sees this very quickly after they meet each other, during their journey back to his home, and through their time living there. She also captures the attention of someone who believes there is more to her than she tells, bonding with her and others as she makes her way through newcomer status and the daunting awareness of not knowing what she is doing, including in the presence of those who wish her ill.

Matthew has an ally in Simon, his brother-in-law and attorney, who protects his interests and indeed, his life, counseling the newlyweds in ways small and large. In some ways, as Matthew and Alex get to know each other, their story is timeless—two people with a bond who must learn to integrate their beings into a cohesive and workable whole. On top of their own challenges, ordinary and unique, the pair must also deal with the threats that remain, for despite having made it home, Luke’s anger has not subsided, and it menaces Matthew and those he loves at every turn. Matthew and Alex do not claim victory over every challenge, and sometimes must learn to compensate, including with each other.

“I didn’t like the ‘obey’ part,” Alex grumbled as they walked back to Simon’s office [following their wedding]. “I mean the love and to hold and all that, fine. But to obey? It makes me feel like a dog. . . . Why should I obey you?”
“Because I’m your husband,” Matthew explained with exaggerated patience. “And you’re but a mindless wife.”

Will they always be so lucky? How do they keep Luke’s hatred at bay and can they continue? What of Alex’s strange circumstances? She was brought here against her will; what if the forces that carried her here reverse themselves? Can she ever go back? How can she stay under the conditions she will be required to live? These are just a few of the top questions that will arise from readers, who certainly will reach eagerly for the next book for answers as well as more of the Grahams, for while the book’s technical brilliance impresses the intellect, its soul captures the heart and imagination.

It is understood that certain factors affect any given reading, including order of books read. Did my awareness of Alex’s future, so to speak, with Matthew affect my perspective of the first in the series? Undoubtedly. Would I have enjoyed it as much had I not read the third book first? The only truthful answer I can give is that I do not know, though I am certain I still would be clamoring for the rest, as I now am. It has not escaped me, however, that like Alex, I myself have done a bit of time travelling by learning of a future portion of her life in the 17th century before being brought to the first part of her time there. While many of my questions arising from the third are answered in the first, the readings of both are still magnificent and I will not be satisfied until I have read them all—and even then I may still want more.

Anna Belfrage can be found on Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, on her website and at her fantabulous blog, where you can learn more about the author, the Grahams, other projects and her world. 


This post previously appeared at the blog’s alternative location.