Monday, January 23, 2012

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

One of the things I most like about reading is stepping into a subculture I know next to nothing about. Siobhan Fallon does a very convincing job of revealing contemporary American Army culture in her short story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone (Amy Einhorn/G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011). Fallon earned her MFA from the New School in New York City and lived at Fort Hood while her husband was deployed to Iraq, great credentials for her slice-of-life fiction. Most of the stories take place in and around the haunting, insular world of Fort Hood on the outskirts of Killeen, Texas.

One story that stood out for me was "Leave", where Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash breaks into his own house as if he was on a strategic mission. And he is. Having strong suspicions his wife is having an affair, he lays low in the basement, coming out only when his wife and daughter depart. They do not know that he is on leave. He eats MREs and grazes lightly on food in the fridge when they are gone. He inspects the house for clues to what might have changed in his absence. A string of week days are one thing, coming one after another in a similar fashion. Nick knows the true test will come over the weekend. Will there be another man sitting down to dinner or staying the night? Is he simply paranoid, so used to searching out the enemy that suspicion has become his modus operandi? I won't tell you which way this story goes. You'll have to read it yourself to see, and I hope you find it to be every bit the masterpiece I consider it to be.

Although these stories are not often interconnected as far as characters go, a device that can make a collection more like a novel, there is much similarity in tone. An enormous tension lies just under the surface of the lives of the wives and children of the deployed, almost as if roadside bombs were to be found all over the home front. And when the warriors return, many seem to bring the ticking of such bombs home with them. Much as the soldiers display signs of post-traumatic stress, the spouses and families stateside might be described as having a constant stress disorder: before, during and after deployments. Although the collection portrays difficult themes of loneliness and loss, I also glimpsed much compassion, perseverance and strength.

The book's title implies an emphasis on the female point of view, yet we also step into the minds of the enlisted men. In "Camp Liberty", an American soldier starts to fall for his Iraqi translator only to have her disappear. In "The Last Stand", a wounded soldier returns home to a wife who is ready to give up the ghost of their marriage. We've all read war novels, but how often are we given the chance to go behind closed doors on an army base? If you are at all curious, You Know When the Men Are Gone is a good place to start. Just remember, this is fiction. The author's spare but revealing style may almost convince you otherwise. And that's a compliment!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Thinking Back to my Childhood Fascination with "Christina's World" by Andrew Wyeth

I did not have much exposure to art as a young child. Other than the usual portraits of U.S. Presidents hung in our classrooms, I rarely came in contact with paintings or reproductions of paintings. But I have a very early memory of seeing a full size reproduction of Andrew Wyeth's painting, "Christina's World," quite regularly. Of all places, it was hung in the children's room of the Floral Park Public Library in Floral Park, Long Island, New York. I must have seen in about every two weeks for many years.

Now I wonder who decided to hang it there and why, for it was not what anyone would consider children's art. I might have asked my mother about it. Why was the young woman crawling up a hill? Was that her house? She seemed so alone. Either my mother told me, or I just intuited that perhaps Christina could not walk. I may have found it a little sad, but most importantly, I also felt a certain empathy for her. In the 1950s and early 60s, the sight of people living with polio disease was not uncommon. Some of my schoolmates and neighbors had polio. I also recall with great fondness a few children with intellectual disabilities and/or deafness that lived in our neighborhood. I played with them, and later did some babysitting for special kids. For awhile, I thought of becoming a special ed. teacher.

Recently I had the opportunity to view a videorecording of Andrew Wyeth talking about his life and art. He talked about Christina Olson and the painting. For three decades, starting in 1939, Wyeth used members of the Olson family as models for his paintings. By the time this was painted, Christina (who did have polio) was no longer young. Wyeth's wife actually modeled for the painting, but its essence is based on Wyeth's recollection of Christina crawling. The house at the top of the hill is the Olson residence in Cushing, Maine, now a part of the Farnsworth Art Museum complex. Some day I would love to visit both the Olson House and the Wyeth Center at Farnsworth, which features the work of N.C., Andrew and James Wyeth.

But back to the painting and my connection to it. As a fiction reader, I've always had a strong attraction to characters who make me care. If they suffer, so do I. When they find happiness, I share in their joy. This started way back with when I was reading Lois Lenski and Louisa May Alcott, and continues today, including favorite authors such as Anne Tyler or Richard Russo. There has to be an emotional hook. My sense of empathy has to be awakened. In visual art, my tastes run wider. But the suggested narrative of "Christina's World" probably appealed to my yen for story. I wanted her to turn around and tell me how she was. Was the world a beautiful place to her? Was she lonely? Was the smell of the grass sweet and familiar? Did she have a big family living up in that house on the hill? And though it took me several decades to really get the full scoop, I still feel a powerful sense of mystery gazing on this most familiar painting. I own a reproduction of it myself.

I was a bit starved for at growing up. We did have good art classes in the Floral Park public schools, thank goodness. And once I became a Girl Scout, I was lucky enough to make friends with a girl whose father was a painter. He taught us how to oil paint! I may have been taken to the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan a few times. Yet the walls of our house held little art, partly because my father did not approve of making holes in the plaster. Oh well, perhaps the deprivation was good for me -- eventually I escaped to college, where I was an art major, and since then, I've been guilty of having plenty of colorful art around. Can't live without it. And my mother (who turned 93 a few days ago) picked up a paint brush at age 70 and began making some amazing oil paintings, which line the walls of her house to this day.

"Art to me, is seeing. I think you have got to use your eyes, as well as your emotion, and one without the other just doesn't work. That's my art." - Andrew Wyeth

image: "Christina's World" by Andrew Wyeth, Museum of Modern Art, NY (tempera, 1948)