Book Club: Fobbit

Are there 16-year-olds who don’t think Catch-22 is awesome? What about The Things They Carried? Or Slaughterhouse Five? To a certain type of pre-intellectual kid, these tongue-in-cheek, what-does-it-all-mean, to-hell-with-authority, don’t-trust-anyone-over-35 novels are a rite of passage. I was no exception, and I bet you weren’t either.

Truth be told, I haven’t really read a novel in which a war was the centerpiece of the narrative in about ten years. It makes me nervous, it makes me sad. I avoid it. I have no stomach for violence. I vomited while reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and thus have avoided this particular genre for the most part. I wouldn’t have picked this up at all if it weren’t at the urging of one of my friends, and I’m glad I took her advice. Fobbit  was another quick-but-significant read, and it’s in the same vein of the aforementioned novels. If you like that, you’re in the right place.  Be forewarned, if you aren’t already, that this isn’t a shoot-em-up, glory days memoir, but something that feels at once worse and better than that. Stories like No Easy Day, while less fun to read, feel better because they can make you believe in the moral rectitude of war. There’s room for that, for sure, but there’s a place at the table for Fobbit, too.

I love a good flag motif.
I love a good flag motif.

Fobbit tells the story of the trials and tribulations of several soldiers at Forward Operating Base Triumph in the middle of the war in Iraq. In the alphabet soup that is the military jargon, FOB is the abbreviation for Forward Operating Base, and “fobbit” is the name for the soldiers who work “inside the wire”, which is to say they stay on the FOB rather than going out to the very front. In years past (say Korea or Vietnam), the rear was pretty safe (think M.A.S.H.), but now, they occupy a weird liminal space where they’re not really safe at all, but they’re not likely to actively engage in firefight or eat M.R.E.s. That’s what this book is about. The folks Abrams covers range from the fobbitiest of fobbits to bona fide tough guys, and it follows in the tradition of Heller, O’Brien, and Vonnegut: no one’s a hero, no one’s a winner, there are only plots on a continuum of gray. David Abrams is an insider’s insider, and he brings humor, wit, and intellect to a war narrative.

The primary characters we get to know over the course of Fobbit are Staff Sergeant Gooding, Captain Shrinkle, Lieutenant Colonel Duret, and Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad. I have the dubious privilege of knowing a lot of soldiers who have fought in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts over the last decade, and you can be damn sure I recognized them all. You’ve got CPT Shrinkle, a guy who has somehow been allowed outside the wire and given decision-making capacity. There’s LTC Duret, a steely-eyed, hard-bellied professional with nothing but contempt for the pasty dudes hanging out at Triumph.  LTC Harkleroad is the contemporary equivalent of your great uncle who claims to have Hitler’s piano key in his bureau but was secretly a translator who came in after the fact to clean up. Then there’s SSG Gooding, who is the closest thing we’ve got to a hero. He’s smarter than your average bear, and he manages outgoing messages to the American press. Gooding’s never going to see a moment on the honest-to-God front, and he’s smart enough to know that’s not necessarily the worst fate he could have, though he understands that those guys know something he doesn’t. Even the minor characters I met in passing were men and women I’d encountered before.Abrams tells their tales chapter by chapter; some of the best parts are when you get to look at the same event through the eyes of several different people, all of whom see things very differently indeed.  He does a spectacular job capturing their voices– the jargon, the off-color jokes, the slapstickishness. I’m sure his twenty years in the army helped him to fine tune this, though sometimes it goes a step further than I’d like, and it makes the dialogue sound a little stilted to the civilian ear.

Fobbit is the kind of book that can make you feel feels, as the kids say. I hated Eustace Harkleroad and Abe Shrinkle and the others who were like them in a way that I thought was almost undignified. The obsession with creating the Army Story (the former) and having one’s own war story to tell (the latter) made my vision narrow. Even the more throwaway details about them– that they were hoarders, or slovenly, or whatever– made me hate them. When clues came that some of them might not make it back to America, I can’t say I was upset. They were malingerers, the very worst of Uncle Sam’s Finest. But then I realized that that weird feeling of anger extended to Gooding and his buddies, too. Even though they saw what they were doing and they knew it was wrong, they carried out orders. They were part of the problem, and they extended the problem’s reach. About 200 pages in, I realized I was just angry at the whole concept of war and the army and was having the feelings I had when I read about the soldiers in The Things They Carried shooting the skin off the baby water buffalo. I wanted one of them to do something he couldn’t do: stand up, tell everyone that they were doing something wrong, and then tell the rest of the world what they knew. That’s not ever going to happen, regardless of what war we get into or out of. They weren’t horrible, they were just people responding to horror. Horror makes a fool of us all.

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Fantasy Life Update: Moving In, Desk Edition

I know, knockout status.
I know, knockout status. Like the copy room sign in the background? I’m really living it up.

After your bed, there is but one piece of furniture with which you have a real relationship, and that is your desk. I spend a solid 9.5-12 hours a day at mine, and yet I always avoid really committing. This week, I added three major things to make my mark on my open-plan office workstation: Suki the fake taxidermied rhino, courtesy of my best friend, a not-that-cool-but-kinda-cool organizer, and lastly, gorgeous, perfect flowers from Roadside Blooms here in Charleston. Their model is really cool: green, sustainable flower arrangements that are based on what’s available locally in any given season. You just say, “I’d like small, medium, or large” and they bring it to you in their vintage British mail truck. I know. I know! But the best part is that they were a surprise, all the way from Afghanistan! Nothing quite like a no-reason-at-all pretty to make you feel like everything is going great.


How do you personalize your desk at work? Pictures? A candle? A terrarium?

The Great Cookie Caper: Salted Caramel Chocolate Cookies

As some of you know, I’m embarking on a cookie adventure for the next couple months. A lot of you have sent me your favorite recipes (though I still want more!), and this one was one of the first that floated in. My friend Clara is still in middle school, but she is one of the most gifted bakers I know. People from Raleigh to Jackson rave about her cakes and pies, so I was really excited when she shared this with me. I’ll check and see if she’s available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and graduations, but we should probably ask her dad.

The caramel and chocolates are in hiding, but trust.
The caramel and chocolates are in hiding, but trust.

These cookies incorporate my favorite thing: salted caramel. I never, ever saw salted caramel anywhere before 5 or 10 years ago, and now they’re everywhere. I am in no way upset about this development. These cookies are only a little bit tricky, but you absolutely much chill them for the requisite amount of time or they’re not going to turn out. Consider yourself warned.

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ME WANT [recipes for] COOKIES

These are my favorite cookies ever, but getting the recipe would be on par with the Ocean's 11 heist.
These are my favorite cookies ever, but getting the recipe would be on par with the Ocean’s 11 heist.

So, I’m trying to do something cool for some nice friends of mine who have been deployed to Afghanistan for the next year. I want to send them cookies every week, but I don’t want to just send Toll House chocolate chippers every couple days. Would you be willing to share your favorite recipe with me? All the different ways to contact me are in the About column. I’m hoping to get about 50 and I’ll make a little booklet at the end!

Lazy Sunday

Here’s a quick round up of things to read for you on this, my favorite day of the week.