When I read this book, I didn't expect it to be this outstanding - and I might be giving it a little more credit because it came as such a surprise. Unlike a book like "Yellow Birds," with a massive pre-pub rollout where we're told how great it is (and it wasn't), Katey Schultz' "Flashes of War" comes from a small student-run university publisher, with a sort of kitschy cover, and little/no advance notice.
Her reliance not on memory but on research - or simply storytelling - kept her stories honest and 'real,' maybe because they lacked the negative self-awareness many veteran-written narratives often have. By self-aware, I mean those writers are only too aware that they 'represent' the veteran in their stories, and that can overwhelm the story itself. As a veteran-writer myself, I know only too well of what I speak.
The title is important - these are "Flashes" as in short 'flash fiction.' That's not a style for everyone. Some of these stories are barely 500 words (or less), and so there's no lengthy character development in the traditional sense. Even the lengthiest pieces are short by conventional standards. Schultz plops you into a moment, then pulls you right out again - she's not interested in building an epic narrative, but in telling multiple stories from almost any perspective one could think of.
The homefront, the battlefield, the injuries, what the dead have left behind, it's all represented. The rawness most impressed me in a short piece that listed off the locker contents of a dead soldier - yes, it's fiction, but you know it's real in every way that matters.
My least favorite story was ironically the first one, which uses the line, "the rest of America's at the mall." It was the most 'conventional' of all of them, and was an idea I'd read before. I'm glad it was first, though, because it managed my expectations and I was then so much more impressed by everything that followed.
The problem with writing a glowing review of something that surprised me, is I'm setting a new reader up for high expectations that I did NOT have. So as far as flaws, because the stories are so short, I do think it lacks the depth that Schultz absolutely could have provided - but it's called 'flash fiction' for a reason. The book itself is pretty short, and left me wanting more (which is certainly better than dragging on too long). If you think a war story needs to be told over time, with many characters and converging plot-lines, you will not like this collection.
But, I like short story collections. It takes a lot of discipline and imagination to tell so many stories from so many different perspectives and never feel the writer's voice dominating any of them. How she captured the "male" voices of her soldiers so well, and so empathetically, I really want to know! Effort and skill, I suppose.
This book, as well as the upcoming "Eleven Days" by Lea Carpenter, tell these wartime stories without any first-hand connection, and both do it better than so many veteran narratives I've read. It might be blatantly chauvinistic to say, but I think that women writers might be the ones to best tell these stories in the future, because they will never consider the melodrama and masculine posturing that male writers often get bogged down in.
With "Flashes of War," I think Schultz takes you across all aspects of the battlefield, here and there. She doesn't linger. I opened my eyes to a world of hard experiences, then blinked and it was gone. Like "Eleven Days," which I also recently read, "Flashes" is another book I will return to soon.