4 out of 4 stars
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Man on the Floor! is the debut novel of award-winning writer, Daniel L. Coberly. The author shares an engaging first-person narrative ranging from his childhood in Europe and Panama to his professional life in the military, as a writer, and a government bureaucrat. His stories include occasional pearls of wisdom combined with amusing anecdotes about the people he met along the way.
After being born in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Coberly spent his early childhood in post-WWII Verdun, France and Munich. Growing up as the son of an army father and a French war bride mother, some of Coberly's fondest memories were happy times with his French and Italian aunts and uncles. Even as a young boy, he marveled at the culinary skills of French women in the kitchen transforming bushels of green beans by cooking them with butter, basil, and fresh garlic. To quote the author, "When La Famille sat down to eat, the men and women laughed on into the evening as though nothing in our world had ever gone wrong."
His father's military career resulted in many moves for the family including a boyhood spent exploring the jungles of Panama where Coberly became a Boy Scout and excelled as an Eagle Scout. Soon after he graduated from high school in Wurzburg, Germany, his family moved to Oklahoma where his father was born. After a brief stint with the Air Force ROTC program, he joined the Army in hopes of funding his college education. Coberly shares his journey as he learned to navigate military life spanning the Cold War and Vietnam Eras while pursuing opportunities as a writer.
I must confess when I retrieved this hefty paperback from the mail, I was slightly intimidated by its sheer volume, being twice the length of books I've previously reviewed. However, as I began reading, I soon discovered the author's gift of expression through words. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the book's synopsis had at first only mildly interested me. Imagine my surprise, when I found myself stopping every few pages to allow the words to wash over me and pausing to let them sink in. From quirky family members to eccentric military colleagues, throughout the book, the author introduced well-developed characters that supported his memories. The humorous nicknames he assigned various characters such as Pilot Friendly, Colonel Not-So-Nice, and Major Paperwork, added another layer of interest to the story. In contrast to the often lighthearted tone, Coberly also tackled more serious content including his experience as a photographer at the Jonestown Massacre, which I found extremely poignant.
There's a lot I liked about this entertaining read. First, was the author's skillfully descriptive writing style. In one passage, he described the ritual that his French mother and aunt performed daily, hugging and kissing him and his brothers several times and waiting for them to reciprocate. Though the intimate show of affection made him squirm as a young boy, I loved the reflection he shared in hindsight. "...I get it now. It's not just a ritual. It is the rare, warm love and unconditional acceptance of family that you just can't take for granted if you are ever lucky enough to find it." He reminisced about breakfasts consisting of giant buttered croissants and warm milk, fresh from the cow they could see just outside the window. At the time, it was common for children to drink coffee, and I loved the way he contrasted French coffee with American army coffee. "French coffee saturates your soul with thick, dark flavors and hints of burnt chocolate that tastes your tongue long before you take your first sip. French coffee holds you at attention. Army coffee isn't even on parade. It marches right through you."
The book was divided into eight parts, and I found the third section, 18,000 Women & Me, most interesting. The chapters included stories from the period of the author's military career when he was one of only three men stationed at the Women's Army Corps. Though many of his male colleagues joked about WAC being a soldier's paradise, Coberly obeyed the strict no-fraternization policy. He wrote his first magazine article about Women with Weapons and went on to publish many articles about women in the military during the 1970s. It's obvious from his narrative regarding his time at the WAC that the author holds a high level of respect for women in the military. Incidentally, there's also a reference to the book's title in this section.
Part Five, The World Turned Upside Down, appealed to me the least. True to the title, the chapters in this section dealt more with political issues. In all fairness, the quality of writing remained consistent. Also, I sensed and understood the author's disillusionment with some of the political games that can be required of those serving in the military.
I'm pleased to rate this book 4 out of 4 stars. Though there were a handful of punctuation errors, they did not detract from the flow of the story. I recommend the book to readers who enjoy memoirs and reading about life in other countries. It will also appeal to those who are interested in military life and war-related stories.
Man on the Floor!
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