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Dust to Dust: A Memoir Hardcover – March 20, 2012
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“Beautifully told. . . . There is not one bad sentence in this book. . . . I cannot wait to see what [Busch] writes next.” (Library Journal (starred review))
“Extraordinary. . . . It is impossible to read any part of this work and not be moved. . . . [Dust to Dust] is one to be savored. Don’t fail to read it.” (New York Journal of Books)
“[Busch’s] portrayal of the war in Iraq is unsentimental and immediate.” (New Yorker)
“Essential Iraq War reading. . . . The conflict between Busch’s pacifist upbringing and his evolution into a decorated Marine rests at the heart of this fine memoir.” (Men's Journal)
“Beautifully written. . . . Captivating. . . . It’s fascinating to journey through [these] literary landscapes as time passes, swirls back, and eddies like a stream before flowing away.” (Seattle Times)
“A beautiful and powerful meditation on combat, profound loss, and mortality.” (Newark Star Ledger)
“An invigorating and moving take on the war memoir.” (Wisconsin State Journal)
“Busch writes with eloquence about his tours of combat in Iraq, and seamlessly blends the human and natural characteristics of war.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
“Intriguing. . . . A worthwhile read.” (Buffalo News)
“Dust to Dust is not a typical contemporary war memoir. . . . It partakes of the pastoral strain associated with World War I trench-poets like Edmund Blunden and Edward Thomas.” (New York Times Book Review)
“[A] must-read memoir.” (Details)
“A remarkable book—part military memoir, part childhood reminiscence. . . . Busch is filled with complicated and fascinating contradictions.” (Salon.com)
“A beautiful meditation on war, loss, and the larger questions of life and death.” (Huffington Post)
“[Busch] writes with the precision of a stonemason, the courage of a combat veteran, and the inquisitiveness of an artist. . . . A haunting meditation on time, memory, and death.” (Baltimore City Paper)
“Busch carries us on a haunting, humorous, and poignant journey.” (Publishers Weekly)
“Dust to Dust is startlingly good.” (The SunBreak)
“A meditation on the literal and figurative borders of life—country to country, river to lake, soil to dust, wood to ash, life to death, blood to bones, child to man—[that] explores the wonders of the natural world and our solitary lives within it.” (Hour Detroit magazine)
“Elegiac, funny, wistful, deep, and wonderfully human, Dust to Dust moved me to laughter and tears, sometimes simultaneously. . . . After reading this book, you will want to go outside and really look at our world.” (Karl Marlantes, bestselling author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War)
“Dust to Dust is a wonderful book, original in concept and stunningly written, a soldier’s memoir that is about soldiering and much else besides. The last two dozen pages are a tour de force, a breathtaking meditation on loss and remembrance, dust to dust.” (Ward Just)
“Busch is a brilliant prose stylist for whom every pause counts, a man of three worlds—the heart, the mind, the earth. Dust to Dust is a stunning literary work about this mysterious trinity, and a return to home.” (Doug Stanton, bestselling author of Horse Soldiers and In Harm's Way)
“This brave soldier with his singular sensibility . . . builds us a fort we’re loath to leave.” (Mary Karr, author of The Liars' Club, Cherry, and Lit)
“Busch is a poet with the soul of a civil engineer, and for as long as his body sustains him, he is the perfect soldier. I loved every page of this mesmerizing book.” (Bonnie Jo Campbell, bestselling author of Once Upon a River)
“An imaginative, original meditation on mortality that reaches beyond the particulars of the Iraq war and the present day to grasp the universal. It is a literary gem.” (Philip Caputo, author of A Rumor of War)
From the Back Cover
Dust to Dust is an extraordinary memoir about ordinary things: life and death, peace and war, the adventures of childhood and the revelations of adulthood. Benjamin Busch—a decorated U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer who served two combat tours in Iraq, an actor on The Wire, and the son of celebrated novelist Frederick Busch—has crafted a lasting book to stand with the finest work of Tim O'Brien or Annie Dillard.
In elemental-themed chapters—water, metal, bone, blood—Busch weaves together a vivid record of a pastoral childhood in rural New York; Marine training in North Carolina, Ukraine, and California; and deployment during the worst of the war in Iraq, as seen firsthand. But this is much more than a war memoir. Busch writes with great poignancy about the resonance of a boyhood spent exploring rivers and woods, building forts, and testing the limits of safety. Most of all, he brings enormous emotional power to his reflections on mortality: in a helicopter going down; wounded by shrapnel in Ramadi; dealing with the sudden death of friends in combat and of parents back home.
Dust to Dust is an unforgettable meditation on life and loss, and how the curious children we were remain alive in us all.
Top customer reviews
Busch tells his tale in a spiraling, circular narrative, which jumps from his solitary childhood enterprises and adventures to his war-time service as a Marine officer in Iraq, then back to that childhood in upstate New York and Maine. He tells too of his college years, interspersed with more tales of his military training in Virginia, North Carolina and California, his deployments to Ukraine and Korea, and trips as a child and young man to England. What emerges is a portrait of a boy and a man with a boundless curiosity about the world he inhabits and how he fits into it. His whole life Busch has struggled against rules and expectations, endlessly experimenting and daring to be different. The son of a novelist (Frederick Busch) father and librarian mother, Busch grew up with a healthy respect for books, but was drawn more to exploring the forests, fields and streams that surrounded their rural home, building walls, forts and bridges in a childhood marked by an extraordinary unstructured freedom foreign to today's children. Busch's description of his childhood explorations and wanderings made me think of Cooper, and the child Ben Busch as a kind of half-size Natty Bumppo -
"The forest spread undisturbed and beyond measure, and I felt like I had found a place before maps. I drew my own map of the forest, without a compass, and gave names to the terrain. It was a kind of storytelling."
Busch continues describing this forest, this "place before maps," until he reaches a point he proclaimed "the center of the forest," and comments, "Reading ROBINSON CRUSOE here would be different from reading it in a room." There, of course, is that inescapable influence of his more cautious, book-ish parents.
Although both of Ben's grandfathers had served in WWII, his parents were shocked when Ben joined the Marines out of Vassar. He was, in fact, the very first Marine officer candidate to come from Vassar, which his boot camp commander called a "girls' school." Busch had the ill-advised temerity to correct the officer, saying, as his many female classmates had taught him, that it was a "women's college, sir." (In fact, Vassar has ben co-educational since 1969.)
There is no hint of braggadocio or macho chest-thumping to be found anywhere in Busch's accounts of his service in Iraq. In tellingly terse terms, he describes being ambushed, of rushing his wounded men to aid stations, of holding the hand of a too-young man, bleeding out and in shock, asking, "What is happening to me?" Busch doesn't have an answer. He goes outside into the dark and washes the man's blood from his hand. In another incident he tells of how he and a captain friend break the tension of a dangerous patrol by trading remembered absurd dialogue about being "in great peril" from MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. Moments later the captain was dead from an IED explosion. Feeling powerless, in a letter home, Busch reviews the Rules of Engagement -
"Positive identification of a threat is required before you can fire. Reasonable certainty ... You are not sure, in the shimmering imagination of night vision equipment, if you see something moving. It can't be positively identified. You are holding your fire. You are holding your position ..."
He reflects on how the "purity of service had been corrupted by the moral ambiguity of political language." Like most servicemen deployed to Iraq, Busch suffered concussions from bomb blasts, a daily hazard a medical surgeon shrugs off as "typical." Besides telling of his own time in Iraq, Bush also touches on the agony of waiting suffered by his parents during his two tours there. His father, in a piece written for HARPER'S, commented on how he and his wife, both in their mid-sixties, ticked off each successive day of Ben's time there, adding, "Perhaps we feel that by slicing another day off our lives, as we wish it away to bring him home, we are spending our lives to buy his."
This is a serious memoir, no mistake. But there is humor here too, as in Busch's description of his first brush with acting at the age of seven, when he dies dramatically by falling noisily backward off a school stage, a feat which caused a collective gasp from cast and audience alike. Years later, out of the Corps, his first two acting jobs are, ironically, as a corpse on a morgue table, and a murder victim lying in a pool of blood on a freezing Baltimore street. His roles have gotten better since then.
As a child growing up in the Catholic Church, I can still remember the priest's words every Ash Wednesday when he smudged the ashes onto my forehead, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return." Benjamin Busch, in one of his returns to his childhood endeavors, tells of a stone fort he built as a boy and the pleasure he took in simply sitting inside it, saying he wanted to live in it. But he could "also imagine being buried in it. It was my work, this crypt built of stone, intended for perpetuity like any grave. All anyone would need to do would be to lay me inside and fill it in." These kinds of thoughts may seem foreign and dismal to some, but not Busch, who also says: "There is something to be said about being dust. It is where we're all headed."
DUST TO DUST is a work of art unto itself, a memoir unique, troubling and magical. I will not soon forget it.
- Tim Bazzett, author of the Cold War memoir, SOLDIER BOY: AT PLAY IN THE ASA
You may know Benjamin Busch as an actor on The Wire and other television programs and movies. I’ve never seen The Wire—no TV, no cable, no satellite—so I haven’t seen his acting work. I know him because we’re Facebook friends, although I’m not sure how that came about. And I’ve known of him for a long time, since I read his father’s essay in Harper’s about Ben’s military service. You see, I was a fan of the fiction of Frederick Busch, Ben’s father. The elder Busch, who died suddenly in 2006, was a terrific novelist and story writer. (I have a shockingly large collection of his books, more than one signed by him; I even had the pleasure of hearing him read once in DC at Chapters and I remember him talking about his dogs, which made me like him even more . . .)
Anyway, because of our connection on Facebook, I decided I needed to read Ben’s memoir, Dust to Dust, which is partly about his service in Iraq, but also is about growing up and a good bit about mortality. It’s a terrific, lyrical book, and if you haven’t read it I recommend it. It is structured thematically, each chapter dealing with an “element”—water, soil, wood, stone, ash, etc.—and approaches each theme with anecdotes from childhood, his military service, or his more recent life in rural Michigan. It’s unique, I think, because it’s far from chronological, and yet we still get a sense of time passing from his early interest in the military when he was a boy to his final deployment to Iraq.
As I was reading it, I was drawing a contrast with Townie, the Andre Dubus III memoir I read recently. Dubus is also the son of a hightly regarded writer, and was also a fighter (in a very different way), but his memoir proceeds from his earliest days to the present. It also ends shortly after the death of his father, as Dust to Dust does. The books make an interesting pair.
The book also brought to mind a couple of other recent reads. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (whom I met at the Library of Virginia Awards last year) is a novel about a young soldier’s service in Iraq and its aftermath. The Good Soldiers by David Finkel is nonfiction about a whole unit deployed to Iraq. Both books do a good job of showing the horror of war and the particular challenges of Iraq. Busch treats some of the same material—he’s as familiar with the grimness as Powers, but he has some of the detachment that Finkel, a journalist, shows. These three books would make a good core for someone interested in the literature of the Iraq war.
I’ve been thinking of tackling a memoir project, and I’d be very happy if I could come close to the humanity that Busch displays here.