“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers, Published in 2012
This book is powerful and beautiful. I was hesitant to read it because of the subject matter (the Iraq war) but after finishing it I think this book is important. It is important because for me, like so many other Americans, there has been a luxury in my relationship with the Iraq war. It had been easy to go off on my political diatribes about the war (i.e. why were we there, what are we thinking) but it had been without heart. Though this book did not change my reality , it did change my perspective and made me more reflective – more the way I should have been thinking about the war all along. The possibility that literature can change our view of the world is what makes literature so essential. This book is a great example of how literature can change us.
Private Bartle is sent to Iraq when he is twenty-one years old. At basic training he becomes friends with eighteen-year-old Private Murphy. He promises Murph’s mother that he will see him through the war. The friends find themselves in a battle outside of Al Tafar. They are trapped in what seems to be an endless battle to capture the city. They are fatigued and battle-weary, they see unspeakable things. They trick their bodies into not sleeping and trick their minds into not caring. And it is all pointless. Bartle knows that there is a battle in this same location every year at the same time – ground is gained, ground is lost, and then it all starts over again. War is relentless.
“The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.”
But as the battle continues it becomes evident that Murph has become untethered and that Bartle may not be able to protect him from unraveling. You know at the outset of the book that Murph dies but it is the way he dies and the ultimate choices that Bartle has to make that is stunning. When Bartle returns home he is haunted but also strangely removed from everything. He no longer fits anywhere.
Powers served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He also has a masters in poetry. Though this seems like an odd combination, this poet soldier has done something amazing here. He has taken his painful memories and experiences in Iraq and created this beautifully lyrical fictional account of war in Iraq. It is an astonishing feat akin to the likes of Tim O’Brien in “The Things They Carry.”
For me the most powerful element of the book was Bartle’s desperate attempt to have normal, to be ordinary, to just make it through. He is bereft of ambition but is instead committed to a simple form of existence. His emotional disengagement is a great reminder to the reader that anyone who lives through these types of experiences has to disengage in order to survive. They become a shell of their former selves and hope only to make it home. And when they go home they long for things to be simple, a return to the what they were before. But of course that is impossible and the fact that our society pretends that this return to normal is somehow achievable is perhaps the biggest lie of them all.
“I knew that at least a few of the stars I saw were probably gone already, collapsed into nothing. I felt like I was looking at a lie. But I didn’t mind. The world makes liars of us all.”
Other reviews to check out:
- ‘The Yellow Birds’ by Kevin Powers (kimbofo.typepad.com)
- Fly Away with “Yellow Birds” by Megan T. (2013jrhs.wordpress.com)
I admit to being fascinated by the Fitzgeralds – particularly Zelda. They were rich, crazy, extravagant and extraordinarily talented but not, apparently, happy. I had looked forward to this book and had high hopes for it. With The Aviator’s Wife I thought the writing was good but was uninterested in the subject. With “Z” I was extremely interested in the subject matter but kept bumping into poor writing, making it hard to really enjoy the book.
Zelda was born and raised in a fairly high class family in Montgomery, Alabama. She is the quintessential Southern Belle – but of course with a wild, rebellious streak. She meets F. Scott on one of his stays in Montgomery and he woos her but returns to New York City to make his fortune writing before marrying her. He eventually sells some stories, comes back to fetch Zelda and thus begins their tumultuous life together.
This life consists of Zelda unclear about her role in her own life and in Scott’s life. She dances, paints, writes and, according to Fowler, puts up with what appears to be a fairly abusive relationship with Scott. Fowler writes this all from Zelda’s point of view but her voice is so simperingly benign that it is hard to reconcile her with what I have read previously about Zelda. Fowler views the Fitzgerald’s relationship in this merry-go-round:
1. They are in love
2. Scott starts drinking too much again
3. Zelda pours herself into her (pick one) dancing, writing, painting
4. Scott plagiarizes some of her writing and then runs out of money.
4. Zelda wears herself out and becomes ill
5. Zelda is fed up with Scott and they have a falling out
6. Scott promises to do better.
And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. Even with the beautiful places that the Fitzgeralds lived and vacation, Fowler’s writing is not up to the task. I never felt like I could see the beautiful South of France or even taste the gin and tonics. It is truly unfortunate because Fowler had a great opportunity to breathe life into an already extremely interesting time with amazingly interesting characters but it all just falls flat. Zelda’s issues with mental illness are glossed over and the stunning revelation that Hemingway and Scott may have had a homosexual affair is frankly not that stunning. All the while I kept thinking “how have you made the Fitzgeralds boring?” I hate to be cruel but if this is how Fowler handles interesting material then let’s hope she doesn’t decide to write about the mundane. That would just be painful.
Other reviews to check out:
- Z A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (2headstogether.wordpress.com)
- Z- A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (turnthepagereviews.com)
- ‘Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald’ Captivates the Reader in the Best Possible Way (Review) (popmatters.com)
I believe April has been my frivolous reading month. I have enjoyed every book but I must admit there has been a lot of silliness that may or may not be corrected in May. This Spring need not be the time for the mandolin read I guess. So, if you are looking for the shallow but fun I really would suggest checking out any of these books:
1. “Mariana” by Susanna Kearsley, Published in 2012: This book is about a woman torn between two different periods of her soul (she is reincarnated) and trying to find love in both the 1700s and the present. That is seriously what this book is about and I absolutely loved it. It had just the right amount of romantic ridiculous and time travel and suspense to make this girl very happy. Of course all readers who enjoy a good love story probably remember Kearsley from “Winter Sea.” Set in the English Countryside, Julia keeps running into the same farmhouse in her country travels. Each time she drives by it her car stalls. One day she decides to ask about the house, only to find out it is for sale. Of course she buys it and of course there is a reason she is drawn to the house. Her soul has been there in a previous life – obviously. Did that just give you the chills? No? Oh well, you still should read it.
2. “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn, Published in 2007: From the marginally good author who brought you “Gone Girl.” Flynn is good at suspense but her earlier books before “Gone Girl” are weighted down with a lot of story. It is almost like she wants to fit every episode of “Law and Order” into one book. She is still fun to read. The main character Camille is a reporter for a suburban Chicago newspaper. When two girls from her hometown in Missouri are killed and found missing all of their teeth, Camille’s editor sends her home to cover the story. Of course, for Camille, returning home has all kinds of implications. Suffering from severe mental health issues, Camille’s recovery is tested by her wacky mother and her sadistic half-sister. Flynn likely read a lot of V.C. Andrews during puberty so she has a great handle on creepy. But I promise no one gets locked in the attic.
3. “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith, Published in 2005: Out of the three this book is wonderfully well-written (honestly, it should not be included in this review of fluff pieces). When Precious receives her inheritance after the death of her father she decides to open Botswana’s first detective agency owned by a woman. Making her agency the top agency owned by a woman in the country – not unlike being valedictorian when home-schooled. While there is one case that runs through-out the book, each chapter is a vignette of a mystery that Precious solves for her neighbors. The characters are endearing, the end of the book is sweet, and it is not a surprise that readers wanted more so this became a series.
And there you have it. My final reads for the month. All fun, no real substance but one very happy reader. On to the next book…
Photo by Kerstin Frank
“The Aviator’s Wife” by Melanie Benjamin, Published in 2012
I really enjoy Ms. Benjamin’s writing. Her historical fiction (“Alice I have Been”) is extremely interesting and engaging. She has a way of bringing the reader into the story. I really like this book but I really didn’t like the Lindberghs.
Shy Anne Morrow was the daughter of the American Ambassador to Mexico. Over the holidays, Anne takes a break from her studies at Smith College to visit her parents at the Embassy only to find out they are also being visited by none other than the world famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. Both Anne and Charles are introverts and seem to have an odd connection. After having no contact with Charles when she returns to school, Anne is surprised when Charles shows up one day at her parents house after her graduation and proposes to her. Of course, Anne says yes and her life is forever changed.
The Lindberghs live in the public eye and are constantly hounded by the press. Charles however teaches Anne how to be his crew and they travel through-out the world together. They seem happy-ish together – though Anne, through Benjamin’s account, seems really lonely while Charles is austere and removed. Then they have Charlie. Anne becomes torn between being a good mother and being Charles’ crew. It seems that she is constantly failing at one or the other. Until the night Charlie is stolen through the window of the nursery. The couple never quite recovers from the loss of their child.
Anne goes on to have six more children but none of it erases the pain of losing her first child or that Charles, in his arrogance, hindered the police investigation into the kidnapping. The couple become more estranged when, at the height of Hitler’s reign, Charles latches on to Nazi rhetoric also espousing the antisemitic sentiments of the regime. Of course even though Anne (according to Benjamin) does not agree with his stance, this does not stop her from publishing a pamphlet of support for both her husband and the Nazis. But eventually, the U.S. joins the allies in WWII and Charles chooses to go and rejoin the U.S. military. Charles returns to his family after the war but Anne has figured out, in part, how to live without him. Of course, none of this leads to her seeking her independence or having an honest conversation with Charles, instead she spends the rest of their life together just trying to make Charles proud of her.
I tried to keep in mind through-out this book that Anne and Charles were living in a different era. An era where women would put up with a lot of nonsense in marriage. But even with that in the back of my mind I found it hard to believe that the Anne that Benjamin portrays in the book is really someone who would stay married to Charles. Her internal dialogue and drive just seems too strong to put up with his continual self-absorption. Multiple times in the book Benjamin brings up the fact that Anne had her own trust fund – she could leave at any time.
Honestly, though whether I liked the characters in their fictional state seemed beside the point. Their life story is interesting and that was enough. The fact that they spent their lives making each other miserable just somehow seems fitting.
Other review to check out:
- Flying With The Aviator’s Wife (thebeautyofbooks.wordpress.com)
- The aviator’s wife : a novel by Melanie Benjamin (alleganylibrarycollections.wordpress.com)
- “The Aviator’s Wife” Author Lands in Sacramento (bookclubcheerleader.wordpress.com)
“Defending Jacob” by William Landay, Published in 2012
I have this rather annoying habit of always being really proud of the fact that I can guess endings to books and films. I am usually right in my guess-work and get some kind nerdy pleasure in saying “I knew it!” My poor husband has put with me for the last thirteen years leaning over in the movie theater and whispering “I totally know what is going to happen.” If it drives him crazy he has never said so, but I think he suffers in silence. I bring this up because this novel put my annoying habit to shame. Not only did I not predict the ending, but I pridefully thought I had guessed the ending. Then it was even more of a “oh crap” moment at the end of the book because I was so wrong. And that is a tremendously good thing.
This books opens with Andy Barber, a well respected D.A. in Massachusetts, in the courtroom on the stand as a witness. He is being questioned by his former colleague and is recounting the investigation of a murder. Andy had been in charge of investigating the death of Ben Rifkin who had been killed by three knife wounds while walking through the woods on his way to his high school. But after a few weeks of a fairly unsuccessful investigation, Andy is pulled off the case by his supervisor. It seems that Andy’s son Jacob has become the main suspect in the murder. There are Facebook posts implicating Jacob and a knife that he had shown other kids at school matches the description of the murder weapon. Suddenly, Andy finds himself on the opposite side of the courtroom helping defend the alleged criminal while trying to keep his home-life as normal as possible.
Andy finds himself finally facing his family legacy and the fact that his son Jacob may be more than just a moody, self-absorbed teenage. But to Andy even if the Jacob is capable of murder this is really more about how he would do anything to protect his family. And as everything seems to be falling apart, Andy is blindly defending Jacob against everybody, his wife, the police, the prosecutor, the community and sadly even himself. All of this inevitably leads to the question of whether there is indeed something wrong with Jacob and whether he is capable of murder.
This novel is a great example of what a good suspense novel can be. It examines not just the murder case itself. It looks at what a murder does to a community, what a court trial does to a family and how the fall-out from all of it can lay waste to what was once a very idyllic life. It also makes the reader look at parenting – as parents what are we willing to do for our children and is there a point where that type of unconditional love becomes unhealthy and dangerous. Whatever that point is, I certainly hope it doesn’t happen by watching “Toy Story” over and over again. If so, I am in a lot of trouble.
Other reviews to check out:
Let’s keep the world a civilized place, more gin please- “Farewell, Dorothy Parker” by Ellen Meister
“Farewell, Dorothy Parker“ by Ellen Meister, Published in 2013
The premise of this novel is absolutely ridiculous. I can only imagine how Ellen Meister pitched this book to her publisher:
“The heroine,Violet, is this national movie critic whose sharp tongue only exists on the page. In her life, Violet is trying to fight for custody of her niece and is failing miserably. She also can’t get up the nerve to tell her boyfriend, Carl, that ‘no, he cannot move out of his mother’s basement into Violet’s apartment so that she is stuck taking care of a man-child.’ She is merely mealy-mouthed Violet until she goes to lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, one of Dorothy Parker’s favorite haunts in the 20s.
The hotel manager brings Violet the infamous guest book for her signature and Violet comes across Dorothy Parker’s signature. Inexplicableably. Violet slips the guest book into her bag and takes it home. Of course when she comes home and the book is opened, Violet finds the ghost of Dorothy Parker sitting in her armchair pleading for a gin martini. Through her ghostly escapades, Miss Parker (everything is more civilized with titles) helps Violet find the voice she needs to become truly happy. And in turn, Miss Parker finds the courage to face what is keeping her from heading into the light and out of the ghastly guest book.”
And to that Meister’s publisher must have sat back in her chair, one eyebrow raised and said “Seriously?”
But it actually works. Meister has taken what sounds like a silly concept and made it honestly, for lack of a better word, delightful. The reader can’t help but cheer for Violet because who among us has not wished they had the wit of Dorothy Parker for just that right moment. And of course Dorothy Parker proves to be as enjoyable as I imagined. The only thing that would have made this book more fun would have been reading it on vacation – but one can’t have everything, right Dorothy?
“That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.” - Dorothy Parker
Other reviews to check out:
- Farewell, Dorothy Parker by Ellen Meister (maryslibrary.typepad.com)
- Farewell, Dorothy Parker (nochargebookbunch.com)
- Review: Farewell, Dorothy Parker (bookingmama.net)
Truly March was a tough month. For my family there was bad health news, poor weather, and just terrible news all around. Everything just seemed to fall apart. Now April is here and the sun is shining so I can only hope that means that everything is on the mend. I neglected my book reviews in March. So in one overview I am recapping what I read in March:
- Anne of Green Gables – Reading this book is so comforting. It reminds me of being a kid, snuggled down in warm blankets, with my siblings fighting somewhere downstairs, the smell of my mom baking, and just escaping. Anne is just as precocious and lovable as I remember and I still want to live on Prince Edward Island. It is nice to be reminded that in a lot of ways we are still our twelve-year-old selves.
- Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall –In the middle of the Civil War, Iris runs away from her cruel husband with some of his slaves. When she is caught she is tried and convicted of madness. She finds herself in a mental institute trying to prove to everyone and maybe even herself that she is sane but was living in a crazy world. This book was pretty good. But I feel like Hepinstall could have done more with the subject.
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – This is the Grim Reaper’s tale of a young German girl named Liesel, who is a book thief. He comes in and out of her life during WWII, ultimately carrying her story with him. I cannot express how profound this book was for me. Zusak is able to use the Grim Reaper’s more objective view of humans, war and love to show fairly stark truths about our world:
“They’re strange, those wars. Full of blood and violence-
but also full of stories that are equally difficult to fathom.”
4. Belong to Me by Maria de los Santos – I don’t remember how I came to this book and honestly, I am not sure what I think of it. It was a bit too “Desperate Housewives” for me but was a light, mindless read and the writing was pretty good.
For the Spring, I am looking forward to being outside with my husband and children, lots of sunshine and some great reading time outside. No matter what else is going on in my life these are the things that make me truly happy.