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Monthly Archives: October 2012

“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

I rarely review books written for the adult market, but I must make an exception for debut author Kevin Powers’ exceptional new Iraq War novel, “The Yellow Birds.” This is a devastating novel about the effects of war, a topic, sadly, that remains ever relevant. Our local high school students read Ernest Hemingway’s WWI novel “A Farewell to Arms” and Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War short story collection, “The Things They Carried.” “The Yellow Birds” is at least as relevant, at least as gut wrenching, and certainly as timely as those now-classic novels. When our nation’s wars are primarily being fought by teenagers and those in their early 20s, high school students should damn near be required to read a book like “The Yellow Birds.” In my humble opinion, anyway.

Private John “Bart” Bartle, a 21 year old native of Richmond, Virginia, has been deployed to Al Tafar in the Nineveh Province of Iraq in the fall of 2004. This is a volatile region, with streets taken and surrendered in brutal fashion, with random violence, mortar attacks, gunfire, and, everywhere, without end, death. The action flashes back and forth to Bart’s pre-war training in Fort Dix, his drunken despair at a German bar / brothel with the heroic and deeply flawed Sergeant Sterling, and Bart’s lonely disconnection and unraveling at home in Virginia. We know early on that Bart’s closest friend, 18 year old private Daniel “Murph” Murphy, is dead. We slowly discover what happened and how Bart failed to fulfill a spontaneous promise to deliver Murph home safely. What we see clearly, even without knowing the details of Murph’s death, is Bart’s pain, his jagged grief at his perceived cowardice, the disorientation of living in a constant war and adjusting afterward, and the soul-crushing burden that witnessing, causing, and ignoring so much death creates.

There are many scenes that depict the terror and chaos of war: an interpreter is shot on a rooftop in mid-sentence; a disemboweled boy dies in agony after a gunfight in an orchard; a human bomb explodes, raining human matter down on a bridge; and a young girl feebly tries to drag an old woman’s dead body across a dirt road. There is dust and blood and all manner of sickening odors and deafening sounds. Everywhere. All the time. Powers, a veteran himself, does an astounding job of conveying how war floods the senses, overtakes the brain, and strangles even basic human compassion.

There is a stark grace in Powers’ word choice and descriptions. He mainly writes in spare, evocative language. This quiet lyricism is contrasted with long, almost run-on passages as Bart delves into his inner turmoil. In these instances, we are caught in a swirling midst of Bart’s cycling thoughts and his version of psychic tail chasing. These philosophical ramblings — Bart’s breakneck effort to reason out a meaning in memory, guilt, death, and forgiveness — are extraordinary. I had to stop and re-read so many passages in an attempt to distill their larger meaning, digest their emotional weight, and savor the beauty of the words used to describe such ugliness and pain. These are two of my favorite sections, in which an agonizingly depressed Bart has returned to Richmond and is completely broken:

You want to fall, that’s all. You think it can’t go on like that. It’s as if your life is a perch on the edge of a cliff and going forward seems impossible, not for a lack of will, but a lack of space. The possibility of another day stands in defiance of the laws of physics. And you can’t go back. So you want to fall, let go, give up, but you can’t. And every breath you take reminds you of that fact. So it goes …

Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off of that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was like just trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you are doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you gonna do?, but really it doesn’t matter because by the end you failed at the one good thing you could have done, the one person you promised would live is dead …

Powerful stuff. For all barbarity of war and the awful claustrophobia of alcoholism and post traumatic stress disorder, Bart achieves a measure of peace by novel’s end, giving “The Yellow Birds” a kind of quiet victory in simply showing the soul’s ability to survive. Some years later, alone in a mountain cabin, Bart is able to, as he says, become ordinary again. “There are days ahead when I won’t think of him or Sterling or the war.” Yes, that’s a small triumph, but it is still a hopeful note in a novel about how violence ravages its victims, perpetrators, and our larger society.

I think high school students, or those young people with the maturity to handle some incredibly jarring — but never gratuitous — imagery and language, should read, analyze, and discuss “The Yellow Birds.” In a mere 226 pages, Kevin Powers has created what is destined to become a masterpiece of modern fiction. Please read this National Book Award-nominated novel now. You will never forget it. And keep this stunning book in mind the next time some politician somewhere argues for the deployment of US troops.

yellow birds

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Posted by on October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Every Day” by David Levithan

TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:

David Levithan is an amazing, amazing writer who needs no accolades from me. Nevertheless, I’m giving them to him. 😉 Levithan is the author of one of my all-time favorite YA novels, the incandescent “Boy Meets Boy,” and co-author of books you, dear reader, and I absolutely adore, like “Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” “Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares,” and “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.”

“Every Day” is Levithan’s latest book, and the concept is blow-your-mind unique: A is a genderless entity, a being or soul, who inhabits a different 16 year old body each day. Boy, girl, black, white, Asian, straight, gay, transgendered, fat, slim, popular, suicidal … you name it, A has been that person for one day. A’s host remembers nothing of the “lost” day, apparently because A is able to implant alternate memories. A can access only internal facts about the host — locker combinations, sibling names, etc. — not emotional connections. A is, however, subject to the biological or chemical constraints of the host body and any corresponding emotional conditions caused by those constraints. (There is an absolutely harrowing day when A, in an addict’s body, uses every bit of mental energy to combat nearly overpowering drug cravings; similarly, A’s one day as a clinically depressed girl is devastating.)

When we meet A, A is in the body of Justin, a typical brooding high school guy with a chip on his shoulder and a pretty girlfriend. That girlfriend is the vulnerable, often heartbroken Rhiannon, who basically stays with Justin because (a) she thinks he’ll become a better version of himself, and (b) she’s afraid to be alone. Lo and behold, when A is in Justin’s body, Justin is, indeed, a better version of himself. A ignores the “rules” and has Justin do some un-Justin-like things, like ditching school and taking Rhiannon to the beach. Even worse (or better?), A-as-Justin is suddenly more caring, attentive, and open, leading the beaten-down Rhiannon to emerge more fully from her protective shell. In one epic day, Rhiannon falls in love with “Justin” again, while A, for the first time in A’s life, falls in love, too.

Except, of course, that epic day has to end. When A next lands in the body of Nathan, an overachieving, straight-laced guy, he drives for hours and crashes a party attended by Rhiannon. “Nathan,” posing as a gay, non-romantic interest, dances the night away with Rhiannon and later contacts her by email. (A keeps a personal email account.) Unfortunately, A has to keep Nathan out late for the party — the switch to the next host always occurs at midnight, regardless — meaning that Nathan wakes up on the side of the road with no memory of how he got there. When Nathan’s story of demonic possession goes viral — and when Nathan himself starts emailing A demanding answers — A’s anonymity and very existence become threatened. Still, being smitten and nursing the hope of finally living a regular life, A risks all and reveals all to Rhiannon. She reluctantly agrees to keep meeting A, in all A’s different bodies, while she sorts out her feelings.

“Every Day” is so thought provoking and raises such intriguing questions about personhood and identity and love, that for these reasons alone — not to mention the beautiful writing and amazingly complex one-day characterizations — it’s a winner. Do we really love the person inside, or is the exterior an inevitable factor? A slowly realizes that it’s easier for Rhiannon to connect with him when A is inhabiting a hot guy than when A is morbidly obese or female. A is such a remarkable character, mature beyond A’s earthly years, yet still a teenager who can be rash and impulsive. But A is different in one crucial way. Unlike the rest of us, A sees no gender or sexual orientation. A exists as a pure identity. An essence. A being. Seeing how this all plays out is illuminating and heartbreaking and kind of beautiful. Huge kudos to David Levithan for pulling off the logistics of the hosting so smoothly and for making the romance between A and Rhiannon so incredibly ill fated (and, thus, so incredibly intriguing).

[Total side note, but as I read “Every Day,” I thought of Against Me! lead singer Laura Jane Grace. Laura Jane was born as Tom Gabel, but she knew from a very young age that she was a woman. Tom married Heather Gabel a few years ago, and together they had a daughter. Tom struggled all this time with gender dysphoria, the technical term for feeling like your external anatomy and the sex roles assigned to it don’t line up with your internal gender identity. In May of 2012, Tom came out publicly as transitioning to a woman, Laura Jane, despite the prejudices of some in the punk and wider communities. Laura Jane is an absolute inspiration of being true to who you are. And you know what’s cool? Heather has stayed with Laura Jane, saying that she fell in love with the person who is Laura Jane, not the external male who was Tom. Awesome. A would be proud.]

There are some truly genius touches here — A inhabits twins on back-to-back days, allowing A to see the after effects on the host — as well as so many captivating insights into the relationships between teens and their peers, parents, and siblings. I highly recommend “Every Day” to older middle and high school readers. It’s really like nothing else I’ve ever read, and a full week after finishing it, I still find myself thinking about A. Which, sign of a great book, y’all. Please check out “Every Day” and see what you think!

every day

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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