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“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers


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.

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Posted by on October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized


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“The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls” by Julie Schumacher


I know, it looks like I’ve been slacking on the reading. In my defense, it took me a while to work my way through Stephen King’s “11/22/63,” an epic tale of time travel, fate, and the Kennedy assassination. (Short review: IT’S AWESOME! Please read it.) But I’m back in the teen novel game, having just finished the e-galley of Julie Schumacher’s forthcoming “The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls.” Thanks to the folks at Random House for making the galley available, and to the good people at Net Galley for making it so easy and accessible to read advanced copies. You guys rock!

“The Unbearable Book Club …” is pretty standard chick lit about four very different high school girls thrown together — unwillingly, of course — for a mother / daughter summer reading book club. Average, plain Adrienne narrates this novel in the form of her completed AP English summer assignment. She recounts how the book club’s readings (“The Yellow Wallpaper,” “Frankenstein,” “The Left Hand of Darkness,” “The House on Mango Street,” and “The Awakening”); her burgeoning friendships with the other girls (popular wild child Cee Cee, weird nerd Wallis, and over achiever Jill); and her relationship with her single mom changed her over the course of the summer. Or, as Adrienne says at the beginning of her essay, “Whoever I was at the beginning of the summer, I am not that person anymore.”

Adrienne suffered a knee injury prior to the summer, forcing her to cancel a months-long adventure camp with her best friend, Liz. Instead of hiking and canoeing with Liz, Adrienne is at the community pool, listlessly reading her assigned novels, when Cee Cee literally barges into her life. Cee Cee, home because of summer school and lonely because her friends are all off on glamorous vacations, begins to hang out with Adrienne. Cee Cee, with her big personality and refusal to accept “no” for an answer, brings “A” out of her reserved shell, while also finding all sorts of ways to get her in trouble (late-night sneak outs, car theft, drinking, questionable ear piercing). Jill, who works the snack shack at the pool and studies constantly, questions both Cee Cee’s motives and Adrienne’s acquiescence to Cee’s every demand. Meanwhile, eccentric Wallis, a true outsider in every sense of the word, remains a mystery to the girls, always making excuses for where she lives and why her mother cannot attend meetings.

And so the summer progresses. Books are read, quoted, and discussed. Friendships are forged and threatened. Lessons are learned, amidst both tragedy and triumph. Hot dogs are cooked over an open flame. Yeah, it’s all pretty unremarkable, with the occasional quirky bit of humor or interesting insight tossed in just when things are becoming too predictable. Let me be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with “The Unbearable Book Club …” It has enough heart and humor to carry it past the woefully generic voice of its narrator and the stock characterizations. (The three new friends are utter stereotypes; I mean, seriously, an overachieving Asian-American and a fickle popular girl with a secret? Welcome to Teen Lit 101). “The Unbearable Book Club” is fine and summery and engaging enough overall. I’d recommend it as breezy chick lit for high school girls, as the content — some language, a drunken escapade — edges this one toward an older audience. I just wanted this book, which has so much potential to be truly captivating, to be more than a cheap knockoff of the “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “Peaches” series.

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Posted by on March 7, 2012 in Uncategorized


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“The DUFF” by Kody Keplinger


Kody Keplinger is a first-time teen author with a new book, "The DUFF," coming out in a few weeks. Little, Brown's Poppy imprint is doing a big publicity push for this novel, and I can definitely see why. "The DUFF" — it stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend — is a quick read with an interesting hook, a compelling main character in Bianca, and, let's be honest, an awful lot of sex appeal for a teen novel.

Bianca is the Duff of the title. Although she's smart, feisty, and acerbic (yup, she's the typical YA heroine), Bianca often plays second fiddle to her model-beautiful best friends, Casey and Jessica. At a local teen dance club, Bianca erupts at the gorgeous, cocky player Wesley when he teasingly calls her Duffy. Bianca despises Wesley for his sense of privilege and the casual way he uses and discards girls. Still, while Bianca says she finds Wesley repugnant and argues with him constantly, she abruptly kisses him during a fight. She then realizes that kissing Wesley is like a drug; it can make all her other problems — her parents' divorce and later her dad's alcoholism — disappear, even if only for a few fleeting moments.

The kissing escalates, and from there, Bianca and Wesley begin secretly sleeping together on a regular basis, mostly at his mansion, where he lives alone while his sister stays with a grandmother and his parents travel. Bianca avoids Wesley at school and keeps her involvement with him secret from everyone, which leads to a rift with her friends and accusations of abandonment. After a violent encounter with her drunk father, Bianca realizes that things with Wesley may have inadvertently become serious and that they each may have developed feelings for each other. A real connection — to Wesley of all people! — freaks Bianca out, so she literally bolts, turning to polite, boring classmate Toby.

What works here? The quick pace, which allowed me to burn through this book in one sitting. I loved Bianca's authentic first-person narrative, which nicely expresses her inner conflicts, her weaknesses, and why she's acting so impulsively. I was pleasantly surprised by the character of Wesley, who is so much deeper than Bianca first imagines, yet still remains a realistic, flawed high school boy. There's also a good deal of discrete passion here and, ultimately, a showing of genuine emotion that feels well earned. Lastly, I liked the easy manner in which the book's message, that everyone feels as if they're the Duff at one time or another, was conveyed. Well done.

All these positives far outweigh the flat characterizations of the secondary characters (Toby, Jessica, Casey, a slutty girl at school) and the unbelievably fast and smooth manner in which Bianca's dad recovers from a relapse into alcoholism. But these are minor criticisms and will be easily overlooked by teen girls, who seem the most obvious target audience for this fun, engaging read. Please note that Little, Brown is recommending a target age of 15 and up, based largely on the sexual content here, which is not scandalous by any means by which is prominently featured. Just a heads up. Look for "The DUFF" in the next few weeks. Enjoy!

PS – The cover of my advanced copy of "The DUFF," generously provided by the folks at Little, Brown, features a close-up shot of a different girl than the one depicted in the finalized edition, shown below. What's up with that?

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Posted by on August 25, 2010 in Uncategorized


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