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“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.

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Posted by on October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Okay for Now” by Gary D. Schmidt

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

I'm already in love with Gary D. Schmidt for writing 2007's Newbery Honor book, "The Wednesday Wars." In his forthcoming novel, "Okay for Now" — which I scored in advance through Net Galley; huzzah! — we follow one year in the life of Doug Swieteck, a minor character in the Vietnam era "The Wednesday Wars." "Okay for Now" is just about a perfect middle school novel. It's filled with endearing characters, heartwrenching coming of age incidents, plenty of self-deprecating humor and laughs, and such rich, honest emotion that I found myself smiling through tears several times. If this book does not receive, at the very least, another Newbery Honor, there is truly no justice in the world of children's books!

The Vietnam War is still raging in the summer of 1968 when the troubled Swieteck family moves from Long Island to the tiny upstate town of Marysville, New York. Doug's father is a drinker and a bully, his older brother (unnamed through much of the story) is a budding thug, and his beleaguered mom is doing her best to keep on a brave face, especially while oldest brother Lucas is off fighting in the war. To supplement the family's very modest earnings — dad is hanging on to a menial job in the local lumber mill — Doug begins a weekly Saturday morning job delivering groceries to Marysville residents. Among other residents along his route, he meets the eccentric playwright Mrs. Windermere, who has a fondness for ice cream, a yearning for the god of creativity, and a soft spot in her curmudgeonly heart for "skinny delivery boys." The passages depicting Doug's journeys with his grocery-laden wagon, particularly in the steamy summer months and frigid winter ones, are alternately hysterical and deeply touching … and sometimes both!

Each Saturday after finishing his route, on the only day it is opened each week, Doug visits the Marysville Public Library. He is intrigued by John James Audubon's striking picture of a crashing arctic tern and its "terrified eye." Kindly librarian (woot!) Mr. Powell notices his interest and patiently, slowly teaches Doug how to draw the tern and other majestic birds from the glass-encased Audubon book. Each chapter of "Okay for Now" begins with an Audubon plate and relates a theme from the given picture to Doug's own life, his family, and his burgeoning artistic talent. If this sounds horribly boring, I swear it's not! It is a charming device, completely original, and a lovely, subtle way of depicting Doug's journey of growth and self-discovery. Along the way, we learn that cash-strapped Marysville is selling off pages from the priceless Audubon book, leading to a subplot where a determined Doug vows to make the precious book whole again.

Why should you care about a boy from the 1960s who spends his free time drawing Audubon birds? I understand your skepticism! But Doug is such a superbly crafted character that you will eagerly turn the pages to follow his story. Doug is a total middle school boy in his love of baseball (and the Yankee's Joe Pepitone!), his sense of humor, his blossoming affection for the grocer's spunky daughter, Lil, and his quiet protection of his mom and family. But Doug is also presented as a real, multidimensional kid, so he often retreats into a petulant dislike of "stupid" Marysville; he doubts his own talents and abilities; he mouths off to the gym teacher and school principal (although it's deserved in both cases!); and he abandons projects as soon as obstacles appear. In other words, he's relatable and flawed. Doug is also special, as he stubbornly, fiercely guards the kinds of secrets no 8th grade boy should have to carry. Doug is a great combination of bravery, heart, and humor, and he possesses both a rebellious nature and an optimistic spirit. I ADORED HIM!

What else works here? I loved how gently encouraging so many of the adults are toward Doug, who is in a world of pain from his father's drinking and abuse. Besides Mr. Powell and Mrs. Windermere, the lumber mill owner, grocer, and two teachers take a keen interest in Doug, while the seemingly sadistic gym teacher (later shown to be a tormented Vietnam veteran) eventually plays a pivotal role in Doug's life. So much of the story involves cultivating the hidden promise and potential in people — not just Doug, but his wounded brother Lucas, spit upon and rejected by war protesters and small-minded neighbors; his older brother, finally revealed as Christopher, who is so much more complex than his sullen exterior and criminal reputation suggest; and even his sweet yet steely mother, who looks upon a gifted orchid like it's a treasure. Along these lines, there is also a wonderful theme about life being full of incredible possibilities — this is the era of the moon walk, after all — such that even a poor, uneducated kid like Doug with, frankly, a brutal home life, can imagine himself free and soaring. Rock on!

So, yeah, there's also a bit of romance, some babysitting adventures, a Broadway play, a plastic toy rocking horse named Clarence, and some truly quirky, almost screwball elements thrown in. Does all of it work? For the most part. By the time Doug's hero Joe Pepitone shows up at Jane Eyre on Broadway, I was fully prepared to suspend any and all disbelief and just go along for the sweet ride. I think you will be, too. Read "Okay for Now" for its insight into the late 1960s, its realistic characters, its many laugh out loud scenes, its incredibly heartfelt moments — I dare you not to cry when Doug plays on the skins basketball team for the first time! — and its lovely depictions of friendship, hope, redemption, and possibility. In the story, Doug immediately relates to the nobility of Audubon's brown pelican; for me, this wonderful, funny, uplifting novel has a beautiful nobility all its own.

PS – My one criticism: I can live with the so-so title, but the cover featuring a boy with a bag on his head? Really? Oh, Houghton Mifflin, I know you can do so much better.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“Chime” by Franny Billingsley

FROM A KINNELON LIBRARY TEEN REVIEWER:

I really liked "Chime." It was hard to follow and confusing at first. I'm so glad I stuck with the story, because it made a lot more sense as it went along. This book was an interesting, different type of romance. Once I got past the beginning, it was easy to read and exciting.

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S NOTE:

Chime, described by its publisher as a "wild, enchanted romance," will be released in March 2011.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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National Book Award Finalists

The National Book Foundation recently announced the finalists for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. National Book Awards recognize literary excellence in American literature and are awarded to writers by other writers.

Past winners of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature include "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," "True Believer," "House of the Scorpion," "Godless," and "What I Saw and How I Lied."

This year's nominees are shown below and can also be found here. The winner will be announced on November 16th.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Spectacular Now” by Tim Tharp

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Tim Tharp's "The Spectacular Now" was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature (please click here to read an interview with Tharp on the NBA website). After reading this almost stream of consciousness peek into the last few months of one teen guy's senior year of high school, I can definitely see why. "The Spectacular Now" is authentic, lively, and ultimately disturbing in a way I can't identify.

Sutter Keely is the senior guy in question, and he's quite literally the life of the party. Sutter is so precisely portrayed that I understood exactly who he was. You know that charming, exuberant, scruffy, kinda lovable screw-up that girls always think they can tame or protect or somehow fix? That's Sutter. He can talk to anyone, making that person feel special and magical for those few moments in his spotlight. He's all about fun and adventure and maybe even a little danger. Sutter's problem? He's also a closeted, mostly functioning alcoholic ("god's own drunk," as he says), driving around Oklahoma City with a Big Gulp 7UP generously laced with whiskey. Sutter drinks constantly, from the time he wakes up right on through the day, even getting loaded for his job at Mr. Leon's men's clothing store and before a dinner at his uptight sister's house. Sutter's easy, natural charisma helps deflect many of the consequences of his drinking, and he's in full-on denial mode about any other problems it might be causing. See, Sutter's all about "embracing the weird," and he's hit on something so many anti-drinking crusades miss: drinking can be a lot of fun. That's why kids do it. So while we as readers see all the scary issues raised by Sutter's drinking, he thinks he's living it up right in the moment. In the spectacular now.

Sutter's life is already careening pretty far out of control when he meets the shy, nerdy, sci fi geek Aimee. Well, "meet" might be too strong a word for what actually happens. Sutter blacks out after a night of drinking, waking up to discover that he's in an unfamiliar neighborhood — sitting on someone's front lawn! — and being roused by a quiet newspaper delivery girl. Sutter initially takes on Aimee as a kind of project, thinking he can boost the confidence of this gentle, meek girl and really do something right in his life. Along the way, he learns that Aimee is pretty spectacular herself, despite — or perhaps because of — her love of horses and Commander Amanda Gallico and her unquenchable, maybe naive capacity to dream big dreams. Unfortunately, Sutter, in "helping" Aimee, also introduces her to the lure of near-constant drinking. All this leads to a climax that is touching, real, and unexpectedly sad.

I'm not entirely sure this book will be fully appreciated by its target audience of high school age readers. As a (cough) somewhat older reader, I recognized Sutter's character and knew exactly how pathetic he'd be with another 10 or 15 years of "partying" under his belt. While Tharp capably conveys this very point when we meet Sutter's estranged dad in Fort Worth, I'm still not convinced those without the life experience will fully appreciate the utter depth of Sutter's impending decline.

Regardless, this is a real "wow" kind of book. Sutter's voice is so compelling that I felt like I was strapped into some sort of amusement park ride run amok. That's what the narration of his life feels like. You will absolutely root for this terribly flawed but well-intentioned guy, who will disappoint you and surprise you in equal measure. Plus, Sutter's relationship with Aimee is so hopeful and tragic (at the same time!), that it's reason alone to read this outstanding novel.

Please know there are lots of drinking (well, duh!), drug, and sexual references here. Even beyond that, I think the somewhat subtle nature of this story lends itself more to high school age readers. Finally, although my description here might make "The Spectacular Now" seem like a dull "issue" book, nothing could be further from the truth. The great feat of this novel is how it manages to make self destruction seem so incredibly attractive. Truly, although it may sound odd, this is an energetic, almost bouncy story of one boy's slow descent into real despair and heartbreak. It is definitely worth reading.

 
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Posted by on January 5, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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“Luna” by Julie Anne Peters

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Sophomore girl Regan narrates the story of her transgendered older brother, Liam (Luna). Luna only emerges at night, in Regan’s bedroom, where she puts on dresses, wigs, makeup and gets to act truly free. The story is intercut with episodes from Regan and Liam’s childhood, some of which are terribly painful to read. Regan’s whole life is devoted to Liam, to being there for him and going to great, sometimes costly lengths to keep his secret. Regan has no friends and is a true loner, until she meets Chris in her chemistry class and realizes how much fun they have together. The story follows Regan and Chris' new relationship, as well as Liam's halting efforts to let Luna emerge in public as his 18th birthday approaches. This book is troubling, beautiful, and painfully honest … often all at the same time. It's probably not for everyone, but if you're looking for a well-written book that will stay with you afterward, "Luna" may be for you.

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2006 in Uncategorized

 

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