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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.

yellow birds

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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“Badd” by Tim Tharp

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

Tim Tharp was a runner-up for the 2008 National Book Award (Young People's Literature) for "The Spectacular Now," his fantastic novel about a teenage alcoholic in extreme denial. Tharp is back with "Badd," another novel featuring an unreliable teen narrator with a precise, rich voice who faces some very serious issues. While "Badd" lacks the charismatic lead and disarming buoyancy of "The Spectacular Now," it is still a compelling read.

In a hot summer in a small town, high schooler Ceejay McDermott is playing paintball with her crew, crushing on her friend Tillman, and counting the days until her idolized older brother, Bobby, returns from the Iraq War. Ceejay is a tough, no-nonsense girl. From her descriptions, her steely reserve and bad ass approach to life are nothing compared to Bobby. Before he left for Iraq, Bobby was a wild, charming tough guy willing to (literally) fight for the little guy and raise plenty of hell along the way. When Ceejay spots Bobby in a car weeks before his planned return, she and goth girl best friend Brianna track him down to a stoner buddy's apartment. Turns out Bobby was discharged early for drug possession. The vacant man who has returned home — at times enraged, skittish, and lost — is nothing like the brother Ceejay remembers. Bobby is jumpy and troubled, freaks out at the smell of grilled meat, has flashbacks of exploding IEDs and dead friends, and numbs his pain with booze, drugs, and women.

Inexplicably, Bobby soon hooks up with the town's most eccentric resident, Captain Crazy, a man who lives in a trailer surrounded by huge sculptures designed to ward off evil spirits. The Captain lost his own brother back in Vietnam, so despite his childlike exterior and odd behavior, he knows full well the heartbreak of war. Bobby recognizes something of himself in the Captain — or maybe finds in the Captain something worthy to protect — and so, despite encountering scorn and negativity, embarks on a mission with the Captain to build a flying contraption (an "aero-velocipede") named Angelica.

Too weird? Maybe. "Badd" is a strange juxtaposition of gritty reality — the town people's casual drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and infidelity; the wasting death from cancer of Ceejay's grandma; Bobby's post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal behavior; the Captain's mental illness — and fanciful notions of unseen good forces, a misfit revolution, and the redeeming freedom of flying unfettered through the sky. I'm not entirely sure it all meshes together, and I haven't even touched Ceejay's growing romantic relationship with Padgett (Mr. White), a sensitive, compassionate teen who wears all white as a sign of hope.

Perhaps if the character leading us through this story was more open or displayed some more vulnerability, "Badd" would've had a stronger impact on me. But Ceejay is so blankly inexpressive and so unwilling to examine her own pain and fear that it leaves a gaping hole at the center of the story. Yes, Ceejay's voice is strong and clear and I know exactly who this rough, brave girl is. She bullies Brianna, beats up a drunken lout, worships her heroic brother, hides her true feelings, and is convinced in her heart that she will never be pretty, popular, or loved. That's a deeply rendered character. She just never fully grabbed me. So while I liked how Ceejay's own issues color her views of and decisions toward Bobby and his behavior, I simply could not connect with her, even in her softer moments with Padgett or younger sister Lacy.

None of this is to say that "Badd" isn't a good read. It is. Bobby is so traumatized and lost that I couldn't help but get pulled into his suicidal descent and fragile recovery. As bizarre as it is, Bobby's relationship with the Captain, full of sacrifices and kindness, is touching and believable. I wanted them both to survive. I was even glad to see Angelica soar across the sky, as this sweet if somewhat pat conclusion felt well earned. I guess I just hoped (er, expected) a bit more from the great Tim Tharp. In the end, although "Badd" never reaches the transcendent heights of "The Spectacular Now," it's a still an intense, worthwhile book.

PS – "Badd" is definitely intended for a high school audience. We're talking about loads of strong language, ample drug and alcohol use, sexual references, and the kind of painful emotional distress that is probably best suited for teen readers.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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“The Leanin’ Dog” by K.A. Nuzum

TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:

"The Leanin' Dog" is a subtle, quiet novel about 11 year old Dessa Dean's friendship with a wayward brown dog. Although not clearly specified — which was a nagging issue for me, as I kept thinking, "What the heck time period is this?" — the story seems to take place in the 1930s (?) in the mountain West, shortly before Christmas. Dessa and her dad live in a bare, remote wildnerness cabin. By day, dad goes out trapping and hunting, often with limited success, while Dessa stays in the cabin doing school work, cooking, and cleaning. The two live a spare, hardscrabble existence. Both characters are similarly restrained in expressing their emotions — it's as if the harsh setting requires a certain stoicism — although we immediately sense just how much they love each other.

Dessa is largely confined to the cabin, and not by her own choosing. She's still suffering greatly from her mom's death a few months back. Dessa and her diabetic mom got caught in a snowstorm, and poor Dessa watched firsthand as mom froze to death in the brutal conditions. The trauma has effected Dessa physically (her ears still burn from the frostbite) and, more damagingly, emotionally. Dessa suffers from what she calls "daymares," which we'd understand as debilitating panic attacks. No amount of coaxing, bullying, or pushing can get Dessa to allow herself to leave the cabin. Dessa counts every step from the cabin to the porch's edge, and she simply cannot make herself reenter the world of hunting, fishing, and exploring that she once so adored. Her beloved cabin now stands as a prison.

One day, a brown dog, herself injured with a lame leg, wanders over to Dessa's cabin. Lonely Dessa becomes intrigued by the animal, and her kindness eventually gets the skittish dog to come in for some food. Pretty soon, the dog is spending every day with the increasingly happy Dessa, playing with her or warming herself by the stove. The only problem? The dog suffers from just about the exact problem as Dessa — she cannot bear to be closed into the cabin. The dog whines all night outside the front door, and, during the day, when the dog is in the cabin, Dessa must always keep the door ajar to calm the dog's frayed nerves.

There's a big climax here that coincides with Christmas Eve, when Dessa is planning a special dinner for her dad and the dog. Without giving anything away, the dog protects Dessa from certain death and helps her face her own demons and live again. Christmas Day thus becomes a sweet, wonderful turning point in Dessa's life. In other words, you might get a bit choked up. You've been warned!

"The Leanin' Dog" is written in spare language, which beautifully evokes the barebones world in which Dessa lives. Dessa thinks and speaks as a country person, which may at first be jarring for today's readers, but her manner perfectly conveys her practical, good-hearted, hopeful nature. Dessa's faith in herself may have wavered, but she never stops believing in the dog, her father, and her lost mom. That's really quite beautiful. So while there's not a whole lot of whiz-bang action in this story, thoughtful readers should find much to like, from the rural setting to Dessa's understated bravery to the authentic, touching bond between Dessa and her dad to, finally, the lovely friendship she creates with the dog. This is a perfect book for young readers (grades five and up) looking for a gentle, poetic book about the transformative power of friendship. I also think it's great for dog lovers of all ages. As the Leanin' Dog herself would say, "Boof!" 🙂

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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