on June 11, 2013
I'm about 30 pages away from finishing this novel, a novel, quite frankly, that I was looking forward to reading. Things will have to get better very quickly for me not to classify this book as one of the worst things I've ever read in a lifetime of reading.
Credible writers of fiction compare the author's prose to that of Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway, among others. Another novelist suggests that the first line of THE YELLOW BIRDS is comparable to "Call Me Ishmael." Well, I don't really understand all of the star-making machinery behind the popular song (or novel), but I'm wondering if these reviewers have even read McCarthy or Hemingway, because the resemblance stops immediately after we agree that all three of the authors use the English language to express their thoughts. The only way I can evoke Hemingway in light of this novel is to imagine that, through some time-space warp, Hemingway was able to read Powers' galleys while sitting in his Idaho cabin. The motivation underlying for his suicide would then be quite clear indeed.
At about the novel's halfway point, it began to "embody an opacity I couldn't penetrate further." This line actually appears in the book (no kidding) shortly after the army unit's advance through an orchard outside an Iraqi town. In order to aid that advance, a mortar barrage had been directed to the area to compromise any enemy positions. Yet, as the soldiers move forward, a flock of birds arises from the trees in front of their eyes. Now, I have never been in a war zone, but my reasonably good imagination tells me that an extended mortar attack might have spooked those birds at some earlier point in time. Even as the group makes its way through some of the devastated landscape, the narrator hears the call of a lark or a finch, apparently able to put his ornithological expertise to work in the midst of death and destrction. Hemingway and McCarthy both employ some startling juxtapositions, but they are not laugh-out-loud juxtapositions.
OK, I'm almost finished. Let me just share one passage that might help a potential reader decide whether he or she really wants to pick up the book, even after salivating over an opening line that rivals Melville. The army unit has just been taken by surprise by an explosion and gunfire. Here's the narrator's take: "I moved to the edge of the bridge and began firing at anything moving. I saw one man fall in a heap near the bank of the river among the bulrushes and green fields on its edges. [How a person falls among green fields is a physics problem I'm too unskilled to answer.] In that moment, I disowned the waters of my youth. [Here it comes. Wait for it.] My memories of them became a useless luxury, their names as foreign as any that could be found in the Nineveh: the Tigris or the Chesapeake, the James or the Shatt al Arab farther to the south, all belonged to someone else, and perhpap had never really been my own. I was an intruder, at best a visitor, and would be even in my home, in my misremembered history, until the glow of phosphorescense in the Chesapeake I had longed to swim inside again someday became a taunt against my insignificance, a cruel trick of light that had always made me think of stars. No more. [That would be nice, but he goes on...] I gave up longing, because I was sure that anything seen at such a scale would reveal the universe as cast aside and drowned, and if I ever floated there again, out where the level of the water reached my neck, and my feet lost contact with its muddy bottom, I might realize that to understand the world, one's place in it, is to be always at the risk of drowning." This paragraph seems, like too many other paragraphs in the novel, to be an exercise in throwing words up against the wall and seeing what stinks, er, sticks.
While I have likely read thousands of novels over the years, I have never written one. To that end, this book is an inspiration.
on October 15, 2012
It is immediately apparent that Mr Powers hails from the rich writing heritage of the South. The book is almost a poem about the soul destroying power of war. His journey into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the price he paid to survive it should be required reading by every person who felt this conflict was necessary for America to join. Magnificent book. Should be required reading in every high school.
on September 6, 2012
Bought this because of the review in the Guardian. Decided anything getting compared to All Quiet on the Western Front and The Red Badge of Courage deserved a shot. And that is squarely where this book belongs. To that list I'd add The Things We Carried, also by a combat veteran. It's a real story of men in combat and the toll it takes on them, both during and afterward. This is one of those books that has a million different lines that will have you thinking about things in a different way, like this one after a friend of the narrator is killed:
"I'd been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today?"
As far as the plot, it is about one man trying to keep his friend alive (as his friend begins to crack up) during a tour of duty in Iraq; interspersed with his attempts, after the war, to understand a terrible crime he ends up committing.
The author was a machinegunner in a Iraq; whether this book is his way of processing his experiences or not, it is a thoughtful and philosophical work. If you are looking for a Tom Clancy book, or Seal Team Six book--something that depicts men in combat as fearless machines--this is not the right book for you. There is violence, but it is real, not cartoonish; the people killing and dying come across as real people. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, it is more about how real people actually respond to these situations than how some action-hero would.
Which is a long way of saying this is literature, rather than entertainment. There are no political ramblings, no saying that America is better (or worse) than its enemies; it is about people and how they react to being at war. There is no question this thing is going to take its place in the list of serious books about war and, more generally, the human condition. It's short but it will stay in your head a long time.
on February 4, 2013
I am so pleased I was asked to review this novel as I felt I had a lot to say about it that would hopefully help a future reader. I purchased the novel because I had never read a Iraq war novel and wanted to familiarize myself with this experience our country is going through. I was sorely disappointed in the novel. Some reviews state that the prose is "beautiful" and "poetic." The poetic description is the downfall of the otherwise potentially good book. I mean really, does a dying American soldier ask those tending to him if he "s***" his pants? I believe he may have asked if he s*** his pants however. Defining the littered streets of this particular town in Iraq as filled with "detritus" when he could have described what was in the streets, or referred to it as garbage. Another excuse to use his poetic abilities. I also felt highly manipulated with the story taking place in the present and then drifting to the past, to the boy's home town in the South. With this shift came page upon page of meandering poetic descriptions of the flora, fauna, babbling brooks, sun shining through leaves of trees, etc. yet another opportunity to show his poetic skill. I found myself skipping these pages mid way through the novel. When I am told I am purchasing a war novel, I expect to read a story of the brutality of war; how it brings out the worst in us, how we are forced to do things that normally would contradict our values and morals and even how it brings out the best in us, However Mr. Powers seemed more intent on showing us how lovely he can write and the story was not entertaining or informing. He took an old premise; that war changes men, and trivialized it with flowery language almost as though he was cleaning it up for the reader.I was very disappointed in this novel and would not recommend it to others for reading.
on January 28, 2013
I wanted to like this book more. All the jacket blurbs led me to believe that I would be overwhelmed with its power, comparing it to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which to my mind is one of the best war novels ever. I tried very hard to like it more, because I am sympathetic to its message. But I just couldn't.
Don't get me wrong, I would consider it one of the better books published in 2012, better than The Round House, which topped it in the National Book Award competition. But I don't believe it lives up to its hype at all.
This is the story of Private Bartle's experience as a soldier in Iraq and as a damaged civilian back at home. He has unthinkingly promised the mother of one of his fellow soldiers that he will see her son safely home, and he fails. The entire novel has a nightmare-like quality, which seems to me to be most fitting for such an account.
Some good things:
The first sentence is perfection: "The War tried to kill us in the spring."
The structure is effective, with alternate, non-linear chapters telling of Private Bartle's past and preparation for deployment, of his experiences in Iraq, and of his lack of adjustment back at home. All along we have hints about a crucial war incident, the secret of which is not revealed until near the end.
Sometimes it seems spot-on perfect in its descriptions of combat experience. When a reporter says, "Tell me the essence guys, I want to know what kind of rush you get," a solder answers, "It's like a car accident, you know. That instant between knowing that it's gonna happen and actually slamming into the other car. Feels pretty helpless actually, like you've been riding along, same as always, then it's there staring you in the face and you don't have the power to do shit about it. And know it. Death, or whatever, it's either coming or it's not. It's kind of like that...like the split second in the car wreck, except here it can last for goddamn days."
Some negative things:
Alongside such concrete material as that above, which gives immediacy to the experience, are paragraphs and paragraphs of very well-done poetic descriptions, which unfortunately actually detract from the narrative. They just don't fit, somehow. And these parts are overwritten, I feel, to the point of meaninglessness, almost. But they sound good.
The revealed secret is overly melodramatic, and detracts from the message about the effects of war on its fighters. I don't think it is necessary for a soldier to have one dramatic incident to cause him to come home and suffer PTSD. It seems to me that
the "normal" waging of war is cause enough.
The author Kevin Powers actually fought in Iraq for two years, and that certainly imparts an authenticity to this account. After his return to the US, he completed the MFA at The University of Texas at Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry. Brazenly enough, I credit all the good parts of this novel to his first-hand experiences and his native talent (which is considerable), and all the negative parts to his MFA.
Still and all, recommended. But even more recommended in the war novel category are The Things They Carried, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, A Long Long Way, Dirty Work, and Johnny Got His Gun. Yes, and going far back, The Red Badge of Courage. Wars differ in the way they are fought, but they don't really differ in the effects on the fighters.
on April 1, 2014
It’s hard to say exactly why I’m so disappointed with this novel. It may be because there was so much build-up around it, so I came in with very high (too high) hopes. It won high praise from many critics, and it won several awards. I’ll admit that’s partly why I read the book. I do pay attention to what people are saying. (Heck, it was a National Book Award finalist!) So I came in really wanting to like and enjoy this book.
It started nicely, poetically, a bit oddly muted and muddled. Less than a quarter of the way through I was beginning to feel like there was a bait and switch going on. The characters, the story, the scenes, the writing… I wasn’t connecting. And I really wanted to. Like Mr. Powers, I’m a poet and a novelist, so I know the skills he’s bringing to bear here. I get his writing, his writing style, and I can appreciate it for what he was trying to do.
First, I didn’t connect to the characters (and there are only *three* of them). They read undeveloped to me. I wasn’t feeling who they are, so I wasn’t caring for them very much as they were going through their “story.”
Which brings us to problem number 2: there’s not much story here. We have 11 chapters, alternating in time and space, over 226 pages. It is a short novel. Told in a first person point of view, the narrator wedges in bits of his memories from the fields and odd encounters with the enemy in Iraq and then back to his return and trying to “fit in” in his home town in Virginia. But he feels out of place. And I do, too, as a reader.
Another problem for me was the scenes in the book. The scenes the narrator was describing did not make me feel as if I were there with him experiencing the events in his story. Mr. Powers’ gift with language was his weakness, too, because it felt sometimes like Mr. Powers, the writer, was getting in the way of Private Bartle, the storyteller.
There was some nice writing, sure. But there was a lot of writing that just rambled, for no apparent reason. And sometimes at the strangest moments, so much so that it felt like Powers had to reel himself back in from his own tangents. I have no problem with stream-of-consciousness writing, but the stream should lead somewhere. At other times the language (similes, metaphors, ramblings) Powers uses just gets in the way because of its strangeness. I mean, there was writing I stumbled over--that, really, just stopped the book for me. For example: “Clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed” (p. 99). My first thought when I read this was: Huh? I had to re-read it. And not for pleasure. Because my next thought was: Ewww. And using Vonnegut’s “So it goes” (p. 135). I almost set the book aside when I read that because I thought: He really just re-used *that* line? And: “We trickled out into the city like water rung from a mop” (p. 194). What? “from a mop”? Writing should draw me into the novel and make me experience what the characters are experiencing, not make me look up and think: “What the hell?”
There are also some bits that seem really disjointed (as other reviewers have pointed out), as if the text was in need of a good editor: birds flying out of an orchard that’s just been shelled to pieces; a woman standing motionless for hours—hours!—upon hearing of her son’s death; dark night suddenly becoming the dawn.
Finally, for me, the story felt strangely heartless, oddly soulless. I was hoping (intending) to finish the book with a better understanding—a better feeling—of war. A character spent a page describing his experience of war (like the moment suspended before a car accident), but I felt none of that while reading this book. Instead, the book felt rushed and undone, incoherent and incomplete. I wanted to know more because, at the end of it all, at the reveal of the “big, traumatic event,” I felt robbed of knowing. I felt the author owed me more. And I felt cheated out of what should have been a good novel, if not a great novel, about the *experience* of our most modern war.
“Did not like it”
2 stars Amazon
1 star Goodreads
on January 17, 2013
"The Yellow Birds" takes it title from a U.S. Army marching cadence about a yellow bird that lands on a windowsill and gets his head smashed after being lured by a piece of bread. In this novel, by Iraq war veteran, Kevin Powers, we get a lot of words about the smashing but little about the lure.
That, however, is not its purpose. The book is a beautiful, poetic narrative conflating a horrific incident of the Iraq war. And that is the problem. It seems incongruent that such bountifully stunning descriptive writing can be employed to tell such a shockingly appalling tale. Nevertheless, imaginative writers, from Homer to Hemingway, have used the spectacular landscapes of warfare as settings for wonderful stories portraying myriad aspects of the human condition. Thus it is hard to fault Kevin Powers for this engaging work.
The plot is simple. Two friends, war buddies, are serving in a ground combat unit. One of them has vowed to bring the other home safely. The author tells us early on that one will not make it. We know which one will survive and which will not. We just don't know when, and under what circumstances, that the promise will not be kept. That provides the suspense; and it is both an enticing and a painful apprehension that the reader undergoes. But the sting is occasionally deadened a little, as well as amplified sometimes, by the powerful beauty of the writing. Kevin Powers, by gosh, can write. He gets into our heart and mind easily in the pictures he paints of the exotic landscapes of the war and the bursts of danger and pathos that accompanies it. Don't read this at bedtime.
The story alternates between the battlefield and the home areas of the two soldiers in the vicinity of Richmond, Virginia. In many ways, the power and grace of the writing is at its best in these beautiful landscapes of the aftermath. Here the scars of the war come out in consequences, which readers unfamiliar with warfare cannot imagine, until the story plunges directly into the repercussions.
If there is a weakness in the novel, it is its narrow focus. We learn that the operation takes place in the vicinity of Al Tafar in Nineveh Province but not much more. There is very little about the company or similar unit in which the protagonists serve. We meet a character called the LT who is most likely the platoon leader and a half-crazed Sergeant who appears to be the squad leader. There are glimpses of a few other soldiers and a higher officer or two. One is a Major starring in a public relations video shoot featuring himself. It seems right that that scene is not treated kindly.
The narrow focus, however, does enable the book to zero in on the awfulness of the Iraq war at the individual level where so many paid the ultimate price and others had their bodies and souls damaged forever. In that sense the book is right on. Readers who opposed the necessity for this war from the beginning will have their views justified. Those who believe, even now, that it may have been worth it will be offered something to ponder.
As a World War II infantry combat veteran, I can readily identify with the story Powers is relating as well as the pathetic passion inherent in the telling. I had three war "buddies" during six months of intensive action. One of them came home. Two did not. Years later, as I wrote about the war and the circumstances in which we were caught, I realized I was purging my soul of that horrific time and all that it entailed. Halfway through The Yellow Birds, I become conscious that Powers was most likely doing the same thing. More power to him.
on October 18, 2012
Kevin Powers did a remarkable job writing The Yellow Birds. The book will touch you emotionally and mentally. Hopefully in the future this book can be made into a movie. I would love to see what actors would play what characters. The author placed the events of the story remarkably. I enjoyed the fact he would write one chapter when they were fighting in combat. The next chapter they would go back in time or in the future. I feel this story hinted to you what was about to happen however it left you guessing at times.
Private Bartle told the story. You feel the hardship and pain he endured. Private Bartle went from being a boy to life changing events that made him a man. My favorite thing about this book is it tells you what the Army is like. The book describes what it is like to be deployed. It describes how soldiers feel to see people dying to the right and left of them. Parts of the story are very horrific. The thing you need to remember is Kevin Powers is a Veteran. He wrote this story as if you were there next to Private Bartle in combat.
I recommend this book to everyone. Our country has been in war for over ten years. Half of America has no clue what service members sacrifice for our country. Maybe if they did know they would keep their comments and actions to themselves.
on April 19, 2013
I've read my share of books written by veterans of the recent wars. And I'll admit that these books, apart from news reports, really help me to understand what's going on and have done an excellent job capturing the idiosyncrasies of American culture over the last decade or so. But at some point, it seems the glorification of these types of novels has gone too far and praise has been given where it's not truly deserved. There were passages of this novel I really enjoyed, and I don't think it's a horrible book. But I don't think an honest appraisal can say it was well written or really offered any insights that aren't well-trodden at this point. As callous as it may sound, possessing this unique experience does not mean you should be given a book deal. I enjoyed Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain much more than this novel, and felt that Fountain did a much better job encapsulating what these wars have meant on a national level, not just to a certain individual.
The friend who encouraged me to read this book swears that it is not a war novel. I can't think why not. From its very first scene, as a group of US soldiers huddle on as rooftop in Tal Afar in Northern Iraq, red-eyed from a 72-hour deployment, it is grounded in the grit and texture of the Second Gulf War. Even more than Helen Benedict's impressive SAND QUEEN (the only other book I have read about that war), Powers conveys what it was like to serve and survive in that dust and heat, facing an ill-defined and elusive enemy, in a way than no amount of television reporting managed to do. As well he might, for he was there.
Perhaps my friend meant that this is not a book about ground gained and battles won. It is a grunt's-eye view, going from day to day with no concern for the overall picture, and surprisingly no heroics. When, towards the end, a major arrives to distribute medals and citations, the exhausted soldiers are too indifferent even to come to proper order. In many ways, this is a small book, at least in the Iraq scenes, which take place in a small area over a short period of time and essentially concern only three soldiers: John Bartle, his buddy Murph, and Sterling their battle-hardened sergeant. But to call it small is to miss its moral implications, which are immense. And even here, Powers' concern is human, not political; he is not interested in denouncing the folly of this particular war, except by implication, by showing the toll it takes on a single serviceman and those nearest to him. Before shipping out, Bartle makes a rash promise to Murph's mother that he will bring her boy home. As we learn early on, he will fail to do so. Shorn of its details, that is the entire story, but it is enormous.
One of Powers' most brilliant strokes is to alternate scenes in Iraq with those in Germany and Virginia as Bartle finally comes home. Finally? No, for there is nothing final about the trauma that John Bartle suffers, alienating him from his mother and former friends. But nothing is overstated; these are gentle rural scenes that nonetheless speak volumes, such as one picture of young men and women (John's former classmates) swimming from some rocks while John walks naked into the river lower down. Meanwhile back in Iraq, we come closer to the day of Murph's death, and the events that will so affect Private Bartle and Sergeant Sterling. They are horrible, yes, but no worse than much else we have read about that war. And what John suffers from in himself is not the discovery of some latent brutality, but simply the consequences of his humanity.
And that perhaps is ultimately what my friend meant in not calling it a war novel. This is a deeply human book, and also an unbearably poetic one (Powers went on to become Michener Fellow in Poetry at UT Austin). Let me end with a vignette. Murph has taken to going up to the casualty clearing section to watch from the distance a young female medic... "That place, those little tents at the top of the hill, the small area where she was; it might have been the last habitat for gentleness and kindness that we'd ever know. So it made sense to watch her softly sobbing in the open space of a dusty piece of ground. And I understood why he came and why I couldn't go, not just then at least, because one never knows if what one sees will disappear forever."