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Sparta: A Novel Hardcover – June 4, 2013

4.4 out of 5 stars 81 customer reviews

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Four girls on a trip to Paris suddenly find themselves in a high-stakes game of Truth or Dare that spirals out of control. Learn More
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Robinson tells tales of psychic maladies with spellbinding intensity and acute insight. In Cost (2008), she explored drug addiction; here, she occupies the PTSD-assaulted mind of an Iraq War veteran. Conrad had everything going for him as the oldest child in a loving and achieving Westchester County family. Smart, handsome, poised, and enthralled by his college studies as a classics major, he decides to seek his own Sparta by joining the marines, thus shocking his “bookish and liberal” parents. A kind and devoted officer, Conrad is appalled to find himself not in a noble and orderly military realm but, rather, in a morass of chaos, terror, futility, and crimes against humanity. Safely home at last, he is determined to restart his life, but all his discipline and training prove worthless in contending with searing insomnia, debilitating headaches, and ungovernable anger, fear, and hypervigilance. A war hero who now feels threatened in his boyhood bedroom, let alone on the jostling, hurrying streets of New York City, Conrad seeks treatment from the VA only to become ensnarled in another form of combat. Robinson’s diligently researched and profoundly realized tale of a warrior’s trauma and his family’s struggle to help him is a beautifully incisive, respectful, suspenseful, and indicting drama of our failure to grasp the full toll of war. --Donna Seaman


“One of the many strengths of this engaging story is that Robinson doesn't treat post-traumatic stress disorder with that nifty abbreviation, PTSD, neatly buttoning it in place. Instead, she shows us a more insidious, layered and complex mix of debilitating psychological wounds, many of them sharpened by the stonishing contrast between driving the explosive roads of a war zone and walking down a crowded New York street.” ―The New York Times

Digital Age with Jim Zirin: www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeN1w8v0rzQ” ―Jim Zirin, Digital Age

“The great power of the novel lies in its ability to make Conrad into something both idiosyncratic and authentic, but at the same time, indicative of much larger truths.” ―Los Angeles Review of Books

“Roxana Robinson's Sparta delicately explores the fissures between the military experience and civilian life with this portrait of a liberal northeastern family and what happens when their son, a young Marine lieutenant, returns home from Iraq irrevocably changed. This book is not simply about war, but about the horror and enforced isolation of trauma, the inevitable merging of the personal and the political, and the possibilities and trials found within the bonds of familial and romantic love.” ―Phil Klay, author of "Redeployment"

“Roxana Robinson's Sparta is a feat of the imagination. Vividly and with unflinching wisdom, Robinson has given voice, substance, and profound reality to her protagonist, Conrad Farrell of the Marine Corps--and in so doing, to thousands of veterans like him.” ―Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor's Children

Sparta gives us an unflinching portrayal of the costs of war, costs that go far beyond what the tallies of killed and wounded can tell us. There are plenty of losses that can be measured only in the language of the spirit, and it's books such as this one, necessary books, that guide us to a fuller appreciation of war's costs.” ―Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

“One of our best writers.” ―The Washington Post on Roxana Robinson

“Both lyrical and unsentimental, richly honest and humane.” ―The Wall Street Journal on Roxana Robinson

“An intelligent, sensitive analyst of family life.” ―Chicago Tribune on Roxana Robinson


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books (June 4, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374267707
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374267704
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #753,228 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Margaret S. Verble on June 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I ordered this book without knowing the subject matter because I've admired the author's work for some time. Then I discovered it's a close-up portrait of an Iraqi War vet. Not really my cup of tea. I looked at the cover for a couple of days. Then I braced myself and took the plunge. I was hooked by page 2. Couldn't stop reading it. Even read it at a conference below the table -- particularly embarrassing behavior because I often speak at conferences and hate that kind of rudeness. But I couldn't help myself. Roxana Robinson has, in Conrad Farrell, created a character so compelling that you want to be with him on every page, even when he's acting like a jerk. She's done this with beautiful language, and, clearly, a lot of research. This is a book on a subject of great consequence in both the private and public realms. We really need to reward our novelists who dig deeply emotionally, display intellectual rigor and write about things that matter, especially when they do so in such a readable way. I hope this book wins major awards. It deserves to.
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When I returned home Vietnam in 1970, authors had begun telling the Vietnam experience. Michael Herr, Larry Heinemann, Neil Sheehan, Bobby Jo Mason, Rick Atkinson, Gloria Emerson, David Halberstam, Ward Just, James Webb, Frances Fitzgerald, Tim O'Brien and many others tried through literature to understand a war that was long, horrific, misunderstood, so wrong and, in 1970, still going on. I was an infantryman and I have always felt that no author re-created the experience of Vietnam for the infantryman as well as Tim O'Brien in The Things They Carried.

Now we have a new classic. Roxana Robinson in Sparta has accomplished an understanding of PTSD with such intricate complexity that the book amazed me.

The author takes us on a journey through the life of the returning soldier, Marine Lieutenant Conrad Farrell, who joined the military after studying classics at Williams College. We are introduced to the history of Sparta, its connection to Farrell's classics studies and the enlistee's unusual decision to serve a higher purpose by joining the Marines. This naïve patriotism/idealism sired by the Greek classics rebounded on him and his family in ways that he never could have understood before his enlistment unless, of course, if he had read the Vietnam classics.

Farrell becomes an officer at Quantico where he begins to learn the art of shunning those who do not fit in. The military teaches you to despise before it teaches you to kill. If it does not teach that lesson well, a soldier cannot kill and expect to ever again regain a measure of mental stabily. Robinson describes this in one amazing narration.

Conrad's training leads him to Iraq in the years between 2003-2006 where he is subjected to the trauma of war as a victim and an avid participant.
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This is a tough read. Not because it's poorly written,because it is not. It is an unflinching look at a returning Iraq war veteran and his struggle with PTSD, with as graphic descriptions as I have read. It is a first person narrative,but the author offers enough third party impressions to allow you to see the impact of the narrator's behaviors. It is heartbreaking,in almost every way possible,but does offer a bit of light at the end. The author has done a real service in offering an understandable,empathetic and readable story that may help us appreciate what these men and women have been through and continue to experience. I served during the Vietnam era (not in combat) and have an inkling of the issues. My father fought in the Pacific for two years in WWII and two more in Korea and could never talk about his experience beyond bare facts. This book gives some insight as to why. If you want to read another account of similar experiences told from a different perspective, try "The Yellow Birds".
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Interspersed in the early chapters of this book, we are taught how this instinct is subverted in the military world. Sparta was the the most successful warrior culture in history. All of its culture was involved in the evolution and the deployment of the warrior. Boys were taken into training at the age of eight, and stayed in the world of man till marriage at thirty. In the end, the culture failed because of falling birth rates and the collapse of the society underpinning the Spartan supremacy. But it lasted longer than our country to date.

Now a volunteer military fights the wars of the marginal wars. They are admired and honored as the heroes of our culture, but the culture has no idea of their missions and lives in combats. Iraq is portrayed as a war that destroyed a culture and a country. Politics are touched upon, but more centrally developed is the impact of an overwhelming modern force on the lives of the villages and local insurgencies. It is a war demanding the soldier, or in this case Marine, dehumanize the enemy. It is a war that fuses units into families that surge together in missions holding threat at every turn. It is a war that exposes the soul to images of innocent death of enemy and ally. Life is lived on the edge.

What happens when such a man returns home? Cal has been the shining boy, and mistakes the pre-9/11 Marines as a step of demarcation to enter the world of man. Instead he returns four years later at home nowhere. As a therapist, I have met these men. As a reader, it deepens the conundrum of the boy made to kill who returns to a naive and ill guarded peacetime society. He is from an empathetic and liberal family who struggles at every point to meet him and his needs.
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