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Customer Review

on September 15, 2012
I bought Yellow Birds because it was mentioned favorably in "Time" magazine. The reviewer gave me the impression the book was essentially a traditional war novel which generally combines coming of age within the horror of war. Nick Arvin did a remarkable job depicting the life of a soldier in World War Two in "Articles of War". "Matterhorn" is a novel in that mode and was engrossing, displaying both grim detail and dark humor to create a very believable experience of the Vietnam conflict. I served in Vietnam, flew helicopters there, and the book captured the experience grippingly. Thus I came to this book with the expectation of the same type of exposure to another one of our mistaken wars. Vietnam was fought by a different generation by soldiers drafted into an unpopular war. The current conflicts are now fought exclusively by volunteers. Perhaps that difference explains a subtle yet significant difference in the portrayal of the conflicts. Perhaps choosing mitigates the horror to which you've been exposed, and blunts the outrage. Who knows?
Unfortunately what I read seemed a dreamy exercise in self indulgence. The author both served in Iraq and earned a MFA (apparently with an emphasis in poetry) from the University of Texas. No doubt the man can write. His description of the experience of combat as being akin to the moment in an auto accident between understanding what has happened and the impact was brilliant.
But, sadly, I never became engaged with any of the characters and thus did not really care what happened to private Bartle or his friend Murphy. Their friendship seemed false from the beginning and never developed into anything deeper. Plot points were also not convincing. SPOILER ALERT For example the mutilation of a body (and the concern a parent would open the coffin) becomes the reason for the climactic events in the war zone. Maybe things have changed, but in Vietnam certain coffins were sent home sealed with the warning not to view the remains. And most concerning the abrupt murder of an innocent Iraqi is provided as a shock, but then not followed with any apparent effect on the moral issues of the book.
The writing itself lacked precision. Rather than dig into the characters Mr. Powers chose instead to tell us what to feel and often in vague sentences such as: "Clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed." This had the effect of distancing me from the events and lead to confusion. I'm not sure, for example, whether the final scene in Iraq took place at night, or morning, or both. The scene starts out in a "...city, past curfew,..." and at least two references to lit streetlights. Yet, a few pages later action occurred "....in the heat of late morning." I missed any transition indicating the squad (or company?)had stayed out overnight.
If you enjoy sentences like this one describing the appearance of an alley: "In the dark, a swallow illustrated the turns with its call's echo." You may enjoy this book. But frankly I thought the false tone of the story belied its impact. It may be that I missed some illusive point; I looked for it. Instead the book left me empty and a bit annoyed, particularly in light of my expectations. I wish Mr. Powers all the luck on his literary career, but for me, a good story, well told, is the reason I read, and this book did not provide that at all.
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