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Customer Review

308 of 335 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, August 22, 2012
This review is from: The Yellow Birds (Paperback)
This is a superb, moving and insightful book about war and its effects on the men and women who take part in it. The author, Kevin Powers, is a veteran of Iraq in 2004 where this book is set and is now a poet. This combination of first-hand experience and ability with language coupled with great insight and honesty creates something quite remarkable.

The book is narrated in the first person by private John Bartle on his first tour of duty in Iraq. The language is heightened throughout, often poetic and sometimes almost hallucinatory. The timescale moves between his time in Iraq, his pre-tour training and his homecoming and after. The story is really that of Bartle's psychological journey and is quite stunning in its evocation of the war itself and of the state of mind of the young man who went through it. It is deceptively quiet in tone with even the violent action (of which there is relatively little) described without hysteria, and this lends it a remarkable power to convey things like fear, exhaustion, the rush of excitement and the dreadful problems of reintegrating once home.

All this may sound forbidding, turgid or preachy but it isn't at all. This is an engrossing, readable book which is quite short but has immense impact and which will stay with me for a very long time. I think this genuinely belongs among great war books such as All Quiet On the Western Front and Dispatches. I could give a long list of examples of how thoughtful, insightful and honest it is, but I will just say that I recommend that you read it. It is truly exceptional and you will never forget it.
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Tracked by 9 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 6, 2012 3:30:14 PM PDT
Martin Zook says:

Thanks for your review.

There are a number of things about this book that I find fundamentally lacking, starting with this:

"This is a superb, moving and insightful book about war and its effects on the men and women who take part in it."

This kind of perspective on war makes it sound like a football match. The players participate. And, we watch.

Those who bear the brunt of war are women and children, who likely really had no say about going to war, and if they did support going to war, did so with little or no understanding of what they were doing.

I've read the excerpt offered by Amazon, read the review in the NYTimes, and am underwhelmed for the reason cited above.

I'm no fan of O'Brien's work and did get a sense of it from the excerpt.

But allow me to take you to task for, like others, dragging All Quiet on the Western Front into this. AQWF is a profound book about war that is withstanding the test of time because it understands that soldiers are the least of war.

It seems to me that Yellow Birds is not up to comparison with AQWF for the simple reason that it fails to even ask the question, "why should a German tinker want to shoot a French baker?" This is the question that AQWF asks and that any book about war must at least ask, and hopefully try to answer, at least in my eye. I say try because 48 years after reading AQWF I have yet to come across an answer to that question, leading me to believe that there is no answer.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 6, 2012 11:50:55 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 6, 2012 11:51:36 PM PDT
Sid Nuncius says:
Hi, Martin.

Thanks for taking the trouble to post such a thoughtful comment. I see what you mean but I can't really agree with you.

On the subject of AQOTWF, I didn't mean to compare it to The Yellow Birds because of its content but because of the quality of its writing and its insight. You are right that TYB doesn't ask quite the same questions - but then it doesn't set out to. (Nor do many other great war books.) It does give a compassionate, thoughtful and penetrating portrait of the mentality and motivations of a soldier in Iraq, though, and I think it is very profound in what it tells us.

If I have given the impression that TYB it has a "football match" perspective , I apologise - one of the book's great achievements is its personal immediacy and the powerful sense of what it was like to be there.

I do agree about the brunt of war being borne by the non-combatants. Powers certainly doesn't avoid it (there are some very moving scenes about just that) but it isn't the main focus of the book. I don't think that's really a fault in the book; it just means that the author's attention here is on the combatants and the personal effect their experiences have on them. For me anyway, that's a perfectly valid topic to address.

I think you may be looking for a different book from this. This won't answer your questions nor address the political aspects of civilian involvement. It does something different and I think it does it superbly.

I hope that's helpful. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts so courteously.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 5, 2012 12:51:19 PM PDT
kevnm says:
You're very patient to debate the merits of the novel with someone who hasn't read it, and is already blaming it for not expressing his views. It sounds as if he would do well to simply read his favorite war novel over and over, to assure never having to confront a new, original or fresh viewpoint.

Posted on Oct 14, 2012 7:28:04 PM PDT
The yellow birds of the title refers to an Army marching song: "Yellow Bird"

A yellow bird
with a yellow bill
Was sittin' on
my window sill
I lured him in
with a piece of bread
And then I smashed
his little head
The doctor came
to check his head
"Indeed" he said
"this bird is dead"
The moral of
this story, you see
If you're a bird
Don't mess with me!

The yellow birds in the novel are the narrator and his friend--crushed either physically or mentally by their war.

Posted on Nov 13, 2012 4:55:45 PM PST
Sid, Thank you for your thoughtful review. I am saddened that Martin's remarks about your review of this novel, he hasn't bothered to read, brought you to defend your opinion of this National Book Award nominee. As you may know by now, Tom Wolfe has called THE YELLOW BIRDS "the ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT of our time." I take the words of Wolfe over any casual readers; and trust the impact of Kevin Powers' words has had on anyone who actually read them. KEVMN finds your patience remarkable. I agree. Martin makes a claim this succinct, first-time outing by this masterful poet reduces the experience to a "football match. . . we watch". His perspective appears to be self pleasure, spending more time at his own keyboard than the time it took to read the excerpt. I loved this book. More than any other that attempts to define that war, I could feel in myself the full, racing heart of this soldier.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 13, 2012 11:52:10 PM PST
Sid Nuncius says:
Hi, Beatnik. Thanks for your kind comments.

As to patience, it seems to me that Martin expressed his view perfectly courteously and backed his points with reasoned arguments. I don't agree with what he said, but surely that's what books do - they generate different responses in different people (even when some may not have read the whole thing) and discussing those different responses is a part of the pleasure of reading. I find that a courteous response to those with whom I disagree is far more likely to generate an interesting or productive discussion, and anyway I thoroughly dislike being involved in ill-tempered arguments. To be honest, I find it rather distressing that the default response on the internet often seems to be aggression and abuse when any difference of view emerges. People have a perfect right to disagree with me (as I have to disagree with them) and provided they do it reasonably and with a modicum of politeness it seems to me that the appropriate response is also reason and politeness.

Gosh - that reads like a sermon! I didn't mean it to. Apologies for rambling.
Kind regards

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 14, 2012 8:45:15 AM PST
kevnm says:
You're very gracious, Sid, and I admire your generosity of spirit. Still, I couldn't take seriously any comments from someone who prefaced his remarks with, "I've read the excerpt offered by Amazon, read the review in the NYTimes."

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 18, 2012 2:23:08 PM PST
budababy says:
There was also the mention of the canaries brought out of the coal mines, who didn't know what to do with their freedom and stayed with their cages instead.

Posted on Dec 12, 2012 4:58:39 PM PST
Sid, I think you have done an excellent job of pinpointing the qualities that make this book so special, including its surprising quietness. While your tolerance of other points of view is admirable, nobody can remake a book into what was never intended to be. Roger.

Posted on Jan 14, 2015 2:06:45 PM PST
horrible book.....The author talks and talks and talks throwing in so many adverbs, adjectives and anecdotes all based on a very basic story. It in 230 pages of words describing a story that could have been described with 40.
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