Men Writing

Nov 1, 2013

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Book cover for THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers
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U.S. Army Private John Bartle has returned home from Iraq—physically, not mentally. Having done a tour in one of the deadliest cities for American soldiers in the Iraq War, Bartle is lucky to be alive. But does agonizing over a haunted past count as living?

A Poetic Exploration of PTSD

For those who might need a reminder that war is indeed hell, there is The Yellow Birds by Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers. Like most war fiction that focuses on characters who’ve returned home from war, Yellow Birds is about the confusion of war and the pain caused by post-traumatic stress and reverse culture shock. You will have seen this story before about different men and women—about different places, times, and wars. What makes Yellow Birds stand out from many of the others is Kevin Powers’ poetic, concise writing. There’s no padding for comfort here. Everything is bare and raw like a fresh wound.

The book opens with two quotes, one a U.S. Army marching chant about a yellow bird (thus the book title), the other a quote from Sir Thomas Browne:

To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.

The irony here, of course, is that post-traumatic stress does keep sorrows “raw by the edge of repetitions,” which is what this book is about partly. When Private John Bartle returns home from Iraq, he’s unable to stop reliving the events that took place before, during, and directly after his time there. In particular, he can’t let go of Daniel “Murph” Murphy, a fellow private he somewhat carelessly promised to look out for. Murph became an unexpected friend, who Bartle now feels he failed. Desperate for relief from what turns into a living, endless nightmare, Bartle withdraws from society and self-medicates with alcohol. His mind skirts around painful memories but subjects him to others. He is never free.

I remember feeling relief in basic while everyone else was frantic with fear. It had dawned on me that I’d never have to make a decision again. That seemed freeing, but it gnawed at some part of me even then. Eventually, I had to learn that freedom is not the same thing as the absence of accountability.

There’s a sense of randomness that clings to this story and Bartle, and not every reader will like that. It’s the randomness of enlisting on a whim, of making impromptu promises one can’t possibly keep, of war itself. If you’re looking for answers, for a clear beginning, middle, and end, this is not the book for you. There are no answers, and one moment bleeds into another like the hues in a watercolor painting. This is an existential journey.

Powers’ stylistic choices won’t be to everyone’s liking, either, but they shouldn’t be misunderstood, as they are perhaps the least random element found in Yellow Birds. Powers uses nonlinear storytelling to show the reader what post-traumatic stress is like, first-hand. Chapter one opens to Iraq in September 2004. Chapter two jumps to New Jersey in December 2003. There’s Germany in March 2005 for chapter three. And so on. You read exactly as Bartle’s mind wanders, yo-yo like, from the past to the present. Pain and regrets surface in bursts of depression, anger, and regret. Bartle is rarely, if ever, telling you about the past. He’s showing it to you as he agonizes over it and relives it.

I’ve read articles and studies about post-traumatic stress, and a few fictional works I’ve read have included characters suffering from PTSD, but I think Powers’ style in Yellow Birds does a much better job of presenting the obsession, fear, and depression that are tied up in PTSD. (Aside: The best auditory exploration of PTSD I’ve encountered is from NPR’s This American Life.) Some readers express frustration over Bartle’s inability to stay objective and focused. But Bartle is a slave to his past and unable to be a “normal” person.

I had become a kind of cripple. They were my friends, right? Why didn’t I just wade out to them? What would I say? “Hey, how are you?” they’d say. And I’d answer, “I feel like I’m being eaten from the inside out and I can’t tell anyone what’s going on because everyone is so grateful to me all the time and I’ll feel like I’m ungrateful or something. Or like I’ll give away that I don’t deserve anyone’s gratitude and really they should all hate me for what I’ve done but everyone loves me for it and it’s driving me crazy.” Right.

Powers doesn’t want you to understand war, even if it can be understood. He wants you to understand the isolated soldier with invisible wounds.

You have to be in the right frame of mind to read Yellow Birds. It’s a short book—around 240 pages in paperback—and it has a rather small, unsurprising plot, but it still took me a while to read and process. It packs a punch. It should.

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Quotes from The Yellow Birds

War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not.

He had nothing to fear. He’d been invincible, absolutely, until the day we was not.

I thought of my grandfather’s war. How they had destinations and purpose. How the next day we’d march out under a sun hanging low over the plains in the east. We’d go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of season. We’d drive them out. We always had. We’d kill them. They’d shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they’d come back, and we’d start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we’d throw candy to their children with whom we’d fight in the fall a few more years from now.

Aug 1, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Book cover for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green
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In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are two smart, sassy teenagers who have managed to stay one half-step ahead of the Grim Reaper. After meeting at a cancer support group, they quickly form a strong bond. Through each other, they experience a world beyond illness.

A Book About Teens (Who Don’t Act Like Teens) That Teens Will Like

If you don’t know who the Green brothers are, you’re missing out. Simply put, they’re good people who are trying to make the world a better place. I regularly direct young adults to the Crash Course channel on YouTube, where John and Hank Green make subjects like history, chemistry, and literature fun and accessible for the masses. I listen to their podcast. You could say I have a major nerd crush on the Greens and their efforts. Unfortunately, that’s problematic when it comes to reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

In my experience, it’s almost as difficult to read books by the people you like as it is to read books by the people you don’t like. I’ve avoided Green’s young adult novels for years now because I’ve always thought, “How could his writing not disappoint? I expect too much.” But I couldn’t ignore all the positive reviews and five-star ratings for The Fault in Our Stars. I gave in and read the book. I’m glad I did, if for no other reason than it was past time I tried one of Green’s novels. I would be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed, as I always feared I would be.

Don’t get me wrong. There are positive things I can say about this book. For one, Green manages to take on the heart and soul of a teenage girl to write her first-person perspective in a believable way, which is a difficult enough task for grown women, let alone grown men. (Hazel’s friend, Kaitlyn, doesn’t manage to escape stereotyping, though, which is probably why she disappears from the film adaptation of this book.) Then, considering The Fault in Our Stars is about young people with cancer, it can be surprisingly funny, at least if you enjoy dark humor.

Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.

The plot isn’t full of surprises. It’s small and obvious enough that anything beyond a summary is likely to give away major plot points. And The Fault in Our Stars won’t be a thought-provoking commentary on death for most adults. However, the scope of the plot and its themes seem appropriate for Green’s intended teenage audience. I can imagine it’s helped some young people examine or even cope with cancer and death, which makes the book special and important in its own way.

As with all writing, though, The Fault in Our Stars has its flaws. Most of its issues are minor, probably a matter of opinion, but I struggled to accept the dialogue—a surprise, given that the dialogue was what I had assumed I would enjoy most from Green.

The problem lies in how Hazel and Augustus are meant to be more mature than average teenagers because of their experiences. It’s a reasonable enough notion, but how this is executed in dialogue doesn’t work for me. Both characters are prone to world-weary, existential, lengthy monologues that are awkward and contrived.

Teenagers, no matter how mature, do not sound like well-rehearsed Moth storytellers or TED Talk presenters—neither do adults, for that matter. No one is poetic on the fly. Sure, readers don’t want the “ums” and “uhs” and the disjointed mayhem of real speech, but it never feels right to read perfectly formed sentences, either.

Everything gets especially ridiculous when Hazel and Augustus interact with each other, as they do during much of the book. I’ll just leave this quote from Augustus here:

“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”

Prince is judging you.

I can almost taste the cheese.

Augustus comes with the additional flaw of being less “wise beyond his years” than self-aware to the point of absurdity.

“I’m just kidding, Dad. I like the freaking Encouragements. I really do. I just can’t admit it because I’m a teenager.”

“Hazel Grace, you are the only teenager in America who prefers reading poetry to writing it.”

Hashtag ThingsTeenagersWouldNeverSay.

Hazel manages to avoid the worst of the dialogue problems, but Augustus is full of this stuff, to the point that I disliked his character. I wish I could say otherwise.

The Fault in Our Stars is far from unreadable, and obviously many people adore it, but I don’t think it’s the best young adult book around, and I suspect John Green can and will produce better work in the future. For the time being, I’ll stick to watching and recommending his videos.

Buy The Fault in Our Stars from Amazon or iTunes
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Quotes from The Fault in Our Stars

Mom reached up to this shelf above my bed and grabbed Bluie, the blue stuffed bear I’d had since I was, like, one–back when it was socially acceptable to name one’s friends after their hue.

People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.

“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”

Jul 1, 2013

Earth by David Brin

Book cover for EARTH by David Brin
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It’s the year 2038, and Earth ain’t doin’ so well. The planet is overheated and overpopulated. Economies have failed; income inequality is rampant. And somewhere, deep inside the earth, a technological innovation has gone awry as an artificial black hole may eat the planet from the inside out.

Hard Sci-Fi in a Nutshell

Earth was published in 1990, and it’s set in 2038. This dates the book occasionally, but, as with all aging science fiction, it’s interesting to see what the author was and wasn’t able to predict about our present. (Let’s all hope Brin’s completely wrong about future catastrophes involving black holes, though.) Old predictions about our present and future, however, no matter how intriguing or impressive, don’t necessarily breathe life into a story. When it comes to spirit, Earth is pretty much all “head” and no “heart.”

Brin is a scientist himself—according to his website, he’s even cowritten “NASA-funded studies with California Space Institute, regarding robotics & space station design” (so, like, wow)—and like many scientists who dabble in fiction, he journeys into the hard sci-fi genre, attempting to create plots that are theoretically possible, even if improbable.

This sort of writing isn’t for everyone, and it’s why there’s hardly any heart to Earth. It’s also why hard science fiction can sometimes seem preachy as an author tries to teach readers a lesson. It’s a genre where good characterization is frequently sacrificed at an altar of science, projected or pseudo. Earth does have its preachy moments—it would just about have to, given the book title—but it’s the characters who suffer most as Brin molds them from stereotypes (or obvious stereotype reversals) and dedicates the content of their thoughts and dialogue to awkward infodumps.

In my experience, these are expected shortcomings of the hard sci-fi genre, but Brin’s Earth faces a much more common problem seen in works from all genres of fiction: there are too many characters and subplots, and most prove to have no purpose. To me, this is unacceptable in a book that is seven hundred pages long. I can’t quite shake the feeling that Earth wasted a bit of my time, and that was with considerable skim-reading.

So what did I enjoy about Earth? I can answer that easily. Between some of the book’s chapters, you find nonfiction-styled excerpts that are about the state of the planet and society during various periods in (future) history. It comes as no surprise that Brin is better suited to nonfiction, and these bits and pieces turn out to be a much more interesting conduit for his predictions. If I could have read the entire story through a filter of these fictional articles and transcripts, my feelings about this book would likely be very different. As it is, though, these works were what kept me tolerating the rest of the book.

Whether you will like Earth or not depends upon how important quality characterization is to you and how much clichés—surprise, there are aliens—and a deus ex machina ending will bother you. As to that ending, I must quote a Goodreads reviewer’s comical thoughts:

Just be prepared to be disappointed by the ending. Just make up your own, and pretend like the written ending isn’t real.

If you can be satisfied with contemplating interesting scientific possibilities alone, you may find you’re able to overlook Earth‘s shortcomings. Some readers will no doubt love it.

If anything purely objective can be said of Brin’s writing, it’s probably that it’s a good example of what’s to be found in the hard science fiction genre. It plays well enough to its audience, but not everyone is part of that audience.

Buy Earth from Amazon or iTunes
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Quotes from Earth

Apocalypses, apparently, are subject to fashion like everything else. What terrifies one generation can seem obsolete and trivial to the next.

One of life’s joys was to have friends who gave you reality checks…who would call you on your crap before it rose so high you drowned in it.

…worried governments suddenly began pouring forth reams–whole libraries–of information they’d been hoarding, stumbling over themselves to prove they weren’t responsible for the sudden outbreak of gravitational war.

Jun 1, 2013

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

Book cover for THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK by Matthew Quick
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When Pat Peoples’ mother brings him home from the neural health facility, he sees it as a turning point in the “movie” of his life. Perpetually optimistic, he believes he will soon be reunited with his wife, Nikki. First, though, Pat knows he must continue to improve himself, to become the man Nikki always needed him to be. With the help of family, friends, and American football fans, Pat discovers life may not always go according to plan, but that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Stereotyping Abounds in Silver Linings

My review should be prefaced with the following:

  1. I read The Silver Linings Playbook because I knew the film adaptation was “about mental illness” and had been nominated for Best Picture in the Oscars.
  2. At the time of this review, I still had not watched a trailer for the film.
  3. I did not read a review or even a summary for this book prior to reading.

In short, I entered Silver Linings with very little knowledge of what it was about, and my review covers the confusion I felt while reading it.

In the first several pages of Silver Linings, author Matthew Quick sets the tone for the entire book: It’s to be one of those vague memory loss stories where the main character has to discover his own past. It’s here that you’re introduced to Pat Peoples’ stilted and juvenile, first-person narration, and I’ll admit I had no idea how I should view it.

Seemingly suffering from convenient memory loss, Pat strangely calls the neural health facility he’s lived in “the bad place” and refers to the separation from his wife, Nikki, as “apart time.” He struggles to understand certain emotions and has an almost childlike understanding of the world around him. Any negative reality is avoided in favor of the more hopeful “silver linings” of life. He occasionally has hallucinations involving Kenny G—seriously—which often result in violent outbursts. He’s prescribed numerous medications for his mental health, but no clear diagnosis is revealed.

Pat is neither a good main character nor an accurate portrayal of those who struggle with mental illness, neurological disorders, or traumatic brain injuries. There are times when Pat seems mentally handicapped (whether since birth or as a result of an accident, one can only guess for most of the book), clinically depressed, schizophrenic, or psychotic. In the first few pages, I even thought Pat’s stilted, aloof descriptions of his life were meant to indicate some form of autism.

In other words, Pat is whatever the author wants him to be in the moment, science and logic be damned. This is the sort of thing that happens after one watches half a dozen Hollywood films on memory loss and says, “What the hell? I’m pretty well a licensed psychiatrist now. Time to write that book.” And so Silver Livings seems to have been irresponsibly born to add to the plethora of poorly-researched media about the brain. Even once some minor explanations are given later in the book, not all of Pat’s problems can be attributed to them.

Silver Linings might be forgiven for its inaccuracies if you don’t care or know better, but the book has other problems as well. None of the characters ever quite come alive.

  • Pat’s mother comes closest to “popping” off the pages, but she’s less defined by her own actions than by the abusive and codependent relationship she finds herself in with Pat’s father.
  • There’s clinically depressed Tiffany, who doesn’t behave like any clinically depressed person I’ve ever known—and I’ve known a few—whose world revolves around Pat and a dance recital.
  • Cliff, Pat’s therapist, is defined by his love for football and the color of his skin (he’s a brown-skinned Indian! if you missed that, it’ll be mentioned again in a few pages).
  • Danny, one of Pat’s friends from “the bad place,” is mostly narrowed down to his blackness and just how stereotypical Quick can make him, but he “uncharacteristically” likes Parcheesi, so all the stereotyping is okay or something.
  • Pat’s brother, Jake, is only defined by his wealth, occasional violent outbursts or threatening behavior, and love for football.
  • Likewise, Pat’s father is known for his abusive nature and obsession with football.

You may have noticed a trend with the characterization of the men in this novel: they’re all big football fans. (Many of them also happen to be violent, encourage violence, or accept violence. Make of that what you will.) Pat’s (Quick’s) love for the NFL‘s Philadelphia Eagles is often used as a shorthand for adding depth to side characters. Nearly all the men—never the women—are passionate about football, enough so that they randomly chant team songs everywhere. I’ll admit that I don’t “get” watching sports, but I’ve lived around some pretty die-hard football fans, and never in my life have I seen people break into song as often as Quick’s characters do for the Eagles. Not only did this not add depth to the characters, it also quickly became repetitive and…um, weird.

Finally, Silver Linings‘ ending feels rushed, and loose ends remain for nearly all the characters. However, in Pat, Quick has created a character with numerous, severe problems that he then bestows an unrealistically positive ending upon. Pat eventually remembers his past, and of course the “silver linings” in his life aren’t exactly what he was expecting them to be, but he’s given some minor closure, which is more than can be said for several of the other characters. Still, it’s hard to care about any of it when you’re not sure what problems remain for Pat. There seem to be many.

At the very least, Pat needs to take a writing class to learn about the value of contractions because, Christ, he never uses them. Yes, that’s how I’m ending this review.

Aside #1: Probably in some attempt to make his book appear intellectual, Quick spoils a lot of the classics—Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Plath’s The Bell Jar, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—so if you haven’t read them, but plan to and hate spoilers, don’t read Silver Linings.

Aside #2: I eventually watched the movie. It made me want to throw things.

Buy The Silver Linings Playbook from Amazon or iTunes
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Quotes from The Silver Linings Playbook

After I returned to New Jersey, I thought I was safe, because I did not think Kenny G could leave the bad place, which I realize is silly now—because Kenny G is extremely talented and resourceful and a powerful force to be reckoned with.

He does the Eagles chant–“E!-A!-G!-L!-E!-S! EAGLES!”–which makes me laugh because he is my therapist and I did not know therapists could like NFL football.

…and I do wonder why women are always hemorrhaging in American literature.

May 29, 2013

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Book cover for MOTHER NIGHT by Kurt Vonnegut
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Mother Night is the first-person account of Harold W. Campbell, Jr., an American spy in World War II who has been so good at his job that he’s lost his own identity. Follow Campbell as he recounts the tangled web of his personal history as a writer, spy, Nazi propagandist, and more.

Spies Make for Unreliable Narrators

I’ve encountered passages from many Kurt Vonnegut books over the years, but Mother Night is the first book by Vonnegut that I’ve read in full. It’s Vonnegut’s most favorably rated book on Goodreads, so it seemed like a good place to start. However, in hindsight, and given my general dislike of World War II fiction, I probably should have stuck with Slaughterhouse Five. As much as I sometimes enjoyed Vonnegut’s ideas and famed dark humor, I was unable to grow attached to Mother Night‘s story or characters.

The story starts off by employing metafiction. Vonnegut describes himself as the editor, not the writer, of the novel’s first-person account. It’s mildly interesting, but this ultimately has little to no impact for the reader. Adding another layer to the onion doesn’t change the fact that you’ve got an onion.

Once you get past the intro, you meet Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the book’s first-person narrator. Campbell is awaiting trial in an Israeli prison for war crimes, specifically his involvement with Nazi Germany’s propaganda during World War II. While in prison, Campbell writes the story of his life, which is what you read in Mother Night. It’s the story of a man who has done both normal and questionable things. Throughout, Campbell claims he is an American spy who was embedded in the heart of the Nazi movement for a confusing mix of reasons. But is Campbell always telling the truth in his autobiography?

“How could I ever trust a man who’s been as good a spy as you have?” said Wirtanen. “Hmm?”

Can a man like Campbell even believe himself?

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Uncertainty is one of Mother Night‘s core elements. Is Campbell being truthful? Is Campbell good or evil? Can good or evil be defined at all—if so, how, to what extent, and by whom? In Campbell’s case, does truth matter if it’s not a truth everyone else believes?

As a fan of unreliable narration, I enjoyed Vonnegut’s exploration of these questions through Campbell. However, for me, there is something missing from Mother Night. These questions are intriguing, but they have no depth on their own. They must be asked and answered through characters you love (or hate), characters that make you feel something. Unfortunately, Howard W. Campbell’s narration is dry, at best, and the supporting cast, though sometimes well-described, never seem that meaningful. Considering Nazi death camps get a few mentions, I feel like I should have had a more visceral response to something in this book.

Perhaps it’s my own dislike for certain parts of Mother Night—the subject matter, the appearance of pointless metafiction—but, after a while, I found I didn’t quite care if Campbell was being honest or not. I didn’t care if he lived or died. I didn’t care if his various romances worked out because they were boring—or, worse, melodramatic—loves. I didn’t care about those who hated him because they didn’t matter. For me, Mother Night is one of those books where I realize the ideas and messages have value, but find they are ruined for me because the characters never take hold of my emotions.

Kurt Vonnegut’s famous saying from Slaughterhouse Five, which also makes an appearance in Mother Night, is “So it goes.” It’s a salty way of expressing the inevitable nature of things, usually death. C’est la vie. I think Mother Night can be boiled down to a couple of words, too: So what?

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Quotes from Mother Night

“You hate America, don’t you?”

“That would be as silly as loving it,” I said. “It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me…”

Most things in this world don’t work, but aspirin do.

His mother understood my illness immediately, that it was my world rather than myself that was diseased.

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