Contemporary Fiction

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

Heft by Liz Moore

Book cover for HEFT by Liz Moore
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Liz Moore’s Heft is about weights both literal and figurative. It’s about people struggling to survive unfortunate circumstances and bad personal choices. What does one do when the weight of not fitting in, the weight of poverty, or the weight of loneliness sits too heavily? Heft explores how people try to hide pain from others, out of fear of rejection, and how sometimes—just sometimes—that fear isn’t necessary.

The Lies We Tell to Protect Ourselves

Heft is told from two first-person perspectives. There’s Arthur Opp, a former university teacher who, after years of emotional overeating, is morbidly obese and living in a depressing spiral of loneliness, clutter, and agoraphobia. Then there’s “Kel” Keller. Kel is a stressed out, poverty-stricken teenager who has drawn one of life’s shorter straws but hopes to make it big as a baseball player. Both Arthur and Kel are victims of circumstances beyond their control, sometimes as much as they are victims of their own bad choices. For a while, neither of them wants to face this reality. Life, of course, forces them to do so.

Arthur and Kel are connected by the tiny thread that is Charlene, Kel’s alcoholic mother and Arthur’s former student, long-time pen pal, and only love. Like Arthur, Charlene never quite “fits in” to life, and the two have always understood and loved each other through their awkward isolation. As the years pass, however, their relationship deteriorates until they are mere pen pals, safely lying to each other from a distance, even as their lives fall apart. Arthur lies about his employment and weight and spins tales about a busy social life. Charlene lies about her marriage and health and never mentions she has a son.

When the weight of illness becomes too much for Charlene, her lies are the first to unravel. As the truth comes out, Arthur is newly determined to take control of his life, even as Kel is just trying to hold on to the pieces of his.

Following Arthur and Kel as they discover Charlene’s secrets and learn how to cope with the truth—their own and hers—makes for a very good read. Nothing is easy in Heft. Each character is fighting his or her own fight, and you’re never quite sure if they’re going to come out on top. When they don’t, it’s heartbreaking.

The side characters of Heft are worthy of praise as well. Yolanda, the young woman who cleans Arthur’s house and becomes his one real-life friend, provides a nice side plot to the overall story that reveals a lot about Arthur’s personality. And Kel’s friend, the popular, pretty, and affluent Lindsay, is one of the best portrayals of a kindhearted teen girl I’ve seen in a while. (Popular, pretty girls are often portrayed as monsters in books.)

My sole complaint comes down to a matter of technique. Authors who write novels with two first-person perspectives are always taking a great risk. Unfortunately, both Arthur and Kel write ungrammatical, choppy fragments that sound awfully similar, and during the first few pages of Kel’s point of view, I was actually unaware that Moore had switched to a new character at all. The most obvious differences between the two characters’ narratives are in how Arthur, unlike Kel, rarely writes “and,” instead favoring ampersands (&), and how Kel has a tendency to curse, while Arthur does not. (Goodreads reviewer, Jill, has a great theory as to why this is.)

This technical flaw is a pity, as Moore does manage to juggle Arthur and Kel’s personalities—they are clearly two different characters with different ideas, hopes, fears, and so on—but I would have liked to have seen more than cosmetic differences their writing styles. It’s not something that will bother everyone, of course, and none of this is to say you shouldn’t read this book. You should.

Heft closes on a surprisingly positive note, begging for readers to believe in a brighter tomorrow for Arthur, Kel, and all others who believe they face uphill battles alone.

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Quotes from Heft

The whole thing smells like strawberries or the sick sweet plastic of a doll.

Normally I don’t skip ahead in my life but this is what Pells Landing does to a person: makes him dream of the future, of a huge rambling house and dogs named Angelo and Maxie and of having a baby boy and naming him after yourself. Of having a real job. Of richness, unbearable richness.

I have always loved aggrieved & unbeautiful women. I have always loved beautiful women too, but it is the unbeautiful ones that haunt me & find me & abide, whose images I see before me when I go to sleep.

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.

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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 1, 2013

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Book cover for BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver
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When Samantha “Sam” Kingston dies in a car crash, she finds herself reliving the same day, her last day, over and over again. In her efforts to get time and her life back on track, she finally sees how much pain she and her friends have caused others. Will she be able to fix what she’s broken?

Mean Girls Meets Groundhog Day

Sam is a bully, a mean girl. With her friends, she rules the popular roost of Connecticut’s Thomas Jefferson High School. It hasn’t always been this way, though.

Sam knows what it’s like to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder, to be the butt of the joke, and she knows how precarious her position at the top is. It can depend on something as seemingly unimportant and random as a girl grabbing her hand and asking her to join in on a practical joke. Knowing this is what makes Sam all the more desperate to remain on top, no matter what it takes. If that means calling girls “sluts” or “bitches” or “psychos,” so be it. If it means sabotaging others, cheating on tests, and lying, she’s in.

The way Sam and her friends bully their fellow classmates is real and raw and had me cringing over things I remember happening in my own high school. Author Lauren Oliver is fairly quick to get to the root of bullying, that it always goes back to some personal fear or pain. Teens spread rumors so no one will notice their own flaws and secrets. That’s an important lesson for young readers who may be used to seeing the black and white view of bullies versus “nice kids.” It’s more complex than that, and Oliver embraces the complexity.

There’s a lot of Mean Girls to be found in this book—enough that I sometimes wondered just how much Before I Fall was inspired by that film—but it ultimately goes to much deeper, darker places, to the twisted and truly cruel games some are willing to play.

Freshman year Lindsay somehow found out that Juliet hadn’t been sent a single [rose for Valentine’s Day]. Not one. So Lindsay put a note on one of her roses and duct-taped it on Juliet’s locker. The note said: Maybe next year, but probably not.

When Sam finds herself caught in her own version of purgatory / Groundhog Day after a fatal car accident, she at first doesn’t take the hint. She continues to plow her way through people, doing and saying as she pleases, regardless of the harm she might cause. Sam eventually sees the error of her ways, though, and tries to fix all she’s broken or helped break. Deep down, she knows this is the only way she and those she’s hurt will find peace.

I like the book up to this point, but the conclusion muddles Oliver’s messages. What Sam decides she needs to do to make things right makes no sense and would actually have lasting, negative consequences. She decides to sacrifice herself for another person. Because doing that won’t cause any lasting damage, right? Worse, the resolution, if it can be called that, leaves many other problems hanging. There’s no resolving all the slut- and virgin-shaming. Issues concerning drunk driving, eating disorders, date rape, predatory math teachers, and more hang as loose ends. And Sam never even begins to get her friends, who have always joined in on the bullying, to change their ways.

Sam maybe couldn’t fix all the problems mentioned in the book, but some of the issues Oliver raises here are huge, and it doesn’t feel right that so many are never properly addressed. If we aren’t going to censor YA novels—and I absolutely do not think we should—then authors of these books have some duty to address the more complex subjects they let surface in their writing.

In a similar vein, there’s a boy, Kent McFuller, in all this, because it’s apparently impossible to write books for girls without some romance. Kent’s my other complaint. (The characterization of boys in Before I Fall is extremely lacking.) Kent’s thankfully not “the bad boy” Sam shouldn’t want but “can’t help” but want; in fact, he’s the really kindhearted boy. The problem, instead, is that he shouldn’t like Sam at all. It takes an absurd amount of cruelty—of abuse—for Kent to even remotely consider disliking Sam. If we’re going to complain about the young adult books where nice girls go for bad boys and put up with their abuse, I feel obligated to complain about the young adult books where nice boys go for bad girls and their abuse.

Before I Fall is a pretty good book, even if Oliver creates a big story with lots of problems that aren’t ultimately set straight. The characters and dialogue go a long way to salvaging everything, and there are still a few valuable lessons to be found here.

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Quotes from Before I Fall

Popularity’s a weird thing. You can’t really define it, and it’s not cool to talk about it, but you know it when you see it. Like a lazy eye, or porn.

She starts rolling another spliff, carefully balancing her life studies packet on her lap to use as a tray. (Side note: so far I’ve seen the life studies packet used as (1) an umbrella, (2) a makeshift towel, (3) a pillow, and now this. I have never actually seen anyone study with it, which either means that everyone who graduates from Thomas Jefferson will be totally unprepared for life or that certain things can’t be learned in bullet-point format.)

This is pretty much the answer to every problem you encounter in suburbia: plant a tree, and hope you don’t see anyone’s privates.

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