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.
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.
Above All Things follows the mountaineers of Britain’s 1924 Mount Everest expedition. In particular, it’s about the relationships between the men who dared to climb in conditions unfit for humans and about the people they left behind, back closer to sea level. If you don’t know much about this expedition or George Mallory, I urge you to read about them after you’ve read this book. It’ll be more fun that way.
Everest As Uncharted Territory
The Mount Everest of decades past had more in common with the deep, dark unknown of the ocean or the fiery belly of a volcano than with the rest of the earth that we know, inhabit, and call home. Today, Everest remains deadly and somewhat alien, but it’s not so unknown. Expensive commercial packages that include trained guides, state-of-the-art equipment, and an ample supply of food and oxygen enable novices to make the dangerous climb. This has turned Everest into a crowded, trash-ridden, feces-covered place. Each year, thousands ascend for bragging rights, meandering among those who remain, frozen in place, if not in time.
It’s hard to imagine such crowding—and, frankly, such comfort—when reading Tanis Rideout’s Above All Things. In 1924, Everest is uncharted territory, an untamed beast. Rideout forces you to consider how scary and desolate the uncharted part must have been. Mountaineer George Mallory and the others don’t only have to survive the mountain’s bitter cold with inferior equipment. They also have to climb with no map to guide them. Being first has its drawbacks. Worse, some who climb already have failed attempts haunting them. Rideout brilliantly communicates the climbers’ anxieties, leaving you with a sort of claustrophobic panic as each character’s life depends on watches, compasses, and gut feelings.
Above All Things is detail-oriented, and Rideout does much to place readers in the time period and draw attention to the expedition’s primitive equipment.
George woke with his feet numb from a small drift of snow that had gathered in the tent near them. The flap had come undone in the night and the canvas rumbled and snapped, almost tore apart as the wind ripped at the material. The roar of it was deafening, but they weren’t snowbound. Not yet.
As a fan of stories about people struggling to survive—perhaps I’m a sadist?—I expected to enjoy following the mountaineers every snowy step of the way. But I didn’t expect to care about them so deeply.
Many historical fiction novels are heavy on information, but light on character depth. Rideout avoids this by telling the story through the characters’ relationships. Every success or failure the mountaineers experience on Everest is influenced by their sometimes close, sometimes strained relationships with one another, or by their memories—and vivid hallucinations as the air thins—of friends, family, and lost loves half a world away.
Even now he felt torn. Part of him hated being separated from Ruth and the children. And another part hated himself for being so damn sentimental. It was weak. Still, there was the luxury of freedom this far from home. He felt different away from Ruth, away from everyday life, and he was never quite sure which person he was, which he wanted to be.
Rideout gives voice to those left behind, too, with some chapters dedicated to the first-person perspective of Ruth Mallory, George’s wife. Ruth, who is listless and forlorn in George’s absence, is not always fun to read; she is a woman with no identity outside of her husband and, to a lesser extent, her children. However, having read Rideout’s closing notes about Ruth, I think Ruth may be accurately portrayed here and simply a product of her time and status. Her life is small and dull, but the characters that surround her—men and other women from her and George’s rather incongruous life together—mostly make up for it. And though Ruth can be frustrating, she adds to George’s complexity and to the narrative overall.
The final third of the book is where Rideout really finds her pacing. You grow more and more nervous the closer the team makes it to the summit. With each mistake or sacrifice, you want them to turn back, but they don’t. They’re blinded by it—whatever Everest is to them. In George Mallory’s famous, actual words, they have to climb “because it’s there.”
Above All Things left me with the hollow sweetness that comes from finishing a good book, and I’ve since thought a lot about the expedition and Rideout’s interpretations of the people who went on it. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the impetus behind wanting to conquer mountains, but I do have a greater appreciation for those who first climbed Everest. After all, you can’t help but be in awe of people who argue over the “sportsmanship” of using oxygen to survive.
Quotes from Above All Things
Their hands described reckless adventure, sailing over longitudes and latitudes, past here there be monsters and the arched backs of the sea serpents painted on the blue of the Indian Ocean, and into the port of Bombay.
“It’s just that the bad turns make for better stories. No one wants to hear about the hike you took where nothing happened.”
“Then the coolie’s hands thawed,” he went on. “I don’t know which was worse. The freezing or the thawing.” Both were terrible reminders that the body was nothing but pulpy meat, easily ruptured, broken, frozen, thawed. That was the worst of it, knowing the myriad ways a body could be destroyed.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
In the Bible, Dinah is a minor character, even though she is the sole daughter of Jacob, one of the most important patriarchal figures of the Old Testament. What little is written about Dinah is about how men perceived and used her. Like most biblical women, she is whittled down to her virginity and potential as a wife, and is given no voice of her own. The Red Tent is author Anita Diamant’s attempt to give Dinah, and the women in her life, a voice.
To Hear Women Speak
Few books explore the perspectives of biblical women. Those that do are often written by religious hard-liners, making for problematic and uncritical literature. I don’t know Anita Diamant’s religious stance, nor does it feel relevant, but The Red Tent aims to be a (somewhat) historically accurate telling of women from the time period, which sets it apart from so many other books that include biblical characters and claim to be similar.
The Red Tent also stands out because of its first-person narrator, Dinah herself. No one writes about Dinah, much less from her perspective. This might be because Dinah’s biblical story, what very little there is of one, is tragic and violent. If you don’t know the story and don’t mind a slight spoiler, you can find the relevant verses in Genesis 34.
Everyone writes about women like Ruth and Mother Mary, the clean, often subservient women who are important to the men. I’ve found such stories are about the same woman sporting a different name, the Good Woman who toes the line and knows her place. When a character like Jezebel or Western Christianity’s concept of Mary Magdalene gets trotted out, it’s usually to prove a point about disobedient behavior, be it toward God, men, or both. (The Bible does this itself with Lot’s wife and, of course, Eve.) Diamant takes the road less traveled by choosing to narrate through Dinah, and she doesn’t stop there. The women in The Red Tent are diverse and complex, ranging from holy to unholy, from submissive to domineering, from loving to cruel—and a little of everything in between.
Dinah begins with her mothers’ stories, as her biological mother, Leah, told them to her. There are stories for Jacob’s wives, Rachel and Leah, and for Rachel and Leah’s maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah. Many of her mothers’ stories reflect women’s placement in this ancient world: about the daily work required of them, about being sold and bought and bedded, about birthing and raising children (hopefully sons, of course). It’s suggested that the only respite women get is in the red tent, the secluded place reserved for “unclean,” menstruating women. It’s where women can be themselves and where Dinah watches, learns, and grows.
These women are rarely, if ever, acknowledged or listened to by men, even the sons from their own bodies, but they find ways to cope with this unfairness. For example, while Jacob and his sons subscribe to a monotheistic religion of a One True God and expect the women to as well, the women still have idols dedicated to pagan and sometimes feminine deities hidden away. Some of the women believe in their old gods more than others do, but they all try to hold on to pieces of themselves in a culture that would sometimes rather they didn’t.
Diamant explores this most by changing a key part of Dinah’s biblical tale. With this change, she shines a light on the way in which women’s voices disappear from history, and the way in which the stories that remain might be twisted. It doesn’t matter whether readers believe Dinah ever existed or whether the biblical recording of her is at all accurate. Diamant, instead, draws attention to the fact that Dinah, like many women throughout time (fictional or nonfictional), did not get to tell her own story.
The Red Tent can be somewhat of a dry, laborious read at times, but there is value in its choice of narrator and story. The plot is sometimes slow and can be predictable if you’re familiar with the Bible, but the slowness allows Diamant to explore a lot of historical detail. If you’re searching for a work of fiction that manages to combine existing religion with subtle, feminist commentary, this is a good one to try.
Quotes from The Red Tent
Years later, when his grandsons finally met the boy of the story, by then an old man, they were appalled to hear how Isaac stuttered, still frightened by his father’s knife.
After the applause died down, the sistrum-player began to sing, accompanied by her own instrument and a single drum. It was a long song, with many refrains. The story it told was unremarkable: a tale of love found and lost–the oldest story in the world. The only story.
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.
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.