Historical 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.

Oct 1, 2013

Above All Things by Tanis Rideout

Book cover for ABOVE ALL THINGS by Tanis Rideout
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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.

What Mount Everest looks like today

Overcrowded Everest. More pictures on National Geographic.

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.

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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.

Aug 1, 2013

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Book cover for THE RED TENT by Anita Diamant
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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.

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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.

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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