Tense

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.”

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.

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

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Book cover for FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel
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In her graphic novel and memoir, Alison Bechdel—of Bechdel test fame—relates the story of growing up in the confusing intensity of her dysfunctional childhood home—and in the family’s funeral (“fun”) business—in 1970s Pennsylvania. When her father, Bruce Bechdel, dies unexpectedly while she is away at college, Alison must face a series of unanswerable, existential questions. Why did her father make the life choices he did? How and why was her relationship with him always so strained? Fun Home is Bechdel’s journey toward accepting both her father and herself.

A Cathartic Journey Toward Acceptance

Fun Home is immediately relatable as Bechdel capitalizes on the things so many of us have experienced: the family member who obsesses, the secrets we sense swirling around us in childhood but never quite understand, the awkwardness of puberty, and the mundane moments that take place in our own back yards.

Weeding comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Bechdel alternates between stories from her childhood and early adulthood. Her childhood is all about confusion—the confusion caused by her parents’ distant, dysfunctional, and mysterious relationship, yes, but also just the simple confusion that comes from having a child’s understanding of the world.

Oven comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

I could read and look at comics about Bechdel’s childhood all day. One after another, they are a delight.

Unfortunately, Bechdel’s reflections on her college years are not so neatly portrayed. It’s as though she were unable to distance herself from them in the same way—understandable, perhaps, but also less enjoyable. Whereas her reflections on her childhood are poignant and witty, her reflections on young adulthood are all about searching for an answer. Suddenly, what’s “nonlinear” seems more disjointed, as though Fun Home is less of a planned memoir than it is a cathartic personal project.

Lesbian comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

At nineteen, Alison Bechdel comes out as a lesbian to her parents. It’s a recent revelation, even for her, but one she knows has always been true. Her father, Bruce, is surprisingly accepting, while her mother is concerned and disappointed. Then a secret, the secret, is revealed: Alison’s father is gay, too. Bruce has tried “fixing” himself many times over the years but has always “failed.” All at once, so many things make sense—and so many others do not.

As if coming out and learning of her father’s deeply closeted status wouldn’t be enough to shake Alison, Bruce is killed in an accident a few months later. Chillingly, Alison and her mother wonder if it was an accident at all.

Suicide comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Alison’s story is interesting, but she does such a good job describing her father that I would have much preferred a book about him if I couldn’t have a book that was just about her childhood. You see, Bruce Bechdel is heartbreaking—and fascinating through that heartbreak. In his life story are all the people who’ve forced themselves to live a lie in order to survive the society around them.

Memoirs eventually require authors to come to conclusions about their experiences and themselves. These conclusions can fall flat or come out hackneyed and overly dramatic. In Alison’s case, she attempts to understand her father and her relationship with him through a filter of literature, the one interest they always shared. The result is sort of a pretentious mess, which usually seems to be the case when anyone tries to make life more profound by bringing up the classics.

Ulysses comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Also, if one more writer uses The Great Gatsby to try to make sense of life, I just might to lose it.

Gatsby comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

I like the humor and candidness found in Fun Home, especially when Bechdel discusses her childhood—and I’m not about to suggest she’s come to the wrong conclusions about her own life, by the way—but her memoir doesn’t quite resonate with me by its (eloquent) end. Even so, Fun Home is well worth a read.

Buy Fun Home from Amazon or iTunes
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