The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (pub date 9/11/12)
“Nothing is more isolating than having a particular history. At least that’s what I thought. Now I know: All pain is the same. Only the details are different.”
There have been a great number of novels written about war over the years, but I imagine that very few of them are as visceral and real as this one. Bold and gripping, this book is about the damage battle does to the one who survive.
The Yellow Birds is written by an Iraq War veteran, and tells the story of the friendship between twenty-one-year-old Private John Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Daniel Murphy. Since basic training, when Bartle made an impossible promise to Murphy’s mother to protect her son, the two young men have been like brothers. But as the war progresses and takes its toll on them and on their strict sergeant, Murphy becomes uninvolved with the world around him. And soon Bartle finds himself seeing and doing things he never thought he would have to.
There is more to the plot but I don’t want to give too much away. I went in not knowing much about the story and found myself surprised and moved by how emotional it is. I think other readers should have the same experience I did. The Yellow Birds is more about the effects of battle on the soldiers than it is about the actual war. Author Kevin Powers wrote some incredibly deep passages where Bartle describes the many racing thoughts and emotions that consume him after he is discharged.
Even if you think you don’t like war stories (I usually don’t), I encourage you to give The Yellow Birds a try. It reminded me of the film The Hurt Locker, so if you enjoyed that then you should definitely read this book. It has a great protagonist, beautiful prose, and universal themes that anyone can relate to. I liked that there was no hidden agenda in this novel; it didn’t strike me as either pro-war or anti-war. It simply relates the sometimes devastating effects that combat has on the people who volunteer to serve their country. Sad and thought-provoking, this is a great piece of literary fiction.
The World Without You by Joshua Henkin (pub date 6/19/12)
A moving story about a dysfunctional family and the good that can come out of a terrible tragedy.
The Frankel family have gathered once again at their summer home for the Fourth of July. Three generations under the same roof. But they’re not there to have a cookout or watch fireworks. Instead they’ve come to mark the one-year anniversary of Leo’s death. Leo, the baby of the four Frankel siblings, was a journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Iraq, leaving behind a young widow and a two-year-old son. Now a year later, the family are gathered from far and wide for a memorial service and to mark the Jewish tradition of the unveiling of the gravestone.
Though the story is about a family memorial, its main focus is not on the person who died, but on the people who have to go on living without him. Each member of the Frankel family has his or her own secret or grievance. Noelle is a former party girl who reinvented herself as an Orthodox Jew and moved to Israel. She came back to the US with her husband and four sons to pay respect to Leo’s memory, but she finds that her marital issues have followed her all the way from back home. Lily still carries bitterness toward the other members of her family, and is quick to start an argument with her sisters rather than deal with the task at hand. Clarissa is consumed with trying to have a baby in her late 30s, even though she never wanted children before now. And their parents Marilyn and David are trying to face the truth that their 40-year marriage may not survive Leo’s death much longer. Meanwhile, Thisbe, Leo’s widow, has also arrived for the memorial, though she feels more and more like a stranger in the family.
The characterization is what really makes this book enjoyable. Though this is not a long book, Henkin spends a lot of time with each character, letting us know their personal histories, wants and fears, and letting us know how each one of them was affected by Leo’s death. Each character feels dynamic and real, and though Leo is not a character in the story, his presence is always felt throughout the narrative. Soon, I also came to feel as if I had known Leo.
Whatever your feelings about the war in Iraq, The World Without You is a bittersweet story about the families affected by war. It’s about the pain of acceptance and moving on, and the joy in finding friends and family to cling to in sad times. A great book for anyone who’s looking for a dramatic story with well-formed characters.