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I may be a little more prone to read something like this because of my shared experiences with the author, but it also genuinely sounds like something worth promoting. Kevin Powers grew up loving to write. After his Army deployment to Iraq, he got his bachelor's degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and then his master's degree in poetry from the University of Texas at Austin. He now lives in Florence, Italy with his wife.

From Parade Magazine:

Army veteran Kevin Powers has written what some are calling the first great novel of the Iraq war. Here, Powers shares his own experiences as a returning soldier—and what he sees as the challenges facing this new generation of vets. In the past decade, more than a million troops have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, with many thousands more still to come. Kevin Powers is one of them.

For Powers, 32, who spent 13 months as a combat engineer in Iraq before returning to the States in 2005, "The question you always get is, 'What's it like over there?'" His searing debut novel, The Yellow Birds, tries to answer that question, by capturing the casual brutality and emotional isolation of the war as well as the disquietude of returning home when it no longer feels like home. The book—which centers on two young soldiers, Bartle and Murph, and the promise that binds them together—has been called the first great novel to come out of the Iraq war, earning comparisons to classics like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. But Powers says, "The most meaningful praise I've gotten is from other vets who've said that I was able to articulate something that they had been feeling for a really long time but hadn't been able to express."

From The New York Times:

... The novel moves, fitfully, through Virginia and Iraq and Germany and New Jersey and Kentucky, from 2003 to 2009. Recalling the war, Bartle says, is “like putting a puzzle together from behind: the shapes familiar, the picture quickly fading, the muted tan of the cardboard backing a tease at wholeness and completion.” ... Then too, the fractured structure replicates the book’s themes. Like a chase scene made up of sentences that run on and on and ultimately leave readers breathless, or like a concert description that stops and starts, that swings and sways, that makes us stamp our feet and clap our hands — the nonlinear design of Powers’s novel is a beautifully brutal example of style matching content. War destroys. It doesn’t just rip through bone and muscle, stone and steel; it fragments the mind as a fist to a mirror might create thousands of bloodied, glittering shards ...

Powers earned a master’s degree in poetry at the University of Texas at Austin. This is evident in the music of his sentences, the shining details he delivers like tiny gems in so many of his descriptions. The soldiers wake to the “narrow whine of mortars as they arced over our position and crumpled into the orchard,” and Bartle’s body pulses with “an all-encompassing type of pain like my whole skin was made out of a fat lip.” His language is as dazzling as the flashes of a muzzle ...

My writing list of books to review is piling up.


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I'm not very prone to read a novel like this but I appreciate all the more having it drawn to my attention. I also liked these passages from the NYT review:

This serves the story in two ways. First, it turns readers into active participants, enlisting them in a sense as co-authors who fit together the many memories and guess at what terrible secret lies in wait, the truth behind Murphy’s death. Because they lean forward instead of back, because they participate in piecing together the puzzle, they are made more culpable.

In this way, “The Yellow Birds” joins the conversation with books like Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony,” Brian Turner’s “Phantom Noise” and Tim O’Brien’s classic, “The Things They Carried” — and wakes the readers of “the spoiled cities of America” to a reality most would rather not face. Here we are, fretting over our Netflix queues while halfway around the world people are being blown to bits. And though we might slap a yellow ribbon magnet to our truck’s tailgate, though we might shake a soldier’s hand in the airport, we ignore the fact that in America an average of 18 veterans are said to commit suicide every day. What a shame, we say, and then move on quickly to whatever other agonies and entertainments occupy the headlines.
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  • 3 weeks later...

I read this book, and I normally don't read war novels. But this isn't your typical war novel. While I was reading it, "The Things They Carried" kept coming to mind.

Both books have sticking power with me, which is unusual in a book. I originally borrowed TYB from the library, but then ordered my own copy.

Like mentioned in the reviews, his poetry training comes out in his sentences. The format of the book--hopping around in time--works well, b/c it draws the reader into the "fog of war" so to speak--you're always trying to place the chapter in a linear timeline and it's hard to do. The main character's life is fragmented, and the reader's thought process is fragmented while reading.

I read the Parade review, and that convinced me to read the book, which convinced me I needed to own the book. I intend on re-reading it in the next week or so, with highlighter and post-it flags in hand.

I like to say that I practice militant mysticism. I'm really absolutely sure of some things that I don't quite know.~~Rob Bell April/09 CT


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  • 3 weeks later...

I finished reading it and I'm not sure I can be the best judge of this one. Powers writes so well, he's the first writer that brought back some of my worst feelings and memories from being in Iraq. So, for me, it was a little suffocating. But being over there really wasn't all that bad. There were good moments too, times of self-sacrifice and heroism and giving aid to the needy, and Powers' novel isn't really interested in those things. That said, there is actually one short scene in the novel with one of the characters looking for and finding real goodness again. The fact that this scene leads to a chapel is interesting, even if it doesn't last very long. How that scene ends, in fact, is the final straw that finally causes the damage that is at the heart of the story.

I was disappointed and a little depressed at the end, but I'm glad I own it and I will also probably end up reading it again someday.

From a purely literary/critical point of view, this is a very good debut novel for Powers. He's a better writer than a long list of best-selling authors who have already been writing stilted drivel for decades.

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  • 11 months later...

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