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Book Clubs, My Awesome Brother, and Book 8: The Yellow Birds

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Last summer kind of sucked for me.

Don’t get me wrong–it could have been much worse than it was, and I’m grateful that my crappy summer is relatively mild in comparison to some people’s crappy summers. I had a manager at work making my life miserable–barely putting me on the schedule, and treating me like shit when I was there. All my good friends live over an hour away. It was too hot to really go out and do anything for much of the summer, so I ended up cooped up in my house watching Netflix and being bored and lonely for most of it.

So in August, I joined a book club. Now, from what I hear, most women in their mid-20s who “join a book club” are actually doing something more like “drinking wine without having read the book” (and, eventually, abandoning the pretense of “the book” altogether). Not this one. This book club is run by and meets at the local independent bookstore. When I went to my first meeting–which, conveniently, was the “let’s decide which books we’ll be reading for the next year” meeting, I was probably half the age of the second youngest person there. This thrilled me. While there was some hope that I would meet new friends around my age, I was mostly looking for something that would (a) get me out of the house, and (b) get me reading and discussing new stuff. Everyone there was clearly passionate about books–it wasn’t a “Well, I don’t really read ever, so I should join a book club and maybe that will make me like it more” situation. We talked for about two hours about what we should read and eventually came up with a list for the year.

When I went the next month, there was actually someone else around my age! I was so excited. We became friends and hung out, but then she moved over an hour away. Apparently, no one I like can stand to live within an hour of me. (Am I clingy? Do I smother? What’s the deal?) And this month, there were a few new people around my age.

So, friends, maybe! Yay. But the point here is, that’s not the point. The point is to go and read something that you would normally never have picked up and discuss it with people who love books as much as you do. I was thinking that, when I move in July, I should start a book club for fantasy and science fiction. Now, I wouldn’t want to do that without also joining one for stuff I’d never read on my own.

For example, this month’s book was The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, which is about two young soldiers in the Iraq war. I would never, ever have picked that up, particularly right now, because my brother is overseas. I was actually nervous about reading it, even for book club, because there was a fear that it might hit too close to home and freak me out. It didn’t. I don’t believe that what he’s doing is anything like what the soldiers in The Yellow Birds are doing.

But I need to pause for a minute and tell you about how awesome my brother is. I feel like not enough people appreciate their siblings. While we’re not the Winchesters, my brother and I have always been close. I can’t remember a single instance in my life when we’ve gotten into a fight, though he insists that one of his earliest memories is of punching me and getting in trouble for it. (My mom doesn’t remember this, though, so I’m not sure it happened.) As the Older Sibling (by under two years), I was apparently supposed to be the leader, but since I’m much more introverted and a high social monitor, he was generally in charge of what we did (I didn’t always care for girly stuff, anyway). So I’ve got a lot of childhood memories of playing video games, climbing trees, melting green army men with magnifying glasses to make little plastic balls, you know… that type of thing.

The first time I ever heard of someone not liking my brother, he was a junior in college and it blew my mind. I still don’t really get it. He’s one of those guys who’s really good at pretty much everything, but he’s got the exact right type of personality to make it impossible to resent him for it.

Okay, anyway, it’s time to unpause and talk about The Yellow Birds.

Kevin Powers is an Iraq war veteran with an MFA in Creative Writing. He’s won awards for his poetry, and when you read this book, you’re not remotely surprised. It reads like poetry. There were sections that I had to read out loud a few times–at first, because the language was highly symbolic and I wasn’t quite sure what just happened, and then just because it was so beautiful that I wanted to read it again. (And because of this, I can guarantee that your cat will like this book.)

The book follows Privates Bartle and Murphy. Bartle narrates; Murphy dies. It’s not really a spoiler because Bartle tells you it’s going to happen within the first couple of pages and, let’s be honest, you’ve got a war novel following two young soldiers and one of them’s the narrator? Better not get too attached to the other one. (The people in book club who missed the “I survived; Murphy didn’t” sentence very early on reported being very confused by the book, so it’s important to know.)

Bartle’s narration is written from his perspective after he’s been back for a few years. It’s disjointed, like memory. It starts in Iraq, then goes to right after when they’re on their way home, then goes back to Iraq, then training, then long after, then back to Iraq. All the Iraq bits are chronological, and all the after bits are chronological, so it’s still easy to follow what’s going on.

When they deploy, Murphy’s mother makes Bartle promise to bring Murphy home. Bartle, only a few years older and the same rank, doesn’t really know what to do, so he promises, even though that’s not a burden he wants to carry. But from that moment, they’re bound, and Bartle fails.

What I thought was most interesting about this book was Bartle when he gets back. He doesn’t want anyone to thank him for what he’s done, or give him discounts, or treat him like a hero at all. He wants to be left alone. Now, granted, he definitely had PTSD, and he fell apart for a bit. But we talked about that at book club, and someone mentioned a show on NPR, I think, with a bunch of veteran authors or something who said the same thing. We don’t like what we did, don’t thank us, just let us go on with our lives. Now, I know this isn’t always the case. If I were to guess, I would say it probably has to do with whether they saw combat or they were doing something else. The Yellow Birds does not paint a pretty picture of combat, and if I were Bartle, I wouldn’t want thanks, either.

Another question we discussed at book club: Is it an anti-war novel simply because it’s a realistic portrayal of what happens? I don’t know. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think.

If you haven’t read The Yellow Birds and decide to, please read it carefully. Pay close attention to imagery. Notice the water. Look up Sterling’s Judges reference if you don’t get it. Read paragraphs out loud if they’re confusing (or just beautiful). Remember, Powers is a poet. You’ll miss out on a lot if you don’t read it closely. And it’s worth it.

 

And, for Book 9…1Q84 volume 2, as I mentioned in my last post. I’m already done with that, since I read them at the same time, so that post will be up soon, which means…

For book 10, I’m reading The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian! It’s a post-apocalypse type book, very enjoyable so far.

See you soon!

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About Rachael

Hi. I'm Rachael. I realized one day that, even though I read a lot of books, I often have a hard time remembering them later on. I guess that happens when there's so much to try to remember! So I started The 50 Book Project, with the intention to read and blog about 50 new (to me) books in 2014. I read a lot of fantasy, but I'm trying to branch out and experience new stuff. Any questions? Suggestions? Let me know! Comment, or email me at dearohrachael@gmail.com.

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