Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Review: "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers

While I hate to crib from a blurb that is smack dab on the cover of the book that I am reviewing, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is the All Quiet on the Western Front for the modern era. It is cheap and unoriginal, but it really is true. I don’t think you will find a more honest, heartfelt and passionate look at this modern war in any fictional realm, whether in books, movies or television. Its purity and directness literally seep out of page with prose that is somehow direct and very poetic. There isn’t anything fancy going on within these slim, 226 pages. You won’t find any kind of political stance (although the reader may do so, depending on their reaction to the gruesome depictions of combat) or interesting storytelling techniques. This is a hard, brutal book about the horrors of war, and how one person must deal with the promises he can’t keep and the consequences that come with it. Powers is writing from experience here. He was a machine gunner in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and it shows in how well he describes Army life. Like I said before, there is nothing extra thrown into this novel, so everything he mentions is very important and intricate to the stories loose plot. And while this book is at points very uncomfortable and sad, it brings with it a lasting power that will stick with you long after reading it, even with its short page count. The story is told from the perspective of Private Bartle, who, during basic training, befriends Private Murphy, a younger, less experienced solider who seems ripe to be broken through the hardships of war. When they ship out to Al Tafar, Iraq, he promises Murphy’s mom to keep him safe, a promise that he knows he cannot keep. Over the next 200 pages, we switch perspectives from the fight in Iraq, to the discharge of Bartle, who is drifting through life, which, to him, is better than focusing on the horrors he witnessed during combat. Powers has a knack for describing things in great, poetic detail, making a description of a man trying to put his insides back in him just as beautiful as he describes his home in Richmond, Virginia. All this leads to a terrible discovery near the end, in what is the books most graphic passage, and the mistake Bartle makes, causing him to take the fall for something he had almost no involvement in. while it is a very sad book in the end, you can tell by every sentence that it comes from Powers’ heart. And to tell you the truth, I would not be surprised if he didn’t write another book. Everything in him seems to be on the page here, and I’m afraid whatever comes out of him next will be wholly untruthful and of no use. If that is the case, Powers’ can rest easy knowing he produced a book that can stand tall next to Remarque’s opus. Powers’ has left his mark on the world, and it is a powerful one.
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: "East, West" by Salman Rushdie

I guess that this is the year for sub-par story collections, since East, West by Salman Rushdie is just as forgettable as Justin Taylor’s everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. Just like that book, I cannot pick out a single story that is exceptional or worth a stand alone read. And just like Justin Taylor’s book, this isn’t offensive enough to give a one star rating to. I read this and that book differently than I usually do, by just reading one short story at a time, but that is how I read Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts, and that is my favorite collection of stories ever. Also, with this book, I really just wanted to read a Salman Rushdie book, since I have yet to read one and have felt kind of guilty. Hopefully his novel makes up for such a sub-par book, or maybe the brutally realistic books of Aravind Adiga have turned me off of the idea of a mystical India. The stories in this particular selection are divided up into three different sections, titled “East” “West” and “East, West”. I guess the divide here is based on the geographical landscape of India, or the experience Rushdie had in England. Either way, these stories are not very good. They try to mix pop culture with customs of ancient India, but the connection it makes is a rather sloppy one that I am sure will leave many readers as confused and annoyed as I was. Some of the pop culture references are cute, such a story titled “Chekov and Zulu”, that uses Star Trek as a main theme, and the final, painfully long story “The Courter” which brings up the comics that the kids are reading. This collection was filled with duds that seemed to lack direction and therefore, had very little meaning. If you do decide to check this out, proceed with caution.
Rating: 2/5

Review: "Joe College" by Tom Perrotta

Now, with having read Joe College, I can see a clear line that was made in the middle of Tom Perrotta’s career. On this present side of that line, we have a talented writer who writes stories of suburban angst that are compelling and tap into harsh, sometimes dirty truths without resorting to pandering or simple shocks. Books like Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher speaks to the heart of modern life in ways that make us uncomfortable, but teach us about what it means to hold onto values and dreams in a world dead set on crushing them. But on the previous side, I see a writer struggling to find his way. I found Election to be a little pedestrian in how it handled its topic, and Joe College seems to do the same. Rarely is the book boring, but the emotional impact of Perrotta’s later works is practically non-existent. The narrator of this story is Danny, a Yale junior who is on the cusp of graduating, and over one Spring Break, must come to terms with two love interests, Cindy, a past relationship at home who is harboring a secret, and the elusive Polly, who is sleeping with a suave professor. Also, he must take over driving a lunch truck for his dad while he recovers from surgery, coming in contact with a group of muscle bound lunch truck drivers, calling themselves the “Lunch Monsters”, who are intent on stealing his route. As always, the story and characters are as interesting as can be with a flashback to the time Danny faced down a bully being a highlight of the novel (makes me eager to read his short stories), as well as a very good ending, which Perrotta’s is a master at. I just know that he is capable of handling heavier stuff. This is worth a look, but don’t expect anything like the usual punch Perrotta packs.
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Review: "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

This is a very strange pick for one of the three finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Usually, the books picked for this award have at least some notoriety, but this kind of slipped under the raider for me last year. I had heard about Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child last year through Bookmarks Magazine, and from the reviews that I saw did not make it out to be something that would receive as big of a reward as the Pulitzer. It looked like it had the potential to be a big sleeper hit, but not a Pulitzer. When I heard it had been nominated, I broke down and bought it, and have to say that, in the reading of The Snow Child, I still don’t see why it was in contention for a big award. It’s not terrible, just somewhat bland and ineffective at what it is trying to do. It has honest emotions and is well thought out, I just felt the narrative had little clue as to where it was going, and no pull on my interest to match the pull on my heartstrings. It has a cool premise, where a couple, Mable and Jack in 1920’s Alaska is slowly and forcibly moving toward middle age childless. They run a convenience store, and do truly love each other, but the wear and tear of broken dreams is taking its toll. In a cute gesture, they build a little girl out of the snow, and playfully treat it as their own. When a little girl starts appearing around their property, killing foxes and interacting with another young boy, things take a bizarre turn. I really did not know where this book was dragging me. While the emotions are genuine, and it’s clear that Mable and Jack love each other, a lot of the events seem kind of disconnected and made for a difficult read, especially with a book like this. I didn’t know if it was being foreboding, deeply spiritual, or even full on dark during points, and it made for a frustrating read. This seems like a cool setup; so if you have read or will read it, let me know what I miss.
Rating: 3/5

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a writer that really shouldn’t be up my ally, but I thoroughly enjoy here books, and her most recent novel, Americanah, while quite uneven (and sporting a terrible cover), is one of the best and most unique takes on the immigrant lifestyle that I have ever read. Adichie writes without the myopic view that some novels and stories like these tend to suffer from. Not only does she describe different experiences that homegrown Americans are not familiar with, but she does so in a way that expresses the differences in customs, but makes the feelings that come with those differences are quite universal. We have all experienced the kind of embarrassment and dread that accompanies the revelation that we have a different perspective than the majority. It is painful, annoying and heartbreaking at times. And Adichie’s characters experience all of this when they must explain their lives to curious onlookers. So the experience might be different, the overall feeling Adichie conveys here is something that everyone goes through. The novel follows a two Nigerian people, who leave their homeland in search for a better life. Ifemelu, a self-confident woman, goes to America to study, and Obinze, a soft-spoken son of a professor, moves to England illegally when he cannot join Ifemelu in America. Over the next decade, the weight of race, and the hostility and barriers that come with, make their journey back to one another, quite difficult. Ifemelu starts a popular blog (not as good as this oneJ) to record her observations and it becomes both a crutch and safe haven when problems encroach on her. Obinze starts to work under a false name, with predictable consequences. When I say that this book is uneven, I mean that this is really Ifemelu’s story. It is the more interesting one, and is given more pages to develop. Hearing about what she thinks of race and the way America has an unmentioned code of hostility toward different cultures is fascinating, even if I do not really agree with it all the time. What Obinze’s story lacks is made up for near the end, when Ifemelu, now back in Nigeria, must deal with being a returned immigrant, and dealing with a homeland she is confused by. While it is imbalanced, this novel is very much worth your time. Never has hair care been more interesting.
Rating: 4/5