Kevin Powers’s “The Yellow Birds”

The Yellow BirdsThe Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kevin Powers’s “The Yellow Birds” is about two young soldiers–Private John Bartle, twenty-one, and Private Daniel Murphy, eighteen. In the novel’s opening, September 2004, both are in Al Tafar, Iraq, and about to take part in a bloody battle to re-take the city..

The book then flips back to December 2003, at Fort Dix, New Jersey, before they ship out to Iraq. Private Murphy’s mother comes to visit and the fulcrom that this novel pivots on takes place during a conversation between Bartle, and Murphy’s mother, Donna, before they ship out to Iraq.

“And you’re gonna look out for him, right?” she asked.
“Um, yes, ma’am.”
“And Daniel, he’s doing a good job?”
“Yes, ma’am, very good. How the hell should I know, lady? I wanted to say. I barely knew the guy. Stop. Stop asking me questions. I don’t want to be accountable. I don’t know anything about this.
“John, promise me you’ll take care of him.”
“Of course.” Sure, sure I thought. Now you reassure me and I’ll go back and go to bed.
“Nothings gonna happen to him, right? Promise that you’ll bring him back home to me.”
“I promise,” I said. “I promise I’ll bring him back home to you.” (pgs. 46-47)

Private John Bartle has just a made a promise you know he won’t be able to keep. I kept reading, waiting for the moment when Bartle’s promise would be permanently broken and then read the rest of the novel to see how Bartle dealt with the ramifications of his broken promise.

Powers’s is a strong, lyrical writer. He has an MFA in poetry and it shows in his writing. His writing places you where Private Bartle is: a battle, the desert, Europe after he leaves Iraq, back in the States where his actions in Iraq catch up to him.

The novel moves between 2004–when the two are stationed in Iraq–and 2005–after Iraq. Moving between the two time periods tends to keep the reader a bit off balance, but it works, keeping the reader not quite sure of what is going to happen next, much like the feelings of the two soldiers.

I don’t usually read war novels–the exception being Tim O’Brien’s work. Kevin Powers’s debut novel is as powerful as O’Brien’s works, and I’m hoping to read more of Powers’s work.

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Burning Bright-short story collection by Ron Rash

Burning Bright: StoriesBurning Bright: Stories by Ron Rash
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Burning Bright is a short story collection by Ron Rash. All are good and it’s hard to pick any favorites, but the stories that stand out to me are: “Hard Times”–which I first read in a workshop, “Back of Beyond,” “The Ascent,” which I first read in The Best American Short Stories, I think it was the 2010 edition, and “Lincolnites.”

In “Hard Times,” eggs go missing out of Jacob and Edna’s hen house. Jacob sets a trap to catch the snake he’s sure is stealing his eggs, but has a difficult choice when the thief turns out to be something entirely different. This short story deals with poverty, starvation, and pride and the effects they have on people.

“Back of Beyond” deals with a pawn shop owner and the steps he takes to save his brother and sister-in-law from the ravages of methamphetamines. While Parson, his brother Ray, or his sister-in-law Martha don’t do drugs, Danny, Parson’s nephew and Ray’s son does, and it has devastating results for his parents. Parson is forced to make hard choices in a life that offers no easy ones.

“The Ascent” is probably the most heart-breaking of all the stories in the collection. This story is told from the point of view of Jared, a fifth-grader in the local school and son of meth addicts. He finds a plane wreck in the Smoky Mountains and adopts the dead couple for his own parents. He’s trying to cope with his life in the only way he knows how, since the adults in his school or the sheriff, who is well-aware of his parents’ drug abuse, never step in to help.

“Lincolnites” goes back in time to the Civil War and is the story of a pregnant wife, whose husband is off fighting for the Union, even though they live in the South–which is why her husband is dubbed a “Lincolnite.” When a lone Confederate soldier shows up on her farm, she does what she must to protect her family. The Civil War is fought even on an isolated mountaintop in the Carolinas.

All the stories in this collection are strong, and well-worth reading.

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Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity and Writing

Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & WritingRumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing by L. L. Barkat
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rumors of Water Thoughts on Creativity and Writingis a different kind of craft book. In it, Barkat draws from her experience as a writer, editor, wife, and mother of two young daughters. She draws from her life experiences to weave short vignettes applicable to the writing life.

The book is divided into sections and each section is divided into very short essays–up to 4 pages.
The sections are titled: Momentum, Voice, Habits, Structure, Publishing, Glitches, and Time.
Each of the shorter essays deals with the topic at hand–Momentum has essays titled: “Rumors: How it Begins”, “Purple Moths: Don’t be Idealistic” followed by “Plastic Flutes: Be Idealistic” which I see as yet another comment on writing advice–some of it will be contradictory and it’s up to the writer to decide which is applicable to the task at hand. The essay titles are catchy–inspiring title envy in this “can’t think of a title to save my life” writer.

Some of my favorite essays are: “Japanese Beans: Write with What You Have” from the Momentum section. Barkat was looking for recipes to use up her stash of dried beans. The recipe search started by her daughter Sara, sent on her search because of the copious amounts of dried beans in Barkat’s basement, led to an essay on how a writer can write with material that is on hand; there is no reason to search for exotic places or experiences to write about. Barkat writes: “As a writer, I have learned when a job needs to get done, there is little fussing about the lack of necessary ingredients like tomato and parsley….This is the secret of the prolific writer. To agree to use small beans and the ingredients at hand. To cultivate out of potlucks and basement bargins.” (page 34).

It’s that kind of advice, cultivated from day to day activities and life experiences from day to day living that makes this short–~160 pages–book easy to read. Not from the standpoint that the writing is simplistic–far from it; Barkat is a poet and it shows in her writing, but that the advice comes from places and experiences we can all identify with. The short essays mean an essay can be read in a short amount of time, but then the thoughts an essay triggers lasts far longer, working into the writer’s thoughts and subconscious.

I have a lot of writing books, but the tone in this one is different. It’s like sitting with a friend who has far more writing experience than you, and who likes nothing better than sitting outside at a picnic bench at a park, under a shady tree on a warm spring day, chatting about what she’s learned and wants to pass on to you. While many of my writing books will be packed into boxes because I don’t have room on my shelves, this one will stay on the shelf, easily accessible anytime I need to hear writing advice from a friend.

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A Year of Biblical Womanhood-Rachel Held Evans

A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on the Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband MasterA Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on the Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master by Rachel Held Evans
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What I like about RHE is her willingness to take on the status quo and this book does that, and more. She’s done her research for this book,and through that research–i.e., why was this particular passage written for this particular time and in this particular place and how can those discoveries apply to today?

She makes plenty of discoveries along the way, and she doesn’t hesitate to share the good, bad, and the ugly about her year living according to “the rules.”

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