"We sit up here at Beaufort, disconnected from everything, drawing rockets and mortar shells and explosive devices, endangering our lives, just so we"We sit up here at Beaufort, disconnected from everything, drawing rockets and mortar shells and explosive devices, endangering our lives, just so we can continue sitting at Beaufort. That's the entire mission. What a shitty feeling." (pg. 130)
Israeli journalist Ron Leshem interviewed IDF soldiers who sat up in the ancient crusader fortress named Beaufort during its occupation of the Lebanon border area that lasted from 1982 to 2000. In his novel, the exact detailing of the mundane, what soldiers know as hours of boredom punctuated by split-seconds of sheer terror, brings the situation to life. It's a familiar story, an almost free-associative illustration of war a la The Yellow Birds melded to the bored-yet-terrorized kids trapped in an outpost surrounded by the enemy in A Midnight Clear: A Novel. I liked Beaufort better than Yellow Birds because I felt a stronger emotional attachment to the characters (despite, it seemed at times, the narrator's every effort to the contrary), but the narrative's wheels stuck at times under the weight of itself, and with no larger story to propel the reader along--unlike Midnight Clear.
Ultimately, this is a tough book for me to review. While reading I went through many stages of discomfort at my reaction to the often off-putting characters, the stream-of consciousness style, the depressing material, and my own inability to determine whether this I should take this all with an ironic grain of salt--or was the author feeding this to me straight? I want to think that the narrator's self-professed mysogyny, homophobia, and zeal-for-war was all an act to do his job as officer, and indeed, he does it very well. At some point in the middle I noticed an emotional cycle where the author would take one of the undeveloped side characters, bring them center-stage, soften them up, get them to spill their secrets, and then "waste" them in the next few pages. It was an almost clockwork procedure of emotional manipulation, and made the book easy to put down, hard to pick back up. In the last 60 pages the story at last shakes off its torpor and I finally felt that resonance I had wanted to feel from the beginning....more
Author Fountain cleverly juxtaposes US Army culture with NFL football, resulting in surprising heart and pathos for what you'd think would be a very m Author Fountain cleverly juxtaposes US Army culture with NFL football, resulting in surprising heart and pathos for what you'd think would be a very macho book. Billy Lynn and his surviving Bravo squad are home from Iraq for a two-week "Victory Tour", having become both Silver Star recipients and YouTube heroes. After making an appearance at a Dallas Cowboys halftime show they'll be sent back to Iraq for another eleven months, but hopefully not before signing for a big movie deal with a Hollywood producer.
There's a sly undercurrent of commentary throughout the novel on American commercialism and how the troops are (or aren't) valued, but I never found it preachy. One of my favorite scenes takes place in the Cowboys football team locker and adjacent multi-million dollar equipment room. There's a palpable, awkward dissonance between players and soldiers that's masterfully portrayed. Happily, despite the kitsch of the set-up, the novel works well as a novel. The characterization and pacing are solid, the writing clever yet rarely overcooked. Billy's "romance" with the cheerleader is hilarious, and juvenile, and poignant all the same. The Bravo squad feels real, their culture spot-on. These guys aren't portrayed as sentimental heroic ideals, despite the Time article and Silver Stars. They're still mostly adolescents and messed-up ones at that. Somehow I couldn't help but like them anyway.
The novel still captures many of the usual war-story tropes--guilt for a dead squad-mate, the sergeant/seer, PTSD, general young male bullishness & inanity--yet does so in a thoroughly 21st century way. Despite what one of the studios interested in making Bravo's movie might think, this isn't a story that could be told in Vietnam or WWII. Without the kluging of "nina-leven", "currj", multi-million dollar football franchises, celebrity-studded half-time extravaganzas, YouTube, iPhones...this novel wouldn't stand. But here we are, and it does. An excerpt from page 234 of the novel actually describes itself pretty well--just be sure to duck before the irony hits you in the face and knocks you out:
[It] is a rat-bite fever dream of soldiers, marching bands, blizzards of bodies bumping and grinding, whoofs of fireworks, multiple drum lines cranking go-team-g0. Destiny's Child! Drill grunts! Toy soldiers and sexytime all mashed together into one big inspirational stew....more
The first time (and last time) I read Hemingway, I all but vowed to never pick him up again, ever. The book was Farewell to Arms, and I was a 17 yearThe first time (and last time) I read Hemingway, I all but vowed to never pick him up again, ever. The book was Farewell to Arms, and I was a 17 year old high school senior assigned to read him for Lit class. It was one of the first books I can remember hating with a passion so violent, I actually hurled the book across the room. But all these years later, I can't exactly remember what angered me, or why. Faulty memory aside, I would not have picked up Hemingway again willingly, but I found myself faced with him (again!) as part of my Thesis. As you can tell by the star rating, I didn't hate it. Color me surprised. Within the first few paragraphs I noticed that this novel was not written in the typical laconic Hemingway style. Compared to Farewell, Papa's Robert Jordan is positively loquacious. But don't fear, the Hemingway-ness will still shine forth in all its glory, what with the absinth-sipping in backwoods caves and a dim, tousle-haired young waif who will brave a snowstorm in nothing but a shirt to come warm our Hero's very manly outdoor sleeping bag (he refuses to share the cave with his Spanish cohorts--what an American!) I can't say I cared much for Jordan or his girl, or that I could even tell the other five or six male characters apart, but I thoroughly enjoyed the unshakable "manly", "ugly" Pilar (who comes across on the page as anything but), the matador-groupie-turned-partisan. She provided the book's never-to-be-forgotten moments, in particular her retelling of how she watched fascist gentlemen in one Spanish town get beaten to death and thrown off a cliff. If only Pilar had narrated the entire book... Although the slow, slogging sections outnumber the can't-put-it-down parts, I may be persuaded to read a few more of Papa's books. At least they are all shorter than this one....more
Wow. Quite blown away by the end of this one. Yes, it's a war story, told from the point of view of a 17 year old German who ends up in the Waffen SSWow. Quite blown away by the end of this one. Yes, it's a war story, told from the point of view of a 17 year old German who ends up in the Waffen SS in 1944. Remember that for later.
The first thing that got me was the opening. Coincidentally, I started this immediately after finishing Nick Arvin's Articles of War (I'm on a war novel kick at the moment...don't ask). One of my peeves with Articles was the overly sentimental love story between the 17 year old protagonist and a pretty French girl. This story has "love story" subplot too, but a more twisted, unhealthy one between a school kid (Sebastian) and an older married woman, and it's just rotten with emotional manipulation. Finally, some realism! On page one, Sebastian tries to leave her. She tells him to go ahead, find a cow-faced farm girl. They throw things. And then "She ran over to the mess of perfume on the floor and splashed her hand in it. Then she ran at me and spread it on my coat. She grabbed me by the neck and wiped the smell of the perfume through my hair and across my face. 'She'll smell us. She'll smell us and then she'll know. You belong to me.' "
By now, I'm thinking "this isn't what I expected. It's better".
There's a great complex story here, following young Sebastian through his training and into the Battle of the Bulge. The final battle stretches over several days and was for me a difficult, unrelenting read. And yet I was surprised at how much I'd grown to empathize with Sebastian and his companions, and found myself (uncharacteristically) heartwrenched by what happens to them.
It seemed to me the author really knew his "stuff"--that is, the training and equipment, what it looked like, how it was used--to a surprising level of detail (even the type of paint on the Tiger, or how to pull the pin in a stick grenade). Impressive, considering the author was in his mid-20s when he published. My only tiny quibble, however, were a few minor "American" details that occasionally jarred me out of the story. For instance, at one point Sebastian is eating his lunch at school out of a paper bag--German schools even today end before lunchtime. Students go home for lunch and there are no afternoon classes. The other was the proliferation of private automobiles (also culturally American). Sebastian's older lover, who I assumed was middle class, owned a car and was still driving it around in late 1944, when even the military didn't have gasoline--where did she get hers? I also think the inclusion of the characters' responses to the racial policies of the day would have brought them more historical texture and complexity (...and complicity).
Overall, a gripping & unforgettable experience despite a few stumbles....more
The term "MFA fiction", or fiction written by graduates of masters degrees in writing, often draws flack from readers as "dull" and "overwritten", notThe term "MFA fiction", or fiction written by graduates of masters degrees in writing, often draws flack from readers as "dull" and "overwritten", not always rightly so, but I think in this case Articles of War deserves the label it plasters over itself--you can't even get to the first page of this story without the having the author's credentials as a graduate of that sacred Iowa Writer's Workshop flashed repeatedly in your face. Not that you probably wouldn't have figured it out anyway within the first three pages.
For me, there are two main characteristics that define that stereotype of MFA fiction (full disclosure: I'm an MFAer myself, and striving to avoid this in my own writing. And what a struggle it is not to sound like one). The first is an unrelenting dour, hopeless tone that saturates many works of MFA fiction like a sour bank of fog. It's gray and cold and miserable inside; there's no humor, no patch of light, no hope. Ok, so maybe the fact that this novel strives to evoke the horrors of war excuses it from offering any lightness and hope. Or does it? Even war, paradoxically, has its weirdly touching, funny, unusual moments that seem out of place, yet provide texture and contrast with the horror. There's no texture or contrast here, just a blob of dull, dour gray.
The second MFA-giveaway is the language and narrative voice. Although close-3rd-person narrator Heck is a young, non-swearing Iowa farm boy, his observations of the world around him are as verbose, philosophical, and overcooked as--you guessed it--those of an educated writer with a graduate degree who wants to show the world how clever and astute he is. And he can be clever and astute, but never for a moment did I think Heck himself was the clever, astute one. I could only ever hear the author as the author, never taking up the character's own, unique, naive farmboy voice (and he must have had one). For example, on page 106: "From then on, the minutes and hours seemed to pass in clotted, desultory spasms, as if time were shambling forward with a great weight on its back and could advance only in effortful paroxysms." There are lots of sentences such as this that seem to shamble forward in effortful paroxysms, long and convoluted serpents that tangle over themselves and slow the pace to a crawl. Isn't this war? Can you even think in complete sentences while under fire? Where are the short sentences? And no, I didn't mean the repetition of the F-word four times in a row. That sort of forced saltiness isn't particularly clever or evocative. Realistic, sure. Literary? But I digress (see, my own mfa voice has reared up. I'll try to beat it back).
However, despite the unflagging dire tone, unconvincing narrative voice and a romantic subplot that goes nowhere (the less said about it the better), the final quarter of this book shines. Heck, after milling about as a passive non-soldier for most of the book (purposely evoking the youth in Red Badge of Courage), he is suddenly plucked up for a mysterious "mission" that turns out to be neither what Heck nor the reader expected, and turns Heck's misgivings about war upside-down and inside-out. It's a great twist, but took far too long to get there. I think the final part of the novel would have made an excellent short story and could have stood alone as a brief, evocative moment. Well conceived, but barely worth the slog....more
This fictional memoir-style novel told by a Chinese soldier taken prisoner by the US army during the Korean war, perhaps as a reflection of its mild-mThis fictional memoir-style novel told by a Chinese soldier taken prisoner by the US army during the Korean war, perhaps as a reflection of its mild-mannered, insightful, educated narrator, rolls forward in the chronologic, episodic manner of a real-life historical account. Jin incorporates detail-rich swaths of political and historical interest to ensure that the typical American reader learns something new about the aptly-named “Forgotten War”. Since the episodic nature of history doesn’t always make for gripping reading, Jin employs a novelistic technique--the reoccurring image of the narrator's anti-American tattoo--to build tension, pique the readers’ curiosity, and ultimately pull them through what might be an otherwise dry read.
The only time-jump in this chronologically-told novel is its flash-forward prologue, in which the aged narrator tells of his first (and probably last) visit to the US to see his grandchildren, and his fear that he will be strip-searched at US immigration and barred from entering the country, even though “like a talisman, the tattoo has protected me in China for almost five decades.” The tattoo makes its long-awaited reappearance about halfway through the novel, after the politically moderate narrator finds himself tossed into a US prisoner of war compound controlled internally by pro-communist Chinese prisoners, but not in the way we expect, and the tension continues to build, but gradually.
Two things surprised me about this novel. The first is that previously mentioned gradual pace, which, considering what should be sensational and violent subject matter; the ever-collected narrator seems to bring a calm, almost zen-like balance to the story. My second surprise is at how little of this is actually fiction. After reading about a US general's abduction by his prisoners, and US tanks firing into a POW compound, I had to do a little research. Turns out, these incidents actually occurred but were (and here's my third surprise) covered up in the aftermath. The names have been changed, but the details are accurate down to the general clinging to the gate for his life. Which should make you want to read the book, if you haven't yet!
The re-occurrence of the tattoo is significant because it is the only element that threads through the story from beginning to end and ties it off at the end. Without it, suspense within the novel’s arc would be fleeting as the narrator moves from the army, to hospital, to a string of POW camps, all replete with their own cast of characters, most of whom are not fleshed out and disappear from the story for good once the narrator moves on. The story is well written, the character likeable yet flawed, and overcomes its own episodic nature and the not-quite suffocating amounts of historical background. That raw, reoccurring image of a mangled tattoo drags us through the narrative like a carrot on a string—and the reader with it—to the last page. ...more
Pretty Birds is the first novel by accomplished journalist Scott Simon, who weaves his own observations as a war correspondent during the crisis in SaPretty Birds is the first novel by accomplished journalist Scott Simon, who weaves his own observations as a war correspondent during the crisis in Sarajevo into a fictional story about a teenage female Bosnian-Muslim sniper. In true journalistic style, Simon blasts his war-torn Yugoslavian setting with color and movement, packing in odd, obscure details with the authority of someone who was there: “The lemons seemed almost to hiss with the morning’s first low light. Irena trained her sight on the top of the mound, then counted one, two, three lemons to the right, because she felt a mild wind blowing down from the mountains in the east […] Within seconds she saw lemons jumping and quaking in their crate like minced garlic in a skillet”. Despite the atmosphere, I sensed early in the story a void of some vital pulsing, like a dead refrigerator that has ceased to hum. Simon the journalist, I slowly realized, effortlessly transcribes with poetic words anything that to him is familiar and tangible, but struggles to convey the intangible, emotional plane of the story. More specifically, the author barely delves into that mystifying, unknowable inner landscape of his teenage main character.
Simon focuses *most* of the story on Irena, a "typical" teenage girl and high school basketball star who is nominally a Bosnian Muslim. The story follows her through the start of the anti-Muslim violence and her eventual grooming as a partisan sniper. This is a fascinating idea based loosely on actual female snipers Simon met as a reporter, but ultimately it fails because the author keeps his subject as emotionally distant as he can. If Irena’s lack of internalization or reflection is intended, she comes across here as far more mature, aloof, and removed from the action (and an explicitly described sex act in chapter 2) than her age would suggest. I suspect that the author, having never seen the workings of a teenage girl’s mind, preferred to neither comment on nor imagine something he had no authority on, and simply left Irena’s inner motivations to the reader’s imagination.
Meanwhile the ever-enlarging cast of secondary characters get on their respective soapboxes to voice the author's political opinions (with one notable exception, who simply says the exact opposite) in page-long blocks of unbroken soliloquies. As for the ending, the author so manipulates the reader in an apparent attempt to provide a "twist" that some may cry betrayal. Luckily, I learned enough about a convoluted piece of recent history that it may have been almost worth it....more
My initial reaction to this book after reading the first few chapters is that it reminded me of Catch-22. Sure enough, after some research, I found ouMy initial reaction to this book after reading the first few chapters is that it reminded me of Catch-22. Sure enough, after some research, I found out that Heller credits Hasek's work as one of his key influences. If you appreciate the biting satire, base humor, and no-holds-barred castigation of bureaucratic organizations in Catch-22, you love it in Svejk as well. Sveyk, the (seemingly) good-natured and dopey Dudley-Do-Right of the Czech contingent in the Austria-Hungarian army during WWI is a well known "hero" in his home country. He represents the "little people" on a world scale, the powerless little countries that have been at the mercy of their militant neighbors throughout the 20th century. Sveyk, unable to assert any form of control on the political chaos around him, engages in a more passive-aggressive tactic. Pretending to be a patriotic supporter of the war, he ensures, through "innocent" bumbling mistakes, that more energy be required to get him to the front than necessary. Although officially labeled an "imbecile" by the military, Sveyk's canniness shines though in his ability to shame and/or outwit the forces that try to impose him (and what greater enemy of the common soldier exists than his own chain of command?) Secondary and tertiary players provide a colorful cast of caricatures: the sozzled chaplain who falls over drunk at mass, the idiot general who speaks in platitudes, the ambitious cadet whose cognac hangover is misdiagnosed as cholera, and finally the Sveyk's own well-meaning and hopelessly frustrated superior officer Lt. Lukas. All of this shows us the political quagmire of WWI eastern Europe and shocks us because really, has anything changed? ...more
I first read this book many years ago, in seventh grade during one of my earliest forays into war fiction. I must have affected me deeply because a feI first read this book many years ago, in seventh grade during one of my earliest forays into war fiction. I must have affected me deeply because a few vivid scenes and images still stand out in my brain over 15 years later: a snowball fight between young German and American soldiers isolated in a forest (the Germans stuck sticks into their own snowballs to mimic the shape of their grenades), red crosses painted with blood to mimic medical personnel, frozen bodies "dancing" with one another, and the narrator's "legendary" case of the runs. I finally read it again, and I'm so glad that I did.
A Midnight Clear tells the (purportedly sorta true) story of a depleted squad of intelligence & reconnaissance specialists who are sent to man and monitor a forward location at an isolated chateau at the start of the Battle of the Bulge. Narrator Will Knott (aka Wont) informs us that these guys are insanely smart, had all received special training and then were transferred to the front as cannon fodder thanks to a bureaucratic error. Wont's own chatty yet introspective style seems to prove his intellectual prowess. Normally I like cleverness, but my biggest issue with this book is that there is a little too much of it--the endless bridge hands and trivia that fill the soldier's many hours of boredom force the pace to a crawl. Also, the six American GIs all talk with the same witty, smart-ass soldier tone as Won't himself, and it's impossible to tell them apart without dialogue tags. Even by the end, the reader only knows most of these characters by the stereotypes they represent: the NY Jew, the almost-pastor, the sensitive weakling, the mechanic. Despite this, the situation of their isolation, the creeping terror they experience cut off from anything familiar, makes it impossible not to identify and empathize. Soon they make accidental contact with a similarly isolated, strangely submissive group of German soldiers who call "Schlaf gut, Ami!" (sleep well, Yank!) each night across the clearing. This isn't a black & white war story where good fights evil, but it's still a gripping, sometimes terrifying, always thought-provoking yarn....more