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The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Kevin Powers

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1,2721136,200 (3.79)192
Title:The Yellow Birds
Authors:Kevin Powers
Info:Sceptre/Hodder & Stoughton, London, England (2012), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover
Collections:Your library
Tags:iraq, war, vetran

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The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Author) (2012)


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English (105)  German (2)  Danish (2)  Spanish (1)  French (1)  Dutch (1)  All (112)
Showing 1-5 of 105 (next | show all)
Oustanding, Private!
That'll get you a case of beer. ( )
  hvg | May 3, 2017 |
Wonderful, haunting, heartbreaking, chilling, compelling, and beautiful hardly begin to describe this novel. Literary giant, Tom Wolfe, described it as "The All Quiet on the Western Front of America's Arab wars." Powers paints a vivid picture of what it was like to serve as an American soldier in the middle east and then come back and deal with the trauma of what you've experienced. Chapters are told in non-linear timelines and the author goes back and forth, from before the war, during and after. It all leads up to - what happened to Murphy, the 18 year old soldier he promises to look after? The war scenes were graphic but I thought the most emotionally grueling was the trauma of coming home and trying to figure out how to live again. How to re-enter society and deal with all the hell he saw abroad, I really felt for him. Raw and gripping! ( )
  ecataldi | Apr 10, 2017 |
Quietly devastating. Small story of a man's crumbling after serving in Iraq. This small story multiplied by thousands represents another generation of young men and civilians who are being destroyed by war and our indifference to them after they come home. ( )
  jjaylynny | Nov 12, 2016 |
Ron Charles of the Washington Post said of The Yellow Birds what I keenly felt throughout my reading of the book but could not quite put into words. I'll quote him: "Frankly, the parts of The Yellow Birds are better than the whole. Some chapters lack sufficient power, others labor under the influence of classic war stories, rather than arising organically from the author’s unique vision." Another reviewer said that Powers was suffering from a "massive Hemingway crush." Both assessments ring true--and yet I don't see this as the sole fault of an insanely talented author. This is a poet writing his first novel. The small trespasses, such as the bald imitation of Hemingway (most notable in the first half of the book, disappearing for the most part in the second), the assignation of detailed accounts to secondary characters which come across as impossible at worst or an unconvincing protagonist's inhabitation of a secondary character's perspective at best, and so on, are easily caught by sensitive editors. Part of me wonders if the editor was loathe to touch even a sentence of a book about a veteran's war experience, most particularly when that author clearly labored over each sentence. I appreciate so tremendously the craftsmanship of each sentence. At times, though, it was almost too much--a problem I see often in novels or nonfiction by writers who consider themselves primarily poets. There is an overrichness to the prose that is taxing, and that is the case here, quite often. The imagery sometimes bloats an otherwise spare book, making some of the more remarkable sentences easily lost. And there are some stunning--stunning in the literal sense--sentences here. I happened to find that the sections detailing the most important events in the book, the language is so beautifully precise that it haunts. So for me there was a tremendous feel of unevenness here that was really frustrating.

The interiority of this piece was the point, I gather, and yet it's that very interiority that kept me from fully investing in Murphy. I couldn't understand the impetus behind the decision made jointly by Sterling and the narrator at the end of the book. Completely out of character for Sterling, even the brutality that resulted from their decision. Anyway, once again, I find myself in the minority with a book that has garnered almost universal critical praise. It reminds me of my experience with Zadie Smith's White Teeth, which I found to be a deeply flawed novel but which was widely considered one of the best books of the decade. I have far fewer complaints with Powers' book. I just think a sensitive editor doing a slight amount of pruning and calling the author to account in the first half of the book when the over-reliance on Hemingway is so egregious that it sometimes read to me as parody and asking him to revert to his own true voice, would have turned this into a five-star book for me. ( )
1 vote bookofmoons | Sep 1, 2016 |
Nothing made us special. Not living. Not dying. Not even being ordinary. Still, I like to think there was a ghost of compassion in me then, and that if I'd had a chance to see those hyacinths I would have noticed them." (pg. 14).

[Note:- This review may contain spoilers, of a sort. I'll be referring to a certain character's death, but we are told by the author rather early on in the book (page 14, to be exact) that this character will be killed, so make your own judgement about whether you consider this a spoiler.]

The Yellow Birds is fiction, but it permeates with hard-won truths. Everything about it seems authentic, and even the lyricism of the prose never feels indulgent or mawkish. No doubt, much of this authenticity comes from Kevin Powers the soldier, from Richmond, Virginia (like his protagonist, John Bartle), who fought in Iraq (again, like Bart) and relayed his experiences in this, a sort of memoir posing as fiction. But authenticity also comes from Kevin Powers the writer, who has made his first novel such a mesmeric read.

It is not a perfect book, to be sure, but it misses out on perfection only marginally. The first chapter of The Yellow Birds has instantly become one of my most favourite pieces of prose. I am a big fan of Ernest Hemingway, and it is clear from his writing that Powers is too. Powers speaks in his own voice, but the Hemingway echoes early on are spine-tingling. A somewhat ordinary line on page eight about the sky being heavy with snow was so Hemingway-esque that I had to stop reading and just stare at the words. It never appears that Powers is trying to ape Hemingway, but parts of the book, and this first chapter in particular, are as good as anything Hemingway ever wrote.

I have read some excellent books by first-time authors, but none so assured as Powers. Every literary technique he uses is perfectly measured. The matter-of-fact reportage of various characters' deaths, major or minor, is evocative, allowing us to experience the deaths with the same ordinariness that Bartle felt. As Powers writes, "Nothing seemed more natural than someone getting killed... We only [paid] attention to rare things, and death was not rare." (pg. 11). When Bartle's first-person narrative tells us on page 14 that his best friend Murph is killed, this somehow makes it even more shocking, both in that moment and later on when the event itself is remembered, than if we had experienced it as a surprise. We are slowly fed little details about the circumstances of Murph's death; I am a big fan of the 'slow reveal' technique and Powers' use of it is assured. Even characters that are one-scene wonders - the girl with the auburn curls in Chapter 1, the crying female medic in Chapter 8 - make a lasting, somewhat haunting, impression.

Aside from its literary strengths, The Yellow Birds also has a lot of important stuff to say on the nature of war. Powers has said that his motivation for writing the book was to answer those who asked him, upon his return from Iraq, "what was it like over there?" As I have not experienced either combat or military life, I cannot attest as to whether he has succeeded, but this book does evoke a lot of emotions from its reader. One service that the book has done for me is to make the Iraq War - and modern warfare in general - more accessible to me. You see, modern warfare, both in popular culture depictions and in my university years studying history and politics, has always seemed rather cold. Distant, technical, clinical. It is played out on news channels and lacks intimacy. It always seemed to be about jargon (e.g. kill ratio, collateral damage), technical specifications and small, non-linear battles. In contrast, depictions of older wars - say, for example, World War Two - tend to evoke the grime and guts of warfare better: the fear of a soldier, a human being; the shred of a bullet; the etch of a tank tread in the mud; the whine of a mortar shell. What Powers does so well is strip modern warfare of its platonic distance and elitism, bringing it into line with those older depictions. As strange as it may sound, at a few points I forgot the book was set in the Iraq War in 2004 and began seeing it as a World War Two story. Powers makes his story human; he reminds us that every war, even modern high-tech ones, needs boots on the ground, and human beings to fill those boots.

As I said earlier, however, The Yellow Birds is not perfect. It starts exceptionally well, and Powers would have been well-advised to build on the strengths evident in the early chapters. In these, we learn about Bartle's psyche and outlook through his interaction with external factors; broadly speaking, the war and the various things it throws at him. Unfortunately, in later chapters Bartle monologues more on his inner feelings rather than the external things that are oppressing him. Consequently, to mirror Bartle's soul-searching, the author's prose becomes more insular. Whilst still enjoyable, it loses somewhat the bracing Hemingway-esque brevity evident early on. In fact, it becomes a bit Terrence Malick-y, a bit Thin Red Line-ish. By the end, the clear, hard-hitting messages of the early chapters had been replaced by a portrait of an abstract and labyrinthine consciousness. As it had started so well, when it started to become denser I could only come to the conclusion that the book was losing its way. This was confirmed to me by the implausible nature of Bartle and Sterling's response to Murph's death, and various other events which were inadequately resolved, such as why Bartle wrote that letter to Murph's mother.

But I choose to focus on the high points of The Yellow Birds, and they are very high indeed. Thematically, there is much one could discuss, but the hyacinth in particular make an impression. The line from the book that I quoted at the start of this review - "I like to think there was a ghost of compassion in me then, and that if I'd had a chance to see those hyacinths I would have noticed them." - I initially associated with the character of Malik in Chapter 1, and one can indeed interpret it in this way. But when one reads that Murph's body is found "covered in a patch of lifeless hyacinth" (pp204-5), I began to re-evaluate that earlier passage: maybe it not only Malik's garden story that Bartle was referring to but in fact witnessing Murph among the patch of hyacinth. Looking at Murphy's body, he sees the hyacinths it lies in; he notices them. There is a theme of perception, of truth, of acceptance here that I have not yet resolved in my mind, but it is certainly profound and certainly deliberate on the author's part. The Yellow Birds almost makes a rod for its own back in starting off so excellently, so that the only way is down. It starts off at its peak, and diminishes in gradients towards its uneven ending. However, that initial peak is so high, so stratospheric, that even at the end of its decline it is still at a sufficient height to be regarded as a great book." ( )
  MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 105 (next | show all)
A remarkable, beautifully understated, powerful, yet poised novel.
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.” 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.

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.
...and while few will have expected the war in Iraq to bring forth a novel that can stand beside All Quiet on the Western Front or The Red Badge of Courage, The Yellow Birds does just that, for our time, as those books did for theirs.
added by Milesc | editThe Guardian, John Burnside (Aug 31, 2012)

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Powers, KevinAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Abelsen, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A yellow bird   With a yellow bill   Was perched upon   My windowsill     I lured him in   With a piece of bread   And then I smashed   His fucking head.. ----- Traditional U.S. Army Marching Cadence ------
To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and eveil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.   ----- Sir Thomas Browne
For my wife
Στη γυναίκα μου
First words
The war tried to kill us in the spring.
If you get back to the States in your head before your ass is there too, then you are a fucking dead man.
It reminded me of talking, how what is said is never quite what was thought, and what is heard is never quite what was said, it wasn't much in the way of comfort, but everything has a little failure in it, and we still make do somehow.
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Book description
Bartle , 21 ans , est soldat en Irak à Al Tafar. Depuis l'entraînement , lui et Murph , 18 an sont inseparables . Bartle a fait la promesse de le ramener vivant au pays . Une promesse qu'il n'a pas pu tenir ... Murphy hante dès lors ses rêves de soldat et , plus tard de veteran.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0316219363, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, Debut Spotlight, September 2012: With The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers introduces himself as a writer of prodigious talent and ambition. The novel opens in 2004, when two soldiers, 21-year-old Bartle and the teenaged Murphy, meet in boot camp on the eve of their deployment to Iraq. Bartle, bound by a promise to Murphy's mother to guide him home safely, takes the young private under his wing as they move through the bloody conflict that "rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer." Powers, an Iraq veteran, eyes the casual violence of war with a poet's precision but without romanticism, moving confidently between scenes of blunt atrocity and almost hallucinatory detachment with Hemingway-like economy and prose that shimmers like desert heat. Compact and emotionally intense, The Yellow Birds joins a maturing and impressive collection of Iraq War literature--both memoir and fiction--that includes Brian Castner's The Long Walk and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. --Jon Foro

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:51 -0400)

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In the midst of a bloody battle in the Iraq War, two soldiers, bound together since basic training, do everything to protect each other from both outside enemies and the internal struggles that come from constant danger.

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