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The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
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The Yellow Birds (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Kevin Powers

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1,1971106,697 (3.79)191
Member:ghefferon
Title:The Yellow Birds
Authors:Kevin Powers
Info:Sceptre/Hodder & Stoughton, London, England (2012), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover
Collections:Your library
Rating:**1/2
Tags:iraq, war, vetran

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

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English (102)  German (2)  Danish (2)  Spanish (1)  French (1)  Dutch (1)  All languages (109)
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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 |
I was really looking forward to this read, and for a lot of reasons. I've been impressed with a lot of recent literature by veterans, and I love Tim O'Brien's work; it seemed like this would be a great fit for my tastes... And, yet.

At some points, there were passages that struck me, but even in those moments, this felt very much like an overly-formed, one-size-fits-all, and too carefully developed MFA book. The style and the detachment in it felt like what academia thinks a war-book should look like, and wants it to look like. It felt like someone learning to write well in order to write a 'great American book' that could win awards...even if readers didn't enjoy it all that much, and that was a real problem for me. Maybe it's because I have read so much war-related literature, including books connected to the most recent wars and Iraq, or perhaps it's because the structure felt too artificial to be really engaging, but one way or another, I was hugely disappointed. It felt very literary, and smartly done... but not all that powerful as a result. It had its moments, but in the end, I have to say that it left me feeling sort of cold. And, I'm sure, there are academics out there who'd say, 'Yes! That's how you're supposed to feel after you read a book like this! That's the point!' Perhaps it is--in fact, I imagine it is, and that's why this is the way it is and has been so widely promoted, but honestly, it left me wanting much more from its pages.

I wanted to like it, for a lot of reasons. I really did. But, in the end, I probably wouldn't recommend it. I also wouldn't read more of the writer's fiction, though I could see reading his poetry if I came across it. ( )
1 vote whitewavedarling | May 3, 2016 |
This story is about young soldiers in Iraq and what happens when one of them flips out. I'm glad I listened to it, but it just didn't feel as believable to me and I had some issues with the underlying premise. I hate to explain, because I would have to reveal all. So if you have read it and want to talk, please dialogue with me. I will say that it is a good glimpse into what the soldiers over there faced (it takes place in 2004). ( )
  sydsavvy | Apr 8, 2016 |
“Grief is a practical mechanism, and we only grieved those we knew. All others who died in Al Tafar were part of the landscape, as if something had sown seeds in that city that made bodies rise from the earth, in the dirt or up through the pavement like flowers after a frost, dried and withering under a cold, bright sun." (Ch 6)

In Al Tafar, Nineveh Province, Iraq, Privates Bartle and Murphy, 21-years-old and 18-years-old respectively, battle under the command of Sergeant Sterling, not much older than they. The young men, both from Georgia, met at Fort Benning – Bartle recalls promising Murphy’s mother that he would bring her son home alive, and Sargeant Sterling advising the young solider that he wanted him to “get in Bartle’s back pocket and I want you to stay there." (Ch 2) As the novel opens, the platoon has launched (another) bloody battle for Al Tafar; and Bartle observes that his friend has “grown old in the ten months I’d known him.” (Ch 2) In the endless days that follow, the two will do everything they can to protect one another. But only Bartle will go home to the US – a fate perhaps even less kind than death: "My missing him became a grave that could not be filled or leveled, just a faded blemish in a field and a damn poor substitute for grief, as graves so often are.” (Ch 7)

The Yellow Birds is a powerful, necessary read – an unforgettable account of friendship and loss, and a stark portrayal of the brutality and desperation of war, and of its unimaginable after-effects. Powers, an Iraq War veteran, unmistakably draws on first hand experience. My only criticism of the novel is that the prose occasionally tends to the too-poetic (Powers is also a poet), which I found created a discordant effect between language and subject. The novel has been hailed as the All Quiet on the Western Front of the Middle East. And, while I personally prefer Remarque’s novel, I think the importance of writing about the soldiers’ experience of Iraq cannot be overestimated. Highly recommended.

“Now I know: All pain is the same. Only the details are different.” (Ch 7) ( )
2 vote lit_chick | Apr 5, 2016 |
Beautifully written, complex and sad. Captures well the paradoxes of being a soldier, but I wish we didn't need to read about war.
  Lylee | Apr 3, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 102 (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)
 

» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Powers, KevinAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Abelsen, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
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
Dedication
For my wife
Στη γυναίκα μου
First words
The war tried to kill us in the spring.
Quotations
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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