Monday, June 16, 2014


Recently, AARP published a list of 20 must-read novels, the kind of list we frequently encounter, and of course I scanned it to see which of them I've read.  It was the usual -- about a third of them.  If a book is listed based on the number of sales or some other quantitative measure, quality isn't necessarily established, so I decided to use my own blog to occasionally review a few books I've read and liked or tried to like.

For this post I'm going to use one I read within the last year, The Yellow Birds,  by Kevin Powers,  and a set of two novels I've read connected by Flannery O'Connor: her own novel Wise Blood and a novel that incorporates Flannery O'Connor as a character, A Good Hard Look, by Ann Napolitano. 

The Yellow Birds  
by Kevin Powers
241 pages, published in  2012  

The story begins with this powerful statement, "The war tried to kill us in the spring."  It is the story of soldiers trying to stay alive in Iraq.  Twenty-one and eighteen-year-old friends stay close to each other as their platoon begins a bloody attempt to take the city Al Tafar.  

Friends since basic training, they make promises of lives they long to keep, to bring them safely out of a war they didn't want or prepare for, to families that will not understand the effects of this war on their sons. 

My Review

An excellent first book.  I had trouble with chapter/time placement, frequently went to the TOC to compare year and place, but I'm not sure there was a better way to convey the story, which took place over a few years and places.  I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and feel that The Yellow Birds may be the book to be remembered about the Mideast wars of the last decades. 

In neither of these books did I feel the soldier/writers knew exactly why they were fighting.  They were concerned with what they carried and the soldiers next to them. Getting home wasn't foremost in their minds.  Maybe surviving was.  My memory pictures them always sitting or standing with their backs against some wall.

Kevin Powers has an uncanny way with words.  I found myself stopping to reread sentences, even whole paragraphs, to savor some particularly penetrating group of words. 

I copied these quotes about the book from the web site.

"The All Quiet on the Western Front of America's Arab wars." -- Tom Wolfe

"We haven't just been waiting for a great novel to come out of the Iraq War, our twenty-first century Vietnam; we have also been waiting for something more important, a work of art that illuminates our flawed and complex and striving humanity behind all such wars.  At last we have both in Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds.'" -- Robert Olen Butler

Wise Blood
by Flannery O'Connor 
248 pages, Second Edition 1962, First Published in 1952

My Review

One of the Wise Blood reviews I read on Goodreads, Stephani, ended with the following.  "This is definitely not a life-changing book, but maybe worth a read if you want to say that you read Flannery O'Connor.  I am not really sure if that will impress anyone, but I'll try it and let you know." 

Within Wise Blood, the only time I laughed was with this line, "You can sit at home and interpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interpited." Isn't that just like a zealot, to pretend your opinion counts when it doesn't?

What I'm saying is, there aren't many laughs in what O'Connor called "a comic novel." She does qualify that by stating in the author's note in the second edition, ten years after she wrote the book, "It is a comic novel about a Christian 'malgre lui' and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death."  She also says she wrote this novel with zest and that it should be read that way.  My head is spinning.

I've been a fan of Flannery O'Connor's short stories for years, mainly because of her far-out characters and plots.  This book, however, my first novel, is murky and hard to follow, and I'm losing my zest for her writing. There's nothing that deep here, just dark, exquisite writing, which is what she did.

The only fun part for me was the car.  Haze worshiped his car.  How many times did he say, "This car'll get me anywhere I want to go?"  How many times did it let him down, and what did he use it for finally?  To kill Solace Layfield.  I think Flannery O'Connor knew that what she was writing was more about Haze Motes moping about because he lost his car than because he had sinned and needed redemption.  I know she thought and wrote deeply about religion, but she was, perhaps, a realist, too?  A man loves his car.

All that 'Church of Christ' and 'Church of Christ without Christ' rolled off her pen.  I'm sure she didn't think about every word she wrote.  The book has a subtle outline, but within that outline it rambles.  All of her stories, and at least this novel, are of a kind we find hard to fathom, so sometimes, as Stephani said, we just read a Flannery book or story to say we've read it, or out of pure curiosity.  For me, it's because I come across references to O'Connor in other reading and I want to know what is being referenced.  Now I know, and just as I know Faulkner, I know O'Connor,  and though I'm glad to have read her book, I'll probably search for happier grounds.

A Good Hard Look 
by Ann Napolitano
336 pages, published in  2011

In a work about strange relationships and choices, Flannery O'Connor returns to Andalusia, her family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, because she is ill with lupus.  She works on finishing a novel and tends to her peacocks. Cookie Himmel, beautiful and full of Southern charm, returns with her rich fiance, Melvin, to be married and live the perfect life.  Flannery's mother insists that she go to the wedding.

A woman, Lona, is hired to help Cookie create that perfect home, but when she is given another opportunity, she grabs it.  A baby is born to Cookie and Melvin, who love him.  Melvin begins to feel that life is passing him by and is drawn to a friendship with Flannery. Tragedy consumes all of their lives in one unbelievable act.

My Review

Making Flannery O'Connor one of the characters in the book made for enthralled reading of a well done and well researched work.  The plot was a little 'out there' but after all, this is a book with Flannery O'Connor as one of the main characters.  The setting and those who reside within were well developed and believable. 

To quote from the book description on Amazon, "Heartbreakingly beautiful and inescapably human, these ordinary and extraordinary people chart their own courses through life.  In the aftermath on one tragic afternoon, they are all forced to look at themselves and face up to Flannery's observation that "the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

This book will stay with you as you try to sort out the strange relationships and the aftermath of their actions. 

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