Sunday, December 2, 2012

Day 2 of 24 Days of Books: War

Welcome to Day 2 in our 24 Days of Books series. Today's theme is war. That might seem like an odd theme for holiday gift-giving, but there is an unusually strong crop of recently published novels with war themes that are powerful and well written and could be just the right gifts for someone.

The Yellow Birds is a debut novel about a soldier coming of age and about the psychological aftermath of war. In Al Tafar, Iraq, twenty-one-year old Private Bartle and eighteen-year-old Private Murphy cling to life as their platoon launches a bloody battle for the city. Bound together since basic training when Bartle makes a promise to Murphy's mom to bring him safely home, the two have been dropped into a war neither is prepared for. The nonlinear, fractured narrative, which jumps around in time and location, mirrors the chaos and brutality of war.

The novel was a finalist for The National Book Award and was this week named one of this year's top five fiction titles by the New York Times. One NYT review called the book  "a first novel as compact and powerful as a footlocker full of ammo." Another described it as a book "that stands with Tim O’Brien’s enduring Vietnam book, The Things They Carried, as a classic of contemporary war fiction."

At the age of 17, Kevin Powers enlisted in the Army and eventually served as a machine-gunner in Iraq. In 2004 and 2005 he served with the U.S. Army in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq. After his honorable discharge he studied English at Virginia Commonwealth University and received an M.F.A. in Poetry from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin in 2012.

Says Powers: "About a year, two years, after I got home I started trying to deal with my own questions about my experience. I started initially writing poems about the war. I've been writing poems and stories since I was about 13. And I just started accumulating material and I realized that I needed a larger canvas to say what I wanted to say, which was to try to answer the question that people were asking me, which was what was it like over there."

The Yellow Birds is a thoughtful, powerful, lyrical war story. It is published by Little Brown and Company and is available for $24.99 in hardcover.

Another war-themed book that was a finalist for this year's National Book Award is Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. The story takes place over the course of a single day at the annual Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football game. The seven surviving members of the Bravo Squad -- America's most sought-after heroes from the Iraqi war after a three-minute-and-forty-three-second intense firefight is caught on tape by an embedded Fox News crew -- are slated to be honored at halftime of the game, along with a musical performance by Destiny's Child.

The novel presents little in the way of actual war scenes but instead focuses on the American reaction to war and war heroes. After watching a Dallas Cowboys halftime show, the author found it to be a "surreal and patently insane -- to me, anyway -- mash-up of militarism, pop culture, American triumphalism and soft-core porn....I wondered what it would do to your head, to have been over there immersed in daily life-or-death situations, then you return to the U.S. and get plunked down in the middle of this very artificial situation." The book has been described as both wickedly funny and heartbreaking, the Catch-22 of the war in Iraq.

This is Ben Fountain's first novel, following a collection of stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. He has received the PEN/Hemingway Award, a Whiting Writers' Award, an O. Henry Prize, and two Pushcart Prizes, among other honors and awards. The paperback edition of the book ($14.99) has just been released from Harper Collins' Ecco imprint.

Another recently published war-related book that delves into the juxtaposition of the comedy and horror of war is Fobbit, by David Abrams. In the satirical tradition of "Catch-22" and "M*A*S*H, " Abrams takes readers into the chaotic world of Baghdad's Forward Operating Base Triumph. Darkly humorous and based on the author's own experiences in Iraq, this debut novel shows a behind-the-scenes portrait of the real Iraq war. 

In a review in Publisher's Weekly, the book is described as "a harrowing satire of the Iraq War and an instant classic....Abrams's prose is spot-on and often deadpan funny....This novel nails the comedy and the pathos, the boredom and the dread, crafting the Iraq War's answer to Catch-22." The book is available in paperback from Grove Press for $15.

Abrams, who now lives in Montana, served in the U.S. Army for twenty years and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of a public affairs team. He was named the Department of Defense's Military Journalist of the Year in 1994.

And while we're on the subject of excellent, recent, war-themed novels, let's not forget last year's book about the Vietnam War, Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who grew up in Seaside, Oregon, and now lives in Western Washington. The book, also published by Grove Press, is available for $15.95 in paperback.

As always, you'll find many more great gift ideas in our Holiday Books guide, available at our store. See you soon! 

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