The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers. Little, Brown 2012. A finalist for the 2012 National Book Awards. This is a very tough book to read, but in my view it is also destined to be a war classic, right up there with The Things They Carried and Matterhorn. Powers has used the vehicle of fiction to tell this story about war in Iraq and those who fought it. As a veteran himself, serving in the US Army in 2004 and 2005 as a machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, he knows the territory of this hell first hand. We’ve all heard the phrase “the winds of war,” which I associate with Herman Wouk’s second novel about WWII, Winds of War. What we learn in The Yellow Birds is the extent to which those who fight a war are shaped, warped, eroded, and, yes, even erased by that wind’s action on their hearts, souls, and bodies. Yellow Birds’ story of two boys joining up and being deployed in Iraq, bound by the one’s promise to bring him home, reveals the pure bullshit of sending our young people to war, wasting their potential in countries that don’t care and don’t want our occupations. It’s a story of the crushing reality of the war zone, of living on the razor’s edge of life and death, enduring the squalor, the unbelievable gore and inhumanity of combat. It reveals their longing for home, for “ordinary,” for anything but this. Yes, it’s a tough book to read, but for anyone who thinks war has some glorious meaning or can ever be justified in the absence of the defense of homeground, this story is the real deal, the “Hurt Locker” of literature. Powers writes well and holds the gift of powerful description within his hands and mind. From The Guardian. BUY now at Amazon.
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak. Knopf 2005. This is an amazing, unique book that has won tremendous recognition and awards and is soon to be out as a movie. First of all, there is the voice. Zusak uses Death as a narrator, an appropriate omniscient observer during the years of WWII, when people died by the millions. Death comes not only for Jews, but soldiers on all fronts, citizens who were just trying to go about their business and survive, and other “outsiders” in a devastating political arena. Kept plenty busy carrying souls away, leaving bodies behind, Death tells this story through the lives of one family and their friends in a poor neighborhood outside Munich and covers the period from 1939 to 1945, the war’s end. In the opening scenes, a young girl named Liesel Meminger suffers the loss of her young brother and, at his funeral, she spots a book on the ground titled The Grave Digger’s Handbook—it’s the first book she steals. She is sent to live with foster parents Hans and Rosa Hubermann, he an itinerant accordion-playing house painter and she a laundress with a sailor’s vocabulary. As her foster father teaches her to read, Liesel’s passion for books is ignited and the next one she steals is from a Nazi book burning in the public square. Zusak’s characters are finely drawn, we know them—they are every person caught in a war zone and trying save themselves and their families. This is a monumental accomplishment, a book for the ages. It gets the highest recommendation. Video Interview with the author. BUY now at Amazon.
A new author on my radar who is a superb writer and writes about the history of a region I knew little about, who weaves the facts into wonderful stories, is Tan Twan Eng. I had to read the following two one after the other!
The Gift of Rain, Tan Twan Eng. Weinstein 2008. A moving debut novel; a literary tour de force. Historical fiction at its finest, this is the story of a young man’s truest love and the effects of conflicting loyalties during the years of the Japanese occupation of colonial Malaya in WWII. Philip Hutton—half-Chinese, half-English, and the youngest child of the head of one of Penang’s great trading families—has never felt he truly belongs in either the Chinese or the English communities. When he unexpectedly meets and is befriended by Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat who rents a nearby island from his father, an extraordinary relationship develops. Endo teaches him about Japanese language and culture and trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. When the Japanese attack and occupy Penang during WWII, Philip’s loyalties to his beloved family and to his friend conflict and cause him unimaginable grief and pain. Seen by some as a traitor and by others as a savior, there is no one who understands the burden he carries. The novel is beautifully written, with poetic description of the region’s geography and a sensitive understanding and compassion for the mix of cultures within the era. This book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon.
The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng. Weinstein Books 2012. “On a mountain above the clouds, in the central highlands of Malaya lived the man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.” And so begins this beautifully written novel by the author of The Gift of Rain. His new novel is also a “literary page-turner” and he continues many of the themes of his debut, although not with the same characters. Set in Malaysia during an era when British colonialism and Japanese occupation are still painfully remembered, Eng explores how we can hate a group or a government, for what it has done to us personally, yet overcome those feelings to love an individual—we are such complicated beings and emotions often move us beyond history. There is a richness to Eng’s writing—it’s intensely descriptive and draws us into a land and culture not known to many of us in the West. His characters ring true, we care about them and empathize with their struggles. Along the way we learn about the ancient tradition of Japanese gardening, a partial history of a brutal occupation, and travel along the fragile, slender threads that comprise memory for us all. Garden of Evening Mists was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2012. Here’s a favorite quote:
“Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again.”
The Swan Thieves, Elizabeth Kostova. Little, Brown 2010. This was a favorite for me last year—probably because every page is colored by the exploration of what it is to be an artist. Robert Oliver, a reknowned painter, is arrested for attacking a canvas in DC’s National Gallery. When he refused to explain himself, or to talk at all, he is transferred to the care of psychiatrist Andrew Marlow at a private mental health facility. Marlow, an amateur artist himself, is drawn into the silent world of Oliver, intrigued by the artist’s singular focus on painting one subject—a dark-haired woman—over and over again, and his constant rereading of a collection of old letters written in French. As Marlow becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of his brilliant but mentally disturbed patient, he oversteps professional boundaries by visiting Oliver’s exwife and then his most recent girlfriend (also a talented artist). Both women speak of Robert’s growing erratic behavior and his focus on continually painting the same woman—who they believe to be a lover. When it turns out that the subject of Oliver’s work is long dead, the plot thickens and takes Marlow to Paris to discover the source of the mystery. Throughout the book, each woman tells her story and discusses her experiences with Oliver and his mystery woman. The letters reveal the contemporary implications of a long-ago romance. I loved this theme of lives focused on art, love of it, and the pursuit of creating it. Book website. BUY now at Amazon.
A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash. William Morrow 2012. This beautifully written debut literary novel is a gem among the fool’s gold of much that is published today. A young boy and his older brother “Stump”—mute from birth—see something they should not have seen. Each child experiences life-altering consequences as a result. The characters in this book are finely drawn, the voices true, and the story gripping. Set in a remote southern mountain community, a charismatic pastor who appeared out of nowhere mesmerizes his parishioners with poisonous snakes and “healing” hands, his visions of “God’s will.” Cash is an author we can hope to hear from through many years ahead. If you enjoy this one, he has a new one due out in 2014. Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon.
TransAtlantic, Colum McCann. Random House 2013. Speaking of wonderful literature, I just finished reading this new one from the National Book Award winner. McCann weaves together the lives of several generations whose connections begin with British aviators’ Alcock and Brown’s first trans-Atlantic flight in 1919, a segment from England to Ireland. Using a very challenging style that moves back and forth between all the lives that briefly impact one another and then spin off in other directions, McCann employs language any writer would envy and brings to the tale a deep understanding of what it is to be human. I was very moved by this book and found it to be a perfect example of how a book can develop gradually and arise from years of careful research and writing and be all the richer for it. Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon.
The Girl in the Garden, Kamala Nair. Grand Central 2012. When ten-year-old Rakhee Singh is uprooted from life in her Minnesota home to join her mother on an unexpected visit to their ancestral home in India, mysterious family and cultural currents conspire to change everything she’s known and believed. In the jungle behind the dilapidated estate, Rakhee discovers a walled up garden holding a frightening secret. Relatives seem welcoming, yet at times distant and even threatening. Her mother’s childhood friend is more than he seems. Life is much more complicated than in America and there are tragic undertones woven throughout this fascinating mainstream novel. Nair brings enormous powers of description to bear and her debut effort has been described as “a dark, grown-up fairy tale that will enchant and resonate long after the last page has been read.” Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon.
Mudbound, Hillary Jordan. Algonquin 2008. What a remarkable book. It is no surprise to me that it won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for socially engaged fiction. Books that win that award are often among my favorites—powerful stories that shine a light on forces of good and evil as expressed in the most complex of human beings. Mudbound is set in Mississippi and deeply embedded in racial tensions and the worst brutality of the Jim Crow South. Laura, thought by her gentile, cultured family to be past the age of finding a suitable husband, is unexpectedly courted by a man who appears acceptable in every way: professional, thoughtful, reliable. When Henry and Laura marry, life is good in many ways; they have two daughters and lead a quiet life. But beneath the surface lies Henry’s determination to one day go back to farming and, without consulting Laura, he purchases rural property in Mississippi’s Delta where they must live in abysmal conditions. After every hard rain, the land turns to mud, and they are cut off from town. Black sharecroppers come with the farm and, among them, one family, the Jacksons, are impacted by Henry’s stern management policies in horrifying ways. When the Jackons’ son, Ronsel, a returning WWII veteran and NCO with medals to his credit, and Jamie, Henry’s charming but war-shocked brother, become friends in a small town that still openly calls black people “niggers,” events are set in motion for irredeemable tragedy. Jordan alternates among half a dozen characters’ points of view to bring us a powerfully written, heart-wrenching tale you will not soon forget. This is one of those books that FEAST has rediscovered among those that have fallen by the wayside among an avalanche of newer titles—and we are thrilled to bring it to your attention! Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon.
The Round House, Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins 2012. One word: WOW. Erdrich does it again—a great story, told from the point of view of a 13-year-old Native American boy, about family, justice, and how suddenly the games of childhood can thrust one into the most serious of moral dilemmas. In spring of 1988, Geraldine Coutts, who lives with her family on a North Dakota reservation, is violently attacked and barely escapes death. Her family’s life is irrevocably changed as the crime sets in motion a series of events shaped by history, federal and Indian law, and revenge. Geraldine’s son Joe and his three buddies set out to take things into their own hands when adult authorities seem hogtied by convention, which leads to the unraveling of decades of secrets and intertwined religious, cultural, and social beliefs. I have not liked every book Ms. Erdrich has written, but this one grabbed me from the first chapter and would not set me free until I’d read the last word on the last page. PBS on Erdrich. BUY now at Amazon.
Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon. Simon & Schuster 2013. It’s rare when we come across a novel about the Korean War or its survivors, altho we are seeing more stories coming out of those countries in recent years. This small book of less than 200 pages is beautifully written and explores the journey of Yohan, who defects from his country at the end of that war. He travels by ship to the coast of Brazil to take a job as an apprentice to a Japanese tailor. How he makes a life from the remnants of his past and that of others he encounters along the way holds a lesson for all of us in loving what we have and letting go of what is gone forever. Author interview. BUY now at Amazon.
Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks. Viking 2011. Brooks also wrote People of the Book, and is a Pulitzer Prize winner. To quote the flap text, “In 1665, a young man from Martha’s Vineyard became the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. From the few facts that survive of this extraordinary life, Brooks creates a luminous tale of passion and belief, magic and adventure.” That summarizes an amazing story. Although fashioned from little cloth, Brooks makes it possible for us to see what life in America was like in those days, not only for Native Americans but also for women. Neither group had rights and few of those who did saw any reason to change things. In spite of those constrictions, there were those who maneuvered around the land mines to succeed, to be educated, to be free. If that’s a concept that rings bells for you, you’ll love this book. Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon.
Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron. Algonquin 2012. This sensitively told story draws us into the life of a young man born in a remote Rwandan village whose dream is to run in the Olympics. As he and his running prowess grow, the political situation worsens for those like himself who are Tutsi. We all have some awareness of the horrifying genocidal events that occurred in Rwanda, but Benaron bears witness to them through a cast of characters we come to care deeply about, and the story sits solidly on a foundation of meticulous research. The author masterfully portrays the complexity of humans, the bright spots of courage and love, the inhumanity of some and the indifference of others. It’s a very worthwhile read that won the Bellwether Prize in 2010. Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon.
The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom. Simon & Schuster 2010. One of the goals of FEAST is to remind readers about outstanding books from previous years that may not have gotten the recognition they deserved because they had insufficient promotional budgets behind them. The publishing world today often does not allow a book time to build an audience as appreciation of its content grows. Grissom’s The Kitchen House is just such a book. Following her best-selling The Help by a year, it somehow never quite got the same attention and yet it is, in many ways, a deeper exploration of race, family, and the full range of complicated human emotions during an historic period in the South. Just recently the Wall Street Journal acknowledged the book as a “breakout hit, two and a half years after it was published.” The setting for this riveting tale of suspense, interracial relations, and class inequities is the plantation South during the period of 1791 to 1810. An orphaned Irish girl becomes an indentured servant on a tobacco plantation. She’s placed under the supervision of the all-black slave staff and it is there that she finds a new sense of family. But no matter how strongly her heart crosses the color line, her skin forever separates her from those she loves most. Well written and fast paced, Grissom captures your attention with her finely drawn characters and agile handling of complex emotional and social issues. It’s mainstream fiction that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the final, dramatic climax. Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon.
In the Shadow of the Banyon, Vaddey Ratner. Simon & Schuster 2012. A richly textured debut novel by a woman who has chosen fiction as the vehicle for writing her own story of birth to a royal Cambodian family a few years before the brutal Khmer Rouge regime took control and waged genocidal warfare, taking an estimated two million lives over a four year period. Seldom mentioned in the western world, the devastation wreaked on this land of ancient customs and mythical legends and poems is a fascinating way to broaden our historic awareness. The story is told from the viewpoint of seven-year-old Raami, who understands little of politics or why they must flee their palatial home with only a day’s notice. She dotes on her father, a poet who weaves magical tales to guide her over the next four years as she watches the Khmer Rouge attempt to strip the population of every shred of individual identity. Raami’s fight for survival against unimaginable odds is well worth a read. Author’s website. BUY now at Amazon.