The Yellow Birds: A glimpse into the Iraq war

The Yellow Birds

For whatever reason, books taking place outside the first or second world war generally haven’t been able to interest me that much. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, however, was an exception, and I decided to read it on a whim.

The main character is 21 year old Private Bartle, who is fighting in the Iraq war and his experience looking out for 18 year old Private Murphy, who latches on quite early from their basic-training days, but through their experiences becomes a friend.

Powers draws on his personal experiences as a gunner in Iraq, specifically in Al Tafar, and his background in poetry, which clearly comes through in his writing. At first it was tough for me to get into, as I much prefer a story with more dialogue versus this very descriptive style, but as I became aware of the type of story being told, it made a lot more sense.

If you look at the reviews on Goodreads,  you’ll see mixed opinions on Powers’ writing, as well as his non-linear style of storytelling. From chapter-to-chapter, we jump back-and-forth from Bartle’s experiences in Iraq, to his post-war attempted re-acclimation to society. Like his writing style, I found this to be difficult at first, but as the story progressed, I found each chapter fed into the next, intertwining the two timelines and giving the reader a better understanding of Bartle’s conflicts, post-war.

In the end I was happy I took a chance on this one and though the book was small, and the story wasn’t terribly flashy, it got the point of what a soldier goes through during and after a war, and the tough decisions they must face in a chaotic environment where the wrong decision or a mistake means death, and survival is the goal of each day. I give The Yellow Birds a 4/5.

Winter of the World – the century-long tale that keeps getting better

Winter of the World - Ken FollettFittingly, shortly after winter began, I decided to start reading Winter of the World, the second book in Ken Follett’s The Century Trilogy.

This tome is the follow up to Follett’s Fall of Giants which made my Top Five Books of 2011 and takes place during the events of The Second World War. The characters from the first novel have become secondary, and their children now have the spotlight as they deal with the uprising and reign of Hitler, Stalin, Franco and the Empire of Japan.

Compared to the first book, Follett continues his marvelous intertwining of real life historical events with fictional characters who are often present to give a unique perspective of Pearl Harbor, A-bomb testing, or war in Spain, Germany and Russa to name a few examples. Through his incredible knowledge and research, I ended up feeling like these people really existed in these times and played active roles in many aspects of the war.

It might have been that I knew what to expect, but this book was much easier to read, though with the amount of characters we have to follow it can get a bit confusing at times, especially since I hadn’t read the first in two years. Once I got around that, the characters all have a lot of depth to them, and I cared what happened in each of their stories, which is of course very important if you want to get invested in a book.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction you’ll want to pick up this series, just be prepared to be reading for quite a while if you’re a slow reader like me. I give Winter of the World a 4/5.

The Book Thief and the power of words

The Book ThiefWhen you start a book and the narrator is the voice of Death, you know you won’t be reading a happy book.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak definitely wasn’t the happiest of tales – it takes place in a small German town during the heart of the Second World War after all. Through Death’s eyes, we’re introduced to Liesel Meminger, a young girl who is seeing her young brother die as she rides on a train with him and her mother. At the next stop they find a grave yard to bury him, and this is where Liesel finds her first book,The Grave Digger’s Handbook.

We find out that Liesel and her brother were being sent to foster parents as her mother escaped persecution for her and her husband’s alleged Communist leanings. Liesel, alone, is raised by Rosa and Hans Hubermann who appear to be the most opposite of people. Rosa is crass, loud and always calling everyone a Saukerl or “Pig” and Hans is a gentle painter who plays the accordion and has a personality that draws Liesel in and helps her open up to her new surroundings.

Throughout the rest of the story, Death, though admittedly busy during those years, takes a keen interest in Liesel’s life as she attends school and grows into her teen years, stealing more books along the way and learning to read them through the help of her foster father.

What I found interesting about much of the book was that Zusak focuses on the lives of the characters as war is happening around them, but since it’s through the lens of a young girl (as relayed by Death), it doesn’t go into too much detail about explaining the politics of the time. We find out that Hans doesn’t support the Nazi party, but still hangs a flag whenever a parade passes through; Liesel and her friend Rudy Steiner are forced to steal food because of rationing throughout the country; And, Rosa’s laundry businesses that she runs from home begins to suffer as the wealthier neihbours become unable to afford her services.

It’s not until Hans answers a promise made long ago by taking in a Jewish man by the name of Max Vandenburg that the story becomes truly serious. Max is extremely malnourished when he arrives, but soon he establishes a close bond with Liesel. The two have frequent nightmares about losing loved ones and also enjoy storytelling. Their bond grows as Max shares his stories with her.

One of the stories spoke of how Hitler rose to power, not with his fists or guns, but with words. Zusak often brings up the power of words and what they can do to people, both good and bad. When bomb raids began approaching their town, they congregated in a local basement and Liesel began reading to everyone there. The words calmed everyone and made them briefly forget that at any moment, they could die.

We have to remind ourselves that words matter. They can persuade you to do anything from buying a product to persecuting an entire race of people. The Book Thief does an excellent job of getting this point across and as a communicator for a living, I can appreciate his message. If you’re a lover of words, then I recommend reading this one. I give The Book Thief a 4/5.

My top 5 books of 2011

Last year I attempted to to read 26 books in 52 weeks, but unfortunately life got in the way and could only manage to get through 16. This year I contemplated doing the same challenge, but figured I’d just read as much as I could and not look for a goal, but I managed to read 16 again this year anyway. Oh, these are my favourite books that I’ve read this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were published this year:

5. Between the Assassinations

Between the AssassinationsAravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations was the second book I reviewed this year and I was really pleased with his second output.

The book features a series of ‘day in the life’ stories from people of (fictional) Kittur, India, shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. With that lens it looks at many issues including: caste, sexual disease, drug problems, political corruption, the influx of villagers seeking a better life in the city, and much more.

As with many of the books that really speak to me, this one has very strong characters whose stories stick with you long after you’ve moved on from their tale.

4. Fall of Giants

Fall of GiantsIt seems like I’ve only read the biggest books by Ken Follett; first there was Pillars of the Earth, then World Without End and now Fall of Giants. Each of these were either a bit less or a bit more than 1000 pages, so they weren’t all that fun to read on public transit, but they were all very well written.

Fall of Giants is a fictional story based on history and takes place during the 13 1/2 years leading up to the First World War and it’s end. Each character introduced in the book cross paths at one point or another, whether it be an American diplomat coming to the aide of two Russian slum-raised teenagers, or Ethel the former housewife of Earl Fitzherbert of her village rising up in the political ranks and making an adversary of him in the process.

3. The Given Day

The Given DayWhen I saw The Given Day by Dennis Lehane I immediately picked it up. I’d read two of his other novels, Mysic River and Gone Baby Gone and really enjoyed his writing style. This one was a bit different though – still set in Boston the others, but this time in the 1930s.

The novel follows the two main storylines. The first is that of Danny Coughlin, a Boston police officer; the second follows Luther Lawrence, an African American man who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. The two become intertwined as we see them separately take on issues of unions and race. Lehane does wonders with mingling the two lives and his writing is full of imagery and the words jump off the page to take you back in time.

2. Steve Jobs: Biography

Steve Jobs I managed to get through Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson rather quickly (for my standards) and just posted my review for it a couple days ago, so have a look:

Review of the Steve Jobs biography

I was thinking it would make a great movie. Do you think any director could do it justice and live up to Jobs’s standards? There was a movie called The Pirates of Silicon Valley in 1999 and it starred Noah Wyle as Jobs. I haven’t seen it but I think this biography would make a bit more of an interesting story since so many of Jobs’s friends and enemies have spoken up about him. I also think Christian Bale would make a great Jobs.

1. The Help

The Help

The Help is set in the 1960s and looks at the issue of race relations in Jackson, Mississippi. The premise is ‘Skeeter’ a white woman is looking to the maids of the city to help her write a story from the point of view of ‘the help’. You just have to do a Google search and you’ll see it’s a book that has gotten as much flack as it has praise.

One interesting news article from September says Stockett stole her identity for the character of Aibileen. Her name is Abilene Cooper and she was the maid to Stockett’s brother for 12 years. Much of the similarities are the same, but the case was thrown out.

I feel at the very least the book is a great starting point for race discussions.

Review of The Best Laid Plans and The High Road

The Best Laid PlansThe High RoadSince I read both The Best Laid Plans and The High Road by Terry Fallis back-to-back, I’ve decided to give a 2-for-1 review.

In the first book, we’re introduced to Daniel Addison, who through a series of unfortunate events, decides to leave Ottawa politics. One condition of his career change to professor, is that he must find a Liberal candidate in his extremely Conservative riding just outside of Ottawa.

After a long search and a lot of persuasion, Daniel convinces the grizzly professor, Angus McLintock to run (in name only) for the spot. Much to the dismay of both men, Angus comes into power and Daniel has to jump back into the fold of politics as his campaign manager, though this time his stay in Ottawa is anything but ordinary.

Angus is a great character in the sense that he has no favours to return, no hidden agenda and wants to actually do what’s best for Canada – imagine that! It’s funny to picture this grumpy, hairy Scotsman in his 60s causing such a ruckus in Parliament, but it’s also refreshing. What I loved both about the books is for a few hundred pages I could actually picture a politician not caring about his own personal agenda. After a few painful Federal, Provincial and Municipal voter turnouts it made me wonder if people would actually start feeling positive about politics again if the majority of candidates were like Angus. Don’t think that’ll ever happen though.

In this National Post article from February 2011, CNN broadcaster Ali Velshi sums up what makes the story so compelling:

“This is a book that speaks to the frustration and the disenfranchisement of people all across the world right now. We’re seeing it playing out. All people want is fairness in democracy. We’re not as bad off as other societies are, but we are certainly in a place where people don’t think they’re heard by their elected officials. This book speaks to all of those people and says to people ‘You have an opportunity to be heard.’”

While I did enjoy both storylines, the first with Angus getting into politics and the second with him running for a snap re-election, I did have a few concerns.

It was too clean: Every issue the McLintock team faced always seemed to have a convenient solution, or something tended to work in their favour completely by chance.

Too much exaggeration: Would Canadians really care about every little thing that was going down in this small riding? Yes, the politician was a wacky character who made for great TV, but I could never picture national coverage going to a little town’s election results, or the United States President hearing about him and wanting to make a visit.

Grammar Police: The grammar corrections were kind of funny to begin with but it got played out real quick. I get it was just how their characters were, and I respect that, but that type of person really grinds my gears.

Overall I enjoyed the books. They were easy reads and I’m happy Terry is having success (CBC is making The Best Laid Plans into a miniseries – my vote is for Paul Gross to play Daniel and Brendan Gleeson to play Angus), but I’ve come to the conclusion that I humor in novels just isn’t for me. I give each book a 3.5/5.

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