Category Archives: National Book Award

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Little Brown and Company, New York 2012

Borrowed from my library.  Nominated for the National Book Award.

Kevin Powers is an Iraq veteran and a poet.  His novel about two young friends fighting together in the second Iraq war is beautifully written.   It is also devastating.

At basic training John Bartle takes Daniel Murphy under his wing and makes a promise to Murph’s mother.  When they reach the city of Al Tafar, John  realizes that the promise may be impossible to keep.

We hardly noticed  a change when September came.  But I know now that everything that will ever matter in my life began then.  Perhaps light came a little more slowly to the city of Al Tafar, falling the way it did beyond thin shapes of rooflines and angled promenaded in the dark. It fell over buildings in the city , white and tan, made of clay bricks, roofed with corrugated metal or concrete.  The sky was vast and catacombed with clouds.  A cool breeze blew down from the distant hillsides we’d been patrolling all year.  It passed over the minarets that rose above the citadel, flowed down through alleys that ringed the city, and finally broke up against the scattered dwellings from which our rifles bristled.  Our platoon moved around our rooftop position, gray streaks against the predawn light.  It was still late summer then, a Sunday, I think.  We waited. From pages 4/5.

Poetic, lyrical and deeply moving, this one will stay with me for a long time.

The Yellow Birds has been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front and The Things They Carried.  It meets and matches them and also reminds me of the importance of reading other books on war.  I would suggest Dispatches On Killing and War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning as a place to start.

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Filed under Iraq, LiteraryFiction, National Book Award, War

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

McPherson & Company, Kingston, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my library.  Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.

Somewhere near Wheeling, West Virginia, is a race track called Indian Mound Downs.  There horses run in claiming races and owners, trainers, grooms and jockeys try to grab some luck, win a bundle or just get by.  This is the world of cheap horse racing, violent and often ruthless.  Lord of Misrule follows several characters, and four horses, through a season.

These characters bring their dreams and their histories to the track.  There is Medicine Ed, 72 years old, a groom all his life, with an eye for horses and people and a hidden knowledge of “medicine”.  Tommy Hansel, a man with a plan.   Get in, make a bundle and get out quick.  And Maggie Koderer, Tommy’s girl, working as a groom, wondering how she’s ended up here, where she’s going and falling for horses in a way you know will break her heart.

Her hands felt their way blindly along the ridges and defiles of the spine, the firm root-spread hillocks of the withers.  She rolled her bony knuckles all along the fallen tree of scar tissue at the crest of the back, prying up its branches, loosening its teeth.  And it must be having some effect: when she walked Pelter these days he wasn’t the sour fellow he used to be, he was sportive, even funny.  She walked him this morning until the rising sun snagged in the hackberry thicket…  From Page 25.

Gordon knows these characters, knows these horses, knows this ugly side of the sport of kings.  I  sense that she chose her words very carefully, building a sense of rhythm, sometimes trotting, sometimes galloping.   The men think like animals, the horses act like men and often there is violence and decay buried in them.  This is a dark novel, full of menace and poetry.  I enjoyed it.

Not to long ago I read a startling article about horse racing in the New York Times.  Lord of Misrule reinforces its sad truth.

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Filed under Animals, LiteraryFiction, National Book Award

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.  A finalist for the 2011 National Book Award.

After a horrible accident in a mining town in the wilds of  Colorado,  Jozef Vinich, and his father Ondrej, return to Pastvina,  Ondrej’s tiny home village in rural Austria-Hungary.  After remarrying, a relationship that turns ugly, Ondrej takes to the mountains as a shepard.  Over time he teaches Jozef, and his adopted son Zlee, how to track and how to shoot.

When war comes Jozef and Zlee are made sharpshooters, hunting men like animals, trying to survive the trenches and eventually making a trek across the Italian Alps.  Told from Jozef’s point of view, this novel reads like a memoir.  It is a love story and a war story, harsh and filled with history.

If, when we, a lost looking father and his reticent son, first arrived in Pastvina in 1901, the people of our village had heard or whispered among themselves tales of prospecting and silver – gunfights and murders – of the Wild West, stories they should expect a man who had seen the world to weave with suspense and nostalgia in their presence, they were soon forgotten, for there seemed nothing about Ondrej Vinich’s attitude or demeanor (against that fiery young man intent on leaving Pastrina to make his fortune) to suggest he’d ever lived one of these storied lives, but in fact seemed content and almost grateful to have to take up what was the loneliest existence a man could live in that part of the old country.  Which is strange when I think about those villagers and how they seemed to cling to one another and yet blame one another for the harsh lot from which not one of them could escape.  From page 28.

The whole of summer, battle raged, the bloody stalemate of attack and counter attack proving ineffective for all but the winnowing of souls, so I came to believe that our stand there on the Soca could not survive, and I wondered more darkly in the back of my mind if we – our empire, our army, the land on which my father had taught me, too, how to survive – had been abandoned by the emperor’s God for some sin long forgotten or even unknown to those of us sent to atone for it, an atonement Zlee and I were yet kept from by the simple fact that we were a more useful tool kept alive, though all it would take was for one of us to be hit by a shell, or brought down by something a simple a dysentery, and the other would be useless and so sacrificed. From page 90.

Do you see?  Wild tumbling sentences like water rushing down a mountain side.  Once I started reading The Sojourn I could not put it down.  Fierce, engaging and charged with emotion, written in a style I found stunning, this will be one of my favorite books of 2011.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, National Book Award, Review