One of the really fun things about being, um, less than deliberate in how I pick books is reading very different novels right after one another that complement each other, theme-wise. That's the case with Phil Klay's National Book Award-winning short story collection Redeployment and Ethopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu's 2014 novel All Our Names.
These are two very, very different books —but they have one commonality: they both explore how stupid, brutal, and absurd war is, and its lasting affect on both its participants, but also those who become collateral damage in one way or another.
One story, in particular, my favorite in the collection, titled "Money as a Weapons System," shows how we're often doing more harm than good in Iraq — it's a Catch 22-esque story about a guy who is tasked with redevelopment in Iraq, trying to rebuild a water treatment plant, but winds up teaching Iraqi women how to bee-keep and having to take photos of Iraqi kids fake-playing baseball, because a rich ignorant guy in Oklahoma thinks it's important to spread American baseball as a symbol of freedom. It's so sad it's funny. (Or so funny it's sad?)
The novel involves two alternating strains of story — one taking place in Africa, one in a small Midwest town soon after the events (it's the early 1970s) that had just happened in Africa. The US-set strain of story furthers even more the theme of "those without sin can cast the first stone." The African refugee begins a romantic relationship with his mid-20s white social worker (who is narrating this part of the story). She takes him for lunch one day at her favorite diner, and both are saddened (though not totally surprised) when it's suggested that they're making people uncomfortable, so wouldn't it be better if they finished their lunch elsewhere. The point is that it's absurd that a man could escape the lawlessness and violence of an African revolution to come to what is supposedly an enlightened, first-world country like the U.S., but then still be discriminated against. Will their relationship survive?
Both of these are fantastic books, and I highly recommend both, whether or not you read them one after the other.