Thursday, January 22, 2015

War Sucks: On Phil Klay's REDEPLOYMENT and Dinaw Mengestu's ALL OUR NAMES

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.

In Klay's collection about soldiers in the Iraq war, a major theme is the effect on soldiers' psyches of the horrific violence they witness daily, as well as the complex psychological effects of being duty-bound to kill. Sometimes they're racked with merciless guilt, sometimes they think it's awesome and go eat lunch (hey, you don't get cherry cobbler often!), sometimes they come home and do things they'd never have otherwise done (shoot dogs, visit hookers, exaggerate what really happened). Several stories in Klay's collection also deal with the question of who, really, are the "good guys" in war? Of course, we assume we are, but the average Iraqi certainly doesn't see it that way.

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?)

In Mengestu's novel, about an uprising against an oppressive African regime in the early 1970s, the fighters of a small band of revolutionaries are supposedly on the side of right — they're fighting against injustice, after all. But they still commit acts of atrocity against common citizens.  And common citizens commit terrible violence against other citizens. So, who really are the good guys? Here, it's even less clear.

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.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Four Post-Holidays Mini-Reviews

YA, thriller, and two non-fiction — I was pretty much all over the place (per usual) for holiday reading. Here are four mini-reviews of those books: 

Revival, by Stephen King — This novel fits neatly into the most common King criticism: "great story, odd ending." It's the story, told over the course of about 50 years, of a guy named Jamie Morton — he grows up in small town Maine, joins a band, experiences first love, gets hooked on heroin, and then is cured after a chance encounter with the minister from his youth, Charles Jacobs. This guy Jacob's got all kinds of tricks up his sleeve — having abandoned God after an accident claimed his wife and son, he experiments with what he calls the "secret electricity," a power, that when harnessed, can cure disease, addiction, and do all kinds of other cool tricks. But is Jacobs nothing more than a side-show shyster (it certainly appears that way when he starts a new religious movement based around his ability to heal) or is he actually tapped into a secret power like the world has never seen? As Jacobs and Morton meet each other through the years, the novel speeds through to a conclusion that, frankly, goes a bit off the rails — but it's typical King. You've enjoyed the story so much to that point, you don't even mind how strange the ending is. I liked this much, much better than King's early 2014 effort, Mr. Mercedes. If you're a King fan, I think you'll dig this.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand — I wanted to read this before seeing the movie, but after reading, I'm not sure I even want to see the movie anymore. Yep, it's quite the inspirational story. Louis Zamperini is testament to the that old familiar tune: "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all" — but on a rather grand scale. Imagine surviving a plane crash, surviving 47 days at sea on a raft, and then thinking you're about to be saved, only to be strafed by an enemy plane. But of course he survives that, too, and then nearly two years of deplorable, inhumane treatment in several Japanese prisoner of war camps. It's truly amazing, and as well, a testament to the horrors of war. Hillenbrand, as she must, takes some liberties to construct a narrative that really does read more like a novel than a history. And what a great read it is.  
I'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson — I don't read a ton of YA, but I was drawn to this unique story about artsy California teenage twins. And I loved it. The story's told from the alternating perspectives of Noah and Jude, Noah's when the twins are 13, Jude's when they're 16. Noah is gay and has a crush on his neighbor, a baseball star named Brian. Jude's story is more about the after-affects of a tragedy, and how it has affected her relationship with her brother. As these inseparable twins collide with life, they become more separable than they ever would've thought possible — they actually do horrible, cruel things to each other. Much of the story is really sad, and you're just amazed how these emotionally fragile kids don't totally meltdown. But, more so, it's a story about becoming who you are. Indeed, as Noah tell us, ruminating on how his classmates all seem to try too hard to fit in, including his sister, "They're like toads changing their skin color. How come I'm always just me?" Indeed, the highlight of this story is the enthusiastic, colorful, whimsical way Nelson writes — that's what I really liked about this, and why it's a story really worth reading.

The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson — It was fun to learn how little I actually knew about the history of computers and the Internet. Isaacson's thesis here is that no one person "invented" the computer, or the Internet — innovation happens as a sort of constantly evolving process where ideas are borrowed, built upon, and re-imagined in new ways. Not exactly an earth-shattering premise, but there are tons of "did you know?" moments in this history — about Al Gore's real role in "inventing" the Internet (he never actually claimed to invent the Internet, but he really was key in making it more available), the history of the personal computer including Bill Gates' and Steve Jobs' roles, and the origins of their nearly lifelong feud. Even if you don't know your microchip from your microprocessor or your HTML from your HTTP, this is a fascinating history that really, at least for me, helped filled in some huge gaps in my knowledge of these machines we rely on every day.