Recommended Reading: Redeployment, by Phil Klay

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“Somebody said combat is 99 percent sheer boredom and 1 percent sheer terror. They weren’t an MP in Iraq. On the roads I was scared all the time. Maybe not pure terror. That’s for when the IED actually goes off. But a kind of low-grade terror that mixes with the boredom.”

–“After Action Report” in Redeployment* (42)

Chances are that you’ve heard about Redeployment, Phil Klay’s collection of short stories that recently won the National Book Award; it’s the best known of the books (fiction, that is) that are coming out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after I read it, I decided that I should read more of them.

On his website, Phil Klay writes, “It’s not that there’s one thing I want people to understand about this war so much as I want people engaged with it. If you’re an American citizen, it’s your war. It’s not the soldier’s war, or the Marine’s war. The soldier and the Marine do not issue themselves orders.” (It’s a point he also made on the penultimate episode of The Colbert Report; you can watch the clip here.)

Though I’ve met veterans of the wars, I do not know any of them well enough to ask about their experiences; writing —fiction, nonfiction, journalism— is the most accessible way for me to approach the wars, and maybe it is for you too. I haven’t done enough to understand veterans’ experiences, but reading Redeployment was a small step in the right direction.

The twelve narrators in the meticulously-researched Redeployment include a chaplain, a Mortuary Affairs officer, an artillery specialist, and an infantryman who’s just returned home. None of the narrators stand in for Mr. Klay himself (he was a public affairs specialist in the Marines), but all are compelling, flawed, admirable in their own ways, and deeply changed by their time in Iraq. Their stories are unforgettable, often brutal, and impossible to put down.

The book doesn’t have a political agenda; it’s neither pro- nor anti-war, which is, I think, what makes it so powerful. As the narrator who’s a chaplain says, “nobody expects sainthood, and it’s offensive to demand it” (150). Mr. Klay has set out to show the stark realities of modern war and the gray places in human nature, all while giving civilians a glimpse of the desperate hardships endured by soldiers.

If you’ve read Redeployment and are looking for new fiction about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are several books coming out in 2015 that may pique your interest, like Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue,  Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, John Renehan’s The Valley, and Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s War of the Encyclopaedists, among others. I’ll definitely be reading at least one of these in the next few months.

Here are links to organizations that help soldiers and veterans and their families, which you might consider donating to:

Greater Cleveland Fisher House

Yellow Ribbon Fund

Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund

Books for Soldiers (h/t My Book Strings)

Wounded Warrior Project (h/t commenter Ripley)

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in a giveaway, which did not affect the content of my review.

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Recommended Reading: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

If I hadn’t read the jacket copy, I would have assumed A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the work of an accomplished, many-times-published novelist. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

But it’s Anthony Marra’s first novel, and when you read it, you’re going to weep, not just because there’s no way that should be possible, but because the story is so moving and so perfectly told, a gut-wrenching exploration of two Chechen wars, history, family, and the significance of place.

Eight-year-old Havaa’s father, Dokka, is disappeared by Russian forces in the middle of the night. Their neighbor Akhmed (like Dokka and Havaa, an ethnic Chechen) finds Havaa in the woods the next morning, and (rightly) fearing for her safety, takes her to the last doctor in the only hospital in the neighboring city, an ethnic Russian named Sonja. Sonja is processing her own trauma — the disappearance of her sister, Natasha. Over the course of the novel, the threads connecting all the principal characters — Dokka, Havaa, Akhmed, Sonja, Natasha, and Dokka’s betrayer and the betrayer’s father — slowly reveal themselves, forming a web more complicated and more harrowing than any of the characters understand.

The narrative jumps back and forward over a period of ten years, but the tendrils of connection reach back into Soviet Russia and forward into a future that’s not yet known. Tangential sequences that reveal information about secondary characters were masterful; the level of detail, the attentiveness to the minutiae of human survival, are impeccable.

I could write about this book for pages and pages, but I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s sense of discovery. It’s a December book, in that it will make you feel grateful for whatever and whomever you have to wrap around you.

*Be forewarned: there are torture scenes that made me physically ill, and I have a strong stomach.

Recommended Reading: Life Class and Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

One of the many gifts my father has given me is sharing his lifelong interest in World War I, that brutal period in history that often disappears into its sequel’s shadow. The war was terrifying in its intensity, its stagnation, its sheer totality. And it also produced some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century before an entire generation of young poets, novelists, painters — an entire generation of young men — was wiped out.

[Which is not to say that that women didn’t suffer didn’t the war, or that there were no incredibly talented women writers and artists of the period; see my earlier post on Anna Akhmatova.]

Some other time I’ll write a post on my recommended reading on the war, but for now, let’s talk Pat Barker.

If you haven’t read Ms. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), drop everything and make a run for your neighborhood bookstore. The trilogy is complex and marvelous, focusing especially on the war’s psychological effects on soldiers. Particularly masterful is the way Barker blends fact and fiction; her characters interact with historical figures like Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. Readers with STEM proclivities will appreciate her fine understanding of scientific and medical concepts.

As you might imagine, I was delighted to run across Ms. Barker’s lastest book, Toby’s Room (2012), in our local library a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until I read the jacket copy after I finished the novel that I realized that Toby’s Room is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (2007), which I promptly found and read next. I say ‘a sequel of sorts’ because the timelines in the two books overlap, as do the characters, though the focus shifts among them. I would describe the two novels as companion pieces.

Both are concerned with trauma—emotional and physical, resulting from war and from domestic life—and its relationship to art. Once again, Ms. Barker’s characters blend seamlessly into a landscape populated by very real figures. Of particular interest is the work of Henry Tonks, which I won’t say much more about in order not to spoil the plot of the books.