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the island of conclusions

and a movie and a book

the island of conclusions

bright star

and a movie and a book

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bright star
I’m still spamming y’all, because I was boy-free last weekend, and that meant I went to the movies and actually finished a book.

I took myself to see Argo, which I enjoyed enormously and recommend to all.

You guys know Ben Affleck gives me the warm fuzzies, right? Not only because he’s a hometown boy (we went to the same HS) but also because it just makes me feel good when someone turns out to be smart and interesting instead of doofus tabloid fodder.

This movie is as good as The Town but more ambitious, with a huge cast in multiple locations and lots of confusing crowd scenes. The casting is fabulous (as it was in The Town—this seems to be one of BA's things)--not just John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin, but (in smaller roles) people like Victor Garber and Titus Welliver.

It’s snappily written, with exchanges like this, delivered in the best borscht belt spirit:

Alan Arkin: History begins in comedy and ends in tragedy
John Goodman: It’s the other way around.
Arkin: Yeah? Who said that?
Goodman: Marx.
Arkin: Groucho said that?

But for all the pleasures of suspense and character, the movie is also deeply disturbing—a nostalgia movie in the most discomfiting sense. Affleck couldn’t have known about the recent events in Libya when he made the movie, but that doesn’t make the (historically accurate) scenes of the US Embassy in Tehran being stormed in 1979 any less horrifying. The Iranian hostage crisis is one of the first political events I remember being fully conscious of, and the deep malaise of it, followed by Reagan beating Carter through the streets with it (and all the subsequent revelations about that) probably formed my sense of the political scene. Stuff that’s hard to swallow down again, once unearthed (especially in today's political climate). *shudders*

I also finished Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, a first novel (the author isn’t 30 yet) about the Iraq war that’s been getting a lot of press. Seriously, you’d think the book would collapse under its accolades: Tom Wolfe, Ann Patchett and Colm Toibin all blurb it across the front cover, and there's more on the back. It's a slim volume!

But the book pretty much holds up to its praise.

Powers also a poet, and it shows—the language is astonishing, both in its evocation of place (Tal Afar, where Powers served himself, and his hometown of Richmond, VA) and in its snappy dialogue. Powers also has a neat hand with symbol making—the soldiers’ “casualty feeder cards” start to assume a horrifying life of their own, and by the end of the book you understand why the protagonist spends so much energy describing the James River.

Interestingly, the book, intentionally or not, works against some of the conventions of war narratives. Conventionally, war stories are ensemble stories, drawing together unlikely groups of characters from different regions and classes and races to serve together as best they can. The good war writer is the writer who can give life to these disparate characters, no matter how briefly we meet them (I think The Naked and the Dead is usually given credit for solidifying this trope, but I might be wrong).

The Yellow Birds, in contrast, has only three or four fleshed out characters--only three named characters, in fact: the protagonist, his best buddy, their sergeant, and the buddy's mother. All are from the same region and socioeconomic group (working-class white in SE Appalachia) It’s a chamber drama, not an epic or an ensemble piece. All the other men in the protagonist's platoon are just “the private,” or “the LT” or “a kid.” It’s an interesting strategy, focusing your attention in a different way, on the solipsism and emotional deprivation of combat, instead of its fellowship and teamwork.

And, as that description probably makes clear, the book pretty much the anti-Generation Kill, refusing us the comforting celebration of competence and professional soldiering that book offers to ward off the futility of the Gulf Wars. The guys in The Yellow Birds have no ambition but minimal competence, and even that routinely fails them. They invade the same city over and over again, and the war, in the end, crushes them.

Judging from some of the hate the book has gotten on goodreads (in contrast to Patchett, et. al.), there is a strong contingent that thinks this is not the way to represent the war--the language I think, and the non-linear timeline, and the sense of defeat. I'm fascinated by this.

My one criticism of the book, which is structured as two narrative lines (one present, one past) leading you to the same horrifying revelation, is that it holds its punches back a little too long. The choice the protagonist has made, the one that’s left him emotionally crippled in the present, is a truly devastating one. But because you only learn what it is at the very end of the book, you don’t have much time to absorb its implications.

Still, a really amazing achievement, especially when you consider Powers came back from Iraq without a college degree, went through college on the GI Bill and then on to an MFA in poetry and then this novel, in about five years.

Besides, even the Iceman is talking about PTSD these days, so there you go.
  • I want to see Argo. Thanks for the book review. I always enjoy reading your takes.
    • I think you'd like Argo! Homeland in the 70s, kinda ;0

      I'm glad you enjoy reading the reviews. i hardly know anyone in rl who reads contemporary fiction, so sometimes I have to just write down my responses.
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