Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

Chris Cleave has written several global bestsellers, notably the 2008 novel Little Bee, but his 2016 book Everyone Brave is Forgiven was his first foray into historical fiction. This quick-moving novel of four young people caught up in World War II is heavy on both action and emotion, but the character development lags behind the pace of the text, and it can’t help but suffer in comparison to a contemporary novel that does so much more with the same setting.

The quartet of characters at the heart of the book are Mary, Tom, Alistair, and Hilda, although Hilda is secondary to the main trio and bizarre love triangle that occupies the first half of the book. Mary and Tom are a quick item, meeting by chance at the start of the war when the manor-born Mary signs up and runs into Tom at the war office. Alistair, Tom’s more worldly, witty roommate, meets Mary later and the attraction is instant and mutual – but she and Tom are already engaged by this point and Alistair is heading back off to war after his first stint ended in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Mary is beautiful, so of course Hilda, her best friend, must be ugly, in what I believe is the 4th or 5th law of popular fiction (I get the order wrong sometimes), and attempts to set Hilda up with Alistair go nowhere.

Cleave can really write – the pace is brisk but never skimps on evocative imagery, especially the scenes of Blitz-plagued London or the privations Alistair suffers while stationed in Malta. The section where Mary, Tom, and Mary’s little class of non-evacuated students are caught in a bombing is the most memorable passage in the book, especially in how Cleave communicates the characters’ confusion in the shock of the attack – everything was fine, and now it’s not. His rendition puts the reader in the fog right next to his characters, so you feel the disorientation and the revelations seem to come in reverse, as if time has rewound and played back at half-speed.

He adds to the sense of disorientation, however, through the way he reveals big twists, such as the death early in the book of a side character whom Alistair has just befriended. The nonchalant description of the death, in the final sentence of a chapter, feels manipulative, although Cleave uses the aftermath to explore more of Alistair’s character in the first real window the reader gets into his emotions. But the regular use of jarring reveals wears thin very quickly and gives the novel a pulpy feel that doesn’t marry well with the subject matter.

Alistair is easy the most interesting character of the four, as Tom is a blank page and Mary’s appeal must lie in her looks rather than anything about her personality. Cleave builds the characters and then puts them through the ringer, but they come out on the other side relatively unchanged, just older and short a limb or with a visible scar. This is the real disappointment of Everyone Brave is Forgiven: Cleave set a novel during the Blitz, put real thought and energy into depicting the city in ruins, and then had his characters drift through the setting without sufficient growth or development.

This book appeared just one year and one day after Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with his own WWII novel, All the Light We Cannot See, one of the best contemporary works of fiction I’ve read. Doerr crafted a more complex, meticulous plot, and in the soldier Werne gave readers a memorable, thoroughly-developed character who faces real moral challenges, without falling into the sentiment that traps Cleave. Doerr doesn’t skimp on the narrative greed – his novel moved faster and worked with higher stakes than Cleave’s, but along the way we get much more insight into Werne, and even Marie-Laure, who bears a few marks of the stock character, is better developed than Mary or Hilda. I find it hard to judge the latter novel without considering Doerr’s work, given their settings and how close the release dates were, but even on its own Cleave’s book is more a well-written page-turner than a work of good literature.

Next up: Still reading T.S. Stribling’s The Store, which has managed to pile a dash of anti-Semitism on top of its pervasive racism.

The Sympathizer.

The Sympathizer was the surprise winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the debut novel of Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen, and if nothing else is a truly fascinating work of fiction for its new take on the Vietnam War. Nguyen’s unnamed narrator is a communist sympathizer and sleeper agent in the south of Vietnam, and recalls the conflict and its aftermath from the perspective of a Vietnamese national, as opposed to the countless looks back at the war from western perspectives (The Things They Carried, Tree of Smoke). The narrator himself is a walking dichotomy, born to a Vietnamese mother and French father (a priest, no less), living in the south and then in the U.S. while professing loyalty to the communists, with very bourgeois sentiments that compromise his work as a spy and an unwilling assassin.

The closest parallel I can think of for The Sympathizer is Graham Greene’s novel of Vietnam, The Quiet American, written later in his career after he’d become disillusioned with his country and his faith, a bleak picture of the war that included more than just a cursory consideration of the conflict’s devastating effect on the people of Vietnam. Nguyen’s look at the war is similarly derisive, suffused with parody and gallows humor, but ultimately an indictment of everyone involved, not least the United States.

The narrator tells his story as a confession to an unseen commandant and “faceless” commissar, as he’s apparently in a postwar Vietnamese reeducation camp despite serving the People’s Liberation Front during the conflict as a mole and assassin both in South Vietnam and then in the United States, where he works with a disgraced General from the South’s army who seeks to stage a Bay of Pigs-style invasion force that goes roughly as well as that real-life attempt did. His story involves time as a student in California, where he writes his thesis on the works of Graham Greene (in case you missed that allusion), as well as his work as a “consultant” on a thinly-disguised version of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, itself an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella into a Vietnamese setting. The director, known only as the Auteur, is a fatuous, racist pig who fancies himself an artist and tries to work from a script that doesn’t give a single line to a Vietnamese character. The narrator’s job is to try to undermine the pro-American tone in the film, but the entire story turns into an elaborate farce of the film, the movie industry, and subsequent American attempts to retell the story of the war in terms that the American public would buy.

The last quarter of the book takes a sharp turn toward the more serious territory of Darkness at Noon or 1984 as we switch to real time and the narrator’s ordeal in custody, where, we learn, he’s been telling and retelling his story to his jailers, but hasn’t given them the particular truth they demand of him. The climax is graphic and hard to read, worse than the two assassinations in which the narrator takes part, but works better as a metaphor for the damage the North Vietnamese inflicted on their own people and the psychic scars that endured long after the conflict.

Nguyen can be a bit heavy-handed with the allusions and metaphors. The narrator’s two best friends are Man (the blank canvas) and Bon (the good one of the three). He encounters a go-getter journalist named Sonny, and an ice-cold Japanese woman named Ms. Mori (think memento mori). The Auteur and the older lead actor in the film border on caricature, while the film is called The Hamlet presumably because the Auteur views his work as comparable to Shakespeare. And the prose can get a little purple, although I found myself flying through it anyway.

But Nguyen’s strength lies in the main character, both as the vehicle for retelling the war’s story in a new light, and for his own dichotomy. The narrator is not truly accepted by his fellow citizens because he’s half European; he’s not accepted at all in the United States, even though he speaks perfect English, because he looks “foreign.” He lives in the South and serves in their military, but his loyalties are with the North … only to find himself in a communist (which was the North) political prison after the war. These splits all parallel the way his self was broken by an incident he witnessed during the war but has buried in his subconscious, the nauseating passage I mentioned above; only by reliving and acknowledging it can he move on with his life.

Next up: I actually just read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows for the first time; I read a few chapters with my daughter, but she found it boring, so I finished it myself. At least now I know the true story behind Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

The Forever War.

Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, winner of the Nebula Award for best novel in 1975 and Hugo and Locus Awards in 1976, has the biggest disconnect between its value as a metaphorical take on a real-world event and its value as a straight work of fiction. While Haldeman manages to create a unique way of looking at the then-ongoing conflict in Vietnam, a war without apparent end, the story itself is dull and rote, enamored of its own technological descriptions of battles to the detriment of plot of character development.

The war in the book comes about because humanity has discovered “collapsars,” relativistic oddities in space (not that dissimilar to black holes) that allow for travel at speeds approaching that of light, leading to a brief period of exploration that hits a wall when one ship is attacked by an unknown alien species called the Taurans. The protagonist and narrator William Mandella is a physics student and conscript for one of the first strike forces asked to go out first to the fictional planet of Charon beyond Pluto (the book was written before the moon of Pluto given that name was discovered) and then to attack the Taurans in a suspected base on a hostile planet beyond one of the collapsars. Due to time dilation, Mandella and the other surviving soldiers have aged just two years but return to an earth vastly changed by several decades, a bombastic, unintentionally comic vision of an overpopulated planet under a one-world dictatorship that seized power in response to the Tauran threat. The novel then deals with Mandella’s difficulties handling the gaps in time between his returns to civilian life and the harsh reality of fighting an enemy for unknown reasons with no apparent goal or exit strategy.

Haldeman had served in Vietnam, and it’s only possible to read this book as a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel that serves to lampoon the military structure that sent American boys to die in a war without purpose while also displaying the effects the war had on the soldiers who survived. The war against the Taurans is a dull one, and Haldeman is not, here, much of a storyteller: the prose is dry and the descriptions technical, with lengthy explanations of futuristic weaponry and tactics that suck energy even out of the battle scenes, let alone the lengthy description of the soldiers’ training on the impossible world of Charon.

The sequence back on earth several decades after the soldiers have left reads like a short story inserted into a novel, bearing little resemblance to the story before or after, and on its own is just bad dystopian fiction by someone who read The Population Bomb. Haldeman drops in the usual food-shortage stuff along with the fear of authoritarian governments, but where he gets really bizarre is when he has “homosex” rising first as a natural consequence of the overpopulation and eventually something encouraged by government, becoming the new normal for humanity further into the future, with heterosexual urges treated as a mental illness. It seems to treat homosexuality as deviant and repulsive, using it as a tool to show the awful future of the human race.

Viewed as allegory, however, The Forever War seems to hit its mark. The war itself is as pointless as it gets: Humanity’s immediate response to the possible attack on one of our ships – which was somewhere else in the galaxy than our solar system – is all-out war, along with building up terrestrial defenses against an attack that isn’t threatened or even particularly likely. There is no attempt to communicate with the Taurans, or even any idea what they look like; soldiers are sent out to kill and destroy. The subsequent war becomes one of attrition, with battles waged over lifeless rocks that have no meaning to either side, and with neither side ever gaining anything like an advantage in the overall battle – with gauging advantage made especially difficult by the time dilation, so ships are sent off in one stage of the war and return in another entirely. (Haldeman obeys the laws of physics to the point of omitting faster-than-light communications.) Soldiers are given posthypnotic suggestions to make them want to kill the Taurans on sight, treating the aliens as enemies regardless of what actually happens on the field of battle.

One could make the historical argument that the Vietnam War was justified because the United States was trying to prevent a hostile dictatorship from taking over an entire country, subjecting millions of people to what turned out to be twenty-plus years of poverty and suppression. The U.S. justified it at the time by invoking the domino theory that each country that fell to communism further enabled the next revolution; perhaps showing the Soviet Union that funding additional insurgencies would cost them more because we were willing to spend to fight them. The war against the Taurans in The Forever War can’t even rise to those levels of reasoning, because the Taurans aren’t clearly threatening anyone; the metaphor works in the sense that neither the Taurans nor the Viet Cong were threatening “us,” so why were we trying so hard to kill them, putting our own men at risk by doing so? At best, the logic extended to protecting our ships if another should encounter the Taurans randomly beyond another collapsar, but without understanding what caused the first incident, even this – given the enormous expense involved – seems specious.

Books that seem to work strictly on that metaphorical or allegorical level generally leave me cold because of how much they miss, and The Forever War did just that, more than anything else because the characters are so one-dimensional. Mandella is intelligent but hardly wise or smart, and his return home after his first tour of duty – into the dystopian section of the book – is surprisingly emotionless. The closest thing the book has to another core character is his girlfriend Marygay, who has no personality to speak of, and of necessity disappears for a few chapters at a time. Without a compelling individual character at the heart of the book, the read becomes stolid and dull, even when we should be feeling the intensity of a battle scene. So for all its accolades – and the book’s cover has some very impressive quotes from other authors – The Forever War fell very short for me.

Next up: I’m currently reading Jeff Passan’s The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports.

The Killer Angels.

Michael Shaara only wrote four novels during his life, one of which, the baseball book For the Love of the Game, was published posthumously and turned into a critically panned movie, but his magnum opus was the Civil War novel The Killer Angels, for which he won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That book, which takes its title from one general’s father’s reaction to a line in Hamlet, served as the basis for the four-hour epic film Gettysburg, and Joss Whedon has said it inspired him to create the series Firefly.

The book retells the Battle of Gettysburg in substantial detail, using memoirs and letters from the generals involved where possible, narrating from the perspective of five of those generals and showing the discord on the Confederate side on how to attack the Union’s positions. General James Longstreet wrote an extensive memoir after the Civil War and we get much of his view on the South’s ill-fated decision to hold Gettysburg rather than retreating to more favorable ground; instead, Robert E. Lee, who is depicted here as in failing health and of a distracted, stubborn mind, chose to attack Union positions on two hills south of the town that provided the blue troops with a decided defensive advantage. (Longstreet was roundly criticized for decades afterwards for these failures and his request to delay the assault until an additional brigade arrived for support.) The main voice for the Union, Joshua Lawrence Chamberain (called Lawrence by his brother, Tom, throughout the book), led the defense of one of those hills, Little Round Top, and became one of the war’s primary heroes after the battle, commanding the Union troops at the surrender ceremony at Appamattox and later serving four years as Governor of Maine.

The Killer Angels is a war novel through and through, which means there’s very little else in it – including no female characters at all, but also little dialogue or even thoughts beyond the exigencies of the next battle. If you’re interested in military tactics, there’s likely quite a bit in here for you to enjoy and digest, especially with Longstreet’s recollections of the battle informing so much of the text. If you like character development or any plot threads at all beyond the war itself, this isn’t the book for you – or me, as it turned out, because despite strong prose and a quick pace through the action, The Killer Angels struck me as rather dry and, no pun intended, an antiseptic look at a pivotal moment in U.S. history. They came, they fought, some of them died, and those losses – nearly 8000 soldiers from both sides were killed, with around 50,000 total casualties – seem horribly pointless through the narrow lens of the book, which gives no broader context to the battle. (Not that the broader context makes the deaths any less lamentable.) The generals in Washington who were directing the overall war effort are only present on these pages as the idiots the leaders on the ground criticize for their dimwitted direction, while families are off-page distractions mentioned only in passing. There’s none of the substance I’d expect to see in a work of literature, because Shaara chose to make the novel all about the battle itself. That may suffice for many readers, and it does qualify the work for the Pulitzer criterion that the winner “preferably (deal) with American life,” but it’s not my personal preference for higher-end reading.

Next up: Another Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West, which won in 1950.

A Fable.

My ranking of the top 50 free agents for this winter, with scouting/stat notes on each player, is now up for Insiders.

…thinking how war and drink are the two things man is never too poor to buy.

William Faulkner is, I think, a pretty divisive figure in American literature; his lengthy sentences and often obscure descriptive style can make you insane, but he tells vast, emotionally complex stories that capture huge swaths of American history (especially of the South) through the lens of just a handful of characters. The connected novels Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury are both on my top 100, as is The Reivers, one of two novels for which Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (posthumously, in this case). The other, A Fable, is largely overlooked today even within Faulkner’s oeuvre, despite its grand scale and rich subtexts, which seem ripe for literary analysis, but it may suffer from Faulkner’s obtuse prose and adumbration of character descriptions and plot details. (And his vocabulary; “adumbration” appears at least twice in the text, and Faulkner engages in his own wordsmithing at times, such as “cachinnant,” a Latin word that means something like “laughing immoderately.”)

A Fable is a highly allegorical work that takes the Christ-like Corporal Stephan, referred to for most of the book merely as “the corporal,” and puts him in the trenches in World War I, where he leads a group of 12 other commissioned officers in a mutiny of peace. The novel opens just after the corporal and his disciples have convinced an entire regiment of three thousand French soldiers to refuse to fight, after which their German enemies similarly lay down their arms, causing a spontaneous outbreak of peace in the midst of a war. The book itself covers the various reactions to the corporal’s move, where the French army wants to execute him while also covering up the incident so that the war can continue. Woven into this is a second, loosely related story of an injured American racehorse whose rider and trainer rescue him from either death or work as a captive stud, traveling to small towns where the horse still wins various races even though he’s running on three legs, with the rider becomes a sentry in the war and the trainer adopts a new identity and travels to Europe to find his partner.

The corporal’s Christ allusions are blatant, perhaps too much so for modern analysis. He’s 33 at the time of the mutiny and eventual execution. He’s tempted by his father (“the general”) before the order for his execution, and the night prior to his death he has a last supper with his disciples, including the one who betrays him and the one named Piotr who denies knowing Stephan three times. His mother was Marya, and his fiancée was a prostitute from Marseilles. After his death, his corpse disappears (thanks to a German air-raid). Even his name alludes to Christianity – Saint Stephan, who is mentioned in the New Testamant, is considered the first martyr in the history of the Christian Church.

The novel is virulently anti-war, as you might expect with a Christ figure at its center, but there are elements of the picaresque in the book as well, such as the ragtag group of soldier’s at the book’s conclusion who need to find a corpse to bury in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris. I don’t know if Joseph Heller read A Fable, but there’s a similar vein of lack of respect for military authority and an awareness of the absurdity of war as a solution for most international problems and of the war machine’s desire to keep the combat going as a way to feed itself. Faulkner thought of this novel as his masterpiece, which leads me to believe that he viewed it as a strong pacifist statement that would incorporate satire and religious/moral arguments as a statement against war, with World War II ending around the time he began the novel and the Korean War occurring while he was still writing it.

I found the reading itself to be difficult, in part because his prose is too prolix, perhaps Proustian, but even more because he refuses to use his characters’ names, sometimes failing to name them at all. Keeping the corporal, the runner, the sentry, the general, and so on straight is hard enough without using their names, and it’s worse when there’s another general (Gragnon, who oversaw the mutinous regiment and realizes his career is over when they stop fighting) and a handful of corporals running around the book. There’s one point where Faulkner connects the horse’s groom (Mr. Harry) with the sentry, but I kept forgetting the two were the same character because he never uses the name with the term “the sentry,” who’s also a bit of a loan shark in his new regiment. A surfeit of descriptive prose can be acceptable if it’s actually descriptive, but much of the first third of A Fable felt shrouded in fog to me, including the opening section with the mutiny and the scene where a German general flies through a faked firefight to reach a negotiation to resume combat. So while the plot itself is elegant and simple, with much to ponder and analyze, it’s a book that probably requires a second or third reading to fully grasp the specific details of the story. That’s the best reason I can conceive why it’s so little read or discussed today, even as less ambitious works like As I Lay Dying continue to receive copious praise.

Unrelated: So a smart, professional person of my acquaintance saw I was reading this book the other day and mentioned how she heard Faulkner speak at Montgomery College about “five to seven years ago.” Faulkner died in 1962. I didn’t know what to do with that so I just smiled and nodded.

Next up: James Essinger’s Ada’s Algorithm, a biography of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron and the creator of the world’s first computer algorithm, about a century before we had the first true computer.

Starship Troopers.

My latest review for Paste covers the app version of Camel Up.

Robert A. Heinlein was both a prolific and critically-lauded writer of science fiction, with an emphasis on keeping the science somewhat grounded in the possible and using it as the platform to explore themes of liberty, individualism, and the role of government. Yet as far as I can remember, I’d only read one of his books, one of his young adult novels called Between Planets, and none of the four core Heinlein works that won Hugo Awards for Best Novel. (What I remember most strongly about that book was the absurd notion that humans could colonize Venus, but apparently at the time Heinlein wrote it scientists were unaware of that planet’s hellish atmosphere and climate.)

Starship Troopers won Heinlein the second of those four Hugos, four years after he won for Double Star and two years before his magnum opus, Stranger in a Strange Land, did the same. I was turned off from reading the book after seeing the trailer for the apparently very unfaithful 1997 film adaptation, but the book is nowhere near as dumb as the movie. (Casper Van Dien, who starred in that film version, was most recently spotted in a straight-to-DVD film called Avengers Grimm that holds a 13% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) Heinlein’s book, written as a first-person memoir of the protagonists youth and first few years serving as a space marine, touches on many of the themes I mentioned above, while also apparently drawing controversy for its overtly militaristic setting … although I don’t agree with criticism of the work as somehow pro-war or even pro-fascism.

Johnny Rico is the space marine and narrator of Starship Troopers, having defied his wealthy father’s wishes and signed up for the service, only to find himself in a boot camp of unimaginable intensity, one designed to weed out most of the recruits. In this future society, Earth is ruled by a single government, and is engaged in war against sentient ant-like creatures just called “Bugs” from another solar system, and only retired veterans of the armed forces are allowed to vote. Rico’s personal philosophy is shaped by his experiences at boot camp and through “moral philosophy” professors he encounters (although he also takes a lot of math), but his presentation is hardly such that the reader should take his views as Heinlein’s. The one-world government arose after western societies collapsed due to rampant crime, much of it committed by undisciplined juveniles, and gave rise to this military-focused regime, one that seems built to feed the machine even when no conflict exists and thus to extend any conflict when one arises.

That bit of cynicism is more mine than Rico’s, but led me to believe that Heinlein was presenting a somewhat extreme scenario – a veiled dystopia – to show one potential outcome of contemporary social and economic trends. While Heinlein seems to come down on the side of harsher discipline of errant children, he also clearly presents the one-world government as one that sees war as the answer to many questions, and thus is somewhat unable to find non-conflict resolutions. If Heinlein is praising the military at all, it is for the way that such experiences can shape the character of an undisciplined young person or one who feels no sense of personal responsibility – although in Rico’s case, it wasn’t so much a lack of discipline or responsibility as a case of teenaged rebellion and a lack of motivation to work because of his father’s wealth. The world of Starship Troopers is hardly utopian; while individuals have a wide degree of personal liberty, the lack of the franchise is a significant debit, and the war-torn world where Buenos Aires and San Francisco are “smeared” by alien attacks is hardly one to appeal to any readers and make them want to sign up for the space marines.

If anything, Starship Troopers comes across as lighter fare than the discussion around its themes might indicate; Heinlein gives Rico a colloquial tone and matter-of-fact delivery that breezes through the philosophical lectures and lets the tension of the book’s few military encounters take over. There isn’t a single central narrative; the plot is the memoir itself, rather than a single military mission or even a story of the war with the Bugs. You could just as easily read the book without worrying about whether Heinlein was promoting fascism or capital punishment or revoking most citizens’ right to vote.

Next up: Still slogging through William Faulkner’s A Fable.

A Bell for Adano.

John Hersey is probably best remembered today, to the extent that he’s remembered at all, for “Hiroshima,” his mammoth piece for the New Yorker that took up all of the periodical’s August 31st, 1946 issue, and was later republished as a standalone book. A year before that remarkable piece of non-fiction, first-person journalism, however, Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his satirical war novel A Bell for Adano, a spiritual precursor to Catch-22, one that allows the absurdity of military life and bureaucracy to satirize itself while also humanizing the American occupation of Italy through one character, Major Joppolo, who becomes the wartime mayor of the Italian town of Adano.

Adano has lost much in the war; the people are starving and thirsty, and the ousted Fascist mayor was a corrupt coward. But no loss seems to matter as much as the loss of the town’s 700-year-old bell, recently taken by Mussolini’s government and melted down to make more munitions. As Major Joppolo attempts to restore order to Adano, reestablishing basic services and some semblance of the rule of law, he also makes it his main mission to find the town a new bell, one that has some historical significance and will have the “right tone.” Of course, other military officials think he’s crazy, and the General overseeing that part of the occupation, based on George S. Patton, is a single-minded tyrant. The scene in Patton where the titular character shoots a local merchant’s donkey appears here, and, like much of the book, is based on an actual incident; the shooting and Major Joppolo’s response to it sets up an obvious if poetic conclusion to the story that also creates some comedic pressure for the Major to find that bell before his time in Adano runs out.

While Joseph Heller’s book spares nothing and no one in its farcical look at the pointlessness of war and the human machines we build up to wage it, Hersey grounds his story in reality and lets the book’s rich humor come from very believable personal interactions, from the concupiscent Captain Purvis’s unending attempts to seduce Italian woman with whom he can’t communicate, to naval Lieutenant Livingston, whose snobbish first impressions of Major Joppolo give way when the latter employs a little bit of flattery. The return of Mayor Nasta and his subsequent arrest are almost slapstick comic moments. The memo that describes Joppolo’s countermanding of General Marvin’s order stopping all carts from entering Adano takes the most circuitous route imaginable to the latter’s desk as various underlings try to “lose” it before it does any harm. Some parts of the book were just laugh-out-loud funny, and most of it was smile-inducing, other than the occasional intervention of the details of the war, or the strongly sentimental notions connecting Joppolo and the citizens of Adano.

So why hasn’t A Bell for Adano endured as a work of American literature, especially war literature, when it’s based on true stories from the occupation (Major Joppolo himself was modeled on an actual American officer), is funny, and would be easily accessible to high school readers? I’ve long been appalled at how little of the American canon we present to American students; many great authors are omitted from even honors or AP reading lists even though books like Adano could be read and covered inside of a week. Perhaps it’s just been overshadowed by later works – it may have inspired Heller’s novel, but Heller’s book was funnier, more vicious, and covered far more ground – but it’s worth pushing it back on to the modern bookshelf.

Next up: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, won substantial acclaim, with rave reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post, and winning a slew of minor awards and earning nominations for several major ones, including a finalist nod for the National Book Award. It’s a meticulously crafted tragedy, offering painstaking and painful detail on its setting in the ruins of Chechnya (in the Russian-controlled portion of the north Caucasus), telling the story of unexpected connections between a suddenly orphaned girl, her “disappeared” father’s best friend, and the female doctor at the barely functioning hospital who reluctantly harbors them. It also left me completely cold, which is hard to believe given how easily I find myself sucked into emotionally-driven stories, especially ones featuring children.

The eight-year-old girl, Havaa, manages to hide herself according to her father Dokka’s instructions when one night the secret police arrive to arrest him. His best friend, Akhmed, rescues her the next morning and, knowing of no other possible safe haven, takes her to the local hospital. Sonja is one of only two doctors remaining in the damaged facility and its de facto director, running it thanks to a black-market connection that provides just enough supplies to handle the births and landmine injuries that keep her busy. Akhmed, the proverbial doctor who graduated last in his med school class, is grieving the mental decline of his wife, who is bedridden with an unknown malady and suffers from memory loss even though she’s only in her 30s. Sonja, meanwhile, grieves the disappearance of her sister, Natasha, who left twice, once for a traumatic experience in white slavery, the second time for reasons to be revealed later. Their stories are connected, like constellations, by faint lines that appear drawn by fate. Their lives are always under threat by Ramzan the snitch, who has ratted out so many townsfolk that his own father denies him, although Ramzan himself has a tragic (and disgustingly graphic) backstory that has led him to this point.

Marra has constructed his novel beautifully, working through flashbacks without losing the plot line of the present, linking the stories in slight but realistic ways, relying just barely on coincidence to complete the segments. But I felt totally detached from the story, and the only explanation I can come up with is that I did not relate to or even sufficiently empathize with the main characters. Marra’s cast includes characters who are either too pathetic to accept, like Akhmed, a sad-sack in every aspect of his life who undertakes this one (likely last) heroic act to give his life some meaning; or too walled-off, like Sonja, to allow the reader (or this reader) to feel an investment in the character’s development or outcome. Even Ramzan just goes from an object of scorn to an object of pity once we find out what exactly turned him from man to rat.

I may just have whiffed on this book, despite its careful crafting and often beautiful prose – the descriptions of the scenery around the Chechen village are the best phrasings in the novel – because I couldn’t connect to the story. There’s so much cruelty, much of it the result of Marra’s research on the two brutal wars Russia waged to reclaim control of the largely Muslim breakaway republic, that perhaps, while real, the story was too foreign to me, although I did not have the same experience with Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, set in Nigeria during the Biafra conflict. But I also have a bit of a conspiracy-theory hypothesis, that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a book written by a highly trained and educated writer who has expertly implemented the lessons he learned, producing a novel that earns a perfect technical score but loses points on artistic impression. If writing a good novel were merely a matter of painting by numbers, many more writers could do it.

Next up: Still plowing through Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow.