What I'm Reading (No. 65): bombs away
This week I happened to finish two books in which bombs played a central role. One was a new-ish novel that's had rave reviews; the other was a war memoir written a handful of years ago by a Marine. One I enjoyed, the other not so much.
Let's do it.
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon
This slim novel was published last summer to immediate critical acclaim. We have three narrators: Will Kendall, a good-natured student at the fictional Edwards University; Phoebe Lin, also a student, but a little more reckless and fun-loving; and John Leal, the mysterious man who's spent time as a prisoner in North Korea but is now back around campus leading a religious group.
Will and Phoebe are our primary narrators, with Leal playing more of a background role — albeit still a powerful one. Those two quickly strike up a romance, but John and his group play the part of a wedge slowly working its way into their relationship. Will becomes more suspicious of John while Phoebe becomes more entranced.
So where do the bombs come into play? The title, after all, is The Incendiaries. Well, ultimately, it comes out that Leal's group is responsible for a local bombing which had disastrous, unforeseen consequences. Is it possible that Phoebe played a role? Or did common sense bring her back from the brink of an unthinkable decision?
Okay, so that's the very short plot outline, without giving too much away. How did I really feel about the book though?
I can see why it was well-reviewed; the writing is very good and the story drew me in, picking up steam as it went on. It was one of those books that feels more like literature than just a novel. But, that also made it kind of annoying. Some of the writing style and organization was confusing, and Kwon seems to be trying to make some sort of modern, ambiguous point about faith and extremism, but I can't quite figure out what that point is. Sometimes that's okay, but for me personally, this novel ultimately didn't connect.
Anyone out there read this one and enjoyed it? I'd love to hear and discuss in more detail.
Related Reading: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which I loved) and Incendiary (everything by Chris Cleave is worth reading)
Level Zero Heroes by Michael Golembesky
Written five years ago, Level Zero Heroes was an immediate bestseller as a combo of battle memoir and exposé of the war in Afghanistan. Golembesky was part of a Marine Corps Special Operations team (like the SEALs, but the Marine version) which was tasked with seizing control of a small valley from the Taliban.
Bombs were a frequent companion in this book; Golembesky's job was as a JTAC, which is the person on the ground who calls in and directs air strikes to help aid the forces on the ground.
Honestly, I haven't read that many books about the war in Afghanistan, but this one is sure to be the standard bearer for any future reading I do. It's written with a depth of honesty that isn't often seen in war memoirs. Yes, there are gripping, crazy battle scenes — including ones that would be hard to believe in novel form. But the real strength of the book is how Golembesky writes about the brotherhood of the soldiers in his team. Even when given inexplicable orders, or hamstrung by well-intentioned but ineffective Rules of Engagement, these men fought for each and for their nation without batting an eye. (Those are aspects he touches on quite a bit actually, which made the book draw comparisons to the classic Catch-22.)
In our modern age, Americans aren't connected to our wars like we were in the middle part of the 20th century. Most missions and battles are carried out by small, highly-trained special ops units like Michael's. This book helps the average reader connect to what's happening — we get a glimpse of what that war is really like. To Michael's credit, he even gets into the paradoxically exciting aspects. He notes how plainly badass it is to direct an American jet to drop a huge bomb on an enemy stronghold and how remarkable it is to see bravery and courage on a level that is hard to replicate outside of a battlefield.
Level Zero Heroes is a great story, and really well written. It's touching, exciting, jaw-dropping, angering — I wasn't expecting it, frankly, but the pages just kept turning themselves.
Related Reading: Where Men Win Glory (an excellent, probing book) and War (describes the brotherhood of soldiers better than any other book, period)
That's all for me this week. I'd love to hear what you're reading!