Maximum Shelf: Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on July 23, 2014.


fives and twenty

When a road repair convoy stops to check for roadside bombs, their first duty is to scan five meters in all directions from within the vehicle. A bomb inside this perimeter can penetrate the vehicle’s armor and kill everyone inside. Once five meters are cleared, scouts step outside and sweep an area 25 yards in every direction, before the convoy can move forward. These are the defining dimensions of a road repair platoon’s daily work. Filling potholes in Iraq means clearing bombs.

Michael Pitre’s debut novel, Fives and Twenty-Fives, follows three men from a road repair platoon in Iraq through their lives after their service has ended, alternating among their first-person voices. In disjointed chronology, the story switches between the present, when each man has either returned home or tried to create a new one, and their far more vivid past, in the Iraqi war zone.

Lieutenant Donovan is the platoon’s leader, although he knows he relies overmuch on his highly competent sergeant and corporal. Both his rank and his natural reserve inhibit Donovan’s relationships with the men and women assigned to him. “A real southern college boy, the Lieutenant. Like he was on his way to an outdoor jam band festival one day, took a wrong turn, and somehow ended up in the Marines.” Corpsman Lester “Doc” Pleasant is from the wrong side of the tracks, but discovers a gift for medical work. The platoon’s losses, which he is meant to prevent, hit him hard. Their “terp,” or local-native interpreter, is a Baghdadi university student code-named Dodge (“a dependable car”), who carries a copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in his back pocket, filled with copious marginalia in both Arabic and English. He is assigned to Donovan’s platoon but not allowed to talk with the Americans about his past–not that he wants to. In the aftermath of their war, the reader watches these three men try to navigate a world that no longer makes sense to them or of them.

In a post-Katrina New Orleans (and vomit-soaked French Quarter) as stark as the wartime Iraqi desert, Donovan goes back to school to pursue a business degree, but his professors don’t feel that officer training should exempt him from coursework in “leadership dynamics and business ethics.” He struggles to find relevance in school and work, and is haunted by the fates of the men and women of his platoon. Doc returns home to Houma, Louisiana, his military service having failed to offer the opportunity he sought. He can’t stop worrying about his father working out in the shed late at night, and still carries his trauma bag everywhere he goes. Dodge is lost to his American friends, his postwar experience known only to the reader.

In flashbacks, the reader witnesses these men and others in their day-to-day work in Iraq: repairing potholes, each and every one of which reliably contains an IED; trying to keep the roads safe for military and civilian travel; balancing humanity against the ugly work of war; and riding out the senselessness of military politics. Relationships grow and fade. Their homes seem very far away, and are rarely mentioned. One exception is Donovan’s phone call to his parents on his birthday, an effort that costs him dearly. Additional members of the platoon are revealed only in these flashbacks. The strong characters of Corporal Zahn and uber-capable Sergeant Gomez, for example, don’t get first-person treatment; the reader has to work a little harder to puzzle out the endings to their stories, with an increasing sense of foreboding.

Meanwhile, in the present-tense sections, Donovan struggles with the social interactions required by work, school and the possibility of dating. He is hailed as a military hero but holds himself responsible for a range of less salutary personal postwar outcomes. Doc is back at the oil-change place where he worked in high school, his society consisting of a father he can hardly speak to and two friends in a band in New Orleans. Dodge inhabits a precarious position in Tunisia, a society teetering at the brink of violent protests and social upheaval; his pleas to come to the United States have been denied.

These young people come home from a deeply traumatic foreign war to a society totally unprepared to understand them. When Doc ventures out with a girl to see the fireworks on New Year’s Eve, he reacts badly to the sounds of explosions and lashes out, wanting to protect those around him; but his companions, who barely know him, judge him to be unstable. Donovan carefully avoids playing the part of the “stereotypical brooding vet.” The experiences of Donovan, Doc and Dodge are heartwrenching in both theaters; it is Pitre’s greatest feat that they remain viscerally real people, not black-and-white cut-outs. From the perspective of his characters, there are perhaps no heroes here.

The quiet pathos of war, its aftermath and the individuals affected by it, and the inability of a tone-deaf society to relate to them, is rendered with poignancy and stark honesty in Fives and Twenty-Fives. Readers will be floored by Pitre’s spare literary style, the authenticity of each of his characters’ three different voices, and those mesmerizing characters themselves, who are not perfect but demand our compassion for their very reality. The story of Fives and Twenty-Fives is sometimes difficult to abide, but is also necessary; we are lucky to have such a fine voice as Pitre’s to tell it.


Rating: 9 potholes.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Pitre.

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

Ghosts, curses, blessings, loves, births, deaths and family in a lush Caribbean setting.

land

Tiphanie Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony) constructs a wide and magical world spanning three generations on the island of St. Thomas in Land of Love and Drowning. In the early 1900s, as the Danish Virgin Islands are poised to transfer to U.S. rule, Owen Arthur Bradshaw divides his love between his wife, Antoinette, who is beautiful but a reluctant mother; his daughter Eeona, still more lovely and also inveterately jealous; and Rebekah, an obeah (sorceress) married to another man. Antoinette gives Owen one more daughter, Annette, just as Rebekah gives him a son, Jacob Esau. The three children grow up relating to one another in unusual ways. War and American influence broaden their world somewhat, and the forces of nature and island magic both influence and are influenced by the disparate forces that are Eeona, Annette and Jacob Esau.

The story begins with Owen Arthur and his women, then follows his children’s and his grandchildren’s lives. Perspective shifts among the voices of the three children, but Annette, who grows up to be a historian, speaks the loudest. Her island patois persists even as Eeona nags her to “use proper English.” As she writes, “is just a story I telling, but put it in your glass and drink it.”

The compelling history of the U.S. Virgin Islands as told through this family’s intimacies is multiethnic, colorful and vital. Yanique’s diverse characters become doctors, architects, teachers, parents, lovers and fighters; their collective story is haunting and exquisite, told with grace, vibrancy and magic.


This review originally ran in the July 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 red dresses.

Teaser Tuesdays: So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

so we read on

I am quite over the moon for the latest book about The Great Gatsby, by NPR’s Fresh Air book critic, Maureen Corrigan. It’s called So We Read On. Please note that even the title of this book is a nod to the complexity of language. Presumably if we were to hear Corrigan speak about her book (as, since she works in radio, I hope we will), we would know what I am still wondering: does she say “so we read on,” rhymes with feed, current tense? or rhymes with head, past tense? I love this ambiguity.

But wait! There’s more. In the opening pages, Corrigan shows that she will have a sense of humor even while exhorting her audience about the importance of her topic:

When we make our first chain-gang shuffle into Gatsby, we spend so much time preparing for standard test prompts on the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the color of Gatsby’s car and – above all – the symbol of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock that the larger point of the novel gets lost. It’s not the green light, stupid; it’s Gatsby’s reaching for it that’s the crucial all-American symbol of the novel.

One main premise of her book (which is very friendly and accessible, by the way) is that most of us, who read Gatsby for the first time in high school or even middle school, are too young or distracted to fully appreciate it on that first try. I rather liked it in high school (I was a pretty enthusiastic English student, believe it or not), but I am absolutely on board with her larger point.

Recommended! Stay tuned.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

belated housekeeping

Just a note to say, yes, I changed the appearance of my blog a little bit last Friday afternoon, and I didn’t warn you first. I’m sorry! All that’s changed is that there’s a new header image up there, and the background is now a (hopefully soothing) solid color. I hope you like it or at least find it un-distracting from the content that you’re really here for. Thanks for your support! Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

did not finish: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin (audio)

aviatorI was determined to give Melanie Benjamin another try (following Alice I Have Been), and had hopes for this novel of the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I was hoping for something like Loving Frank or The Paris Wife, I suppose – both wonderful books about historical wives. But I was disappointed.

I gave this novel a more than fair chance: I did not give up until partway through track 144 of 209, which is unusual. Generally I will recognize a book that I’m not going to like much earlier than this, and give up on it; if I have made it well over halfway through, then, it’s generally worth finishing. This one was different.

Early on, I was intrigued by Anne’s story, told here in first person, and wanted to know what would happen to her. (I mean, other than the obvious historical points: marry the guy, have the baby, who is then kidnapped.) I did observe to myself that she was awfully boring, but assumed that part would get better. But it didn’t: the Anne Spencer Morrow, later Anne Morrow Lindbergh, that Benjamin presents is hopelessly boring. She has no personality of her own, being first consumed by admiration for her older sister Elisabeth and international hero Lucky Lindbergh himself, and later resigned to serving her famous husband selflessly, if unhappily. She whines about the harassment of the press; she whines about Charles’s heavy-handed, cool approach to marriage; she laments that she is bound to follow him everywhere like a puppy. But she never begins to have a personality of her own.

This unlikeable and uninteresting protagonist is unfortunately accompanied by no one more interesting or likeable than herself. Charles is stiff, and sympathetic toward Hitler and the eugenics movement. The beautiful Elisabeth is unable to accept herself. There was no character in this story that I was able to feel remotely warm towards. And then Charles’s sinister remarks about genetic purity in the Morrow family (Anne feels the need to hide from him her brother’s mental illness and her sister’s sexual identity) escalate to praise of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, and I became downright disgusted. As the Lindberghs consider moving to Germany in the late 1930’s, Anne acknowledges that something (she can’t quite put her finger on it – !) is wrong, but feels that the protection from the media is worth whatever less-than-wholesome business Hitler might be up to, alongside his repression of the press that so disturbed her family in the States.

These people were so unlikeable, and their politics (Lindbergh’s politics, and Anne’s contented acceptance of those politics when she found herself well served) so repellent, that I suddenly found I couldn’t go any further, and hit the “stop” button midway through a Lindbergh rant about Hitler’s righteousness and the wrongs committed by the Jews. Now, I would like to point out that I am capable of reading about horrible ideas, thoughts, arguments, and actions, when there is something to be gained: a point to be made, or history to be learned. But I didn’t see any of these benefits looming. I felt no redemptive value imminent. If Benjamin accomplished something salutary in the final quarter (or so) of this novel, then it came too late for me.

This also means that I missed the final, juicy bits about Lindbergh’s other women and children born out of wedlock. Ho hum. If you’re interested in the gossip, I’d wager you could read about that stuff without suffering through the rest of this novel.

Sadly, another DNF for me from Melanie Benjamin; I can now feel safe in not trying any more of her work. Generally, I don’t rate books I’ve not finished, but having made it over halfway, I’ll go ahead and make a call on this one.


Rating: 3 nurses.

book beginnings on Friday: Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

maya

Recently, after trying so hard to be patient, I finally gave up on The Aviator’s Wife (more on that next week), and breathed a sigh of relief and pleasure as I hit “play” on this novel by Isabel Allende. Her language is so lovely, rhythmic and perfectly chosen; her sentences, translated from Spanish by Anne McLean, are both short and simple, and lyrical. Also, I am very much enjoying this reading by Maria Cabezas.

The book begins with a quotation that I can’t help but share:

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

And then Allende begins writing, in the voice of 19-year-old Maya Vidal:

A week ago my grandmother gave me a dry-eyed hug at the San Francisco airport and told me again that if I valued my life at all, I should not get in touch with anyone I knew until we could be sure my enemies were no longer looking for me. My Nini is paranoid, as the residents of the People’s Independent Republic of Berkeley tend to be, persecuted as they are by the government and extraterrestrials, but in my case she wasn’t exaggerating…

Isn’t that a wonderful beginning? We have a precipitous moment, as Maya sets off on what is clearly a fraught journey, to an unknown destination; the colorful character of Nini; the suspense of this 19-year-old girl’s “enemies”; and the humor involved with the “People’s Independent Republic of Berkeley.” I’m so happy to be back in Allende’s capable hands.

Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert

The vivid jazz scene in ’60s Chicago, an unconventional family and an utterly heart-stealing child.

last night

In early 1960s Chicago, 10-year-old Sophia has no friends her own age. Her society is Jim, a photographer in love with her mother; Rita and Sister Eye, her mother’s former roommates; and, occasionally, her mother, Naomi, a lounge singer aspiring to fame. “Mother’s feelings are the curb I walk, trying to keep my balance… when she notices me, all the times she doesn’t notice me get erased.” Rebecca Rotert’s debut novel, Last Night at the Blue Angel, alternates between Sophia’s perspective and that of a younger Naomi, discovering herself and escaping Kansas.

The city’s colorful ’60s jazz scene is a playground for a woman as beautiful and talented as Naomi, and its architecture provides focus for Jim’s photography (when he’s not focused on Naomi), set against the background of segregation and the Cold War. Sophia is precocious, wise beyond her years and profoundly nervous. She keeps lists: of her mother’s conquests, of the many practicalities she’ll need to reinvent after the bomb is dropped. But routine is disrupted when a man resurfaces from Naomi’s past just as she gets her shot at stardom after 10 years of hope and effort. Her final performance at the once-proud jazz club the Blue Angel holds promise, but will come at immense cost for both mother and daughter.

Rotert, an accomplished singer herself, beautifully evokes the vibrancy of this setting. But her true artistry lies in the complex mother-daughter relationship at the center of this story, and the deeply sympathetic, nuanced, heartbreaking character of Sophia, a child in an adult world on the brink of enormous change.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 radios.
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