Hard Books by Rebecca Howard

There are all kinds of reasons why people read, all of which are equally valid and important.  Some read for escape and entertainment.  Others want to experience historic, futuristic, or fantasy settings and characters.  A lot of us read for the sheer appreciation of language and story as art.  Still others want relatable characters that are so well formed they seem like real people. 

I’d venture to say that most of us choose different books for different times in our lives.  Although I love what some would call “sad” books, I also enjoy psychological thrillers like Laura Lippman’s latest After I’m Gone and offbeat, quirky romantic comedies like The Rosie Project.  What is sometimes more difficult is to read what I would call hard books. 

I liken these books to those movies that you put on your Netflix queue, but never quite get around to watching because, well, they’re hard.  Before we had a streaming plan, we let the DVD Munich sit on top of our television for weeks, maybe months.  Why?  You kind of have to be in the right mood to watch a film like that.  No one comes home Friday evening after a long week of work and says, “I know.  Let’s watch that documentary about the Armenian genocide.” 

I want to promote hard books, though, because they’re important.  When I walk through the stacks at the library, I sometimes imagine the books as voices—each one sharing his/her truth with the world. To remove certain voices would be to shift the balance of the entire collection.  The collective voice of the library is a representation of our culture and our history, and perhaps no voices are more important now than those of returning soldiers. 

There is an abundance of nonfiction written about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but fiction has been in short supply until recently.  Because we can often learn more truth through fiction than nonfiction, these novels are important.  Hard, but important.  I wrote a while back about Kevin Powers’ spare, poetic novel The Yellow Birds.  Now, I’ve just finished Phil Klay’s collection of short stories called Redeployment.  What both titles reflect is the tremendous disconnect between American civilians and the amazingly small percentage of soldiers and their families who are bearing the burden of these wars.  They chronicle the impossible physical, psychological, and moral turmoil of being at war—particularly war in the 21st century.  In the title story, told from the perspective of a returning soldier, Klay writes:

So, here’s an experience.  Your wife takes you shopping in Wilmington.  Last time you walked down a city street, your Marine on point went down the side of the road, checking ahead and scanning the roofs across from him… In Wilmington, you don’t have a squad, you don’t have a battle buddy, you don’t even have a weapon... Instead, you’re stuck in American Eagle Outfitters.  Your wife gives you some clothes to try on and you walk into the tiny dressing room.  You close the door, and you don’t’ want to open it again. (12)  

Redeployment gives voice to a variety of individuals touched by war—from soldiers and chaplains to a Foreign Service Officer struggling to measure the success of his work in the brilliant story “Money as a Weapons System.” 

This isn’t a feel good book, but it should be widely read by those who want to hear all of the voices of these far-away wars and not just the ones approved for Sunday morning news shows.  For more fiction about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, check out this list