PODCAST: BEYOND THE MARGIN – CLIMATE CHANGE, TWO WAYS

ATM BTM Podcast June2017 header

In an episode separated into two distinct halves, but dedicated entirely to the science of climate change, host Michael Shields interviews two prominent and passionate meteorologists who have made the study of climate change their life’s work. The first half of the podcast features an interview with John Morales, the renowned Chief Meteorologist at NBC6 in South Florida. John (@JohnMoralesNBC6) is a three time Emmy Award winner and the longest tenured broadcast meteorologist in South Florida. He is one of a select few broadcast meteorologists elected to be a prestigious Fellow of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), and has earned an AMS Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advance of Applied Meteorology. In 1997, John participated in Vice President Al Gore’s White House conference on global warming and climate change and John had the opportunity to return to the White House at the invitation of President Barack Obama in 2014 for the release of the National Climate Assessment because of his fabled contributions. His passion for communicating the risks associated with climate change is resolute, and in this podcast John expounds upon the reasons for and the risk associated with the global concern, and he also discusses multiple scenarios where climate change is affecting Planet Earth at this very moment.

In the second half of the podcast, Michael takes the time to hear the other side of the argument concerning the issue of climate change with help from veteran meteorologist Joe Bastardi (AccuWeather, WeatherBELL). Joe (@BigJoeBastardi) is one of the most prominent skeptics within the growing movement to curb climate change. He has famously clashed with Bill Nye on the topic, and he can be seen regularly sharing his opinions on CNN and Fox News. His viewpoints are steeped in his meteorological studies, and his suspicion of man-made global warming has made him a hero of the right, and a villain by those on the left. Michael and Joe’s discussion is expansive and allows for those who have yet to be exposed to the argument in opposition to what has become the consensus across the globe about climate change to better comprehend the division in understanding.

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The Sympathizer: Reviewed

Sympathizer

As an American, it was difficult for me to eliminate any predisposed biases I might have had before reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, The Sympathizer. Americans look back on the horrific war in Vietnam differently than native-born Vietnamese citizens do. I’m no different, and I was interested in reading a story where a narrator relays what it was like to grow up and serve in that hell. What makes this novel intriguing is that the reader sees the story unfold through the eyes of a captain in the Southern Vietnamese Army, but the author ups the ante by having this protagonist serve as a double agent for the Viet Cong. So the reader not only gets to see the perspective of someone serving the Vietnamese Army of the Republic, accepting American military aid at bayonet point, but also from the dual perspective of a North Vietnamese communist who clandestinely undermines his enemies, even while establishing close, life-long bonds with those he’s betraying. Moreover, he is a French-Vietnamese half-breed who struggles to find acceptance among his own, which ultimately serves as the impetus for justifying his spying and espionage.

The story commences with the fall of Saigon, and from there the failure of the joint American-South Vietnamese war effort is laid bare in harrowing detail. As the communist liberators roll into the city and the citizens flee in panic, the reader feels the tremendous sense of despair as a decades-spanning war, resulting in a calamitous loss of life, comes to an end. Beginning the story with the end of the war is an interesting choice by Nguyen, but it’s important for the reader to feel the utter sense of defeat the Southern Vietnamese feel at this moment in time, particularly through the general that the narrator reports directly to, a general who is unwilling to accept that the war is indeed over, and that he is on the losing side. This first act sets up what is to come, which is to show the reader how a soldier transitions from a life of military service to the life of a refugee, a station in life offering one little control over his own fate.

The next part of the story focuses on the captain’s life in Southern California as he and the other Vietnamese refugees in his community attempt to carve out meager existences. Their lives in Vietnam may not have been perfect, but at the very least the military personnel were driven by a sense of duty and purpose, and as outsiders they must come to terms with their new realities. The captain continues to serve as a sleeper agent, reporting to his North Vietnamese handlers while still having the ear and the confidence of his Southern Vietnamese superior. Another nuance the author gives his narrator is that the captain also once studied at the college level in the states, and this gives him an edge when analytically deconstructing their tumultuous relationship with their new American hosts, who many of the refugees feel are obligated to provide asylum for the displaced. The most interesting scenes happen when the captain and the other refugees interact with Americans, particularly American scholars. This is where the novel delves into the philosophical, with a heavy focus on the historical and turbulent relationships between the American and the “Oriental,” the Westerner and the Far Easterner, the imperialist colonizer and the native peasant, the capitalist and the communist.

A well-handled detour that the story takes is when the captain is hired by a Hollywood director to serve as an adviser on a forthcoming film, The Hamlet, to offer his expertise on the Vietnamese psyche, endeavoring to lend the movie an air of authenticity. The reason that these chapters engage the American reader in particular is because of the country’s fascination with war movies from the Vietnam era. Nguyen seems to effortlessly capture the film makers’ general misconception and misplaced sense of civic duty through wholly misguided artistic visions in their execution of the films they make. The captain does what he can to help, but it’s apparent he becomes jaded by the irreconcilable differences in mindset between himself and his Hollywood employer. The tension between the two mounts to a startling indirect confrontation. The action and dialogue are intriguing enough, but the underlying observation of the American love affair with war cinema is what’s really compelling here.

I don’t want to comment too much on where the story goes from there because I don’t want to give away major plot points, but themes dealing with identity crises, chicanery, moral turpitude, and love versus lust are all explored before the story takes an unexpected turn, gradually culminating in a brutal apex. The author revisits themes involving friendship, loyalty, and duty that will evoke an entire range of emotions, some positive but mostly negative, from the reader. Nguyen remains steadfast in lacing the story with glimpses of hope throughout, but they are often fleeting as the reader is continually forced to confront the barbarism that was the war in Vietnam. There is a level of depth to this exploration, as Nguyen presents the reader with a protagonist who is in command of his emotional state, who is both circumspect and aloof. Spy status aside, the captain only allows his thoughts to be known in a written confession, which is how the narrative is presented for most of the novel. The characters he interacts with only think they know who the real man is.

The Sympathizer is more than social commentary on the war in Vietnam from a man who’s lived in two worlds at war with each other. It is a testament to the strength of the human soul, not only in terms of mere survival, but also in coming face-to-face with the most savage parts of our nature, and in taking responsibility for the cruelty we inflict upon others. The reader is in good hands with Viet Thanh Nguyen, who handles his subject matter responsibly. Moreover, the author tells the story with a grace that is hard to pull off when the setting is from one of the most atrocious conflicts in human history.

Purchase The Sympathizer on Amazon

 

 

 

Sifting Through the Controversy: American Sniper

Sniper

After seeing the movie this past weekend and examining all of the buzz that has people so divided on its overall message, I decided that I would speak to the issue.

American Sniper is neutral, plain and simple. It is neither a propaganda piece nor a scathing condemnation of the Iraq war. And while I may be a little late to this discussion, at the risk of sounding a bit redundant I must reiterate what Clint Eastwood and many others have said in defense of the film: It is a character study. That’s it. There is no pro-war message here. It is not a celebration of an efficient killer.

If anything, the film raises awareness on the epidemic in our country that is post-traumatic stress disorder, being presented to us at a time when we are all too aware of just how ailing our system is in treating our veterans.

There is one scene in the film when Chris Kyle sees the Twin Towers fall, and then the story steadily fast forwards to his Navy Seal training and his four subsequent tours of Iraq. This is the only issue I take with the film, because it implies a cause and effect connection between two mutually exclusive events: 9/11 and the war in Iraq. However, if the attacks on the World Trade Center were the catalyst that put Kyle on the path to the military and Iraq is where that path led him, it becomes more difficult to fault Eastwood for following the chronology of Kyle’s life.

I grew up in the post-Vietnam war era, and I took in as many movies dealing with the conflict as I could, movies that attempted to study human misery in that context responsibly. As I grew a little older, I re-examined these same movies with an adult’s perspective, and never once did I take away any messages from them other than: War is hell. It makes me wonder why American Sniper, which follows in this same tradition, has come under such heavy fire. Maybe it’s a sign of the times that we live in, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Foreword: Against the Dying of the Light

Art has always offered warnings to humankind outlining the many ways in which we will inevitably destroy each other. One discerning vehicle it has employed that has found an extremely large audience is the literature and film genre known as science fiction. In the last hundred years writers and filmmakers have commented on man’s unprecedented leap forward with foreboding scenarios both realistic and fantastic. George Orwell has shown us the peril of totalitarian states. James Cameron has hinted at man’s folly bringing us to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Ray Bradbury presented us with a true dystopia while Cormack McCarthy has erased all notion of our concept of civilization. Stanley Kubrick has illustrated Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of the merging of technological innovation with military ambition. And these are just a few examples.

This month one of the most visionary and thought provoking directors of our time, Christopher Nolan, brings us a tale of man’s endeavor to find salvation in the stars, and the global quandary which has brought forth this necessity. What I find troubling is how the fictional man versus nature theme of the movie is so intimately intertwined with our planet’s current state of affairs. I’m really hoping that this film speaks to those who otherwise might not yet realize what is truly happening out there. It’s important for me to know that people are going to leave the theater knowing that change needed to happen yesterday.

A wise man once told me that I needed to get my own affairs in order before I could take on the problems of the world. This was sound advice for a person who felt he had little control over his life. However, even when I try to keep my head down I still find stark reminders of the danger we’re in everywhere I look, be it blights on nature, rampant consumerism, or the alarming rise of the global human population. It occurs to me that no one can continue on ignoring the fact that we are facing a very real threat to our very existence.

In his latest article for Across the Margin, “Against the Dying of the Light,” author and co-founder Michael Shields touches upon Nolan’s latest film to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality. And the reality Shields lays out for us is sobering: we are destroying our own planet. We’ve heard it for years now, and we’ve made some changes, but not nearly enough has been done, and it certainly hasn’t been done fast enough. As the window of opportunity to reverse the damage we’ve done to our home is rapidly drawing to a close, we can once again turn to the arts, hoping that Interstellar will shake us out of our apathy, because the reporting of scientific fact alone doesn’t seem to be getting the job done. Please follow the link below to an article that is a pessimistic premonition while at the same time a faint but shining ray of hope. And please share with others. The clock is ticking.

Against the Dying of the Light

climate change

The World is a Stage

I’m pleased to welcome the talented and insightful Jonathan Marcantoni to this blog so that he might discuss with us Juan José Saer’s novel, El Entenado.

El Entenado 1

“I hungered for the open sea. Children blame the intransigence of the world on their own callowness and lack of knowledge; they think that far off on the other side of the ocean, on the farther shore of experience, the fruit is more succulent, more real, the sun yellower and kinder, men’s actions and words more intelligible, clear-cut and just.” (Saer)

This last Columbus Day, I, like perhaps many of you, was bombarded on social media with articles and Memes dedicated to the injustice the “discovery” of the Americas had on the native population, with nearly sole credit for the misery being placed on the shoulders of one Christopher Columbus. This assessment is historically inaccurate, since Columbus was not responsible for much of what occurred during the Conquista, nor did he have anything to do with the crimes of the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and British empires that vied for control of the New World. After all, he died in 1506, prior to European contact with the Aztec and Incan empires and most of South America. Placing blame on Columbus for the woes of Native Americans also ignores the history of the Reconquista, that is, the 800-year war fought between Spanish Catholics and the Moorish invaders who conquered Spain by taking advantage of a civil war between the Visigoths, who had kicked the Romans out a few hundred years earlier. It is historical irony that such manipulation would be put to use by the Spaniards in their conquest of the aforementioned Central and South American empires. The Reconquista had engendered generations of Spaniards who relied on lands and money awarded them for their participation fighting the Moors, and with the war over, these young Spaniards, many of them humble farmers, no longer had a guaranteed source of income and land. The greed and bloodthirsty nature of the early conquistadors can be credited to the two generations following the Reconquista. Think of the conquistadors as the medieval equivalent of a boy growing up on his granddad’s stories of fighting in World War Two. A Spanish boy in that time would listen to his tales of valor fighting the Moors and wish for his own glory on the battlefield, and the Americas provided such an opportunity.

The revisionist history of Columbus also avoids paying due respect to the humanity of Native Americans by turning them all into victims. This is as historically inaccurate as arguing that the Aztecs and Incans were not peaceful people, but were in fact just as savage as the Spaniards could be. It is worth noting that the Spaniards adopted the methods of punishment and torture employed by the people they conquered (such as the quartering of a man’s entire family in front of him prior to disemboweling him, a favorite practice of the Incan royalty). But that is only worth noting in the sense that it paints a fuller picture of the societies the Conquista interrupted. We cannot pay true respect to a people, or to historical events, by focusing solely on the good or the bad. The Native Americans were not holy, enlightened tribes who lived in utopias, nor were they brute, unintelligent savages. The Spaniards, as well, were not all bloodthirsty, greedy rapists. A great many of them, particularly the monks and the Jesuits, earned the love and respect of the native tribes. Modern day Paraguay, for instance, was once run by Jesuit monks who respected the customs and traditions of the native population. What we know about the native civilizations of the Americas is largely due to the scholarship and translations headed by monasteries and the Catholic Church in order to convert the natives by first understanding their cultures and beliefs. In this way they could find common points between native mythology and Christianity.  In short, both sides were human beings, and the way in which social media and the 24 hour news cycle has diminished historical periods to little more than bullet points turning flesh and blood men and women into cardboard cut outs, betrays the memories of both the European invaders and the Native Americans.

Saer

Juan José Saer’s The Witness (El entenado), takes place in the early days of the Conquest, and attempts to show the links between European and native societies, to unearth the common humanity that history books have long forgotten. The book shows how imperial impulses of superior versus inferior societies is a universal human concept, and that mankind’s hold on civilization is held together by the thinnest, and blurriest of threads.

Saer tells his story as one continuous movement. There are no chapters or scene breaks. The narrative flows much the way life does, continuous, yet forever looping back on itself. The book is told from the point of a view of a man (no names are ever given) who in his old age has decided to write his memoirs. An orphan turned cabin boy on a Spanish ship headed to the New World, he experiences both kindness and cruelty at the hands of the crew. After several months, they land on an unknown coast and almost immediately, the entire party is slaughtered, save for the boy. He is taken hostage by the tribe, and forced to watch what we learn later is a yearly ritual, in which the tribe cooks and devours their enemies, and then participate in an orgy that involves everyone, young and old. The scene is horrific and nearly traumatizing, but afterwards, the natives resume a mundane, reserved existence. The hedonism of the first night is in stark contrast with how the natives behave every other day of the year. The narrator is largely left alone to observe this society, yet he is never without food or work or a place to stay. The Spanish title of the book means “step-son” and this just as accurately describes his role as in the English title. He is at once a part of the community and outside of it. Cared for, but not truly a member of the family. It becomes clear that the tribe views themselves as superior to their neighbors, and it soon becomes clear that what happens to him occurs every year with another member of another local tribe. The narrator deduces that this community kidnaps people in order to first intimidate, and then demonstrate their enlightened ways, so that when the visitor is returned, they have been “civilized”. There is another reason for the cannibalistic ritual, but I won’t spoil it for you.

After ten years, another Spanish ship arrives on the coast, and the narrator is sent to them. The ship follows where the narrator came from and the tribe is annihilated. Our protagonist is now a young man, and does not speak any Spanish. He is re-educated on Spanish customs and Catholicism by a friendly priest, but while he learns to follow those customs and speak the language, he never feels like he is with his own people. He has become yet another witness to another imperial civilization, and that is how he spends his life. Once in Spain, he joins a travelling theatre company where writes a play about the tribe. While he meant for the play to be educational, the Spanish audience instead sees it as yet further proof of their superiority over the Native Americans. The experience with the theatre causes the narrator to place himself further apart from Spanish society, observing their manners and attitudes and always placing them in contrast to those of the tribe.

It becomes clear, to the reader and to the narrator, that the tribe is a sort of microcosm of mankind. We do everything in our power to control our elements, our appearances, our manners, and in so doing we begin to believe that we are special compared to others. In our condescension, though we believe it to be humanitarian generosity, we try to impart our beliefs and customs onto others, because logically there can only be one truth and one way of living. For there not to be means that we are not special, and so we have to continue the masquerade, sometimes via violent ends, such as warfare, to dominate those “others”. We also dominate via our culture, which we believe to be of such quality and inspiration that anyone who encounters it will improve as a person. Yet in all its forms, civilization is nothing more than theatre. We play our roles, hit our marks, and collectively agree on the same lies. The journey the narrator is on is one where, having witnessed two seemingly distinct societies play out the same tendencies and attitudes, he must determine where exactly does authenticity lie. While the tribe has been wiped off the face of the Earth, its shadows hangs over the protagonist’s life. His obsession is derived from his belief that the tribe, for all its theatrics, had greater access to the true nature of life and humanity than the Spaniards do. And so he deconstructs his days in the jungles of South America, piecing together clues and revelations until, finally, the answer he has been looking for is revealed. That moment, when all artifice has been stripped from civilization, has haunted me ever since I first read the book in 2008. It is a scene I think of often, especially living in Colorado, where any achievements of man are easily dwarfed by the enormity, and the eternity, of nature.

 

To purchase the original Spanish (which is immensely beautiful), click here: El Entenado

To purchase the book in English (there is another translation available, but this one is better), click here: The Witness

 

Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican writer, co-founder of Aignos Publishing, PEN Member, and author of Communion (with Jean Blasiar), Traveler’s Rest, and The Feast of San Sebastian. He has a BA in Spanish Studies from the University of Tampa. He will obtain his Masters of Humanities from Tiffin University in May 2015. Please take a moment to follow his writing career by accessing the links below.

PEN America

Traveler’s Rest

The Feast of San Sebastian

There is No Cholera in Zimbabwe

YouNiversity Project

Follow Jonathan Marcantoni on Twitter

The Promo

keyboard

I used to absolutely loathe the idea of marketing myself, but in the last few months I’ve found it quite stimulating. It’s interesting to try navigating an ever-shifting landscape that’s still all very new. I stressed myself out for awhile when I was focused on the wrong thing: royalties. Now I’ve come out the other side of that bottlenecked problem; I’ve given away over 5,000 books for free in the last four days, and I’ve returned to a feeling that I lost somewhere along the way, a feeling of creativity. Of having something to say.

It’s quite gratifying that thousands of strangers pulled my novel out of thin air. Some of them will read it. Others will give me honest feedback, for they don’t know me and they owe me nothing. I am hoping to win over a readership, but I’m content enough during this brief interim to just sit back and see what happens. It’s the circulation that makes me happy right now.

It’s an exciting time to be a writer. Indie authors such as myself have no choice but to market ourselves, and this last week I learned what it means to get so caught up in it that you end up neglecting your craft. I just have to get through one more day, and then I can go back to doing what I love.

Wednesday is the last day that Preemptive will be priced at $0.00 for download. Please take advantage if you haven’t already, and please help me to spread the word. Thank you for the support from the bottom of my heart.

Preemptive on Amazon: $0.00

 

Ken Follet’s Influence

ken-follet-retratoThis post is a continuation of the new subcategory to my blog in which I feature some of the historical fiction authors that have inspired me and influenced my writing style throughout the years. My next choice was a rather easy one: Ken Follet.

Disclaimer: Potential Spoilers

Although I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of his body of work, the scope of Follet’s vision in his storytelling–coupled with his meticulous attention to historical detail–has only left me wanting to better myself in my own writing. His novels always involve expansive casts of characters, sometimes spread out all over the globe, and the reader stays invested in these characters–both major and minor–throughout. The way he weaves together compelling human interaction with major events in world history leaves the reader feeling as though he or she has gained a little more insight into the chapters of our past that have shaped who we are and where we are today. I refer back to one of my earlier blog posts, War Fiction for a New Generation, when I say that the tales Follet conceives of within these contexts give us a more analytical perspective of the times than merely evaluating public figures, events, and dates from a non-fictional accounting of history.

It took me quite some time to open up the first novel I read of his, Pillars of the Earth. A friend of mine had recommended it, claiming that it was right up my alley, and made me promise to give it a read. When I read the synopsis about a poor carpenter who wants to build the greatest cathedral England has ever seen, I quickly lost interest. A novel just short of one-thousand pages, I found it a daunting commitment. It wasn’t until I ran out of books from my reading list that I reluctantly picked it up and gave it a go. I was enthralled with the story by the first couple of chapters. Set in 12th century England, it’s a gripping tale of intrigue involving the struggling individuals who turn a crumbling, destitute Catholic priory into an economic and cultural phenomenon. Kingsbridge Priory, due to the diligence of it’s head prior, Phillip, becomes a center of liveliness and prosperity from the success of it’s fleece fair and the efforts of the town’s header architect, Tom Builder. Antagonism comes the in the form of both the self-interested earldom and corrupt members of the local clergy, and over the course of two generations the reader bears witness to one of the most complex conflicts of good versus evil.

PILLARS-OF-THE-EARTH-CATHEDRAL-OF-KINGSBRIDGE

I was immediately sold on the book’s sequel, World Without End, which jumps forward in time approximately two-hundred years and follows the lives of the descendants of the original’s protagonists, Tom Builder and his protégé, Jack Jackson, who also inhabit Kingsbridge. The mounting tensions between the characters involving  the politics of the realm and the Diocese are present here as well, but the reader must also follow the characters as they combat the most devastating antagonist of all: the black plague. A worthy sequel to its predecessor, World Without End left me impatient to read the third entry in the series, but I would have to wait until Follet finished and published this manuscript.

I’d been pacing his books at one a year, every September, and since I would have to wait for the conclusion the story of Kingsbridge, I decided to dive into another of his uncompleted trilogies, The Century Trilogy. The first book, Fall of Giants, was a departure from the Middle Ages, taking place in the early 1900s on the dawn of World War I, and dealing with interconnected primary characters from England, Germany, America, and Russia. Even the most lowly characters often play integral parts of the story, some interacting with the likes of Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, as they attempt to carve out a meaningful existence throughout the great war that ruined so many millions of lives. This expansive story shows the reader how even some of the most seemingly mundane events involving nationalism can put two loved ones on opposing sides of a conflict. I look forward to next September when I can learn how the sons and daughters of the characters of Fall of Giants deal with World War II in book two of the trilogy, Winter of the World.

Gasmasks

To paraphrase what I’ve already stated, I’m no expert on Ken Follet’s works. But as an aspiring author of historical fiction, I look up to those who’ve done extensive research in order to add some legitimacy to their tales. Follet has shown me the kind of story an author can conceive of when employing the finer points that characterize the backdrops of our darkest hours in history. It’s my hope that anyone out there like me might read this post and decide to pick up one of his books. Follet is the kind of author I try my best to emulate, even if I know that I can never come close.

 

 

What Breaking Bad Meant to Me

blue meth

I was watching  a Chucky marathon on AMC when I saw a saw a trailer for a show about a terminally ill chemistry teacher who turns to cooking meth amphetamine in order to provide for his family after he’s gone. My first thought was: A channel that syndicates old movies is putting out its own programming? How can this work? Then I remembered another show I’d recently heard of, also on AMC, about ad execs in New York, and I seemed to recall that the critics had warmed to it.

The trailer played again later that day, during Seed of Chucky, and I thought to myself, Damn, that’s some extreme subject matter. I should probably check this show out. Where have I seen that guy before?

After watching the pilot, I didn’t know how the creators planned on stretching a series out of the story. It had been like a made for tv movie. The protagonist had tried to kill himself. But Vince Gilligan had a plan. He was telling a finite story with an ending that he’d already envisioned. It wasn’t merely entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It was something much more.

When many other smartly scripted dramas were trying to thread together expansive casts of characters that were representatives of whole communities, Breaking Bad stuck with the nuclear family and the very few characters in its periphery. I’ve always loved that about the show. How they were able to keep that dynamic fresh and interesting still awes me.

It was intelligent. It was character driven, and it was full of symbolism. Everything mattered. The shots. The music. The color scheme. The costumes. The characters’ mannerisms. Blink and you might miss something very important. I’d think about an episode for days afterward, and I’d love to discuss it with my friends in depth. Dissecting episodes even brought me closer to my father living across the country. It restored my faith in quality television. I felt every emotion on the spectrum at one time or another. Even the most prescient of viewers couldn’t have predicted some of those plot twists. It showed humanity at its best and worst, favoring clarity over ambiguity.

It was a cultural phenomenon, and we probably won’t see a show of its caliber again anytime soon. Maybe not even in this lifetime.

goodbye

 

War Literature for a New Generation

TheYellowBirds_AFAll of our veterans have their own personal stories about how they ended up on the front lines. The bravery and sense of duty that these men and women exhibit on a daily basis is something most of us back home can’t even begin to relate to. Regardless of whatever your take is on our involvement in wars on two fronts, these men and women deserve our utmost respect.

I read a lot of biographical accounts of soldiers on their tours of duty while I was drafting Preemptive. Although I never explore our country’s post-9/11 campaigns in the novel, the personal reflections from our military personnel provided me with invaluable insight into their psyches, and took me in new directions while I was writing. It bothers me when people shy away from these accounts, turning away from our troops’ sacrifices because they are either personally disinterested or they find these accounts too graphic and saddening to absorb.

A lot of WWII non-fiction is out there waiting to tell the individual tales of soldiers who served their country diligently, such as Laura Hildebrand’s biography of Japanese POW and Olympic track star Louis Zamperini, Unbroken. Sometimes these books are translated into dramatizations with respect to historical accuracy, as Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg did responsibly with Band of Brothers and The Pacific. But alongside these accounts are the historically fictional literary works that accompany these biographies, one of the most acclaimed ones being Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch 22.

The controversial and unpopular war in Vietnam also had it’s share of both fiction and non-fiction. Karl Marlantes’ Vietnam era novel, Matterhorn, is a haunting vision of the barbarity of that war. Written by a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, it provides the reader with perspective on the mind-sets of these soldiers in a way that non-fiction sometimes fails to do. Alongside the most gruesome real life tales of soldiers who served in Vietnam will always be the Apocalypse Nows, the Platoons, and the Full Metal Jackets.

So when the new generation’s wars erupted in both Afghanistan and Iraq, I took in as much literature as I could. I read Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory, Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor, and Michael Hirsch’s None Braver. I watched the HBO mini-series Generation Kill, based on the book by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright, where he accompanies the First Reconnaissance Battalion Marines into Iraq in the first days of the invasion. Each chronicle allowed me to feel as if I was one step closer to seeing the bigger picture, but I sometimes felt as if the melancholy feeling I should have been experiencing was diluted by all of the facts and dates. I wanted to immerse myself in that gray area where right and wrong, good and evil, become ambiguities too complex to put into words. I realized I was waiting for a new wave of war fiction, realistic stories that would take me into the heads of the soldiers in service. This was important to me, because although I’m sure there are many parallels to the wars of the previous generations, none of the wars of the past speak to us like the ones we’re involved in right now. These books did eventually arrive. Here are three that I found exceptional.

billy-lynnBen Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, tells the story of Bravo Squad, a group of young soldiers who are in the spotlight for their recent victory in a firefight with Iraqi insurgents. Invited as honorary guests to the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day home game, they are showcased alongside Beyonce during the halftime show, lauded as heroes in the owner’s sky box during the game , and followed around by a hotshot Hollywood producer who wants to bring their story to the big screen. What makes this story stand out is the way in which Fountain creates a very tangible communication barrier between the soldiers in the thick of the fighting and the men and women back home watching from their televisions.  Billy and his Bravo Squad mates are constantly being accosted by people seeking the squad’s perspective on the war. Over time it becomes apparent that these people want only the most superficial of broad views; they’re not the ones doing the fighting, and, inwardly, they don’t really want to know. Conversely, it becomes exhausting for the soldiers of Bravo Squad to offer their takes. They are at the bottom of the chain of command, so far removed from national policy making as to make their opinions moot. They recognize this, and they accept it. Billy in particular just wants to get on with his young life without commenting or the moral repercussions of a war he wanted no part of to begin with. Often humorous, but always sobering in its realism, the novel progressively widens the divide between those who serve and those who don’t, and this is what holds the reader’s interest until the very end.

yellow birdsKevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds is the story of the friendship that develops between the novel’s protagonist, Bartle, and his teenage brother-in-arms, Murphy. Jumping back and forth in time from Bartle’s tour of duty in Iraq to his time on leave back home in Virginia, Powers’ prose shows the very disturbing disconnect Bartle is experiencing from the atrocities of war. The first-person narrative becomes increasingly devoid of all human emotion that one would expect from a traumatized veteran, which puts the emotional response in the hands of the reader. Powers, a veteran of Iraq, tells the story in memoir style that neither romanticizes or condemns the war. From Bartle’s disheartening view point, the war is what it is. Like Billy Lynn, Bartle knows his place in the grand scheme of things, and his gradual indifference, even when faced with shocking brutality, is what makes the reader want to learn how a man can psychologically remove himself from all of the tragedy that surrounds him.

the watchJoydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch is a re-imagining of Sophocles’ tragic play Antigone, where an Afghan tribal woman arrives just outside of an American military base near Kandahar to claim her brother’s body and give him a burial according to religious rites. The conflict arises when the military commander of the base refuses to turn over the body because the deceased is suspected of being a Taliban operative. The story is told from many perspectives, from the grieving woman to the many American soldiers who are manning the base. Following the chaos from an intense firefight between U.S. soldiers and the Taliban, the cultural differences between two nations fuel resentment through misunderstanding, which paves the way for inevitable tragedy. Roy-Bhattacharya illustrates an attempt by the American soldiers to take the long view in an effort to justify what they’re doing, but the author himself remains pragmatically objective. His aim appears to be to convey one message only: the futility of all wars.

Sometimes when we’re faced with cold, hard statistics, or the tragic profiles of those we’ve never met and never will meet, we willingly or subconsciously remove ourselves from the heinous realities of war. We don’t choose to be apathetic; it just sometimes seems like it’s all just too much for us to comprehend. That’s when we need to read the fictional accounts of our wars. They’re written by those who have been there and seen the horror, and they’re written by those who understand those elements of human nature that many of us will never know. They break the wars down into smaller, more digestible chunks of humanity. We may not be able to relate, and we may even disapprove, but we can all choose to feel something.