Tag Archives: Iraq

THE HUMMINGBIRD by Stephen Kiernan

In Stephen Kiernan’s The Hummingbird, three stories unspool simultaneously. In the first, Deborah Birch, a hospice nurse, is trying to care for and understand her husband Michael, who has recently returned from his third deployment in Iraq and is suffering from PTSD. In the second, Deb cares for an elderly patient, Barclay Reed, who is dying from liver cancer. He proves to be a difficult patient, but Deb learns how to get through to him and ultimately learns from him. The third story is contained in a book written by Professor Reed, a military history scholar, about a Japanese pilot who attacked the coast of Oregon during World War II.

These subplots are connected, of course: Professor Reed helps Deb to understand her husband’s demons, while she helps him ease into his final decline into death. Michael begins to connect with his wife again after he finally shares some of his pain and fears with her. And the story of the Japanese pilot, which I admittedly skimmed, brings the themes of forgiveness and acceptance into relief.

I found the depiction of hospice care and the ways the dying (and their families) can be brought comfort at the end of life to be the most compelling part of the book. Kiernan clearly has some experience with hospice nursing, or he did a lot of research. The sections on PTSD were also interesting, though I found Deb’s patience with her husband a little unrealistic. I probably should have read the Japanese history sections more carefully, but I just couldn’t get into them. I like books about soldiers and veterans, but I don’t enjoy detailed depictions of warfare.

The writing was a little clunky at times. There were distracting cliches that really stood out to me – after Deb’s first visit to Professor Reed, “he’d won [her] heart already – which detracted from the book. Michael’s sudden taking to a dog that Deb brought home, after stating that he was afraid of dogs ever since Iraq – was sudden. And I’m always suspect of characters who call other people “hey, lover”. Who does that? Repeatedly?

So The Hummingbird was a mixed bag for me but I am ultimately glad I read it. The good parts were pretty memorable and gave me a lot of perspective on hospice.

The Depressing-o-Meter is off the charts on this one. (It’s about hospice and PTSD!) 9 out of 10.

Q&A With Roxana Robinson, Author of SPARTA

Earlier this month, I attended a Q&A with Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta, at Politics & Prose. I read her novel Cost a few years (reviewed here) ago and was very impressed with her writing, and I wanted to check out what she had to say about her new book.

Sparta is about a 26 year-old veteran of the Iraq war, returning from his second deployment. From Robinson’s introduction to the Q&A:

Robinson_JoyceRavidSparta is a departure in a way from her previous novels. She started it five years ago after reading an article in The New York Times about soldiers in Iraq in unarmored Humvees driving over roads with bombs. She was also outraged about soldiers with PTSD not being removed from combat. She felt that we weren’t doing well by our troops. She wasn’t a fan of the war. She wanted to know what it would be like to be on the ground in Iraq, so she read everything she could about it.

Robinson found this topic more difficult than writing about some of her previous topics – Alzheimer’s, heroin – and the research took over her life.  She read military blogs, which provided more than the journalists did, who simply reported facts. The first person narratives from soldiers showed them doing their job – fighting – rather than writing. She also watched YouTube videos of soldiers wearing mini cams on their helmets, so that she could experience what it was like to be in a firefight.

She talked to vets, which was most influential. She found it hard because the vets didn’t want to talk to a novelist or a woman. But she started a network and talked to vets at houses, cafes, and on the phone. These stories let her into the life of Conrad Ferrell, her main character.

Q: Do you deal exclusively with PTSD? How do you weave it in and out?

A: PTSD is very much a presence in the book. It presents in a variety of ways, and is stronger in some places than others. PTSD is an ambiguous condition. It is part of a lot of returning vets’ experiences. This is the story of someone coming home who is revisited by experiences with explosives. There are psychological as well as physiological injuries.

Q: How did you end up writing Cost?

A: By accident. I didn’t mean to write about heroin addiction. I was curious about why it is so hard to be a good adult child. Once could be an adult but turn into a 6 or 13 or 21-year old in the presence of one’s parents. When does that go away? I was writing a novel about parents and children of different ages, but realized as I was writing that the younger brother was a heroin addict. From there, the book exploded.

Q: Did you hear from or talk to the VA since you finished Sparta?

A: I didn’t. I went to the VA in NY but wasn’t allowed in. I hung around and saw people going in and out. I saw notices and talked to someone who worked there, and got testimony from vets who have been there. I don’t expect to hear from them.

Q: Has the government admitted anything?

A: The book is not an accusation. It is based on serious, published facts and the public record.

Q: How was it turning non-fiction into fiction?

A: With the novels I have found myself doing, there has been a lot of research. Characters in those worlds are not in my world. I have to live someone else’s life. This was the hardest book I’ve written.

Q: Did anything surprise you in your research?

A: I started at such a low level of knowledge that everything was a surprise. I only felt outrage. I learned that war is about emotion, not strategy, weapons or weather.

Sparta sounds like a very powerful read – I hope to get to it soon.