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Two Book Reviews in One

A few weeks ago, before I started my reading and reviewing project, I read Redeployment by Phil Klay.  Then it showed up on the New York Times list of 2014 Notable Books.  In line with my project, I figured I would post a review it at some point, but wasn’t sure when.

One of the experiments that is a part of this project is “checking out” e-books from the library, something I have not done before.  A couple of weeks ago, I started scrolling through the Sacramento Library’s e-book selection in search of an available e-book from the New York Times list.  I checked out Demon Camp by Jennifer Percy.  I decided to review both books in one post, the reason for which will become obvious in a moment.

Here is the Amazon blurb about Redeployment:

Phil Klay’s Redeployment takes readers to the frontlines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned. Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos.

In “Redeployment”, a soldier who has had to shoot dogs because they were eating human corpses must learn what it is like to return to domestic life in suburbia, surrounded by people “who have no idea where Fallujah is, where three members of your platoon died.” In “After Action Report”, a Lance Corporal seeks expiation for a killing he didn’t commit, in order that his best friend will be unburdened. A Morturary Affairs Marine tells about his experiences collecting remains—of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers both. A chaplain sees his understanding of Christianity, and his ability to provide solace through religion, tested by the actions of a ferocious Colonel. And in the darkly comic “Money as a Weapons System”, a young Foreign Service Officer is given the absurd task of helping Iraqis improve their lives by teaching them to play baseball. These stories reveal the intricate combination of monotony, bureaucracy, comradeship and violence that make up a soldier’s daily life at war, and the isolation, remorse, and despair that can accompany a soldier’s homecoming.

Redeployment is poised to become a classic in the tradition of war writing. Across nations and continents, Klay sets in devastating relief the two worlds a soldier inhabits: one of extremes and one of loss. Written with a hard-eyed realism and stunning emotional depth, this work marks Phil Klay as one of the most talented new voices of his generation.

Here are a couple of the one-star reviews, which I did not read until just now:

  • Anecdotal at best. War fiction with the guise of credibility. Characters portrayed are emotionally, spiritually and intellectually bankrupt. No credit given to Marine leadership. Rife with profanity, ostensibly in the interest of reality and credibility, but way overdone. Little to know insight into the “warrior’s soul”, which is what I was searching for when purchased.
  • I’m sorry that I purchased this book. Sorry Phil, but the depth of emotion in these stories should be something more than the F bomb.
  • Too much room for story telling and not enough facts in most of the stories. Whining and not a lot of thought or realistic thinking. If someone is looking for true stories and actual situations, I don’t believe this book will offer a realistic picture.

While I was reading Redeployment, I was trying to figure out if I had simply read too many books about Afghanistan and Iraq, about the soldiers who have fought there, and about the aftermath, to find this book interesting.  It’s a reality, I don’t know how many books I’ve read on the subject.  It’s a subject that fascinates me and I have read everything from books written by the soldiers who fought there, reporters who covered the wars, agenda-driven books by policy-makers, to The Final Salute — a book about the soldiers who notify the next of kin and one of the most moving books you could ever pick up.  So, maybe it was me.

The book is a collection of short stories written about the people who served in our wars and then came home.  One of the things that bothered me from the outset was that the opening story seemed to be an attempt to write a story like the one that leads off The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories based in the Vietnam War era that is considered to be one of the classics of its type.  Another thing that bothered me was that there didn’t seem to be that much about their actual “redeployment” — their return home — at least in a way that really hit me with much depth or meaning.  Which is where the negative reviews come in.  I don’t care about the language.  The reality is that a lot of soldiers use a lot of “bad words.”  If this book didn’t match up with that it wouldn’t be credible.  Where the negative reviewers got it right though was that the stories just seemed flat, lacking in emotional depth and feeling, which just seems surprising to me given the subject matter and that this is fiction, which means you can fill the emotional tank up if you want to.

I got about 75% of the way through this book and put it down for something else back then.  If I were to give it a star rating, it would probably be around three stars.  Good enough to read for awhile, but not good enough to really recommend.  There are far better books about the wars and their aftermath.

Which leads me to Demon Camp.  Here’s the Amazon blurb:

In 2005 a Chinook helicopter carrying sixteen Special Ops soldiers crashed during a rescue mission in a remote part of Afghanistan, killing everyone on board.

In that instant, machine gunner Caleb Daniels lost his best friend, Kip Jacoby, and seven members of his unit. Back in the US, Caleb begins to see them everywhere—dead Kip, with his Alice in Wonderland tattoos, and the rest of them, their burned bodies watching him. But there is something else haunting Caleb, too—a presence he calls the Black Thing, or the Destroyer, a paralyzing horror that Caleb comes to believe is a demon.

Alone with these apparitions, Caleb considers killing himself. There is an epidemic of suicide among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, men and women with post-traumatic stress disorder who cannot cope with ordinary life in the aftermath of explosions and carnage. Jennifer Percy finds herself drawn to their stories, wanting to comprehend their experiences and pain.

Her subject, Caleb, has been bringing damaged veterans to a Christian exorcism camp in Georgia that promises them deliverance from the war. As Percy spends time with these soldiers and exorcists and their followers—finding their beliefs both repel­lant and magnetic—she enters a world of fanaticism that is alternately terrifying and welcoming.

With a jagged lyricism reminiscent of Michael Herr and Denis Johnson, Demon Camp is the riveting true story of a veteran with PTSD and an explora­tion of the battles soldiers face after the war is over. Percy’s riveting account forces us to gaze upon the true human consequences of the War on Terror.

Here are the one star reviews (And I apologize for their length in advance.  These are the only ones on Amazon):

  • I really hate to give a book a one-start review, considering how much time and effort a writer puts into it. But this writer actually got a *grant* from the National Endowment of the Arts and was paid to write this book. We, the taxpayers, paid for this book. And it is sad to me that his contrived style of writing is considered “good” by the literati. It’s writing that tries too hard and pulls you out of the story to focus on the writer, who seems to be saying over and over: “Look at me and how great a writer I am!”

    It’s the sort of declarative, fragmented writing style that focuses too much on meaningless details – a style that has been popular in literary fiction for a while. I’ve finally figured out what really bugs me about it – it’s basically how a stoned person looks at the world. As in, “I’m sitting here talking to so-and-so, and oh wow, look at that bird over there eating a worm.”

    i suspect that the author was stoned when writing this. It would make more sense to me that way.

    The greater problem with her writing is that she could not have possibly known all the petty details she inserts into the book, especially when she’s telling Caleb’s life story in the beginning. So the book is clearly highly fictionalized.

    Here are a few examples of her “stellar” writing:

    “Period of darkness June 27, Major Stephen Reich and Captain Matthew Brady, platoon leader of the Night Stalkers of Bravo Company, gathered in Bagram for a mission brief.”

    (And that was one of the clearer sentences in the book!)

    “Buck started swearing at me, and telling Caleb to stop bringing God into the workings of things. Slurping. Shifting. Buck turned his face back at me, as far as his neck would twist without his body moving. Words came from the side of his mouth.”


    “He’s talking, rolling on the floor, rubbing his back against the wall, opening his hands near his cheeks and faking yelling. He’s making us laugh. Throbbing. Red-faced. Screaming. We’re sitting on the floor and in chairs and he is above us.”

    (Huh? Now tell me that writer wasn’t stoned when she penned that!)

    The upshot is that she sets up a tremendous distance between herself, her subjects, and the reader with this contrived nonsense. Any emotional impact is sucked out of the book by her detached language.She is clearly skeptical and often downright rude to her subjects (e.g., making a lame joke about having an “ice cream demon” and then commenting that no-one laughed, like she was so brilliant for coming up with it).

    She is also inordinately obsessed with the sex lives of everyone, including the dogs, and she also seems to have a fascination for bodily functions (and bugs swimming in urine).

    it’s too bad, because I really wanted to hear Caleb’s story, but ended up skimming through most of the book because the writing was so horrible. A better writer who had more heart could have done a really good job with this story. As it is, I feel really sorry for everyone she wrote about in the book, because she makes them all into caricatures and dehumanizes them terribly.

    Even when she is telling her own story about being hounded by bats, she is so removed from herself that you cannot relate. It’s like reading the writing of a robot programmed to fake meaningful writing, but coming up far short.

    If this is the future of literature, count me out. It is awful. And this poor young woman has been encouraged and trained to write like this! I hope she either sticks to fiction or gets out of her own way the next time she writes non-fiction. Note to the writer: STOP TRYING SO HARD. And what excites your cloistered college professors is NOT what the rest of us want to read! Yeesh!

  • I bought this book because I follow PTSD. I spent years as journalist reporting on the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think the issues service members face coming home are worthy of much more attention than they receive. I was excited to learn about Percy’s book. A story about a soldier understanding his PTSD as demonic possession sounded like a fascinating piece of the homecoming story.

    For the first 80 or so pages, it felt like we were headed in that direction — a book about a soldier’s unique struggle with PTSD. Then Percy brings herself into the story and it becomes a book about her spending time with a group of people who perform exorcisms and struggling not to believe in demonic possession herself. She spends a lot of time describing her interactions with these people in a way that strikes me as more self-indulgent than informative about the people she seeks to report on. I was also bothered that a number of the details she mentions about Afghanistan seemed completely improbable in a way that made me question their veracity, along with that of the overall book.

    (Spoiler ahead) For me,the death blow for this book comes in the final pages when Percy finds herself believing that she has been possessed by a demon. She invites the main character into her hotel room late at night to perform an exorcism. After ridding her of the “demon,” he determines that the demon came from Percy’s boyfriend and proceeds to crawl into bed with her. Maybe they just snuggled or hung out in bed together, but whatever happened strikes me as wildly inappropriate. You can’t objectively report on people or an issue when you let yourself believe in their fringe issue (especially when it’s something like demonic possession) and then get into bed with the central character of your story.

    To her credit, Percy is a terrific writer and she produces some beautiful sentences. That said, I agree with the Kirkus review that Percy should reserve her talents for fiction. Were it a fictional novel, I’d give Demon Camp five stars, but as a work of non-fiction it raises so many questions for me that I have a hard time trusting it. If you’re interested in PTSD, avoid this book at all costs. If you’re interested in reading about a girl from Brooklyn who meets some soldiers and exorcists and writes about it without any concern for objectivity or fact checking, give it a read.

As should be clear if you’ve made it to this point, this is a work of non-fiction.  The tragedy of what happened in Afghanistan is the introductory piece to the story.  What fills the pages, however, is the aftermath, when Caleb, a soldier who could have, should have been on the helicopter wasn’t, struggles with his guilt and gets wrapped up in a whacky exorcism cult.  The story, in places, is  fascinating.  The descriptions of the cult, their beliefs, and their exorcisms opened me to a world I wasn’t aware of, although some of it went on a bit too long.  This is one of those books that pulled me along, even in the slow places.  I needed to see how this would all end.

Which leads me to the negative reviewers and my overall sense of the book. Starting off with a rant about the National Endowment of the Arts isn’t going to go anywhere for me.  I don’t expect our tax dollars to be used only in areas I agree with.  Particularly, when it comes to the arts.  The whole point of funding the arts is to further the creative exploration of our world.  Creativity, by its very nature, leads to differences.  Let’s celebrate those differences instead of complaining about them.

I also disagree with the criticisms in that first negative review about the quality of writing.  Yes, there were moments in the book where some of the scenes went on too long, but I completely disagree that it was written in a way created a distance between the story and the reader.  To me, it was the exact opposite.

What I agree with is the second negative review.  There is a point in the story when it ceases to be Caleb’s story and it becomes the author’s story instead.  It becomes more about her experiences with the whacky exorcist cult and how it affected her and less about Caleb.  What was particularly galling was that I think the author recognized this and occasionally tried to pull it back to the larger theme of the story by throwing out statistics and information about PTSD and about soldiers who struggle with it, before returning to the story of her experiences.  If the book had been advertised as such, this wouldn’t be a problem, but it wasn’t, and when half of a book-length story ends up being about the author rather than the subject, well, what the heck is going on there?

What the story really turned into by the end was an exploration of how an individual, the author, who had absolutely no belief in the validity of exorcists or the faith of the people who do, spent enough time in a circle of exorcist cult members that she started to believe and it started to affect her in a very real way.  That is, if the story is to be believed.  And, one more thing, Caleb’s story doesn’t really have any closure.

So, I’m struck.  If Redeployment was worth three stars and I couldn’t even finish it, what do I rate Demon Camp.  Ummm … 3.6?  3.2?  Oh, hell, I think it gets 3 stars too, based on the unfortunate shift the story took.  I’d like to know more about Caleb than the author.

And now it is on to the next book, which I have already started.  At the moment, I’m not sure I’m going to make it through this one either.  Hallelujah for libraries and free books!!!!!




One response to “Two Book Reviews in One

  1. Pingback: A Book Review Update | KingMidget's Ramblings

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