I'm obsessed with first sentences. It's how I give a book a chance or at least acknowledge that I'm in the hands of a competent writer. I also create first sentences in my spare time as a creative exercise before I write fiction and am humbled (read: angry and jealous) when someone writes an amazing opening. Here is the first sentence from The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers: "The war tried to kill us in the spring." All right-you have my attention. The Yellow Birds is about 21 year old Private Bartle who is fighting in Al Tafar, Iraq and then comes back to the United States. His narration is dream-like and hallucinatory. He uses poetic language to distance himself from the reality of the war. Here's the rest of the paragraph: "As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire." I cannot get this opening out of my head. And get this: the whole novel is written this way. The prose of this book is unstoppable. It is so consistently beautiful. You have to put it down out of awe. You have to read passages out loud. And this is Kevin Powers' first novel-which is absurd. I tell everyone to read The Yellow Birds. After my coworker read the book he said, "Why can't every book be that good?" That's this novel's effect. You're in awe that another human can still create something so well crafted and heartbreaking. The Yellow Birds does what good art is supposed to do: You want it to belong to every person you meet.
In the midst of a bloody battle in the Iraq War, two soldiers, bound together since basic training, do everything to protect each other from both outside enemies and the internal struggles that come from constant danger.