By Roxana Robinson

(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $27,  400 pages)

Who is this author?

Roxana Robinson has now published five novels, three collections of short stories, and the acclaimed  biography, “Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life.” She has also contributed to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, More, Vogue, and other publications.

Robinson, who divides her time between Maine, New York and Connecticut, has taught at Wesleyan University and other colleges and since 1997, has been on the faculty of the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. She now teaches in the Hunter College MFA Program and reviews books for The New York Times and The Washington Post

Besides her fiction, Robinson also writes frequently about 19th and early 20th century American art for magazines and exhibition catalogs and is an expert on the life and work of O’Keeffe.  She also writes about travel, environmental issues and gardening.

What is this book about?

At Williams College, Conrad Farrell majors in classics and admires the history of ancient Sparta, where all citizens served as soldiers. His love of honor, courage and commitment leads him to join the Marine Corps when he graduates. But when he returns to his home in Katonah, N.Y. after four years in Iraq, though not physically wounded, he finds it difficult if not impossible to rejoin his former life, mirroring the agonies of so many returning soldiers. His rage is mounting and he is not getting the support promised to returning military. Sparta uses fiction to remind us of the real–life predicament of so many who served us, only to be abandoned when they return.

Why you’ll like it:

Robinson has researched the plight of military veterans who are not getting the help they need to reintegrate into American society, and she uses that knowledge to create compelling characters. This is fiction deeply grounded in fact, and the book offers a way for readers to comprehend the ironies and outrages of a system that demands everything from these young men and women but gives them far less than they deserve.

What others are saying:

In The Washington Post , reviewer Heller McAlpin says: “Pardon the pun, but Roxana Robinson’s new novel, “Sparta, “which takes us deep inside the troubled head of a Marine returning from four years of active duty in Iraq, really is a tour de force…”Sparta” is a novel with a mission—which in a lesser writer’s hands could spell its doom. But Robinson manages to convey the difficulties of a warrior returning to society and dramatize how we fail our veterans without reducing her story to a polemic. She pulls this off by expertly deploying three literary weapons: emotional insight, moral nuance and intellectual depth.

Says Publishers Weekly:  “Robinson’s fifth novel … is a detailed examination of the inner life of a Marine returning home after combat. Classics scholar Conrad Farrell, wanting to do “something big,” enlists in the belief that, as a soldier, he will be continuing a tradition going back to the ancient world. Following officer training at Quantico, Va., and four years of service in Iraq, he finds coming back to his family in Westchester, N.Y., a disorienting experience. He can’t get used to the safety of civilian life and struggles to reconnect with his family and his girlfriend, Claire, feeling overcome by rage at unexpected moments. He stays in contact, though, with the men who served under him. Suspecting that he’s suffering from PTSD, Conrad contacts the VA, but his needs are ignored again and again. Robinson brings us deep inside Conrad’s soul, and inside the suffocating despair and frustration that can stalk soldiers even when they are ostensibly out of harm’s way. By letting the reader live in Conrad’s skin, Robinson creates a moving chronicle of how we fail our returning troops.”

“A Marine commander returns home from Iraq badly shaken in this novel, which wears its heart–and its research–on its sleeve. Conrad entered the Marines shortly before 9/11 with an ambition to do something big: He studied Greek military history in college, admiring the discipline of city-states like Sparta (hence the title) but neglecting that place’s undercurrent of hubris. Returning home after two tours in Iraq to his sturdily middle-class family outside New York, Conrad is incapable of shaking off his experience. Loud noises snap him into fighting mode; suburban buildings and trains appear to him as easy targets; and simple conversations with his family and his on-again, off-again girlfriend become torments. Robinson consulted with Iraq War vets and a stack of books to construct Conrad, and she is masterful at capturing the various ways that language fails to depict the misery of PTSD; she subtly shows how everything from emails to prescription information sheets to official forms offer ways to only talk around the problem. Conrad struggles to find his footing in the months after his return, gamely preparing for grad school and reconnecting with college friends, but he slowly slips off the rails as he begins to self-medicate. Between the detailed flashbacks of wartime violence and the visions of stateside anxiety, Robinson has convincingly summarized the wartime experience, but only rarely does it feel like she’s made a full person out of Conrad, who has the distant feel of an Everyvet…” says Kirkus Reviews.

“Sparta gives us an unflinching portrayal of the costs of war, costs that go far beyond what the tallies of killed and wounded can tell us. There are plenty of losses that can be measured only in the language of the spirit, and it’s books such as this one, necessary books, that guide us to a fuller appreciation of war’s costs,” says Ben Fountain, author of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

When is it available?

“Sparta” can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills branch.

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