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Biography & Autobiography Military


An Israeli Soldier's Story

by (author) Matti Friedman

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Apr 2017
Military, General, General
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2017
    List Price

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Shortlisted for the 2016 Hilary Weston Writer's Trust Non-Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
Longlisted for the 2017 BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2017 Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature
A New York Times Notable Book of 2016
A Globe and Mail Pick for Best Canadian Non-Fiction of 2016

From an award-winning Canadian-Israeli writer comes the true story of a band of young soldiers, the author among them, charged with holding one remote outpost in Lebanon, a task that changed them forever and foreshadowed today's unwinnable conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
It was small hilltop in a small, unnamed war in the late 1990s, but it would send out ripples that continue to emanate worldwide today. The hill was called the Pumpkin; flowers was the military code word for "casualties." Friedman's visceral narrative recreates harrowing wartime experiences in a work that is part frontlines memoir, part journalistic reporting, part military history. The years in question were pivotal ones, and not just for Israel. They saw the perfection of a type of warfare that would eventually be exported to Afghanistan and Iraq. The new twenty-first century war is one in which there is never any clear victor, and not enough lives are lost to rally the public against it. Eventually Israel would come to realize that theirs was a losing proposition and pull out. But, of course, by then these soldiers--those who had survived--and the country had been wounded in ways large and small. Raw, powerful, beautifully rendered, the book will take its place among classic war stories such as those by George Orwell, Philip Caputo, and Vasily Grossman. Pumpkinflowers is an unflinching look, like the works of Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger, at the way we conduct war today.

About the author

Matti Friedman’s 2016 book Pumpkinflowers was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and as one of Amazon’s 10 Best Books of the Year. It was selected as one of the year’s best by Booklist, Mother Jones, Foreign Affairs, the National Post, and the Globe and Mail. It also won the Vine Award in Canada. Matti’s first book, The Aleppo Codex won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize, the ALA’s Sophie Brody Medal, and the Canadian Jewish Book Award for history and was translated into seven languages. Friedman’s work as a reporter has taken him from Israel to Lebanon, Morocco, Moscow, the Caucasus, and Washington, DC, and his writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. A former Associated Press correspondent, Friedman is a regular contributor to Tablet Magazine and the Jewish Review of Books. He grew up in Toronto and now lives with his family in Jerusalem.  

Matti Friedman's profile page

Excerpt: Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier's Story (by (author) Matti Friedman)

Nights on the hill were unusually long. They were inhabited by shadows flitting among boulders, by bushes that assumed human form, by viscous mists that crept in and thickened until all the sentries were blind. Sometimes you took over one of the guard posts, checked your watch an hour later, and found that five minutes had passed. 
     The enemy specialized in the roadside bomb artfully concealed, in the short barrage, in the rocket threaded through the slit of a guard post. We specialized in waiting. An honest history of this time would consist of several thousand pages of daydreams and disjointed thoughts born of exhaustion and boredom, disrupted only every hundred pages or so by a quick tragedy, and then more waiting. 
     At night four sentries waited in four guard posts that were never empty. Four crewmen waited in a tank, searching the approaches to the fort. Ambush teams conversed in whispers and passed cookies around in the undergrowth outside, waiting for guerrillas. A pair of soldiers drank coffee from plastic cups in a room of radio sets, waiting for transmissions to come through. 
     Before the earliest hint of dawn each day someone went around rousing all of those who weren’t awake already. Groggy creatures dropped from triple-decker bunks, struggled into their gear, and snapped helmet straps under chins. Now everyone was supposed to be ready. Lebanon was dark at first, but soon the sky began to pale through the camouflage net. Sometimes first light would reveal that the river valley had filled with clouds, and then the Pumpkin felt like an island fortress in a sea of mist — like the only place in the world, or like a place not of this world at all. There was a mood of purposefulness at that hour, an intensity of connection among us, a kind of inaudible hum that I now understand was the possibility of death; it was exciting, and part of my brain misses it though other parts know better. 
     This ritual, the opening act of every day, might have been called Morning Alert or some other forgettable military term, with any unnecessary syllable excised. It might have been shortened, as so much of our language was, to an acronym. But for some reason it was never called anything but Readiness with Dawn. The phrase is as strange in the original Hebrew as in the English. This was, in our grim surroundings, a reminder that things need not be merely utilitarian. It was an example of the poetry that you can find even in an army, if you’re looking.
     The hour of Readiness with Dawn was intended as an antidote to the inevitable relaxing of our senses, a way of whetting the garrison’s dulled attention as the day began. It was said this was the guerrillas’ preferred time to storm the outpost, but they didn’t do that when I was there. I remember standing in the trench as the curtain rose on our surroundings, trying to remember that out there, invisible, was the enemy, but finding my thoughts wandering instead to the landscape materializing at that moment beyond the coils of wire: cliffs and grassy slopes, villages balanced on the sides of mountains, a river flowing beneath us toward the Mediterranean. Things were so quiet that I believe I could hear the hill talking to me. I’m not sure I could understand then what it was saying. But now I believe it was “What are you doing here?” And also “Why don’t you go home?” 
     That hill is still speaking to me years later. Its voice, to my surprise, has not diminished with the passage of time but has grown louder and more distinct.  
     This book is about the lives of young people who finished high school and then found themselves in a war -- in a forgotten little corner of a forgotten little war, but one that has nonetheless reverberated in our lives and in the life of our country and the world since it ended one night in the first spring of the new century. Anyone looking for the origins of the Middle East of today would do well to look closely at these events. 
     Part 1 is about a series of incidents beginning in 1994 at the Israeli army outpost we called the Pumpkin, seen through the eyes of a soldier, Avi, who was there before me. Part 2 introduces two civilians, mothers, who helped bring about the unraveling of the military’s strategy. Part 3 describes my own time on the hill, and the experiences of several of my friends in the outpost’s last days. The final part recounts my return to Lebanon after these events had ended, in an attempt to understand them better. 
     Readiness with Dawn ended up being a time for contemplation. Look around: Where are you, and why? Who else is here? Are you ready? Ready for what? So important was this ritual at such an important time in my life that this mode of consciousness became an instinct, the way an infant knows to hold its breath underwater. I still slip into it often. I’m there now.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Pumpkinflowers:

"Pumpkinflowers is a stunning achievement . . . Evocative, emotionally wrenching and yet cleareyed and dispassionate, Matti Friedman's haunting war memoir reminds one of Michael Herr's unforgettable Vietnam memoir, Dispatches. It too is destined to become a classic text on the absurdities of war." —Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prizewinning biographer and New York Times bestselling author of The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames

"Inspiring, heartbreaking, illuminating. Matti Friedman's brilliant account of a forgotten war seen through the lens of a simple soldier is at once a coming of age story and an essential chronicle about how the 21st century was born." —Yossi Klein Halevi, author of Like Dreamers

"In Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story Mr. Friedman has written a top-notch account of this under-analyzed war, persuasively arguing that it heralded a new style of combat in the Middle East, though no one knew it at the time. . . . Pumpkinflowers divides into four spare, elegantly written acts. . . . The most involving passages in Pumpkinflowers are not about politics. They are about Mr. Friedman's personal war stories. An infantryman's experience of battle is invariably at odds with the official record, which is linear, vectored, clear. But a truly fine war memoir." —New York Times
"Friedman . . . writes with great feeling and insight about the teenagers who died, were maimed, or were changed in profound ways while defending a patch of earth that the Israelis dubbed 'Pumpkin.'" —Christian Science Monitor
"This superb book is partly a history of the war, partly a personal memoir, and partly a work of political analysis. . . . Pumpkinflowers is rich enough to allow different readers to draw their own political conclusions. . . . Above all, it is a book about young men transformed by war, written by a veteran whose dazzling literary gifts gripped my attention from the first page to the last." —Wall Street Journal
"Friedman's Pumpkin in particular was characterized by roadside bombs, firefights captured on video. . . . All of this is captured in Friedman's stark, unflinching prose, and it's not for the faint of heart. . . . Throughout the telling of this journey, Friedman's prose – as direct as it is philosophical – shines the brightest." — Globe & Mail
"So many books cross my desk in a year. So many. And several of them are really good. . . . But it's relatively rare that you read something that stands above all of them. That you can't wait to get in hardcover and immediately add to your shelves. Pumpkinflowers is one of those books." —Andrew Taubman

"Pumpkinflowers is both searing and sobering. Friedman tugs at our feelings about nobility, absurdity, and tragedy by capturing mood and melancholy with the spare sketches of a gifted wartime correspondent." —Jewish Standard
Pumpkinflowers is a sad, lyrical book—proud and fierce on its own terms. Friedman's prose is elegant and concise, yet it is studded with gems from the Talmud and Torah that only a writer deeply learned in the Jewish tradition could offer. His memoirs of his time in the mist and the mountains of Lebanon are full of haunting insights into what it means to be a soldier. It will be remembered as a classic." —Prospect Magazine
“Powerful account of youthful Israelis maturing, fighting, and dying at a forgotten Lebanon outpost. In this limber, deceptively sparse take on the Middle East's tightening spiral of violence, Friedman combines military history and personal experience on and off the line in deft, observant prose. The narrative is reminiscent of novels by Denis Johnson and Robert Stone, linking combat's violent absurdity to the traumatized perspectives of individual participants. A haunting yet wry tale of young people at war, cursed by political forces beyond their control, that can stand alongside the best narrative nonfiction coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Remarkably educational and heartfelt: Friedman’s experiences provide a critical historical perspective on the changing climate of war in the Middle East, shifting from short official conflicts into longer unwinnable wars full of guerilla tactics and the deliberate creation of media narratives and images. His lyrical writing, attention to detail, and personal honesty draw the reader into empathy along with understanding. Friedman’s memoir deserves wide readership." —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“. . . fast and engaging… A compelling war memoir containing elements of terror, observation, boredom, and grim (at times absurd) humor. This is an excellent read…” —Library Journal, starred review

“A compelling narrative, freighted with explosive geopolitical implications.” —Booklist, starred review

“Israelis have had their own preferred metaphor for their current situation: an isolated hilltop fortress in hostile territory, where a semblance of normal life persists within concrete barriers. In Pumpkinflowers, Matti Friedman’s ­sober and striking new memoir, this ­metaphor finds its sharpest articulation. . . . The collective portrait puts Pumpkinflowers on a par with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried – its Israeli analog.”  – New York Times

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