Friday, May 11, 2012

Book Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Book Summary: Told over the course of a single day--specifically Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, as the Dallas Cowboys take the field--Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is the story of Bravo Squad, eight survivors of a ferocious firefight with Iraqi insurgents, whose bravery and and valor have made them national heroes. In the final hours of their Pentagon-sponsored "Victory Tour," Bravo's Silver Star-winning hero, nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn, will confront hard truths about love and death, family and friendship, war and politics, duty and honor.

This is one of the best books I've read all year, and one that I'd say is a real contender for 2013's round of major literary awards. The writing is terrific, and I feel that in addition to being a fresh and edgy book, this may be an important one. So far it's the only one I've read coming out of the Iraq War that subsumes itself in neither action sequences nor in an overwrought family or romantic drama. Instead it seems to be just as much about the concept of war itself as the politics behind it and how America feels about it. (Though given the book takes place mostly in Texas, especially Dallas, we're not really given a look at the dissenters' side of things.) 

Billy Lynn is a fascinating character, a boy thrust into the army (in lieu of doing hard time) after taking a crowbar to his sister's ex-fiance's car for gallant but misguided reasons. He's a thoughtful young man, fully aware that the labels of "hero" mean nothing when one's actions are guided neither by bravery nor fear, but are simply reactionary to any given situation, including Bravo's famous firefight with the Iraqi insurgents: one day you're the hero and the next day you're cowering under your humvee and refusing to come out. His thoughts are never far away from his imminent return to Iraq, nor from his buddy, Shroom, who died the day Billy was labeled a hero.

Ben Fountain's novel is also the first book coming out of the Iraq War (that I've read, at least) that seems willing to say that war is, more than anything else, a commercial enterprise. It's difficult not to draw these parallels about the US's involvement in Iraq with, say, the Dallas Cowboys franchise and the oil-steeped politics of the state in which the book is largely set, or the larger-than-life characters we meet, such as the Dallas Cowboys' owner or the man who spends the book negotiating a movie deal for Bravo. War as commercially motivated enterprise, not a political one, isn't a new concept per se, but it goes a long way in increasing this particular reader's distaste for it, because if it's really not about oil, really not about protecting our interests, and really not about freeing a people from their dictator's rule, then it's really not something I can ever understand, or wish to, for that matter. What's more, Fountain seems to be suggesting that, despite whether they're for or against the Iraq War, that most Americans only monitor it from the comfort of their living sofas, and thus we have an enterprise reduced to entertainment television.

Karl Marlantes blurbs this book, and he's not a writer whose opinion I take lightly, especially when it comes to the topic of war. He calls it "the Catch-22 of the Iraq war," and with a comment like that, I'm not sure that there's anything more to add.  I'll just conclude with some passages that resonated with me as I read it:

"So they lost Shroom and Lake, only two a numbers man might say, but given that each Bravo has missed death by a margin of inches, the casualty rate could just as easily be 100 percent. The freaking randomness is what wears on you, the difference between life, death, and the horrible injury sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace on the way to chow, choosing the third shitter in line instead of the fourth, turning your head to the left instead of the right. Random. How that shit does work on your mind (26-27)."

"Those people [movie studios, producers, etc], the kind of bubble they live in? It's a major tragedy in their lives if their Asian manicurist takes the day off. For those people to be passing judgment on the validity of your experience is just wrong, it goes beyond wrong, it's ethics porn. They aren't capable of fathoming what you guys did (57)."

I love this moment between Billy and his sister Kathryn, re: their father:
" 'He's an asshole,' Kathryn said. 
To which Billy: 'You just now figured that out?' 
'Shut up. What I mean is he likes being an asshole, he enjoys it. Some people you get the feeling that can't help it? But he works at it. He's what you'd call a proactive asshole' (75)."

Billy with his nephew on leave:
"Based on his highly limited experience with small children, Billy had always regarded the pre-K set as creatures on the level of not-very-interesting pets, thus he was unprepared for the phenomenal variety of his little nephew's play. Whatever came to hand, the kid devised some form of interaction with it. Flowers, pet and sniff. Dirt, dig. Cyclone fence, rattle and climb. Squirrels, harass with feebly launched sticks. 'Why?' he kept asking in his sweetly belling voice, as pure as marbles swirled around a crystal pail. Why? Why? Why? And Billy answering every question to the best of his ability, as if anything less would disrespect the deep and maybe even divine force that drove his little nephew toward universal knowledge...So is this what they mean by the sanctity of life? A soft groan escaped Billy when he thought about that, the war revealed in this fresh and grusome light. Oh. Ugh. Divine spark, image of God, suffer the little children and all that--there's real power when words attach to actual things. Made him want to sit right down and weep, as powerful as that. He got it, yes he did, and when he came home for good he'd have to meditate on this, but for now it was best to compartmentalize, as they said, or even better not to mentalize at all (82-83)."

The reader never gets the full picture of exactly what happens to earn the Bravo Squad their Victory Tour back home, but here is one of Billy's ruminations on it: "All your soldier life you dream of such a moment and every Joe with a weapon got a piece of it, a perfect storm of massing fire and how those beebs blew apart, hair, teeth, eyes, hands, tender melon heads, exploding soup-stews of shattered chests, sights not to be believed and never forgotten and your mind simply will not leave it alone. Oh my people. Mercy was not a selection, period. Only later did the concept of mercy even occur to Billy, and then only in the context of its absence in that place, a foreclosing of options that reached so far back in history that quite possibly mercy had not been an option there since before all those on the battlefield were born (125)."

Read this book.  Seriously, just read it. And if you don't want to take my word for it, check out this superlative review from The New York Times earlier this week.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is the Odyssey Bookshop's May selection for its First Editions Club. Ben Fountain will be reading at the store tonight, May 11, at 7:00 pm. 


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Book Review: Comeback Love

I just love the publication story of  Comeback Love by Peter Golden.  I was talking with John Muse, my sales rep from Simon & Schuster a couple of weeks ago about this book, which he "discovered" as a self-published book from the Book House in Albany. They're a wonderful indie bookstore with their own Espresso Book Machine and they offer publication possibilities for local authors. John was so impressed with the book that he pitched it to his own company, who eventually bought the rights to it, and Washington Square Press published it about one month ago. I love publishing success stories like that, and when I personally know any of the players involved it makes it even better.

Gordon and Glenna had an amazing love affair at the close of the 1960s, but their relationship was no match for Gordon's financial insecurities and Glenna's personal ones.  The political verve that marked those years also marked the beginning of the end of their love, with Vietnam pinning them in on one side and Glenna's illegal abortion activities hemming them in on the other.  Still, Glenna and Gordon never forgot each other, but when decades later Gordon decides to look her up again, the temptation to settle back into the same old patterns is strong.

I thought this was a very readable and pleasant story of first love and love renewed.  I'm almost exactly midway between the ages the characters are at the beginning and at the end of the novel, and it was interesting to me to feel similar levels of sympathy toward the younger and older selves of the couple. I wouldn't exactly say that this book changed my life, but it did encourage my mind to wander paths of nostalgia while I was reading. It even prompted me to dream about my own first love (cheers, M, wherever you are!), which I suppose is a testament the story and the power of memory.

This would make a good book club discussion book, particularly if the readers are closer in age to the older Gordon and Glenna.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Picture books starring dogs

We've received a number of picture books about dogs this spring. I don't know why, but they're all fun (or funny). Here are some highlights:

Lucy Rescued by Harriet Ziefert illustrated by Barroux

Odd Dog by Claudia Boldt

Ladybug Girl and Bingo by David Soman and Jacky Davis (there's also an adorable Bingo plush!)

Lucky and Squash by Jeanne Birdsall, illustrated by Jane Dyer
This book is a collaboration between a local author and illustrator (both based in Northampton). The starring roles are played by Jeanne's and Jane's dogs- who are best friends in real life!

Zorro Gets and Outfit by Carter Goodrich
Nieves and I loved the first book starring Zorro and Mister Bud. Their antics are hysterical- especially when Zorro gets a superhero costume!

Silly Doggy by Adam Stower

This book isn't quite about a dog...but the protagonist certainly thinks the pet she's found is a dog!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Book Review: Heading Out to Wonderful

I admit up front that I was not a huge fan of Robert Goolrick's previous novel The Reliable Wife, so I was a little reluctant to pick up his new one called Heading Out to Wonderful.  Luckily I had a little prompting from Craig "Call me Peaches" Popelars at Algonquin, who told me that he thought I'd love it. As usual, he was right. Damn his eyes.

If you read enough books or watch enough movies, after a while you develop certain expectations built into certain plot points. Thus, in chapter one when a mysterious drifter rolls into a small Southern town with nothing but his truck and two suitcases, and when those two suitcases are filled with nothing but cash and a set of the sharpest butcher knives anyone has ever seen, you know that by the last chapter there's no way that everything can end well.  Just a fact of fictional life.

That's essentially what happens in Goolrick's book, but he does stand certain of the reader's expectations on their heads, and that's what makes for an intense but heartfelt read.  You know something bad is going to happen, but it's not precisely clear at first just what path the badness is going to take: will somebody end up butchered & barbecued, a la Fried Green Tomatoes? Will the evil spring from the handsome stranger, or will it be exacted upon him by the small, xenophobic town? Is the handsome stranger's intense relationship with the young boy more insidious than it appears on the surface or is it completely innocent?

Add in a curious five year-old narrator, a small town full of busybodies, a racial divide, old time religion, a near-death resuscitation, and a man who's so rich and so mean, he has to buy himself a pretty young mountain girl for a wife, and you've got the makings of a pretty great story. 

The opening paragraphs are some of the best meditations on memory that I have ever read. The book is narrated by Sam, who is an old man looking back on what happened when the drifter came to town and his family took him in:

The thing is, all memory is fiction. You have to remember that. Of course, there are things that actually, certifiably happened, things where you can pinpoint the day, the hour, and the minute. When you think about it, though, those things mostly seem to happen to other people.

This story actually happened, and it happened pretty much the way I'm going to tell it to you.  It's a true story, as much as six decades of remembering and telling can allow it to be true. Time changes things, and you don't always get everything right. You remember a little thing clear as a bell...while other things, big things even, come completely disconnected and no longer have any shape or sound. The little things seem more real than some of the big things....I'm  not young any more, so sometimes I can't tell what things are the things I remember and what things are just things that other people told me They tell me things I did, and a lot of them I don't remember, but most people around here aren't liars, so I just go on and believe them, until it seems that I actually do remember the things they say.

This is not exactly a Southern gothic tale, though  it has elements of that.  Mostly it's the story of quiet people after the war, who are on the cusp of modernity and who know their simple, seemingly charmed way of life won't last forever.  It's the story of otherwise good people who choose to let evil into their hearts, and the blinding love of a small boy for a man he calls Beebo, who instinctively knows something about protection but is too innocent to understand what happens around him. I highly recommend it. I've already passed my reading copy on to my husband and he's barely spoken to me since--that's how involved he is with it. 


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Kids Gardening Books

It's time to go outside and dig in the dirt. Most kids are good at digging. As a kid I definitely dug a monster trap and a moat around the playhouse. But now it's time to dig in the garden. There are many beautiful gardening books for adults, but what about your little helper? Here are some beautiful and educational children's books about gardening.

For the very little ones:
Counting in the Garden written by Emily Hruby, illustrated by Patrick Hruby
This board book has over 50 pages (making it very long for a board book) and features colorful, graphic illustrations. One little boy counts the living things he finds growing in his garden, from thistles that grew by accident to strawberries to earthworms.

In the Garden written by Elizabeth Spurr, illustrated by Manelle Oliphant
In this board book, one child shovels, hoes, weeds, plants seeds, waters, and waits for things to grow. If you want to introduce a child to the work that must happen to have a beautiful garden, this is the book for you.

A little classic: 
The Carrot Seed written by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Crockett Johnson
A little boy plants a seed. He waters and weeds and waits. Everyone tells him that nothing will grow, but the boy knows better...

For slightly older children:
Our School Garden written by Rick Swann, illustrated by Christy Hale
Poems and interesting facts all centered around a school garden.

Isabella's Garden written by Glenda Millard, illustrated by Rebecca Cool
A remixed "This is the House the Jack Built" with bright illustrations.

Plant a Little Seed
by Bonnie Christensen

Marika's favorite:
Secrets of the Garden: Food Chains and Food Webs in Our Backyard written by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeild, illustrated by Priscilla Lamont
Not just the story of two children and their family garden, this book also contains information about composting, leaf identification, food chains, food webs (and how to draw your own), examples of herbivore and carnivore bugs, and much more. The additional information is presented by the two chickens that live in the garden. This information is printed in a different font, so you can choose to read the children's story or all the extras, depending on the age of your audience. Perfect for classrooms, families with multiple kids, or homeschoolers, this is a book that will serve a child well as he or she grows.

Do you have any gardening favorites you'd like to share?