When I heard Diane Rehm call this book “profane as it can possibly be. Every sentence, every other word…”, my ears perked up a little and I thought, “...moreWhen I heard Diane Rehm call this book “profane as it can possibly be. Every sentence, every other word…”, my ears perked up a little and I thought, “I have to check out that book!”
I have an affection for profanity and all things slang. If words are a banquet, I find profanity to be cayenne pepper and slang to be all kinds of herbs and spices: an always reliable source of zest and flavor. A skillful writer, like an accomplished chef, knows when to add a dash of this and a pinch of that, what compliments what and how much is too much. And I’m happy to report that Ben Fountain is a skillful writer. I, unlike Diane Rehm, did not find Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk to be as profane as it could possibly be; rather, just profane enough.
The story begins in medias res in Dallas, during the morning hours of Thanksgiving Day. Our hero, Billy Lynn, and the rest of “Bravo Squad” have been invited to attend a Dallas Cowboys football game and participate in the halftime celebration. The Iraq War has just fairly begun—it’s “early days,” to quote the troops—and the U.S. has been sustaining some serious losses. Bravo Squad’s recent exploits have caught the nation’s attention, in part because those exploits represent victory: the successful return of enemy fire, avenging the fallen, a brief, shining moment in what is becoming a broader narrative of defeat and destruction. Occasionally, throughout the book, the civilians who approach Bravo Squad to thank them for their service will ask “Are we winning? Are things getting better over there? What is your take on the war? Is it worth it?” And we get the sense that America is just beginning to experience the first pangs of self-doubt, just beginning to realize that belief in the justice or worthiness of a cause doesn’t necessarily translate into victory, or even short-term success.
In one of the most haunting passages of the novel, Billy reflects on his fellow Americans’ basic immaturity “No matter their age or station in life, Billy can’t help but regard his fellow Americans as children. They are bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem, and no amount of lecturing will enlighten them as to the state of pure sin toward which war inclines. He pities them, scorns them, loves them, hates them, these children. These boys and girls. These toddlers, these infants. Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die” (p. 45-6). Throughout the novel, those who approach Bravo, who laud and honor them, who try to take advantage of them, even those who try to denigrate and damage them, seem to have an almost laughable need to feel they are winning at something (even if it’s by proxy). From the wives of well-heeled businessmen to “convert the heathen” Evangelicals to halftime roadies to the owner of the Dallas Cowboys himself, everyone’s addicted to winning.
Except Bravo Squad. What no one seems to appreciate is that Bravo Squad represents losing, not winning. Bravo Squad has already lost a soldier in the firefight that made them famous. They’ve lost sleep, they’ve lost sanity, security, all kinds of illusions. Some of them have lost the best years of their lives, some of them have lost court cases, one of them has completely lost his sense of hearing. In practical terms, they’ve all lost the capacity for self-determination, since it is their superiors and handlers who decide where they go, what they do, and when. In some sense, they’ve lost the ability to say a simple yes or no. Not only because the Army really isn’t interested in what they might want or not want, but because being at war has opened their eyes to a host of complexities the civilians around them have never been forced to contemplate. Expecting any soldier to be able to answer a question as simplistic as “Are we winning” or “Is it worth it” with a simple “yes” or “no” is revealed as the piece of tomfoolery it is. Exposing the complexities behind “winning” and “losing” and the fact that the two are not mutually exclusive (even in war, even in football, even in life) is one of the strengths of the book.
Some critics have compared Billy Lynn himself to Yossarian, the protagonist of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a comparison I find to be utterly inept. Yossarian is a trickster, he is Coyote; Billy Lynn is, for lack of a better word, an ingénue, an innocent. Yossarian, in true trickster fashion, doesn’t really care about the morality of his actions, whether they are right or wrong, “feathers in his cap” or “black eyes.” Billy Lynn, by contrast, cares deeply about moral questions, analyzes other people’s characters and motivations, and ponders in several passages the question of how to live “a strong and decent life” (p. 257). Essentially the only parallel I can draw between the two is situational: they are both soldiers, forced by circumstance and other people’s addictions and indifference, to live their lives under the almost-constant threat of imminent death.
Which brings me back to the idea of profanity. The theme of this novel would seem to be that to live one’s life under threat of imminent death is profane. War is profane. Addiction and greed and indifference are profane. Not the antics or language of Bravo Squad. If you find a few “damns” and “shits” more offensive than manipulation, war, addiction, greed, and indifference to human suffering, then this novel would seem to argue you need to reexamine your priorities. For to affirm the “sanctity of human life” is to affirm a few “damns” and “shits,” of necessity. To affirm the sanctity of human life is to affirm Bravo Squad, those living, breathing, walking, talking, killers, those heroes, those soldiers, those men. If their long halftime walk is any guide, they are certainly not going to “clean up their act” any time soon. Nor should they. (less)
I'd forgotten how much fun this book is to read. It really is a page-turner. (I wonder if that should be hyphenated?) For a book on punctuation, I'd s...moreI'd forgotten how much fun this book is to read. It really is a page-turner. (I wonder if that should be hyphenated?) For a book on punctuation, I'd say that's quite a feat.
Which leads me to wonder how much better the world would be if more textbooks, owner's manuals, explanatory pamphlets, and other sources of deadly-dry prose incorporated more fun, whimsy, and plain, simple daftness into their texts? Wouldn't it be a better world if the likes of Lynne Truss spiced up (as well as re-punctuated) our income tax forms, warning labels, copyright pages, bus ads, and those little FBI warnings that still show up at the beginnings of DVDs? I, for one, would be quite enthusiastic.
Sticklers unite! Make all things both more correct and way more interesting!(less)
Two observations: 1) despite all its genuine insights, this book doesn't really ever talk about gay people, which seems weird for a book titled Sex Go...moreTwo observations: 1) despite all its genuine insights, this book doesn't really ever talk about gay people, which seems weird for a book titled Sex God and 2) it's important to read the endnotes! (I just waited until the end and read them all at once. That may not work for everyone.)(less)
I normally don't read anyone else's reviews of a book before writing my own. I don't want to "queer the pitch," as it were, with others' opinions, rea...moreI normally don't read anyone else's reviews of a book before writing my own. I don't want to "queer the pitch," as it were, with others' opinions, reactions, ignorance, brilliance, etc. However, since I actually finished reading this book several months ago, I planned to skip the reviewing bit altogether. I looked up the book, marked it as read, and figured that would be that. Then I glanced at some of the reviews others have written and felt an urge to violence.
Many of the Goodreads reviews I happened to read point out (as if it were necessary) that Cheryl Strayed's decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail solo, with no previous backpacking experience, no training, and barely enough money to make it from Point A to Point B was immature, narcissistic, dangerous, self-involved, naive, "the worst idea she ever had" (questionable), and unforgivable--really, unforgivable? Apparently.
To which I say, oh go soak your head. I mean really. Who gave you the right to be so incredibly: annoying, self-righteous, holier-than-thou, judgmental, uptight, preposterous, and unforgiving? Strayed never advocates her own path, never endorses it, never implies that anyone else reeling from grief should definitely pick up a backpack of their own and get out there. In fact, she does a pretty good job of showing how foolhardy she was at almost every stage of the way. But I'd say that the fact that things do work out for her is a pretty definite indication that hiking the PCT was not, in fact, the worst idea she ever had. That although it was unquestionably risky...maybe it was a risk she needed to take. Although it was dangerous, and although she was unprepared...maybe for some reason she needed to brave the danger of the trail at that time, in that place, with what preparation she had (little as that was or as inadequate as it may seem to some).
The message of Wild seemed to me to be: the world is risky, life is dangerous, and all of us are unprepared. However, if we do the best we can, accept help when it's offered, try to do right by others, and above all, keep putting one foot in front of the other, we might just be okay. We might be. Nothing is guaranteed. "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong" (Ecclesiastes 9:11). As this book demonstrates, even those with all the "right" equipment, experience, beliefs, and companions may find themselves laid low along the way. Maybe the point of all our pain and struggle is not to do everything right but to learn and to act with compassion...(less)
Kangaroos! Weebills (whatever those are)! Words like Wandoo and Coondle-Nunile! What's not to like in this collection of Australian poetry? Maybe one...moreKangaroos! Weebills (whatever those are)! Words like Wandoo and Coondle-Nunile! What's not to like in this collection of Australian poetry? Maybe one thing: sometimes I have no idea what John Kinsella is on about. One example of this would be "Pressure at the Boundaries (of Jam Tree Gully" (p. 143), in which he writes, "The blossoming trees that remain have dozens / Of bird species rerouting grief: birds dragged / Into relief, agenda of pressure. Brighten / Cautiously?" I mean, really, what does that mean?
However, other poems really made me feel as if I was making the acquaintance of the Australian bush, a place I have never been. Kinsella zeroes in on specific details, like the color and texture of sheep bones bleaching in the sun, the size of the plot of land up for sale across the street (11 acres), and the cracks in the rainwater tank. I get the feeling that just as Willa Cather managed to capture Nebraska on paper, so John Kinsella has captured Jam Tree Gully.(less)
This is a crazy bildungsroman as only Thomas King could craft one. The tale takes place in two towns, one named Truth, the other Bright Water, separat...moreThis is a crazy bildungsroman as only Thomas King could craft one. The tale takes place in two towns, one named Truth, the other Bright Water, separated from each other by a river...and the U.S./Canada border. The only way to get across the river without driving many miles upriver or downriver is to ferry oneself across the gorge in a tin bucket suspended from a wire cable. One gets the sense that this river and its bridge-less state is a metaphor for something...
Actually, as in most of Thomas King's writing, pretty much everything in the book seems to be a metaphor for something. Whether it's Lucy Rabbit and her insistence that Marilyn Monroe was Native American or the child's skull our protagonist, Tecumseh, and his cousin Lum find (well, really, it's Tecumseh's dog, Soldier) along the river in the opening scene of the novel. Practically everything seems to stand for something else. But we won't be that different from Tecumseh himself if we find ourselves often wondering what.
Truth and Bright Water seem to be places where several versions of the truth co-exist. Take Tecumseh's parents, for example. There is Tecumseh's mother's version of their story. And there is his father's version. And then there is his grandmother's version. And his Aunt Cassie's version. Tecumseh has his own version, of course. But he doesn't have all the facts, and he hasn't totally made up his mind about it. So which version is true--is it the version the reader makes up for him or herself?
Complicating all this still further is the fact that the entire story is told from Tecumseh's point of view, and like most teenagers, he's not always the most reliable. Several times in the novel Tecumseh offers rather "revisionist" versions of the truth to certain of the other characters. An activity (re-visioning, that is) in which he is joined by Monroe Swimmer, a "famous Indian artist" who once painted the Indians "back in" to many famous nineteenth-century paintings and who has returned to Truth to "save the world."
King's writing is vivid and evocative, and the mysteries surrounding Truth and Bright Water, compelling. While I won't spoil the ending, I will say it's powerful, climactic, and incredibly emotionally resonant. Still not completely certain what it means, I've pondered it and pondered it and will continue to do so for a long time to come.(less)
Reading Eight Cousins is like stepping into a time machine which transports the reader back to what I will call the world of "Girls, c. 1874." Well, m...moreReading Eight Cousins is like stepping into a time machine which transports the reader back to what I will call the world of "Girls, c. 1874." Well, maybe "Little Girls and Seven Boys," since the protagonist, Rose, is "thirteen-and-a-half" when the story commences and her seven male cousins form the bulk of her playmates.
It's disconcerting to suddenly be in a world where a thirteen-year-old drinks coffee every morning because "Auntie says it 'tones' me up" (p. 31), "running is not lady-like for girls in their teens" (p. 48), and ear-rings are seen by some to be as sure a sign of over-weening vanity as compulsive drinking is of alcoholism.
It's a credit to Louisa May Alcott that so many of the attitudes and practices she decries and disapproves of in this book (and they are many, from the wearing of corsets to smoking to recklessly sensationalistic children's books) are things the majority of us disapprove of (or have discontinued) today. I wonder how she knew "smoking...is harmful" (p. 195) in 1874, but it took the tobacco companies until the mid-20th Century to figure that out and start covering it up. Hmm. Maybe there's some value in being a "Progressive" after all?
Often regarded as the English language's first historical novel; and that's the only reason to read it. If you're the sort of person who loves firsts...moreOften regarded as the English language's first historical novel; and that's the only reason to read it. If you're the sort of person who loves firsts for their own sake, if you get all nostalgic and teary over the original Apple computer or "the first instance of a post-modern epic poem by a Jewish Native American" then by all means, go right ahead. Personally, I like to give new concepts some time to get perfected. In other words, early bicycles = not for me. Early motion pictures...nah, I'll hold out for the invention of Technicolor and The Wizard of Oz. New software...I'll wait for it to come out of beta.
Waverley reads like a novel in beta. It's full of bugs, flaws, and problems--this in addition to the fact that it's all-but-incomprehensible to modern readers who don't have the same historical or geographical or cultural reference points as Waverley's first readers (most of whom, it seems loved the book. The only quibble Jane Austen had, apparently, was that it was too good.) To be absolutely honest, I didn't exactly finish. Unlike Waverley himself (The novel is named for its protagonist.), I really tried to roll with the punches and hang in there. But I gave up shortly after Waverley proposes to (the woman he feels to be) his ladylove, gets rejected, and then cries. Immediately. In her presence. Now I'm all for men not being afraid to show their emotions...but honestly (this is so weird to be saying about a book written in the early 1800's, the era of Napoleon and Horatio Hornblower): there is a time and a place.
Maybe I would have found more to like in the novel if I'd continued reading. Maybe some readers won't find Waverley as off-putting a character as I did. Maybe I'll still read Ivanhoe. Maybe.(less)
Based on its immense popularity and its YA-ness (I guess really, on the fact that it's YA and also fairly recent...in some ways, I must admit, I'm a b...moreBased on its immense popularity and its YA-ness (I guess really, on the fact that it's YA and also fairly recent...in some ways, I must admit, I'm a bit of a YA bigot), I didn't think I'd really like this book. I didn't think I'd hate it or find it offensive. (Unlike many, I understood from the get-go that The Hunger Games was out to satirize our violence-craving, gutter-raking, reality-show culture, not glorify it.) I just didn't think I'd really like it. And I do. I really, really do.
It doesn't get 5 stars for a couple reasons. It suffers from...I don't even know what to call it. The same syndrome of slickness, the same fascination with shiny surfaces endemic to most modern literature. I wish there was more description and that some of the sentences were longer. I also find myself hankering for it to...again, I'm not sure how to phrase this...acknowledge its forebears, in a way. Nod in the direction of all the great YA literature that's come before it. Build on those books' ideas. However, that hankering seems a little unrealistic, given the premise of the book is that Panem has basically obliterated all that came before it, as well as much of childhood itself.
However, in spite of these pretty minor quibbles, this book was incredible. I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. Calling it a page-turner seems too tame. It's a page-flipper. Not only could I not put it down (though this description is a bit figurative, seeing as how I actually listened to my brother read most of the book during a road trip), I found myself reading faster (the parts that I did read myself) to get to the next bit and begging for just one more chapter. Usually, I find this quality in a book rather off-putting and a signal that maybe it's not really all that good. However, unlike when I tear into a bag of potato chips, clamoring for more, in this case, actually felt good. I was clamoring for more with zero guilt.
Maybe the zero guilt came from the fact that I truly loved and identified with the characters. I wanted to find out what happened to them--not who ended up with whom and in what capacity and under which circumstances...I wanted to know whether they survived, whether they survived with even a shred of their dignity and humanity intact (what Peeta seems to be concerned about the night before the Games begin), how they react to new and profoundly unfair challenges, and whether any of them, in the end, can hope for a degree of happiness. The characters and their choices are what drive the novel, for me. Really fantastic storytelling.(less)
I recently realized 1) I've never read any of John Grisham's novels and 2) that's a shame. So I picked this up at the library a couple trips ago, when...moreI recently realized 1) I've never read any of John Grisham's novels and 2) that's a shame. So I picked this up at the library a couple trips ago, when I found myself browsing in the G's. Why The Firm rather than The Client or The Associate? My grandfather, a former lawyer, happened to mention it in a conversation a couple months ago, so the title was on my mind.
My main impression is that this is the kind of pulp that no one will read 100 years from now (thank goodness). It reminded me very strongly of some bad late Victorian short stories I read for a class in fin de siecle fiction. My, how far we've come since the early '90s (the 1990s, just to be clear, not the 1890s). I mean, really, if you're ever in doubt, just pick up this book. It's definitely a product of its time. Sexism, classism, ageism, consumerism--it's all here, unvarnished and unexamined. I don't think John Grisham is or was especially unenlightened...I think he just faithfully represented the cultural norms and popular attitudes.
(This might be a tangent, but if I really wanted to understand what life was like in a previous era, I would look first at its advertising and its advice columns. I would look at what was ephemeral, not intended to survive. Not just at that, but I certainly wouldn't neglect it. I think there's treasure to be gleaned from scrutinizing what was created purely for the present and not for the eyes of history.)
Aside from what now seems crass and/or naive (the sexism especially so, for me), this is a pretty good story. Gripping. At times seemingly very realistic. At others, less believable. (For example, I find it hard, very hard to believe that Abby would say what she does on the last page, given the limitations she and Mitch must find a way to live within. I'm told the movie ending is more realistic. I haven't seen it yet.) I can understand why this book might have put a whole year's worth of law school graduates off their interviewing. I'm sure someone out there decided at the last second to switch their focus to fashion design or sales.
My favorite bits by far were the scenes that show Mitch's interaction with his secretary. As far as I'm concerned, there weren't enough of them. Maybe because his secretary seems like the kind of woman who would resent being underestimated or labeled.(less)
This is my second fashion-themed library check-out of the summer, along with The Thoughtful Dresser. I brought this book to the beach, thinking it wou...moreThis is my second fashion-themed library check-out of the summer, along with The Thoughtful Dresser. I brought this book to the beach, thinking it would be as easy to dip in and out of its encyclopedia-type entries, (e.g. "Sunglasses, the meaning of") as the ocean. Unfortunately, it was a bit too erudite for the beach. Yup, fashion too erudite. Too erudite for the beach, but a lot of fun to peruse in my living room.(less)
This is learned. Refreshing for someone so long out of college. I also think, fairly astute, at least judging by its criticism of works that I've read...moreThis is learned. Refreshing for someone so long out of college. I also think, fairly astute, at least judging by its criticism of works that I've read. (Obviously, the jury's out on it's criticism of works I haven't read, which is most of its criticism.)
I think though, that William Gass plays favorites. Who doesn't? I know. But a critic really shouldn't. My approach to criticism (if you haven't glanced at my bookshelf) is to cast one's net wide, cast one's net deep, turn one's nose up at nothing (except perhaps the truly rotten), and judge everything using the same set of standards. I think Gass lets his own preferences and predilections, his own tastes, lead him around sometimes; that he lets the extent of his enjoyment of a certain book or author dictate how objectively good it is. Or maybe I'm just being led astray by the fact that this book is a collection of sorts of his "bests" and his "favorites."(less)
I picked this up as a fun, summer read, and to some extent, it was. But it was less breezy and more involving that I first thought it would be. I'll r...moreI picked this up as a fun, summer read, and to some extent, it was. But it was less breezy and more involving that I first thought it would be. I'll remember forever some of the reflections and insights of Catherine Hill.(less)
This book calls out for a long and thoughtful review. But really, what's the point? It's short enough and pithy enough and accessible enough that you...moreThis book calls out for a long and thoughtful review. But really, what's the point? It's short enough and pithy enough and accessible enough that you really should just read it for yourself and form your own opinion.
I will say, it's worth cracking open just to get Rob Bell's take on the painting reproduced at the beginning of Ch. 2, Here is the New There: "It's as if Thomas Kinkaid and Dante were at a party, and one turned to the other sometime after midnight and uttered that classic line 'You know, we really should work together sometime...'" (p. 22). Priceless.
I've been on a Lloyd Alexander kick recently. I re-read Westmark for the heck of it, and then while I was tracking down and waiting for its sequel, Th...moreI've been on a Lloyd Alexander kick recently. I re-read Westmark for the heck of it, and then while I was tracking down and waiting for its sequel, The Kestrel, I read every other Lloyd Alexander book on my shelves.
The Arkadians (published 1995), alas, brought me to the realization that Mr. Alexander, like many YA authors (L.M. Montgomery also falls into this category.), deals in types. What I mean is, although his characters and settings change, they are all, in some ways, very much the same. His protagonists (usually male) are all very similar: not unskilled, fairly well-educated, outwardly competent, inwardly bumbling, frequently bewildered, even bemused, often disappointed. His "leading ladies" (really quite secondary characters) are unflappable, resourceful, wise, practical, wry, forthright, rather mercurial, and often just downright darling (if you like stubbornness). Here, as in the Chronicles of Prydain, we have the trusty "animal" sidekick, or the animal who isn't really an animal--in this case, Fronto, a poet turned by magic into a jackass. We also have a charming urchin: no Weasel this time, but rather Catch-a-Tick, an incorrigible mischief-maker and hero-worshipper. There's also Bromios, the king-who-isn't very kingly (cf. Constantine IX and the Prince of Mona); the king's villainous advisors, Calchas and Phobos (cf. Carabbus and Magg), the all-too-fallible wisewoman, The Lady of Wild Things (cf. Queen Caroline and Queen Achren), and her somewhat tolerant, admirable consort or almost-consort (cf. Dr. Torrens and Gwydion). There's also that member of the misfit band that I like to call "the wildcard," in this case Argeus Ops (cf. Flewddur Fflam and Florian...yes, Florian. If you think about it, it will make sense).
Now, while all this gives us more analytical readers a fun game to play (a game I might call "Who is Like Whom?"), it doesn't really say great things about the author. In many ways, The Arkadians feels like a re-tread, the same story in a different iteration, this time in Greece. No, Taran is not exactly like Theo, who is not exactly like Lucian. Dialogue from Eilonwy can't be transferred verbatim to Joy-in-the-Dance or Mickle and still make sense. And there is no animal sidekick in the Westmark series. But the abundance of similarities between this and many others of Alexander's works leads me to believe that at least in The Arkadians, he's not exactly going for the gold, reaching for the stars, plumbing the depths, or whatever phrase you want to use to mean he's going all-out (or is it "all-in?").(less)