Why am I here, says the silence, what have I done, echoes the emptiness, why have I ruined myself in this willful manner, chuckles the money in the ti...moreWhy am I here, says the silence, what have I done, echoes the emptiness, why have I ruined myself in this willful manner, chuckles the money in the till, why have I been brought so low, wheedles the thoroughfare, to which the only answer was--The square gave him no answer.
Under the Volcano has brilliant moments of poetry and breathless imagery, but the overall reading experience is about as enjoyable as an overland trip in Mexico endured through a hangover. Machete-like determination is needed to slash through the jungle of prose.
The novel seems like an exercise in form over function. The characters and relationships of the alcoholic Consul, his ex-wife and brother, take a backseat to the artistically chaotic prose and deluge of Symbols that jump out at the reader like jack-in-the-boxes over and over and over--pariah dogs, dead scorpions, vultures at washbasins, the Hands of Orlac, the horse branded with seven. Maybe they serve to divert the reader away from the inexplicable things the characters do (even the more sober characters behave and think drunkenly at times.) I never came close to decoding Yvonne--what did she ever see in the Consul? Why is she back in Mexico? Why does she (and everyone else) continue to enable the Consul's drinking while simultaneously voicing disapproval? But the characters aren't really the point of this. The prose-capturing-alcoholism here is the point.
While this was a tough book to get through, it did have moments of unexpected lucidity and humor that I much appreciated. And while some chapters were more difficult than others, I found the sudden emotive rush of those final few pages worth the effort, almost.(less)
This is one of the weirder novels I've tackled this year -- I had actually put this one off for a while because it seemed li...moreThe feels -- all of them!!
This is one of the weirder novels I've tackled this year -- I had actually put this one off for a while because it seemed like a daunting read -- and turned out to be one of my favorites, what with the dissonant clashing of grit and (literal) Hollywood romance. The setting in an Argentinian prison is unusual, as are the characters, prison-mates who I couldn't help but picture as Peter Lorre and James Dean (umm...yeah, I'll just leave you to match them up). There's also a weird clashing of format -- mostly pure dialogue, with occasional internal streams of consciousness and the occasional prison report. Nothing is spoon-fed to the reader, but as the bigger story faded in, I found myself emotionally moved and at the edge of my seat. The only thing I haven't figured out (yet) are the weirdly placed Freudian footnotes. There seems to be something deliberate and tongue-in-cheek about them. I guess I'll need to sleep on it. (less)
This is my 3rd John Fowles book, and I never fail to find him interesting. He seems to like to take well-trodden genres (Victorian romance in The Fren...moreThis is my 3rd John Fowles book, and I never fail to find him interesting. He seems to like to take well-trodden genres (Victorian romance in The French Lieutenant's Woman, historical who-done-it here), lull you into a sense of familiar normalcy, before blasting you with a cold bucket of meta-fictiony post-modernism. This time I was ready for it, and for the most part enjoyed the ride. I suspected that this book wasn't at all what it was pretending to be, and tried to read between the lines. Here's what I came up with:
This is a book about intersections. The lives of five journeying strangers intersect a la the Canterbury Tales , and by the end, at least one of them is dead. The early 18th century setting marks the intersection of medieval and modern, superstition and science, feudalism and freedom, old religion and new, sanity and insanity, the past and the future. Are you confused yet? Don't be. It's actually a readable, tense courtroom drama, but there are no easy solutions to be found here. Though I have my own pet theories, of course.
John Fowles seems to like to write about enigmatic women who are too modern for their era, more astute than the (mostly male) people around them, and too often trapped by circumstance, whether societal or (as in The Collector) not. I found it interesting to watch the prickly lawyer interact with his witnesses, as he defers respectfully to more learned and wealthy men, while treating those beneath him with paternalistic disdain.
I did feel that this one went on just a little too long, and paradoxically might have made a bit more sense to me if LESS had been explained. For those unfamiliar with Fowles, I think I would recommend starting with The Collector if you don't mind very dark, edge-of-your-seat psychological thrillers, or The French Lieutenant's Woman if you want postmodern-splosion hidden in a romance. But if you keep an open mind, this isn't a bad place to start, either.(less)
This novel by Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller is certainly a worthwhile novel, though I suspect I didn't get as much out of it as, say, someone who re...moreThis novel by Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller is certainly a worthwhile novel, though I suspect I didn't get as much out of it as, say, someone who really likes poetry. Every word and image has been as carefully selected and placed as rocks in a Zen garden. This one is very self-consciously poetic, but in a monotonous sort of way. The privations of Russian camp life (where German citizens living in formerly occupied eastern territory are sent immediately after WWII) are minutely and beautifully described, with pauses every once in a while while the narrator recalls a dream, or a childhood memory of his mother wearing culottes and...that's about it. The emotion is on a sort of flatline designed to make you feel depressed and nostalgic, with little variation. So far, I actually much prefer Death In Rome, another post-war literary German book that was much more weird and uncomfortable (in an interesting way), and which felt more alive, less coldly calculating.
The afterword about how this book came to be actually explained many of the contextual and authorial choice questions I had. I hadn't realized that Ms. Muller's original co-author, who passed away while the book was still in its earliest stages, was a prisoner much like the narrator of the book (as was Ms. Muller's own mother). It sounds like it took much courage on Muller's part to finish this book alone.(less)
4.5 stars (I've bumped it up from the initial 4 because I can't stop thinking about it).
Despite its short length, I expected this to be a slow, dense,...more4.5 stars (I've bumped it up from the initial 4 because I can't stop thinking about it).
Despite its short length, I expected this to be a slow, dense, rather difficult read. It is "dense," I suppose, in the literary styling: free-flowing paragraphs, constantly-switching point of views, rich descriptions and devastating emotions (I kept thinking of Bruno Schulz in this regard, though his stories are quite different in nature and much more abstract). But ultimately I found this book to be neither slow nor difficult, and I read through it in 2 or 3 long sittings because I couldn't put it down.
Wolfgang Koeppen pays homage to Thomas Mann in this novel's title, epigraph, and final lines, and perhaps the similarities don't end there. I know I need to go read more Mann before I can do justice to any worthy comparison here, but a certain grotesqueness jumps out at me in both Koeppen and Mann (and, well, most post-war German writers, go figure). Death in Rome is an odd, intertwining novel about two generations of a (very) dysfunctional German family. The older generation (an ex-SS officer and a public official) still cling to Third Reich ideology ten years after the fall of Berlin, and though unrepentant in their culpability for many horrors, are adapting to the new order. Meanwhile the younger generation--the unfortunately-named Siegfried and Adolf--have rebelled from their parents to write degenerate music and join the priesthood, respectively. They all accidentally meet up again in Rome while pursuing a variety of personal vices...and in the course of it, someone dies.
But this plot is only a fraction of this novel's draw. The city of Rome itself is practically its own character come to life through the lush language, along with thousands of years of history that haunt the characters' every step. Apparently this novel was not very popular when it was published to German audiences, who must have found it far too uncomfortable back in the day, and Koeppen's work has only recently started finding a new audience since his death in 1996. I'm glad to now be counted among them.(less)
I moved through this one slowly because the story is told through footnotes on a poem. Lots of flipping back & forth, lots of poetic turns of phra...moreI moved through this one slowly because the story is told through footnotes on a poem. Lots of flipping back & forth, lots of poetic turns of phrase to sink your teeth into. I went in with trepidation, but enjoyed it a lot. Despite the high degree of "metafiction-ness" it's still a compelling story with more than a little humor. And even...slapstick? Who knew?
I get the feeling that Nabokov is the kind of guy who loves to lead readers on merry snipe hunts, especially the detail-oriented ones who go in searching for symbols and hidden meaning and authorial intent (as if there is one correct answer) and he mocks that with the poem and footnotes here. Some of the best humor stems from the footnoter completely missing the point of what he's supposed to be commenting on, or going off on random tangents all his own. It's pretty great.
And then there's the question of "what really happened" with regards to a murder and a deposed king and mistaken identities. I bet (view spoiler)[there isn't a right answer, and that Nabokov loved to mislead all the merry hunter/readers in his interviews on this one, just for kicks. (hide spoiler)] It'll drive you crazy or leave you scratching your head at any rate. Worth the ride, though.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
At the end of my audio version of Breakfast of Champions (expertly and sardonically narrated by my main man and possibly long-lost uncle Stanley Tucci...moreAt the end of my audio version of Breakfast of Champions (expertly and sardonically narrated by my main man and possibly long-lost uncle Stanley Tucci) there's a brief, casual interview with an elderly-sounding Mr. Vonnegut, who says something like this: I just took all the ideas I had for novels, but which I didn't want to ever bother to write out, and put them all in this book.
He also admitted that he couldn't remember the last time he had read Breakfast of Champions. And also that the movie was crap. He and the interviewer had a good long laugh about that.
[As an aside, my favorite novel-within-a-novel was the one about the planet that holds a lottery every year to select the next popular and expensive piece of art, which one year is some guy's finger-painting of his cat. Until the lottery is revealed to be rigged, and all hell breaks loose. Which sounds...about right.]
This novel isn't so much a novel as a stew of all the leftover half-cooked ideas left in the fridge of Vonnegut's mind. And it all turns out rather tasty, though maybe the presentation isn't particularly appetizing. It's definitely one of his *weirder* ones. He's one of the few postmodern authors, I think, who can get away with the craziness he does without seeming to try to hard. Even though this one makes some brilliantly astute (and satirical) points about racism, homosexuality, and Art, I much prefer the perfect balance of weird & emotional heart of Slaughterhouse-Five. (less)
First, I just want to say I <3 all my GR friends! I know so many of you liked this. I read The Goldfinch and I can see the draw, but my cynical sid...moreFirst, I just want to say I <3 all my GR friends! I know so many of you liked this. I read The Goldfinch and I can see the draw, but my cynical side got the best of me on this one.
First, an equation:
(Harry Potter quirkiness - magic) + (Trainspotting - consequences) + (Age of Innocence) + (an art heist) + (deluge of beautiful yet ultimately mind-numbing prose a la Edgar Sawtelle) = The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch is a celebration of excess, whether it's the drugs, or the *feels* & jerking around of emotions, or prose so overwritten that the loveliest gems become lost in the chaff of Too Many Words. There's an excess of Quirk, where even charming characters like brilliant-dropout ne'er do well Boris pop out of the woodwork every so often to give the MC/plot a necessary kick in the deus ex machina--because how else would anything ever happen? There's an excess of questionable decisions that the main character makes because the plot says so. For example, I couldn't quite believe that Theo would passively let himself be dragged off to Vegas. And how exactly was he not a huge liability for EVERYone in Amsterdam? Why would anyone want him there at all? And everything just goes on and on for too long; even the parts where I was more or less riveted seemed choked by an excess of detail & unnecessary choreography. I was really engrossed by the first section in NYC, but after the bombing (view spoiler)[through Welty's prolonged death agonies & speech, followed by Theo's intricately described escape from the museum (hide spoiler)] I noticed my impatience growing. Do we need to know the names on every door in every office in one long museum corridor? How does 10 years later Theo remember this? How is all this detail relevant? Is describing every dead-end and backtrack in full-on detail really necessary? Can Theo ever just ring a doorbell without going up, looking in the window, looking in the other window, walking around to the back, walking around to the front again, going to a cafe to wait (describe cafe in detail) and come back to ring and find someone home? In real time?
The action later moves to Las Vegas where Theo falls in with the Artful Dodger (in case you didn't get the allusion, it's spelled out for you later. Also the Artful Dodger calls Theo Harry Potter, in case you didn't get that association either). They skip a lot of school and do a lot of drugs. This is all described in several hundred pages of detail. Then eventually, because the plot needs a kick, we get some gangster action at the end that eventually moves the plot along. This is the thing. Theo doesn't ever move the plot forward himself. He is a very static character who gets dragged about by others and is passive to a fault, has shallow relationships with women, understandably has a strange relationship with a painting his mother liked... but I didn't buy that interminable exposition chapter at the end that wanted to explain everything away too neatly. Looking back, I don't feel that he changed much in 700+ pages. There was one part near the end where (view spoiler)[he decides he is going to kill himself at the Amsterdam hotel. (hide spoiler)] I found this was one of the most moving scenes in the entire novel and I thought yes, something is happening, there's an epiphany in here, and really felt for the guy. But then (view spoiler)[Boris Ex Machina shows up and, even though I really like the guy, I felt that he interrupted some KEY character development and ruined it with "hey, we got the reward and we're rich!" Gah! I have a hard time with the fact that Theo got rewarded in the end for stealing the painting. And the fact that there was a reward the whole time, and Theo wasn't allowed to know about it before this point because he would have just turned it in and the plot would have been ruined (hide spoiler)] --this makes me go "Argh!"
Ultimately, this was a weird reading experience for me. I went in with high expectations and felt drawn in by the first 25% or so, but gradually I lost steam, and started questioning plot & character decisions and became frustrated by monologues by minor characters about unrelated random topics that went nowhere. But still, the painting! What would happen? The climax disappointed me with (view spoiler)[too-familiar action-flick shootouts (hide spoiler)] that felt out of place in the book, and that long-winded last chapter ultimately convinced me to give this 2 stars (I would give 4*s for the first quarter, 3* for Las Vegas, and 2* for the rest).
I still stand by my earlier assertion that last chapter must have been inspired by that classic Peter Graves monologue from "It Conquered the World":
"He learned almost too late that man is a feeling creature..."
(If you get that joke, congrats, here is your Crown of Dorkiness!)["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
4.5 stars, but I'm rounding up because overall this was such a psychologically gripping read.
First off, audio narrator James Wilby gave a fantastic pe...more4.5 stars, but I'm rounding up because overall this was such a psychologically gripping read.
First off, audio narrator James Wilby gave a fantastic performance as collector Frederick "Ferdinand" and his prize specimen, art student Miranda. Fred's earnest Cockney accent is the perfect blend of charming and creepy, and while I was surprised at first that they hadn't gotten a female narrator to perform Miranda's part, it wasn't long before I forgot he was even the same narrator as before. I probably listened to the first four hours without stopping because I simply couldn't bring myself to put it down.
This is because the first half of the novel is incredibly tense and well-paced, as Fred introduces us to himself, his object of desire, and his plan to collect her and keep her for himself. What makes Fred so compelling is how shy, naive yet earnest he is about catching hold of this young woman, and how he rationalizes his crime so that it makes (almost) perfect sense. He's a bit like Alex in A Clockwork Orange or Raskolnikov in that sense.
Halfway through the book the tension drops as the POV swaps over to the captive Miranda. Where Fred--she calls him Caliban--is intense and sincere about his motivations, she is cold and looks down her nose, not just at him (understandably) but at everyone. As an art student she has been chasing some ephemeral, subjective definition of beauty. She has been romantically involved (sort of) with a much older artist who dictates what Good art is, and to me the old guy was much creepier and intellectually imprisoning of Miranda than Fred--which I assume was the point? Her sections were not nearly as compelling as Frederick's because, after stopping on a cliffhanger, the plot rewinds and replays through all the major events again from Miranda's eyes. However, I did appreciate the extra layer of irony this POV brought, even if it felt long-winded.
Without going into spoilers, this had everything I like in a book--a gripping plot that is based on psychological workings (not car-chases), a despicable person made empathetic, a dire situation with no easy solution, and unexpected twists that feel organic to the story and not like authorial manipulations. Oh, and terrific writing! Highly recommended.(less)
Hmm. I liked the writing in this one. I liked the musings on time and memory. But for such a short book it had a very slow start and felt much longer...moreHmm. I liked the writing in this one. I liked the musings on time and memory. But for such a short book it had a very slow start and felt much longer than it was. Ultimately, by the time I got to The Letter I knew exactly where it was going, and was disappointed that the silly plot contrivances got in the way of the narrator's remarkable relationship with his own memories.
(view spoiler)[I can't help but think that had the author spent less time musing on memory and then decided to tie things up with a nice romantic bow, the story might have been mistaken for something by Nicholas Sparks... (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Interesting concept -- but it didn't work for me as executed.
I hadn't realized until picking up this book that it was epistolary: made up of a series...moreInteresting concept -- but it didn't work for me as executed.
I hadn't realized until picking up this book that it was epistolary: made up of a series of memos, emails, journal entries, interview transcripts and other documents. In my experience this is a tricky form to pull off, and I don't think it worked here. The official interview transcripts, for example, often read exactly like the private journal entries--would you really tell a government official that you contemplated kissing your college for a second, but then remembered your fiance and decided against it? Neither would I. It really did feel tossed together, and not all the parts came together to support the whole.
Overall, this was an odd mash-up, combining the heavy-handed spiritual symbolism of Big Fish, the satirized Middle East of Florence of Arabia, and the unreasonably silly British Gov't red tape from the film "In the Loop"--though I think the latter two examples pull off the humor part more successfully. There are some nice descriptions of the Yemen countryside, and Harriet's letters to her MIA military fiance--which turn into letters to herself--were emotionally moving. And yet for the most part the characters came across as cartoonish and stereotyped and the ending struck me as far too over the top to impact me the way I wanted it to.
I know this is supposed to be a symbolic story about miracles and faith, so I won't even start on my issues with attempts to introduce alien species to desert rivers (too many rivers here in the American Southwest have been irreversibly altered by this). But am I the only person who picked up a weird imperialistic vibe from this--can't we now leave this whole "man altering & conquering nature" thing behind us in the 19th and 20th centuries?(less)
I was expecting this to be dark...but I didn't think it would be that dark. The Piano Teacher is an incredibly unsexy story of--well, not of love so m...moreI was expecting this to be dark...but I didn't think it would be that dark. The Piano Teacher is an incredibly unsexy story of--well, not of love so much as the struggle for absolute control. NYT Book Review accurately called it "an exploration of fascism, not so much in the political sense as in the personal." 38-year-old Erika is a highly repressed piano player/instructor ruled by her emotionally shriveled and manipulative mother. Erika's external shell of a highly cultured artist hides her internal perversions, and highbrow conservatory recitals mingle with images of Vienna's vulgar underworld. When one of her teenage students begins to flirt with her, little does he realize what he's getting himself into.
The demented subject matter alone will turn many people off, so readers who prefer sentimentality and escapism should stay away. However, the writing (even in translation) is poetic and image-rich, the story slow-burning yet gripping, and ultimately mind-bending. The student-teacher affair seems to raise the most eyebrows, but I found the dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamic more disturbing (the less said here, the better). I haven't yet seen the film, but I'd be interested to see how this was adapted--after I've recovered from (and forgotten) the novel, that is.
In lieu of a conclusion, I'll borrow a quote from page 222 that seems like a fitting summary: this book "rips apart lovers and binds together things that the writer keeps separate. The mind twists and turns as it sees fit."(less)
Some of the most fascinating books I've read recently have been criticisms of 1930's era Germany, written before any countries were invaded or any ins...moreSome of the most fascinating books I've read recently have been criticisms of 1930's era Germany, written before any countries were invaded or any insidious "Solutions" adopted as official state doctrine. Mephisto is a particularly scathing novel published in 1936 by Klaus Mann, the son of the celebrated Thomas Mann, after he was exiled to Amsterdam for...well, pretty much everything about the man demanded immediate exile. (For the record, he soon emigrated to the US where he joined the army. You can't help but admire him.)
Everything about this novel feels like it was published well after the war when "the true horrors" were well known. It was really, really easy to write a scathing novel about Nazi Germany in the 50's, 60's etc...not so much in the 30's. The caricatures of certain overweight dandy prime ministers and limping, unctuous propaganda ministers have a very Vonnegut feel. The story itself, of a low-class actor who chooses career ambition over moral duty, feels very much like Mother Night (one of my favorite reads this year). Some of the passages are creepily prescient:
The propaganda minister sent a basket of orchids, which looked so poisonous that one might well have imagined the recipient dying after breathing in their perfume (246).
Remember, this was published in 1936.
The title of course highlights the parallel between an actor selling his soul to the Reich and Faust selling his soul to the devil, and the plot is cleverly, cinematically carried out. The tone is distant and ironic, the political stance or the author never wavers, yet crescendos by the end to almost a scream (if it's possible to write a scream). Mann is preaching to the choir at this point, yes, but preaching perhaps just a little too long, at the expense of his plot and characters. The ending is abrupt, but then, we modern readers can fill in the rest of the story for ourselves.(less)
"We sit up here at Beaufort, disconnected from everything, drawing rockets and mortar shells and explosive devices, endangering our lives, just so we...more"We sit up here at Beaufort, disconnected from everything, drawing rockets and mortar shells and explosive devices, endangering our lives, just so we can continue sitting at Beaufort. That's the entire mission. What a shitty feeling." (pg. 130)
Israeli journalist Ron Leshem interviewed IDF soldiers who sat up in the ancient crusader fortress named Beaufort during its occupation of the Lebanon border area that lasted from 1982 to 2000. In his novel, the exact detailing of the mundane, what soldiers know as hours of boredom punctuated by split-seconds of sheer terror, brings the situation to life. It's a familiar story, an almost free-associative illustration of war a la The Yellow Birds melded to the bored-yet-terrorized kids trapped in an outpost surrounded by the enemy in A Midnight Clear: A Novel. I liked Beaufort better than Yellow Birds because I felt a stronger emotional attachment to the characters (despite, it seemed at times, the narrator's every effort to the contrary), but the narrative's wheels stuck at times under the weight of itself, and with no larger story to propel the reader along--unlike Midnight Clear.
Ultimately, this is a tough book for me to review. While reading I went through many stages of discomfort at my reaction to the often off-putting characters, the stream-of consciousness style, the depressing material, and my own inability to determine whether this I should take this all with an ironic grain of salt--or was the author feeding this to me straight? I want to think that the narrator's self-professed mysogyny, homophobia, and zeal-for-war was all an act to do his job as officer, and indeed, he does it very well. At some point in the middle I noticed an emotional cycle where the author would take one of the undeveloped side characters, bring them center-stage, soften them up, get them to spill their secrets, and then "waste" them in the next few pages. It was an almost clockwork procedure of emotional manipulation, and made the book easy to put down, hard to pick back up. In the last 60 pages the story at last shakes off its torpor and I finally felt that resonance I had wanted to feel from the beginning.(less)
This was a rough one. I like the premise and I fell for the description--a novel about a town in the Olympic peninsula that is set in both 1890 and 20...moreThis was a rough one. I like the premise and I fell for the description--a novel about a town in the Olympic peninsula that is set in both 1890 and 2006, weaving together past and present? A fascinating concept! And yet, this nearly 500 page novel drowns in an excess of characters, overworked prose and a general sense of trying-too-hard. The action switches so quickly between potentially interesting characters--the prostitute with the heart of gold, the cryptid enthusiast, the butch trout-counter, the brave explorers, Dolly and Daisy the ill-fated mules, the Native American spirit-talkers, the displaced inner-city parole officer--that I failed to establish an emotional connection with any of them. Whenever I started to think I might be able to invest in one character, (s)he would be dropped for a less interesting story (sasquatch, and a certain "slapping" incident come to mind). Few of the characters overlapped in any meaningful way, and at by the end my reaction was a shrug and an "okaaaaay?"(less)
**Note** I received this book through the Goodreads First Reads program.
Originally published in 2001 as The Dark Room, this is a set of three long-is...more**Note** I received this book through the Goodreads First Reads program.
Originally published in 2001 as The Dark Room, this is a set of three long-ish stories connected only by some haunting thread of WWII-era Germany. Photographs also seem to be key motifs that link each of the stories in some way, hence the original Dark Room name. Otherwise, characters and story-lines do not overlap, and given the heavy subject matter I found it difficult to maintain momentum through these stark, sparsely-written stories.
The first story "Helmut" is the shortest, and for me was the hardest to get into. It follows a young Berlin man who, physically barred from joining the army, spends the war years documenting his city with his camera.
"Lore" is the name of the second story after the story's protagonist, short for Hannelore. Hers is perhaps the most harrowing plot: after her parents are arrested at the end of the war, she must travel overland with her four younger siblings from southern Bavaria to Oma's house in northern Hamburg. There is much starving and suffering, but a mysterious young man comes to their aid. While on the last few pages of the story I had the opportunity to view the film (which covers only the story of Lore) -- and while mostly faithful at first, veers unexpectedly into rated R territory. Perhaps because in the story Lore struck me as about twelve or thirteen -- in the film she is portrayed as much older than I had envisioned, seventeen perhaps -- this veering took me by surprise. I'm still undecided on whether the additional twists of sex and violence in the film added to the story or not. Still, the suffering of the children is hard to take, on the page or on the screen.
"Micha" is the longest and, for me, the most compelling story of the three. It follows a 30 year old teacher in 1997 and his quest to find out more about his Opa, who may or may not have been a war-criminal. It's a sort of bizarre reversal of Everything is Illuminated, but instead of rich, inventive prose following a Jewish boy as he scours Ukraine for hints of his grandfather's past, we have stark, minimalist prose following a young German fearfully interviewing wary Belarusians. I thought this one was brilliantly done.
Overall, this is a worthwhile collection of stories if you can bear the ponderous subject matter.(less)
Author Fountain cleverly juxtaposes US Army culture with NFL football, resulting in surprising heart and pathos for what you'd think would be a very m...more Author Fountain cleverly juxtaposes US Army culture with NFL football, resulting in surprising heart and pathos for what you'd think would be a very macho book. Billy Lynn and his surviving Bravo squad are home from Iraq for a two-week "Victory Tour", having become both Silver Star recipients and YouTube heroes. After making an appearance at a Dallas Cowboys halftime show they'll be sent back to Iraq for another eleven months, but hopefully not before signing for a big movie deal with a Hollywood producer.
There's a sly undercurrent of commentary throughout the novel on American commercialism and how the troops are (or aren't) valued, but I never found it preachy. One of my favorite scenes takes place in the Cowboys football team locker and adjacent multi-million dollar equipment room. There's a palpable, awkward dissonance between players and soldiers that's masterfully portrayed. Happily, despite the kitsch of the set-up, the novel works well as a novel. The characterization and pacing are solid, the writing clever yet rarely overcooked. Billy's "romance" with the cheerleader is hilarious, and juvenile, and poignant all the same. The Bravo squad feels real, their culture spot-on. These guys aren't portrayed as sentimental heroic ideals, despite the Time article and Silver Stars. They're still mostly adolescents and messed-up ones at that. Somehow I couldn't help but like them anyway.
The novel still captures many of the usual war-story tropes--guilt for a dead squad-mate, the sergeant/seer, PTSD, general young male bullishness & inanity--yet does so in a thoroughly 21st century way. Despite what one of the studios interested in making Bravo's movie might think, this isn't a story that could be told in Vietnam or WWII. Without the kluging of "nina-leven", "currj", multi-million dollar football franchises, celebrity-studded half-time extravaganzas, YouTube, iPhones...this novel wouldn't stand. But here we are, and it does. An excerpt from page 234 of the novel actually describes itself pretty well--just be sure to duck before the irony hits you in the face and knocks you out:
[It] is a rat-bite fever dream of soldiers, marching bands, blizzards of bodies bumping and grinding, whoofs of fireworks, multiple drum lines cranking go-team-g0. Destiny's Child! Drill grunts! Toy soldiers and sexytime all mashed together into one big inspirational stew.(less)