Saturday, March 30, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn is a 19-year-old soldier touring the United States with the other seven surviving members of his squad. They became national heroes when Fox News video of a firefight in which they battled fiercely against insurgents went viral. The U.S. government is using them to create positive propaganda for the Iraq war--a fact they are quite aware of but hoping to turn to their advantage by having a movie made of their story.

The book takes place over the course of one day, the last day of their whirlwind tour before they return to Iraq. They are spending the day attending a Dallas Cowboys game--and what a surreal day it is. Fueled with a large quantity of alcohol, the members of the squad meet numerous wealthy Texans--including the owner of the Cowboys--who fawn over them while simultaneously condescending to them. Billy and his friend Mango also get high with a stadium worker, Billy has a romantic encounter with a cheerleader named Faison, they are trotted out as part of an over-the-top halftime show featuring Destiny's Child, they fight with roadies tearing down the stage, and they learn that they aren't going to get rich from any movie deal. While all of this is happening, Billy's sister is pressuring him via text to desert--she has even arranged for a car to pick him up at the game and spirit him away to a "safe" farm.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk has been praised as one of the best books about the Iraq War, but I don't really see it as a book about the war so much as about soldiers and the craziness of American culture. Most of the book is narrated in an almost stream-of-consciousness way (albeit in the third person), providing a window into the mind of a 19-year-old trained to be a soldier--and, while Billy is in many ways a sympathetic character, his mind is still a somewhat frightening place when you consider that America's military is made up of many similar young men--well-intentioned, good-hearted, but not as well-educated or well-balanced as you might hope.  Even more frightening, however, is the celebrity-crazed, materialistic society that turns them into cardboard cutouts.

I can't say I really enjoyed this book, but I did appreciate it. The squad's language is raw, which is appropriate but may be off-putting to some readers. What bothered me more was that Fountain occasionally lost Billy's voice--would Billy really be observing the weather and thinking, "The transect of sky through the open dome is the color and texture of rumbled pewter, an ominous boil of bruised speaks and ditchwater grays that foretells all kinds of weather-related misery"?

Favorite passages:
For all that work [plastic surgery] the sum effect is neither good nor bad, just expensive, and Billy will later reflect that you could get pretty much the same result by plastering your face with thousand dollar bills.

Okay, so maybe they aren't the greatest generation by anyone's standard, but they are surely the best of the bottom third percentile of their own somewhat muddled and suspect generation.

What might be merely embarrassing in real life is made obscene and hostile by TV

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Autobiography of Us, by Arua Beth Sloss

The friends we make in middle school, high school, and college are important to women--they get us through difficult times and, when we become adults and lose contact with many of them, they continue to play a large role in our imaginations, the friends who knew us better than anyone has since (or so we think). So it's not surprising there are a lot of books about adolescent friendships and what happens to the friends once they are past adolescence. Because there are so many such books, if you're going to add to their number, you'd better be sure you have something fresh to say. Unfortunately, I didn't find that to be true of Autobiography of Us, the story of friends Rebecca and Alex. Growing up in the part of the 1960s that were really still a continuation of the 1950s, the two girls swear they will be different. And yet, when roadblocks appear, they end up opting for lives as circumscribed as their mothers'.  Even the supposed twists in the story are dull.

Not recommended.  

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

The Round House picks up some of the characters from Erdrich's 2010 novel Plague of Doves (reviewed here in January), focusing on Judge Bazil Anton Coutts, his wive Geraldine, and their 13-year-old son Joe, who narrates the story (as an adult looking back on the events of spring/summer 1988). On a Sunday afternoon, Geraldine receives an upsetting phone call and goes to her office at the tribal offices to pick up a file; while out, she is brutally attacked and raped. She escapes, but the attack's effects are devastating--for weeks, she is unable to leave her bedroom.

Judge Coutts is working within the system to find his wife's attacker, but he communicates his concerns to his son--because no one is certain where the rape occurred, jurisdiction over the case poses a challenge, one that has kept many Native America victims of crime, especially female victims of white male perpetrators from getting justice. Joe and his friends Cappy, Zack, and Angus set out to solve the crime on their own--and they make a number of discoveries, although they do not know what to make of some of the clues they uncover. Eventually, the perpetrator is identified, and Geraldine emerges from her bedroom, but Bazil's concerns were well-founded, and the rapist is freed, leading to a wrenching series of climactic events that raise the question of what justice means.

In some ways, The Round House is less complex in its structure than other Erdrich works. While it is populated with numerous characters with complicated family relations (when Joe asks how he's related to another teen, he is told they are quarter cousins, close enough to fight for but not to the death), but there is a single narrative voice. While tribal history and law are woven into the story, they emerge through conversation or dreams, allowing the narrative to be told in chronological order. While dreams play a role in the events, magical realism is less in evidence than is sometimes the case with Erdrich. All of these factors make The Round House somewhat easier to read than some other Erdrich titles, but they also make the book less layered and multidimensional. That is not to say the book is simplistic. It features a sympathetic and well-depicted central character in Joe, elements of humor provided by his teenage friends, and an exploration of powerful themes of justice, racism, and family.


Favorite passage:
I know there's lots of world over and above Highway 5, but when you're driving on it--four boys in one car and it's so peaceful, so empty for mile after mile, when the radio stations cut out and there's just static and the sound of your voices, and wind when you put your arm out to rest it on the hood--it seems you are balanced. Skimming along the rim of the universe.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

The narrator of The End of the Affair, novelist Maurice Bendrix, announces early in the book that "this is a record of hate, far more than of love." He tells us he hates Henry Miles, an acquaintance he runs into on the common one rainy night. He hates Henry's wife Sarah, and he hates God--or would if he believed in God.

But soon we learn that in fact Bendrix is jealous of Henry because he is married to Sarah, Bendrix's lover for four years before and during World War II. At the time they meet on the common, two years have passed since Sarah, without explanation, dropped Bendrix. The sight of Henry somehow rekindles in Bendrix his obsessive love for Sarah and, when he learns that Henry fears she is having an affair and has considered hiring a detective agency to follow her, Bendrix decides to hire the detective himself. The somewhat hapless detective (he at first believes he has photographed Sarah's lover, presenting Bendrix with pictures of himself, and he takes his 12-year-old son on surveillance with him) discovers that Sarah is indeed visiting a man's flat; the detective also manages to steal Sarah's journal.

Bendrix reads Sarah's journal and learns the reason that she ended the affair, despite the fact that she still loves him. He also discovers that Sarah is struggling with a growing belief in God--a discovery that leaves Bendrix completely nonplussed. From this point on, much of the narrative has to do with questions of faith and what it demands of the believer. A number of plot twists--some signaled in advance, some not--propel Bendrix towards a reaffirmation of his record of hate (I'll leave the twists for readers to discover for themselves).

Greene writes beautifully, and the narration by Colin Firth does the language justice. We spend so much of the book inside the head of the self-centered and oafish Bendrix that I occasionally became somewhat tired of his ruminations (and incredulous that anyone could fall in love with him), but not to the point where I wanted to stop listening.  I found Bendrix's reflections on his work as a writer some of the most enjoyable parts of the book, which overall I would recommend.

Favorite passage:
Eternity is said not to be an extension of time but an absence of time, and sometimes it seemed to me that her abandonment touched that strange mathematical point of endlessness, a point with no width, occupying no space. What did time matter? . . . I never lose the consciousness of time. For me the present is never here. It is always last year or next week. . . . I couldn't forget and I couldn't not fear.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Lost Art of Mixing, by Erica Bauermeister

In The Lost Art of Mixing, Erica Bauermeister picks up some of the characters from The School of Essential Ingredients (reviewed here in October 2011), a year after the events in that book. Lillian, owner of the restaurant that was the center of the earlier book, is living with widower Tom and has just discovered she is pregnant, something she does not think Tom, who is still grieving his wife's death, will welcome. Chloe has become sous chef at the restaurant and has begun to grow out of her awkwardness. She is living with Isabella, whose Alzheimer's is progressing.

To these characters, Bauermeister adds Finnegan, a gangly new dishwasher at the restaurant who is enamored with Chloe; Al, Lillian's accountant, and his miserable wife Louise; and Abby, Isabella's Type A daughter. All of the characters are searching for meaning and happiness in their lives, and this time around, many of them find it in a book about rituals and celebrations that Al shoplifts (while involved in a crazy "adventure" in which he goes into bookstores pretending to be an author and volunteering to autograph books). The group plans a birthday celebration for Isabella, while Louise adapts a Mayan ritual for her 52nd birthday (her adaptation involves breaking all the light bulbs in the house because Al has forgotten to buy bulbs at the hardware store). We also get back story on the various characters, and it is notable that many of them lost one or both parents early, either to death or to psychological distancing.

Food plays a smaller role here than in The School of Essential Ingredients--and I was sorry about that. But I was happy that Bauermeister moved past the artificial structure of the cooking class and simply let new characters emerge through their natural interactions with each other. Bauermeister is a talented writer; while her books are not the deepest, they offer an upbeat view of how people can make their lives work--and an upbeat view can be a nice change of pace!

Favorite passages:
They had talked into the evenings, and the separate languages of mother and child shifted into a vocabulary they could hold in common.

His grass sprawled out before him, shaggy and rough-edged, the Mickey Rourke of lawns.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer

The Septembers of Shiraz covers the experiences of one wealthy Jewish-Iranian family in the year between September 1981 and September 1982. The father, Isaac Amin, is one of many people who flourished under the shah's regime but then are imprisoned in the post-revolutionary period. The tedium of prison, the relationships that develop with other prisoners, the frustration of being asked the same questions day after day, the horror of hearing people shot outside the cell, the post-torture suffering, the debilitating fear of not knowing what will happen--all are explored in the sections of the book told from Isaac's perspective.

Isaac's sections alternate with those told from the perspectives of the other members of the Amin family. Farnaz, Isaac's wife, is dealing with her own problems: her own and Isaac's families;  family servant Habibe, who is beginning to spout revolutionary rhetoric and may be stealing from Farnaz--yet Farnaz can not fire her because she can't run the household without Habibe; the looting of the family business by former employees, led by Habibe's son; searching of their home by the Revolutionary Guard; and concern for her husband and children. Parviz, an architecture student in New York, lives with a Hasidic family in Brooklyn; unable to pay his rent when his parents stop sending him money after his father's arrest, he is forced to work at his landlord's hat shop. Feeling isolated at his university, Parviz falls in love with his landlord's daughter--but a relationship is impossible because he is a nonpracticing Jew. Shirin, Isaac and Farnaz's daughter, is only nine, but she too is affected by the political situation. Her friend Leila's father is a member of the Revolutionary Guard; playing at their house, Shirin finds investigation folders and steals several, hoping that she can save some other men from being arrested. When Leila's father discovers files are missing, Leila protects Shirin because "No one came to my house as often as you did."  I won't reveal what happens to the Amin family (though I will complain that Parviz seems to be left out of the resolution).

Isaac and Farnaz are not particularly sympathetic characters--they benefited from a regime that terrorized many Iranians; indeed, they seem unaware of the extent of the repression under the shah. Ironically, one of Isaac's tormentors in prison was a victim of the Savak, the secret police under the shah. Yet he feels no compunction about treating others as badly as he was treated. Parviz and Shirin are truly innocent victims of the situation, and their stories are touching.

Sofer writes gracefully, and her descriptions appeal to all of the senses. Perhaps because I could not identify with Isaac and Farnaz, I did not love The Septembers of Shiraz, but I have a greater appreciation for Iran and the hardships created by the revolution of 1979 as a result of reading this novel.

Favorite passage:
The task numbs him, half-formed thoughts emerging from his mind like the vapor rising from his steam machine, and vanishing just as quickly. Time moves slowly here, like those agonizing hours spent in mind-numbing high school classes . . . And yet something has changed in him so gravely that he now actually enjoys these slow indistinguishable hours which pass him by, demanding so little of him, no more than fish swimming in an aquarium.

Standing on the stoop, he tucks his gloveless hands in his pockets and looks out onto the dark street. How unyielding is that space between connection and interruption. One false move, one misspoken word, and you find yourself on the wrong side of things.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Dinner: A Love Story, by Jenny Rosenstrach

The food-blog-turned-book trend began with Julie and Julia, which was an inventive, well-written, and hilarious book. For me, subsequent books have generally fallen short of the standard set by Julie Powell (I've also read Cleaving, reviewed on this blog in January 2010, so I know even Julie Powell can't attain that standard with every effort). Dinner: A Love Story also falls a bit short, though I recognize that I'm not really the target audience for the book and younger moms might find it very helpful.

Jenny Rosenstrach was a magazine editor dedicated to having her family eat dinner together (since 1998, she has kept a diary of what she has eaten for dinner every night--did I mention she has done this since 1998?). Then she was thrown out of work in late 2009 by the folding of her magazine (Cookie). She decided to start a blog devoted to the concept of the family dinner ( and in 2012 published this book based, in part, on the blog. Like other blogs-to-books that are not strictly cookbooks, the content of the blog has been expanded, in this case creating a book that is part memoir, part parenting book, and part cookbook. 

The book is divided into three sections: "Rituals, Relationships, Repertoires," in which she describes the early years of her marriage when she and husband Andy were developing their dinner tradition and their cooking skills; "New Parenthood," an honest discussion of the chaos of the years when her children were infants/toddlers and she and Andy began to refine the dinner tradition and their parenting skills; and "Family Dinner," focusing on more recent years when the dinner tradition has become more manageable and rewarding. In each section, she includes recipes for dishes that were staples during that phase of her life, as well as tips for cooking, parenting, and establishing a dinner tradition.

I realized fairly early in the book that it didn't have a lot of relevance to a 62-year-old who lives alone and cooks mostly for herself, but Rosenstrach's writing has a charm that kept me progressing through the book (it's a quick read, so that also influenced me). I'd be interested to hear whether parents with kids at home find the book helpful.

Favorite passage:
In our house, debuting something new at the table--no matter how subtly new it may be--is always more about trying the dish than it is about loving it. In fact, just not hating something is considered a victory, a moment worthy of celebration and positive reinforcement. ("Good for you! You didn't spit it out!")

Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse, by Calvin Trillin

My library choices seem to have taken a turn toward humorous poetry--Suddenly Sixty and Dogfight in the same week. Dogfight is 154 pages long, and sustaining the rhyming for that many pages means that it sometimes lapses into, well, doggerel (sorry, couldn't stop myself). Some of the rhymes are quite clever, but when you see on the first page that Trillin has rhymed "dude'll" with "poodle," you know he'll stop at nothing.

Trillin intersperses the poetic narrative with shorter poems, such as "Adieu Santorum": The race will miss the purity/That you alone endow./We'll never find another man/Who's holier than thou."  Occasionally, he makes a "Pause for Prose"; my favorite of these was "Callista Gingrich, Aware That Her Husband Has Cheated On and Then Left Two Wives Who Had Serious Illnesses, Tries Desperately to Make Light of a Bad Cough."

Dogfight is funny--but probably only if you're a Democrat. Trillin aims almost exclusively at Republicans; while they provided plenty of fodder (or kibble) in 2012, even for a Democrat it's almost unforgivable that "They're going to put y'all back in chains" and "You didn't make that" "They're going to put y'all back in chains" and "You didn't build that" don't even get a mention.

Favorite passage:
Mitt Romney asked us all to contemplate
If we are better off than in '08.
Though he neglected mentioning our troops, 
(Did Perry, watching, silently say "oops"?)
Mitt did speak well, but still did not illumine
The question on folks' minds: is this dude human? 

Obama's speech was good, of course, whereas
Bill Clinton gave a speech with real pizzazz.
Upstaged? Well, yes, but by a speech with flair,
And not by Eastwood and an empty chair. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Suddenly Sixty and Other Shocks of Later Life, by Judith Viorst

I haven't read one of Judith Viorst's decades books for quite a while, perhaps decades. But Suddenly Sixty called to me from the shelf when I was at the library this morning. As with her earlier collections, the poems in Suddenly Sixty are far from perfect, but they are entertaining. Viorst has a way of identifying the anxieties and irritations of the stages of a woman's life--and writing about them in humorous rhyme. For example, "A Whole Other Stage" begins with the line "I've reached the stage where my lawyer, my broker, my allergies, and my president are all significantly younger than I" and goes on to recount such other indicators of the state of mind the 60s puts you in as worrying about cardiac arrest before infidelity when your husband doesn't answer the phone at 6 a.m. Even some of the titles made me chuckle: "So My Husband and I Decided to Take a Car Trip Throuogh New England" and "When Asked If I Thought That I'd Finally Got It Together."

Occasionally, Viorst veers into more serious territory, as when she writes about cemetery plots or asks if she did something wrong in raising the child who "is stumbling through jungles of bitterest black,/Lost in the fog that he buys,/ Wearing a rebel's disguise,/Unwilling, or unable, to come back."  She also writes of the joy of having grandchildren:

He rushes to greet her,
His arms outstretched,
Joyfully calling her name,
When he sees her arrive.

Ah, yes. Viorst does know what it's like to be 60.

Favorite passage:
I wish you, I wish you
A dream worth the doing.
And fortune's face smiling
On all you're pursuing.
And pleasures that far far
Outweigh your small sorrows.
Arms opened wide to embrace your tomorrows.

(Wouldn't this make a good toast? I love a nice rhyming toast.)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Wench opens in 1852, with four slave women "vacationing" with their masters at a resort in southern Ohio. They are fascinated by the free blacks who work at the resort and stunned when they see the resort frequented by wealthier free African Americans within walking distance from the cottages where they are staying.

One of the women, Lizzie, is hoping to convince her master, Drayle, to free their two children, but she is unsuccessful; nor will he agree to sell his slave Phillip, who has fallen in love with a local free woman. Nonetheless, Lizzie has convinced herself that she loves Drayle. When a woman named Muwa tries to convince the group of slaves to make a run for freedom, Lizzie tells Drayle of the plan, and Muwa is brutally beaten and raped.

Through a flashback, we learn how Lizzie and Drayle's "relationship" started and see the bizarre role that white women play in these twisted domestic arrangements. Drayle's wife Fran physically attacks Lizzie, tries to sell her, and finally seems to accept her place in the household. At the same time, she alternately rejects and coddles Lizzie's two children.

In 1853, the four women return to the Tawawa House resort with their masters and, without revealing everything that happens, it can safely be said that the visit is packed with dramatic developments. When Lizzie returns to the Drayle plantation that summer, she does not believe they will return the next summer, and yet they do--this time with Fran in tow. Through the events of the final summer, Lizzie begins to develop a an independent sense of self and has, thankfully, awakened to the impossibility of meaningful love with a man who "owns" her.

Wench is in many ways surprising and, while it is not a great novel, it does open the reader's eyes to the complexities of the sexual and domestic arrangements among slaves and the families that "owned" them.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones

Dana Lynn Yarboro announces in Silver Sparrow's first paragraph that her father, whom she calls James, is a bigamist who was already married to Laverne when he met Dana's mother. He also has another daughter, Chaurisse, the legitimate child who gets to call her father Daddy. While Dana and her mother Gwen know all about James's first family--they even "surveil" the house from time to time--Laverne and Chaurisse know nothing about them, and James insists it remain that way. If both girls are selected for a summer science program or hired for a summer job at Six Flags, Dana must give up the opportunity to protect Chaurisse.  Dana, who is smart, feisty, beautiful, and precocious, understandably resents being the "secret" daughter and rebels by hanging out with an older, abusive boy, smoking weed, and engaging in other inappropriate behaviors. While she resents the chubby and apparently bland Chaurisse, she also finds herself creating opportunities for their paths to cross.

Then Tayari Jones tricks us by switching narrators, giving Chaurisse--to this point a seemingly dull girl--the second half of the book. Chaurisse, it turns out, is struggling as much as Dana is. Her reputation has been ruined by gossiping church ladies, she has no friends, and she is acutely aware that she does not excel at much of anything. When she meets Dana while they are both shoplifting at a drugstore, she is excited to have made a friend, especially one who is so pretty and confident. When the two start hanging out together, it's only a matter of time until the s(*& hits the fan.

Silver Sparrow is not the most gracefully written or originally plotted book, but Tayari Jones does  make us feel the sadness visited upon Dana and Chaurisse by their parents' actions and, in Dana's case, by the secrets she is forced to keep. These sisters need each other--and they need more from their parents; it's heart-breaking when their needs are ignored.

Favorite passage:
Love can be incremental. Predicaments, too.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer

2013 has gotten off to a slow start reading-wise, both because I've been watching too many movies (thanks to the son who is egging me on to watch all the films on AFI's 100 best films list) and because too many of the books I've read have failed to excite me. But I feel like Frances and Bernard is going to change the year's direction.

Frances and Bernard is an epistolary novel, featuring the letters exchanged between two young writers who meet at a writer's colony in the late 1950s and continue their acquaintance through correspondence (reportedly inspired by the lives of Robert Lowell and Flannery O'Connor--but very much a creative work of fiction). Frances is a novelist, living with her working class family in Philadelphia; Bernard is a poet, raised in an upper class family in Boston, where he now lives with a roommate. Frances is a devout Catholic, Bernard a recent convert to Catholicism, and many of their early letters discuss religious topics (e.g., "Who is the Holy Spirit to you?"). Then Frances moves to New York, and their exchange perks up with her descriptions of living at the Barbizon. Of course, they also discuss the progress of their writing.

Just as the book starts to get a bit bogged down in what feel like overly intellectualized exchanges, the pace picks up. Bernard has a breakdown and loses his faith. Shortly thereafter, he moves to New York and their letters become less frequent, but we are kept informed of their activities through letters to friends and editors. And what do you know? Frances and Bernard become lovers, something Frances has resisted because she does not believe that a woman can write and have a family.

To retain some surprises for anyone who decides to read the book, I won't say more about the fate of their relationship, but I will say I was moved by these two characters and their efforts to define themselves, their work, and their relationships (with each other, with family, and with God) in the face of the challenges of mental illness and the restricted roles of women at the time. I should note that I am positively predisposed to epistolary novels--I find the device of placing the character as the writer of letters, when well done, creates a particularly authentic voice. So I came to Frances and Bernard with positive expectations. While I felt there were some flaws in the way Bauer constructed the book (e.g., we normally get both sides of the Frances-Bernard exchanges, but occasionally a reply is omitted; we get selected letters involving other correspondents only when Bauer wants to give us some new perspective on a situation), the voices Bauer created were elegant and individual.

At dinner the other night, I was trying to describe Frances and Bernard and my friend Barb responded, "You're not drawing me into this book, Laurel." If this review doesn't draw you into Frances and Bernard either, I would just say: Give it a try.

Favorite passages:
The blackness is a hand that passes over my face to draw me a bath of heavy, ache-riven sleep, and if I want to come out of it I have to make a constant effort to see what is going on around me and then decide if I want to care about where to put my feet and hands. Impatient only for something to drag me off into unconsciousness. No desire even to write. I look at typewritten drafts, and the sentences slide off the paper and trail off into the distance; the sentences break up into letters, hovering like a cloud of gnats over my typewriter.

My people, for better or worse, taught me to hide what was too difficult to bear.