Friday, March 28, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

March has been a pretty good month for novel-reading. I've finished a book of short stories, a classic dystopian (perhaps the classic dystopian); the final book of the Divergent trilogy, an historical YA novel, and a war story. I feel each deserves at least a little blurb.

Allegiant was my least favorite read, though it wasn't exactly awful. This trilogy (the movie of the first novel is in theaters now) started off strong, but ultimately got a little haphazard. The second novel involved people running around frantically, and the third novel seemed so rushed, I wondered if the publisher demanded it be released before it was polished. No, "polished" is not quite the right word. Before it even made much sense. It was a jumble. I expect the movies are going to fix this problem, because they're going to have the time and a panel of storyboard experts to do that.

Brave New World was much more interesting and enjoyable than I expected it would be, but ultimately I disagree with Huxley's premise. He was worried about the wrong things. As a polemic, it doesn't really work, but as an entertaining read and a slice of history (what were intellectuals of 1932 fretting about?) it works just fine. The audiobook version by Michael York I highly recommend.

Nine Inches is a slightly discomfiting dissection of suburban America. This is what Tom Perrotta does: he peeks over our fences, observes us minutely, and reports back what he finds. It's not pretty. I winced a lot reading these stories, but several of them actually changed how I think and how I behave. Even within my marriage. Perrotta may make us squirm, but he's also good at evoking empathy. (And self examination.)

All the Truth That's in Me is the most interesting, unusual YA novel I've read in a long time. It's set in Colonial America, and follows the story of a teenager who's been held captive for two years in a situation that reminded me of Emma Donoghue's Room. The story picks up after she has rejoined her community, but what she survived has rendered her a mute outcast. With a number of secrets. As is always the case with YA (isn't it?) a sweet romance underpins the story. I felt slightly disappointed with how conventional (relative to the beginning) the story became by the end, but that is the form, I suppose I can't fault it for that. It's not Emma Donoghue, but it's good.

Finally, the pièce de résistance: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. This novel, published in 2012, is one of the first major fictional works to be written about the Iraq war. Perhaps we've been too knee-deep, too stunned, to be able to talk about this particular debacle until now. Army PFC Billy Lynn is 19 years old, a member of the now-famous "Bravo Squad," and is home between tours. He's a kid, just a grunt, but a heroic one—as so many grunts are. Euripides observed thousands of years ago that the mythical hero is an "ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances," and that is Billy. He and his squad found themselves in a firefight that happened to be captured by a news crew, and now they're national heroes. They're being trotted around the United States on a victory tour that ends up being some cross between beauty pageant and cattle auction, with a heavy dose of jingoism. Politicians use them, Hollywood uses them, and especially the Dallas Cowboys use them. The boys of Bravo Squad tolerate it all with befuddled good grace, because breathless patriots keep telling them "thank you for their service" and occasionally starry-eyed cheerleaders throw themselves into their laps (literally), but as the tour grinds on they become more jaded. The highlight of the book, for me, was Billy Lynn's reunion with his crazy (but often sweet, and very real) family.

As with the last novel I reviewed, this one is highly quotable. Some highlights:

“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.”

"This is a truth so brutally self-evident that he can't fathom why it's not more widely perceived, hence his contempt for the usual public shock and outrage when a particular situation goes to hell. The war is fucked? Well, duh. Nine-eleven? Slow train coming. They hate our freedoms? Yo, they hate our actual guts! Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.”

“Everybody supports the troops," Dime woofs, "support the troops, support the troops, hell yeah we're so fucking PROUD of our troops, but when it comes to actual money? Like somebody might have to come out of pocket for the troops? Then all the sudden we're on everybody's tight-ass budget. Talk is cheap, I got that, but gimme a break. Talk is cheap but money screams, this is our country, guys. And I fear for it. I think we should all fear for it.”

“Dread of returning to Iraq equals the direst poverty, and that's how he feels right now, poor, like a shabby homeless kid suddenly thrust into the company of millionaires. Mortal fear is the ghetto of the human soul, to be free of it something like the psychic equivalent of inheriting a hundred million dollars. This is what he truly envies of these people, the luxury of terror as a talking point, and at this moment he feels so sorry for himself that he could break right down and cry.” 

Click here to see a list of the other Coffeehouse reviews! Happy reading.

15 comments:

  1. Wow, you've been busy! Let's see...I'm intrigued by the Colonial YA, but a little disappointed that the novel slides into the same-old-same-old territory of YA. Those are some great quotes from Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. (And very true when you think about it.) I actually have no interest in the Divergent series and now that you've explained how messy the last book is, I don't think I'll start it anytime soon. Makes me think about all the grumbling with that final book in the Twilight series. Ha!

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    1. It's not nearly that messy! **shudder** I would give it a miss, though, especially since the movies are coming out. Might be worth a watch with the little 'un though. (Assuming it's not too gory, I haven't heard yet.)

      I read All the Truth in 24 hours. It's short — worth picking up from the library and trying.

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  2. If your review weren't enough to sell me on this book, the quotes would have sealed the deal. It sounds very well-written. Reminds me vaguely of an old movie "The Americanization of Emily." James Garner played a reluctant "hero" who was trotted around and put in parades to promote a war he absolutely hated. Anyhow, I'll definitely get this book. (Or did I already get it... I may have after reading your review on Goodreads...) "Nine Inches" sounds worth a look, too. Thanks!

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    1. Wow, it actually sounds a LOT like that movie! I wonder if Fountain was inspired by it, or if it's just a coincidence. Although, since pageantry has always been part of any war, I suppose it's a universal theme.

      I have a feeling you'd like Nine Inches, Susan.

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  3. Yeah, there've been a handful of movies made about the Iraq war, but can't say I've heard of too many novels on the subject. Some great quotes.

    And I've seen all the complaints about the third book of the Divergent trilogy. You're not alone in your disappointment.

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    1. My son wouldn't even finish Allegiant. I thought at first it was because it was too dark, but I asked him and he said, "Nah, it was just boring." :/ As Mary Mary said, it seems final books of trilogies are hard to pull off!

      Re: Iraq, I heard there's a new short-story collection coming out, written by a Marine who served there, that is spectacular. It's called "Redeployment." Definitely on my to-read list. He might be the Tim O'Brien of Iraq.

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  4. The Ben Fountain book sounds really good. The highlights you included are poignant. We really are stuck on teenage drama.

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    1. Yes, I thought that was an especially succinct way to put it.

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  5. I've added some of these books to my TBR :) Thanks!

    I'm reading ALLEGIANT right now, and to me it does seem a bit like Roth was clutching at straws trying to find some new big battle for them to fight. But it's not even a big battle. I dunno. I loved book 1 the most I think, though book 2 was pretty good as well.

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    1. I was listening to Pop Culture Happy Hour's review of the movie today, and they pointed out something I'd never thought of: who makes the clothes in that world? Where are the factories? Hrm.

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    2. Interesting! Probably the Abnegation? :P

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  6. I'm excited when I get to finish a single book in a month. More on topic, what a great list and what an eclectic selection. All the Truth that's in Me, Nine Inches, and Billy Lynn all sound great. I'll have to go find them for myself.

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    1. Well, I spend an awful lot of time reading. Time other people would spend being, you know, productive. :)

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  7. Veronica Roth lives a couple of blocks away from me. It is funny to think of her as a best selling author.

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