Category Archives: Fiction

BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain

billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-paperback-by-ben-fountain-_sl1500_Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk takes place on a cold, rainy Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium, where the Dallas Cowboys are taking on the Chicago Bears in a game being televised nationally. Among the attendees at the game are the eight members of Bravo Squad, who are on leave from their posting in Iraq on a national victory tour celebrating their fight with insurgents, which was recorded by a Fox News crew and has turned the eight men into national heroes. The book is told mostly from the perspective of Billy Lynn, an 19-years old from a small town in Texas.

Ben Fountain skewers all of the people who want a piece of Bravo for their own agendas, from the Hollywood producer trying to sell their story to the owner of the Cowboys who parades them around for his rich ticketholders and the pro footballers who want to hear about what it’s like to shoot someone but scoff at the idea of serving in the military.

This is a rich, incisive, angry novel that spares no one in its cynical view of the military complex and America’s need for heroes and constant justification for war. Fountain’s writing is beautiful: descriptive, funny, poignant and (sometimes slyly) harsh on everyone who crosses his path (except for Billy). You won’t look at the military the same after reading Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. In addition to being entertaining, it’s an important read.

One passage that really stuck with me: Billy and a fellow Bravo are taken on a tour of the Cowboys’ equipment room, where they learn about the massive amount of gear needed for the football team to play one game. Billy says what we’re all thinking: do we devote the same amount of resources and attention to our soldiers in battle as we do for our professional athletes?

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk came out in 2012, but it’s just as relevant now. While writing this, I am also watching a baseball game on TV, and I just saw three gauzy commercials (insurance, insurance and insurance) featuring soldiers and vets. Our relationship with the military is as fraught as ever. This may explain why Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk has been made into a movie coming out this fall (on Veteran’s Day, of course). I am a little concerned about this adaptation and am worried it will become Hollywood-ized and lose its potency and edge. Ang Lee, please prove me wrong.

I listened to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on audio, which was brilliantly narrated by Oliver Wymer. With the exception of the women’s voices, he simply nailed everything else, including sound effects, Texas accents, and Lynn’s own tentative voice. I highly recommend the audio.

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS by B. A. Paris

514ceo43n3LSo I don’t read a lot of thrillers, but I got sucked into the buzz about Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris, and put a hold on it at the library. Then when it came in I grabbed it and promptly started and finished it.

Spoiler-free summary:

Grace and Jack are married and have a beautiful house in the suburbs. They are always together. They throw dinner parties with complicated menus that come out perfectly, and seem deliriously happy together. They are soon to welcome Grace’s sister Millie, who has Downs Syndrome, to live in their home with them, and Jack is over the moon about it.

Is that the whole story, or is there something perhaps more sinister going on?

I had a very hard time putting Behind Closed Doors down. I read it very quickly, which is unlike me, because once I got sucked into the story, I had to know how it ended. That doesn’t mean I liked the book, though. It is victim porn, which you can’t turn away from despite the horror of what is going on. It’s also incredibly stressful. I read this at night before bed and then had trouble calming down enough to sleep.

If you like heart-pounding books with seriously disturbed characters, then Behind Closed Doors may be for you. I was too disturbed by what was going on to enjoy it on any level. It’s not gory or violent, but upsetting on many other levels. Reading it was also further confirmation that I am really not the thriller type.

I was happy to move on from this one.

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett’s new novel Commonwealth (out 9/13) is smaller and quieter than some of her previous powerhouse novels, like Bel Canto and State of Wonder. It isn’t as meticulously researched or detailed as those other works, and it covers less ground. But it packs an emotional punch nonetheless.

163560Commonwealth is about the dissolution of two marriages – Fix and Beverly’s (2 kids) and Teresa and Bert’s (4 kids) – after Beverly and Bert meet by chance at Fix and Beverly’s youngest daughter’s christening party in Los Angeles. Bert falls instantly for Beverly, and though it doesn’t happen overnight, she eventually leaves Fix and moves with Bert and her two daughters to Virginia.

This move has deep repercussions for everyone involved, of course: Bert and Beverly, their exes, and their six children, who spend summers together in Virginia when Teresa’s kids go to visit Bert. Despite their anger at their parents, the six children coalesce into a loose band – kind of like camp bunkmates – conspiring and plotting to get what they want. Commonwealth follows the group of siblings/stepsiblings over half a century, checking in with different ones over the years and jumping back and forth between past and present to tease out their relationships with each other and with all four parents. The book is really more of a collection of detailed vignettes than a coherent, linear story. Characters get closeups for a chapter or two, and then they fade into the background of another character’s story.

There are some secrets that the six share, including the circumstances around one of their deaths (sorry, a little spoiler there!). And when these secrets eventually come out, they are forced to reevaluate their relationships both as kids and as adults.

Patchett tells the story of Commonwealth at a bit of an emotional distance. Yet its impact is an emotional one. I grew to care about the characters, and I felt that I understood them deeply by the end. Patchett is such an efficient, effective writer that a chapter or two is enough to really convey the core of the characters.

There was one passage I especially liked at the end of the book, where Franny (Beverly’s younger daughter) thinks back over all of the events that took place to bring her and her siblings to where they were in life. Chance meetings, adolescent rebellions, freak accidents, waiting too long to see a doctor… each of these events had serious implications for many people’s lives. How would their lives have been different if these events hadn’t happened, or happened in a different way? Would they have wanted things to be different?

Bel Canto remains one of my favorite books of all time, and in some ways it’s surprising that these two books were written by the same person. Commonwealth has such a different tempo and scope. But I enjoyed Commonwealth quite a bit, and recommend it to fans of Patchett or domestic fiction. You won’t be disappointed.

INVINCIBLE SUMMER by Alice Adams

79030626-368-k57260I am a sucker for four-college-friends-moving-into-adulthood books, and predictably fell for Alice Adams’ debut novel Invincible Summer on vacation this summer.

Eva, Benedict, Sylvie and Lucien graduate from college in England in 1997 (Lucien is actually Sylvie’s brother and never actually went to college) and go off in different directions on the path to becoming adults. Eva, who grew up with a socialist father, goes into banking; Sylvie flails around trying to be an artist; Benedict pursues graduate studies in physics; and Lucien basically becomes a DJ/drug dealer. Adams checks in on this quartet every year or so to see how they are faring and to report on the waxing and waning of their relationships with each other.

Invincible Summer is basically Singles in a novel, told over time. Things don’t go as planned for any of these characters – relationships fail, children have health issues, stock markets collapse. But life goes on, and they ultimately find their way through the ups and the serious downs they never predicted in their early twenties, when they felt, yes, invincible. I liked how Adams weaved the characters’ relationships in and out of these plot milestones too, dropping and picking up strands in concert with the ebbs and flows of the friendships.

Eva is by far the most richly drawn character, and Lucien by far the least, but that inequity didn’t bother me.

I finished Invincible Summer over a week ago and it hasn’t stayed with me as much as I’d have expected. It’s definitely on the lighter side. But it was a great vacation read that I couldn’t wait to get back to, and I am glad I stalked this book at BEA when I had no idea what it was about and in fact thought it was written by another Alice Adams.

If you liked One Day or The Interestings… read this one. If you liked Singles… read this one. Or if you’re a sucker for the four-friends-plot too, then read this one. I bet you’ll like it.

BEFORE THE FALL by Noah Hawley

1e3c0cb68882781b9a0f6a7067000e6bBefore The Fall by Noah Hawley was one of the hot books pushed at BEA last spring. (It was even featured on the BEA lanyard strings, which isn’t cheap.) Hawley is best known for creating and writing the FX series Fargo, but I know him from an earlier novel he wrote called The Good Father. I don’t think it got a lot of attention when it came out, but I really liked it and was intrigued when I came across Before The Fall.

Before The Fall is a thriller/mystery. A private plane takes off on a Sunday night from Martha’s Vineyard, headed to New York. The plane was chartered by a very wealthy family, the Batemans, who have two children aged 9 and 4. The Batemans invited another couple to fly back with them – a banker and his wife – and at the last minute an artist shows up for the ride, having been invited earlier that day by Mrs. Bateman. There are also three pilot/crew members and the Batemans’ bodyguard.

Eighteen minutes after the plane takes off, it crashes into the Atlantic. The only two survivors of the crash are the artist and the Bateman’s four year-old boy.

So what happened? Did the plane malfunction? Was it pilot error? Did someone purposely take the plane down? As the story teases out, we learn that both David Bateman and his banker friend had secrets to hide – did their shady business dealings have anything to do with it? And is the artist who he claims to be? What about the crew? Hawley follows each of these threads, flashing back in time to flesh out these characters’ stories, until he finally reveals what caused the fatal crash.

Overall: meh. Before The Fall kept my attention, and for that alone it wasn’t bad. I enjoyed the character development and found the backstories of these doomed passengers pretty interesting. But I had a bunch of problems with the book too. First, the character of the artist bothered me. He did and said things that made no sense and seemed so bizarre to me, yet no one else appeared to notice. Second, this book reads like a screenplay (for which the movie rights have probably already been sold, right?), which I’d forgive Hawley for if I hadn’t read The Good Father, which didn’t at all read like a screenplay. I expected more.

There are also little inconsistencies and impossibilities throughout the book that I found distracting. The plane took off after 10 on a Sunday night, and a Red Sox game was on, which is pretty unlikely unless it was in extra innings (it wasn’t). At one point the artist gave the boy a pen that he had had since he was a little boy, which made no sense because the artist swam to shore after the crash and his bag was not recovered, nor had he returned home since the accident. People talked on landline phones with long stretchy cords (seriously?). Just sloppy.

The ending was underwhelming too. I can think of like 5 other more satisfying explanations for the plane crash.

I’m glad I read Before The Fall because I was curious about it, and it was an engrossing vacation read. But in the end it left me cold. Proceed at your own peril.

 

 

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

Welcome to 2014! Yes, I finally read All The Light We Cannot See.

What more can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said?

all-the-light-we-cannot-see-9781476746586_hrIf you’re inexplicably unfamiliar with this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, it’s the story of two young adults – Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl who escapes Paris with her father at the start of the Nazi occupation, and Werner Pfenning, an orphan boy who earns admission to an elite German military academy before joining the Nazis as a radio technology specialist. All The Light We Cannot See traces Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s experiences both leading up to and during the war through short chapters that rotate among several characters and subplots.

All The Light We Cannot See has been incredibly well-reviewed and acclaimed, so I was a little leery going in. Would it live up to the hype? Yes, there is a lot to like here. Doerr is a masterful storyteller, with the main plots teasing slowly to keep the reader quite involved. I found this book almost unbearably suspenseful at times, as I waited to learn the fates of these characters. The story is of course quite sad and very difficult at times, with Nazi horrors and violence in abundance. But there is goodness in these main characters, and by the time their lives intersect as the Allies bomb St. Malo, you’ve grown to care deeply about both of them.

You have to suspend your cynicism when you read All The Light We Cannot See. Some of it is just a bit too coincidental, and the story about the jewel that protects its custodian while destroying those close to him is more of a fable than a plot. Instead, enjoy the luminous prose and let yourself get caught up in the heart-pounding suspense and the triumph of humanity.

I listened to All The Light We Cannot See on audio, which was beautifully narrated by Zach Appelman. It’s a long book, so you’ll get to know Appelman’s voice. No complaints – perfect accents, good job with both male and female characters, calm delivery despite some horrific and scary moments. I highly recommend the audio.

 

HARMONY by Carolyn Parkhurst

9780399562600The EDIWTB online book club is back!

This month’s book club choice was Harmony, by Carolyn Parkhurst, which comes out today. Harmony is about the Hammond family, parents Alexandra and Josh and daughters Tilly and Iris, who live in Washington, DC. Tilly is on the autism spectrum with a diagnosis of PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified). She has been asked to leave her school because the administrators say she is too disruptive and that they cannot help her anymore. Alexandra, at the end of her rope after homeschooling and seeing little improvement in Tilly’s behavior, turns to the guidance of a parenting consultant named Scott Bean. After months of private sessions with Scott, Alexandra persuades Josh to move the family full-time to a compound in New Hampshire, where Scott is creating a camp for families with children who have developmental disorders.

Harmony is told in alternating vantage points and through flashbacks. Iris, Tilly and Alexandra share the narration, and the setting switches back and forth between the summer of 2012 in New Hampshire to earlier years in D.C.

Camp Harmony, premised on the notion that kids need an environmental detox in order to address their developmental issues, is governed by Scott’s many rules. No cell phones. No processed foods. Adults must turn over the keys to their cars. Families who live at Camp Harmony full time handle the cooking and cleaning. As the book progresses, Scott’s rules become more arbitrary and his calm veneer less smooth. Is he who he says he is? What are his motives? The book reaches a climax when the Hammonds are forced to confront the truth about Scott and come to terms with why they are in New Hampshire and whether it is helping.

Harmony is, at its core, about the helplessness and desperation of parenthood, the innate desire to do whatever it takes to cure your children of their ills. I spent a lot of the book wondering whether I could see myself in Alexandra and Josh’s shoes, selling my house and most of my belongings and putting my trust in another person to do what was right for my family. Parkhurst did a good job of building her case here. She chronicles Alexandra’s increasing despair, her willingness to try anything, as remedies and therapies and curriculae fail Tilly, one after another. She also allows Josh and Alexandra some skepticism and rebelliousness at Camp Harmony to show that they are more than just blind adherents to Scott’s will. She makes Scott reasonable and compelling enough that his brand and ideology seem credible. And then she shifts the narration to Iris so that the the reader can see what’s really going on.

I really liked Harmony. There are some plot holes, and the ending was a little abrupt and unrealistic, but I thought Parkhurst did an excellent job of exploring the challenges of parenting a child on the spectrum. (I also loved all the D.C references.) Harmony was a fast-paced read, yet it is full of details that make you feel like you’re right there at the camp with the Hammonds.

I am a big Parkhurst fan, and this one didn’t disappoint.

OK, EDIWTB book club, what did you think?