Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night (2015)

haruf-our-souls-at-night

Our Souls At Night, Kent Haruf’s last and posthumously published novel, is a work of sheer beauty. It’s so beautiful in fact, that if there wasn’t also a heavy dose of heartbreak, it would have been too beautiful for its own good.

This is how it begins

And there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark.

They lived a block apart on Cedar Street in the oldest part of town with elm trees and hackberry and a single maple grown up along the curb and green lawns running back from the sidewalk to the two-story houses. It had been warm in the day but it had turned off cool now in the evening. She went along the sidewalk under the trees and turned in at Louis’s house.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters are both in their seventies and have been widowed for a long time. One evening, Addie calls on Louis and asks him if he wouldn’t like to spend the nights at her house. The reader is just as surprised as Louis, as it’s clear from the start that these two people barely know each other. Addie correctly assumes that Louis is just as lonely as she is and that for him, too, it’s hardest at night.

No, not sex. I’m not looking at it that way. I think I’ve lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably.Lying down in bed together and you staying at night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?

Louis accepts her proposal. At first, they are shy but they quickly warm to the possibility of friendship and after getting to know each other better, after many evenings spent in bed talking, they even fall in love with each other.

It’s such a tender story and I loved it very much. When I started reading, I thought it was a lovely idea to tell the love story of two seventy-year-olds and could hardly believe that people called this novel sad and depressing. Unfortunately, I soon found out that it wasn’t as uplifting as I thought it was.

I often wonder, why people speak unkindly about people who fall in love later in life. Why do they oppose it so much? In Our Souls At Night, Haruf explores some of the possible reasons. The book starts almost like a fairy tale. Addie and Louis have found something very rare – a person they can love and talk to, a friend with whom they can discover things and find new joy in life. They do a lot of things they never did before or haven’t done in a long time, like camping or just going out. All would be perfect if there were no other people, but those around Addie and Louis, don’t react kindly. Neighbours, children, so-called friends, are shocked and try to sabotage their friendship and throw mud at them. The tragedy of these two lovers is that, just like very young people, they are dependent on others and staying together comes at a very high price. Whether they are able and willing to pay that price I’m not going to tell you. You’ll have to find out for yourself.

I loved the story, which is first sweet then bittersweet, but what I loved even more was the beautiful, luminous writing. In most of his sentences Kent Haruf uses the conjunction “and”. Not only once but often two, three, even four times. This gives his sentences a leisurely pace, a gentle, tone that works so well with the peaceful fictional small town, Holt, his favourite setting. I don’t think he would get away with the overuse of the conjunction, if he didn’t pair it with a very precise vocabulary. All of these elements are present in the first sentences already. That’s why I quoted them. If you like the opening paragraphs, there’s a good chance you’ll like the rest as well. He maintains this pace, the use of descriptions, the gentle tone and mood until the last paragraph. It looks so simple, but it’s very skilful writing.

I have to thank Jackie Cangro for mentioning Our Souls At Night. I hadn’t heard of it before.

The year has only just begun, but I know this book will be on my best of list. I’m even thinking of adding it to my all-time favourites list.

Our Souls At Night is being made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.

 

Literature and War Readalong January 2017: House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

house-made-of-dawn

The Pulitzer Prize winner of 1966, House Made of Dawn by Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday, is the first title of the Literature and War Readalong 2017. It’s the first novel by an Native American or American Indian writer (I’m not sure which is the preferred name) I’ve included in the readalong. We’ll be reading another one later this year, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.

N. Scott Momaday is a writer, poet and essayist. House Made of Dawn is considered to be the first novel of the Native American Renaissance and because it won the Pulitzer Prize it is also the first novel of a Native American that made it into the mainstream.

Here are the first sentences of House Made of Dawn:

Dypaloh. There was a house made of dawn. It was made of pollen and of rain, and the land was very old and everlasting. There were many colors on the hills, and the plain was bright with different-colored clays and sands. Red and blue and spotted horses grazed in the plain, and there was a dark wilderness on the mountains beyond. The land was still and strong. It was beautiful all around.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday, 208 pages, US 1966, WWII

The magnificent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a stranger in his native land

A young Native American, Abel has come home from a foreign war to find himself caught between two worlds. The first is the world of his father’s, wedding him to the rhythm of the seasons, the harsh beauty of the land, and the ancient rites and traditions of his people. But the other world — modern, industrial America — pulls at Abel, demanding his loyalty, claiming his soul, goading him into a destructive, compulsive cycle of dissipation and disgust. And the young man, torn in two, descends into hell.

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 31 January 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2016

Easter ParadeThe HuntersRosshaldeAt Mrs Lippincote'sBrooklynIn a Lonely Placethe-bright-foreveram-beispiel-meines-brudersLand of SpiceNightbird

This was an odd reading year. It started great but then it went downhill. Going over my notes, I realized, that this wasn’t because of the books I read but because my reading was all over the place. I usually read one novel and two or three nonfiction books at the same time but this year I started a lot of short story collections and nonfiction books, so many in fact, that I’ve not managed to finish most of them. Clearly, dipping in and out of books isn’t a wise thing to do for me. Hopefully, I won’t do that next year.

This was also the year in which I’ve read far more books than I reviewed on this blog. Not because I didn’t like the books, some, especially the nonfiction titles were outstanding. I just didn’t feel like writing so many reviews. Another reason was that I read a lot of books that haven’t been translated. And I reviewed some books elsewhere.

Still, I managed to read books I really loved. Here’s the list, including quotes from my blog posts. I tried to stick to ten.

Easter Parade

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

And then, like in Revolutionary Road – there’s the writing which is simply amazing. He’s got a knack for describing people like not many other authors. Actually, this aspect of his writing, reminded me a lot of Jane Austen. I already felt that when reading Revolutionary Road but after these two books, even more. Like Jane Austen, he can see right through people and phrase this in a witty way. The biggest difference is the fate he’s got in store for them. Not one of them is allowed a Happy Ending à la Austen. That said, his observations and descriptions are so masterful that they always cheer me up.

 

Rosshalde

Rosshalde by Hermann Hesse

I had very mixed feelings while reading this. I didn’t like the beginning all that much but from the middle on, I really started to love this book. I finished it a week ago and it’s still constantly on my mind. There’s so much to like here. But there’s also a lot that I didn’t like. I really loved the descriptions and being in Veraguth’s head when he contemplated nature, his garden, his art. Those passages reminded me of Mercè Rodoreda’s novel Jardí vora el mar. In both books, a solitary man lives in a small house, surrounded by a huge garden and follows the life that is led in the estate nearby. But these passages also reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out. The end of the novel has affected me quite a bit. I can’t really say anything without spoiling it – just this much – it’s very similar to The Voyage Out as well. I also liked how Hesse depicted Veraguth. The man’s so absorbed by his work, so self-centered, that he doesn’t even notice when his kid needs him, although the boy is the only really good thing in his life. Some of these scenes were written from the small boy’s point of view and were very sad.

The Hunters

The Hunters by James Salter

The Hunters is an excellent novel and the reader senses that from the beginning. The writing is tight and precise. Salter uses metaphor and foreshadowing with great results. He’s also very good at capturing emotions and moods like in this quote:

“He was tired. Somehow, he had the feeling of Christmas away from home, stranded in a cheap hotel, while the snow fell silently through the night, making the streets wet and the railroad tracks gleam.”

At Mrs Lippincote's

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is always astute and unmasks her character’s with her sharp mind. In this novel she unmasks a whole society and era – wartime England and all the small and big lies people tell themselves and each other. I think her subtle description of the mentality of the time – this clinging to the old conventions – the fear of the new – the stress of the war – is stunning. It’s what makes this a truly remarkable book.

In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place by Doroth B. Hughes

I love nothing as much as atmospherical crime novels and this one might be one of the greatest in this regard. Set in L.A., it really brings the city to life and makes great use of the landscape and weather conditions. I thought that fog and mist were particular to San Francisco but reading this, I have to assume that the L.A. area (at the time?) was constantly foggy. Reading how this lonely, deranged and driven killer hunts for his prey in the fog made for great reading.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I can’t understand why I haven’t read Colm Tóibín before. He’s outstanding. I admire his writing, his luminous prose. It’s not easy to say why it is so great but it is. His descriptions, the details he chooses, the settings, are so precise and conjure up a whole world.

the-bright-forever

The Bright Forever by Lee Martin

While I liked the story and the characters, the thing I loved the most was how Lee Martin captured those lazy summer days that seem to never end when you’re a kid or a teenager. It’s also admirable how he shows that even small town people’s lives are complex and full of pain, mystery and beauty.

The Bright Forever is a stunningly beautiful, mellow novel. It is told in lyrical, evocative prose, which suits this bitter-sweet, nostalgic tale so well. I’m not a rereader but I think this is one of a very few books, I’ll pick up again some day.

in-my-brothers-shadow

In My Brother’s Shadow by Uwe Timm

In My Brothers’ Shadow is also amazing as a book about writing a memoir. What it means to dig deeper and find family secrets. It’s not surprising, he was only able to write about everything so honestly, after his parents and sister were dead.

Uwe Timm is a wonderful, stylish writer that’s why this memoir has many poetic elements. It is a fascinating and touching story of a German family.

One thing that Timm’s elegant and poignant memoir illustrates admirably well – silence is political. Looking the other way is not innocence it’s complicity. This should be self-evident, unfortunately, it wasn’t then and it’s still not now. I’m glad I finally read this memoir. Especially just after Kempowski’s novel. They are great companion pieces.

Land of Spice

The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien

I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did. It’s so subtle and rich and the depiction of convent life is detailed and intriguing. Kate O’Brien captures both, the sister’s religious life and their “human” lives. Many of these sisters are less than holy but selfish, jealous and unjust. There is even a scene reminiscent of Jane Eyre. Only mother Marie-Hélène who people call “cold” is never unfair or unjust. Marie-Hélène is a fascinating character. Intelligent, introspective, fond of poetry. Through her eyes we discover the more contemplative side of her life at the convent. It’s important to say, that this isn’t a contemplative order. The sisters here are similar to those in Call the Midwife. Only they aren’t midwives but many teach in the convent school.

And from my second book blog, Whispers From the Story Forest

Nightbird

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman

The lovely description and story would have been enough for me to love this book but the many wonderful messages made me love it even more. It explores the fate of outsiders, the “making” of monsters and the importance of preserving our flora and fauna.

 

Have you read any of these? Did you love them as well?

Kate O’Brien: The Land of Spices (1941)

Land of Spice

Back in August, I participated in All Virago/All August, not taking it literally, which means that I didn’t dedicate the whole month to reading only Viragos. I made a small list and read a few books but there were still some more left. One of those was Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices.

The Land of Spices tells the story of Sister Marie-Hélène, the Reverend Mother of a French order located in Ireland, and a young Irish girl, Anna Murphy. When the book opens, little Anna, who is only six years old, has just joined the convent, which is also a boarding school for rich girls. She is the youngest child who has ever been accepted and Mère Marie-Hélène whom everyone calls “cold” is surprised that she reacts so strongly to this little girl. Not only does she feel she has to protect the girl, but she also feels some a kinship. This kinship triggers memories of her own childhood when she too joined the convent as a boarder. Back then, she lived in Brussels with her parents, although they were English.

Since her childhood she always felt much closer to her father and when her mother died, when she was only twelve, they grew even closer. But something happened. Something that made Marie-Hélène not only become a nun but flee her father. While this isn’t something she has repressed, she has repressed the memory of a wonderful childhood and the relationship with her father which once meant the world to her.

All through the book, there are allusions to what happened and I was a bit afraid, we wouldn’t find out what it was. I actually feared that it was something quite different and once the truth is revealed I was relieved. However, at the time when this is set, before WWI, Marie-Hélène’s discovery would have come as a shock. Let’s leave it at that or I’ll spoil the book.

The presence of Anna and the strong feelings she triggers, make Mère Marie-Hélène remember.

The book follows the lives of these two women until the day, when Anna graduates and Mère Marie-Hélène is finally granted her wish to go back to Brussels.

I didn’t expect to love this book as much as I did. It’s so subtle and rich and the depiction of convent life is detailed and intriguing. Kate O’Brien captures both, the sister’s religious life and their “human” lives. Many of these sisters are less than holy but selfish, jealous and unjust. There is even a scene reminiscent of Jane Eyre. Only mother Marie-Hélène who people call “cold” is never unfair or unjust. Marie-Hélène is a fascinating character. Intelligent, introspective, fond of poetry. Through her eyes we discover the more contemplative side of her life at the convent. It’s important to say, that this isn’t a contemplative order. The sisters here are similar to those in Call the Midwife. Only they aren’t midwives but many teach in the convent school.

The descriptions of life at the convent were fascinating and because Kate O’Brien is so good at capturing people’s follies and foibles, this is also a very funny book. There’s a chapter dedicated to a concert that made me laugh so much. I can honestly not remember having read anything this funny in a long time. It reminded me of similar moments in my childhood, when people who were a little too full of themselves made total fools out of themselves and you had to pretend what they were doing was great and try not to laugh. The whole chapter dedicated to this concert is a tour de force of witty characterisation.

While it had funny aspects, it’s not a humorous novel per se. It’s the story of a very unusual life. A life that could have gone a very different way, especially since Marie-Hélène initially didn’t join the convent for religious reasons. Nonetheless, she makes the most of her career choice, strives for goodness and fights hard for her faith.

The foreword points out that this is also a rare study of a world in which the hierarchy is almost purely female. Yes, there are priests and bishops visiting, but those in charge in the convent are women. And the successor of the Mere Générale, the head of the order, will be named by a woman.

Since the main protagonist is English and the book is set just before WWI, Home Rule and the Irish’s fight for independence are very important topics.

The Reverend mother often thinks she’s an outsider because she is English, but the novel shows us that she might just be one of those people who will always be outsiders. She’s too easily wounded and that’s why she’s built a wall around herself nobody can break through.

When the book was published in 1941, it caused a bit of stir as there was a scene that was considered risqué. It’s not risqué at all because all it says is that the narrator saw someone in an embrace. Nonetheless, Kate O’Brien had a hard time getting other books published and this one was condemned by the Censorship Board. Possibly however, as the foreword says, this was far less because of the sexual allusion but because she poked fun at convent hierarchy and criticized the sisters, depicting them in a very realistic, not exactly saintly way.

As I said before, I loved this book. I found the atmosphere soothing, the characters so well described and it had one of the funniest scenes I read in a while.

 

 

Walter Kempowski: All for Nothing – Alles umsonst (2006) Literature and War Readalong November 2016

alles-umsonstAll For Nothing

Until not too long ago, even Germans thought it was in bad taste to write about German suffering during WWII. The feeling of guilt ran too deep. I still remember the discussion when the movie Anonyma came out in 2008. It’s based on the diary of a German woman who was in Berlin when the Russian army arrived. She was one of 2,000,000 German women who were raped many times by the Russian troops. We may look at the war any which way we want, there’s no denying that the Germans suffered too. We just have to think of the bombing of Dresden, the mass rapes of German women by Russian troops and – of course – the huge number of people who were forced to flee from the East towards the West, when the war was lost. Many of these Germans would never be able to return because the place they came from wouldn’t be part of Germany anymore.

This may seem a lengthy introduction but it’s essential to understand not only the importance but the scope of Walter Kempowskis’ powerful and chilling novel All For Nothing – Alles umsonst .

All for Nothing is set in East Prussia, in the winter of 45. In January, to be precise. The story mostly takes place on the Georgenhof estate, located near Mitkau, not too far from Königsberg. Königsberg which was once famous was almost completely destroyed and is now called Kaliningrad. For further understanding, I’ve added two maps.

east-prussia

The map above shows East Prussia in red. The other one below, is a map from 1945. It is more detailed and shows other territories. It’s easy to understand when you look at the maps, how precarious the situation was for the civilians in East Prussia when the Russians started to advance.

germany-1945

At the beginning of the novel, people already start to flee in the direction of Berlin, only the people on Georgenhof, the von Globig’s, behave as if nothing was happening. This is mostly due to Katharina von Globig’s character. She’s the wife of the estate owner who is serving in Italy. Together with her twelve-year-old son, her husband’s elderly aunt and Polish and Ukrainian servants, she lives a life of carefree ease. She’s someone who likes to withdraw from the world, into her own realm. She lives in an apartment inside of the large estate where nobody is allowed to enter. Here she reads, dreams, smokes, cuts out silhouettes, and thinks of an affair she had some years ago. Possibly the only time in her life in which she was really happy.

The aunt is a typical old maid. In the absence of her nephew, and knowing how little Katharina cares, she is in charge of the estate. Peter, the son, who should be with the Hitler Youth, pretends he’s got a cold and, like his mother, flees to other realms in his imagination.

When the first refugees arrive, the small household welcomes them. They feed and entertain them, just as if they were ordinary guests. Katharina may be distracted but she’s kind and generous. Even though her husband calls her occasionally and urges her to leave, she stays put.

But some of the refugees tell horror stories and even Katharina and the aunt realize that falling into the hands of the Russians might prove fatal. Only their life is so comfortable, so enjoyable, how can they leave everything behind? This is an incredible dilemma, and one can easily understand how so many waited far too long before they finally fled.

In the case of the von Globig’s it needs a tragedy that finally pushes them to make a decision.

The first half of the book tells the story before they flee, the second half, tells the story of the flight.

It was so strange, but reading the first almost peaceful part was really stressful. The reader knows what’s coming but the character’s don’t. It takes so long until it sinks in that all is lost.

The descriptions of the flight, those long, endless treks of refugees is harrowing. Not only are the Russians pushing forward, but the refugees are bombed and dead people and horses are piled up to the left and the right of the roads.

Kempowski did a great job at describing in a poignant way how this must have been without traumatizing the reader. We read, breathlessly, but it’s not too graphic and the characters are held at arm’s length. That doesn’t mean the book left me cold. Not at all but it never felt like it was manipulative and trying to shock and disgust.

People often say “Why didn’t they leave earlier?” when speaking of people who are trapped in a war zone. When you read this, you get a good feeling for the reasons. Not only do they have to abandon everything, but they have no idea whether it will be better where they are going. Besides, back then, all they had was accounts of a few other refugees and British radio. Their own radio told them that it was negative propaganda, that all was well, the frontline still secure. How would you have known for sure?

The luckiest thing may have been that they fled back to their own homeland and could stay on territory in which their own language was spoke. While many didn’t make it and many had a very uncertain future, they had at least that. Unlike the refugees that come to Europe from the war zones in the Middle East.

Before ending, I’d like to say a few things about the characters and Kempowski’s style. He does something I’ve never seen before. Almost every other sentence ends in a question mark. It’s really bizarre and I’m surprised it didn’t annoy me. Interestingly, it felt like we hear the characters question themselves all the time. I read a few reviews and apparently he tried to show the general confusion. I’d say he was very successful but it takes some getting used to. His characters are very well drawn. Even minor characters come to life. Most of the time he uses indirect speech but you can still hear the different mannerisms. People repeat the same stories again and again. Just like in real life. Sometimes that’s quite funny. People can be so absurd. Petty. Self-absorbed. Ridiculous. Under the circumstances it’s tragically comic. As I said, Kempowski keeps the reader at arm’s length, that’s why there isn’t a character I loved but there were two I genuinely disliked. One of them was Peter. I would love to know if anyone who read this had a similar reaction. The more I approached the end, the more I disliked this kid. Such a cold fish.

I’m so glad that I chose this novel for the readalong because it’s not only powerful but important. It tells a story that needed to be told and does so masterfully. Raising awareness for a tragedy, making characters  come to life on the page, but not bang your readers over the head or traumatize them – that’s no mean feat.

Other reviews

 

 

 

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All For Nothing is the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The list for next year’s Literature and War Readalong will be published in December. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Ursula P. Archer aka Ursula Poznanski: Five – Fünf (2013)

fivefunf

Last year I read Ursula Poznanski’s YA thriller Erebos and liked it a great deal. When Lizzy mentioned that one of Poznanski’s crime novels for adults had been translated, I knew I had to read it. Not that I read it in English, of course not, but it’s always nicer to review books that have been translated.

Five – Fünf, the first in a series, introduces detectives Bea Kaspary and Florin Weininger of the Landeskriminalamt in Salzburg, Austria. They have been called to an unusual crime scene – a cow pasture. A woman has been found dead. Her hands tied in the back. She has been thrown from a small mountain overlooking the pasture. On the soles of her feet, they find a tatoo of strange numbers, which turn out to be coordinates. Those will lead them to a severed hand and more co-ordinates, which lead to another body part and other coordinates. The second set of coordinates aren’t added in the same straightforward manner as the first. They can only be found after the detectives solve a riddle for which they need to find someone. As if finding body parts wasn’t bad enough, the people who are the clues to solve the riddles, get killed as soon as they have been found by the police.

Five is very well done. It’s extremely suspenseful and, like in her YA novels, Ursula Poznanski/Archer uses a type of game or hobby – in this instance geocaching. I’d never heard of it but it seems that the author herself is a dedicated geocacher. Geocaching uses coordinates and hiding places. On a website you find coordinates and can then hunt a hidden object. The objects are often hidden in beautiful places. So it’s a bit of a mix between hiking and some sort of treasure hunt. It’s a trademark of Poznanski’s writing to use such modern-day games/technology as a base—computer games, live role-playing, drones . . .

I can’t say too much but although this sounds like a serial killer story, it’s not. Nonetheless, it’s quite gruesome in places.

Since this is the beginning of a series, the characters are very important. The detectives are very likable and well drawn. Bea is a mom of two, newly divorced from a bullying husband and still deeply traumatized by something that happened in her past. Florin is single but just started to date someone. That’s important because Bea clearly has a bit of crush on him. They work very well together, are almost friends. Bea is rather unconventional and gets into trouble with her superiors while Florin looks out for her and defends her.

One could call Five a crime novel with thriller elements. It’s very suspenseful and should appeal to many different crime readers – those who prefer thrillers, those who like a mystery, and those who love police procedurals. It has Poznanksi’s trademark mix of likable characters, impeccable pacing and contemporary feel. None of her novels could have been set at another time. I like that. She explores many themes in this book but they are tied so closely into the motive for the murder that I cannot say too much. If you’re looking for a suspenseful page-turner and love crime series, give this one a try.

If you’d like to find out more about geocaching – here’s a link.

Ben Fountain: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012) Literature and War Readalong September 2016

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk

Luckily Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was one of my readalong titles or I might have given up after fifty pages. I found it hard to get into but once I passed the fifty page mark, I was so engrossed, I could hardly put it down. What a terrific, poignant, witty, and sarcastic book.

The novel is set on the last days of Bravo company’s victory tour. Billy Lynn and his comrades are heroes. They survived a firefight in Iraq, during which they overthrew a group of insurgents. One of the Bravos died in the fight, another one came back disabled. Nonetheless, this “sacrifice” might have passed unnoticed if it hadn’t been filmed by an embedded journalist. As a reward they receive medals and are sent home on a propaganda tour.

This does it; they throw back their heads and roar. In a way it’s so easy, all he has to do is say what they want to hear and they’re happy, they love him, everybody gets along. Sometimes he has to remind himself there’s no dishonor in it. He hasn’t told any lies, he doesn’t exaggerate, yet so often he comes away from these encounters with the sleazy, gamey aftertaste of having lied.

The last day is meant not only as a special tribute but as a special treat. The Bravos assist and participate in a game of the Dallas Cowboys. They are allowed to go back stage and to talk to the players, their manager and their rich Texan supporters. At halftime, they are on the field, right next to the musical attraction – Destiny’s Child. And during every break, the footage of their fight is shown on a giant screen.

During this tour, and especially on this last day, people force themselves on the young men, telling them how much they admire them, asking them questions about the war “Are we winning?” – “Did you kill many?” – “It’s a god war we’re fighting, right?”

Billy who’s done the most heroic thing, is the 3rd person narrator of this story. Like Holden Caufield he is equally precocious and naïve and such a terrific character. One of the central plot lines is his falling in love with a cheerleader. While his testosterone-fuelled feelings might not be love, as he thinks, hers are even further from the feeling as all she wants is “a hero” – “a soldier”, as Destiny’s Child sing. She wants the idea of a man, not the man himself.

“Hi, you’ve reached Faison! I’m not able to take your call right now…”

It makes for an odd sensation, watching her real-time person in the middle distance while holding her disembodied voice to his ear. It puts a frame around the situation, gives it focus, perspective. It makes him aware of himself being aware of himself, and here is a mystery that seems worth thinking about, why this stacking of awareness should even matter. Ant the moment all he knows is that there’s structure in it, a pleasing sense of poise or mental ordering. A kind of knowledge, or maybe a bridge thereto–as if existence didn’t necessarily have to be a moron’s progress of lurching from one damn this to another? As if you might aspire to some sort of context in your life, a condition he associates with adultness. Then comes the beep, and he has to talk.

It’s a very difficult book to review as it’s not very plot-driven. It’s the exuberant style that’s important, the descriptions of the absurdities, the frenzy with wich football and war are celebrated by the very rich, as if both only served one purpose – to make them feel good about themselves and about being Americans.

Where else but America could football flourish, America with its millions of fertile acres of corn, soy, and wheat, its lakes of dairy, its year-round gushers of fruits and vegetables, and such meats, that extraordinary pipline of beef, poultry, seafood, and pork, feedlot gorged, vitamin enriched, and hypodermically immunized, humming factories of high-velocity protein production, all of which culminate after several generations of epic nutrition in this strain of industrial-sized humans? Only America could produce such giants.

 

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.

 

All the fakeness just rolls right off them, maybe because the nonstop sales job of American life has instilled in them exceptionally high thresholds for sham, puff, spin, bullshit, and outright lies, in other words for advertising in all its forms.

I don’t think I’ve ever come across a contemporary book that was so astute and harsh in its criticism of the negative aspects of American culture. It shows that most things are about money and consumption. And even when people pretend they care about something, they ultimately only care about what it can bring them.

Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.

The book is written in a frantic, quick-paced style, with long sentences and paragraphs that reminded me of listening to a frenzied sports commentator.

Billy tries to imagine the vast systems that support these athletes. They are among the best-cared for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought – send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL! Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys – how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skits and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans? Resistance is futile, oh Arab foes. Surrender now and save yourself a world of hurt, for our mighty football players cannot be stopped, they are so huge, so strong, so fearsomely ripped that mere bombs and bullets bounce off their bones of steel. Submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the flaming gates of hell!

Sometimes, when I watch a war movie or read a book about war, I have my doubts. I wonder whether or not it’s really anti-war – as it should. I never wondered for one second while reading this book. It’s not only against war but against the justification, the fake heroism, the phony concern and gratefulness. But it’s kind to the soldiers. They are shown as victims who very often only joined up because they were too poor to do anything else.

I was thinking, if Salinger had written Catcher in the Rye right after 9/11, it might have been a lot like Billy Lynn. I loved the Catcher in the Rye. Needless to say, I loved Billy Lynn.

Since the writing is the most important thing in this book, I’ll leave you with some more quotes:

Don’t talk about shit you don’t know, Billy thinks, and therein lies the dynamic of all such encounters, the Bravos speak from the high ground of experience. They are authentic. They are the Real. They have dealt much death and received much death and smelled it and held it and slopped through it in their boots, had it spattered on their clothes and tasted it in their mouths. That is their advantage, and given the masculine standard America has set for itself it is interesting how few actually qualify. Why we fight, yo, who is this we? Here in the chicken-hawk nation of blowhards and bluffers, Bravo always has the ace of bloods up its sleeve.

 

Fear is the mother of all emotion. Before love, hate, spite, grief, rage, and all the rest, there was fear, and fear gave birth to them all.

 

It’s going to be a long, lonesome eleven months in Iraq, long and lonesome being the best-case scenario.

 

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.

 

Other reviews

 

 

 

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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2016. The next book is the German WWII novel All For Nothing – Alles umsonst by Walter Kempowski. Discussion starts on Friday 25 November, 2016. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including the book blurbs can be found here.