Book Rhapsody

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Weekend Book Review – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk follows one day in the life of 19-year-old Specialist Billy Lynn and the rest of the Bravo company. This one day is the last day of their Victory Tour, a national celebration for Bravo’s defeat of Iraqi insurgents, a feat filmed by a news channel and uploaded to YouTube. In this age, people can be YouTube sensations by recording themselves singing songs in the hopes that key people from the entertainment industry will stumble upon their videos, but in the case of Bravo, not only has their battle video made them into household names, it has also turned them into revered and honored national heroes.

Their three-minute video inspires a producer to rally at Hollywood for a movie out of the event, a cause for celebration for Bravo. Why not? The promise of a hundred grand for every surviving member can turn his life around. They wouldn’t be infantry men if they had at least enough money to sustain a living, right? Even Billy, who is sent to the Army not for financial difficulties, can do a lot with that money.

During the Victory Tour, the Bravo men mingle with ridiculously rich and powerful people. During the last leg of the national tour, the owner of the football team Dallas Cowboys mingle with them, along with other rich and powerful people. With thigh-slapping hilarity and chin-rubbing profundity, Fountain portrays the stark difference of the rich and the poor. Bravo realizes how displaced they are in this world of business and political cocktails, and how strange it is that they ended up there. This is only one of the harsh realities that Billy has to absorb soon, because right after the Dallas Cowboys’ game, they are heading back to Iraq.

Despite Billy’s headache, a multitude of questions plague him. What would people think of him if he decides to escape Iraq and plead insanity? Would people think him a coward? Has he not fulfilled his obligation to his country? Doesn’t he owe to himself and to his family to exhaust all options in order to stay? Would it be a betrayal to his Bravo brothers if he turns his back on the war for the sake of his own life? Would it weaken his bond with Shroom, the fallen compatriot whom Billy has learned to love the most?

Shroom is like a wise and guiding brother, a brother that Billy never had. There’s a poetic and zen aspect to Shroom, and as it is with poets in fiction, he died in action at Billy’s arms. When Billy feels like crying because he is envious of the rich who don’t have to go to Iraq and because he is scared, he is reminded of Shroom’s words to him: don’t be scared. Further:

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, and as every combat soldier knows there are as many incarnations and species of fear as the Eskimo language has words for snow. Spend any amount of time in the realms of deadly force and you will witness certain of its fraught and terrible forms.

Further questions: Is Hilary Swank really going to play the lead role in their movie? Will they meet Beyoncé and the other girls of Destiny’s Child right after halftime show? Will somebody ever give him an Advil? Will the cheerleader whom Billy found a connection with wait for his return from Iraq? Will he even join Bravo back to Iraq or not?

[Read in April 2015.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]
[307 pages. Trade paperback. New.]

Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Book Club Book Review – Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Navigating Early is one of those books that I might not have bothered to read had it not been our book club’s first selection for this year. It’s a middle-grade novel about Jackie, a 13-year-old Kansas boy who moves to a boarding school in Maine, and Early, an eccentric classmate who lives at the school basement. One might have thought that the title is a descriptive action, such as Waking Up Early or Sleeping Early, but no, “Navigating” is a transitive verb and the direct object is the person Early.

I tend to treat a novel differently when I know that the intended audience for it is younger than me. I am either more forgiving or more flexible. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I found this rather fun. If I had a nephew or a niece, I would like him or her to read this novel about a friendship that is strengthened by the boys’ adventure.

At first, the friendship didn’t seem to have a chance because Jackie is that kind of boy who can be in the “in” group if he wants to and Early is that kind of boy who can never be in that group in spite of any effort. But he’s happy enough not being in that group. Besides, he’s too busy plotting a story out of the (in)finite number of pi.

The first parts of the novel are concerned with school activities. There’s nothing adventurous, only episodes of boys dumping their friends so that they could prove to the rest that they are cool. One is inclined to think that, aside from the parallel story based on pi, more episodes of friendship tests will go on. But fantastical elements are introduced when Jackie tags along Early in his quest to find his brother, long believed to have died during WWII.

There are pirates, hunters, centenarians, bears, rattlesnakes, and more stuff that creates action and that also threatens to suspend the reader in disbelief. Who would have thought that the river voyage, which at the core is a navigation through Early, would involve all of these? I know that this is for younger readers who might still enjoy playing outdoor games, but really? That’s a lot of adventure. It sure looks that they had more fun than Huckleberry Finn, who is name-dropped by a semiliterate visionary of sorts whom the boys meet in the woods. This guy, the Norwegian Gunnar, mentions some of the lines that I like best in the book.

“No one say anything about knowing the names of the stars. No, the sky, it is not a contest or an exam. The only question is, can you look up? Can you take it all in? As for names of constellations, they are not the be-all and the end-all. The stars, they are not bound one to another. They are meant to be gazed upon. Admired, enjoyed. It is like the fly-fishing. Fly-fishing is not about catching the fish. It is about enjoying the water, the breeze, the fish swimming all around. If you catch one, good. If you don’t … that is even better. That mean you come out and get to try all over again!”

This is the first book that I read in the electronic format. I’m pretty sure that it has affected my reading. It felt like I was plodding through a TL;DR-ish post. My eyes hurt a lot. Good thing it isn’t that bad, but I wish I were 12 or younger.

[Read in January 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]

F2F37: Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

F2F37: Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Weekend Book Review – Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch is a huge book. I’m not only talking about the sheer size of the physical book. The cast is huge and yet, each of them, the major ones anyway, are fleshed out in such a way that you think that the characters are real and that you’ve been transported to their century to take a part in their provincial lives. The themes are huge. I don’t think that a 500-word blog post will suffice to tackle each of them but I will try to point out a few.

I suppose it might have been seen as an ambitious novel during the time of its first release in serial form. As modern readers, we have the advantage, or the disadvantage, of having the book in its singular form. I’m at the side of feeling the advantage because one does not have to wait for weeks for the next installment. The plot rolls well enough without sacrificing other elements, and this lets the reader keep turning the pages while gleaning the insights of people from a 19th century society.

The people who voted for Middlemarch as one of the ten greatest books of all time have given it justice, if not reverence, for how can one ignore the accomplishments of this Victorian classic? How can one forget the virtuous Dorothea Brooke, a woman who thrusts upon herself tasks that she thinks will help realize her ideals? The people of her times find this an exercise in folly because she’s a woman who is supposed to make the best marriage instead of pushing through with her plans.

But as it is with a sprawling novel, there are more characters that we will care about, such as the unfortunate Will Ladislaw, a tempestuous yet determined young man with a promising career as a politician. There is also Tertius Lydgate, a young physician with unconventional yet effective methods of treating patients. And there are the members of the Garth family, the poor yet kind family that I believe is the hope in this novel.

The novel is propped with this singular and overarching theme: expectations in its different forms. Marital expectations are different from what the characters have imagined it to be. They marry for different purposes and they find themselves struggling as the vision of marital bliss fades with the shedding of time. Social expectations are rigid in this novel. Veering away from what one is expected to do is sure to create a scandal, but some characters strive to transcend from the norm to achieve their passions and their ideals.

A lot of characters are also concerned with social status. They will do everything, even close to murdering, to make sure that their reputations are untarnished, and it sometimes seems like status is what fuels life in Middlemarch. People would rather die than face disgrace, but then, there are some who can keep their heads with pride despite coming from low and ugly births. But in this novel, pride has a more important role:

We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!” Pride helps; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our hurts— not to hurt others.

It is understandable if one is daunted by the length of this book, but I recommend you to conquer that fear for this is one of the most worthwhile reads ever. The writing is good and accessible for a classic novel. There’s enough plot and character intrigue to keep the curiosity piqued. The characters will stay with you. One just needs to take a leap of faith and take part in the life at Middlemarch.

[Read in March 2015.]
[5 out of 5 stars.]
[826 pages. Trade paperback. Used.]

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Weekend Book Review – Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Rabbit, Run is the first novel in John Updike’s critically acclaimed Rabbit Angstrom series. In the 2006 survey conducted by the New York Times, which asked for the best American novel of the last 25 years, the Rabbit Angstrom novels emerged as one of the runners-up. I’m more interested in the last two installments of the series, but I figure that if I want to read them, I might as well read the first two first.

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was a basketball superstar in high school. Now at mid-twenties, he works as a sales and demo man of kitchen gadgets, and he’s married to Janice, currently pregnant and currently suffering from alcohol issues. They have a two-year-old toddler named Nelson and they all live in the suburban town Mt. Judge.

Rabbit is given this nickname not only because of his leporine face but because he is always running away and trying to escape the imminent judgment of the people. The town’s name is no understatement. There seems to be a pair of giant eyes over the city, an invisible lens that lets the townspeople see and judge him. He runs away from his wife Janice, twice, and he runs away from his mistress Ruth, twice.

He could have been named Rabbit Angst instead because there are parts that subtly deal with his quarter-life crisis. One such part details the first time he runs away. He is supposed to pick up his son from his in-laws. but decides to drive away. He does not have a destination. He just drives on and on, dropping by diners in the towns he visits and switching the radio from one station to the other. This listless driving perfectly captures the state of Rabbit’s mind and therefore sets the general mood of the novel.

The novel offers big themes, such as faith, love, sex, fear, guilt, and death. The minister Eccles befriends Rabbit to help him sort out his issues. During their conversations, one gets the feeling that Eccles is blaspheming the same God that he is leading the townspeople to worship. It’s like his undergoing a crisis like that of Rabbit’s. Are they doing the right things? What is the purpose of the things that they do?

There are extended passages on sex, but there is a gaping absence of love among the characters. The few moments where there could be love are usually tinged with either fear or anxiety. In a novel that is filled with guilt-tripping and blame-slinging, it’s not surprising to find the reader, at the end of the novel, asking whether or not Rabbit is capable of love. Should we care about what he feels? Does he know what he’s doing? Where is he going?

Rabbit comes to the curb but instead of going to his right and around the block he steps down, with as big a feeling as if this is little side street is a wide river, and crosses. He wants to travel to the next patch of snow. Although this block of brick three-stories is just like the one he left, something in it makes him happy; the steps and window sills seem to twitch and shift in the corner of his eye, alive. this illusion trips him. His hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.

I didn’t have an easy time finishing this as it tends to meander out of control, but the last quarter delivered. Besides, the writing is very good. I would continue reading the rest of the series.

[Read in February 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[284 pages. Mass market paperback. Used.]

Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams by Alexander McCall Smith

Weekend Book Review – Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams by Alexander McCall Smith

Dream Angus: The Celtic God of Dreams is a retelling of the myth of the eponymous god. This is part of the Canongate Myth series, an ambitious project where many writers, such as Margaret Atwood, Ali Smith, Michel Faber, A. S. Byatt, and more, contribute their modern takes on various myths. Most of the entries are short novels. If you do not have any mythological background, in this case Angus’s, you will not get lost and you’d appreciate the melding of the myths into the modern setting.

The book is composed of ten chapters that alternate between the story of Angus and his interventions in the lives of modern characters. The anecdotal modern inserts have two intrinsic themes: the role of dreams in our lives and love in its many forms. If one has the notion of high and mighty language owing to the fact that this is work based on Celtic myths, squash that one.

The chapters about Angus are general information about his story. Instead of the academic tone that one can get from reference books, the reader is treated to Angus’s stories rendered in a folklorist voice. However, it doesn’t go that deep, so one cannot use this as further reference if you want to find extensive information on the god’s history.

The chapters about the modern humans can be a little jarring. It feels like you are dropped in the middle of nowhere and now have to find your way around the terrain. It’s easy to navigate though since the prose is simple and easy to get into. There’s nothing impressive about it but it’s neat.

In That Was Then; This Is Now, a newly married woman is visited by Angus as she tries to settle, or not, in the married life. My Brother, a coming-of-age story of two tightly bonded brothers, is a parallel to Angus’s childhood. Another Boy Finds Out That His Father Is Not His Father, also a parallel, begins as a domestic tragedy but deftly ends in a humorous note. The last two, Is There a Place for Pigs There? and I Dream of You, are stories of romantic love.

There’s a poem that acts as an epilogue after the last story. Reading it makes me think that the Irish and the Scots, in at least a part of their lives, waited for Angus to give them the dreams that they desire.

Will he bring me some sort of quietus,
Some form of understanding; will he break my heart;
Will he show me my love; will he give
Me heart’s contentment, the end of sorrow,
Will he do that for me; will he do that?

Dream Angus will do that, my dear,
He will do that; you may sleep,
For Dream Angus leaps light across the heather,
And the name upon his lips is our name,
And the gifts that he bears are gifts for you;
That is true, my dear, it is all true.

[Read in January 2015.]
[3 out of 5 stars.]
[173 pages. Hardcover. A gift from Doc Ranee.]