Saturday, March 23, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Another novel about the war in Iraq might not be the tasty treat you've been craving but Ben Fountain’s absurd tale, the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and a National Book Award finalist, is an absolute must.  The Pulitzer Prize Committee improbably chose not to award a fiction prize in 2012.  This April they’ll be hard pressed to deny a winner with titles like Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and, yes, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk all deserving of the prize.  

In the novel, every television in the U.S showed the Iraq "battle of Al-Ansakar Canal” via tape from an embedded Fox News crew and now the eight survivors of Bravo Squad are America’s most popular heroes. Thus the Bush administration has sent them on a two-week victory tour before they return to battle. The book is set on a rainy Thanksgiving Day at the end of that tour as the Bravos are attending a Dallas Cowboys game and will appear at halftime along with Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child. Billy Lynn, Specialist William Lynn, is a nineteen-year-old Texas kid who enlisted to avoid a prison sentence for destroying his sister’s fiancé’s car after the fiancé dumped her while she was recovering from a disfiguring accident.  Billy was an empty vessel eager to learn about the world and Shroom, his sergeant, educated him before dying in Billy’s arms.  One of the most remarkable qualities of this novel is Fountain’s ability to make Shroom such an engaging figure though we only know him through Billy’s memories.  Billy’s certain he’ll never go back to school even though he yearns to learn about the world but knows that school isn’t where he’ll find that knowledge.  “If there is real knowledge to be had in the Texas public schools he never found it, and only lately has he started to feel the loss, the huge criminal act of his state-sanctioned ignorance as he struggles to understand the wider world.  How it works, who gains, who loses, who decides.  It is not a casual thing, this knowledge.  In a way it might be everything. A young man needs to know where he stands in the world, not just as a matter of basic human dignity but as determinants in the ways and means of survival and what you might hope to gain by application of honest effort.”

In one Thanksgiving Day, Billy will learn about himself and as he learns, we’ll see through his family, the Texas elite, the people hoping to make money selling his story, a cheerleader, and his fellow Bravo brothers – that war is as much about the people “untouched” at home as it is about those who fight.   Billy Lynn’s portraits of the people he encounters at the game explode with universal truth that’s impossible to ignore. When Billy meets tanned, glamorous multi-millionaires who are nothing like anyone he’s ever encountered he thinks: “they are different, these Americans.  They are the ballers. They dress well, they practice the most advanced hygienes, they are conversant in the world of complex investments and fairly hum with the pleasures of good living – gourmet meals, fine wines, skill at games and sports, a working knowledge of the capitals of Europe. If they aren’t quite as flawlessly handsome as models or movie actors, they certainly possess the vitality and style, of say, the people in a Viagra advertisement. Special time with Bravo is just one of the multitude of pleasures available to them, and thinking about it makes Billy somewhat bitter.  It’s not that he’s jealous so much as profoundly terrified.  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 is something like the psychic equivalent of inheriting a hundred million dollars.  That is what he truly envies 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.  I’m a good soldier, he tells himself, aren’t I a good soldier?  So what does it mean when a good soldier feels this bad?”

Billy Lynn is a good soldier but even he gets tired of it all. “He gets tired of living with the daily beat-down of it, not just the normal animal fear of pain and death but the uniquely human fear of fear itself like a CD stuck on skip-repeat, an ever-narrowing self-referential loop that may well be a form of madness. . . So these are Billy’s thoughts while he makes small talk about the war.  He tries to keep it low-key, but people steer the conversation toward drama and passion. They just assume if you’re a Bravo you’re here to talk about the war, because, well, if Barry Bonds were here they’d talk about baseball. . . Here at home the war is a problem to be solved with correct thinking and proper resource allocation. . .”

Fountain imbues Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk with a wicked sense of humor and a series of improbable events that sometimes make you laugh out loud.  Such gallows humor allows the reader to continue to take in Billy’s tale and remain sane.  You owe it to yourself and those who serve in your name to read this book.  Don’t just skim it; devour it, embody it, make it a part of you.  It deserves that attention.

Summing it Up: Read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk because it will be one of the most important books of this decade.  Read it because you can and because you’ll savor Fountain’s skill while wondering how you might react if one day you met someone like Billy. Read it because it’s so evocative that you’ll find yourself in the bowels of Cowboy Stadium with a hangover wondering who you are.  Get on your knees and beg your book club to choose it so you can process it together.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Gourmet, Super Nutrition, Sushi, Book Club

Publication date: May 1, 2012

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Chinua Achebe, 1930 - 2013 ~ Things Fall Apart

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has died.  His 1958 novel Things Fall Apart introduced a changing Africa to the world, The novel has sold more than ten million copies in fifty different languages.  Nelson Mandela called Achebe, "the writer in whose company the prison walls came down."

Using W. B. Yeats words “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” Achebe showed the falling apart of Africa while revealing the universality of humans in all times and places. Things Fall Apart is the story of Igbo warrior Okonkwo and life in an Igbo village in the late 19th century when the white men arrived.  While the novel is completely African, it speaks to all people especially in light of the last hundred years. 

If you haven’t read Things Fall Apart, honor Mr. Achebe’s memory and read it today.  Choose it for your book club for a spirited discussion. It's impossible to be culturally literate without reading this book. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

Reading Salt, Sugar, Fat is like devouring a murder mystery – only you’re the intended victim.  Yes, a book packed with chemistry and research can be a page-turner.  This book is as addictive as the foods it studies so the paradox is that readers are essentially learning about their own demise.  That may not make it seem an appetizing read but the book is also similar to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series you or your children may have read.  Based on the information the book provides, you can choose which path to follow – that of allowing the food giants to hook you or of knowing their tricks and how to avoid them thus choosing a healthier life.   This is not a diet book, a fad of the month self-help tome, nor is it an easy fix.  It is instead the careful reporting of what’s inside the foods we eat.

Some facts presented in the book will probably surprise you:

“On average, we consume 71 pounds of caloric sweeteners each year. That’s 22 teaspoons of sugar, per person, per day.”   Not me, I said to my sanctimonious self.  I rarely eat cookies, cake, pie or dessert.  Ha, little did I know of the places that the big food conglomerates hide sugar.  Campbell’s Prego spaghetti sauce is probably found on the shelves of many American homes. “The Prego sauces – whether cheesy, chunky, or light – have one feature in common: The largest ingredient, after tomatoes, is sugar. A mere half cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as three Oreo cookies, a tube of Go-Gurt, or some of the Pepperidge Farm Apple Turnovers that Campbell also makes.  It also delivers one-third of the salt recommended for a majority of American adults for an entire day. Some of the meat versions of Prego have even higher amounts of sugar and salt, along with nearly half a day’s recommended limit for saturated fat.”

I also learned that I can’t rest after ascertaining that a product is low in fat or salt or whichever of the big three I’m avoiding at the time.  When the public starts clamoring for less fat, the food giants lower it but to keep us buying, they up the salt and/or sugar so the product will still taste good. Those labels on our favorites can change without us ever suspecting because the products taste the same.  The food giants use terms that sound good to make us buy.  The “2 percent” labeling (in milk) may lead you to believe that 98 percent of the fat is removed, but in truth the fat content of whole milk is only a tad higher, at 3 percent. Consumer groups who urge people to drink 1 percent or nonfat milk have fought unsuccessfully over the years to have the 2 percent claim barred as deceptive.” 

Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, is the father of two boys ages ten and thirteen so he knows that it isn’t easy to avoid processed foods.  One of the beauties of this book is that he doesn’t preach and he never makes the reader feel guilty for consuming salt, sugar, or fat.   Instead, Moss provides powerful information that will allow the busiest of us to make decisions about what we put in our bodies.

He shows us that the food industry won’t change because salt, sugar, and fat are cheap, interchangeable, and they make food taste good.  “They are huge, powerful forces of nature in unnatural food... They may have salt, sugar, and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices.  After all, we decide what to buy.  We decide how much to eat. Kirkus Reviews calls this book “A shocking, galvanizing manifesto against the corporations manipulating nutrition to fatten their bottom line—one of the most important books of the year.”  I thoroughly agree and urge everyone to read it and to choose it for your next book club discussion.

Summing it Up:  Read this book to save yourself and those you love from being manipulated by the food giants.  Read it to learn how to avoid the progressively addictive attraction of the foods at eye level in our grocery stores.  Read it because it’s an addictive treat that reads more like a bag of potato chips than a bunch of raw kale.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Nonfiction, Five Stars, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date: February 26, 2013

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Question and Answer with the Author in Time Magazine:

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Benediction by Kent Haruf

“Benediction – the utterance of a blessing, an invocation of blessedness” is the epigraph that opens Kent Haruf’s new novel.   When I read the last page of this gem, I felt the "invocation of blessedness" in getting to share in the life of the quiet community Haruf has created in Holt, Colorado, also the setting of his acclaimed novel Plainsong.  Like Plainsong, Benediction is replete with everyday characters capable of stealing your heart. 

The main character, Dad Lewis, gets the news that he has terminal cancer in the book’s opening lines:  “When the test came back the nurse called them into the examination room and when the doctor entered the room he just looked at them and asked them to sit down. They could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.”

When Dad and his wife, Mary, return from the doctor, she takes him a tray of food and a bottle of beer.
“He looked at the beer bottle and held it in front of him and took a small drink.
I might get me some kind of better grade of beer before I go. A guy I was talking to said something about Belgian beer. Maybe I’ll try some of that. If I can get it around here.
He sat and drank the beer and held his wife’s hand sitting out on the front porch. So the truth was he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town.”

Everyone in Holt calls Dad Lewis “Dad” even the employees at the hardware store he’s owned for decades.  It’s an apt moniker as hardware store owners remain among the few who listen to our problems and offer us simple solutions or force us to face the reality that we might just need a bigger fix – just like our own “Dads” or the “Dads” we wish we had. Haruf’s writing provides the gift of making us feel that a man like Dad is someone we'd like in our own lives - well, most of the time. 

Food is an essential element in Benediction. In towns like Holt, people still bring food when someone is ill, still sit down together for meals, still have potlucks at church, and still tell people they love them by bringing them a covered dish.  When Mary ends up hospitalized with exhaustion, neighbor, Berta May, arrives at Dad’s door with a plate of food and questions: “Are you sick or something? Are you going to die?”  That’s how it is in Holt, Colorado; people get to the point and they take care of one another. 

After Mary’s hospitalization, daughter Lorraine comes home to help.  She’s still not over the death of her own daughter at the age of sixteen in a long ago accident.  Her marriage isn’t strong and she’s had no recent contact with her brother, Frank, who’s long been estranged from their father.  Dad’s health fails and he begins to sit and watch the world from his window while contemplating the mistakes he’s made and savoring the love of the people around him.  That Haruf has been a hospice volunteer is evident in the care with which he depicts the process of dying, death, and the details of lovingly caring for the terminally ill.

Neighbor Berta May has taken in her eight-year-old granddaughter, Alice, after her mother’s death from cancer. Lorraine is drawn to the child but young Alice sees parallels in Dad’s condition that bring back painful memories so she tries to avoid the Lewis family. The Johnson women, an old widow and longtime church friend and her daughter, begin helping out and they take Alice on picnics, out for ice cream, and buy her a bicycle that allows her freedom and burgeoning happiness. 

The community church’s new pastor who’s been sent to Holt as a last-ditch maneuver for his “inappropriate” sermons offers companionship but then commits the cardinal sin of preaching on the Sermon on the Mount and expecting his congregation to believe it.  “People don’t want to be disturbed.  They want assurance.  They don’t want to come to church on Sunday morning to think about new ideas or even the old important ones.”  They certainly don’t want to be told to turn the other cheek and love their enemies.  They call Pastor Lyle a terrorist and can’t understand why he doesn’t hate Muslims as they do.  Only the Johnson women and a rule-bound usher stand by the pastor and the reader sees that Holt, like places everywhere, isn’t utopia.  Holt is a metaphor for the universality of cities, small towns and suburbs where everyone must deal with living, dying, and accepting the hand we’ve been dealt.

It’s easy to see that Haruf grew up as a preacher’s kid in a small town like Holt where people love and take care of each other but are often bound by the chains of small ideas, rules, and fear.  The minor characters sins loom over the landscape and provide the reader with a deeper understanding of Dad and this community he so loves.   My favorite play, Our Town, always reminds me that nothing matters more than this day.  Benediction offers the same reminder wrapped in a package that allows us to see it clearly.

Summing it Up: Kent Haruf is the master of the quotidian: celebrating and sharing the lives of ordinary people doing ordinary things.  Read this novel to share in the rhythm of the land and the people and to rejoice that there are still writers who carry us with them into a world both completely familiar yet new enough to stun us into contemplating our own lives.  Haruf’s writing is grace personified.

Rating: 5 stars   

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Soul Food, Book Club

Publication date: February 26, 2013

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