Ben Fountain’s new book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a deeply personal novel about one young man’s experience as a soldier in Iraq and his subsequent visit home in which he tries to make sense of his own life and country. The novel features Billy Lynn and his accompanying Bravo Squad soldiers as they attend a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game. The book covers this single day, with occasional flashbacks to Billy’s home life and his military life as a soldier in Iraq. Members of the Bravo Squad are being hailed as heroes after a harrowing firefight with Iraqi insurgents. They’ve been invited to the game, with a special halftime show in their honor, complete with a performance from Beyoncé. The entire story is told from inside Billy Lynn’s head. It is a deeply personal account that exposes the incredible disconnect between a soldier’s life in the Iraq war and life in the country he returns to. Fountain brilliantly captures elements of American culture that take on an absurd, grotesque quality when seen through this uniquely cross-cultural lens.
Fountain has written a book that is as much about family, grief, media, consumerism, sex and politics as it is about war. It has been hailed as “one of the most important books of the decade….as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days.” Just published in May of this year, it is quickly being considered one of the best novels written about the Iraq War. Billy Lynn is often compared to another classic war novel, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Both books depict the effect war has on individual soldiers and both are darkly humorous takes on modern American culture and military life.
Fountain successfully takes on huge targets: the Bush years, the NFL, the Iraq war and American consumerism. In lesser hands, a book of this nature would feel heavy-handed and one-sided. Luckily for us, Ben Fountain writes like a dream. He is one of those rare writers who can write with both immediate urgency and nuance. Like the best satirists, he is able to inspire dark humor, sympathy, heartbreak and anger, all in equal measure. In the end, Fountain’s real strength is Billy. Readers will cheer, laugh and weep for Billy Lynn, a nineteen-year-old soldier who has seen and done more than most of us could ever fathom.
The new book by Nell Freudenberger is a quiet, understated novel about home, loss, sacrifice and love. The Newlyweds is the story of an unusual marriage in which both husband and wife attempt to find happiness in a relationship that is different than either imagined. George and Amina enter the marriage with very different assumptions, hopes and dreams.
George meets Amina through an online dating site, AsianEuro.com while she is a young woman, coming of age in Bangladesh and he is a fairly conventional suburban man in Rochester, New York. After beginning a friendship online and corresponding for nearly one year, they decide to marry. George goes to Bangladesh to meet his new bride. Shortly thereafter, Amina leaves her village and begins her new life in Rochester. With only a basic grasp of English, she struggles to fit in. Slowly, she begins to carve out a life for herself. She also learns a more nuanced version of English, in which she’s finally able to discern sarcasm.
With her unadorned prose and keen eye for detail, Freudenberger does an excellent job of describing suburban life through the lens of this young Bangladeshi woman. Life in the United States is different than Amina imagined. She sincerely wants to belong and make this new life work for her but she also mourns the loss of her home, her culture and the life she might have had in Bangladesh. Her relationship with her parents is especially difficult. She tries to both take care of them and convince them that she’s really ok, all from thousands of miles away.
The Newlyweds works beautifully as both an immigrant story and an unconventional, heartbreaking love story. Amina is compelling character that stays with the reader long after the last sentence has been read. The Newlyweds would be an excellent choice for fans of Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy or Monica Ali.
My Cross to Bear has all the usual trappings that we’ve come to expect from a rock biography. There are the standard stories of groupies, squabbling with other band members, chemical excess and failed marriages. Beyond the basic musician biography ingredients though, there’s also a fascinating life story that remains very Southern throughout.
Gregg Allman begins his life in Nashville, Tennessee, eventually travels all over the world and currently lives in Savannah, Georgia. Throughout his fame, fortune and travels, he never ventured far from his roots in his outlook and tone. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this book is “hearing” the voice of Gregg Allman and his Southern phrasings. One fine example: he loses his virginity and declares the experience to be "the best thing since black-eyed peas.”
My Cross to Bear opens at the Allman Brothers’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction. At this point, Gregg Allman is a severe alcoholic. He sincerely tries to stay sober for the ceremony but fails miserably. This was one of the lowest points in his life. He embarrassed his family, the rest of the band and most of all, himself. This seems to be a turning point and at that moment, he decides to turn his life around.
Like many musician biographies, much of the story is about Allman’s struggles with various addictions throughout his life. The real story here is that of the Allman brothers themselves (Gregg and Duane). Their story is one of humble beginnings, unimaginable fame, wasted fortunes and incalculable loss, including the tragic death of both Berry Oakley and Duane Allman. Duane Allman’s spirit is really the guiding force in the book. Older brother Duane could be credited with starting the Allman Brothers Band; his guitar work was a key element in the Allman brothers’ distinct sound. One gets the feeling that Gregg never felt that he quite measured up to big brother, Duane.
My Cross to Bear is satisfying, entertaining read from beginning to end. Quite simply, it is a Southern-fried version of the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” story. What’s not to love about that?
The new graphic novel, Unterzakhn (Yiddish for “underthings”) by Leela Corman tells the story of twin sisters, Esther and Fanya. The sisters grow up on the Lower East Side of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Through Corman’s attention to detail in both her art and text, readers are immediately transported to New York City, 1909. In addition to the lively New York story, Corman also interweaves the family’s tragic past in nineteenth century Russia.
Daughters of Jewish Russian immigrants, sisters Esther and Fanya must learn how to survive when few choices were available to young women. The sisters take decidedly different paths. Esther works for a woman who runs a burlesque theater and Fanya goes to work for a “woman doctor.” These choices go on to shape them as the young woman they become. Although their lives are different in nearly every way--lifestyle, politics and values--their childhood bond enables the sisters to transcend these differences in adulthood.
As in any excellent graphic novel, the text and illustrations work together seamlessly in telling the story. Corman’s keen attention to detail allows the reader to enter Fanya and Esther’s world. Corman gives a real sense of New York and Russia, spanning from the late 1890s to the 1920s. She sprinkles the story with Yiddish phrases throughout and lovingly depicts Russian village life in the late nineteenth century. Corman is also particularly adept at conveying her female characters’ expressions as they go through a lifetime of emotions. Unterzakhn is very much a classic immigrant story but at the story’s core is a tale of two sisters figuring out to survive as young women in this time and place.
Rez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation by David Treuer is part memoir, part history, and part cultural study of Indian reservations. There are approximately 310 Indian reservations in the United States today; Treuer says reservations are as “American as apple pie.” Americans are captivated by Indians yet many people will go through their entire life without knowing an Indian or spending any time on a reservation.
Life on a reservation or “rez life” is often associated with poverty and alcoholism. Treuer does not shy away from these realities. There are heartbreaking stories of unimaginable poverty throughout the book. Numbers also reveal a bleak existence: no running water until the late 1990s, 80% unemployment rates and a median household income of $17,000. This does not sum up “rez life” completely, though. Treuer writes, “What one finds on reservations is more than scars, tears, blood, and noble sentiment. There is beauty in Indian life, as well as meaning....We love our reservations.”
Rez Life is not a dismal book, by any means. There are touching (and often very humorous) stories of family life throughout. Treuer reminds us that not all Indians are poor and not all reservations are poor. The wealthy Seminole nation is the current owner of the Hard Rock Cafe franchise. This proves, as Treuer puts it, that the Seminoles have been “kicking ass and taking names for a very long time.”
Treuer is the perfect writer for this book. He is a journalist and creative writing professor who knows how to synthesize a massive, complicated subject into personal, engaging stories. He has a keen attention to detail and is a master storyteller who also grew up on a reservation. Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian, raised on Leech Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota. His father is an Austrian Jew and Holocaust survivor, his mother a tribal court judge. Indeed, his personal story (interspersed throughout the book) makes for a fascinating biography. Readers who enjoy biographies, modern history and cultural studies will not want to miss Rez Life.
Defending Jacob by William Landay should come with the warning label, “May lead to whiplash.” With Landay at the wheel, readers of this terrific new legal thriller should prepare for breathtaking turns and shocking twists. In less sure hands, a story with this many surprises could easily fall apart. Landay is a master storyteller and is able to balance all of the twists while maintaining taut, suspenseful pacing.
It would be a shame to reveal too much of the story. The bare bones: Andy Barber is a successful, respected prosecuting attorney. He lives with his wife and son in an affluent Boston suburb. A 14-year-old boy is discovered in a local park; he has been fatally stabbed. Andy takes on the case, only to be blindsided when his son, Jacob is accused of the murder. Landay has an uncanny ability to elicit empathy for Andy and his family. The Barbers could easily be people we know. They could be our neighbors. They could be us.
Defending Jacob is not Landay’s first book but it is his first major blockbuster title, landing on many bestseller lists. Landay’s other titles include The Strangler and Mission Flats, which won the Dagger Award for best debut crime novel. Before trying his hand at writing novels, Landay was a district attorney. His legal experience shows in Defending Jacob. He portrays legal maneuvers and courtroom scenes like only an insider could.
Beyond its strength as a legal thriller, Defending Jacob is also a deeply touching portrait of parenting, married life and unconditional love. Landay forces us to consider how we might react if we were faced the truly unspeakable. Try the audiobook version, a truly excellent narration performed by Grover Gardner.
The new memoir Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention recounts Jamal (Eddie) Joseph’s journey from straight-A student to member of the revolutionary, criminal underground, and finally from convict to the chair of Columbia University's School of the Arts film division.
Eddie Joseph was orphaned at a very early age. He was raised in the black ghetto in the Bronx in the 1960s by an elderly black working-class couple, Noonie and Pa Baltimore. Coming of age in a highly charged era, Joseph quickly becomes enamored with the image of the Black Panthers. On seeing Black Panthers for the first time on television he says: “Look at those dudes, I thought. They’re crazy. They got black leather coats and berets, carrying guns, scaring white people, reading communist books. They’re crazy. I immediately wanted to join.”
Upon finally finding the Panthers, he realizes they are different than he had first imagined. They arm him with books, not guns. Very early on, Eddie is rechristened as Unbuntu Usa Jamal, or “he who comes together in the spirit of blackness.” He later learns the meaning is entirely fabricated but decides to keep the name, anyway. Jamal Joseph soon finds his place in the party. The Black Panthers help him figure out his place in the world and give meaning to his life. A gifted public speaker, he quickly becomes one of the youngest spokespeople for the party. He works closely with Afeni Shakur (late rapper Tupac Shakur’s mother) and finds himself giving speeches at college campuses, community centers and cocktail-party fundraisers, rubbing elbows with the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Tom Wolfe.
The 1960s become more radical and Joseph becomes more involved in the underground (sometimes criminal) activities of the party. He spends two major stints in jail, once for conspiracy charges and later for attempting to aid underground fugitives, he is sent to Leavenworth Prison for twelve years. It is in the infamous Leavenworth Prison that he rediscovers his love for theater. He eventually earns three degrees while in prison and is now the chair of Columbia University’s School of the Arts film division.
Panther Baby works on multiple levels. It’s a fascinating memoir and coming of age story. Jamal Joseph reflects on his experience as an orphan and as a young black man growing up in the Bronx, trying to figure out who he is and how he fits in to the world around him. The book also succeeds on a broader level. Through Joseph’s individual story, we’re given a deeper understanding of this history of the Black Panthers and an overall picture of what revolutionary politics looked and felt like in the 1960s. Panther Baby is a clear-eyed inspirational story that will appeal to both teen and adult readers.
Many introverts will rejoice, exult and maybe even (quietly) dance in the street after reading Susan Cain's thoroughly engaging new book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. Far from being a self-help guide, Quiet celebrates introverts and the unique qualities they bring to their workplaces, classrooms, marriages and friendships. Combining fascinating anecdotes and extensive research from a variety of scientific fields, Cain makes a convincing argument for re-assessing the “extrovert ideal” in American culture.
In a society that increasingly favors “groupthink” or brainstorming sessions, Cain maintains there is also reason to value those people who prefer solitude, avoid social situations and prefer to express themselves in writing. Indeed, many of our greatest thinkers and artists have been introverts and have required absolute solitude to create, think and write. She shares fascinating glimpses into the lives of several famous introverts such as Warren Buffett, Albert Einstein and Dr. Seuss.
One of the many strengths of Quiet is Cain's pragmatism. As a former corporate lawyer, she is no stranger to the highly social world of the American workplace. Introverts often prefer to work in a quiet environment, may find social situations draining, and usually prefer to work with few distractions. However, these conditions are simply not practical in today's workplaces and classrooms. Cain offers realistic, pragmatic solutions methods that allow introverts to be successful in the workplace and other social settings while remaining true to their own biological wiring. She also gives excellent advice to parents of young introverts. She advises parents to celebrate a child's true nature but also suggests useful navigation strategies for social situations in the classroom and playground.
Susan Cain has written a highly readable book. She manages to bring historical and psychological context to her subject while consistently maintaining the interest of the reader. Quiet is highly recommended not only to those who identify as introverts but also to parents, managers, and educators who want to develop a deeper understanding of the introverts in their lives.