East of Eden by John Steinbeck

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East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

East_of_Eden

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

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Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith.

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

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Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

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The next surprise book sent to me by the fine people at The Willoughby Book Club (see their website or my Goodbye to Berlin post for more details) was a book I’d never heard of: the curiously titled Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.

        The second book sent to me by The Willoughby Book Club        Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

By reading the blurb on the inside cover of the book I discovered that this is a 2012 novel about a squad of American soldiers who have been fighting in Iraq and who have been brought back to the United States for a two-week celebratory-tour-stroke-public-relations-exercise. I also noted that this is Ben Fountain’s first novel.

At this point I’ll be perfectly honest with you: this is not the kind of book I would likely have picked out for myself.

However, I did sit down to read it, and I am so glad that I did because this book really is quite something. And this is precisely why being given books by others can be so good, as it gets you reading things you would not otherwise read.

I don’t normally pay too much heed to the quotes of endorsement on the back cover of books, but I am going to repeat this one, as I entirely agree with it:

Ben Fountain’s novel is an exhilarating, funny, heartbreaking glimpse into the life of a young soldier and into experiences in which we are complicit – but about which we understand nothing. And it finds its mark in an incredibly personal way. The book has left me reeling. [Colin Firth]

The thing about this novel is that it is not what you might first expect from the synopsis. I could well imagine that plenty of other authors could have written a similar tale, and the book would just end up consisting of bad-mouthed squaddies demonstrating plenty of male bravado, cynicism, brutality, and hypocrisy, and the whole thing would just leave you feeling depressed. Such books would probably get called “gritty” and “hard-hitting” but in truth they would be predictable, unoriginal, and would not really challenge your thinking about soldiers and the wars that they fight.

But, thankfully, this book was not written by other such authors, it was written by Ben Fountain, and I have to say that he has delivered something far richer, more nuanced, and certainly more thought-provoking. Yes, the PR machines keep on spewing out their spin. Yes, the rich and powerful merely use the poor soldiers to serve their own ends. And yes, the whole system is shown to be pretty corrupt. And yet there is also great humanity displayed in these pages.

Oh my people.

This is a novel that deals head-on with the problematic issue of Western countries sending their troops to fight abroad, but as another of the quotes on the back of the book points out: Instead of skewering the military … it skewers the society responsible for sending it to war. Here Billy and his buddies really are just pawns in the game, with no say over what they have to do and where they have to go – either when they are on duty in Iraq or, as it turns out, when they are on their heroes’ tour back in America.

As Billy and his fellow soldiers travel the country in a whirlwind of interviews, hand-shaking, and photo opportunities we get an insight into what it feels like for the men who have seen the true horrors of war first-hand to return home only to be prodded and pawed over as if they were public property by well-meaning but totally ill-informed citizens.

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.

Fountain does a great job of showing us Billy’s inner life; his thoughts and questions, his hopes and his fears, and perhaps most of all the bewildering confusion of it all. In terms of characterisation, I certainly found the protagonist here to be as fully rounded and three-dimensional a character as any I have read. And this makes Billy’s observations all the more powerful, as he tries to piece together the madness around him.

This really is a moving tale, full of sadness and (dark) humour, life and death, and truth and deceit. It certainly had an effect on me and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. I will also look forward to seeing what else Ben Fountain produces.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

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My wife and I recently enjoyed a weekend away in Somerset. During the weekend, we visited the pretty town of Frome, where (along with some great cafés) we found a great little independent bookshop named Hunting Raven Books.

Now, a few weeks previous to this, my brother-in-law had mentioned that he had really enjoyed reading John Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat, so when I found a copy for sale at Hunting Raven Books I snapped it up.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Years ago I read what are probably John Steinbeck’s two most famous novels, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. Both novels focus on the lives of simple, poor farm labourers in the 1930s, and the hardships that they face. They are both brilliant pieces of literature that have been read and loved by many millions of people. They are also both fairly serious works – by which I mean that they both clearly have a thing or two to say about the state of America in the 1930s. They speak of poverty and injustice, of prejudice and of hypocrisy.

What I didn’t appreciate until years later was that Steinbeck was a multi talented and curious writer, who experimented with various different types of writing during his long writing career. For example, as well as novels, novellas and short stories, he wrote a play (The Moon is Down), a film (The Forgotten Village), a kind of modern-day parable (The Pearl), as well as non-fiction books about topics ranging from marine biology to King Arthur.

A few years after reading Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, I then read Cannery Row, which is very different in style. Cannery Row is full of loveable rogues and, at the most basic level, the entire story is simply about their attempts to throw a great party for their friend Doc. Yet it’s a cracking read. The book is vibrant and mischievous and in some ways is not dissimilar to a Jack Kerouac novel.

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Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

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Next up in my pile of novels that people had kindly given me, was Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara. A couple of years back I had noticed that this book featured in both the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list and the TIME Magazine 100 best English-language novels published since 1923 list, which piqued my interest. I then looked up some information about the novel, and decided it definitely sounded like my kind of read.

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Fellow book blogger Robert Bruce (over at 101books.net) mentioned in his review of the novel last year that some have referred to Appointment in Samarra as a “poor man’s Gatsby”, and having now read the novel, I can see why. Within the world of this novel we meet not only the rich and the elite, but also bootleggers and gangsters, mistresses and, ultimately, Death.The setting of the book is 1930s America and the main character is a privileged young man named Julian English, who is part of the social elite of his home town.

However, despite everything that he has going for him, including a good job (the owner of a Cadillac dealership, no less), a lovely home, a beautiful wife, society friends, and a certain amount of natural charm, Julian English is somehow dissatisfied with his lot. Yes, as with The Great Gatsby, here too, it seems that the great American Dream is not quite able to deliver all that it promises.

Be in no doubt: this is a cynical and darkly comic exposé of the reality behind the façade of 1930s respectability and outward success.

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As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

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Anyone who is considering what to read next, and is looking for a nice easy, pleasant, not too demanding summer holiday kind of book… should absolutely stay clear of William Faulkner’s novels!

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

This is the third of his novels that I have read (the other two being The Sounds and the Fury and Light in August) and they are all pretty challenging reads.

What makes me say this? Well, here are few facts about this particular novel, which might give you some idea.

Firstly, the novel is narrated by not one, not two, not three, but fifteen (yes, 15!) different characters. With this number it becomes difficult to remember who they all are and what their relation to one another is. (This is made even more difficult by the unusual names the characters have – names such as Addie, Anse, Armstid, Cash, Cora, Darl, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Vernon.)

Secondly, here, as elsewhere, Faulkner experiments with his own form of stream-of-consciousness writing, which is at times brilliant – but can also be quite difficult to follow. Often you can be bombarded with many different and often not terribly related thoughts in a single paragraph.

Thirdly, this novel, like most of his work, is set in the Deep South at the turn of the twentieth century, and so you have to train your ear to the dialect and its unique words and phrases.

Finally, the entire novel is about the death of one woman and the efforts of her family to get her buried. Yes, seriously.

Here is a sample extract to give you a flavour of the prose:

And now them others sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves. Because I said If you wouldn’t keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man cant sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn’t get them clean. I can see the fan and Dewey Dell’s arm. I said if you’d just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you’re tired you cant breathe it, and that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less. One lick less until everybody that passes in the road will have to stop and see it and say what a fine carpenter he is. If it had just been me when Cash fell off of that church and if it had just been me when pa laid sick with that load of wood fell on him, it would not be happening with every bastard in the country coming in to stare at her because if there is a God what the hell is He for. It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.

At this stage, you might be wondering why anyone would read, let alone enjoy reading As I Lay Dying.  However, like Faulkner’s other books, it is a rich and complex text, that does have much to offer. Ultimately, it is a study of one family and how each member reacts to the death of Addie in different ways.

Throughout the narrative, we learn of the conflicting desires, the fears, and the rivalries that exist amongst the clan. Whilst at times it is quite harrowing, at other points it is more like reading a black comedy. It is also very successful at creating a vivid, memorable landscape.

So, it’s one of those novels that I am glad that I’ve read, and one that I will remember. However, I think I’ll go for a somewhat easier read next!

Finally, a piece of trivia: Faulkner claimed that he wrote the novel from midnight to 4:00am over the course of six weeks while working at a power plant, and that he did not change a word of it. I doubt that this is the absolute strict truth, but even if it is broadly true it is an astonishing achievement. (Note to self: Perhaps I should get night work in a power plant…)

If you liked this, you might enjoy Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Light in August.

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