books #7, 8, & 9: billy lynn’s long halftime walk, the golden compass, and the glass castle

#7 billy lynn’s long halftime walk by ben fountain
‘billy lynn’s long halftime walk’ tells the story of a soldier returning from iraq to be honored with his squadmates at a dallas cowboys thanksgiving halftime show for their heroic victory in a counterinsurgency operation. this book is often compared to catch 22, and while the similarities are certainly there, they’re stylistically very different books. they both offer a satirical examination of war and the experiences of those that fight, but where catch 22 was concerned with presenting the absurdity but probable inevitability of war, fountain’s book seems to present its agenda in a much louder voice. it is anti-war, anti-consumerism, and seemingly anti-football. this is not to say that fountain hasn’t written an intelligent and entertaining book that examines american culture with sensitivity and affection, he has, but at other times you will feel personally criticized, especially if you have any even moderately conservative views, have bought anything you didn’t need recently, or have any regard for the game of football. fountain chooses to evaluate the game of football as a boring, nonsensical excuse to cater to advertisers we’ve all been duped into thinking is interesting. it’s not to say he’s entirely wrong, but as someone who can see the unfortunate influences of consumerism while appreciating the poetry of the game these supposed skewerings of “america” took me out of the story. where the book succeeds is in making billy lynn an entirely real, compelling, and relatable character, whose youth and occasional immaturity only serve to heighten the sense of how difficult it must be for combat soldiers to adjust to civilian lifestyles. billy lynn’s fellow soldiers are somewhat interchangeable in fountain’s portrayal (all young, naive, seemingly easily manipulated, down on their luck societal rejects) and while they provide plenty of levity to the grim realities, i’m sure there are infinitely more complex perspectives on what it means to be a soldier than fountain’s portrayal. this is a quick read that is never anything but engaging, thought provoking, and well-written, but with its agenda displayed too prominently it begins to feel like a lecture on liberalism at times rather than a balanced novel.

#8 the golden compass by phillip pullman

i read this book a number of years ago and picked it up again because i felt i needed something light and easily digestible after having read some heavier novels. i’d forgotten how thoughtful and interesting this book actually is, considering it is a story geared towards children. in many ways pullman has written the anti-narnia, where instead of promoting an allegory for christian mythology and values, he encourages deductive thought and rational examination. the world pullman has created is an alternate universe that echoes many of the realities of our own with fascinating fantastical differences that are woven into the narrative seamlessly. daemons are the primary difference, a kind of spirit animal each person has that reflect a person’s mood, intentions, and personality. the main character lyra and her daemon pantalaimon (sometimes a moth, sometimes an ermine, and various other incarnations) are clued into a strange mystical plot at the beginning of the book involving the kidnapping of children, the mysterious north, a substance called ‘dust’, and her uncle, lord asriel. this is primarily an adventure story complete with the standard narrative tropes of fighting evil and attempting to foil nefarious plots, but what it so engaging about pullman’s work is the moral complexity he provides for his characters. many of the characters are neither entirely bad or good, but are forced to make difficult decisions in the face of overwhelming pressure. even lyra, our hero, has to make tricky choices, and it is her struggle that takes what could have been a standard picaresque yarn and turns it into something magical. throw in armored polar bears, zombie children, and extra sensory perception, well, it’s just a fun read. it’s easy to love pullman’s world, the promise of further exploration he leaves for you at the end of this first of three books is tantalizing and the daemons are such an original and compelling idea, i found myself wishing i had a spirit animal that could shape-shift depending on my mood and always keep me company. i look forward to reading the other books in the series, which i haven’t done before, as it is just well-written, thought provoking fantasy, geared towards children, but definitely appreciated by adults.

#9 the glass castle by jeannette walls

a beautiful book, written in a straightforward style, that manages to send you in every emotional direction. walls has written a memoir relating an upbringing so profoundly strange and yet probably not as uncommon as we might hope. she spends a majority of her early life moving from place to place with her family, often living in squalor and poverty while attempting to be a socially acceptable child. her parents are at once magically free-spirited, instilling a sense of wonder in their four children, but also horrendously emotionally immature and neglectful. i found myself so frustrated with her parents, understanding their artistic and rebellious sensibilities, but also deeply disturbed by their profound irresponsibility in regard to raising four children. even simple necessities such as food become luxuries at times for the family, leaving them to live on popcorn or ice cream for meals, or often without having eaten for days. clothes and heat in their home are often secondary considerations as money is used to support the mother’s artistic needs (she is a visual artist) or the father’s considerable smoking and drinking habits. what walls has managed to create is a coming of age story that feels both surprising and inevitable, you want her and her siblings to leave this situation, but you understand their conflicted emotional life, as they are after all, intelligent, thoughtful human beings, who just happen to have had an upbringing that doesn’t fit the norm. however, the neglect and emotional abuse is undeniable, and it is a wonder that this family managed to survive through some of the ordeals they had to undertake together. this book is a quick read, and always engaging, it allows the reader to intuit psychological motivations for the individual’s actions, as walls doesn’t necessarily pretend to know exactly what informed her parents behavior, and perhaps that is the only place the book is lacking. it would have been interesting to read her perspective on what moved her parents to face life in such a haphazard fashion, but instead you are given the facts, the events, and left to imagine for yourself what inspired such an approach to existence. this is good and bad, nothing is spelled out, the events are always captivating and compelling, but the circumstances are so fraught with complexity i would love to know what the family felt was behind this wild lifestyle. overall the book is magnificent, so well-written, utterly engrossing, vivid, and beautiful. well worth reading.

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