Friday, December 28, 2012

Favorite Books of 2012

Once again I face the difficult task of choosing my favorite books of the year.  One thing makes it easier as I get older - I forget more.  If I look at a book title and can't quite remember what it was about, it won't make my list.  But for so many others, not only do I remember them, they call up vivid images, powerful emotions, lasting impressions.

So, in no particular order:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (Truth in Journalism): a non-fiction book with a story more powerful than a novel.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Worth a Second Look): How can the spare story of a simple life leave such a lasting impression?  Johnson's beautiful prose makes that happen.
The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (A Master at Work): One of America's most influential novelists reminds me why her reputation is so richly deserved.
What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha (A Question of Faith): I don't know why, but this one just really stayed with me.  Maybe because Beha asks hard questions.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (A Day in the Life): Maybe it's because I read this one so recently, but I'm still marveling at how a short book can be so American, so funny, so vivid, so sad,

And yes, I do have runners-up:
Arcadia by Lauren Groff (Commune Life): Revisiting commune life without romanticizing it.
There but for the by Ali Smith (Words, Words, Words): The most unusual premise of the year.
Salvage the Bones by Jessamyn West (Weathering the Storm): A young female protagonist who isn't plucky or adorable, just honest.
Skios by Michael Frayn (Greek Delight): Strictly for the laughs.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Summer Reading): My addictive guilty pleasure this year.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Day in the Life

Nineteen year old Army Specialist Billy Lynn is completing a two week tour of the U.S. with seven fellow surviving members of Bravo Company, second platoon, first squad. Fox News has renamed them Bravo Squad, after its embedded team recorded a fierce firefight on a remote canal in Iraq in which the squad heroically battled Iraqi insurgents. The frequent airing of that video has turned them into national heroes, and the Bush administration has sent them on tour to rally support for the war, culminating on Thanksgiving Day at a Dallas Cowboys football game, where they will be part of an extravagant halftime show.

Ben Fountain's debut novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk spends that day inside Billy's head. He watches oleaginous Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Jerry Jones) bloviate about patriotism, bravery and all things Texan. He observes movie producer Albert Ratner as he attempts to sell movie rights to their story, even if it means letting Hilary Swank play Billy's role. He is mesmerized by the cheerleaders (one in particular) and overwhelmed by frantic excess of the halftime show. The squad is unstintingly polite and obliging to gushing admirers, but raucous, adolescent and over-served when no one is watching. But through all the blitz and glitz Billy is grieving the loss of his beloved sergeant, and wrestling with his feelings about his family, his fellow soldiers and his return to Iraq.

Fountain's language is can be blisteringly sharp, funny, dizzying, and sometimes achingly sad. By the end I was exhausted but reluctant to leave Billy and Bravo Company behind.