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Turkey Tracks and Books, Documentaries, Reviews

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Turkey Tracks and Books, Documentaries, Reviews:  June 23, 2014

Maine Summer Sky and Reading on the Back Deck

The Flame Throwers:  Rachel Kushner


For the past three mornings, I’ve spent a few hours reading on the back deck–drinking my early morning tea and moving from sun to shade and back as the heat dictates.

The morning sky has been that incomparable shade of blue that we get here in the summer:


Around noon, the wind comes up and, sometimes, clouds blow in.  But the mornings…  Well, they are a delight.

In the late afternoon the temps start to drop–all the way to high 40s last night–which means glorious sleeping.

What have I been reading?

Our book club selection for July.



I finished it today and will move on to something else.  For some reason, I seem to read more fiction during the summer.  Maybe that’s about slowing down and relaxing a bit.

This book is a New York Times bestseller–and for good reason.  It’s a dense, complicated, terrific read.

It was also one of the 10 best books of 2013, as picked by The New York Times.

And a National Book Award finalist.

The story takes place mostly in 1975-1977–in New York City and Italy.  Both were experiencing turbulent times, with a lot of labor unrest, anarchy, and pervasive challenges to “law and order” and the status quo.  Remember that 1968 was a year in which students all over the world (remember France?) famously protested  class inequities, the Vietnam war, loss of wages among the poor, and so on.  But that unrest continued for, obviously, a decade.

Reno thinks she is a “land artist”–which means she likes to create marks on the earth and photograph them.   What especially draws her are marks that chart speed/time and line–which involves motorcycles.   She falls into a company of very successful avant garde artists in New York City, but only in a “hanger on” sort of way.  Underneath is always already, the silencing of women and their reduction to sexual relationships.  The novel is much, much more complicated than these easy simplicities I am voicing here.

There are, in this novel, many riffs on language and the double meanings of words–or the loaded cultural baggage in words.  Here’s an example of one such riff–made and taped by one of the artists:

Home.  We say ‘home,’ not ‘house.’  You never hear a good agent say ‘house.’  A house is where people have died on the mattresses.  Where pipes freeze and burst.  Where termites fall from the sink spigot.  Where somebody starts a flu fire by burning a telephone book in the furnace.  Where banks repossess.  Where mental illness takes hold.  A home is something else.  Do not underestimate the power in the word home.  Say it. “home.”  It’s like the difference between ‘rebel’ and ‘thug.’  A rebel is a gleaming individual in tight Levi’s, a sneering and pretty face.  The kind Sal Mineo wet-dreams.  A thug is hairy and dark, an object that would sink to the bottom when dropped in a lake.  A home is maintained.  Cared for.  Loved.  The word home is savory like gravy, and like gravy, kept warm.  A good realtor says ‘home.”  Never ‘house.’  Always ‘cellar’ and never ‘basement.’  Basements are where cats crap on old Santa costumes.  Where men drink themselves to death.  Where children learn firsthand about sexual molestation.  But cellar.  A cellar is where you keep root vegetables and wine.  Cellar means a proximity to the earth that’s not about blackness and rot but the four ritual seasons.  We say ‘autumn,’ not ‘fall.’  We say ‘The leaves in this area are simply magnificent in autumn.’  We say ‘simply magnificent,’ and by the way, ‘lawn,’ not ‘yard.’  It’s ‘underarm’ to ‘armpit.’  Would you say ‘armpit’ to a potential buyer?  Say ‘yard’ and your buyer pictures rusted push mowers, plantar warts.  Someone shearing off his thumb and a couple of fingers with a table saw.  A tool shed where water-damaged pornography and used motor oil funneled into fabric softener bottles cohabitate with hints of trauma that are a thick and dark as the oil.

And on and on it goes.

Here’s the opening paragraph of The New York Times book review by Christina Garcia–followed by the url to the review:

In “The Flamethrowers,” her frequently dazzling second novel, Rachel Kushner thrusts us into the white-hot center of the 1970s conceptual art world, motorcycle racing, upper-class Italy and the rampant kidnappings and terrorism that plagued it. It’s an irresistible, high-octane mix — and a departure from the steamier pleasures of her critically acclaimed first novel, “Telex From Cuba.” The language is equally gorgeous, however, and Kushner’s insights into place, society and the complicated rules of belonging, and unbelonging, can be mordantly brilliant. None of the characters in “The Flamethrowers” are quite what they seem, fabricating pasts as nonchalantly as they throw together their art. Above all, they hunger to be seen, to distinguish themselves from the ordinary. One artist, responding to the question of why he invents, defends his florid lies as “a form of discretion.”


Garcia finds the novel’s ending chapters…disjointed.  I did not, though I see what she means.  I think when Kushner’s characters move aside their imaginative lives and touch down to earth, something is lost–for them.  That truth (what else is there?  is this all there is?) is the hard truth we all must face as we face our own mortality.  The two main characters have to…grow up…amidst the disjointed facets of their lives which are made more disjointed by chaos and violence.

Written by louisaenright

June 23, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Books, Documentaries, Reviews: BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, Ben Fountain

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Books, Documentaries, Reviews:  June 23, 2014

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Ben Fountain



It’s a prize winner–and it should be:

National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction

Finalist, National Book Award

Finalist UK National Book Award

Los Angeles Ties Book Award for Fiction

Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize

Texas Institute of letters Jesse H. Jones Award for Fiction

Pen New England Cerulli Award For Excellence in Sports Fiction

And, here’s the The New York Times book review:   http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/books/review/billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk-by-ben-fountain.html


while I think everyone in America should read this novel, I know that not all that many, in terms of total percentages, will.  Which is too bad, as this country badly needs a corrective in its national consciousness about the thing we call war. 

I will caution that this novel involves a group of Army soldiers who talk like soldiers and, often, act like the 19 and 20-something year olds that they are.  These fellows have been exposed to terror and fear and actual combat for some time.  In one encounter, an embedded cameraman captures heroic actions in a fight that gets uploaded onto utube and plays on the nightly news.  We now have the “Bravo Heroes” who have been brought home for a “victory” tour designed to make a case for the war.  This “vacation” from the war is undergirded horribly by the certain knowledge that they will be going back very shortly.

Fountain has mounted a devastating critique of a country of well-meaning nice folks who speak a cultural language ABOUT war (freedom, kick their buts, did your duty, Nine 11, terrorists) and enjoy violent games (football) and mindlessly send young men to war without really understanding what happens to those young men when the full impact of actual war with all its violence surrounds them.  Nor do these citizens understand the relative ineffectiveness of this (Iraq) war effort.  Nor do these same nice folks understand how these young men feel when they come home and encounter the fact that the country whose “freedom” they are fighting for is but a giant shopping mall with a country attached (as Fountain says somewhere in the book)–complete with wealthy industry captains (like the owner of the Cowboys football team who tries to win what he wants at all costs and without any regard for actual human beings and who behaves beyond despicably when he does not “win” what he wants from these soldiers.  The underbelly of that mindset is much like closing that bridge in New Jersey to get back at a local mayor.)

Here’s a quote:

Americans fight the war daily in their strenuous inner lives.  Billy knows because here at the contact point he feels the passion every day.  Often it’s in their literal touch, a jolt arcing across as they shake hands, a zap of pent-up warrior heat.  For so many of them, this is the Moment:  His ordeal becomes theirs and vice versa, some sort of mystical transference takes place and it’s just too much for most of them, judging from the way they choke in the clutch.  They stammer, gulp, brainfart, and babble, gum up all the things they want to say or never had the words to say them in the first place, so they default to old habits.  They want autographs.  They want cell phone snaps.  They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor, they know they’re being good when they thank the troops and their eyes shimmer with love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness.  One woman bursts into tears, so shattering is her gratitude.  Another asks if we are winning, and Billy says we’re working hard.  “You and your brother soldiers are preparing the way,” one man murmurs, and Billy knows better than to ask the way to what.  The next man points to, almost touches, Billy’s Silver Star.  “That’s some serious hardware  you got,” he says gruffly, projecting a flinty, man-of-the-world affection.  “Thanks,” Billy says, although that never seems quite the right response.  “I read the article in Time,” the man continues, and now he does touch the medal, which seems nearly as lewd as if he’d reached down and stroked Billy’s balls.  “Be proud,” the man tells him, “you earned this,” and Billy thinks without rancor, How do you know?  Several days ago he was doing local TV and the blithering twit-savant of a TV newsperson just came out and asked:  What was it like?  Being shot at, shooting back.  Killing people, almost getting killed yourself.  Having friends and comrades die right before your eyes.  Billy coughed up clots of nonsequential mumblings, but as he talked a second line dialed up in his head and a stranger started talking, whispering the truer words that Billy couldn’t speak.  It was raw.  It was some fucked-up shit.  It was the blood and breath of the world’s worst abortion, baby Jesus shat out in squishy little turds.

That newsperson sounds a bit like the one in the Hunger Games movies…

Doesn’t s/he?

You know, as long as we are distracted by the “bread and circus” of American life, we will not “see” what’s really going on in America these days.  And underneath this story, is a plea to follow the money, to reject the fireworks and stars at halftime, to understand the real costs being extracted from all of us…

This novel also resonates strongly with Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers, which I discussed elsewhere on this blog.


Written by louisaenright

June 23, 2014 at 2:11 pm