American War

Hello. I was away traveling in the mountains last weekend during the Canadian May long weekend, which was truly gorgeous. We had spectacular sunny conditions for the annual three-day Golden Triangle bike ride and survived the long cycling routes just fine. It was really lovely out there. Along the way we saw deer, elk, and mountain goats but no bears this time; they were around the area according to all the Rangers’ signs posted but must have gone out of sight into the woods by the time we passed by.

Now we are coming down from that Rocky Mountain high to fly to Michigan this U.S. Memorial Day weekend for our nephew’s wedding. It should be quite exciting an event and fun to see other relatives there. Just a bit of a whirlwind. I wish all those in the U.S. a very happy Memorial weekend, and until next time I’ll leave you with a review of a book I finished recently.

Oh yes, I was lucky to score a copy of Omar El Akkad’s debut novel from the library, considering it’s been in high demand after receiving some rave reviews recently in The New York Times among others. It’s a dystopian novel about a family caught up in the days amid a second U.S. Civil War, of the North vs. the South, that takes place from 2074 to 2095. The war is caused largely by the prohibition of fossil fuels by the North, which the South doesn’t want to ban.

The story’s main protagonist is Sarat Chestnut who is of mixed race and only 6 when the war breaks out; her father has been killed and her mother decides to flee their home in Louisiana and take her brother and her twin sister and her to a refugee camp farther north near Tennessee. There in Camp Patience among tents they live fenced in for six years with hundreds of others while trying to wait out the war. But eventually an atrocity occurs at the camp — that along with Sarat’s befriending of a mysterious mentor — changes the paths of their lives and the country’s forever.

Oh it’s dark times indeed. The novel paints a picture in which the effects of climate change have wrecked havoc on the Earth, and northern drones, causing ruthless attacks, rule the skies. The barriers between the North and South feel like Korea’s DMZ, and there’s a Guantanamo Bay-like prison that Sarat must endure. Oddly enough there’s not a lot of mention of racism or slavery in the book (like in the first Civil War), but once again Southerners appear to be on the losing end, poor and desperate.

The scene setting, daily grudge, and characters in it are quite vivid and perceptively drawn, though one might need to suspend his or her disbelief a bit over some of the fuel/geographic/science details of it. I actually thought as a dystopian novel, it would be more action-packed than it turned out to be. The story meanders and takes it own sweet time and has some slow pacing issues in the middle. I was starting to lose patience when luckily it picks up again near the end, building to its conclusion (as peace plans are brewing) then taking a turn and coming crashing back down. Ugh it wasn’t an ending I was hoping for — the cycle of vengeance in it is quite rough. But did I really expect some light at the end of the tunnel?

Ahh well, I guess it was pretty effective in a scary kind of way. It’s a book that supposedly isn’t meant to be so much about America or its past Civil War as it is about the “universal language of suffering” and what it does to people, so says the author, Omar El Akkad, who I coincidentally was able to see this week at a discussion about the book. He was in town giving a talk — right as I had finished the novel, which was perfect timing! See a photo of him at left at the event hosted by Wordfest.

Although it’s a novel that appears to be timely in today’s fractured world, it was started long before the days of Trump, and was in reaction to things the author witnessed in the Middle East while reporting there for the Globe and Mail. He told us he was born in Egypt and moved to Canada when he was 16. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife who teaches there.

The author admits he offers no answers with the book’s story, and says the character of Sarat is not a person we have to sympathize with, or apologize for, or like, but he hopes readers will come to understand how she gets the way she is. In this way and others, it’s certainly a thought-provoking novel … and rather provocative.

Although I probably liked Ben Winters’s 2016 novel “Underground Airlines” — which imagines the Civil War never took place and slavery still exists —  a bit more, I’m glad to have read “American War” and to have heard the author speak about it. He was quite interesting and well-spoken. I just hope the path of his story is not the way the future turns out for any of us.

What about you — have you read “American War” or other dystopian novels like it — and if so, what did you think?

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26 Responses to American War

  1. Your weekend sounds glorious! I’ll probably skip American War but it sounds like something that people will love.

  2. Susan Wright says:

    Thanks Kathy. Yeah it’s okay I don’t blame you. It’s a book that’s rather harsh and now I need something more happy to read, LOL.

  3. Brian Joseph says:

    Great review.

    This sounds so good. I love intelligent dystopias. Based upon your description it sounds as if this is well thought out.

    Though you mention several themes, it seems that divisions in America could boil over in mass violence. People have been getting angrier and angrier for decades now. Even within families, I have observed some people are expressing rage at one another.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Brian. Yeah I think you would like this one. I wonder too if these divisions in the country will only get worse. This book offers a pretty alarming picture.

  4. Carmen says:

    Intriguing premise for this book, but if the author had the Middle East in mind when he wrote it, why did he base the book in America? Just a thought. I’m glad you found it food for thought.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Good Question Carmen. I’m not sure the author answered that question exactly; I should have asked it. He’s based in the West now and I wonder if he thought he’d have more impact and readership if the story were based in the U.S. He said something about other countries needing the U.S. to succeed and still holding it in high regard. But he said the theme was meant to be a more universal one about war and suffering, hmm.

  5. Naomi says:

    This book sounds intriguing… I’ll have to decide whether or not I want to read it. I do like to read dystopia every once in a while to give myself a good scare. I like them best when they’re something that could really happen.
    I’m glad you had such a nice weekend for your bike trip! Enjoy the wedding!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks Naomi, yeah I think quite a few readers of this one see it being very close to the truth of what could happen in a country so divided. So I guess it could really happen: a 2nd Civil War, yikes! Hope to goodness not! Our travels are going well so far. 🙂

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    Nice of you to send us a post between trips. Your rocky mountain high sounded great but Michigan in late May, early June is pretty great too.
    I have been off my dystopia lately but was waiting for your review. I will put it on the list and see what happens. Neat that you got to hear the author speak.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Judy, yeah it was neat the author was in town, right at the right time too! Flying into Detroit today reminded me of you, aren’t these your hometown digs? I don’t know the area but I’m glad to visit. After this book, I need a break again for awhile of dystopia fiction, some of it is too harsh and bleak. I’ve picked up something funny for an antidote read. 🙂

  7. Your photos of the mountains are beautiful! I haven’t read American War yet, but I have the audiobook and plan to listen to it sometime in the near future…maybe this summer. It does sound kind of bleak. I like a good dystopia but I also don’t want to be depressed for a week after finishing it!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Oh thanks Kate, the trip into the mountains was wonderful. The author of American War told us the reader for the audiobook is really really good so hopefully that will boost the experience for you. Though you are right — it might leave you depressed afterwards!

  8. Vivien says:

    Hi Susan – mountains look glorious!! Glad you guys had a super bike trip! I think I’ll pass on this book but I liked your review! Take care! Viv

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Vivien, yeah we were really lucky for this year’s long weekend, wow! Hope you & Lola are doing well! Been too busy for tennis, but hopefully will start back into this week. I’m not used to the humidity in Michigan, but the warmth is nice.

  9. Very believable plot. I spend many days feeling sad about living in the South. How many times do I want to confront people and question them about the opinions they express? Sigh.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Deb, yeah these are dicey times we are living in — where the U.S. population is very divided. Hope things stay peaceful. Enjoy your days at BookExpo!

  10. Those photos are just gorgeous! How wonderful to be able to ride a bike through that area! I’m not a fan of dystopian novels, but American War does sound intriguing. Not sure I’ll actually pick it up though…

    • Susan Wright says:

      Thanks JoAnn, the bike trip was wonderful this year! I don’t think I read too many dystopian novels; my favorite so far is Station Eleven. But now I need a break from dystopian after this bleak one!

  11. Enjoy your weekend! I tend to avoid dystopian novels, as they seem too possible and real, especially now with our Scary POTUS.

    The Handmaid’s Tale is enough for me these days. I can’t stop watching it, either.

    Thanks for sharing, and here are MY WEEKLY UPDATES

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Laurel, yeah I can see where dystopian novels can seem a bit too dark & real for the future; I don’t know what’s going to happen with this administration. It seems like it’s imploding about every day. The Handmaid’s Tale TV series is so grim it blows me out of the water! Enjoy your week.

  12. Ti says:

    I have American War on hold but I am #108 in line for it at one library and in a slightly worse position at another. I love dystopian stories. They are often bleak but they cheer me up because the real world is typically not like them but with the current administration in place, these types of books are popular again due to the similarities going on right now.

    Your weekend was busy but it sounds like you had a good time too. Love those photos of the mountains you included. We had a good weekend too. I rested. In fact, I did as little as possible you would have been proud.

    This week the girl ends middle school and moves on to high school. I can’t even believe this is happening. She starts sports camp right away so there is no break for her really.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Ti, Glad you had a peaceful Memorial Day weekend and you got some downtime. It’s hard to believe your daughter is now in high school, Wow. Both of your kids are doing so well — it’s nice to hear about them. They are active and involved in interesting things. You will probably like American War // the possibilities and realities of it make it interesting and unsettling. #108 though is a long way to go, LOL. I’m often like that on library wait lists; I know how it goes. Enjoy your week.

  13. Catherine says:

    I think I’m going to have to wait on American War! It simply sounds too close to the truth, especially considering what our dumpster fire-in-chief did this week. It’s starting to feel dystopian here.

    Your weekend trip sounds (and looks) gorgeous!

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Catherine, ha yeah I’m with you about the U.S. dumpster chief — everyday gets worse with him. It’s brutal with him in office. I’m lucky to be over the border but I’m not far enough! The book does seem pretty real or possible. Bleak too. Cheers.

  14. Hello Susan! Looks like we had a similar long weekend (actually we stayed longer). I could have written this post and said the same things. 🙂
    The book sound interesting, I am sure many people will like it… That said, it’s not something I’m willing to read in the near future. Thanks for such a great post as always. 🙂

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi RT, yeah I don’t think this book is for you perhaps, but it is a bit provocative. I’ll stop by your site soon to chat more, it’s been awhile. Hope you are well.

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