Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

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American War
by Omar El Akkad
Published 2017 by Knopf
$26.95 hardcover ISBN 978-0451493583

By Noah Sanders

If there was a time to write a novel about a dystopian future, now, if ever, seems the time. The American President is a former reality celebrity; the natural world, poisoned by its invaders, revolts against us; the Middle East has become a dusty hotbed of dictators and religious-zealots-turned-murderers; technology has eliminated privacy while pushing us further apart then ever before. The alternate futures of past science fiction seem always on the verge of becoming reality. A dystopian future no longer seems so far away. Former journalist Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, is a book about what comes next, pulled from the hottest topics of our current geopolitical climate. It is a powerful feat of world-building, a beautifully written, if not wholly mind-blowing vision of a near-future that in El Akkad’s skilled hands pulses with unnerving potential.

The year is 2074. The world is succumbing to the effects of climate change; Florida has been flooded out of existence and the grand Mississippi River has become a sea. America is once again in the grips of a brutal Civil War, this time over the usage of fossil fuels. The South has become an impoverished wasteland, dotted with refugee camps, patrolled by revolutionary militiamen and supported by aide-boats from a distant, Middle Eastern empire. The Chestnuts are a poor, if not happy, family of Louisianans, knocked askew by a war that draws closer and closer to their riverside home each day. After the death of their father in a politically-charged bombing, the three Chestnut children and their mother relocate to Patience, Mississippi, a refugee’s tent city the average reader will most likely recognize from a CNN broadcast about Afghanistan. Within the walls of the camp, Sarat Chestnut—the family’s youngest—starts on a path of radicalized revolution that will pull her, and her family, through the fires of war, none reaching the other side unscathed.

El Akkad’s vision of future America is a grim one, because it predicts a shift in power, where the current geopolitical rules have been flipped, and a weakened USA has become fodder for a new reign of colonialism. Mexico has charged across the border, segmenting the country further, while a burgeoning Middle Eastern empire slowly invades through intermediaries and insidious care packages. The author spent years prior to this as a journalist embedded in the Middle East and the Black Lives Matter movement. This, combined with El Akkad’s gift of description, allows for the author to pepper his bleak, and often gruesome view of the future with moments of truly stunning imagery. American War, both because of its incredibly timely subject matter and the deep layering of the world Akkad has conceived, feels possible, as if our missteps in the real world could, potentially inevitably lead to a world very similar to the one described within.

American War casts a wide net in terms of what the author is trying to say, and though el-Akkad has said in interviews that he wasn’t trying to take sides, but rather discuss the universal appeal, and fallout, of revenge—at times the book’s inability to stand tall behind a specific idea becomes distracting. As Sarat, under the tutelage of the mysterious Albert Gaines, grows more and more radical, her viewpoints about the use of violence and death grow darker and darker. There’s times when El Akkad strays away from making a specific point, leaving a grey area of thought that, though intentional, seems unfocused. In a book as well-conceived and detailed as American War, even the slightest lack of clarity cracks the illusion El Akkad has so artfully pieced together.

As stark as American War gets, its characters and its storyline tread a well-worn path. Detailed and rife with elegant, at times lyrical imagery, the book still revels in the common tropes of Young Adult dystopian fiction. Though the book is always engaging and at best a thought-provoking road-map to a future America, it provides both in the recognizable and comfortably safe sandbox of genre fiction. There are no weapons-laden cornucopias or garish baddies, but to say that most readers have gotten lost in the story of a young girl who comes to lead, or in this case define a revolution, is an understatement. Likewise, El Akkad’s characters—Sarat’s sister Dana or her childhood friend Marcus—can feel a bit two-dimensional, well-conceived voice boxes for various political philosophies, but mouthpieces nonetheless. Simplified versions of deeper political thoughts, better suited for a younger audience.

Credit El Akkad’s abilities, that for the most part, American War is a gripping, terrifying peek into a future seemingly forecast on the front page of the daily news. It is rich, realistic world El Akkad has created, and though it sometimes slips into well-worn patterns, it is never less than riveting. American War is a book that will inspire thought, that does turn our current geopolitical situation on its head, allowing an opportunity at a viewpoint from the other side Americans are rarely given. More importantly the world El Akkad has created feels not real, but feels scarily possible, the true mark of great dystopian fiction.

Review: Sorry To Disrupt The Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

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Sorry To Disrupt The Peace
by Patty Yumi Cottrell
Published 2017 by McSweeney’s
$24.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1944211301

By Noah Sanders

The cover of the hardback edition of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel, Sorry To Disrupt The Peace, features a black and white waterfall serenely pouring down a rocky face. Removing the cover exposes the shockingly lime-green exterior of the book itself. Embossed across its textured cover is the standard disclaimer that this is a “work of fiction” and the characters within are “products of the author’s imagination.” It’s an apt metaphor for the book’s narrator, Helen Moran, a 32-year old woman, burying her questionable sanity beneath a combination of denial and coping methods. Sorry To Disrupt The Peace starts with Helen discovering that her adopted brother, Max, has killed himself. The news sends Helen back to her adopted home, Milwaukee, an unwanted private investigator seeking to learn the truth behind her brother’s death. Helen’s search is a slow, nauseating spiral of discovery, her erratic hunt for clues about her brother’s reasoning pushing her, and the reader, closer and closer to an understanding of herself. Cottrell places the reader within the mind of Helen, an unaware first-person narrator, and hidden behind the wall of her delusions, the book becomes a strange, sometimes comic journey, into the dark, weirdness of her self.

Helen Moran is an unaware narrator along the lines of John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly or Hal in the opening chapter of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The world she describes is akin to the hall of mirrors in a dusty funhouse—everything’s there, but how it looks is just a bit off. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and Cottrell handles it ably. The closer Helen gets to Max’s reasoning behind his suicide—mentally and geographically—the crazier she acts out. Cottrell writes Helen as a tireless self-promoter, imbued with false confidence, plodding forward without rhyme or reason, smashing through anything that lands in her path. In her mind, nothing is wrong with her, everything she does is right, everything else is a lightly veiled attack against her. It’s difficult to like Helen—she spends a good deal of the book throwing up or pooping, hallucinates an Eastern European man, and is friendly only when it suits her—but like a good detective novel, we’re pulled along by the promise of the author throwing the curtain off the central mystery of Max’s death. In a way, this is a mystery novel: the reader wants to know why Max died, but as Helen’s investigation stumbles forward, it becomes clear that the true conundrum is Helen herself. “Behind every suicide is a door,” Cottrell writes. “If you open the door you might find things you wish you never knew.” There’s a comic ineptitude to Helen’s investigation. Even when “clues” are screaming up at her, she turns her head. She won’t go into Max’s room, and her only witnesses are a couple of Max’s old friends, most of whom have no interest in talking to her. Instead Helen spends her time lolling about the house, taking short walks, generally just thinking about Max and his role in her life, and hers in his. But, her poor investigatory skills are simply a smokescreen—some part of Helen seems to know that by searching out the answers behind Max’s death, she’s really digging into herself. Sorry To Disrupt The Peace is a detective novel turned inwards, the elusive suspect lingering in the shadows, Helen Moran herself.

There’s a general sense of unease to the book. Cottrell plays off the standard views of affluent suburbia—Helen’s parents are bland, sweater wearing knick-knack collectors—the author painting Milwaukee in the hues of Midwestern nostalgia as filtered through Helen’s tilted worldview. Everything feels slightly askew, everything feels vaguely sinister. It makes the setting and the characters outside of Helen hard to pin down, superficial in a purposeful way, the reader subject only to Helen’s far-reaching whims.

As much as Sorry To Disrupt The Peace subverts the tropes of detective novels, don’t expect any easy answers. This is Helen’s book, for good or for bad, and though her search for answers may show us what’s behind the waterfall, the resolution isn’t tied up in a neat little bow. The answers Helen seeks aren’t easy ones—why do people kill themselves? —and the book dwindles to a stop, with little sense of closure. But this isn’t a whodunit, it’s a story about a damaged woman trying to find herself. Loose ends are par for the course. Or, as Helen says, “The problem with an investigation is people will continue to investigate until they have found something, anything and only then, when they have found something, will they close the investigation.”

Review: One Of The Boys by Daniel Magariel

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One Of The Boys
by Daniel Magariel
Published 2017 by Scribner
$22.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1501156168

By Noah Sanders

In Daniel Magariel’s debut novel, One of the Boys, childhood is a bootcamp. The soldiers: two unnamed boys whisked away from their mother to New Mexico by their abusive, drug-addicted father. The steel-fisted drill sergeant, the father, imposes a strict set of rules and punishments, effectively drafting his own children into a malignant fraternal order of three. What’s sold to the kids as an adventure to start a life anew in a foreign land, quickly devolves into a somber fight for survival, as the father’s drug use and physical attacks escalate. Child abuse is a well-worn subject in literature, but Magariel manages, with brevity and stark beauty, to highlight anew the tenuous wants and needs that hold a family group together, no matter how broken. One of the Boys is, at its pitch-black core, a book about the power of parental love; of what it gives, what we’ll do to possess it, and the startling effects it has when it is turned against us.

There are no punches pulled in Magariel’s book. This is a story that starts dark and quickly slides into claustrophobic horror, punctuated by belt-whippings and the chemical reek of crack smoke. Our unnamed narrator, a middle school kid, and his high-schooler brother, have voluntarily lied to the authorities about their mother’s alleged pedophilia, and now live in a musty apartment complex in New Mexico with their sad, monster of a father. To start, both kids alternatively love and fear their father, and Magariel excels at showcasing the reasons behind both emotions. The father has painted their exodus from Kansas as a game, a mission in a war against their mother, with those who follow along allowed the greatest reward: to be “one of the boys,” This is childhood as gang initiation, the father extorting loyalty through intense physical abuse coupled with manipulation of the kids against each other. Magariel understands the supposed trust a child needs from their parent, and the father figure in One of the Boys uses it as a weapon, aimed at culling any sort of revolution.

The author furthers the fraternal feeling of the relationship between the two boys and their father. A rough-hewn form of hazing and ritual is constructed by the father, its intent to break them down, to sickly bond the two kids to each other and, most importantly, to their father. Things go poorly for the kids—the father wades deeper into drugs, his absence, and the onset of growing up, allowing the kids the freedom of mind to contemplate escape. Magariel creates a fascinating dichotomy: as the father falls apart, the kids must weigh their bettered chances at freedom against their inherent familial need to take care of him. The big decisions become theirs, the responsibilities of an adult, suddenly thrust into their hands. This is a book about family, though, and the author doesn’t allow the reader to forget, good or bad, our parents pass a little something along to all of us. As the father begins to suspect an escape, the narrator turns the manipulative tricks taught to him against his teacher, his father, exploiting his weaknesses to better their chances at freedom.

As bleak as the book gets, Magariel doesn’t let it slip into abject horror, allowing the boys some sense of levity, even during the worst of times. The narrator and his older brother form a bond under the dictator-like rulings of their father, manipulation or not. When the situation grows the most unbearable, the two turn towards each other, the author allowing a single scene of undiluted, child-like joy, and together, for each other, they’ll try and find a way out. The epilogue of the book pulls the reader back to the car ride on the way to New Mexico. In context, the scene seems bucolic, a family road trip to a new place full of inside jokes and good-hearted teasing. The boys are excited, ready for an adventure with dear old dad, the future, horrible as it will be, still full of possibility. “We are kids again,” Magariel writes, “just like he promised.” No matter how badly that promise will be broken, for a moment, Magariel shows us just how badly these characters, and in turn the readers, want to trust their parents, how much they want them, no matter the cost, to help shepherd them down the paths of their lives.

Review: The Vine That Ate The South by J.D. Wilkes

 

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The Vine That Ate The South
by J.D. Wilkes
Published 2017 by Two Dollar Radio
$11.99 paperback ISBN 978-1-937512-55-2

By Noah Sanders

The American road trip is a staple of fantasy literature. The journey between two points on a map, fertile ground for colorful characters to suss out their differences, revelations to be had, and unwitting heroes to face off against a bevy of a ghoulish horrors. The broad expanse of the open spaces between cities is an easy target for an author to aim their thoughts and opinions of the US of A. Musician-turned-novelist J.D. Wilkes’ Southern-fried debut novel, The Vine That Ate The South, a rip-roaring exploration of the power of legend and folklore, fits the bill nicely, if not a bit sloppily. The book finds a nameless, fatherless man-child obsessed with the legends of the South, and his green-toothed, Native American guide, Carver Canute, following the railroad spikes of the abandoned L&N line on a cornbread quest to discover the mythical Kudzu House of legend. The two men’s journey pulls them through the deep, dark of the South, where the titular Kudzu consumes all, women ride Great Danes for sport, albino spirit panthers stalk their prey, and shit-throwing demon men might just be hiding in the trees.

The Vine That Ate The South is, at its best, a page-turning delight, rife with Southern folklore. The ne’er-do-well duo at its heart, legend-seeking miscreants, on a mission to discover their homelands beating heart, and the secrets of their own familial history along the way. The narrator and his salty companion—a veritable encyclopedia of tall tales—are outsiders, pushed away from their past and the present by the onset of modernity. The unnamed narrator seeks more than just the discovery of the truth behind a campfire story, his quest is to become a legend in his own right; to become a part of the criss-crossing grid of myth that flows underneath the rag-tag, poverty-stricken climes of the rural South. In plotting their journey, Wilkes explores the battle between the old gods of story and legend and the all-consuming malaise brought about by technology-obsessed, preservative pounding, present day America. “Trite but true,” the narrator tells the reader, “technology has ostensibly solved most of our problems yet created entirely new ones to take their place.”

Wilkes’s portrayal of the South is chock full of toothless hillbillies, skin-and-bone meth heads and gun-toting isolationists, but the author’s love for his place of birth is clear. His prose is loving and familiar, honest in its depiction, but lacking in judgment or cynicism. These are people and places that Wilkes knows, and his writing makes even shit-tossing loonies seem like beloved, if not avoided, parts of an extended Southern family.

The heart of the novel is the legend of the Kudzu House—a place so consumed by the vine, that its owner’s skeletons still hang above it—and the power of legend itself. Folklore and myth leap off of nearly every page, but Wilkes never reveals if he truly believes any of them, including the Kudzu House, actually exist. Our characters spit stories back and forth, but never come to face-to-face (without the effects of mind-altering substances coursing through their veins) with any of the legends they’re looking for. Instead, Wilkes uses legends and folklore like religion: it doesn’t matter if you’ve ever seen its magic in action, giving yourself over to the belief in it, is just as powerful, just as potent a way of revealing our inner truths.

Wilkes has a lot to say in the short expanse of The Vine That Ate The South about the power of folklore, religion, technology, the relationship between the North and the South and on and on, and with every page seeming to feature an aside to some homespun tale, not everything gets enough room to breath. With Wilkes at the wheel of this rollicking road trip though, it’s easy to ignore the lingering flaws of the book. The deeper the characters push towards their destination, the weirder the book becomes, culminating in a hallucinatory final 60 pages involving talking skeletons, a river witch, the aforementioned albino ghost panther and a possibly possessed, shit-hurling hillbilly. The Vine That Ate The South isn’t—like the gap-toothed, Confederate flag waving South it holds so dear—perfect, but it’s always a good time, occasionally one brimming over with a clapboard type of rustic insight. It’s a Homeric odyssey soaked in chewing tobacco, dropped in a pocket pint of moonshine, and best consumed in one long delirious pull.

Review: Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello

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Animals Strike Curious Poses
by Elena Passarello
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$19.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1941411391

By Noah Sanders

Animals Strike Curious Poses—the second essay collection by Whiting Award winning author Elena Passarello—is about, well, animals. Elephants, bears, the woolly mammoth, and more – each “immortalized by humans.” It is more than this though: this is a book about how our interactions with animals, have altered and invariably improved, our perceptions, our imaginations and our abilities to fathom the world. Passarello artfully explores how humans defined themselves through the wild spirits of animals, and how, over time, we redefined the relationship until the “animal life” became, “so dependent on humans that it [was] no longer viable alone.” Animals Strike Curious Poses is a quirky, adventurously penned book struck through with a dark idea: for all that animals have given us, we’ve given them the shit side of the stick in return.

Passarello’s essays sprint across the human timeline, touching down every few thousand years to relate another tale of how animal existence opened yet another door for human understanding. In, 39,000BP, the woolly mammoth Yuka kicks off the author’s far-reaching survey of man and natures neurological and artistic connection. “Before it became anything else,” the author writes, “the human brain was first an almanac of living shapes changing in the passing light.” We, as cavemen, recorded the beauty and ferocity of the natural world only in our grey matter the weight of all that retained knowledge eventually needing release, expression even. Leading to a caveman further up the timeline, charcoal in hand, drawing a mammoth in motion on a cave wall. Yuka becomes an impetus for art, for the very act of human creation.

Our entanglement with animals became more complicated as we ourselves grew more complicated. Vogel Starr, the beloved pet starling of a young Amadeus Mozart, inhaled his compositions and spat them back out through the garbled filter of a bird’s indecipherable mind. The strange squawks and croaks it instinctively produced pushing the composer past the boundaries of 18th century composition. Animals, knowingly or not, in art, science and beyond, have imprinted themselves across the human conscious. About Arabella, a spider who accompanied NASA’s 1973 Skylab III crew into space, Passarello writes, “The distance from a spider to the end of her six-inch silk tether is a man drifting on a sixty-foot umbilical. A man tumbling from end to end of a space station is a spider free-falling down a four-foot web.”

The latter half of Animals Strike Curious Poses strikes a darker tone, as modern humans find ourselves no longer content with capturing animals on cave walls, instead we capture, and contain the animals themselves. “Jumbo III” recounts the decades of man’s fascination with elephants, and their exploitation as circus acts. The elephant represents the wildness of exotic lands, but when, inevitably, the wildest amongst them turned against us, our only response was to showcase our control over their mortality. As the author jumps closer to the present, man needs more than even control over the physical beings of the animal world, we make them talk, we animate them, we shape them to our own whims. Near the end of the book, Passarello writes of her own interaction, and the guilt in her own enjoyment of a goat altered at birth so it could be shown as a unicorn. She writes, “I didn’t grasp, or refused to consider, what kind of subjection was possible— the various ways humans open up and alter other creatures.”

Passarello toys with the essay form to best represent each animal in its most prominent era, to which she succeeds to varying degrees. Her fantastic piece on Darwin’s development of the Theory of Evolution is told through the eyes of a 175-year old lovesick turtle. But, her essay “Jeoffry,” a confounding take on English poet Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, seems so amused by its own playful form, that the intent and meaning of the piece is lost. Passarello is best when she’s working loosely within the traditional essay form; her eccentric writing and fiction-like tellings of each animal’s existence livening up what could be dry facts, emboldening the philosophical themes that underlie her writing.

“Once, and for a very long time,” Passarello writes, “[animals] surrounded people and culture in a close circle that connected to both the everyday and the spiritual.” Times have changed though, as Passarello tells us, and our cultural reflections of animals are relegated to “neutered pets, as kept zoo creatures, or as ‘commercial diffusions of animal imagery.’” “Cecil,” the final essay in the book, is a barely a page long, a transcription of an interview between Dr. Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed the famed African lion Cecil, and The Associated Press. He says, “Obviously, if I’d have known this lion had a name I wouldn’t have taken it.” We created art because the wild nature of animals inspired us, and now, tens of thousands of years later, we’ve hidden that wildness behind cute names and stuffed representations. So much so that without the stamp of human nomenclature, animals have become nothing more than an acceptable trophy to hang on our walls.