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review 2018-03-03 12:04
Review: American War, by Omar El Akkad
American War - Omar El Akkad

I thought I knew what to expect from American War before I even cracked the first page. From the jacket blurb and from my experience with apocalyptic novels, I thought this would follow a familiar formula: The author would weave together threads from current social and political attitudes to compose a dark and terrifyingly plausible future. The next American civil war, though taking place decades from now, would surely break along the lines of today's significant divides: race, class, religion, lifestyle, or political ideology. Because the author is Muslim and the protagonist has an Arabic first name, I vaguely assumed the book would follow the experiences of a Muslim family caught in the conflict.

 

I was wrong about all of this. So wrong that for the first few hundred pages, I thought I was reading an entirely different - and much worse - book than the one I actually held in my hands.

 

My misconceptions about the protagonist's backstory were the simplest to correct: Sarat Chestnut is not Muslim, but Catholic. Her parents are Martina, who is Black, and Benjamin, who is Latino. Along with her twin sister Dana and brother Simon, the family lives in southern Louisiana, beside the swollen waterway now known as the Mississippi Sea. By today's standards they are quite poor, living in a shipping container, generating energy with solar panels, and filtering rainwater for drinking, but they get by. Sarat would have considered her childhood almost idyllic, had the war not arrived to cut it short with repeated and ever-escalating brutalities.

 

The details of the war itself were where the book started to ring false for me. After the American government banned the use of fossil fuels in 2074, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia seceded to form the Free Southern State. South Carolina would have joined them, but the entire state had been walled off and quarantined after a government-released calming agent turned its population to zombies. Florida might have joined them too, but it had long since disappeared under the rising ocean waters.

 

With all of the issues currently dividing us, it did not seem realistic or interesting to me that the next civil war would be driven by stale regional grudges dating back to the 1800's, or that it would be solely precipitated by the South's cussed devotion to a destructive and obsolete fuel source. It was especially jarring that all of those other issues I mentioned above - race, religion, class, politics - are never mentioned as relevant factors in the war. Or in American life at all. I guess by the 2070's we'd solved all of that - the only contentious issue was the gasoline.

 

This premise seemed so off and so odd to me that I couldn't take large portions of the book seriously. It seemed like such a glaring misunderstanding of modern America's internal strife. How could I be properly scared of a dystopia that wasn't populated by metastasized versions of today's bogeymen?

 

But this is where I didn't understand the book at all, or the story it was actually telling. It isn't intended to be a commentary on American culture. It isn't interested in realistically portraying the causes or methods of war. If I had been paying attention, I would have recognized this from the beginning. The narrator spells it out right in the prologue: "This isn't a story about war. It's about ruin."

 

~

 

This book is about what happens to Sarat and her family throughout the war's harrowing 21 years. She is 6 years old when it begins, not yet 30 when the reunification treaty is signed. When the war breaks out her family are civilians, uninterested in politics, not partisan to any particular side. They love each other; they love their home. They just want to get by.

 

There are millions of Sarats out there right now.

 

What we are inculcating in them now with our military operations could very well bear bitter, vengeful fruit for decades, for generations, to come. This isn't about war - its justifications, its high-minded ideologies, its dark utilitarian bargains. It's about ruin.

 

"Everyone fights an American war."

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review 2018-02-12 15:29
"American War" by Omar El Akkad - highly recommended.
American War - Omar El Akkad

I believe the thing that sets Omar El Akkad's "American War" apart is not his ability to build a powerful and compelling view of a 2075 America, damaged by global warming and collapsing into a civil war, prompted by the South's refusal to stop using fossil fuels, it is his creation of Sara T Chestnut - who calls herself Sarat. Sarat is a bright, curious young girl from Louisianna who is broken and finally destroyed by a war she had no part in making and a need for revenge that she cannot let go of.

 

Sarat is neither hero nor saint. She is strong, brave, bright and fierce. She has also been fundamentally ruined by the war she has lived through. What she does is literally atrocious. Why she does it is completely understandable.

 

It is this ability to help me understand Sarat without turning her into an object or either worship or contempt, that makes "American War" a great novel.

 

In the opening chapter of "American War" the narrator tells us that:

 

"This isn't a story about war, it's about ruin."

In this war of the MAG (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia) against the North, everything and everyone is ultimately ruined. America becomes a place of violence and vengeance. A place where you or either "Us" or the enemy. A place filled with the desperate poverty of refugee camps, the truculent aggression of militias, merciless oppression by the government and self-interested interference by foreign powers who covertly fuel the conflict with weapons and subversion while publicly offering humanitarian aid. There are assassinations, massacres, torture and bone-deep hatreds.

 

Yet there is nothing here that I cannot look around and see today in the Middle East or the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp or Turkey or in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Omar El Akkad is a journalist who has covered many wars and revolutions. He has not had to make up the things that come with war, What he has had to do is to help us see them with fresh eyes, to put ourselves in the shoes of the losing side, the oppressed, the refugees, the ones who have seen everyone they love and everything they care about destroyed by an enemy so powerful that victory is unimaginable and the only possibilities are survival or revenge.

 

"American War" is not a book that preaches through soundbites. The pace is slow, You feel the years passing and experience hope being slowly extinguished and being replaced by shame and anger and an insatiable need for revenge.  The book avoids being a series of platitudinous abstractions by focusing on Sarat's slow transformation from a bright, curious child, into fierce fighter and then to a woman broken and in constant pain.

 

Sarat doesn't theorise about war. Perhaps, as the product of it, she is too close to it to be able to see it as anything other than how the world is.

 

The theorising is left to an outsider, Karina, who keeps house for the Chesnuts at one point. She is the one who understands that, diverse as people are when there is peace, they all become the same in war. She believes that:

“The misery of war represents the world’s only truly universal language.”

and that:

"The universal slogan of war, she'd learned, was simple: if it had been you, you'd have done no different."

Karina also sees Sarat differently:

"Unkike everyone else, she didn't admire Miss Sarat or hold her in some revered esteem. The girl was still a child. At seventeen she was still less than half Karina's age.  She knew from experience that there existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early."

The only other commentator on what truly drives the conflict Sarat is engulfed by is made by her childhood friend, who, trying to explain why she thinks a certain action is right, says:

"In this part of the world right and wrong ain't about who  wins or who kills who. In this part of the world, right and wrong ain't even about right and wrong. It's about what you do for your own".

This is a statement you could hear all over the world, Treating others differently than your own seems to be a basic human response. When war comes, this response is the oxygen feeding the fire.

 

This novel reminded me that, if I want to understand acts or war or terrorism, I should always remember the "before" that led that person to that event. I don't have to condone them, but I'll never understand them if I stay ignorant of the "before".

 

"American War" is a grim book but an honest one. It is heartbreaking without being in the least bit exploitative. It's wonderfully well-written and brilliantly narrated by Dion Graham.  Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample:

 

https://soundcloud.com/pan-macmillan/american-wart-by-omar-el-akkad

 

og_image_nprbooksClick on the npr books logo to hear Lulu Garcia-Navarro interview Omar El Akkad on how "American War" explores the universality of revenge. In it, Omar El Akkad talks about Sarat and says:

"No. I don't think you're supposed to have sympathy for her. My only hope is that you understand why she did it. I think one of the things that's been lost in this incredibly polarized world we live in is the idea that it's possible to understand without taking somebody's side. So my only hope is that when you get to the end of the book, you're not on her side, you don't support her, you're not willing to apologize for her — but you understand how she got to the place where she is."

 

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text 2017-12-13 02:01
Reading progress update: I've read 230 out of 333 pages.
American War - Omar El Akkad

Angsty teen + war trauma = even worse angsty teen

 

Sarat isn't exactly a likeable person, but like Katniss, it's understandable.

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text 2017-12-09 01:32
Reading progress update: I've read 50 out of 352 pages.
American War - Omar El Akkad

This book seems more like ghosts of Christmas Future than fiction. Frightening.

 

Anyway, this book marks my halfway mark through my Book of the Month catchup. I think I'm making good progress.

 

 

I've had a low grade fever all week, so I am under the care of Nurse Fluffers. If I'm in my chair, you can bet money she's in my lap. If I'm in bed, you can guess she's curled against my hip. Good thing she's a tiny little girl. 

 

Bryan was given a rental truck. A 2017 Dodge Ram 4x4 that even has remote start. It's so nice it's depressing is to know we will have to hand it back over in a few days. But I got to drive it. Talk about nice. It's so tall I had to literally lift my bad leg into it because it couldn't reach that high. 

 

Think positive thoughts. My son tests for his blue belt in the morning. :)

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text 2017-11-12 22:44
Book of the Month Winter Catch-up
The Mothers: A Novel - Brit Bennett
All at Sea: A Memoir - Decca Aitkenhead
Swing Time - Zadie Smith
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth: A Novel - Lindsey Lee Johnson
Exit West - Mohsin Hamid
American War - Omar El Akkad
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI - David Grann

Usually, in November I do Nonfiction November. But since It ran long and I have been neglecting my Book of the Month selections, I'm skipping the November reads and going right into my December pile. December is dedicated to catching up on what selections I didn't get around to reading through the year. Well, I still have some from 2016, let alone 2017. Yeah.... I need to get that stack down. Let's see how many of these I can knock out. I can' even remember what some of these are about.

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