Underground Books: American War by Omar El Akkad

Underground Books is a monthly book club that meets at 6:00 pm on the second Monday of the month at Main. We’re readers of books that are not typical book club fare – the subversive, the under-the radar, and the controversial. Every month, I’ll give a preview of what we’re reading, questions the book raises and start a discussion online for those who can’t make in person. Welcome to The Underground!

Hello readers! This month’s book is the 2017 novel American War by Omar El Akkad. Set roughly 60 years in the future in an America ravaged by climate change and a second civil war, it’s a story about the destruction of a nation, a family and a person by war. A cautionary tale that raises serious issues about our current national and global state of affairs, and what the future may hold. A heavy subject, yes, but worth the journey.

Opening in 2075,  the earth has warmed, the oceans have enveloped the coasts and submerged what little is left after increasingly severe storms batter the land. In response to multiple environmental disasters across the continent, the federal government – now based in Columbus, Ohio – bans the use of fossil fuels. The southern states defy the ban, and after a series of terrorist attacks culminating in the assassination of the president, the U.S. is again plunged into civil war.  This is a war of modern times –  out-of-control drones, homicide bombers, guerilla warfare, detainment camps and biological weapons deployed against an entire state.

The novel follows the Chestnut family of flood-prone Louisiana, displaced from their home by the Battles of East Texas to an overcrowded refugee camp on the border of Tennessee. Here Sarat Chestnut comes of age among the mundane cruelties of war.  She and her family – her older brother Simon, twin sister Dana, and mother Martina – try to make a life for themselves while waiting for the end of the war.  Sarat, already considered an outsider because of her tall and awkward build, grows rebellious and is befriended by a mysterious older man who once fought overseas for the North, or, at least, the North when the country was whole. He feeds her a steady diet of Southern mythos, sending her on a path to become an instrument of revenge.  As the narrator says in the prologue, “This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.”

Assorted musings:

  • When I chose this book, I based it on, of course, the numerous good reviews it had received, and I was intrigued by concept. Given the current political climate, the possibility of another civil war in the U.S. has been raised more than once. What surprised me, however, was that the crux of the war was fossil fuels. I can understand the idea of Southern states objecting to the exercise of broad federal power, and a desire to protect mining and off-shore drilling, but what I noticed most was the absence of any mention of race or ethnicity. At the start of the novel, Sarat is described as having “fuzzy” hair, and that her father had immigrated from Mexico, but that’s the only mention of race in the entire novel. I suppose the argument could be made that by 2075, race is no longer an issue, but if we’re still arguing about red vs. blue and states’ rights vs. federal authority, I have a hard time suspending that disbelief.
  • The author is an award-winning journalist born in Egypt, raised in Qatar, now living in Oregon, and he reported extensively on Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and the Arab Spring. El Akkad’s journalistic expertise is apparent in this novel, as major aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are transported to America. In many cases, it’s a note-for-note transcription. I wonder if that works for everyone? While the purpose of the novel is, arguably, to create empathy for the very real wars happening now and to also serve as a cautionary tale, could the novel have taken more liberties? I don’t mean that it should have been a Hunger Games-esque battle royale, but something more adapted to the setting.

Quotes I would have underlined if it wasn’t a library book:

“How long ago was this?” she asked.
“Must have been around ’21 or ’22,” said Gaines.  “Around the time they sent us over there for the third time, right around the Fifth Spring.”
Joe leaned close to Sarat; he looked at the photograph again. “That’s right,” he said. “I remember, I remember when it was still your guns and our blood.” (p. 139)

She remembered something Albert Gaines once told her all those years ago in Patience. He said when a Southerner tells you what they’re fighting for, you can agree or disagree, but you can’t ever call it a lie. Right or wrong, he said, a man from our country always says exactly what he means , and stands by what he says.
Even that, it turned out, was a lie. (p. 278)

You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories. (p. 280)

What do you think? Let me know in the comments! And join us on April 9th at 6:00 at Main to discuss in real life! Next month, we’ll be reading Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – copies available at Main, or pick one up wherever convenient!

Online Reading Challenge – April

Hurrah! It’s April which means flowers and birdsong and springtime! And, it means it’s time for the next installment of the Online Reading Challenge! This month we’re traveling to the 1800s!

“Whoa!” I can hear you say. “1800s?! Isn’t that kind of a broad time period?! Like, everything happened in the 1800s!” OK, not everything happened in the 1800s, but I admit, a lot did happen. Which just means you have even more great books (and movies) to choose from. To make it a little easier, I’ve divided some suggestions by event/era.

Regency. This is the time period of Jane Austen, which enough said. If you haven’t read Jane Austen, here’s your chance. My favorite is Persuasion, but I love the others of the “big four” (Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility) We could (well, I could) spend an entire reading year discussing these books and debating the merits of the many movies that have been made from them (by far, my favorite movie is Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson although I also dearly love the BBC’s production of Emma.)

If Jane Austen isn’t your thing (which I can’t even fathom), I highly recommend the Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brian. Set in the world of tall ships, when the British Navy ruled supreme, this is a series (20 volumes!) full of adventure, intrigue, heartbreak and humor. Highly recommended.

Civil War. There are a lot of books set during the Civil War and for good reason. It’s a time that defined the American character in many ways and it was a sharp divide between the past and the future. Look for authors Jeff and Michael Shaara and Shelby Foote. Or go classic with Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell or Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.  Another excellent option is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

Victorian. Ah, so many books. Lots and lots of mysteries in this category including Sherlock Holmes. I really liked the mysteries by Deanna Raybourn and Tasha Alexander – strong women characters and charming settings. Light and fun.

Some random recommendations include Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier about the discovery of fossils by ordinary women, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

You’ll notice that there aren’t any titles about the “Wild West” – we’ll be reading about Westward Expansion in a few months, so I’m keeping those titles for that time period.

I’m going to read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry about a young widow who moves from London to the country and finds herself drawn into a mystery. Sounds intriguing!

That’s just the tip of the iceberg – be sure to stop by one of our Davenport locations for displays with lots more titles to consider. And don’t forget to tell us what you pick!

Online Reading Challenge – March Wrap-Up

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

How was your month? What fabulous book or movie did you discover in March? Or was it an “off” month for you? Tell us about your experience!

This month I read Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and it was a winner! I really enjoyed this book – thoughtful, complex, sometimes terrifying and ultimately hopeful. Brilliant.

Station Eleven takes place in the near future after a flu epidemic has wiped out 99% of the population and civilization as we know it has collapsed. No electricity, no running water, no food production, no (gasp!) Internet. Survivors are scattered and isolated, suspicious and wary of anyone they may come across.

In the midst of this landscape of the struggle to survive, the Traveling Symphony moves from one tiny settlement to another, along a circular route through what was once Michigan, bringing a reminder of life before the epidemic by performing Shakespeare and classical music to small but appreciative groups.

However, not everyone is welcoming. A radical group forms, headed by the mysterious Prophet, who proclaims that the Flu was divine intervention. Anyone unfortunate enough to run across him and disagree is ruthlessly hunted down. The Traveling Symphony at first manages to escape, but the Prophet isn’t far behind.

The book moves back and forth through time, showing life before the Flu and life after. There are connections between several characters, from “before” to “after”, which are fascinating to watch unfold and the origin of the title of the book is unexpected, devastating and fitting.

There are a lot of themes and emotions in Station Eleven. Fear, sometimes overwhelming, is often present. Grief, for the world that no longer exists and the loved ones that didn’t survive, is never far away. The grim, constant battle for survival is wearing. And yet, as the years after the Flu pass, people are drawn together, to create families and communities, to share resources and stories. The Traveling Symphony’s motto (taken from an episode of Star Trek) is “survival is not enough”. Humans need stories and history and art and connection. Even in the worst of times, humans will strive for something more.

Yes, this book depicts a dystopian world that is devastated and life is hard, but it also argues that humanity manages to rise above. (It helps that humans only destroyed themselves; Earth and nature have not been laid to waste). Yes, at times it is scary difficult to read – a devastating flu epidemic is not beyond imagination. But ultimately the feeling I came away with after reading this book was of hope and possibility. Highly recommended.

Now it’s your turn – what did you read this month?

Scheduling Time To Think

Even though I could have named this blog post “Here’s Another Cool Thing Ariana Huffington Shared On LinkedIn”, this article  by Shane Parrish entitled “Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Thoughts On Thinking” makes compelling points about carving out a time to think. Ain’t nobody got time for that, you might say. But we are mistaken, my friends.  Our hyper-tasking tendencies only create the illusion that we’re accomplishing multiple tasks simultaneously; but in reality, we are not completing any one task fully or even partially. I think the point is that if we slow down and do a little bit more contemplative work on the front end, we will save ourselves time and more importantly learn how to honor our own authentic voice above the noise of the crowd.

If you’re like me, you haven’t scheduled “Time to think” on your calendar lately but you know that twentieth-century living is marked by a type of frenetic energy and pace of “being busy”. We’ve all heard our friends, family members, teachers, doctors, significant others, servers, and others repeat the exasperated expression “I’m so busy”, or “I’m too busy to … ” and we ourselves have likely uttered these words, too. But isn’t it odd we don’t even have much “proof” of our busy-ness except for rapid heart-rates and elevated cortisol and blood pressure levels? I mean, that might be a little bit hyperbolic, but what do we have to show for scurrying about like we’re completely mad? With what, exactly, are we busying ourselves? Most of the time, and I’ll speak for myself here, the sense of urgency I feel and convey to others about my busy-ness is self-imposed. Oftentimes, we would be far better-equipped to make life’s easier and more difficult decisions if we just took the time up front to slow down and think. Parrish, the author of the article I linked to earlier, says succinctly:

“I actually schedule time to think. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I protect this time as if my livelihood depended on it because it does. Sometimes I’m in the office and sometimes I’m in a coffee shop. I’m not always thinking about a problem that I’m wrestling with. I’m often just thinking about things I already know or, more accurately, things I think I know. Setting aside time for thinking works wonders, not only for me but also for most of the people I’ve convinced to give it a try. The problem with not having time to think is nailed by William Deresiewicz, who said: ‘I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom.'”

Pretty insightful, right? How well do you know your own thoughts? Have you ever taken the time to sort through your own tendencies and thought processes? Although a yoga or meditation practice is different from penciling in time to think, I would guess that the outcome is similar. In making time for yourself, you begin to know yourself more deeply, and what is more profound than that?

Bringing awareness to your thought processes, tendencies, and patterns enables you to be an active agent in your life without living merely at the mercy of your reactions and impulses. Contemplating how you think negates living as though you’re a hamster in a wheel. And maybe the better point is that patience and time are required to arrive at your authentic and original thoughts. Some things simply cannot be done well if they are done rapidly.  Maybe it’s just that there are no shortcuts to arriving at a well-conceived answer and you owe it to yourself to find out what you really think, desire, and need in your own life. What might scheduling time to think actually look like for you? Would you allow yourself that time, and if not, why?

The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One by Amanda Lovelace

The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One … love this title … and come on … that title pretty much says it all. A bit of misandry wherein I prefer feminism (equality of the sexes) but this is a quick powerful read for that witch in all of us both male and female. Seems to be written at the height of the 2016 election and the women’s marches thereafter. Here’s an excerpt from page 127:

forget

being ladylike

(whatever

the hell that means)

& allow

yourself to

show

the world

just how

unapologetically

angry

this

inequity

makes you.

let it all

go.

-throw flames like a girl.

Thought provoking, anger provoking, female power provoking read. Very short and quick. Check it out to give yourself a bit of a punch of always needed fire.

Hurrah! It’s Spring!

Well, according to the calendar, it’s Spring again. This being the Midwest, Spring is likely to struggle a bit to really take hold, but it is definitely moving from winter to spring, the best season of all.

This also means it’s time to take a look at the new crop of gardening books. There are always new ones being published early in the year, taking advantage of cabin fever and greening grass. Here are just a few:

The Flower Powered Garden: Supercharge Your Borders and Containers with Bold, Colorful Plant Combinations by Andy Vernon.

Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix: 224 New Plants to Shake Up Your Garden and Add Variety, Flavor and Fun by Niki Jabbour

Martha’s Flowers: a Practical Guide to Growing, Gathering and Enjoying by Martha Stewart

My Floral Affair: Whimsical Spaces and Beautiful Florals by Rachel Ashwell

Color Me Floral: Stunning Monochromatic Arrangements for Every Season by Kiana Underwood

The Less is More Garden: Big Ideas for Designing Your Small Yard by Susan Morrison

Vegetables Love Flowers: Companion Planting for Beauty and Bounty by Lisa Ziegler

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life by Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush

I find myself frequently wondering about the lives of celebrities and political figures outside of the spotlight. While I never wish to live their lives overrun with media attention and constant scrutiny, my desire and curiosity about their normal day-to-day lives still lingers. Books and documentaries are one way that I am able to satisfy my curiosity to learn more, so I’m always on the hunt for more.

Pouring over OverDrive recent releases, I found Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life by Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush. I remembered hearing one elderly relative refer to the Bush family as the Bush Dynasty and as a result, the Bush twins lived in my mind as royalty. After all, both their grandfather and father were presidents, so that must mean they would grow up to be presidents too, right? My young mind always wondered what it would be like to grow up in such a politically minded family where the whole world had a vested interest in all of the decisions your father and grandfather made on a daily basis.

Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life was an intriguing look into the lives of former first daughters Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush. When they were very young, they watched their grandfather become president. The stories the twins tell of their grandfather, though, are less of him being president, and more of him being a doting grandfather who just wants to spend more time with his grandchildren. Twelve years after their grandfather became president, the twins were right back again watching their father take the oath.

Living a life with their father as president meant that Jenna and Barbara had increased security. Secret Service agents followed them around throughout their college years (College was hard enough! I can’t imagine having to check in with Secret Service agents continuously!). The paparazzi and Secret Service agents seemed to control and follow their every movements. Every teenage mistake they made could be found splashed across the national headlines the next day.

Despite the constant attention, Jenna and Barbara worked hard to form their own individual identities separate from their father’s and grandfather’s histories. They were still trying to figure out what their futures would look like, still forging friendships and intimate relationships, even with the extraordinary circumstances that ruled their day-to-day lives. This book provides a glimpse into the little known and seldom discussed personal lives of political families and the impact being born into a political dynasty has on the young children involved.

Jenna and Barbara fill this memoir with equal parts political and personal, funny and poignant stories of their childhood, young adult, and current lives within the Bush family and the greater world. Their lives may not have been the typical American story, but it’s all they knew. As the tagline of this book says, the Bush twins lived a ‘wild and wonderful life’ that was piled full of adventures, bonds, love and loss. I enjoyed the broad-sweeping stories present in this narrative that covered everything from their childhood to their current lives.

If you get the chance, I recommend that you listen to this book as an audiobook. Both Jenna and Barbara narrate their respective sections with their mother narrating at the very beginning. Hearing their voices lent both more credibility and a sense of relatability as each sister told of the events that forged them to become the people they are today. I really enjoyed seeing history through the eyes of the Bush twins as young children, then teenagers, and then young adults.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check-in

Hello Online Reading Challengers!

How is your March reading going? Are you still scrunching up your nose at the idea of science fiction? Try a movie! They’re like an adventure story, only with lots more makeup! Here are some ideas to get you started:

Mad Max: Fury Road starring Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy is a non-stop action, can’t-catch-your-breath, edge-of-your-seat survival story. But beyond all that sand and all those crazy people, there’s a lot of humanity.

Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049. Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) is a “blade runner”, stalking genetically replicated criminal replicants in a chaotic society that is nearly impossible to tell what’s real. The new film takes place 30 years further into the future and a new blade runner (Ryan Gosling) and his search for the former blade runner.

Her. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Is it possible to fall in love with an Artificial Intelligence? What happens when the AI believes it has outgrown you and wants to “break up”? It’s a question that hits closer to home in this age of Alexa. Quirky, touching and cautionary.

Tired of all the scarey, dystopian visions of the future? Then go for Star Trek, which presents a future that, while we’re still not perfect, at least we haven’t blown up the Earth (yet) and have managed to live among the stars. You have lots to choose from – television series, movies, original, spinoffs, alternate universes.

The Blue Zones of Happiness: A Blueprint for a Better Life by Dan Buettner

New York Times best-selling author Dan Buettner’s second book delves deeper into what factors aid in an individual’s happiness, as well as “the macrocosm” of one’s dwelling in a specific place, be it a small town, city and even how a country’s national policies can play an important role in individual lives. Buettner expounds on how the actual environment, green space, traffic, etc. play a huge role in one’s personal happiness. The Blue Zones of Happiness is full of useful information that is both realistic and constructive. You will enjoy reading this book and taking a more realistic look at the current place, be it a farm, city, small town and state where you live.

The book encourages all of us to look objectively at the environments in which we live and find areas to make change. His scenarios and qualitative data are a resource for local communities and towns and city councils looking to make their spaces more pedestrian and green space friendly whilst at the same time improving upon the health and well-being of the lives of its’ local citizens, making the areas more attractive for new business and providing leverage and economy to flourish.

One example Buettner gives is Boulder, Colorado. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s corporate redevelopment companies wanted to build into the mountains and foothills and build the city up, meaning high-rises and tower building. However because of a concentrated effort to keep the mountain views open and a campaign of environmental activism in keeping the city limits drawn and the green spaces pedestrian friendly and high-rise free, today Boulder is a thriving city economically and considered one of the best places to live in the world.

The Blue Zones of Happiness is a great tool if you are interested in solutions for your own neighborhood or as a tool to educate elected officials and make aware the importance of healthy, environmentally and pedestrian friendly spaces that improve upon community members’ healthy lifestyles such as walking and bicycling. This book is a useful manual for individuals and communities to take the initiative toward happier, healthier lives.

Bad Behavior has blocked 1399 access attempts in the last 7 days.