american war

I’ve been listening to a ton of audiobooks lately while I draw during the day. I recently finished American War by Omar El Akkad, his killer debut novel. El Akkad has reported myriad events across the globe, including Egypt’s Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement originating in Ferguson, Missouri, the war in Afghanistan, and the Guantànamo Bay trials. From Goodreads:

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be.

Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

The book imagines a United States in about 50 years from now, not so united anymore after civil war breaks out between the North and South (again), this time over a law banning fossil fuels. The capital has moved from Washington D.C. to Columbus, Ohio. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia secede, fighting the North to still use oil and coal, while the rest of the country (and, apparently, world) forges ahead with renewable energy. South Carolina is a quarantine state.

It’s not difficult to speculate on another civil war occurring in the United States, based on its current political and ideological divisiveness, with unsettling surges of violence, intolerance, and hate crimes across the country. Historical issues of war such as families torn apart and living indefinitely in refugee camps, children recruited as guerrilla soldiers, cities and towns destroyed, and corrupt politicians appear in El Akkad’s vision of America’s future here, making it that much more believable.

It’s pretty clear that American War serves as an allegory of the Iraq War, with climate change as the book’s catalyst. The climate change aspect is realistic and handled well, but I found it a little strange that race is only brought up in the periphery, and I can’t recall religion being mentioned at all. It’s a noticeable omission, since race and religion loom so large in American society and politics now (still). It would be reasonable to conclude that race and religion would also be factors in an American civil war taking place just a short 50 years from now.

That said, I was able to suspend my disbelief and become immersed in this ruined-wasteland vision of America’s South. I’ve heard that the printed book has a few pages of maps, which I’m sorry I missed out on with the audio, but narrator Dion Graham (who also recorded the audio for the incredible Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 book Evicted by Matthew Desmond) did a fantastic job adding dimension to the characters and dramatizing the action scenes. I really liked El Akkad’s technique of dispersing “historical documentation” with Sarat’s journey, so the reader has a change to learn about how we got to this point.

American War is a fine addition the dystopian-climate change fiction genre popular right now.

Listened to audiobook in April 2017.

reading recap: september 2016

We’re almost through October all of a sudden! Time is a little weird for me here in Singapore, firstly because I’m on “temporary unlimited vacation” (code for job-free) right now, and secondly because the weather is such that it’s basically perpetually August. So I sort of feel like every day is an August Saturday, and it’s tough to make myself get on the computer these days when I have pretty much zero routine. But when I realized October is almost over, I figured I should put up my September books and try to get myself back on track! Here’s what I read in September:

sept-reading

  • My Life on the Road … Gloria Steinem
  • Station Eleven … Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Vegetarian … Han Kang
  • We Were Liars (audio) … E. Lockhart, read by Ariadne Meyers
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (audio) … Dee Brown, read by Grover Gardner
  • The Underground Railroad (ebook) … Colson Whitehead
  • Yes, Chef (audio) … Marcus Samuelsson, read by author

My two best reads of the month were Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Station Eleven. I’d been wanting to read Bury My Heart forever, maybe since high school, and it was just as devastating and infuriating as I knew it would be, but so important and one that every American should read. I bought Station Eleven almost right after it was first released, but kept putting it off—that whole thing where you’re worried a book won’t live up to the hype or expectations. But luckily it totally did live up to the hype (for me). I loved how it was a different look at society’s not only practical but also cultural needs after a collapse, and that the reader is shown the process of and reason for the collapse rather than just the aftermath (as in so many future-dystopia books I’ve read).

The Vegetarian was brief but interesting and strange, and I thought about it quite a long time after finishing. We Were Liars, also a brief read, was kind of predictable and reminded me (once AGAIN) that I should not pick up YA lit. But I do understand the appeal, no judgement here of those who love YA. I love a good food memoir, and Yes, Chef was enjoyable enough and he certainly has had a incredible life and career, even if I didn’t “click” with Samuelsson so much on a personal level like I did with other memiorists. Like I did with Gloria Steinem in My Life on the Road. I shamefully didn’t know much about her life before reading this book, and I really enjoyed “tagging along” on her travels and speaking engagements (so to speak). Her insight on the 2008 democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was illuminating, especially at this moment eight years later.

And here’s my unpopular opinion of the month: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad didn’t really do it for me. While the subject matter is extremely important and timely even today, the characters fell flat and the plot felt disjointed for me. I’m the odd one out it seems, looks like the majority of readers were blown away, so don’t let my feelings stop you from reading it if it’s on your list.

October recap coming next week (on time!)
monthly recap image

authority

Last week I drove to Wisconsin for my family reunion and decided on Authority by Jeff VanderMeer first, to listen to on the way up there. From Goodreads:

For thirty years, a secret agency called the Southern Reach has monitored expeditions into Area X—a remote and lush terrain mysteriously sequestered from civilization. After the twelfth expedition, the Southern Reach is in disarray, and John Rodriguez (aka “Control”) is the team’s newly appointed head. From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and more than two hundred hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the secrets of Area X begin to reveal themselves—and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he’s promised to serve.

I read Annihilation last year and thought it was great—a mind-bending and gripping slim fantastical sci-fi novel that sparked my imagination and kept me turning pages. Authority wasn’t quite on the same level, but I was compelled enough to listen all the way through. The characters in this one weren’t as intriguing as the expedition members in Annihilation. In general, I’d say Authority was long on words and short on action, especially in the middle section. The audiobook version I listened to was narrated well, by Bronson Pinchot (Cousin Balki from Perfect Strangers, for all you TGIF early 90s kids!)

I like that VanderMeer doesn’t go with white males in this trilogy—from the women in the first book to a Latino character as the protagonist in this one. In Authority, you start to wonder more about Area X’s wider effects on humans: physical, emotional, psychological? The interviews between Control and the biologist were great, and that ending! No spoilers, but it was a nail-biter and a good cliffhanger setting up the next installment, Acceptance (which I have, hoping to get to it by the end of the summer).

Authority is not a stand-alone novel the way Annihilation is. This second book is a slow, creeping mystery and (hopefully) a good bridge between the first and last volumes. I wanted this to be as good as Annihilation, but I still can’t wait to dig into Acceptance soon to find out what Area X is really all about.

Listened to audiobook on July 8, 2015.

annihilation

I mentioned in an earlier post that my husband has been asking about messed up dystopian novels (“ones where everyone dies or everything is destroyed,” he says) so I’ve been on the hunt for something along those lines for him. In my search I came across Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer a number of times. From Goodreads:

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer. This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself. They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

I picked this up from the library for Nick to give it a shot, and I ended up reading it in just a few days. The futuristic Annihilation is a pretty slim volume—just under 200 pages—but VanderMeer manages to create a vivid, curious, and terrifying portrait of Area X. Was it a radioactive or nuclear disaster? Aliens? We don’t learn the reason for Area X being how it is, only that it’s screwing with everyone who goes there. Who’s trustworthy and who’s not? What is the purpose of their mission—is it really to collect biological samples and survey the land, or something else they’re not privy to?

Annihilation is hard to exactly fit into a specific category. Sci-fi absolutely, but a weird sci-fi. Eerie fantasy could be in there a little too, horror, mystery, psychological thriller, dystopian fiction. I wouldn’t say the dialogue is profound, and the prose is super visually evocative, so I’ll say for this one that I’d be eager to see what a filmmaker could do with this story. It dragged in the middle for me just a bit, but the ending was super gripping and near impossible to put down until I finished. My imagination went wild with Annihilation—it is a mind-bending, enigmatic, and intense, especially at the end. It was really unsettling (in a good way).

I am intrigued enough to continue the series! I hear the second book (out last month, and the final installment is released this November—brilliant move by the author and publishers to put out all three within 12 months, I think!) is very different from this first one.

Read from May 17 to 22, 2014.

the explorer

A couple weeks ago during Bout of Books 10, I read The Explorer by James Smythe. From Goodreads:

When journalist Cormac Easton is selected to document the first manned mission into deep space, he dreams of securing his place in history as one of humanity’s great explorers. But in space, nothing goes according to plan. The crew wake from hypersleep to discover their captain dead in his allegedly fail-proof safety pod. They mourn, and Cormac sends a beautifully written eulogy back to Earth. The word from ground control is unequivocal: no matter what happens, the mission must continue. But as the body count begins to rise, Cormac finds himself alone and spiraling towards his own inevitable death… unless he can do something to stop it.

James Smythe landed on my radar through Goodreads giveaways (never won!) and reviews by Michael at Literary Exploration. When I saw The Explorer was on sale through iBooks for only a couple of bucks, I went for it. I’ve since discovered that Smythe is a hard author to find in the United States!

I was very intrigued by The Explorer‘s plot, perhaps because I just read The Martian earlier this year. The basic premise of each is roughly in the same vein, but in many ways completely different. This book is hard to talk about without giving away spoilers! But I can say that I liked the writing style here, kind of reminded me a little bit of Chuck Palahniuk (or maybe that Cormac reminded me of one of Palahniuk’s signature male protagonists). It has some mind-bending elements, and leaves the reader wondering what is real and what is not. Cormac is at times a sympathetic character, and other times really frustrating. I have to say the characterizations of women were sadly underwhelming. They are supposed to be brilliant, kick-ass, adventuresome scientists! Instead we get one-dimensional stereotypes. Meh.

If you’re looking for lots of action-action, you’ll probably be disappointed. Also, I can’t say that the science makes 100% sense all the time—the stopping/starting of the ship and how the gravity works with that confused me, among a few other things. But I’m no expert and not super familiar with this genre, so I was able to suspend my disbelief through most of the story. The Explorer is more of a psychological suspense, delving into the human psyche facing inevitable death, fear, the unknown, regrets, depression. Smythe did a great job conveying the soul-crushing, desolate isolation that Cormac deals with in deep space (which I missed and was looking for in The Martian).

I’d definitely be interested in reading more James Smythe work in the future!

Read from May 13 to 16, 2014.

survivor

Posting this during Bout of Books 10, part of my goals to catch up on neglected reviews! On our road trip to Ohio last month, Nick and I listened to Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk on audiobook. From Goodreads:

Tender Branson—last surviving member of the so-called Creedish Death Cult—is dictating his life story into the flight recorder of Flight 2039, cruising on autopilot at 39,000 feet somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. He is all alone in the airplane, which will crash shortly into the vast Australian outback. But before it does, he will unfold the tale of his journey from an obedient Creedish child and humble domestic servant to an ultra-buffed, steroid-and collagen-packed media messiah.

I have read a few books of Palahniuk’s before several years ago—Fight ClubChoke, and Lullaby. I’m not sure I would have ever classified him as a “favorite” author, but I enjoyed the sort of unconventional shock factor and biting commentary on society in his stories. I always meant to read more, but ya know. School, other random life things, other books. Now my husband has become interested in Palahniuk’s work so I thought this would be a great audiobook for us both on the road trip, and it was!

Survivor definitely has Palahniuk’s signature style, which contributes both to it’s success and flaws, I think. Great, creative premise and attention-grabbing story. However if you’ve read his other books, the protagonist is pretty familiar: a misanthropic anti-hero, fairly bitter about life and the world, disenchanted attitude, nihilist tendencies, signature flat-delivery touch of dark humor. And on top of that, in Survivor, the plot line sort of loosely followed Fight Club, with the quirky, confusing female love interest and the rebellion from the society in which he was raised, dealing with internal (and external) insecurities, an so forth.

But while these elements are familiar, I still enjoyed it. The settings of the cult and the airplane were great and interesting! Maybe Palahniuk is an author best enjoyed in infrequent doses. I read some other reviews and people seemed to be worn out on the similarities between his books a lot. Perhaps I liked this one more because it had been so long since I read anything by him? Anyway. I also thought the narrator (Paul Michael Garcia) did a fantastic job conveying Tender Branson’s personality (or intentional lack thereof!) and diversifying each character. Recommended for fans of dark, satiric speculative fiction!

Listened to audiobook from April 3 to 6, 2014.