The Wrong “American War”? (Book Review) (Guest Post)

The following book review is a Guest Post by Russ Miller, an expert on literature, film, and other things.  Russ grew up in the West and currently lives in Virginia.

I just finished the absorbing and well-paced debut novel American War by Omar El Akkad.  It depicts a dystopian future centered on a second American civil war between the northern “blues” and the southern “reds.”  The war’s personal and national tragedy is related through the experiences of one ordinary southern family that ends up having a profound role in the conflict.

American War’s Division

The fissures leading to another fratricidal conflagration are mostly unexplained and unexplored.  We all know what they are – drawing as they do on the Republic’s historical, entrenched, accumulated animosities and resentments.  But the match that ignites the dry tinder this time (it is the late 21st century) is the southern states’ refusal to comply with a federal ban on the use of fossil fuels.

The ban on fossil fuels comes too late in any case.  Global warming and the resulting rise in sea levels has left the North American continent submerged and scorched in equal measure.  Florida is already under water and the national capital has long-ago removed to Columbus, Ohio.  These conditions exacerbate the conflict.  But the cause isn’t climatic.  It is something deeper.

American War: A novel is getting well-deserved positive reviews.  El Akkad is a Canadian-Egyptian journalist who makes terrific use of his foreigner’s objectivity towards the U.S. and the harrowing experience he’s made reporting from some of the world’s intractable conflicts.

El Akkad brilliantly converts most of our contemporary pathologies into grist for the book’s plot:  drone wars and torture; refugee camps and foreign-supported insurrections; and the obvious nod to today’s seemingly irreconcilable hostility between “reds” and “blues.”

Today’s Real Divide

Still, the book’s crux – a revival of America’s north/south hostility – misses its mark.  As the last presidential election made clear, the real divide in this riven and disconsolate country centers on values and political perspectives.  The fault-line defies geography.  As Robert Kaplan reveals in his new book “Earning the Rockies,” red and blue American are not places but deeply-rooted states of mind keyed to questions of cosmopolitanism, identity-politics, and faith.  Central Mississippi now is aligned with central Pennsylvania and Central Idaho.  Similarly, New York now is aligned with Minneapolis and Lexington, Kentucky.  Mason and Dixon can’t explain Donald J. Trump’s victory, at least not as neatly as El Akkad hopes.  And besides, aren’t the northern fracking fields of Pennsylvania and North Dakota the heart of America’s new oil boom?

To have served as a more effective critique (or cautionary parable) of our current desperate condition, El Akkad’s book would have done better to imagine a future of secular, progressive North American mega-city-states (northern and southern) that observe their own laws (Seattle may be marking the path for this) as part of a cosmopolitan, global, “blue” archipelago – a modern Hanseatic League.  The “red” rural rest should  have been portrayed as an exploited and disparaged class kept poor and at bay by brutal repression, walls, and humiliating check-points (in the way that Israel “manages” the occupied territories today).  The hinterlands would serve and resent the cities under the regressive, self-interested, and corrupt “governance” of sectarian chieftains or warlords (wouldn’t this be the Southern Baptist Convention).  Contemporary London – simply “The City” – on one hand, and present-day Syria and Iraq, on the other hand.  Those are the models for the conflict El Akkad imagines, not Charleston and Gettysburg.

El Akkad has the right idea.  I also regret our internecine, seemingly incommensurable divisions.   But he dares too little with the truth of our current malaise.  To have seen the heart of that, El Akkad need not have traveled to Alabama.  The short trip from his home “just south of Portland, Oregon” to Oregon’s Grant County (Portland and Multnomah County were exact mirrors of Grant County in the 2016 presidential election results) – east and not south – would have done the trick.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Trailer for Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water”

    Director Guillermo del Toro’s amazing visual style is on display in the trailer for his upcoming film, The Shape of Water.  The film, set during the Cold War in 1963, tells the story of a woman working at a government facility.  She discovers an intelligent sea creature that is being held for experiments.  From the trailer, it looks like a magical and suspenseful story.

    Sally Hawkins stars in the movie, which was written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor.  Other actors in the film include Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Lauren Lee Smith, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Doug Jones, who played Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films, plays the creature in The Shape of Water.

    If you have enjoyed del Toro’s work in films like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Hellboy (2004), you will not want to miss The Shape of Water.  Check out the trailer.

    The Shape of Water hits theaters on December 8, 2017.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Emmylou Harris Covers Steve Earle’s “The Pilgrim”

    Emmylou Harris recently appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert with her band The Red Dirt Boys and gave a moving performance of Steve Earle’s “The Pilgrim.” The song is my favorite from Earle’s bluegrass album The Mountain (1999), so it was great to hear Harris’s wonderful voice giving it a new interpretation and a new meaning.

    In introducing the song, Harris touched upon today’s political culture and the plight of refugees. She noted, “This song is for the over 65 million displaced persons around the world.”

    And then she began the song.

    I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys;
    This ain’t never been my home.
    Sometimes the road was rocky long the way, boys;
    But I was never travelin’ alone.

    Check it out.

    Harris and The Red Dirt Boys are touring to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her classic album Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers At The Ryman, which was recently re-issued.

    What is your favorite cover of a Steve Earle song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Death in Movies That Remind Us to Enjoy Life

    A past post discussed cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker and his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Denial of Death.  Here, we consider two movie scenes connected to themes from that book.

    As discussed previously, Becker’s book addresses how human beings are unique animals.  Our intelligence allows us to realize we are going to one day die.

    That knowledge of infinite death is overwhelming, so human beings adapt various ways of suppressing the knowledge.  We buy material things, we follow sports teams, and we join clubs.  Also, we attach ourselves to groups, cultural items, strong political leaders, and things that appear to give us a subconscious feeling of immortality.

    Becker argued that some of the ways we suppress our subconscious fears of death are unhealthy.  He reasoned that a better way to live is with conscious understanding of our situation.  In Denial of Death, he wrote that whatever humans do “has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything.”

    Some songs illustrate an aspect of this point:  if you consciously realize your days are numbered, you may better evaluate and spend your time on what is important in your life.  Two movie scenes illustrate a similar point.

    In Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays a teacher at an all-boys school.  In this scene, he attempts to get the students to confront their own mortality, hoping that if they realize their time is precious, they will better use the time they have.

    Woody Allen has often discussed how Becker’s work has influenced his movies. In Annie Hall, there is a scene in a book store where Alvy (Woody Allen) gives Becker’s Denial of Death to Annie (Diane Keaton).

    But another Allen movie sums up an aspect of Becker’s book in song. In this scene from Woody Allen’s musical, Everyone Says I Love You, the guest of honor at a funeral reminds the attendees of the fleeting nature of life.

    So go enjoy yourself. Carpe diem. It’s later than you think.

    What is your favorite movie about death? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    “Roll Columbia” Captures Spirit of Woody Guthrie (Album Review)

    Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs will make you feel like you are sitting in a bar in Oregon listening to singers capture the spirit of Guthrie.  The album, released by Smithsonian Folkways in early 2017, pays tribute to the 26 songs Guthrie wrote in 30 days while working for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA).

    Guthrie began his work for the BPA in May 1941, documenting what he saw in the Pacific Northwest.  During his month there, he was paid $267.  And in that short time he produced a number of songs used for a BPA movie soundtrack that later would be abandoned.  Guthrie only recorded 17 of the songs, but researchers discovered the other nine songs in the 1980s.

    Folklorist Bill Murlin and Joe Seamons worked together to create Roll Columbia, an album putting together Guthrie’s BPA songs.  What makes the album special is that the artists on the album all currently live in the Pacific Northwest.  So, their connection to the place brings an added immediacy and timelessness to the songs.

    You will recognize some of the songs on the album, such as one of Guthrie’s greatest songs, “Roll On, Columbia, Roll On.”  Other songs you may know include versions of “Jackhammer John” and “Hard Travelin’.”  But one of the joys of the collection is hearing new songs, or old songs interpreted in new ways.  One of my favorites is “Eleckatricity and All,” recorded by Annalisa Tornfelt, Emily Dalafolet, and Kristin Tornfelt.

    The producers asked each artist on the album to record two songs from the BPA collection.  Some artists stayed very close to Guthrie’s melodies and styles, while some took slightly different approaches.  But they all still capture Guthrie’s spirit.  The performances would not be out of place in a small Northwest bar or club.

    The liner notes for Roll Columbia are wonderful.  They not only tell the history of Guthrie’s songs.  They also provide additional information about the specific recordings and artists for each song.

    Artists on the album include: Carl Allen, Kristin Andreassen, Peter Buck, Darrin Craig, Steve Einhorn, Chris Funk, Tony Furtado, David Grisman, Tracy Grisman, Ben Hunter, Michael Hurley, Al James, Orville Johnson, Scott McCaughey, John Moen, Cahalen Morrison, Bill Murlin and Fine Company, Jon Neufeld, Kate Power, George Rezendes, Pharis and Jason Romero, Caitlin Belem Romtvedt, David Romtvedt, Joe Seamons, Martha Scanlan, Timberbound, and Annalisa Tornfelt and the Tornfelt Sisters.

    Interestingly, the producers also recognize the complex politics underlying the songs.  They realize how our views about dams have changed over time.  Thus, it is interesting to speculate about how Guthrie today might have approached some of these songs.  How would knowledge about the environmental impact of dams affect his approach?

    Overall, Roll Columbia: Woody Guthrie’s 26 Northwest Songs is a highly enjoyable collection, providing an album you will want to put on and listen to several times.  You’ll enjoy the music on its own.  And you may also enjoy the stories behind the creation of the songs and the historical context.

    For more on the story of how Guthrie came to write these songs, check out the book 26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie & the Planned Promised Land by Greg Vandy. This short video shows a little more about Guthrie’s work for the BPA film.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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