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 “11.22.63” Stephen King Miniseries

    Hulu is producing an eight-part miniseries based on Stephen King’s novel 11.22.63, a delightful time-travel novel that Chimesfreedom reviewed earlier. The new trailer for the miniseries features actor James Franco as the time-traveling Jake Epping.

    As discussed in our review of the book, 11.22.63 centers on Epping’s attempts to stop the John F. Kennedy assassination. Before acting decisively, though, he has to investigate whether or not Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president. I loved the book, and this trailer makes me excited for the miniseries too.

    The miniseries 11.22.63 is directed by Kevin Macdonald and also stars Chris Cooper, Cherry Jones, and Josh Duhamel. The miniseries hits Hulu on February 15, 2016, which is Presidents’ Day.

    What is your favorite Stephen King adaptation? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Bane Humor

    Warner Bros. recently confirmed that the scenes in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) where Bane was doing something with some type of string was a reference to Madame Defarge’s knitting in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. The revelation ties together several aspects of the film that connect to the Dickens book, including similarities between Defarge and Bane, Commissioner Gordon quoting A Tale of Two Cities at Bruce Wayne’s funeral, and similar endings of sacrifice. We have not thought about a movie’s connection to a great work of literature since we thought about Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan‘s connection to a famous Herman Melville whale.

    In light of this new information about Bane and Tom Hardy’s portrayal of the villain, Chimesfreedom figured it would be a good time to look back at some of the funnier videos about Bane in case you missed them the first time around. For example, in this video from Funny or Die, Chris Kattan imagines what life would be like for Bane were he in a normal job like telemarketing.

    But even before the movie was out, Pee Wee Herman gave us his own impression of Bane as well as other characters in The Dark Knight Rises trailer. Check out the Pee Wee version of the trailer done for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

    In one episode of South Park, Cartman invoked his inner Bane while using one of his own catchphrases.

    In this video, comedian Sam Beman went through the Chick-fil-A drive thru to order some food as Bane. Check it out.

    And there is my favorite, the tale of Bane Cat. Here is the original video featuring Bane Cat.

    There is a Part 2 and “Christmas with Bane Cat” which you may watch on YouTube (although I much prefer the above episode over the sequels). And do not worry, as explained in the “making of” video, Bane Cat was not harmed during the making of the video.

    What is your favorite Bane video? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    For those unfamiliar with the story (spoiler alert), the main character builds a time machine and travels through time. Near the end, he travels far into the future and discovers that society has crumbled and that the humans do not have knowledge about the past or how to survive on their own. In the 1960 movie, “H. George Wells,” played by Rod Taylor, leaves this future to go back to his present time briefly, ultimately returning back to the future. One of Wells’s friends in the present realizes that Wells has used his time machine once again and he notices that Wells took three books from his library with him. The friend and Wells’s housekeeper ponder what three books Wells might have taken, but the movie leaves the question open.

    The question about the books is not in the 2002 version of The Time Machine, directed by Simon Wells, who is the great-grandson of H.G. Wells. Apparently, it does not appear in the book either, so it is an addition to the 1960 movie version, which was directed by George Pal. It is an interesting question, not asking for your most enjoyable books but for what books should be the basis for civilization.

    There are a few discussion boards about the question, including here and here. Many folks raise the possibility of The Bible as one of the books, while others raise concerns about the problems caused by religion. Many others logically insist that the three books should include books on science or history, while others note that one of the themes of The Time Traveler is how humankind’s scientific knowledge has not led to good results. Some raise the point that a medical book would help keep people healthy. Others suggest books on the government or the U.S. Constitution. Finally, there are those who insist that at least one of the books should be a great work of literature, perhaps one that teaches moral lessons.

    Of course, there is no clear answer, but your answer may say a lot about you, and the question can lead to good conversations. What three books would you take if you were starting or rebuilding a society?

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The video for “Enough Time” comes from a short story in the book, More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity by Jeff Shinabarger. In the book, Shinabarger challenges readers to evaluate their worldview while asking questions about whether we need as much “stuff” as we have in our lives. What is enough?

    Leave your two cents in the comments.