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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    Springsteen’s “Long Walk Home” and the Alienating Feeling of Election Results

    Bruce Springsteen released “Long Walk Home” in 2007 on his Magic album.  He wrote the song to reflect how he felt during the years of the George W. Bush presidency.

    Last night I stood at your doorstep,
    Trying to figure out what went wrong.

    “Long Walk Home” is about a guy coming back to his hometown and not recognizing anything.  As Springsteen explained about the singer’s character in The New York Times,  “The things that he thought he knew, the people who he thought he knew, whose ideals he had something in common with, are like strangers.”

    In town I pass Sal’s grocery,
    Barber shop on South Street;
    I looked in their faces,
    They’re all rank strangers to me.

    The reference to “rank strangers” in Springsteen’s “A Long Walk Home” was inspired by the song “Rank Strangers to Me,” sometimes called “The Rank Stranger” or just “Rank Stranger.” Albert E. Brumley wrote “Rank Strangers to Me,” which was made famous by The Stanley Brothers.

    “Rank Strangers to Me” is also about a man returning to the town of his youth.  As in Springsteen’s song, the singer discovers he does not recognize anything.

    The meaning of “Rank Stranger” is open to interpretation. There is no resolution or explanation about why the singer does not recognize the people in his town. Has he died? Has everyone else died? It is a mystery that makes the song haunt you long after you have heard it.

    Similarly, in Springsteen’s song, the unrecognizable world feels alien to the singer. The meaning would be mysterious too, except that Springsteen has provided context for “The Long Walk Home.” He explained about the alienation during the Bush administration, “I think that’s what’s happened in this country.”

    It’s gonna be a long walk home;
    Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me;
    Gonna be a long walk home,
    A long walk home.

    While some celebrated the election results this week, many felt they were seeing their country in a way they could not recognize. Maybe Springsteen had a feeling about what was going to happen when he chose to play “Long Walk Home” outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall during a rally for Hillary Clinton the night before the election.

    Either way, the song captures the disappointment that one side often feels after an election. But that is the nature of democracy. At one time or another, we all have to take a long walk to get back home.

    Leave your two cents in the comments. Photo by Chimesfreedom.

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    The Underdog Who Created the Red-Nosed Reindeer

    The most famous reindeer of all first appeared in a 1939 coloring booklet entitled “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” written by Robert L. May.  May’s creation of Rudolph is a fascinating story of how a down-on-his-luck catalog copy writer came to create a tale that would inspire one of the most covered holiday songs as well as one of the best Christmas TV specials.

    The Creation of Rudolph

    The retailer Montgomery Ward commissioned this coloring book for something to give out for free as a marketing tool. As May tells it, in January 1939 he was 35 years old and in debt with an ill wife, and his dreams of being a writer had been reduced to being a catalog copy writer in Chicago.

    So, May was not in a very festive mood when he was commissioned to write the book. But May’s department head thought the company could save money by creating its own promotional coloring book instead of ordering them from others.  He suggested some type of animal story.

    That night, May began to focus on a reindeer story because his daughter Barbara loved deer at the zoo. He also thought of his own lot in life, and then began to try to come up with an underdog story.

    After May came up with the idea for a reindeer with a red nose, May’s boss nixed the idea. But May went ahead and had someone create artwork of his idea, and May’s boss began to warm to the concept.

    May, who considered several names for his reindeer, continued writing into the summer. After May’s wife died that summer, May’s boss offered to let someone else finish the story, but May now felt he needed this scrappy reindeer to help him through his own tough time. By the end of August, May finished the rhyming story, reading it first to his daughter Barbara and her grandparents.

    How Rudolph Became the Most Famous Reindeer of All

    Within a decade, the story and the book illustrated by Denver Gillen would become more famous than any retailer could have imagined. And in the spirit of Christmas, the head of Montgomery Ward, Sewell Aver, did something that is hard to imagine today. After the book became popular, the company gave the rights to the story to the employee who created it, Robert May.

    May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks turned the story into the classic song we know.  And then cowboy crooner Gene Autry made the song a bona fide hit in 1949.

    Although Autry reportedly did not like the song at first, his wife convinced him to record it. The recording became one of the best selling records of all time. Here is Autry singing the song live several years later in 1953, where you can see the audience knows all the words too.

    Other Versions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

    Because “Rudolph” is often seen as a kids’ song and not a religious song, through the years performers have not been shy about having fun with interpreting the song in quirky ways. For example, here is Jack Johnson’s version.

    Destiny’s Child also recorded the song, but the video is no longer available on YouTube. Here is another quirky interpretation from Jewel and Nedra Carroll, live on HRL.

    Check out this guitar instrumental by Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles.

    Even Tiny Tim has a version.

    In addition to the unusual versions, several artists have made popular rock interpretations, such as this one by The Jackson 5 from 1970.

    The Crystals made a famous version for the most famous rock Christmas album of all time, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (1963).

    And our most-famous Christmas singer, Bing Crosby, eventually sang the song too, although reportedly he had rejected the idea of recording it before Autry made it a hit. Unlike Crosby’s somber “White Christmas,” his “Rudolph” swings. Crosby also eventually performed an excellent version with Ella Fitzgerald.

    The 1964 TV Special Version

    Of course, there also is the classic 1964 TV special. That show was scored by May’s brother-in-law and the song’s composer Johnny Marks, who also wrote “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

    That is another story. But the TV special did create another classic version of the song by Burl Ives, who played the snowman. This version may be the one you are most likely to hear today.

    An Appearance by Donald Trump?

    Finally, if you are brave or if you have always wondered what the Christmas special would have been like with Regis Philbin singing, check out this video. For extra measure, Donald Trump appears.

    There seems to be a version for every taste, ensuring that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer will go down in history.

    May’s Reward

    As for Rudolph’s creator Robert May, he once noted that his reward “is knowing every year, when Christmas rolls around” Rudolph brings a message about a “loser” using a handicap to find happiness, a story enjoyed by millions both young and old.

    Deep down we are all underdogs, so may the new year bring you many moments of shouting out with glee.

    What is your favorite version of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Elvis and His Scarves

    In his later years, Elvis Presley notoriously used a lot of silk scarves on stage. According to the Elvis History Blog, Presley’s practice of giving away scarves started in September 1970 in Phoenix, Arizona. At that show, Presley gave his green scarf to a young fan in the front row, and her joyous reaction eventually led to Presley continuing the practice.

    I remember as a kid watching his 1973 Hawaii special and being puzzled and amazed as he used scarf after scarf to dab his sweat, giving each scarf to a happy audience member. Watch how a little bit of Elvis brings such joy as he sings “Love Me.”

    In more recent years, even as I have continued to listen to Elvis Presley’s music, I have not given much thought to those scarves. But this year, on All-Star Celebrity Apprentice, the season’s runner-up Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller revealed where the scarves came from as he discussed the charity he was representing on the show.

    Each scarf Elvis used did a little bit of good beyond drying his face and thrilling a fan. Elvis and his manager Colonel Tom Parker supported a charity Opportunity Village by buying all of the scarves from this organization that still provides a number of programs for people with intellectual disabilities.

    This local Las Vegas news channel tells the story about Opportunity Village and Elvis.

    Knowing the story behind the scarves now makes me smile even more when I see Elvis using them on stage. Now that the King is not around, if you would like to walk a mile in Elvis’s shoes and help Opportunity Village, you may donate at the organization’s website.

    [Update August 2013: A recent discussion about this post on the Elvis Collectors website recounts a different scarves story from Ed Bonja, Elvis’s photographer and tour manager from 1970-1977. According to the post, Bonja explained that in early 1975 Colonel Parker became concerned about the high cost of the scarves so they began ordering cheap scarves from Korea. It is possible Elvis got the scarves from both sources or that after awhile they stopped getting them from Opportunity Village, which lists itself as “the official manufacturer of Elvis’ scarves” on its website. Even if Opportunity Village did not supply all of the scarves, it is still a good cause and worth checking out its website.]

    What do you think of Elvis and his scarves? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Orangutans, Donald Trump, & The Jungle Book

    News reports today are saying that Donald Trump is suing Bill Maher for $5 million dollars because of a joke Maher made at Trump’s expense. After Donald Trump made his famous offer that he would pay if President Obama released his college transcripts, Maher responded to Trump with his own offer on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, creating the basis for the lawsuit.

    On The Tonight Show, Maher referred to his “New Rules” segment on his own Real Time show, when they had supposed that “Donald Trump had been the spawn of an orangutan. . . .” Then Maher added, “I’m not saying it’s true . . . . But unless he comes up with proof, I’m willing to offer $5 million to Donald Trump that he can donate to a charity of his choice.” The video is no longer available for embedding, but you may watch it on YouTube.

    After Maher’s “offer,” Trump presented his birth certificate proving that he is not the son of an orangutan. Salon reported that Trump even explained that he did not believe Maher was joking. While Maher’s line on Leno was not one of his cleverest jokes (and I’ve often thought that most Trump hair jokes are lazy attempts at humor), I suspect that everyone else in America got the joke. If it goes that far, I am sure the courts will figure it out quickly (although some folks think Maher should pay).

    Since Donald Trump has proved he is not the world’s most famous orangutan, it raises the question of who carries that title. While some may make a case for Clyde from Every Which Way But Loose (1978), the most famous orangutan in film is probably King Louie from Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967). Louie in the film is voiced by singer and trumpeter Louis Prima, who passed away in 1978, while Baloo’s voice is from Phil Harris. King Louie’s big moment is “I Wanna Be Like You,” a song written by Robert and Richard Sherman (the pair who also wrote Walt Disney’s favorite song).

    This interesting video at the link (not available for embedding) explains how some of the animated action was inspired by Prima and his band. Prima used to lead his band members in a line into the audience, which was copied by the animators when they had King Louie lead his short procession. Also, in the movie, King Louie plays his hands at one point like Louis Prima played his horn. Prima’s dance moves provided further inspiration. Unlike Donald Trump, Louis Prima did not mind being associated with an orangutan.

    Who can hear “I Wanna Be Like You” and not feel happy? So, for Mr. Trump, here is a little something to cheer you up (without implying any relation between you and the singer).

    Who is your favorite orangutan? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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