May 5, 2017

April Reading Recap

Last month I finished reading two recently published novels (and I have more new releases in store for next month's roundup):

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad: The Second American Civil War starts in 2074 when a group of Southern states secedes after the United States government outlaws fossil fuels. Sarat is a young girl living with her family in Louisiana, on a coast reshaped by rising oceans, until nearby combat forces them into a refugee camp. As Sarat grows up in the camp and her family suffers further trauma, she learns to hate the North and channel her anger toward the cause of resistance.

Sarat is an intriguing character, and not an easy one to follow, because the horrors she undergoes and her resulting zealotry are tough to read about. El Akkad uses his background as a journalist, reporting from conflicts around the world, to fill this novel with grisly authenticity. I was very caught up in this book, and it also often made me uncomfortable, so it succeeds at telling an effective story.

The bulk of the novel focuses on Sarat and her family, but excerpts from imagined historical sources appear between chapters, offering more context and explanation of the war. These were so well-developed that I was sorry we didn't get even more of the big picture. What's there, however, does an excellent job at providing a level of commentary on Sarat's actions, which the character is only able to see from the perspective of her singular goal. This is an inspired book in many ways, and I hope to read more from El Akkad.

OUR SHORT HISTORY by Lauren Grodstein: Karen has an amazing six-year-old son, a successful career as a political campaign consultant, and a diagnosis of terminal cancer. In the time she has left with Jake, who she's parented alone, Karen is trying to create good memories and prepare him for life without her. She's arranged for her son to be adopted into her sister's family after her death, but these plans are disrupted when Jake asks Karen to find his father. From Karen's perspective, Dave gave up all parental rights when he ended their relationship upon hearing she was pregnant. But Dave is overjoyed to learn of his son's existence, and now Karen is terrified he's going to try to take her place in Jake's life when she's gone.

The premise sounds like a tearjerker, but I didn't personally cry while reading, I think because while Karen occasionally gives in to despair, the narration focuses more on her stubbornness, anger, and dark humor. This is a sad situation, sure, but it's also a complex one, and the story is mostly about the nuances of characters trying to do the right thing when they can't agree on what that is. I found all the characters real and sympathetic, and I was absorbed by their interactions. I also liked the glimpses into Karen's campaign work, which involves another set of fascinating interactions.

The narrative takes the form of a book Karen is writing for Jake to read when he grows up, and I think that frame detracted from the novel in more places than it improved it. I also felt the story could have used a stronger ending. Despite these flaws, I enjoyed this engrossing read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Emily Temple of Literary Hub finds the living authors with the most film adaptations: "There are plenty of writers whose works have been made into many, many films--William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Arthur Conan Doyle being the high rollers that immediately spring to mind. But with contemporary--read, living--authors, the field is a little slimmer."

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