What I’m Reading: American War

From the book jacket:

An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle—a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.

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, that unmanned drones fill the sky. And when her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she quickly begins to be shaped by her particular time and place until, finally, through the influence of a mysterious functionary, she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. Telling her story is her nephew, Benjamin Chestnut, born during war as one of the Miraculous Generation and now an old man confronting the dark secret of his past—his family’s role in the conflict and, in particular, that of his aunt, a woman who saved his life while destroying untold others.

My review:

I’m pretty sure the last dystopian novel I read was Animal Farm by George Orwell, and that was either in grade 10 or 11 English class. Let me just say that American War is no Animal Farm, with no offence to Orwell. 

American War, written by Egypt-born, Canada-based author Omar El Akkad, is an eye-opening idea of what the future of global politics could very well turn out to be. With everything already on its way to going to hell in a hand basket, El Akkad does an incredible job painting a vivid picture of what the world may very well be like in 50 years from now; climate change and earth’s diminishing resources are something that we are perhaps not taking seriously enough. 

While it may seem like the United States is being “picked on”, it only makes sense as the country is generally viewed as one of the biggest leaders in all things economical. It’s an interesting thing to see what it would be like if it reverted back 100 years and another Civil War broke out. What would be devastation look like? Who would be affected? If race is what drove the last war, what would propel this one? Natural resources seems like an obvious choice.

Two of the three Chestnut children, Sarat and Simon, are examples of how war robs children of their youth. When war is the only thing you seem to know growing up, it is seems only natural to join the fight for one reason or another. The third Chestnut child, Dana, is the sole family member who doesn’t seek out revenge for what has happened to her family, perhaps as an example of preserved innocence.

I tried to dig deep and find something that I didn’t like about American War, and quite frankly, I really enjoyed every bit of it. While a bit dense and containing some slight adult content, I really think it should be a required read for high schoolers. It’s eye-opening and thought-provoking.

My rating: ★★★★★/5

 

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What I’m Reading: The Home for Unwanted Girls

From the book jacket:

Philomena meets Orphan Train in this suspenseful, provocative novel filled with love, secrets, and deceit—the story of a young unwed mother who is forcibly separated from her daughter at birth and the lengths to which they go to find each other.

In 1950s Quebec, French and English tolerate each other with precarious civility—much like Maggie Hughes’ parents. Maggie’s English-speaking father has ambitions for his daughter that don’t include marriage to the poor French boy on the next farm over. But Maggie’s heart is captured by Gabriel Phénix. When she becomes pregnant at fifteen, her parents force her to give baby Elodie up for adoption and get her life ‘back on track’.

Elodie is raised in Quebec’s impoverished orphanage system. It’s a precarious enough existence that takes a tragic turn when Elodie, along with thousands of other orphans in Quebec, is declared mentally ill as the result of a new law that provides more funding to psychiatric hospitals than to orphanages. Bright and determined, Elodie withstands abysmal treatment at the nuns’ hands, finally earning her freedom at seventeen, when she is thrust into an alien, often unnerving world.

Maggie, married to a businessman eager to start a family, cannot forget the daughter she was forced to abandon, and a chance reconnection with Gabriel spurs a wrenching choice. As time passes, the stories of Maggie and Elodie intertwine but never touch, until Maggie realizes she must take what she wants from life and go in search of her long-lost daughter, finally reclaiming the truth that has been denied them both.

My review:

Ahoy, there may be spoilers …

I was drawn to this title based on the Canadian history; I honestly had zero idea of the events that happened in Quebec and was shocked and saddened when I did a little research after I finished reading the book. What a tragic thing for those mothers and children to go through!

That all being said, The Home for Unwanted Girls really captured my attention and I had a hard time putting it down once I got into it. My heart ached for both Maggie and Elodie as they went through life yearning to be reunited with one another. A huge part of me desperately wanted them to be reunited, but part of me was skeptical if that was going to actually happen or not.

The Home for Unwanted Girls is so much more than a story about orphans and reuniting as well. Goodman included just a hint of women’s rights in the story that wasn’t over the top but still makes you see how far we’ve come. (And how far we still have to go.)

I’ll admit that I thought that it was a little long (thus the half-star deduction) and there were a couple of parts I didn’t find to be really necessary, such as the whole thing between Gabriel’s sister and Maggie’s father. I really didn’t think it added much to the story, other than maybe that’s part of the reason why he forbid Maggie from being with Gabriel? Either way, I could’ve done without it.

Still though, it’s a really interesting read that has inspired me to learn more about Quebec’s history. I’ll fully admit I don’t know enough about the province.

My rating: ★★★★½ 5

What I’m Reading: Brother

From the book jacket:

An intensely beautiful, searingly powerful, tightly constructed novel, Brother explores questions of masculinity, family, race, and identity as they are played out in a Scarborough housing complex during the sweltering heat and simmering violence of the summer of 1991. 

With shimmering prose and mesmerizing precision, David Chariandy takes us inside the lives of Michael and Francis. They are the sons of Trinidadian immigrants, their father has disappeared and their mother works double, sometimes triple shifts so her boys might fulfill the elusive promise of their adopted home. 

Coming of age in The Park, a cluster of town houses and leaning concrete towers in the disparaged outskirts of a sprawling city, Michael and Francis battle against the careless prejudices and low expectations that confront them as young men of black and brown ancestry — teachers stream them into general classes; shopkeepers see them only as thieves; and strangers quicken their pace when the brothers are behind them. Always Michael and Francis escape into the cool air of the Rouge Valley, a scar of green wilderness that cuts through their neighbourhood, where they are free to imagine better lives for themselves. 

Propelled by the pulsing beats and styles of hip hop, Francis, the older of the two brothers, dreams of a future in music. Michael’s dreams are of Aisha, the smartest girl in their high school whose own eyes are firmly set on a life elsewhere. But the bright hopes of all three are violently, irrevocably thwarted by a tragic shooting, and the police crackdown and suffocating suspicion that follow.

With devastating emotional force David Chariandy, a unique and exciting voice in Canadian literature, crafts a heartbreaking and timely story about the profound love that exists between brothers and the senseless loss of lives cut short with the shot of a gun.

My review:

This novella received a lot of rave reviews on Goodreads, but I personally wasn’t quite as captivated by it as most other readers were. That’s not to say that I didn’t find the message to be important, it still is and is very relevant to this day.

It’s disappointing to know that even though this story takes place in the early 90’s, the issues that society was facing then are still happening now. If anything, Brother is an important read to remember the struggles people face when they don’t quite fit in, even in Canada where we’re hailed as being an all-accepting country. Racism is very much a real thing here.

I truly felt for Francis and Michael, with Francis being thrown into becoming the man of the house at such a young age, and Michael still trying to just be a kid but also gain respect amongst his peers. Perhaps the reason though for my lower rating for Brother is because I desperately wanted more.

On the other hand, I wonder if Chariandy purposely made this a quick read that had brief subplots to reflect what happens in reality. Not every avenue pans out in real life; there are a lot of situations where “that’s that” and you don’t get to elaborate or know more. Either way, I still think Brothers is a decent quick read.

My rating: ★★★½/5