Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Diary of a Hard Woman: Louise O’Neill’s ‘Almost Love’

May 20, 2018

What a perfect novel this must have been to pitch. All you had to say was ‘It’s a story of a woman who lets down everyone in her life, including herself.’ Or: ‘This book is about a ghastly person who you would cross a five-lane highway to avoid.’ As my colleague Annabel says: ‘Sarah is selfish, and thus a hard character to love. It’s a brave author that bases a novel around someone so unsympathetic’. God but Sarah Fitzpatrick is awful.

An artist and schoolteacher from rural Ireland, Sarah struggles in liberal Dublin. She has talent as an artist but not quite enough to propel her into the big time. She is a good teacher but can’t be bothered with the hours of donkey work teachers need to do to stay ahead. Her life is a bottleneck, a familiar one. At a parents’ evening she meets Matthew Brennan, a wealthy property developer twenty years older, who has just got out of a messy divorce. They develop a relationship based around rough casual sex in hotels. Sarah wants something more from Matthew – but she can’t say what. She obsesses over him, wants to possess him, and it overwhelms her life.

In another kind of novel Sarah would be really bad. She would stalk Matthew, kidnap his children, frame him for murder. But Sarah does not do the extravagant evil of a Judith Rashleigh or Amy Elliott Dunne: instead she operates on a low-level social nastiness that is much more familiar. She gets drunk and hijacks special occasions. She turns friends and housemates against each other. She comes off as being embarrassed and irritated by her loving monogamous partners. She uses and abuses those who love her to impress those who don’t.

O’Neill loves the monster she’s created. She invests enough in Sarah’s unhappy backstory to make us care a little, too. The novel really captures the rhythms of life – births, deaths, marriages, breakups – in the close social circle where Sarah finally exhausts everyone’s sympathy. But close relationships can be suffocating and the lectures from friends and family, while well founded, are clearly hard for Sarah to take. Being constantly told what to do and how to live is part of how so many young people get screwed up.

There’s a telling scene where Matthew takes Sarah to his gated mansion just to talk. This huge palatial residence only reveals the smallness of the man who lives there. Matthew has always presented himself as an alpha male but at this point the mask slips and it’s obvious that he’s just a lonely broken man who has fucked up his marriage and will never get over it. Sarah, true to form, feels only contempt for the pathetic loser behind the winner and walks out on him.

This is about as intimate as this couple gets, and the relationship tails out not long after that. The rest of the story is a fast road into the darkness. It becomes compelling as the reader races through each chapter of Sarah’s disasters and betrayals, looking for a redemption that doesn’t happen. Yet it’s not dreary or depressing at all. The ending resonates and you do hope that Sarah manages to get her head together and make something of herself. Life is a test, but not always a test that’s fair or simple. Hemingway said that the world breaks everyone and some grow strong at the broken places. God, I hope so.

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Triptych

May 15, 2018

This is a vampire story – the first story I have written featuring vampires, I am quite proud of it, albeit that dozens of outlets turned it down before the fine people at Yorkshire zine Idle Ink published the piece today.

Over at Shiny I have also reviewed The Good Mothers, Alex Perry’s compelling tale of how dissident women took on the fearsome N’drangheta mafia.

The Wilderness Years

May 4, 2018

There’s a thing in modern publishing that goes by ‘new folk lit’, or maybe ‘nature lit’. It’s a general term to cover novels and memoirs set in rural and remote places where the feel and texture of the countryside figures prominently. H is for Hawk, the indie novels of Ben Myers, Amy Liptrot’s recovery memoir, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpentthe Herdwick Shepherd books, Abi Andrews’s The Word for Woman is Wilderness – the genre is huge. Any books page on a given week is apt to feature a history of a particular wood or livestock animal, or a journey of personal rediscovery on a distant windy island. Henry Miller wrote that ‘I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity – I belong to the earth! I say that lying on my pillow and I can feel the horns sprouting from my temples.’ Yet the nature lit genre doesn’t always appeal to me because 1) so much of it feels like ‘Nature is all about me’ and 2) so many of these books are set in the past – I’ve only come across Amanda Craig’s exceptional The Lie of the Land, plus parts of Sarah Hall’s short stories, that give a sense of the countryside as a real, present environment in which people live their lives.

Zoe Gilbert’s Folk is an ideal of the genre. Her debut is a collection of integrated short stories set in the fishing community of Neverness on a mythical and yet entirely familiar island. It opens with a strange ritual: teenage girls fire ribbons with bow-and-arrow into an enormous gorse maze, and the village boys then have to run around the maze, chewing ribbons out of the gorse, in the hope of kisses when they eventually escape this labyrinth. But a boy named Crab Skerry wants more than kisses – he wants the Gorse Mother – ‘she puts it on you and it’s like ten mouths all at once. You go in the gorse and if she gets you, you come out a man.’

A man has a wing for an arm, a woman falls in love with a minotaur that lives in the sea. As Ben Myers writes in his review: ‘Superstition often proves to be prophecy rather than hokum, and human and animal kingdoms merge into areas of confused identity, a beautiful blurring of fur, feather and fin. Hares, kites and bees play vital roles. Dark magic exists.’ But as Myers also understands, the village also lives by ritual, custom and rules so strong that they are almost physical laws. It’s no surprise that bold young Crab’s search for the Gorse Mother ends in tragedy. And human nature is still the same: a couple of kids delight in hiding in a haunted cave, pretending to be an oracle and telling evil fortunes to whichever unwary villagers come to look for them.

Gilbert’s flaw is to argue all this too forcefully. Folk is beautifully written, boldly imagined, and at times (as in ‘Verlyn’s Blessings’) almost heartbreaking. The village is completely self contained: however much some of the islanders might yearn for escape, there’s no sense of another world beyond the ocean – and for me that makes it all a bit depressing. Myers says that ‘her island village could be almost any remote community from the past several thousand years’ – and that to me is the problem: the mundanity and the mirroring of our own world is excessive. Maybe that’s just me. The nature world is a nice place to visit, but like Al Swearengen, I prefer to sleep indoors.

The Shock of the Moment

April 2, 2018

It takes a transcript of Desert Island Discs, right at the story’s coda, before the disparate aspects of Lisa Halliday’s baffling novel fall into place with an almost palpable click. Until then, the reader of Asymmetry exists in a kind of rapt confusion. The beginning is ordinary enough – an editorial assistant, young and earnest, begins an affair with a much older man, a prizewinning novelist, a man a little like… Philip Roth. Reviewers tended to look from that angle, and indeed the story gives us a well-drawn, affectionate portrait of the Roth we imagine when we read his own books. Ezra Blazer is a charming, ironic and kind soul, though very much shacked to a dying animal. Walking in the town near the author’s country residence, they pass a pub where a party is going on: the novelist wants to give this scene a miss, and ‘then the tribal rat-a-rat of ‘Sing Sing Sing’ started up and a moment later he was percussing the air as if possessed by Lionel Hampton.’

There are obvious literary and power relations here. Fans approach the couple in restaurants, praise Blazer for his genius, the quality of his prose, his narrative drive… and then, as an afterthought, tell Alice the dutiful partner how nice she looks today. Alice wants to love Ezra, and look after him, but she also wants to outpace him (and she just might). This wonderful para at a concert expresses her dilemma:

To submit to the loving of someone so deeply and well that there could be no question as to whether she were squandering her life, for what could be nobler than dedicating it to the happiness and fulfilment of another? A a certain point the pianist was leaning back slightly, hands working opposite ends of the keyboard as though one had to be kept from popping up while the other was held down, and here Alice turned to look at Ezra, who was watching with his mouth open; beyond him the fermata girls sat frozen in their own poses of wonder and humility: whatever they could do, it wasn’t this, would never be this, or would only become this once a great many more hours had been sacrificed to the ambition. Meanwhile, their hourglasses were running down. Everyone’s hourglasses were running down. Everyone’s but Beethoven’s. As soon as you are born the sand starts falling and only by demanding to be remembered do you stand a chance of it being upturned again and again.

As well as the superb back-and-forth dialogue (dialogue between happy people in love is one of the hardest things for a writer to do) you’re struck by the twentieth-century objects of popular art, the fine wash of peace and prosperity. Ezra gives Alice ‘a burgundy wallet with a coin purse and clutch clasp’, ‘thirty-two-cent stamps from the Legends of American Music series, commemorating Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, and Hoagy Carmichael’, ‘a bag of Honeycrisp apples’, ‘tofu-scallion cream cheese’, ‘two pieces of geflite fish’, ‘Bulgarian caviar from Murray’s’, ‘a box of jelly doughnuts from the Shelter Island Bake Shop’, ‘an eight-box CD of Great Romantic Standards entitled They’re Playing Our Song’, plus, of course, lots of twentieth-century books. And he sends her out on errands, for more gifts: ‘Little Scarlet Tiptree preserves’, ‘one loaf of Russian pumpernickel, unsliced’, ‘Häagen-Dazs bars’ – Asymmetry is a treasure-house of such things. It’s almost so Manhattan cliche it makes your head spin. As Ezra says on Desert Island Discs:

Lulled by years of relative peace and prosperity we settle into micromanaging our lives with our fancy technologies and custom interest rates and eleven different kinds of milk, and this leads to a certain inwardness, an unchecked narrowing of perspective, the vague expectation that even if we don’t earn them and nurture them the truly essential amenities will endure forever as they are.

The second half of the novel is told by Dr Amar Ala Jaafari, a physician turned economist, travelling from America to Iraq. Amar’s problem is peace of mind – ‘my mind is always turning over this question of how I’m going to feel later, based on what I’m doing now. Later in the day. Later in the week. Later in a life starting to look like a series of activities designed to make me feel good later, but not now.’ Amar would be happier, his mother says, if he could live in the moment, like his brother, a drifter (and another pianist): ‘Sami lives in the moment, like a dog.’

It’s a commonplace of contemporary self-care that we should try and open our eyes to the moment we’re in – witness the mindfulness craze in 2010s psychology – but Amar persists in thinking about tomorrow even though his life is so contingent: he and his family divide their time between Baghdad and the Upper West Side, they strive for professional status and success, and Sami is mostly disapproved of because he chose to marry in Iraq and stay in Iraq. Even travelling back to the old country, Amar is detained by London border control and interrogated on his journey plans. Where he comes from, Amar reflects, ‘the future has long been viewed as a much more nebulous eventuality, if indeed one expects to be around for its eventuality at all.’ Or as his parents put it in their long distance phone calls: ‘Before Iran, before Saddam, before sanctions and Operation Iraqi Freedom and now this, theirs too had been a country of culture, or education and commerce and beauty, and people came from all over to see it and be a part of it. And now? Do you see, Amar, this chaos outside our doors, this madness?’

Halliday’s talent is that she widens this moment for all of us.

Stories All Along the Line: The Inspector Chen Mysteries

March 25, 2018

I have just finished Shanghai Redemption, the latest book in Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen mysteries. The Chen books were a revelation to me, knowing nothing about China, but Xialong’s style, accessible and elegant, taught me a little about the country and its history and what it might feel like to live in one of its cities. True, the novels aren’t like most police procedurals. Chen Cao comes from an academic family, his father was a Confucian scholar who was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. As a young man, Chen dreamed of becoming a poet or a scholar himself, but was allocated a career in the Shanghai police bureau in the arbitrary system used by the communist regime at the time. In part he still pursues the aspiration, publishing poetry in newspapers and journals, and supplementing his meagre police income by translating Western crime novels. The detective as artist shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Chen punctuates his conversation with obscure dynastic poetry, and you completely buy it. As well as Chinese classics like Dream of a Red Chamber, Chen also has Western influences. Lines from Eliot recur throughout the books – culminating in a bizarre scene where Chen is lured to a fake T S Eliot themed book launch in a nightclub-cum-brothel and has to make a quick escape when the venue is raided by vice police.

Xiaolong began his mystery series at a time when China had moved beyond Maoism and started to become a world market power. This gives the books a weird and contingent atmosphere. Everyone is on the take because most professionals are paid at a derisory flat rate which has to be augmented with bribes. Generations of families are crowded into communal shikumen tenements with their washing hung out over rows of creaking shared ovens. Chen himself is seen as a high flyer because, unlike most single men, he actually has his own apartment. Shanghai is full of the great signifiers of late capitalism – Wi-fi, nightclubs, gigantic advertising hoardings, glossy housing developments – but we know that behind all this modernising glamour the strong, coercive state is still there. Even the literary world is fraught with furtive politics: when an American poet tells Chen that ‘I wish there was an institution here like your Writers’ Association. A sort of government salary for your writing. It’s fantastic. In the States, most of us can’t make a living on writing… We all envy you. I would love to go to Beijing and become a professional writer too’ Chen thinks – but naturally is too polite to say – that ‘The American poet would have to live in China for years… before learning what a ‘professional writer’ was like.’

Trying to keep ahead of the political games as well as work complex murder cases takes its toll on the detective, who is plagued by frequent headaches, and in one of the books has a quiet, caffeine-induced nervous breakdown. Chen is always trying to do the right thing – in a postmodern tip, he’s compared by friends to the classic archetypal hero cop in a Moaist serial. But Xialong plays the toll on Chen’s physical and mental health with subtle brilliance. Intellectually he can rationalise his complicity in a foul system, which life and fate give him no choice but to accept. But his body understands better. In a late book, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, Chen is rewarded – or possibly sidelined – with a vacation at a gated Party luxury resort. Temporarily free from the commitments to the police bureau and Chinese socialism, the bold and rejuvenated Chen pursues a young woman who works at the local chemical plant. But it’s just a holiday and a reprieve: the book ends with the inspector heading back to the Shanghai grind. ‘He wondered whether he would be able to take a nap on the train, feeling the onslaught of a splitting headache.’ Chen is admired as a successful and connected cadre, who makes the Party happy by solving many difficult political cases. But his success is a house of cards. Xialong uses the Dream of a Red Chamber quotation to illustrate the transitory nature of fortune as well as the illusions of states and politics: Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true; Real becomes not-real when the unreal’s real.

This is what Xialong does so well – the impact of history upon the individual. The caprice of destiny and states. All the characters are casualties of the Cultural Revolution: Detective Yu, Chen’s sidekick, was sent at a young age hundreds of miles away to rural China as part of the ‘down to the countryside’ movement, where ‘educated youth’ of the cities were exiled to the back of beyond in the hope that they would absorb the spirit of agricultural socialism. Yu met his wife, fellow exile Peiqin in the shitshack farm village to which they’d been assigned. Much of the Yu and Peiqin chapters – their struggles with the housing bureau, and getting their son into college – is a testament of how people can establish happiness and solidarity despite having their lives disrupted by governmental fiat. This sense of warmth and community pervades the series: no matter what’s going on, there always seems to be time to share a drink or a fine meal with company and conversation. The people of Shanghai, Xialong tells us, will outlive their authoritarian rulers.

And through it all, the mystery remains. This is a poem Xialong includes as an epigram to A Case of Two Cities:

 

Out of the train window,

the gaping windows of the buildings

are telling stories all along the line,

about the past, the present and the future.

I am not the teller of the stories,

nor the audience,

simply passing through there,

then, full of ignorance,

so full of imagination.

 

The high tension cables

outline the score of the evening.

 

Simply passing there,

then – ‘Next stop is Halle.’

A Postmodern Prometheus

March 17, 2018

You may have seen in the grown-up arts pages articles about the recent anniversary of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. Except perhaps it’s not such a classic: like many Regency novels Shelley’s book was far too long and suffered from many silly interludes where Victor Frankenstein pursued his wayward monster across the Arctic Circle. Only Shelley’s idea was good.

Ahmed Saadawi’s reimagining puts Frankenstein’s monster in Iraq a couple of years after the invasion. Hadi is a junk dealer and compulsive storyteller, who fools Western journalists by telling them extravagant lies about his life in the wartorn country. His other hobby is collecting body parts from various bomb sites, which he uses to construct a complete corpse: ‘I made it complete so it wouldn’t be treated as rubbish, so it would be respected like other dead people and given a proper burial’. And one day he finds that the corpse has gone missing.

Postwar Baghdad is so chaotic and corrupt that at first the appearance of a murderous monster – the Whatitsname, or the Criminal Who Has No Name – at first causes little comment in the city. Saadawi captures it all so well, the generals, journalists, lawyers and mystics fighting it out for influence in the post Baathist landscape. And just the people trying to get on with their lives: the journalist Mahmoud, lusting after the beautiful film director Nawal al-Wazir, who is going out with Mahmoud’s slippery boss, Ali al-Saidi. The elderly widow Elishva lives alone with her cat: across the street is the barbershop of Abu Zaidoun, who Elishva despises as she holds him responsible for sending her son to die in Saddam’s wars. Frankenstein in Baghdad is lively and fun, but there’s always the threat of violence in Saadawi’s world, and the tight knots of complicity and grief. Saadawi has a great para on the difficulties of truth and reconciliation:

So had the old woman really been telling the truth? Had her son really survived the slaughter of the 1980s? Over the last three years the local people had heard many stories that were no more believable. Dead people had emerged from the dungeons of the security services and non-existent people emerged from nowhere outside the doors of their relatives’ humble houses. There were people who had returned from long journeys with new names and new identities, women who had spent their childhoods in prison cells and had learned, before anything else in life, the rules and conventions for dealing with the warders. There were people who had survived many deaths in the time of the dictatorship only to find themselves face to face with a pointless death in the age of ‘democracy’.

The Criminal Who Has No Name causes increasing carnage and comes to the attention of the hack generals and administrators running the city. It kills suicide bombers, terrorists and mercenaries (‘I killed the al-Qaeda leader who lived in Abu Ghraib and was responsible for the massive truck bomb in Tayaran Square that killed many people, including the person whose nose Hadi picked up off the pavement and used to fix my face’) amasses followers and acolytes – the Sophist, the Magician, the Enemy – and even gives interviews to local media. Against the disaster backdrop though there is a hopeful, kind and uplifting element to the story, acts of kindness and companionship which take over the plot and add a poignancy to this splintered narrative. The monster remains at large – and it’s pleasant to think that the Frankenstein of Baghdad is still out there somewhere.

Depth Change

February 27, 2018

This story of mine is now up at the fabulous Your One Phone Call zine.

And over at Shiny, I review Imogen Hermes Gowar’s startling Regency tale.

The Magic Mountain

January 28, 2018

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s novel is set in the disputed lands somewhere around the Frontex borders where Europe meets Africa. Hundreds of migrants from Africa’s cities and villages live in the mountain’s footholds, crevices and caves, where they sleep, eat, play football, barter with the local villages, and talk – endlessly, it seems: the majority of The Gurugu Pledge is dialogue.

Well over half the book feels like a symposium. The migrants talk of imperialism, corruption, religion, dictatorship, language, work, culture, love, sex – anything and everything, often interrupting and talking over one another in a lively testament to the oral tradition. Imaginary persons are brought onto the mountain, philosophers and academics conjured out of thin air to test ideas. It’s in one of these interludes that a character makes one of the eloquent defence of football that I’ve ever come across: ‘You can’t expect a child, no matter how humble, to say when I grow up I want to be an agency cleaner at Charles de Gaulle airport. Or when I grow up I want to be a fake-handbag salesman, never mind a razor-wire acrobat or a shipwreck rescuee. These aren’t professions. It’s football that teaches children that black people get to go on TV, get to be admired and applauded. Perhaps they don’t all grow up saying they want to be footballers, but they see a brother up there on the screen, someone from their tribe who has triumphed, and he speaks for them all. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that football is the key to survival for countless black boys.’

In the novel’s second half the story gets underway and Ávila Laurel reminds us that for all the happy chatter this book takes place in dark times. The migrants have to scrape and negotiate for food, and the Moroccan forestry police are always waiting for a reason to sweep them off the mountain. It would feel like a betrayal to reveal what happens, except that it begins with a man named Omar who every day swims naked in an African river, wearing only a pair of army boots. But despite the dark and troubled ending to Ávila Laurel’s brief novel, his Gurugu mountain is a mountain of light.

So, Er, ‘Whither the Novel’?

January 27, 2018

I could see why people were annoyed by Tim Lott’s new year article in the Guardian on the lost art of storytelling. He’s a bit of an old curmudgeon and the examples he picks out of bad storyless writing are mainly by women writers (I thought Lott was unfair to Eimear McBride, though I never read her debut, just The Lesser Bohemians, a work of modernist brilliance). Women writers are selling more these days and any complaint about the state of publishing has to acknowledge that very obvious positive trend.

But the general thrust of the piece I nodded along to – I too read mostly Stateside writers these days and I love the narrative drive of long form television. Like Lott I find British fiction a bit samey and predictable these days with too many overresearched historical novels and gleanings from nature and prolier-than-thou social history. It seems uncontroversial to say so but Lott’s point provoked a minor backlash and a difficult new circling of that old question: so, er, Whither the Novel?

It’s interesting that Lott mentions UEA in his piece. He should have known before he started teaching there that UEA embodies the self-conscious tradition in English literature, the world of McEwan, Bradbury, Barnes – it has never pretended to be anything else, it’s certainly not the place for the more instinctive story and character based writers. But I think that Lott’s detractors are missing the point as well. Arguments like Lott’s are often dismissed as ‘appealing to the market’, ‘appealing to the lowest common denominator’ – which, I think, is misguided. The market in literary fiction is just not an issue any more. Tom Gatti writes:

In today’s market, selling 3,000 copies of your novel is not unrespectable – but factor in the average hardback price of £10.12 and the retailer’s 50 per cent cut, and just £15,000 remains to share between publisher, agent and author. No wonder that the percentage of authors earning a full-time living solely from writing dropped from 40 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent in 2013. To avoid novel-writing becoming a pursuit reserved for those with independent means, ACE suggests emergency intervention: direct grants for authors and better funding for independent publishers and other organisations.

These are grim stats – game changing ones. If you have almost no chance of making a living as a full time writer through commercial publication then the motivation is not ‘appealing to the market’, it becomes ‘appealing to a few key people’ who are into self conscious storyless fiction. Write a book, preferably set in the past (a respectable part of the past featuring interesting old buildings and intricate little contraptions made of pewter to marvel over) and you could, potentially, augment those 3000 sales with a good teaching job and prize payouts. Awards seem to have become more significant for authors as day to day sales fall. Much has been made of the recent successes indie publishers have had in winning literature awards. People say this is a testament to the innovative work coming out of indie presses. That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that indie publishers have looked at the kind of fiction that wins the big prizes and are pitching and commissioning appropriately.

Of course the ‘death of the novel’ is something of a perennial with critics – we’ve been having these conversations for decades. So I don’t think we are losing the novel – but I think we are losing the power to speak frankly about art.

Look at the reaction to Rebecca Watts’s recent article in PN Review. Again, you can pick holes in her critique of Instagram poetry and Hollie McNish’s scansion. But, more than Lott’s piece, Watts’s critique is arresting, strongly written, powerfully argued – and a rare thing in UK criticism today. In the American press you can read reviews of such quality on a daily basis – in England most people are too afraid to write like this because they fear being ‘cut out’ of the pie. It is a bit like political writing where everyone’s afraid of stepping on each other’s toes and the space for frank expression is filled by a few professional contrarians who make it their UPS to ‘annoy the liberals’ and be as obnoxious as possible.

Look at Watts’s Twitter mentions. They are predictable – ivory tower, academic snobbery, bad feminist etc, and this from the same reactive mob that slammed Lott for ‘appealing to the lowest common denominator’. (They also said that Rebecca Watts was ‘jealous’ of McNish. Of course! That’s got to be it.) But there was a kind of unity in the strain to the denunciations, as well as the appeal to a key approving audience – or some idea of authenticity that may, after all, be an illusion.

Should we support an ’emergency intervention’ by the Arts Council to support writers? I really don’t know. I like the idea of giving grants for authors to get autonomy and writing time, I wouldn’t mind paying taxes to support such a scheme, arts policy in many countries operates in exactly this way. But (as someone with experience of writing bids for grants) I fear that such a scheme would devolve into a box ticking and form filling exercise, and result in novels edited and approved by committee. In a country with millions of readers is that really the way we want to go? God, I hope not.

London Magazine Essay

December 10, 2017

I am amazed and delighted to have come second in this award. The essay took a lot of thought and care and I thought I might (just) be shortlisted – but to be on the podium of such a prestigious award was way beyond my expectations.

I think the winners will be published just in print in the February/March issue of the magazine.

And at Shiny, I have also reviewed the phenomenal American War by Omar el Akkad.