The City of Mirrors – Justin Cronin
This was my spring break book, the final in Cronin’s super virus/vampire trilogy. In this book, thought it took him a long time to get going, offering a lot of background in the first half or so. Some of the background, that which centered on the life of Tim Fanning and how he came to be Patient Zero in the outbreak, was quite good. The rest of that half of the book, though, was a slog.
But Cronin finally got things cranked up in the second half. As the final entry in a trilogy about good vs evil, it all build up to a final confrontation. The build up was better than the actual moment of decision, to me. But Cronin made up for that with a highly satisfying epilogue, which jumped even further into the future when the world had begun rebuilding itself.
This was a perfect spring break book: not too heavy, thus did not require too much mental effort, but long enough to fill up nearly a week’s worth of reading.
Split Season: 1981: Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike That Saved Baseball – Jeff Katz.
If there was a moment when I most loved baseball, it was the summer of 1981. We moved to Kansas City late in the 1980 season, so while I was able to jump into the midst of George Brett’s chase of .400 and the Royals’ pennant drive, 1981 was the first season that I started from scratch. My room was filled with baseball magazines, baseball cards, sections of the Star and Times sports sections with blurbs about the Royals. I remember one week, when I was home with a stomach virus, falling asleep listening to rebroadcasts of that day’s Grapefruit League game. If baseball was an illness, I was fully infected in 1981.
Which made that summer’s strike a real pisser to me.
Katz’s book covers everything major that happened in baseball in 1981, but he spends his most time breaking down that year’s labor dispute, which was one of the most damaging and significant in any sport’s history. Sometimes he even goes too deep into the strike. There are incredibly detailed accounts of negotiations, behind-the-scenes maneuverings, and the public relations offensives both labor and management put out. My head was spinning at some parts trying to keep everything straight.
But it’s a useful read to get a feel of where the game was at that time. The owners actually wanted teams that lost free agents to be able to claim a player off the roster of the team that signed their outgoing player. So when the (then) California Angels signed Reggie Jackson that fall, the Yankees would have been able to claim a player off the Angels’ roster. How insane does that sound today? The motive was clearly to dramatically reduce the opportunities for free agents, both increasing the likelihood they would remain with their most recent team and keeping salaries from escalating so quickly.
Katz is unabashedly on the side of the players, as I generally am today. I don’t know if that was the case for 1981 me, most likely because of people around me complaining about the players being greedy.
There’s plenty of on-the-field stuff, too. Katz follows Fernando Valenzuela’s amazing rise, the Oakland A’s incredible start, another year of heartbreak for the Montreal Expos, the insanity that was the Yankees, and the general strangeness that came from baseball’s only split season.
American War – Omar El Akkad.
Another alternate history that takes place in the future and has to do with a division within the United States.
American War takes place late in the 21st and early in the 22nd centuries. The US has been split in two, between the north and south, once again. This time the casus belli is a global ecological disaster. As the climate has changed, the oceans have overrun coastal areas. Florida is completely under water, along with other long stretches of the US Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The US capital has moved to Columbus, OH, where it is safe from the encroaching waters. And the government has banned the use of fossil fuels, an act the oil producing and exporting areas of the south refused to go along with.
South Carolina led a secession effort that was quickly followed by Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. While other border states sympathized with the southern cause, they remained in the Union. (Texas and much of the southwest are under Mexican control, but we never really learn about the war(s) that caused this.) In response, the US launched a biological war effort on South Carolina, infecting its population with a virus that kills people incredibly slowly. To isolate the disease, South Carolina has literally been sealed off with a large wall monitored by guards with orders to shoot to kill anyone who attempts to get out. South Carolina, and the south, got the last laugh, though. When US scientists were working on a vaccine for the disease, they unwittingly unleashed an even more powerful and much faster virus that ended up killing over 100 million Americans.
So in the late 21st century the US and Free Southern State are in a stalemated war that has caused both sides to live economically stunted lives. A new power, that spans Northern Africa and the Middle East, works behind the scenes to keep the war going to protect their status as world’s biggest power.
With all this as backdrop, we follow Sarat Chestnut through her life. Born in the coastal area of Louisiana, she, her mother, brother, and twin sister are forced to flee to a massive refugee camp in northern Alabama after her father is killed while trying to gain documents that would have allowed the family to travel to and live in the US. At the refugee camp Sarat becomes known for her lack of fear. There is no dare she won’t take, no area she won’t explore, no person she won’t talk to. Eventually she comes under the wing of a mysterious man who travels with ease across borders and boundaries that stop others. Patiently he recruits Sarat until she begins taking on missions against the US troops that are stationed just outside the camp. In her late teens she pulls off an audacious assassination of one of the US army’s leading generals, which in turn causes a violent new turn in the war. This brief moment of triumph for Sarat does not go unpunished. Eventually she is captured and undergoes seven years of brutal torture. When finally released she slowly works her way back to normalcy with an assist from her young nephew. However, the damage done to her is too strong, and although she finds herself without interest in who wins the war, she craves revenge.
In an epilogue written from the perspective of her nephew in his adult years, we learn that Sarat’s final act was unleashing yet another massive biological attack that nearly wiped out everyone left in North America.
El Akkad was born and raised in the Middle East, but has spent most of his adult life working as a journalist in Canada. The book reflects his journalistic background, as chapters of the proper narrative are divided by various “historical accounts” of the war from after its completion. These help to provide context to the broader story.
American War works well both as a novel of a dystopian future and as a statement on the effects of war. Sarat’s development displays how anyone can be radicalized given the right circumstances. And her hopelessness late in her life demonstrates how war destroys the soul.