Friday, May 27, 2016

Book Review: War Dances by Sherman Alexie

Release date: January 1, 2009
Author links: Goodreads - Twitter - Website
Publisher: Grove Press
Pages: 209
Purchase links: Amazon - Book Depository

Description (from Goodreads):

Fresh off his National Book Award win, Alexie delivers a heartbreaking, hilarious collection of stories that explores the precarious balance between self-preservation and external responsibility in art, family, and the world at large. With unparalleled insight into the minds of artists, laborers, fathers, husbands, and sons, Alexie populates his stories with ordinary men on the brink of exceptional change. In a bicoastal journey through the consequences of both simple and monumental life choices, Alexie introduces us to personal worlds as they transform beyond return. In the title story, a famous writer must decide how to care for his distant father who is slowly dying a “natural Indian death” from alcohol and diabetes, just as he learns that he himself may have a brain tumor. Alexie dissects a vintage-clothing store owner’s failing marriage and his courtship of a married photographer in various airports across the country; what happens when a politician’s son commits a hate crime; and how a young boy discovers his self-worth while writing obituaries for his local newspaper. Brazen and wise, War Dances takes us to the heart of what it means to be human. This provocative new work is Alexie at the height of his powers. 

Sherman Alexie's War Dances is a fairly short and extremely entertaining collection of short stories and poetry. It was also my first experience with Alexie's prose, since he was familiar to me only as a screenwriter of the brilliant film Smoke Signals (1998), a comedy/drama directed by Chris Eyre.

After taking a postcolonial theory and an ethnicity in North American film classes I have become increasingly interested in Native American voices and representation. I have seen my fair share of Westerns, but have never really liked them. These two courses ignited in me a desire to look for voices from within the Native American community and as a result I have found gems like Eyre's Smoke Signals and Skins, James Welch's Winter in the Blood and now this collection by Sherman Alexie. I will keep looking for more, and if you have any recommendations, please let me know.

From War Dances I especially found myself enjoying the poetry. There runs a certain kind of undercurrent of nostalgic within his poetic work - he writes about payphones and how it felt to run to the phone booth to call a college sweetheart, about the process of putting together mix tapes and the certain kind of simplicity of childhood that is not present anymore. I especially loved the mix tape poem because I am of that age that I can remember a time when I put together mix tapes to C-cassette - the careful process of recording songs from the radio, the time consuming wait for the perfect songs to record. Though I am only 25, I have noticed in myself this yearn for nostalgia, for the "old times", for a time when I wasn't so heavily reliant on technology. Don't get me wrong - I love my laptop, my phone and my iPad, but sometimes I just feel like taking a break from everything. The fact that these days your life is pretty much connected to all sorts of social media makes taking a break fairly difficult.

Alexie approaches topics related to the lives of Native Americans in North America poignantly, but also with humor. I have seen a documentary called Reel Injun about the representation of Native Americans in Hollywood for a few times now and I think what Alexie does with this collection can be connected fairly easily to that documentary. He for example addresses alcoholism within the Native communities and how that is treated - he for example asks the question of whether the death of a reservation raised Native American by alcoholism should be regarded as a death by natural causes (a horrific idea, but something that seems to dominate some American mainstream media). He also addresses relationships between members of different generations, religious believes, and so on.

I thoroughly enjoyed War Dances and definitely want to read more by Alexie at some point in time. I also ended up rewatching Smoke Signals and damn, that movie still delivers. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend you add it to your to-watch list!


  1. I have yet to read War Dances by Sherman Alexie... I'll have to add it to my ever growing reading wishlist.

    I'm currently reading Flight by Sherman Alexie. In fact, I just started it this morning and have already read the first chapter. I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie a few years ago and loved it!

    1. I am dying to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - I feel like it could be somewhat connected to Smoke Signals since it also focuses on younger characters.

  2. Since reading your post, I've finished reading Flight by Sherman Alexie and loved it. I also purchased the hardback edition of War Dances by Sherman Alexie based on your review, which I look forward to reading soon.

    Additionally, I went to the 2016 Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, California yesterday, where I say Sherman Alexie & Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) speak for 75 minutes at one of the book events. It was an amazing event... Sherman Alexie and Daniel Handler are both hilarious and engaging. I had books signed both authors after the lecture.

    Do you attend many author events/signings?

    1. Oh, that is great - I hope you enjoy War Dances as much as I did. I also read in hardback edition, though my copy was from the library. One day I definitely want my own copy of it though.

      That is so cool - Sherman Alexie seems like such an interesting individual and he's probably a great speaker!

      I live in Finland, and though there are author events here, they are like 99% of the time focused on Finnish authors and Finnish literature. Since I don't really read anything in Finnish or written by Finnish authors, I haven't really frequented author events. Hopefully one day I can travel to US again and visit an author event for an author I am actually interested in :)


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