Sharp Objects: Book Review

Gillian Flynn delivers with her debut novel. Sharp Objects stands on its own as a solid literary thriller. I read Gone Girl at the height of the film’s popularity, and after this book it’s safe to say I’m a fan of Flynn’s work. This novel is a story about a damaged journalist working in Chicago who is sent back to her small town to write on the murders of two young children. Wind Gap is the kind of town where the population consists of those who couldn’t escape after high school, so our narrator, Camille, visits a past that still haunts with vibrant life.

To save on travel costs Camille stays with her family, a group wrought with dysfunction. She has a teenage sister she hardly knows, and a stepfather who exists in the background world. Her relationship with her mother consists of a great cold distance where affection has lacked for the better part of a lifetime. When Camilla’s mother reacts to the murders with emotion it is interpreted with resentment,

“Every tragedy that happens in the world happens to my mother, and this more than anything about her turns my stomach. She worries over people she’s never metwho have a spell of bad chance. She cries over news from across the globe. It’s all too much for her, the cruelty of human beings.”

It’s written with wit and insight, and flows with ease. Flynn has the chops to keep me coming back. I’m hoping to check out the film rendition at some point. Flynn recently tweeted out that there’s a book on the way, so in the meantime I’ll be looking forward to that.

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Frankenstein in Baghdad: Book Review

I came across this novel while browsing in a bookstore, without any real intent to make a purchase. When I came across Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, I was unfamiliar. The title was enough, and I read the synopsis. Then I bought it.

In 2004 a junk dealer collects body parts he finds in the street. War has decimated the community, and often people are destroyed by means of explosive violence. Our junk dealer, Hadi, creates a full corpse of miscellaneous body parts as a symbolic offering to no one in particular. The body becomes animated by supernatural means, and is burdened by the need to seek revenge on each ‘criminal’ responsible for each individual body part that makes up the monster. The premise is morbid, but powerful and thought provoking.

Saadawi offers a vivid community composed of those burdened by the war, and those taking advantage of it. There’s a full page that lists the cast of characters at the start of the narrative. An elderly woman of Christian faith believes the monster to be her son, having finally returned home after leaving for war twenty years prior. The junk dealer is an alcoholic storyteller, so the detailed confessions to his audience are received with entertained dismissal. A real estate agent takes advantage of people abandoning their properties, as the chaos of war makes it easy to claim their assets. There’s a full society in the cast, showing the beautiful and wretched range of human dynamics, burdened by the anxieties of war. He writes a universal truth with lines like, “the tragedies we’re seeing stem from one thing-fear” (123).

The monster is complex, and changes over time. It speaks well, and in tones that change. In the beginning the monster believes in a purpose, for, “He was a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace. He was created to obtain revenge on their behalf” (130). The monster states that, “there is a moral and humanitarian obligation… to bring about justice in this world, which has been totally ravaged by greed, ambition, megalomania, and insatiable bloodlust” (143). As the monster attains justice, or exacts revenge, the body part that corresponds with the deed decays at an accelerated rate. In order to maintain the self and momentum, the monster replenishes the body parts with other body parts, placing itself into a violent loop. The monster becomes conflicted, and is concerned about each new part; are they innocent enough to merit revenge? The answer doesn’t matter, as the monster continues to do what it does.

The monster is deemed a criminal, and all sides vilify the other as the source. Authorities make chase, but even with mystical astrologists, the monster remains elusive. The chase is compromised from the start, as the cost of ego cheapens life.

I enjoyed this book. Dark themes, and social commentary on a place that is not my home offers insight to the plight of others, set to a backdrop of the wretched and fantastic. Frankenstein in Baghdad is worth the read, if you can stomach it.

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Bad Witch: Music Review

With ‘Bad Witch’ Nine Inch Nails has completed a trilogy of EPs, as was promised with the initial release ‘Not the Actual Events,’ and followup, ‘Add Violence.’

The EP begins with the chaotic rock of an old school NIN release. The two opening numbers, ‘Shit Mirror’ and ‘Ahead of Ourselves’ are politically charged excursions that express rage in the aftermath of apathy. Lyrics like, “I think I knew when it crossed the line” and “why try change when you know you can’t?” reflects Reznor’s internal struggles onto the world at large. The songs talk about squandered potential. When left to our own devices, we’re most likely to destroy ourselves in spite of some better vision. The verse/chorus structure of the first two songs offers a comfortable way to start the album by this uncomfortable artist.

Then the record changes course an instrumental track, titled, ‘Play the Goddamn Part.’ Noise levels border on cacophony before the music settles on a path that refuses the straight and narrow. What’s truly unique here is the saxophone, as I haven’t heard an honest horn section since ‘Pilgrimage’ from 1999’s ‘The Fragile.’ Aside from that you’d have to go back to 1988’s ‘Purest Feeling’ to find horns on a NIN track. While it’s been documented that Reznor played the sax during his high school years, up to this point he had left it in the past, as the previous examples were made with synthesizers. The third track moves with the grace and balance of a living entity.

The fourth track is titled, ‘God Break Down the Door,’ and is rife with saxophone, uptempo drums/synthesizers, and a vocal composition that reminds me of David Bowie. The lyrics declare, “You won’t find the answers here… not the ones you’re looking for,” in spite of the effort required to break down the perceived barrier.

‘I’m Not from This World’ is an unsettling instrumental track that creates a sense of space. The tempo slows down, and audio levels are below that of the other songs. It’s a haunting soundscape that deviates from the thoughtful composition of ‘Play the Goddamn Part’ as it wanders into the void of space.

‘Bad Witch’ concludes with my personal favorite track, ‘Over and Out.’ This song returns us to the beat driven downtempo that is a NIN standard. Heavy drums and beeping synths set the foundation of what feels like an instrumental journey. A bass line jumps on, and the wall of sound layers up. It feels like one of Reznor’s signature works, but a surprise is offered up when vocals break the ice, as the styling again reflects that of David Bowie. There’s no verse/chorus structure (same with ‘God Break Down the Door’), so the voice expresses, “Time is running out,” and all the complications associated with the passage of time.

With ‘Bad Witch’ being the final installment in this three-EP series, I’m hoping for a world tour that’ll land near me. It’ll be damn cool to see Atticus Ross in the live lineup. The new collection of songs are definitely worth a spin.

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Book Review: A Glitch in the World

I read ‘A Glitch in the World’ on a whim. Alex Drozd offers questions regarding the human condition through the scope of science fiction, and on the surface his vision of the future feels incredibly real.

Debate is used in ways that reflect upon contemporary issues with a futuristic spin. One of my favorites centered on the topic of music production. Computers and AI produce music, as there’s no human element in the popular songwriting process. One character prefers this, while another expresses a nostalgic longing for the days when people made music on computers. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my father when I was a child where he described the virtue of music produced without computers, whereas I have a taste for music made on computers.

Another question the book proposes revolves around the worth of an individual. Motorized vehicles are 100% automated and with AI responsible for driving, the value of a person is brought into the equation when it comes to the occasional accident. People are quantified based on a number of variables, and the computer does everything possible to spare the more valuable entity, even if it includes killing the lesser person. I feel the value of a person could be considered controversial if corrupt powers have any sort of influence, but Drozd did not venture there.

What we get is a story about a teenager full of angst, and the complications that arise after a friend commits suicide. There are beings from a parallel universe that only appear to our protagonist, and my only gripe is that their motives seem bigger than the end result. Even still, the ending offers a twist of sorts that is great fun.

The book was well edited in terms of proper grammar, but I feel some of the phrasing throughout could’ve used a little more tweaking. Drozd offers readers a fantastic effort in his debut.

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The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye: A Book Review

David Lagercrantz does excellent work. ‘The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye’ is his second contribution to the Millennium Series, and it’s a stronger piece of fiction than his first. He has mastered the characters and their motives to such a degree that I’m no longer aware of a disparity between the writing of Lagercrantz and Larsson.

The narrative begins with Lisbeth Salander serving a prison sentence for crimes committed in the previous book. An innocent inmate is the target of gross abuse by a most guilty inmate, while the guards look the other way. Salander takes an interest, and intervenes with violent results, and takes it upon herself to correct the record. Thus begins a revenge thriller that captures the essence of Larsson’s characters and story world. It’s a wild ride that’s worth the price of admission.

In order to not give anything away I’m going to keep this review short and sweet. I take delight in these novels, and will continue reading further installments of ‘The Millennium Series’ while Lagercrantz writes them. His additions compliment the original trilogy with equal quality.

 

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Violence and Entertainment: Some Thoughts

In the wake of the commonplace mass shooting that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, blame has been thrown in every direction as a means to pivot away from any real action. Mental illness is further stigmatized while the notion of gun control is entertained, but not considered with honest intent. The president has fallen on the age-old rhetoric that blames the glorification of violence as presented in our media, specifically video games and film. These mediums aren’t to blame for the ills of society. I recall a similar instance from my youth, one that involved casting blame on a rock and roll star following the mass shooting at Columbine. Video games (Doom) and films (Natural Born Killers) were scapegoated as well, but Marilyn Manson became the figure of cause, or in his own words, “the poster boy for fear,” in an arena where the artist had no business.

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Violence in entertainment has been normalized through the ages. Shakespeare had to compete with a bear-baiting arena that stood within walking distance from The Globe, where dogs were set against bears. Violence is an unfortunate byproduct of the human experience, to which entertainment falls short of reality. Does entertainment glorify the vices of violence and drug dependency? Absolutely. Can entertainment have a psychological impact on the person? Studies conclude our violent media doesn’t make a violent mind. I’d ask the POW’s whom the United States government exposed to singular songs on repeat at volumes too great to withstand, but that’s use of media as a means of torture. I guess I’ve never met a person who watched Breaking Bad, and decided to try their hand at cooking crystal meth.

Still, I will say that though some media is horribly toxic (especially without proper context or critical thinking skills), mass shootings don’t stem from a ‘life imitating art’ philosophy. No one kills a police officer because they could in Grand Theft Auto. No one shoots up any array of social settings because of the music/images associated with Marilyn Manson. Such arguments serve only to pivot from the issue, with the intent of leaving it unaddressed. Jim Carrey possibly disagrees with me, as he decided to not promote a violent film he had acted in, following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. He drew parallels of self-importance, and saw his participation in the production of the film as something bigger than what it was. While I admire him wanting to bring attention to the issue, the source of his conviction was one rooted in error.

There’s a greater cultural problem that won’t be solved through a singular idea, and Americans need to acquire the skills of civil debate if compromise is to be reached. Without adjustment the shootings will continue. Even with adjustments the shootings will continue. Resolution won’t come overnight, and the first steps shall not yield instant results. There are growing pains ahead if we are to grow from these events, but the ‘pivot blame game’ falls on the same old arguments that have-time and time again-been reduced to falsehood. Video games, music, and movies entertain, and at times provide a coping mechanism by means of catharsis. Should we ban the work of William Shakespeare before the influence drives more teenagers to kill themselves and each other?

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Greater insight is necessary. What of violence in the real world? News programs use significant portions of their broadcasts to examine violent events within any given community, and break them down in such a way as to have the viewer feeling relieved. They’re left with a feeling of, ‘at least I’m not that bad,’ which serves complacency. They speak of wars in foreign lands with a particular cruelty, and equate their human condition to a sordid less than. Further down the pipeline is a subculture that celebrates the tragedies our society bears. Before the shooting at Virginia Tech, the shooter made a video where he paid homage to the school shooters that had come before him, even naming a few. When the Vegas concert shooting left 58 dead, and 851 others injured, particular online message boards discussed how he’d fallen short of the ‘high score,’ by referencing the mass shooting in Norway that left 80 dead in 2011. Violence is encouraged in a way that mimics the most morbid of support groups. There’s enough real world influence to claim our entertainment is not as harmful as some would allege.

 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: Book Review

A few years back I watched a video where black children were presented with baby dolls. One doll had a black skin tone, and the other white. The children were then asked questions that sought to have them pass judgment as it appealed to their preferences. Across the board, when they were asked which was the ‘good’ or ‘pretty’ doll, their answers indicated the white doll met that criterion. When asked which doll was ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ the black children consistently decided upon the black doll.

I’m white, and that video was painful to watch. Their answers suggested a deep-rooted self-loathing/hatred that’s socially programmed at an age too early to repair. My heart sank with their honest opinion based answers.

When I came upon The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, I was somewhat familiar with the premise; the story of a black girl named Pecola Breedlove who abhors her blackness, and desires the white traits of what she believes constitutes beauty. She covets the likeness of Shirley Temple, damaging any hope of finding self-love in her blackness. But what complicates Pecola is not grounded in isolation. There’s a passage that reminded me of the video on doll preference. When a few black boys begin to bully Pecola, Morrison’s narrator observes,

“It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds-cooled-and spilled over lips of outrage,” (65)

What makes Morrison’s work so intriguing (aside from a style of prose that hooks) is her ability to create backstories for a larger community. Morrison creates a bigger picture, before zeroing in on her focus. She’ll use entire chapters to establish other characters, bringing their obscure silhouettes to the forefront. Pauline Breedlove is the mother of Pecola, and as her past is brought up to speed we’re left to reflect, “So she became, and her process of becoming was like most of ours: she developed a hatred for things that mystified or obstructed her; acquired virtues that were easy to maintain; assigned herself a role in the scheme of things; and harked back to simpler times for gratification” (126).

The Bluest Eye examines race, gender, and class with tragic elements in such a masterful way as to stimulate empathy and arouse social questions. Why do we permit such injustice? Why do we hurt ourselves and/or the ones we’re supposed to love? The prose is an examination of trauma and living in its aftermath. I will be reading more of Toni Morrison, as her literary quality is top shelf material.

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