Cat’s Cradle: Book Review

Vonnegut is one of those authors I’m surprised was never assigned during my time as an English major. I did spend a good deal of time studying Renaissance drama and folklore, but I thought my time in classes that emphasized novels of the 20thcentury would’ve provided me with the likes of him and Atwood. As with Atwood, I would delve into their works after my time in the classroom.

Cat’s Cradle entertained, as I found the ride to have gone through unexpected turns. Even with science as an underlying subject I wasn’t expecting the sci-fi elements that emerged later in the book.

The juxtaposition of science fiction elements with the political/religious commentary allowed for some delightful satire. Some of my favorite passages involved the folly of American prejudice as human condition, and capitalism gone too far. One such passage reads,

“I guess Americans are hated a lot of places.”

People are hated a lot of places. Claire point out in her letter that Americans, in being hated, were simply paying the normal penalty for being people.” (98)

Another passage that caught my eye…

“The hand that stocks the drug stores rules the world. Let us start our Republic with a chain of drug stores, a chain of grocery stores, a chain of gas chambers, and a national game. After that, we can write our Constitution.” (285)

The book contains casual racism and sexism, which I’ve come to expect from male authors of that era. If you can get past that it’s a brilliant read. Much like Atwood, I’ll be reading more Vonnegut.

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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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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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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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No Good Deed: Book Review

No Good Deed examines and satirizes the complications of long-term friendships. We’re brought in on the premise that our main character offers some money to a homeless person, and is thanked by name. After an awkward moment Alan realizes he’s staring at his childhood friend, Craig. He takes his old friend to a pub, and then to his home in an attempt to help him up.

Alan’s a semi famous food critic. Craig played guitar for a band that got big in the early 90’s, and then fizzled out. It feels of an age-old story where the emphasis resides upon the reversal of fortune. Themes of carnival surface as one character is brought up, while the other descends to ruin. These classical notions mixed with contemporary commentary make for an excellent piece of cultural satire. Niven delivers, again.

It is the unspoken feelings long harbored between the two main characters that motivate them to actions both comical and wretched. Distance of years would not change how they felt about each other. It is expressed that, “all the money and fame imaginable could never re-engineer how we come to define ourselves as teenagers” (165). I found myself laughing out loud at the insults, and feeling a genuine emotional investment when dealing with the prospect of loss.

At one point Craig is being interviewed about his story. He is honest about his spiteful feelings toward Alan, and describes him with a harshness that seems far away from the warm feelings we typically associate with friendships. Niven offers an insight that feels all too relatable,

“It did make her slightly sad, however, the realization- common to many jobbing journalists who must routinely deliver copy crafted to suit many different publications – that lurking beneath the piece she was going to write about the life-affirming powers of friendship, there was another piece, a different piece, a better piece. One about the strange currents and deep, dark pools that hide beneath the surface of many lifelong friendships, especially ones that have involved dramatic reversal of fortune” (198).

It’s just fantastic. Probably the best overall work from Niven. My personal favorite since The Second Coming.

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