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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The Girl in the Spider’s Web: Book Review

I came with the same reservations you’ve got: how could this live up to the original trilogy? Stieg Larsson is not the author. In fact the initial rough draft for a fourth installment was put aside for the efforts of Swedish writer and journalist, David Lagercranz. His writing is smooth, and works towards establishing an authentic experience. Lagercranz brings his own story to the table, and what starts as a slow burn is revealed as the foundation for a thriller that compliments the returning cast and new character alike.

That’s how I knew it wasn’t a failure from the start; I was convinced of genuine portraits that brought me back into the story world of the Millennium Series. Blomkvist, Berger, and Salander were presented as they had been, but the side story of police officers Bublanski and Modig offered fantastic commentary, and the attention given to their characters helped to solidify the space. New characters contribute to chaos, and fun is had by all. I enjoyed the book. If there’s a flaw it’s the occasional wording that may be the result of a rushed translation, but that may be too critical of me.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web uses a narrative style that jumps every couple of pages, as a means to show a consistent juxtaposition of events through the scope of different perspectives. Though there is a consistent narrator the emphasis on jumping to different characters with such frequency suggests the possibility that it was written with a film in mind. It transitions fast enough to never burn out on a moment, and seems to move with the fluidity of thoughtful storytelling. It left open the option of a sequel, on which I have mixed feelings.

All in all I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to fans of the original trilogy. It’s fun, authentic to the established editions before it, and satisfies the desire for a quality continuation.

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Hag-Seed: A Rambling Review

Strange to think that in my time as an English major I never read The Tempest, or Margaret Atwood. I have The Lord Denney’s Players to thank for the recent exposure. The theatre company is of the Ohio State Department of English, and their emphasis is on the Renaissance. With this production they’ve chosen to put on The Tempest. In order to familiarize myself with the text and story I read Shakespeare’s work, an article by Stephen Greenblatt, and Margaret Atwood’s retelling in a contemporary prison, Hag-Seed. All of which were wonderful texts (as I’ll get to Hag-Seed in a moment), but that breathing entity of theatre was something fantastic to behold.

I started reading Hag-Seed a day or two following my completion of The Tempest. Atwood bridged the gap, from text to stage. Her novel begins with a Prospero figure, and his work as a Shakespearian theatre producer. Every piece is there; political betrayal, exile, revenge, and forgiveness as prompted by the figure of Ariel, an inmate known only as 8Handz.

But the best qualities of a retelling are in what makes it new. Long has the topic of prisons been applied to conversations on The Tempest, but Atwood has sculpted a narrative of her own, with the actual play as the underlying plot point. Freakin’ meta, man… but it gets at some parallels that prove Atwood is a master of her craft.

Most of the novel seems grounded in reality, but there are moments that are just fantastic. Felix (the figure for Prospero) getting away with his crazed hostage taking revenge plot is too good to be real, but such is the stuff of great fiction, and such is Shakespeare’s text. If you’re really looking for an over the top reworking of Shakespeare check out South Park, season five, episode four: Scott Tenorman Must Die. That mess recreates Titus Andronicus, and it’s dark. Sorry, that got off subject.

I’m new to the Margaret Atwood fan club, but I’m looking forward to reading more of her work. Aside from The Handmaid’s Tale, what else of hers should be at the top of my list?

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Book Review: ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King

I’m not one to care much about material possession, but if gifts are in order I’m all about books. For the big dirty thirty I received a copy of On Writing by Stephen King. I’ve had friends suggest this text to me before, but with academic writing taking precedent over fiction I didn’t have time for it.
The book is odd, as it’s broken up into segments that often have little concern of the writing process. It opens with a solid hundred pages of a life story that begins with childhood imagination. The cover of the book reveals the subtitle “A Memoir of the Craft” to which the first and third segments adhere. My expectations were thrown off, but for the rabid King fan it’s an interesting look into the life of the author.
It’s the middle segment of the book where King offers the goods. The tips to writing that makes for good reading include similar tendencies I developed in my academic pursuits. King even name-dropped The Elements of Style throughout his text, which I had put to use in college.
Beyond sentence structure King’s emphasis is crafting fiction. This is the gray area that has worked for him, if it’s true. I wouldn’t take the advice as that which all should follow, but one radical element stood out to me. I scoffed, at first, but further consideration has given the idea validity in my mind, though it’s not for me. This claim is that King does not plot, and that it’s the coupling of questions with the writing process that crafts his stories. Like a scientific theory more than one party must handle the notion if it’s to be considered fact. From here I point towards Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the minds behind South Park. At a college lecture on writing Stone and Parker described an approach that considers the full plotting of an episode to produce a result that is predictable. To avoid this the writing starts with a premise, and they throw questions at it until something sticks, and eventually takes shape.
Sorry to venture off there, but it’s the notion that King’s approach works for successful writers beyond himself that suggests the idea has some commercial merit. I do enough plotting to know where I’m going, lest I get to a pivotal moment and take the easy way out… but I must acknowledge appreciation in the face of difference.
This book is no holy grail. King offers no magic beyond general practices, and personal preferences. It’s another chunk of text on writing in a sea of such material. Yet I’d recommend it to those getting started, or even an experienced writer in need of a refresher. King’s voice is clear, encouraging, and easy to understand.

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Book Review: ‘The Blood of the Lamb’ by Peter De Vries

Great literature has often moved me to feeling, but never to tears until ‘The Blood of the Lamb’ by Peter De Vries. As described by the late Dr. Myers back in 2013, the book is, “a comedy about a man whose child dies of cancer.” With this spoiler in mind, I was still left unprepared for the impact of the prose upon my heart.

In truth the novel follows Don Wanderhope from his early childhood through the loss of his daughter, Carol. We don’t meet Carol until the final third of the book, but to that point we are exposed to the persistence of loss, and the complications of faith in the face of such experience.

The death of a young lover brings Wanderhope to question the overseeing doctor on a belief in God, and we are given a great insight to the nature of doubt,

“He just perceptibly raised his eyes, as if in entreaty to Heaven to spare him at least this. It took me some years to attain his mood and understand my blunder. He resented such questions as people do who have thought a great deal about them. The superficial and the slipshod have ready answers, but those looking this complex life straight in the eye acquire a wealth of perception so composed of delicately balanced contradictions that they dread, or resent, the call to couch any part of it in a bland generalization. The vanity (if not outrage) of trying to cage this dance of atoms in a single definition may give the weariness of age with the cry of youth for answers the appearance of boredom. Dr. Simpson looked bored as he ground his teeth and gazed away” (111).

Our narrator is a tragic embodiment of something that relates to the human condition. In describing the conflicts of his marriage he observes, “one of those subtle shifts of mood that emphasize how much we live by one another’s variable weather” (147).

But no matter the weight I’m well versed in tragedy. It is a subject matter or genre that brings me a peculiar pleasure. Morbid as it may seem, I delight in such material as it brings me the comforts of community. Upon fighting the ‘beast’ that is Carol’s leukemia, Wanderhope suggests that in the face of a terminal illness, medicine is, “the art of prolonging disease” (183), and that the notion of progress serves only to infect the wound, as, “Progress doubles our tenure in a vale of tears” (242). It is with the loss of Carol that Wanderhope is able to admit that, “Time heals nothing” (246).

The Blood of the Lamb is a hard-hitting piece of work, with a style of prose that tells more than it shows. It’s in this telling that we relate to such loss through empathy. Knowing that the entire book was leading up to the death of a child made it no easier to read the passage in which Carol was lost. I had to put the book down on several occasions, but in returning I always found more value than I had expected, and more emotion than I could handle at times. This was the kind of tragedy that goes beyond standard literary merit… this book moved me to tears more than once.

What makes it so difficult is knowing how closely the story mirrored the life of the author. It’s what made it all so authentic. His conflicting thoughts on faith, and his sharp observations of love, and life, and hatred, brought me to care in such a way as to suggest true feeling… My apologies, for this is not my typical review of sorts… I’m still dealing with the loss described on the page.