Book Review: Iraq + 100, edited by Hassan Blasim

Want to see how the marketing of a book is affected by who publishes it? Look at Iraq + 100, a collection of stories by 10 Iraqi authors imagining how their country would look 100 years after the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation by the United States. When originally released in the U.S. last December, the book was subtitled Stories from Another Iraq. Forge, an imprint of noted science fiction publisher Tor Books, has changed the subtitle to The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq.

That change doesn’t alter the book’s mission, which is perhaps represented by the fact that, having roots in September 11, 2001, the Forge edition is released this week. Rather than wrapping stories around the 2003 invasion, something editor Hassan Blasim did in his own short story collection The Corpse Exhibition, Blasim asked the writers to do something rare for Iraq. As he notes in his introduction to the book, “Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing.” In fact, Blasim was concerned it would be difficult to find writers willing to imagine Iraqi cities 100 years in the future.

Like most anthologies, the end result is mixed. Additionally, Western readers’ perception or appreciation of the book may be affected by the fact seven of the 10 stories were originally written in Arabic and each has a different translator. To the extent this is science fiction, it is “soft” scifi exploring the cultural, political and psychological effects of the invasion and occupation of the country. There’s also a little magical realism and surrealism utilizing Iraq’s and Islam’s history and culture.

Some stories offer optimism. In “The Gardens of Babylon,” Blasim’s own story, while Baghdad is managed by a Chinese corporation, it has become “a paradise for digital technology developers.” Likewise, despite desertification and environmental degradation, this Baghdad is divided into 24 Chinese-designed domes, each a new garden of Babylon. The city exports the world’s best software and extraordinary scientific discoveries.

Ali Bader imagines a peace-filled future, at least for Iraq. In “The Corporal,” an Iraqi soldier returns to Kut, where he died in the 2003 invasion. “There are no more Sunnis, Shi’as, Christians” in Iraq, he is told, because organized religion is viewed as an impediment to knowing God. The country is long free of conflicts or civil wars. America, however, has become “an extremist state” ruled by religious radicals much like the Taliban governed Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. is “part of the axis of evil.”

Other futures are far more dystopian. In “Operation Daniel,” Khalid Kaki’s Kirkuk is a wealthy city-state cut off from the rest of Iraq and governed by the Chinese. All languages but Chinese are forbidden and the punishment for anyone speaking or reading in them is being incinerated and “archived” in a synthetic diamond. Diaa Jubaili bases “The Worker” on a statute of that name in Basra. The city exports or has consumed every imaginable resource. It never lacks corpses, whether from disease or starvation. Despite a virtual total collapsed, “the Governor” reassures those still in the city with a monthly address about historical events that surpass the city’s own catastrophes and suffering.

Whether hopeful or despairing, these stories may have Americans ruefully recalling what Gen. Colin Powell reportedly told President George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq: “You break it, you own it.”

Violence is the most brutal sculptor mankind has ever produced.

Hassan Blasim, “The Gardens of Babylon,” Iraq + 100

Weekend Edition: 9-9

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • Why Books and Reading Are More Important Than Ever (“…books remain one of the few defenses we have against narrowness, domination, and mind control. But only if we read them – and then only if we spring into action based on what we’ve learned and discovered.”)

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

  • “Fuck” first appeared in court records more than 700 years ago
  • A majority of Americans adults under the age of 30 now reject capitalism
  • Political cartoons in the age of Trump
  • The Voyager spacecraft have explored space for 40 years run by computers that have less computing power than the key fobs we use to unlock our cars

I sometimes feel that I should carry around some sort of rectal thermometer to test the rate at which I am becoming an old fart.

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22

Goodbye Walter

Those of you of a certain era will know that Walter Becker, a co-founder of Steely Dan, died Sunday. Steely Dan seems to be one of those bands you like — or you detest. I was a big fan.

Lke most people my age, the first Steely Dan music I heard was in late 1972-early 1973 when “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” hit the charts. Both came off the band’s first album and “Reelin’ in the Years” always makes me think of high school. Becker and Donald Fagen started the band and “Do It Again” hinted at what would come.

The fact the band was named after a dildo in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (a fact confirmed on Steely Dan’s website) is a clue about the music. It wasn’t straightforward rock, it wasn’t jazz, it wasn’t blues. With Fagen singing and his piano prominent in the mix, the public viewed him somewhat as the leader of the band. Yet Becker’s subtle guitar playing was a crucial part of the sound, a sound with far more layers than almost any other group.

The band’s music was increasingly complex so that when it’s third album, Pretzel Logic, was released in early 1974 Steely Dan stopped touring. Instead, Becker and Fagen retreated to the studio where they could use technology and select musicians to produce what they heard — and what they heard wouldn’t be easy to replicate on stage. Regardless of how meticulous they were, each album fed the backlash that Steely Dan wasn’t really a band, just two guys amusing themselves in recording studios.

Hearing the results, my reaction was, “So what?” Their fourth album, 1975’s Katy Lied, is one of my two favorite Steely Dan tunes. The title alone reminds me of a dear friend who died far too young 25 years ago.  And my favorite tune on the album,  “Doctor Wu” (with a solo by jazz saxophonist Phil Woods), analogous to “Reelin’ in the Years,” always reminds me of college. In the video below, the band performs “Black Friday,” the opening cut on the album. There are few bands being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that would choose to play a song about a financial collapse from the perspective of a man who plans to stand outside and “catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor.”

But Steely Dan’s peak, sonically and musically, came with 1977’s Aja. I’ve previously written a full post about that album so suffice it to say that is almost perfectly layered and has pristine sound. It was followed by three years of commercial silence, during which Becker struggled with a variety of issues. Finally, Gaucho was released in late 1980. But Becker and Fagen split the next years, perhaps because their attention to detail had become obsessive. They reportedly spent four hours to mix a 50 second fade-out on the song “Babylon Sisters.”

In 1993 Steely Dan actually toured and in 1995 released a live recording, Alive in America. It was not until 2000, however, that the band would release a new studio album — and the album, Two Against Nature, would win four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. Becker had always been the quiet one in the partnership and that became even more true when he moved to Hawaii following the 1981 split. In recent years, Becker evidently had health problems. In fact, unspecified health problems were reported to be the reason he didn’t perform when Steely Dan appeared at the Classic West and Classic East concerns in July.

Fagen says he intends “to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” Sorry, Donald, but without Walter Becker there is no Steely Dan.

You can try to run but you can’t hide from what’s inside of you

Steely Dan, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” Katy Lied

Weekend Edition: 9-2

Bulletin Board

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • Why We Must Still Defend Free Speech (“It is easy to recognize inequality; it is virtually impossible to articulate a standard for suppression of speech that would not afford government officials dangerously broad discretion and invite discrimination against particular viewpoints.”)

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

Humankind cannot stand very much reality.

T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”

Book Review: Death of an Assassin by Ann Marie Ackerman

For the second time in a year, I’ve had book encounters with 19th century European assassins who eventually fled to the United States and began new lives under different names. The first was Sergei Degaev, who assassinated the chief of Tsar Nicholas’s security organization in 1883. Sixteen years later he would become a popular professor at the University of South Dakota. Most recently I was introduced to a man who assassinated the mayor of Bönnigheim, Germany, in 1835. His potentially greater impact on U.S. history is explored in Death of an Assassin: The True Story of the German Murderer Who Died Defending Robert E. Lee.

Author Ann Marie Ackerman unravels a real life mystery. Not only is this an engaging piece of history, the former prosecutor uses an appendix to present the compelling evidence and reasoning behind her identification of a 19th century German murderer. Ackerman also makes a strong case that the initial investigation may have seen the first use of forensic ballistics as a law enforcement tool.

Death of an Assassin begins on the night of October 21, 1835, when the mayor of Bönnigheim, Germany, was shot just a few steps from his front door. The mayor did not see his assailant and died about 30 hours later. Using the original investigative file, Ackerman details the investigation, providing a rare look inside the techniques and legal standards of the time.

Despite a thorough investigation and examination of several potential suspects, the case was essentially closed without resolution in 1837. At some point, the actual assassin emigrated to the U.S. illegally. (Ackerman doesn’t identify him until approximately halfway through the book so his name isn’t used here.) In January 1840, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, then a force of only 7,000 men.

At the time of the assassination, Robert E. Lee was 28, a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. That same month, the Texas Revolution against Mexican rule began, eventually leading to the Mexican-American War a decade later. And, Ackerman maintains, that would bring Lee and the German assassin together during the siege of Veracruz in March 1847, Lee’s first battle experience.

In April 1847, Lee would write his 15-year-old son about his experiences. He described a soldier in a company protecting him and the battery he commanded during the bombardment of Veracruz. The soldier’s thigh was shattered by a Mexican cannonball and he lay in agony most of the day. When finally being borne off in a litter, he was killed by an incoming shell. “I doubt whether all Mexico is worth to us the life of that man,” Lee wrote. (It seems somewhat ironic that an account of Lee’s military activities more than a decade before the Civil War is released when the nation is debating Confederate statues.)

Currently living in Germany, Ackerman’s experience as a prosecutor in America shows through. Poor military record-keeping at the time forces her to say the assassin “probably” was the soldier mentioned in Lee’s letter. Yet she musters and builds a strong case for naming him. Although there are a few instances of repetition and the actual events surrounding the man’s death are muddied by time, Death of an Assassin is a cogent work.

In 1872, the assassin was identified, ironically, by a Bönnigheim resident who emigrated to the U.S. in 1836 after unfounded rumor said he killed the mayor. In a letter to authorities, he relayed that a friend told him that shortly after arriving in the U.S., the assassin admitted to killing the mayor for rejecting his application to be a game warden. While they were aware the killer died in combat in Mexico, it took Ackerman to make the connection to American history.

This one shot would rectify a lifetime of career frustrations.

Ann Marie Ackerman, Death of an Assassin

Weekend Edition: 8-26

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • The Long Lost Thrill of Doing Nothing (“Spontaneous idleness challenges an urge that’s deeply ingrained in many of us, especially in modern, secular societies: the persistent need to feel like we’re making something of our time.”)
  • A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof (“Roof is what happens when we prefer vast historical erasures to real education about race.”)
  • The President of Blank Sucking Nullity (“The most significant thing to know about Donald Trump’s politics or process, his beliefs or his calculations, is that he is an asshole; the only salient factor in any decision he makes is that he absolutely does not care about the interests of the parties involved except as they reflect upon him.”)

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Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

If you want to have great ideas or if you just want to get to know yourself, you must stop managing your time.

Andrew Smart, Autopilot