Book review: ‘The Baghdad Clock’ is a magical take on life in Iraq

Book review: ‘The Baghdad Clock’ is a magical take on life in Iraq
“The Baghdad Clock” was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018. (Shutterstock)
Updated 30 June 2018

Book review: ‘The Baghdad Clock’ is a magical take on life in Iraq

Book review: ‘The Baghdad Clock’ is a magical take on life in Iraq

CHICAGO: Shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2018, Shahad Al-Rawi’s extraordinary debut novel, “The Baghdad Clock,” turns life in embattled Iraq into a fantastical world of characters and memories that serve as fuel for those who have lived and loved through the years of war. The book follows two young girls who first meet in a shelter during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and tells the story of their unyielding spirit in the face of a crumbling Iraq.
Al-Rawi’s reader is immediately drawn into the world she has created with her narrator’s sense of childlike wonder. Through the eyes of a young girl, the reader is invited into a Baghdad one may not have visited before. Along with a best friend named Nadia, the narrator takes the reader on a journey brimming with magical realism, in which reality and dreams are intertwined.
The author does an incredible job of painting a portrait of a neighborhood in Baghdad, with its ups and downs, its scandals and vibrancy, despite the surrounding planes, rockets and political upheaval. The reader grows with Al-Rawi’s characters, living life with them, losing life with them and navigating through their sorrows and joys. Between the Ma’mun Tower and the Baghdad Clock, first loves are found, school protests are had, honor is upheld and the fear of loneliness is explored through war and harsh sanctions that change the face of the city and the lives within it.

Due to sanctions, the loss of the neighborhood and its inhabitants, of gardens and roses, of pomegranate trees and orange blossoms, is gradual and inevitable. Life, Al-Rawi writes, withdraws “into distant rooms.” Her narrator’s neighborhood school turns into a military barrack and missile depot. One by one, neighbors leave and friends depart for safer shores. The choice of whether to stay or to go becomes harder as sanctions choke the city.

Al-Rawi writes beautifully of characters who immediately captivate you — characters who are relatable, but also imbued with a sense of magic. The life she writes of has an ethereal overlay, as if life is about much more than just living through war. In a country so often dehumanized by politics, Al-Rawi reminds us of the stories and people that make Iraq what it is.
First published in Arabic in 2016 by Dar Al-Hikma, Shahad Al Rawi’s debut novel was translated by Luke Leafgren, translator and assistant dean of Harvard College, and published by Oneworld Publications in 2018. Al-Rawi is a writer and novelist and currently pursuing a PhD in anthropology in Dubai.


What We Are Reading Today: Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher

What We Are Reading Today: Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher
Updated 10 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher

What We Are Reading Today: Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher

This is a long and dense book, but any effort expended in the reading is exponentially rewarded. 

In Wonderworks, Angus Fletcher, a Renaissance literature scholar at Ohio State University, attempts a practical approach to putting the humanities back on the map. 

Fletcher takes a close look at the power of innovations in literature to improve human happiness, and he analyzes these effects on the physical body.

Wonderworks “is an unusual, thought-provoking book. It mixes history, literature, and neuroscience to create essentially a self-help book where the cure for what ails you is a certain element of literature,” said a review on goodreads.com. 

In 25 chapters, Fletcher “travels from the first stories told in caves to the present day showing, comparing and contracting how literature works, and why its messages, when done right, can be so compelling,” the review added. 

It said the book “details various literary inventions, their potential origin from ancient times, and further development through contemporary authors, and ties each one to psychological benefits for readers.”


What We Are Reading Today: Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

What We Are Reading Today: Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton
Updated 09 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

What We Are Reading Today: Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton

Madhouse at the End of the Earth is a must-read book for anyone interested in polar exploration and geographic discovery.

It is a fictionalized account of an actual Belgian expedition to the Antarctic, in the final years of the 19th century, and is based on a multitude of journals and reports.

In this epic tale, Sancton unfolds a story of adventure gone horribly awry.

“It is a fascinating and exciting story of endurance, with a flowing narrative and characters well described and full of depth,” said a review in goodreads.com.

It offers a gripping account of the de Gerlache Antarctic expedition of 1897-1899, in which the ship became frozen in the ice for the entire winter. 

It is also the story of the friendship between the ship’s doctor, Dr. Frederick Albert Cook, and Roald Amundsen, who was at the beginning of his career as an explorer.

The author uses a lot of primary sources such as diaries.

“Anyone who values a human story in trying conditions, under desperate circumstances, will completely enjoy this book,” said the review.


What We Are Reading Today: Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

What We Are Reading Today: Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe
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Updated 08 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

What We Are Reading Today: Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

Author: Niall Ferguson

Drawing from multiple disciplines, including economics and network science, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe offers not just a history but a general theory of disaster.
The book falls into multiple parts, the first of which forms the bulk of the text with an examination of disasters throughout history, both natural and man-made, some in the deep past, others in more recent memory.
As author Niall Ferguson shows, governments “must learn to become less bureaucratic if we are to avoid the impending doom of irreversible decline,” said a review on goodreads.com.
“While populist rulers certainly performed poorly in the face of the pandemic, Ferguson argues that more profound pathologies were at work — pathologies already visible in our responses to earlier disasters,” said the review.
It said that Ferguson “examines various plagues through the ages, as knowledge of how they work gradually grew, and how such knowledge was usually ignored or abused by those in power.”


What We Are Reading Today: The Big Roads by Earl Swift

What We Are Reading Today: The Big Roads by Earl Swift
Updated 06 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Big Roads by Earl Swift

What We Are Reading Today: The Big Roads by Earl Swift

A man-made wonder, a connective network, an economic force, a bringer of blight and sprawl and the possibility of escape — the US interstate system changed the face of our country. 

Earl Swift’s The Big Roads charts the creation of these essential American highways. From the turn-of-the-century car racing entrepreneur who spurred the citizen-led “Good Roads” movement, to the handful of driven engineers who conceived of the interstates and how they would work to the protests that erupted across the nation when highways reached the cities and found people unwilling to be uprooted in the name of progress, Swift follows a winding, fascinating route through twentieth-century American life. 

How did we get from dirt tracks to expressways in less than a century? Through decades of politics, activism, and marvels of engineering, we recognize in our highways the wanderlust, grand scale, and conflicting notions of citizenship and progress that define America.


What We Are Reading Today: The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

What We Are Reading Today: The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell
Updated 05 May 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

What We Are Reading Today: The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia is an exploration of how technology and best intentions collide in the heat of war.

Most military thinkers in the years leading up to World War II saw the airplane as an afterthought. But a small band of idealistic strategists asked: What if precision bombing could cripple the enemy and make war far less lethal?

In contrast, the bombing of Tokyo on the deadliest night of the war cost thousands of civilian lives, but may have spared even more by averting a planned US invasion. In The Bomber Mafia, Gladwell asks, “Was it worth it?”

Things might have gone differently had LeMay’s predecessor, General Haywood Hansell, remained in charge. Hansell believed in precision bombing, but when he and Curtis LeMay squared off for a leadership handover in the jungles of Guam, LeMay emerged victorious, leading to the bombing of Tokyo. The Bomber Mafia is a riveting tale of persistence, innovation, and the incalculable wages of war.