The Septembers of Shiraz - Book Review

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

From the first page of The Septembers of Shiraz, you know it’s not going to be a fun or easy read. In September,1981 in the midst of his work day, Isaac Amin, a Jew living in Tehran, is apprehended at gunpoint by two members of the Revolutionary Guards. They transport him for interrogation and imprisonment. His crime? Being a Jew and benefiting from the reign of the Shah; officially he is accused of being an Israeli spy.

Isaac is a gem trader and jewelry designer in Tehran and has led a very comfortable lifestyle, amassing a fortune under the rule of the Shah. His wife Farnaz and ten year old daughter Shirin live with him in a sprawling house with servants and a gardener. His son, Parviz, attends architectural school in Brooklyn. The novel’s chapters alternate between these four characters from a third person POV.

After the fall of the Shah, they realize that their lifestyle, if not their lives, are in jeopardy. The revolution post-Shah has changed life in Iran drastically. No longer is music or dancing allowed, any person of wealth is suspect, and anyone not loyal to Islam is considered immoral and subject to harsh punishment. A list of executions is frequently posted in the newspaper, and the Amins sometimes read of friends being killed. It is difficult to know whom to trust and conversations and letters are often peppered with code words and phrases.

“The Septembers” refers to Isaac’s idyllic time spent in Shiraz in his youth and young adulthood. It is in stark contrast to the September in which he begins his imprisonment. Some of the prison scenes reminded me of The Lizard Cage, a remarkable book about a Burmese prisoner. Conditions are unimaginable, torture is frequent, survival is tenuous.

As difficult as the subject matter is, I found this a very readable book. The author, Dalia Sofer, was ten when she and her family fled Iran, so I assume that Shirin is a partially autobiographical character. Sofer’s prose is beautiful – for example, when Farnaz picks up a forgotten pair of Isaac’s shoes from a shoemaker while he is in prison, “…she takes them, like a widow leaving a morgue. She walks home with the bag looped around her wrist, the shoes banging against her thigh, as if kicking her for interrupting their repose.” There are many such lovely turns of phrase in this astounding debut novel.

Highly recommended. (4.5/5) Read More!

Friday Fill-ins 01-29-10

Janet is our fantastic host for this weekly event.

My responses are in italics.

1. Wouldn't it be easy to guarantee that everyone in the US has good health care?

2. Life approaching 60 is better than ever!

3. I love the taste of eggnog. It’s a good thing I can’t buy it year-round.

4. It is toddler-world in the living room during the week.

5. The first thing we're going to do is sing.

6. Oregon winter: drip, drip, drip; I love it.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to Middle Eastern food, tomorrow my plans include a wonderful gathering of friends to remember our dear Betty and Sunday, I want to read!
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The Hearts of Horses - Book Review

The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss

I wasn’t expecting to love this book as much as I did. I’m not fond of Westerns and I’ve never been big on horse stories. But I do love me some strong women characters, and this book is full of them. Plus, the story held my interest throughout and the writing is superb. I’ve read two other Molly Gloss books: Wild Life and Jump-Off Creek (both also with strong women characters). This is my favorite.

It is 1918. Martha Lessen rides into (fictional) Elwha County in northeast Oregon intent on breaking horses and living the life of an itinerant cowboy. She is in her early twenties and has left home for reasons we find out later in the story. Her methods for breaking horses are not standard; she eschews any brutality toward the animals. Her talent lies with “gentling” the horses.

She finds a temporary place with George and Louise Bliss, a couple who run a small ranch, and she makes herself at home in their barn. She has very few creature comforts and is elated when Louise loans her a stack of books:
She cleared a shelf in the tack room, crowding the veterinary goods into other boxes and onto other shelves to make room for the books. Their variously colored spines, arranged along the cleared shelf, made a small, distinct change in the room. (Page 36.)

The Blisses grow fond of the tall, shy, tomboyish woman and, after she proves herself to be a skilled horse trainer, introduce her to other ranchers in the valley, securing more work for her.

Martha develops tentative relationships with the people she works for. She is painfully shy and often feels out of place in social situations. But because she spends time every week at various ranches, and because of the nature of community in the early part of the twentieth century, she becomes involved in the lives of the people who hire her.

The writing is simple, the story is simple, the lives straightforward, yet the complexities of the greater world are always in the background – WWI, illness, environmental destruction, racism. Since the story is told by an omniscient narrator sometime in the future, there are glimpses of events that will impact the land and the lives of the characters, such as the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Gloss did an astounding amount of research for this novel. The reader will learn quite a bit about horses, tack, life on a small ranch in a bygone era, the hardships and joys of being a horse whisperer and of being a woman alone in a man's world. Highly recommended. (4.5/5)
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Teaser Tuesday and Where Are You? 01-26-10: The Hearts of Horses

Should Be Reading - Miz B - hosts this weekly event. We throw out a couple of sentences from our current read (without spoilers, of course) to entice you to read the book.

This week my teaser is from The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss, page 50:
Martha had set out from Pendleton meaning to live a footloose cowboy life and see the places she'd read about in Western romances - she hadn't come down to Elwha County intending to stay. But a winter's worth of work would suit her about right. She had watched a few wranglers riding a circle and she knew the work was hard, riding half a dozen different horses every day, some of them considerably rougher than others and sometimes needing to change saddles or hackamores to fit their different shapes, and then another half-dozen the next day. You were in the saddle dawn to dark six or seven days a week, pretty much regardless of the weather.

It's Tuesday, Where Are You? is hosted by an adventure in reading.

I'm in fictional Elwha County in eastern Oregon. It's 1918 and I'm a 20-something woman traveling the county breaking wild horses. Read More!

The Sunday Salon- 01-24-10: Book reviews

The Sunday
Hello bloggers and blogees! Happy Sunday. We've had a couple of spring-like days here in Portland this week, but it looks as though the rain is returning. The weather forecast says High: 44°; Low: 44°. We don't get a lot of variety here in the winter.

A couple of months ago I posted about redecorating my blog and attempting to do more book reviews. I've been 100% successful since the first of the year re: the book reviews! Even though I enjoy writing, for some reason I haven't felt very confident about my reviews. Or maybe it's some PTSD around all those book essays that I had to write in college. I'm not even very big on reading book reviews, at least before I read the book. I just don't want to know that much about it.

Then at some point I realized that by writing reviews I might actually remember some things about the books I've read! I don't seem to retain many details about books anymore, except that I loved it or hated it. So when someone with a mind like a steel trap comments on a book I read last month (or last week): "Oh, didn't you just love it when the priest and the rabbi walked into the bar...." and I mumble "Oh, uh-huh," because my mind is more like a steel sieve (except I can remember lyrics from really BAD 60s songs). Maybe I'll even start taking notes when I read. I have put the book darts to good use to mark some of my favorite passages.

So far in 2010 I've had some great reading - all six of the books I've read have earned at least 4 of 5 stars. Here's the list to date:
  • The Bone People, 4 stars (Review)
  • The Mammoth Cheese, 4 stars (Review)
  • Let the Great World Spin, 4 stars (Review)
  • Peace Like a River, 4.5 stars (Review)
  • The Dew Breaker, 4 stars (Review)
  • Under the Greenwood Tree, 4 stars (Review)
I'm just starting The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss, a Portland writer. I loved the other two books of hers I read and this one looks very promising. I hope it's good, since I recommended it to my book group!

I hope you have a great week and get to read great books. Read More!

Under the Greenwood Tree - Book review

Under the Greenwood Tree, published in 1872, is the first Thomas Hardy book I’ve read. I’ve been informed that this book is Hardy-Lite, that his later books are much more serious and well written. But I thoroughly enjoyed this short novel and was pleasantly surprised by the humor and, even with plenty of dialect in the dialogue, the easy readability.

There are two stories going on in the novel. The first involves the Mellstock Quire – a group of men who have been the church musicians for ages, singing and playing (stringed instruments ONLY: Strings alone would have held their ground against all the new comers in creation… clarinets was death… sinners… miserable dumbledores! Page 31) The men suddenly find themselves deposed by an organist – a beautiful young woman, Fancy Day, who steals not only their coveted musical role but also the hearts of several men in the village, among them Dick Dewey.

Which leads to the second story – the courtship between Dick and Fancy. There are the usual problems of class and gender differences, miscommunications, secrets, jealousy and lack of trust between the two lovers. And they must abide by the Victorian mores, hiding their relationship and sneaking kisses.

With much humor and irony, Hardy explores the gender disparity. My favorite scene involves Dick waiting for Fancy while she has a dress altered. It’s a rare half day off work, and he wants to go nutting with Fancy (harvesting nuts in the woods). He’s a good sport while he waits – at first - then Hardy evokes the epitome of boredom and restlessness:
Still the snipping and sewing went on. The clock struck four. Dick fidgeted about, yawned, privately, counted the knots in the table, yawned publicly, counted the flies on the ceiling, yawned horribly, went into the kitchen and scullery and so thoroughly studied the principle upon which the pump was constructed that he could have delivered a lecture on the subject…the clock struck five, and still the snipping and sewing went on.

Dick attempted to kill a fly, peeled all the rind off his walking-stick…produced hideous discords from the harmonium, and accidentally overturned a vase of flowers, the water from which ran in a rill across the table and dribbled to the floor where it formed a lake, the shape of which after the lapse of a few minutes he began to modify considerably with his foot till it was like a map of England and Wales. (page 140)
It’s a fun, sweet story, not great literature, but a pleasure to read. One complaint I have about the novel is that Hardy dropped the story about the choir almost completely after the romance began to bloom. I so enjoyed the sparring and teasing of the choir members among themselves that I wanted more. But I will forgive him this gaffe and recommend this book. (4/5)
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The Dew Breaker - Book Review

After the devastating earthquake last week, I wanted to read more about Haiti, and after hearing Edwidge Danticat interviewed on NPR, I remembered I had a couple of her books on my shelf.

The Dew Breaker is a collection of short stories – but I almost hesitate to call them that. The stories are stand-alone but they are also intricately linked to each other, sometimes by characters, sometimes by events. These links are not obvious at first; they are often “AHA!” or “I did not see that coming” moments.

Most of the stories are of Haitian immigrants to the United States. There are harrowing stories just under the surface of conventional veneers, and Danticat slowly and expertly reveals them. Many of the immigrants escaped the terror of the Duvalier dynasty; some participated. All bear the scars, both literally and figuratively. We get glimpses of executions, uprisings and the overthrow of Baby Doc in the stories that take place in Haiti.

In the final –title - story, we learn the story of the dew breaker, the torturer/murderer. It is somewhat sympathetic, as we learn bits of his childhood and of personal struggles. We come to see that the jailers in Haiti are as much prisoners of their lives as their victims are. Fear is a constant, trust is non-existent. What people must do to survive such a violent, poor and chaotic country is far beyond what I can imagine.

I’ve read another of Danticat’s books – Breath, Eyes, Memory– and thought it stunning. I plan to read Krik? Krak! soon. The Washington Post Book World wrote of it, pre-earthquake: "If the news from Haiti is too painful to read, read this book instead and understand the place far more deeply than you ever thought possible." The Dew Breaker was an eye-opener, as I'm sure her other books are.

Highly recommended. (4/5)
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Peace Like a River - Book Review

Reuben Land is the 11 year old narrator of Peace Like a River. He’s the middle child of single father Jeremiah and brother to Davy, age 17, and Swede, his precocious 9 year old sister. There is just one mention of the children’s mother, who left them some years ago.

It’s the early 1960s; the Lands live in a small town in Minnesota where Jeremiah is the high school janitor. He is a humble man devoted to his children and his God. And he occasionally performs miracles.

Reuben’s adolescent voice is consistent throughout, and it’s like listening to a conversation rather than reading a narration. He is reminiscent of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird – in fact, the story often reminded me of that most excellent book, with Jeremiah a bit like Atticus, the loving and fair-minded father, and Swede and Reuben like Scout and Jem, the precocious, adventurous and motherless children who observe the adults and tell the story while getting mixed up in the drama that unfolds.

There are some lovely humorous moments in the story, usually involving Swede. When she and Reuben agree to break their brother out of jail, Swede steals four steak knives:
Gravely she offered me the box. I chose two and with grim aspect slid them in my belt. Swede crossed her arms. She might’ve sailed with Francis Drake. She said, “We are of a noble tradition, Reuben.” I buttoned up a flannel shirt and drew blood from three knuckles tucking it in. (page 92)

This is a story of love and loyalty, of faith and miracles. Enger’s writing is beautiful and his storytelling superb. Here there is lovely prose, poetry (Swede is writing an epic poem), mystery, adventure and not a few surprises. Not to mention a sweet romance.

Highly recommend. (4.5/5)
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The Sunday Salon- 01-17-10: By the Numbers

The Sunday
Hello Sunday Saloners! I hope your week has been a good one.

I'm showing off my Excel spreadsheet this week - the one I'm using to keep track of my reading challenges and other reading stats. I used a spreadsheet last year, but it was pre-beginner's Excel; I had no formulas, no way of tracking the books listed in columns, other than using my fingers and toes. It was essentially a journal. But this year - enter Laura, my Geeky-Excel-spreadsheet-and-statistic-loving friend! She showed me how to create some formulas so the numbers will just keep adding up as I go. What a concept! It looks something like this (click on it to enlarge to its full magnificence):

Beautiful, eh? But wait! There's more! I actually ventured off on my own and figured out how to formulate some statistics! I'm starting small - comparing # of male to female authors. But maybe by the end of the year I'll have figured out some more complex stats.

I couldn't wait to finish my first few books so I could watch the magic as I entered the data. Such small pleasures.

I'm on my fourth book for 2010 - Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. It's a wonderful story and the writing is superb. I'll have a review of it up in a day or two. Then I think I'll read Edwidge Danticat's The Dew Breaker - short stories about Haiti.

If you're looking for a good place to donate for Haiti relief, check out my friend Sasha's organization, SOIL. They've been working in Haiti for years on sanitation and sustainability and are now directing all their resources and efforts to disaster relief. Thanks.

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Let the Great World Spin - Book review

It was so much like having sex with the wind. It complicated things and blew away and softly separated and slid back around him. The wire was about pain too: it would always be there, jutting into his feet, the weight of the bar, the dryness at his throat, the throb of his arms, but the joy was losing the pain so that it no longer mattered. So too with his breathing. He wanted his breath to enter the wire so that he was nothing. This sense of losing himself. Every nerve. Every cuticle. He hit it on the towers. The logic became unfixed. It was the point where there was no time. The wind was blowing and his body could have experienced it years in advance. (page 241)

Let the Great World Spin is a historical novel about Philippe Petit who, in 1974, walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers. But we don’t hear much about this factual character. We catch fictional glimpses of him throughout the novel, from spectators, from the judge who sentenced him for his bold act, even from some geeks in California who hack into the phone lines and get some odd eyewitness reports of “the walk,” as it’s referred to.

It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected. The dozen or so characters we meet in the book are somehow connected by this moment in time – some as witnesses to the event and some by having a life-changing event happening to them at the time of the walk.

Petit isn’t the only person in the story who does the impossible; others are walking the tightrope that is life, performing such death defying acts as enduring the death of a child; devoting a life to helping the hopeless, the hookers and pimps and destitute; watching a brother sink into an impossible life; losing a new love. We are the spectators to this diverse bunch of people, some who conquer the tightrope and some who slip and fall.

One of my favorite characters is Gloria, a Black woman who seemingly plays a minor role until the end of the book. She tells her story of growing up in Missouri, with a devoted mother and father.
That was the sort of everyday love I had to learn to contend with: if you grow up with it, it’s hard to think you’ll ever match it. I used to think it was difficult for children of folks who really loved each other, hard to get out from under that skin because sometimes it’s just so comfortable you don’t want to have to develop your own. (page 289)
There is one photo of the actual tightrope walk in the book. In an eerie foreshadowing, there is a plane above Petit that looks as though it’s about to hit one of the towers. McCann’s character Jaslyn, in 2006, references it in an elegant way: One small scrap of history meeting a larger one…the collision point of stories.

McCann writes beautifully and I will be reading more of his books in the future. (4/5) Read More!

Rachel Maddow- Haitian ambassador shames Pat Robertson

I find Pat Robertson's "declaration" about Haiti despicable, dangerous and irresponsible.

From These three charities, and many others, are providing care. If you can contribute to help fund their emergency efforts, please do.

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The Sunday Salon: The Mammoth Cheese - Book review

The Mammoth Cheese is full of surprises. I expected a light funny read, but this book is chock full of people with common problems and a few not so common. There are many stories taking place in the novel and they all twine together nicely.

In the small town of Three Chimneys, Virginia, Margaret Prickett is a single mom to 13 year old Polly. Margaret is trying desperately to keep the family dairy farm afloat. Threatened with foreclosure, she puts all her hopes and energy into electing Adams Brooke president. Brooke’s campaign promise of forgiving the debts of all family farms keeps Margaret going through a very challenging year. She tends the farm, makes cheese, raises Polly and works tirelessly on Brooke’s campaign.

Meanwhile, her neighbor, Manda Franks, has just given birth to 11 babies. You didn’t misread that. Eleven. The town – and the whole country – have gone into typical media frenzy over the births. The only person seemingly not thrilled by this historic event is Manda (and the nutcases who write threatening letters).

Many other characters and minor stories enter into play. August Vaughn has worked on Margaret’s dairy farm for many years. He’s been in love with her since they were teenagers, but she’s clueless. August still lives with his parents, the Reverend Leland Vaughn and Evelyn, and he travels around the region portraying his hero, Thomas Jefferson.

Some characters are just despicable; Holman may have gone a little overboard with her portrayal of Polly’s father Francis and of Patrick Lewis, the local weatherman-turned-feature reporter. Mr. March, Polly’s history teacher, is the lowest of the low.

There are so many themes running through this book, it could almost make up three or four books – but because Holman weaves it all together so nicely, it didn’t feel overwhelming. Some of the issues include:
  • corporate farms vs family farms
  • food politics
  • coming of age
  • the ethics of fertility therapy
  • dishonesty in politics
  • patriotism
  • media responsibility
  • strengths and weaknesses of community
  • unrequited love
  • child sexual abuse
One of the things Holman does so well is depicting setting. I felt damp and dank after reading the description of Leland’s visit to Manda’s after some of the babies come home:

“Manda, could I trouble you for some Tylenol? I have a vicious headache,” said the preacher, wanting to break the depressing spell cast by the wet dogs and the musty food, the unmucked pen and the relentless drizzle. He was getting soaked, and a dull pain was blooming behind his left eye. (snip)This would be the weather in Hell, Pastor Vaughn thought dully. Not an infinite inferno, but one long unsettled day in between seasons, too hot to wear a sweater, too rainy to go without one, a muggy, clammy, oppressive sort of day, when all the world’s sins would stick to a man like dust from the road. - pages 151 and 154.

Made me want a shower.

Holman does a great job with her characters (with the exceptions above) and the story, chunky as it could be, really flows. And what is the mammoth cheese? It’s a 1,235 pound block of Margaret’s artisan cheese destined for an unforgettable road trip to Washington D.C. I won’t reveal more – but Holman’s book is not predictable! Recommended. (Shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize.)

The Sunday
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Teaser Tuesday and Where Are You? 01-05-10: The Mammoth Cheese

Should Be Reading - Miz B - hosts this weekly event. We throw out a couple of sentences from our current read (without spoilers, of course) to entice you to read the book.

This week my teaser is from The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman, page 42:

The large room was dark and still. Even after nearly two hours, the tall, weather-beaten man who spoke had not found comfort with his voice, never made for public speaking in the first place, which came out whistle-thin, as if someone had siphoned off half of it before it reached his lips.

It's Tuesday, Where Are You? is hosted by an adventure in reading.

I'm in Three Chimneys, Virginia, about to embark on a mammoth cheese making endeavor (1,235 pounds worth). Read More!

The Bone People - Book review

The Bone People has been on my shelf for years and I've never had enough curiosity to pick it up. I read it for a book group this month, though, and I'm really glad I waited until now to read it. I'm a better reader these days, more willing to suspend my need for rigid writing styles, more eager to explore stories of other cultures and better able to appreciate the poetry of language, which Hulme does so stunningly well in this book.

It was a tough read, though, for the subject matter. Child abuse, graphically rendered, makes for nightmares and soul sickness for a few days. But it isn't gratuitous violence, it is central to the story of the broken lives of (at least) three individuals.

The story takes place in New Zealand, in the small town of Whangaroa. Keriwen Holmes, part Maori and part European, is a strong, fiercely independent woman who builds herself a tower home with a spiral staircase rising through the center. An unexpected "guest" surprises her one day, a young mute boy named Simon, who comes with a label explaining his disability. He also comes with a foster father (Joe) and a load of complications, including vandalism, thievery, physical violence and a mysterious past.

Hulme's writing style is an interesting mix of stream of consciousness and poetic narrative.
...dear soul, imagine if you could pass all memories, but selectively...keep the sweet things, the first flows of joy at colour and shape and sound (chime of tuis, lichen at Moerangi, rich cadmium yellow on black and red rock; the ratpad ticker of the clock that beat time time time to my guitar; rainbows and storm clouds and dragons of the sunset, and mists set in motion by the breathing of the sea....) - page 289
Hulme does a great job of making a parallel between the destruction of people's lives and souls and the destruction of culture (Maori) and environment, not only causally, but metaphorically. That the three main characters had to practically disintegrate down to the bone to heal and transform is, I think, what is likely to be required of Mother Earth.

I am still struggling with the ending. No spoilers - but could this be a dream sequence? It was just too tidy after the chaos of the rest of the story.

I feel like I've experienced this book rather than just reading it. Hulme is a brilliant writer. (4/5) (Winner - 1985 Booker Prize.) Read More!