Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

I’ve been humming “Travelin’ Shoes,” a piece Songweavers are performing in our South Church concert (to benefit homeless initiatives) on 11/20, and the verses begin “Death came a knockin’,” which got me to thinking that death knocks on the door of a lot of good literature. In October, death featured in almost every book I read. I suppose if you’re an author looking for drama, conflict, redemption, transformation, even humor — themes that make for good reading — you can’t really go wrong working death into the picture.

Two books that deal with death to great effect are Hans Keilson‘s Comedy In A Minor Key, and The Death of the Adversary. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux brought Keilson’s work to American readers this year in beautifully designed editions. I read a review in August by Francine Prose, and I agree with her assessment: “‘The Death of the Adversary’ and ‘Comedy in a Minor Key’ are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.”

Both books are set during WWII; most of The Death of the Adversary takes place in Nazi Germany, and Comedy In a Minor Key is set in occupied Holland. Keilson was born in Germany. Like the protagonist in The Death of the Adversary, he came to understand, as a young man, that he was no longer German under the Nazi regime, he was Jewish and therefore did not belong.

The novel follows Hitler’s rise to power even though Hitler’s name never appears. The protagonist goes about his life trying to be normal, trying to ignore the growing infatuation his age-mates have with the “adversary.”  He describes a young German telling friends about participating in the desecration of a Jewish cemetery, and I don’t think I’ve come across a more vivid, evocative, soul-searing description of the senselessness of violence in any novel.  You understand as you read this passage how it might be that ordinary people are swept up in the brutality of war, and what it might feel like know that your community is the target of such blind, ugly rage. Even the protagonist feels the power of the adversary’s rhetoric — he is caught up in it himself, albeit in a different way.

Particularly in light of recent attention to nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany, and the new Hitler exhibit in Berlin, The Death of the Adversary was a moving, fascinating read. Some of it is darkly humorous;  a scene where the young man is at a hotel and realizes that the adversary is speaking in the hall and he and the proprietor of the hotel and some other guests are listening over a sound system seemed farcical to me. Other sections are tender to the point of being heartbreaking: the young man remembering being deliberately targeted with violent fouls in a soccer match, despite his being very skilled; another remembered scene where his mother made other boys play with him; the moment he realizes a good friend has been taken in by the adversary’s strong speeches and they will part ways.

Even more heartbreaking is the way the protagonist describes his parents’ preparing to flee, the way they are in denial for a long time, and then finally each tries to look out for the other, the way the young man eventually realizes he won’t see them again. Both in the novel and in life, aging parents ignore warnings and are taken away; the young man escapes but feels strongly that he “left them to their fate.”  Keilson, in interviews, feels the same way about his own parents. When the novel ended, (an ending so beautiful and sad I thought about it for days), I felt the same aching emptiness I feel after a good cry.

Comedy In a Minor Key is about a Dutch couple who are hiding a Jewish man in their house.  When Keilson left Germany he became a member of the Dutch resistance, so again the novel draws on the author’s own experiences. And again, whether you’ve read a similar story or not, you’ll be hard pressed to come across such a beautiful telling. The earnest young couple and their secret guest struggle to establish a “normal” relationship, and Keilson portrays the range of emotions and the logistical difficulties  poignantly, including the Jewish man’s untimely (but natural) death and the consequences of the young couple’s trying to dispose of the body.

This is a short novel, but vivid and tense — you feel the danger, the drudgery, and the maddening sense that both the refugee and his rescuers are trapped, that their lives are stuck in an endless loop as they try to determine who they can trust, and try to know how to live together. In both books, power and freedom play an enormous roles — who has and doesn’t have each, how people act when they are either powerless or free, what brings these ethical forces to bear as people try to make sense of war, occupation, fear. The earnestness of the characters is stark; there is no  sentimentalism, just the naked anguish of trying to be good, to face evil , to survive and not destroy yourself or anyone else in the process.

Genocide is not specifically named in either book. In fact, if you weren’t aware of the circumstances of Hitler’s rise to power and of the Holocaust, you may think The Death of the Adversary was simply about war and extremism at any time and place.  Comedy In a Minor Key is a little more explicit about the historical context, but is still a book that transcends its setting. Both are haunting reminders of how thin the line between discrimination and persecution is, how easily humanity has slipped over that line and can again.

Another book in which lines are crossed, despite people’s better intentions and with the direst of consequences, is last year’s National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. I’m still digesting this book a couple of weeks or so after I read it.   McCann traces the lives of several characters in New York City around the time of Phillipe Petit‘s walking a wire between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

When I wrote about Tinkers I said I often don’t get what prize committees were thinking, and I’m afraid that’s how I feel about Let the Great World Spin. It’s a decent read, but I felt it was uneven enough not to merit being singled out for the National Book Award. In fairness to the committee, I haven’t read the other finalists from that year, so maybe it was the best of the bunch.

I think what I didn’t like is that the structure of the book got in the way of the telling.  I’m also not sure I could say what the book is about — it’s about many things, but no one thing stands out.   I heard an NPR piece about La Dolce Vita today and Martin Scorsese described it as “episodic,” rather than plot driven. I guess that’s the case with Let the Great World Spin.

Some of the characters whose stories are part of Let the Great World Spin are not fully developed — they are more than extras, but not quite minor characters. The main characters — a pair of Irish brothers, a hooker, and a grieving mother whose son died in Vietnam — are also not people readers get to know very well. The thread that ties the disparate pieces of the narrative together is Phillipe Petit‘s walk on the wire between the twin towers. There are further connections; some  made late in the book seemed hasty.

I don’t mind fortuitous connections in a novel, but I like to see them developing earlier.  The scant sections on Phillipe Petit were tantalizing but fleeting — perhaps because he’s a living person, it was hard for McCann to spend much time on him in the novel, but if that’s the case, why have any chapters devoted to him?  Similarly, a character who ends up marrying one of the brothers after being involved in crash in which the other brother dies shows up in a couple of chapters, but we never get a real sense of her.

If the main characters were more fully developed, the comparative slimness of the others wouldn’t stand out to me as much, but even those four didn’t come alive for me. McCann writes beautifully in places (in others, some of his figurative language felt disjointed); the idea of the novel is lovely, and the intersections of the lives poignant. I wondered when I  finished if I might have felt differently if he’d written linked stories, telling each character’s bit separately and leaving readers to knit them together.

Part of the problem for me was that I began reading knowing this was a National Book Award winner — the prize impacted my expectations. But another book I read this month was a Pulitzer winner, and it did not disappoint: Delights and Shadows by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. Kooser came to Concord to accept the first Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry in October.

The audience included two other former poet laureates: Donald Hall and Maxine Kumin, as well as Wes McNair and Sharon Olds. Those are the “local” poets around here — one reason I love New Hampshire!  Both teens (including one who didn’t want to go) enjoyed Kooser’s reading; Teen the Elder says Kooser is now his second favorite poet (Donald Hall is first).

Although I’d included his work in our “poem of the week” display in the kitchen for a number of weeks, Ted Kooser wasn’t a poet the family felt very familiar with before the reading; they all thought hearing him really made his work more appealing. The Computer Scientist had been reading Flying At Night in preparation for the evening, which bookconscious readers may recall I wrote about in June.

Kooser read a number of poems from Delights and Shadows.  “Mother,” is one of my favorites. It’s an elegiac poem, a letter to his mother in the first spring after her death.  It ends with some of the loveliest lines in American poetry: “Were it not for the way you taught me to look/at the world, to see the life in play in everything,/I would have to be lonely forever.”

Another gorgeous poem is “A Box of Pastels,” which Kooser also read — it describes Mary Cassatt’s box of pastels, and he told the back story about visiting with the person who owned this box and feeling so awed to hold it.  This poem ends, “I touched/the warm dust of those colors, her tools,/and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.” As a Cassatt fan, I can imagine that feeling, and he captures the essence of her art — light — beautifully, in the mundane colored dust that rubbed off.

Many of Kooser’s poems are remembrances, either of people or of earlier times, and Delights and Shadows includes a number of outstanding examples: “Ice Cave,” “Memory,” “Dishwater,” and “Depression Glass,” stand out for me.  Kooser read two longer, narrative poems that reminded me very much of Wes NcNair’s work: “Pearl,” and “The Beaded Purse.” Like McNair, Kooser can spin a yarn in his poems that makes you feel as if you’re hearing voices from the past.

Also like McNair, Kooser captures a certain slice of America in his work. In Kooser’s case, it’s mid-western life in small towns and farms, especially of his parents’ generation, in the early 20th century.  These poems are like paintings of a particular time and place and yet also deal with timeless, universal human experience. In “The Beaded Purse,” for example, a father tucks money into his dead daughter’s bag “for her mother to find,” so she won’t worry that the girl was living hand to mouth.  If I was putting together a class on 20th century American history, Kooser and McNair would be on the syllabus – their poems are every bit as much history as literature.

One of my favorite authors of all time is similarly of equal value as both a historian who recorded a precise slice of her country’s cultural history and a supremely talented writer whose work has earned a place in the canon of great English literature. Yes, Jane Austen. The Computer Scientist gave me a membership in JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) for my birthday. When I took Teen the Elder to Ohrstrom library to find Pre-Columbia history books and visit the Shakespeare room, and saw Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World on the shelf, I knew I had to read it.

Claire Harman traces Jane Austen’s fame from the time she was writing to the present.  For those of you who’ve heard that she wasn’t much of a success during her lifetime or that since she published anonymously, she wasn’t well known, this book is eye-opening. That’s a nice urban legend, but in fact, Austen was pretty successful, though some books did better than others.  She was also very much aware of both her sales and her reviews, and thanks to her brother and some family friends talking openly about her authorship, she was not entirely anonymous.

Those details were interesting, but it’s Harman’s in depth coverage of Austen’s posthumous fame that I found even more fascinating. One could say that the cult of Jane Austen,like that of Shakespeare, was an early example of celebrity worship. Perhaps because I live with an Austen skeptic, I had no idea that in England some people promoted her as an equal to Shakespeare in terms of importance to England’s literary heritage.  I saw parallels to modern celebrity in the way that her descendants attempted to control Austen’s image as well.

I was fortunate to have a college professor, Laurie Kaplan, who was herself a “Janeite” (she is even past editor of JASNA’s journal) as Harman describes Austen devotees.  Kaplan really opened the books up for her students, particularly on wonderful trips to England where we literally walked in the novel’s landscapes and locations. But even once I became aware of JASNA, I assumed Janeites were a small, devoted, and literary bunch. Harman points out that in postwar England, the Austen society was more about national pride than literary appreciation, and some of its officers didn’t even read Austen’s books!

Jane’s Fame is detailed and well researched, if a bit dry and probably mainly of interest to serious devotees or history buffs.  My favorite book for budding Janeites and casual fans is still The Friendly Jane Austen by Natalie Tyler — it’s not serious literary criticism or careful history (Harman is definitely an excellent historian and writer), but it’s fun and readable, and would appeal to young fans just getting into Jane. Better still, read Austen’s books if you want to remember why she’s brilliant, and why classic books have something to say to every generation.

Classic in another way is the work of Leonard Koren.  Last month I wrote about his book on wabi-sabi; this month I read The Flower Shop: Charm, Grace, Beauty, and Tenderness In a Commercial Setting.  This was the only book I read in October with no death in it — although it is about Blumenkraft, a flower shop in Vienna where Koren found solace after his marriage ended in 2003, so it was inspired by the aftermath of a relationship’s death.

The Flower Shop is a fascinating read, a kind of manifesto of what a good place of work can be. Blumenkraft is a creative, customer and employee friendly, unique, consciously smart, aesthetically aware, and well-designed business. Koren explores how it began, what sets it apart, what its employees think of working there, and what appeals to its customers.

The spare text is set in small blocks and accompanied by lovely sepia and black & white photos.  The impact of the book’s design is that it compliments Blumenkraft’s aesthetic — it’s different, you can see as soon as you open The Flower Shop that this is not an ordinary book, and neither is its subject an ordinary florist.  A refreshing, spirit-lifting book. You’ll want to visit Blumenkraft. You might wish you worked there.

Another book concerned with aesthetics is A Homemade Life.  Part memoir, part cookbook, Molly Wizenberg’s first book grew out of her other food writing:  her well known blog, Orangette, and later her column in Bon Apetit and pieces for NPR and PBS.  She’s young, and has lived a mostly charmed life, which can be hard to read in large doses. But the passages about her father, his short battle with cancer and his death, and her coming to terms with the loss definitely adds depth to A Homemade Life. I’m looking forward to trying some recipes.

On the evening that I felt inspired to make ginger pancakes for supper (after reading that Molly Wizenberg likes one of my favorite cookbooks, Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book, which includes that recipe), I also stayed up late finishing Charles Elton‘s Mr. Toppit.  Does anyone else out there stay up ridiculously late when his/her spouse is traveling? I don’t know why, but I do, even though in general I’ve gotten better about going to bed at a more reasonable time (if midnight can be considered reasonable).

This book has been out in the UK since last year, but is just appearing in the U.S.  I enjoyed it very much, although it had what I considered some extra fluff here and there that seemed to serve as mere titillation, without much real impact on the plot.  Mr. Toppit of the title is the villain in a series of Narnia-like children’s books written by Arthur Hayman, who dies early on in the novel. A vacationing American, Laurie, happens to witness the accident that kills him and comforts him in his last moments.

Laurie ends up getting to know Arthur’s family, including the son who shares a name with his father’s young protagonist. Through her continued contact with the Haymans and a series of serendipitous events, Laurie is partially responsible for making his books famous in the U.S. As she pursues her own ambitions, she ignites a global craze for Arthur Hayman’s books, and becomes a famous television host in the process. Meanwhile Hayman’s children grow up and deal with the fallout of fame and loss. Since Elton worked as a literary agent and one of his clients was A.A. Milne’s estate, it’s interesting to ponder how much he borrowed from life.

What I liked about Mr. Toppit was the fully developed characters, even minor ones; a clear structure; interesting tangential story lines that enhanced the main plot; themes readers could really mull over; cultural references that placed the book without dating it.  I would say that in some ways, Elton has Austen-esque overtones to his work. His characters are concerned with sense and sensibility, with good taste and good manners, some are hoping to better themselves and others are hoping just to live up to their families expectations.

Mr. Toppit is also funny in that classically dry, British way, and Elton exposes some of the sillier aspects of both American and British culture, particularly with regards to fame, fortune, and family relations, class, culture, and celebrity. His wicked skewering of the “remembered memory” phenomenon that was in fashion in America in the 1980’s and 1990’s takes the form of another goofy cultural touchstone, the annual Christmas letter. While some of the social barbs seem a little cliched (there’s an obese American, a harried television producer who stretches the truth to nail a deal, a matriarch who is chilly and shabbily genteel), generally I found the book to be clever, and bitingly funny.

Finally in October, I read a book that begins with war and death and ends with the author’s exhortation to be “aware that just this is the great, dynamic, lively dancing life.”  Soko Morinaga was only a teenager when both his parents died and he was drafted into the Japanese army at the end of WWII.  Although he survived, he was alone and adrift, so he went to a Zen monastary and asked to become a novice.

Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson In the Extent of My Own Stupidity is Morinaga’s memoir of forty years as a Zen monk. If you have an image of Buddhism as a peaceful, nonviolent religion you might be shocked by the physical hardship novice monks undergo, including being hit with a big stick and subjected to sleep deprivation and under-nourishment. I enjoyed this brief, inspiring, occasionally bracing memoir. That such austerity and hardship can produce a wise master who is moved by a five year old’s contention that God is in everything and everyone is a mystery I don’t fully understand.

Speaking of mysteries, I will never fully comprehend ever changing teen-aged moods, and now I have two sets of them to try to fathom.  Teen the Elder is officially an applicant to college; that has somewhat lowered his stress level and improved his emotional equilibrium. He still has his moments.  I suggested that some reading for pleasure might be a welcome respite, and brought him an advance copy of a book I thought he’d love: The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick. He’s been enjoying it very much — the history of science is a particular interest he’s pursued throughout his teen years.

Another book he says he really enjoyed in October was The Aztec World by Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and Gary M. Feinman, which he read as part of his Pre-Columbian history study. Brumfiel & Feinman wrote the book to accompany an exhibit at the Field Museum, which they co-curated with three Mexican colleagues.  Teen the Elder was very impressed with what he read about Tenochtitlan; the current issue of National Geographic happens to include an article on recent excavations near the site of the Templo Mayor.

The same issue, lying on an end table in our living room, has a beautifully photographed article on Japanese sea life. Teen the Younger, who is a big fan of the great Japanese filmaker/animator Hayao Miyazaki recently watched Ponyo with a friend who hadn’t seen it before. Since Teen the Younger is loving her Japanese class and is a devoted fan of manga and anime, I was happy to expand her horizons to non-animated Japanese creatures as well.

Teen the Younger is still devouring manga and enjoying weekly trips to the library to pick up new titles. She’s also reading Funny In Farsi. Last week we met author Firoozeh Dumas, who told the large Concord Reads audience that she was in New Hampshire all because of bookconscious. My post on her books two years ago, which she found thanks to a web aggregator tool her brother signed her up for, opened a correspondence between us. I did suggest her books to the Concord Reads committee, which did a great job bringing her here and presenting terrific programs.

While I think Teen the Younger picked up the books (which, like National Geographic, I set out like bait on a side table) because Firoozeh made her laugh, she told me that what she finds interesting is how Firoozeh describes America through an immigrant’s eyes. That’s exactly why Concord Reads picked the books, and why so many people enjoy them.

The Computer Scientist, when he’s not crafting uber Halloween accessories like Xion’s keyblade (I have aches, pains, and blisters from raking all massive amounts of leaves in our yard in time for the annual street pickup, but I wouldn’t trade chores for a second!), has been hair-on-fire busy at work. But he has read a couple of interesting things recently.

A friend and former co-worker sent him an article from a blog called RandsInRepose on nerd characteristics. I read it too. If you have a nerd in your life you’ll read it and weep, or at least sniffle. I sighed particularly loudly when I got to the section that begins,”Your nerd has built an annoyingly efficient relevancy engine in his head.” This is an elaborate explanation of why nerds hear “blah, blah, blah,” when people are talking to them, kind of the way Charlie Brown hears his teacher’s voice in Peanuts films.

He also read the advance copy of a book by an author who is coming to Gibson’s in February, who is also a St. Paul’s School grad. and former teacher there (and current sociology professor at Columbia), Shamus Rahman Khan. Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School will be out in early 2011, and the Computer Scientist says it’s a “good in-depth examination of St. Paul’s School students and culture.” He found Khan’s writing “authentic and honest in his analysis.”

When I booked the event, I was worried the book might not be well received at St. Paul’s. The Computer Scientist told me he had the same incorrect first impression — we both feel the title has negative connotations that are easily misinterpreted. But he says, “after thoroughly reading and digesting the book, I’m appreciative of Shamus’ candor and reflections and encourage those interested in boarding schools to read this insightful book.” It’s in my to-read pile now. I’m looking forward to it, as I found what the Computer Scientist learned about Khan’s distinction between privilege and entitlement very interesting.

Up next?  The Computer Scientist is back to reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London (which I loved and wrote about here last spring) and he has Dennis Lehane‘s Moonlight Mile (the tour kicks off right here in Concord on Wednesday!) and Andre Dubus III‘s memoir, Townie, on his nightstand. I picked up some advance copies (like Teen the Elder’s science history and the Dubus title) at a fall sales rep. recommendations night in Hadley, MA, sponsored by New England Independent Booksellers’ Association.  Teen the Younger has Lemonade Mouth by Mark Peter Hughes on her library pile, thanks to my notes from that evening.

I was intrigued by a New York Times article on Gary Shteyngart’s recent trip to Russia and checked out Super Sad True Love Story today. I also have Kay Ryan’s “new and selected” poetry collection, The Best of It out of the library, and there are many more interesting selections on my “to read” pile(s).  Like the leaves, these piles move around but never really seem to get smaller!


The Clockwork Universe

Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

Edward Dolnick


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Two of us here at the bookconscious household were NaNoWriMo winners this year — which means we wrote a novel each in November. As I noted last month, it’s absolutely nuts of me to try and write 50,000 words in November, especially 50,000 words that should make sense in some kind of compelling way. My daughter did the Young Writers Program, which allowed her to set her own word count.  She sensibly set it low and exceeded her goal, and took plenty of days off.

Although I finished, it took a lot more effort than I recall expending on my last NaNoWriMo. Yet I still enjoyed struggling through to the end, which made me reflect on something interesting about my enjoyment of reading. Post-novel writing, I realized that part of my reading pleasure derives from sharing a sense of the struggle, either on the part of the author or the characters, that brought the story to fruition. For me, a good read is a vicarious quest.

A great example of a recent book that drew me in that way is Brisingr. Of course I have very little idea of the effort involved in a part human, part elf Dragon Rider’s struggle to master all he needs to learn with his dragon to save his world from an evil overlord while dealing with interracial conflicts, personal issues, spiritual confusion, and coming of age.  But I can feel for Eragon because author Christopher Paolini makes his hero so alive, drawing on emotions and thoughts that I can easily identify with.

Despite the challenging language (Paolini invented several languages for his book cycle, and even with the glossary I have trouble keeping words and names straight), the difficulty of remembering what happened in the earlier books, and the complexity of Alagaesia, the fantasy world where the stories are set, the Eragon books are enthralling because of Paolini’s mastery — not just in writing well, which he does, but in portraying universal human struggles, even in characters that aren’t human. He makes elves, dwarves, urgals, etc. distinct, but he makes every race a reflection of some aspect of humanity, a mirror we can look into, sometimes happily, sometimes a bit uncomfortably. For me, this makes the reading absorbing.

One thing about Eragon that is so endearing to me is his constant thirst to learn and to understand. He seeks not only information — Who are his parents? What must he learn to defeat the enemy? — but also meaning. What is the purpose of his life’s work? Why do we love, and what does love do to us? Why do different races in his world have different gods? Should he pray to any or all, and how?  In an autodidactic household where each of us is on our own life learning journey, these questions make Eragon seem like one of us. This kind of book feeds my imagination and I’d even say, my soul.

The question of souls, and how to feed them, brings me to A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, which describes the author’s struggle to follow rules for living from the bible as closely as possible. Jacobs is a terrific writer whose earlier book, The Know-It-All, was a delight, especially for those of us who would like to indulge in prolonged reference book reading ourselves.  I’ve been meaning to read The Year of Living Biblically, and when my son’s best friend told me he was reading it, I figured it was a good time to go check it out.  I’m glad I did.

In nonfiction, I’m drawn to the same appealing factor that I look for in novels and stories: a sense of connectedness with what I’m reading. Whether it’s the writer or the subject of the writing that engages me, I get into a book or article I can feel caught up in. Jacobs writes endearingly of his own imperfections — much as another of my favorite nonfiction authors, Bill Bryson, does — and this makes his writing feel conversational. The Year of Living Biblically is arranged by month, so that the reader is carried along on the year’s adventure, which adds to the “we’re all in this together” feeling.

Jacobs is an excellent observer. He doesn’t just decide to try keeping the Sabbath (and admits, endearingly, that he can’t keep his hands off his keyboard and creates little exceptions so he can check his email anyway), he explains how his efforts begin to make a change in him, to create an awareness of the benefit of slowing down. I really enjoyed his observation that cleaning up his language helped him feel more peaceful, less angry about whatever he would ordinarily swear about. And his descriptions of each biblical adventure made it easy to see what he was seeing.

As with his first book, this one is not only about his own exploration of a subject, but what impact his devotion to  immersion journalism has on his family. For example, his struggle to be biblical includes growing a really big beard — which can be off-putting to strangers, not to mention his wife. He also writes candidly about he and his wife experiencing infertility and their pursuit of treatment so that they can have a second child.  With a small child, a wife and an extended family, work, and the trappings of modern life all around him, Jacobs tries to reconcile his life and his quest to understand biblical living, in a way that gives his project context for readers.

Two other things made this one of my favorite books of the year: Jacobs writes beautifully about being a dad, struggling to do the right thing, to be a contemporary parent caught up in timeless worries, and to even process the overwhelming love and concern a parent feels. So many other authors whose writing is fine, whose work is interesting, whose books I otherwise enjoy absolutely turn me off when they write authoritatively about their excellent children and their fantastic parenting. Makes me want to put the book down with a hearty “Puhlease!”

Not so with Jacobs. He tells us, candidly, about what works, what doesn’t, what he worries about when it comes to his son, what he wants to be as a parent. In real life, parents do that — question, wonder, hope, and yes, even pray, that we’re doing our best. So I love his honesty, and it makes his books more like sitting down with a friend and laughing over life’s speedbumps than sitting in a lecture hall and hearing how Informed, Enlightened Authors do things.

If you’re wondering whether Jacobs just puts on the kindly dad persona in the book, and whether he’s actually a conceited famous author in person, let me share a quick personal aside.  Late in The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs discusses a fringe fundamentalist Christian group and explains why they alarm him. So far, so good. Then he mentions they were important to the rise of homeschooling!

Aghast, I labored over an email that would politely inform Mr. Jacobs of the diversity of background, belief, and educational philosophy that makes homeschoolers too vast and varied a group to stereotype, and would let him know that homeschooling wasn’t founded by extremists. He wrote me back very soon after I took a deep breath and hit send, and he was kind, understanding, and gracious.

When it comes to accepting that no one person or group has a lock on the best way to do things, Jacobs also excels. His exploration of biblical correctness included a circle of both Jewish and Christian advisers, and he tries to consider various perspectives. He also tells readers where he’s coming from: he’s an agnostic, a secular Jew, curious about religion but not convinced.

I appreciated that perspective as he shares what he finds transformative or doesn’t, what he learns that seems credible and what’s incredible, what appeals and what revolts. He’s fair, finding something good in just about everyone he meets in the book. And he’s gentle in the conclusions department — he doesn’t make any grand declarations about Truth and Meaning, but he explains, simply, what’s changed in his life and what he learned.

Life changing experiences come in many degrees of impact, and fortunately, most of us will never experience what Nastaran Kherad has.  After growing up in Shiraz, Iran, with her maternal grandmother, who she called Bibi, she was arrested on false political charges when she was only 18. While she was in prison, her beloved brother, Mohammed, was executed, in part for his efforts to be supportive of other prisoners. In the House of My Bibi: Growing Up In Revolutionary Iran describes the author’s upbringing and her family, and life in Iran for a working class family during the period just before and in the early part of the Iranian revolution.

Bookconscious readers know that last spring, I blogged about a couple of books I’d read about travel and life in Iran. I received a review copy of In the House of My Bibi as a result of my blogging.  Like Jasmine and Stars, whose author also grew up in Shiraz, In the House of My Bibi is a book that brings Iran to life. Kherad’s book deals only with her childhood memories, because she hasn’t been back since she fled Iran twenty some years ago. So the book doesn’t go into a great deal of detail about what was happening politically and socially in the country. Instead, it gives readers a view of growing up there, of living an ordinary childhood.

Other Iranian memoirs I’ve read, including Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis, are the stories of people whose family or social circle were well off or well educated, or both. Kherad’s grandmother and mother are both widows, and both work to feed the family. Her grandmother works in a pickle factory and is illiterate, and her mother was married to an older man when she was still a teenager. Kherad writes clearly and simply, without analyzing, letting the reader come to conclusions she was struggling to sort out herself as an adolescent.

Besides Bibi, Kherad’s most caring relative is Mohammed, who takes his little sister to get a library card and introduces her to the ideas he is exploring as a young man. She describes him as a person with great empathy for the poor and for his fellow political prisoners.  The reader can guess, when the young Kherad tells her brother she wants to be a writer when she grows up, he won’t be there to read her work.

I enjoyed the book, and I think Kherad succeeds not only in helping show another facet of her country, but also in writing fairly about the things that were good in her life there. The bad is obvious; she writes vividly about her imprisonment. But she does not fully explain events leading to her arrest in one section of the book, and I found myself backtracking to try and get a clear picture.

Kherad portrays poverty and wealth, tradition and modernization under the Shah’s regime. But perhaps because she tells the book from her own perspective and she was still very young, I got no sense of when the revolution took place in her narrative and how it changed life for her family at first, before the arrests. There are hints — her brothers argue about whether Iran needs a monarchy, her Bibi admires the Shah, and Mohammed is disillusioned that the Islamic Revolution does not bring about compassionate social justice. It’s understandable that a child would only piece this information together in bits, but the telling is a bit disjointed.

In the final chapter, when she is about to leave Iran, she reconciles the strained relationship she has with her mother, but there is little closure, since we never hear much about Bibi once Kherad enters prison. On the whole, I thought the writing was vivid and considering the difficulty of revisiting these memories, the book is remarkably detailed. But I felt lost from time to time — perhaps that was intentional? Since she has spent nearly her entire adult life as an exile, the sketchiness of some parts of her childhood may be an authentic part of her memoir, rather than a weakness in the book’s structure.

While the other books I read this month touched on journeys of understanding, searching, and remembrance, my favorite recent purchase is Theories of Everything: Selected  Collected and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006. For a mere $6, in a labyrinthine used bookshop in Manchester, I bought this volume, which may hold the secret to life somewhere within its magical pages. For those unfamiliar with Roz Chast, a staff cartoonist at the New Yorker, I recommend you go to the library and request this book. Chast has a knack for putting her finger on just what people wonder about, and spinning a humorous view of life’s mysteries and humanity’s foibles. Her humor is quirky and gentle even when it’s pointed, and her artwork is distinctive and delightful.

Next up a the bookconscious house? The teenager has begun Fever Pitch, which I picked up at the Audubon society book sale, and has also been poring over How to Photograph Absolutely Everything. His sister is reading The Great Santa Search but also — Hallelujah! — browsed the library shelves today. Has anyone else noticed that kids tend to search online for books, rather than losing themselves in the library stacks? I have such warm memories of several different libraries’ shelves, and myself in front of them pulling out book after book, choosing a pile, and anticipating many happy hours of reading. Online searching is convenient, but not nearly as much fun as serendipitous shelf browsing. Anyway, she found a couple of books that way and I hope to encourage more browsing.

We were at the library so I could pick up The Journal of Helene Berr, a  WWII era diary of a young French woman, newly published in English, which I heard reviewed on a BBC radio program. I’m also reading  Bleak House, which Gibson’s book group is discussing in January. As snow falls on the bookconscious house it’s time for making both Christmas cookies and latkes (my recipe is from a favorite picture book: The Miracle of the Potato Latkes), and I’m planning to dig into our selection of holiday books this weekend. Happy Holidays, and I hope all of you are the pleased recipients of good books this month!

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Say or read the word Iran and immediately images come to mind. What do you see? Bearded men? Chador clad women? Mosques? Do you imagine plates of aromatic Persian food, boisterous parties, or a Ford Explorer driven by a woman with “big hair,” blasting U2 music near the shrine of Imam Khomeini?

Readers of Honeymoon in Purdah by Alison Wearing are left with these new images of Iran. Wearing, a Canadian travel writer, went to Iran with her gay roommate. They posed as a husband and wife on their honeymoon, complete with forged marriage certificate, and although the book doesn’t say how long they spent in Iran, they traveled all over the country (Iran is nearly as large as Alaska in area), and only one person in the book suspects they are not really married.

So much for the honeymoon, but where is Purdah, you ask? Purdah is not a place but a condition: it is the separation of women from men, symbolized so vividly for us in the west by the head to toe cloak, which you may know from media reports on Afghanistan or other Muslim countries as a burqa. in Honeymoon, we get to go along as Wearing shops for her cloak, called a chador in Iran, that the strictist interpretation of purdah requires. As she journeys, the experience of being covered is a big part of Wearing’s unfolding revelations about Iran, and she also tends to describe places and situations in part based on how much women are covered up or when they feel comfortable unwrapping the layers.

Honeymoon in Purdah is a travel memoir, but also, as Wearing herself writes in the author’s note at the beginning of the book, “a sketchbook, a collection of my impressions of Iran and its people.” She says a few sentences later, “As is the case with many portraits, their truth is not in their detail, but their spirit.” This last statement references her confession to the reader that some of the Iranians in the book are “collages” — “painted,” she explains, from many Iranians’ stories in order to protect the identities of the people Wearing met.

We have all heard, of course, that Iran is a dangerous place, especially for women — this is accepted fact in the west. Two other books I read in the past couple of years, Reading Lolita In Tehran and Persepolis, are both by Iranians who have settled abroad to avoid the persecution going on in their country. But do we know, or do we use the image we’ve learned, through books like these and the media coverage of Iran, to form a misunderstanding of the nation and its people?

Of course Americans also have the images of Iran from the hostage crisis permanently in our national memory. Iran then appeared to be a place to fanatical America-haters, radical students, violent men whipped into action by fanatical ayatollahs larger than life. I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we form ideas about other countries, and how other countries see America, and I think much of what we think we know is predicated on misunderstandings.

Honeymoon is full of anecdotes about the author meeting people who want to leave Iran, who want to go to Canada, who talk about friends and relatives abroad. Wearing repeatedly meets Iranians who practically beg her to judge their culture for herself and tell others about Iran’s positive qualities. She even comes across Iranians who are tolerant of (and in some cases are adherents of) non-Muslim faiths. Many of these same Iranians also have unfair or inaccurate views of the west, especially of America. When the possibility of military action against Iran is a regular topic in the press, I find it worrying that our two countries’ perceptions are so heavily predicated on misunderstandings, myths, manipulated images, and outright propaganda on the part of both sides.

As the title suggests, purdah is one of the most culturally charged images for both westerners and Iranians. Although she is traveling pre-9/11, Wearing is also in Iran in the late 1990’s and has to remain covered in pubic. In one telling incident, while in Qom, the city where Ayatollah Khomeini is buried, she is covered head to toe, in long jacket called a manteau, scarf, over her hair, her black shoes barely show, and a man comments on her “nakedness” — their Iranian host tells her she looks western, even with her modest dress, because she isn’t wearing her chador. Wearing feels she’s being conservative and respectful, the man who comments thinks she’s practically naked; their perceptions, colored by their cultural perspectives, are striking.

Given the pervasive preconceptions, how can there ever be real understanding? Travel certainly seems to open Wearing’s eyes. She meets plenty of Iranians, both men and women, who have a more nuanced view of purdah, or who explain why they value it gently and kindly, and who help her, compliment her, or even just ask her how she likes being covered. I was impressed reading about these experiences; I wondered how many Americans would be so reasonable about discussing something controversial with strangers. I confess I also wondered how kindly she would have been treated if she was American and not Canadian. Paranoia or misunderstanding? I can’t say for sure, but probably some of both.

One thing is certain: Wearing finds plenty of warmth in Iran. Total strangers take her and her “husband” home for dinner, pay for their meals out or their cab fare, drive them to their destinations, help them find lodging, take them shopping. What struck me as I read was the lack of travel horror stories — everyone Wearing and her companion meets is anxious to feed them, entertain them, show them Iran’s sites, and open their homes and families with them. When she is overheated from wearing her black chador in hot weather, or when they find themselves in a substandard hotel, ordinary Iranians intervene to help. It’s clear she respects and admires many things about Iranian culture, especially the tenderness they openly express towards each other and towards their guests.

But Wearing knows, and openly tells readers, she cannot really understand Iran, no matter how hard she tries. And you sense that even the Iranians she meets who mock or flout some of the strict rules (no playing cards, no wine, no western music), or admit to disagreeing with the regime, are still fearful of the west, especially America, which is widely viewed, even in the mid-1990’s, as an oil hungry place with a powerful military, a nation that is a threat to Iranian security.

A man tells them that his country knows non Islamic people from the west, even Americans, are good, it’s just governments that are bad. When she meets women who are dealing with abuse or discrimination, or men who have been imprisoned or intimidated, she realizes that no matter how hard her new friends impress her with their love and openness, Iran is ruled by a regime unafraid to use terror to control its own people. There can be no generalizations on either side.

Just as Americans associate Iran with the hostage crisis, Iranians think of America as the nation that supported the Shah. Like the authors of Reading Lolita and Persepolis, Wearing explains that most Iranians were glad to see the Shah go, because pre-revolution Iran was a nation where power and money was concentrated in the ruling class, and the Shah’s secret police were as ruthless as their radical Islamic successors. Many Iranians welcomed revolution, only to be disillusioned by the rise of the Islamic rulers. Given all the political and social turmoil Iranians have lived through, the generosity towards strangers that Wearing experiences in Iran is very impressive.

In reading these books I am doing the armchair version of what Wearing set out to do: I want to try to understand Iran and its people, as best I can. Much has been made recently of memoir as a selective art form, which reflects “truth” only insofar as the author remembers, or writes, truthfully. All three books I mention here are a part of the memoir genre, and all three reflect, like any book, the authors’ viewpoints.

But some critics, especially other Iranian expatriates, felt that Reading Lolita in Tehran played into the Bush administration’s Iranian agenda. Hamid Dabashi, a professor at Columbia, went so far as to suggest that Azar Nafisi is a tool of the neocons, because her book is a “selective memory” of Iranian society that only speaks to the American mistrust and misunderstanding of Islamic ideas. Dabashi says the Iranian regime should go, he agrees that misogynist laws are wrong, but he feels that books like Reading Lolita merely perpetuate the one dimensional viewpoint westerners have of life in Iran.

I wonder what Dabashi thinks of Honeymoon in Purdah? Perhaps it is not on his radar since it was nowhere near as popular. In reviewing the reviews, I think I understand his and other Iranians’ bemusement or anger at Reading Lolita — I can see that if that book and/or Persepolis were the only things I’d ever read about Iran, I might form a view of the country only a neo-con could love. The fear that these overwhelmingly bleak views of Muslim nations will further the goals of American hawks who hint at the potential for expanding the war on terror from Iraq and Afghanistan into Iran seems legitimate. I also think it’s unlikely, given the proliferation of information available, that someone would not have heard of Iran’s rich history and culture, or the indomitable spirit of the Iranian people as they’ve advanced reforms in the past few years.

Dabashi seems to suspect that at least in the case of Reading Lolita, the effort to provide a selective view of Iran is deliberate. Iranians, interviewed for a Washington Post piece in 2004 seemed to view the book more as historical record than reality, however. In that light, all of these books are dated, since Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis, left Iran in her early 20’s (sometime in the early 1990’s), Wearing was in Iran during the commemoration of the 6th anniversary of Khomeini’s death, which would have been 1995, and Reading Lolita author Azar Nafizi left Iran in 1997.

In fact, a more recent book has piqued my interest: Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran, which came out about a year ago. In an interview, the book’s author, Fatemeh Keshavarz, says she wrote her book because she felt compelled to offer a “cultural handshake” to readers. She explains, “Both Iranians and Americans have been barred from this handshake by the political perspectives that make every American a greedy imperialist and every Iranian a petty fanatic. In Jasmine and Stars I suggest we say enough is enough and talk to each other — we will be surprised at how similar we are.”

Just the insight I was grasping for. This sounds like a bookconscious must-read, and I’ve put in an ILL request for it, so stay tuned. In fairness to Wearing, I think she did her best to write such a cultural handshake with Honeymoon in Purdah, albeit from an outsider’s point of view. Admittedly, I had some misgivings about the premise of the book when I realized the author could travel in Iran only by pretending to be married. It seemed to me that faking one’s identity would color any personal interactions, and made me suspicious of her ability to be truthful, when she herself was engaged in deceit.

As I consider the ruse, however, I see that it was necessary in order for her to travel so extensively in Iran at the time, and perhaps allowed her to gain insight into life there in way she would have been unable to do if the Iranians she met were distracted by her own story. Like the scarf, her marriage allows her to travel as close to the culture as she can, and to blend into the country as well as the story she tells. I think Wearing does a good job of trying to present Iran as a culturally rich, diverse, and yes, even joyful place. She found bleakness, she described some Iranians whose lives seem hopeless or miserable, and she definitely made readers aware of the limits of purdah. But she also showed the beauty of the human spirit, and the universal balm of love, friendship, and family.

Honeymoon in Purdah accomplishes what all good travel writing hopes to do — makes the reader wish to visit the place the author describes. Even though she doesn’t gloss over the hardships and complications of travel in Iran, Wearing’s descriptions of the poetry of ordinary sights and sounds in Iran are a sensual feast. Despite my wondering which of the people she meets are real and which are composites, I was drawn into the book. The genuine curiosity on the part of Iranians about her life and her travels, and above all, the depth of the openness, caring, and concern for her happiness and well being that her many new Iranian friends showed her and her “husband,” makes Honeymoon a multi-dimensional memoir. Wearing doesn’t tell readers what to think, but she does tell us how her experiences made her feel throughout the journey. Which got me to thinking, musing, questioning, seeking — and that is the bookconscious experience I hope for when I read.

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