Thursday, June 13, 2013

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani

Children of the Jacaranda Tree On the eve of the 2013 presidential election in Iran, Shahar Delijani invites us to look at what past elections have meant for three generations rooted in post-revolutionary Tehran from 1983 to present day. This is a novel that reads like a memoir, tracing the experiences and thoughts of Iran’s disenfranchised and dissident population. If ever you wondered what it must have been like to be a part of Arab Spring as it played out in massive demonstrations in Tehran, this is one woman’s attempt to share that experience and its roots in Iranian society and its diaspora.

From the opening scenes of a prison birth to the later reminiscences of a woman receiving someone else’s clothes from prison officials after the death of her husband while in custody, this is inflammatory stuff, heart-breaking and heart-hardening stuff. The effect of events like these on families and personalities is charted and surmised, each generation seemingly adding to the ranks of the disaffected. By this count the opposition to the government in Tehran will never go away but instead grows daily. Conversations among the psychologically traumatized characters in this novel echo what was heard in Beijing after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. This kind of disaffection isn’t going to evaporate without boiling first.

I am not as familiar with customs in the Middle East as I am with those in Asia, so I find the fictional personal interactions recorded here fascinating, supposing that this records faithfully a middling wealthy and cosmopolitan slice of Iranian society. And, though it doesn’t necessarily make good novelistic technique, I enjoyed reading of young male/female relationships. I am struck with the conservatism on one hand and the liberality on the other.

This is Delijani’s debut novel, and while she still has room to grow as a novelist, this book illustrates storytelling. I don’t think the two things are necessarily the same. I never felt involved in this story, but watched from a distance the interactions between characters. Surely there are overlaps in customs, feelings, and intentions, especially among Iranians displaced to the West, and yet I felt a great distance. This could be age (hers or mine or the characters'), or it could be one of the stages of cultural familiarity: Geert Hofstede, Dutch guru on the dimensions of culture, once posited that people go through stages of recognition when encountering another culture. At first, without our own cultural markers, we feel disoriented and distant, as though “we are different from them.” Gradually, as we become more familiar and discover that these are humans, too, we begin to think “we are all the same.” As familiarity grows into deep knowledge, we move back to “we really are different.” I think I am still at Stage 1 with Iran.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Transatlantic by Colum McCann

TransAtlantic There is a shock of pleasure midway into this novel when one realizes three disparate stories of courageous, capable men on two continents are connected through the women they’ve known. The stories of these brave men are delicious vignettes to be supped upon at leisure…there is no bustle and rush as one story ends and another begins, each as delectable as the last, but that thread of connection is the mystery we struggle to untangle throughout.

Arthur Brown, one of the first transatlantic flight team; Frederick Douglass, former slave and speaker for emancipation; George Mitchell, principal negotiator for Northern Ireland’s peace accords: these men have a faint connection over 150 years and that connection is an unopened, undelivered airmail letter that accompanied that the flight crew on their 1919 ground-breaking flight.

The prose seems to match the stories: when we read of the transatlantic flight, the writing is muscular, propulsive. When Douglass visits the Irish countryside, there is a smoky wistfulness clinging to the pages. And in the section on George Mitchell flying back and forth to Europe from New York, we read the sheer effort in the lines.

The novel then reveals the women that have touched these men, and by weaving in their lives the underlying links are uncovered. It brought to mind the theory of “six degrees of separation” and how closely, yet loosely, we all revolve around one another on the planet. If ever you doubted the reason for “treating another as you wish to be treated,” this is another glimpse into our intimate connection with one another, years and continents apart notwithstanding.

I have not read other works by Colum McCann, though I have of course heard of the much-lauded Let the Great World Spin. That book alone is reason enough to be interested in this novel—to see what the man has come up with now. But I can’t help but think this new novel didn’t quite pull together great truths or leave us with something to cogitate and remember as the years roll on. Somehow literature, or the work of great novelists, should leave us something to consider, to remember, to use in our own lives. If there was anything here, it would be that connectedness—how close we are despite the distance, despite the years—but perhaps there could have been something more to round out the effort of writing (and reading) a long book.

Of course, when one picks real-world figures, one is somewhat constrained by their history, but perhaps it wasn’t necessary to make them living men, just as the women were constructions to suit the work. When I read fiction I assume the writer is not strictly truthful, so placing a real figure in the piece makes the reader question both veracity and the lack of it. Perhaps this is one point?

In any case, I can recommend this book to writers and readers for its organizing concept alone. There is something magical about tracing a thread of connection, however tenuous, over a century or more. It makes an intriguing premise for a novel.

I was not, perhaps, the most attentive reader. After writing this review, I listened to a very revealing interview Colum McCann had with Neil Conan on NPR's Talk of the Nation. It tells the story of this novel, how it came to be, and what it is meant to be. I share it in hopes that anyone interested in, or puzzled by, this novel will get the most from it.

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Monday, June 3, 2013

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

Hardcover, 318 pgs, Pub June 4th 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN13: 9780374123666

Eli Brown’s infectious romp of a novel has a thoroughly modern sensibility dressed in the garb of yore. It is the early 1800’s and Owen Wedgwood is chef to Lord Ramsey, one of the chief shareholders of the Pendleton Trading Company in England which trades opium for tea, silk, and spices in Asia. Enter Hannah Mabbot, pirate extraordinaire, defender of the underdog, and avenger of the exploited.
”Then entered a pillar of menace, a woman in an olive long-coat. Her red hair hung loose over her shoulders. She sauntered to the middle of the room, her coat opening to reveal jade-handled pistols. Using a chair as a stepping stool she walked upon the dining table to Lord Ramsey’s plate and stood there, looking down, as is she had just conquered Kilimanjaro. Her boots added inches to her already long frame…There…was the Shark of the Indian Ocean, Mad Hannah Mabbot, Back-from-the-dead Red…”
Hannah kills Lord Ramsey for his greed and sins against humanity, and takes Owen captive on her pirate ship, charging him with concocting a gourmet meal for her once a week on pain of his life.
"Except that we are at sea I would believe that I had been abducted by a traveling circus."
Author Brown’s delicious confection reminds us what we loved about stories of old, and adds that sine qua non of righteous vengeance to sustain our sensibilities. It may be that readers are especially susceptible to feats of culinary desperation because we are too busy reading to shop, so finding Wedgwood creating real cuisine from weevily flour and rancid lard is positively inspiring. Some sea captains for large sailing vessels in my family surprised me with the news that those aboard ship rarely partake in the (obvious to me) fresh seafood surrounding them, as they are not fishermen but sailors, but one of the Japanese sailors aboard the Flying Rose, Mabbot’s pirate ship, always has a line dragging from the aft rail, saving Wedgwood more than once in his search for a main course.

This is escapist fun of the best sort, effortlessly inventive, reminiscent of childhood summers, yet with truths adults will recognize and may take to heart. Once, Mabbot must throw overboard the treasure she has looted from Pendleton ships in order to speed her progress away from danger:
”The men will be bitter for having lost their silver, though it saved their lives. It is a complicated thing. With money in their pockets they become lazy and contrary. Heavy and slow, as does the Rose itself…A small part of me is glad to be rid of it. When my men are hungry, with death upon their heels, they work hard and never complain and enjoy their own company. They sing every night.”

And, on the pain one feels when a close friend or lover dies:
”I’ve had this pain. To tell you it will go away would be a lie. It will never go away. But, if you live long enough, it will cease to torture and will instead flavor you. As we rely on the bitterness of strong tea to wake us, this too will become something you can use.”

And on the sanctity of eating the flesh of animals:
”I thought I would take pleasure in skinning that watchful rabbit, but now that it was still, it engendered in me a tenderness for all fragile flesh. I sharpened a knife until it shone, then skinned and cleaned the rabbit, trying to make each cut a gesture of respect. Loathe to waste any part of the animal, I set brains and hide aside for tanning…As I progressed deeper into the body I felt a mystery revealing itself to me and began to pray, not with words but with simple cooking, a prayer not for the soul of the rabbit exactly but for the generous blending of its life and Mabbot’s. She had fed and loved it and now its flesh would become hers and mine, and in this way I understood that all beings lived only to feed each other as even the lion lays down for the worm. In the striations of the rabbit’s muscle I saw eons of breath and death.”

And finally, we have a love story. It has a prudish man’s restraint, told in the voice of Wedgwood, who denies for ever-so-long his interest in Mabbot and in being at sea with pirates. But lord knows how we all love conquering the inhibitions of prudish men—and how much more satisfying and telling it is for the woman to be the instigator. If men are permanently “on” for sex, their sexual proclivities have less value, as it were. ‘Barky holes of trees’ as John Barth (The Sot-Weed Factor) has written, would do as well. Women, more discriminating perhaps, may tell us more by their choices.

A fine choice for a summer read. This book deserves to be widely enjoyed for the sheer fun it offers. It is something apart from the usual, and one must always take note of derring-do.

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