A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea

teaspoonIf author Dina Nayeri had stayed in Iran, she would have lived a life “full of setar music, saffron rice heaps and native comforts under the terrifying eye of the Islamic Republic.” Instead, she immigrated to the United States at age ten and quickly adapted to western life, earning multiple Ivy League degrees.

In her mid-twenties, she developed a deep longing for Iran and started asking herself: “What kind of person would I be there? Would I recognize myself in that Dina?”

She decided to write a novel about twin girls, one growing up in Iran and one in the United States.

Tragically separated from her mother and sister, eleven-year-old Saba Hafezi is convinced that her mother and twin, Mahtab, have moved to the United States without her. Left behind with her father, Saba grows up in a rice-farming village with substitute mothers, old traditions and limited possibilities.

Throughout the novel, Saba concocts stories about the life Mahtab must be leading as “May,” an American girl with auburn hair and pale skin that has “no olive peeking out from under porcelain powder.” As Saba falls in and out of love and schemes to leave Iran, she often asks: “What would her braver sister do now?”

Easily read in two sittings, A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is a compelling novel with conflicted characters, set against the brutal—and often terrifying—backdrop of post-revolutionary Iran.

Almost English

almostenglishAlmost English is about the ugly years and a startlingly plain adolescent.”

While Author Charlotte Mendelson’s description is definitely apt, the novel is actually held together by two protagonists—mother and daughter—facing their own crises in West London during the 1980s.

Sixteen-year-old Marina is being raised by her emotionally fragile mother Laura and three elderly Hungarian relatives in a cramped basement flat filled with strange traditions and even stranger foods.

Longing to escape this tiny Hungarian enclave, Marina goes off to Combe Abbey, a posh, traditional English boarding school, hoping to reinvent herself and “set off towards the glorious adulthood which awaits her.”

Desperately homesick, Marina feels more of a misfit than ever as she tries to conform to English ways and customs. Several comedic episodes follow when she is invited to a classmate’s country home.

Struggling to deal with her own painful secrets and dilemmas, Laura wonders if she is on the brink of a nervous breakdown or simply having “a disappointing life.” Abandoned by a handsome and spoiled husband, Laura moves in with her mother-in-law where she lives uncomfortably for over a decade.  The insecure and often distracted forty-two-year-old fails to notice that Marina is desperately in need of an intervention.

The scenes involving the endearing trio of aged Hungarian women provide much of the domestic humor. Their conversations are sprinkled with “darlinks” and “von-darefuls” and their extravagant gestures create constant drama, much to Marina’s chagrin.

A delightful read, Almost English is worthy of its Man Booker Prize nomination.

Thanks to Harper Collins Canada for my review copy.



Awaken

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“A masterless student, learning from all but attached to none.”


I couldn’t help but smile at this description of author Patsie Smith. From the start, it is clear the book does not espouse any one school of thought. Instead, using clear and practical language, Smith shares lessons she has learned along her own twenty-seven-year journey.

Divided into two sections—“Before Awakening” and “After Awakening”—each chapter begins with stick artwork and ends with a short reflection.

While the book could be easily read in one sitting, it is better to take time with each chapter, absorbing the succinct and powerful messages. Only then, will you experience the many “Aha!” moments inherent in this book.

Some of my favorite “Aha!” moments…

“The biggest cause of the blindness and shriveling of our spirit is our analytical mind.”

“The words of the Buddha are like a raft built to cross the river. When the purpose is completed, the raft must be left behind if we are to travel further.”

“Sometimes life has its own way of working things out through the power of doing less or doing nothing at all.”

I enjoyed this book thoroughly and will return to it often, keeping in mind Patsie Smith’s advice: “Growing your spirit requires feeding it every day with wisdom, teachings and direct learning experience.”

I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway.

The Paris Winter

pariswinterThe young women in The Paris Winter are battling against poverty, overbearing relatives and other constraints that existed in early twentieth century Paris.

The protagonist, Maud Heighton, is a middle-class Englishwoman, determined to continue with her study of art, even if she has to go hungry during another Paris winter.

We are given glimpses of the desperation she must have endured the previous winter when “she had been feeding herself too little, been too wary of lighting the fire when the damp crawled off the river” and her illness “had swallowed francs by the fistful.”

When Tanya (Tatiana Sergeyevna Koltsova), a rich and beautiful Russian classmate, invites her to take a stroll, Maud feels the first “curl of hope in her belly under the hunger.”

Tanya and Yvette, one of the life models, introduce Maud to a part-time position as a live-in lady’s companion. Maud’s health improves and she becomes a better artist—her lines are more confident and her use of color grows bolder. Maud is finally able to hold her head up high as she walks from the Rue de Seine to her classes.

This honeymoon period abruptly ends as the narrative takes a dark turn and meanders through an underworld filled with opium, diamonds, murder and revenge.

Different aspects of the three young women emerge as they experience the salons, slums, and sewers of the city during the Great Paris Flood of 1910.

Maud can no longer hide a strong fighting spirit behind her English manners. As artist Suzanne Valadon points out: “I’ve seen you sleeping with your jaw clenched so tight the muscles on your neck stand out and your fists pulling the sheets apart.”

Beautiful and spoiled Tania finally stands up to her chaperones, firmly stating her intention to modernize and carve a different path.

And most surprising of all, Yvette, a child of the streets, redefines what it means to be a guardian angel: “The whole point of a guardian angel was that they were with you whether you deserved it or not, that they stayed with you, that even if they could not save you, they were there.”

Imogen Robertson has written a dark and intriguing historical novel about a different Paris, one not so romantic or enchanting.

Freud’s Mistress

freudVery little is known about Minna Bernays, the other woman in Sigmund Freud’s household.

While she was speculated to have been his mistress, this controversial claim was dismissed by Freudian scholars.

All that changed during the summer of 2006.

A German sociologist discovered proof that Sigmund Freud and Minna Bernays had spent two weeks in August 1898 at a fashionable resort in Switzerland. An old ledger clearly showed that they occupied Room 11 on the third floor.

In Freud’s Mistress, authors Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman present a fictionalized account of that affair. Using Freud’s biographies, letters and scholarly texts as source material, the authors succeed in creating a corset-ripper set in Victoria-era Vienna.  

Overeducated and often underemployed, Minna is abruptly fired and finds herself practically destitute and out of options. In desperation, she writes her sister Martha and asks for help.

Determined to stay only for a short while, Minna looks forward to the “uncomplicated and intellectual” relationship she had previously enjoyed with her brother-in-law. But she quickly discovers that “the Freud she had known for years had transformed into someone else.”

As their lively late-night chats become more intimate, Minna finds herself torn between an explosive love affair and loyalty to Martha. She also has to deal with Sigmund’s mercurial moods. It was shocking to read just how aloof and dismissive he could be.

More devastating was the effect on Minna: “The distress of his cold shoulder was constant. It took away her appetite and her ability to appreciate anything. Sometimes she would feel it throbbing in her neck and traveling down her arm. Other times, she clenched her teeth so hard she gave herself a migraine. Even reading was no respite. It could be her imagination, but more often than not, she worried that perhaps he was tiring of her.”

Eventually, the sexual side of the relationship wanes, but Minna, Martha and Sigmund continue to share a household until Sigmund’s death in 1939. Unbelievable by modern standards, but an intelligent single woman of that era had very few other options.

An excellent read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

Signs and Wonders

signsandwonders

I agree with the reviewers who described this collection of sixteen short stories as a gift. And I would also describe the stories as gifts of unexpected love, love that does not appear in its usual wrappers.

While Alix Ohlin’s conflicted characters are struggling to make sense of their relationships, they are surprised to discover love in situations they thought they would never choose or even welcome into their lives.

In the title story, the protagonist suddenly realizes she hates her husband of 26 years. Ready to divorce him, an unfortunate accident turns her well-orchestrated life upside down, forcing her to face the prospect of tending him indefinitely.

While sitting in a hospital waiting room with her daughter and the second wife, a divorced woman discovers she still has feelings for her ex-husband.

Reena agrees to accompany her aunt on “The Cruise,” a post-divorce ritual that unleashes a torrent of feelings.

After connecting with the one who got away in “Who Do You Love?” Janet re-examines all her relationships and reaches an unexpected conclusion.

Alix Ohlin is gifted storyteller with an amazing eye for detail. Some of my favorite descriptions…

“She’d gotten married in a flurry of sex and promises, wearing a white dress so hideously confectionary that she felt like a parody of herself, a joke told in crinoline and lace, and even that made her happy, because it was silly and she knew they’d laugh about it later.”

“Our boss, Eric, was an elderly bohemian who wore pilled woolen cardigans and too-short pants, and spent afternoons in his office reading manuscripts while twirling his beard between his thumb and index finger, making a little curl that stood out from his chin. By five o’clock his beard would be a tufted mess of curls, all fluffed out like the feathers of some preening bird. Because of this, Sarah and I called him the titmouse.”