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.”


The Burgess Boys

burgess3Elizabeth Strout likes populating her novels with difficult characters. A talent that was evident in her previous novels; in particular, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge.

In The Burgess Boys, we meet three conflicted siblings.

First-born Jim is the classic over-achiever and worthy of his birth order. From class president and football star to celebrity lawyer, Jim has that uncanny ability to always say and do the right thing. But his eyes never smile and many of his comments, especially those directed toward his younger brother Bob, border on bullying.

Laid back and liberally minded Bob accepts the casually tossed “slob-dog,” “knucklehead” and other put-downs from Jim. And he knows that his twin sister Susan doesn’t think too highly of him either. He stoically carries the burden of having accidentally killed his father when he was four years old.

While her brothers were able to escape small town Maine and move to New York, Susan is still stuck in Shirley Falls. The bitter, divorced optometrist is raising an emotionally fragile Zachary on her own.

When Zachary throws a frozen pig’s head through the door of a local Somali mosque during Ramadan, racial tensions in the small town escalate and force the return of the Burgess Brothers to Maine.

Their efforts, however, leave Zachary worse off and as the brothers shuttle between New York and Shirley Falls their own lives start to unravel. An unexpected disclosure from Jim forces Bob to question that “crust of doubt” he has carried for most of his life. Poor judgment on Jim’s part causes his well-orchestrated life to spiral dangerously out of control.

A natural storyteller with an excellent eye for detail, Elizabeth Strout has created a cast of characters who will linger in our collective memories.


A Good Hard Look

agoodhardlookCharacter driven fiction at its best.

Ann Napolitano has crafted a compelling novel in the style of Southern Gothic, incorporating author Flannery O’Connor and her mother Regina into fictional situations with a cast of unforgettable characters.

Young and beautiful Cookie Himmel is the quintessential Southern belle. During a disastrous New York experiment, she meets rich and handsome Melvin Whiteson who follows her back to Milledgeville. Determined to start anew in his wife’s hometown, Melvin finds himself “making tiny adjustments to his demeanor, his expression, and even his accent, in order to fit in.” He could drop these pretenses only during his visits with Flannery O’Connor.

Compliant Lona Waters treasures her holy hour each afternoon, a time when she doesn’t have to worry about making enough money to pay the bills or be a satisfactory wife to her ambitious husband. All this changes when good friend and neighbor Miss Mary asks Lona to take on her troubled adolescent son as her assistant.

Gigi, Lona’s daughter, figures more prominently toward the end of the novel. Having spent most of her life with her beloved Miss Mary, Gigi’s life is turned upside down by a series of disastrous events that culminate in violence. Several descriptions of the adolescent appear throughout the novel, the most poignant being: “She was laden down and shaking…She looked liked the loneliest child in the universe.”

But the most intriguing characters are the peacocks, those infuriating birds that “do what they want, when they want.” Flannery’s flock of peacocks make their presence felt at all momentous occasions in the sleepy Georgia town.

The novel opens with a cacophony of noise that keeps the entire town awake on the eve of Cookie’s wedding: “The peacocks tilted their head back and bellowed and hollered their desires into the night. They snapped their shimmering tails open and shut like fans. Behind each male’s pointy head, a green-bronze arch unfurled, covered with a halo of gazing suns. The females brayed and shook their less-attractive tails in return.”

At the crack of a pistol on an otherwise peaceful afternoon, the peacocks join forces with all the other animals to create hell on earth: “The chaos seemed eternal. The peacocks were screaming to break eardrums. The chickens were beating the air with wings that couldn’t fly. Other birds flew in jagged circles. They descended on the porch like nails drawn to a magnet.”

Divided into three parts—Good, Hard, Look—this beautifully written novel exposes the artifices and veils that are often used to shield uncomfortable realities. But Ann Napolitano does not end the novel on a tragic or unsettled note. Instead, we see glimmers of hope and redemption as the characters pick up the shards of their shattered lives.

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

executionGone Girl. The Other Typist. The Silent Wife. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton.

Introducing unlikeable protagonists who may not be reliable narrators seems to be a trend among authors launching debut novels.

In The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, we meet a young woman who is sitting on death row, awaiting execution for murder.  We quickly learn, within the first three pages, that she “was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea” when she pulled the trigger.

But of course there is more to her story, a story that is told during the six month period leading up to X-Day.

Somewhat reconciled to her fate, Noa is surprised by the unexpected visit of two lawyers: Oliver Stansted, a young, naive Brit who passionately believes she was wrongfully sentenced to death and Marlene Dixon, a high-powered attorney who also happens to be the mother of Sarah, Noa’s victim.

A strong advocate of a new agency called MAD (Mothers Against Death), Marlene has undergone a change of heart since testifying at Noa’s trial ten years previously. She no longer believes in the death penalty and wants to help commute Noa’s sentence. At first, she appears to be taking the high ground, but a different Marlene emerges in the letters to her dead daughter, which are interspersed throughout the novel.

Noa’s story slowly unfolds as a series of flashbacks. We read about her mother, a failed community theater actress who shamelessly neglected her daughter and the absentee father who showed up several months before the horrendous crime. In fact, his intrusion in Noa’s life sets in motion a series of events that ultimately lead to Sarah’s tragic death.

The theme of betrayal runs rampant throughout the novel. Noa’s former friends and classmates turn on her, describing her as a pathological liar with manipulative tendencies. Her mother’s acting skills fail her as she shamelessly flirts with the prosecuting attorney while testifying on her daughter’s behalf. As for her father, he didn’t even testify. After the trial, everyone disperses, leaving Noa to face ten years of incarceration before “X” day.

Author Elizabeth Silver has written a thought-provoking novel about that “gray middle ground” between legal innocence and actual innocence.