Ayatollah Begs to Differ

Madj, Hooman. The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: the Paradox of Modern Iran. New York: Anchor Books, 2008.

Reason read: the Iran-Iraq War of 1980.

Iran, a land of contradictions and gross misunderstanding. Madj shares historical facts and personal reflections revealing a side of Iran and Iranians few westerners get to see. Does he want to clear up misconceptions? He understands there is a widespread lack of thoughtful acceptance of middle eastern culture. The United States especially is not on solid ground with their relationship is an understatement. The two sides are polarizing when there is so much more to understand. How can westerners reconcile dead camels on display, their throats slit for religious sacrifice? Other illogical points to consider: Birth records in Iran were instituted in 1930. Also, the chador was illegal for women to wear in the 1930s. Interestingly enough, the Shah was persuaded not to enforce this law until it was finally changed in 1941. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 promised to do away with class. Even the employees of the President dress the same as the man who poured their tea. In contrast, Madj says “When American…politicians may often come from ordinary backgrounds their lifestyles usually change dramatically when they have reached the pinnacle of power, they are long removed from their more humble roots” (p 17). This doesn’t happen in Iran.
Madj sits comfortably in a dual cultural identity, western (educated in both England and the United States) and middle eastern as the son of an Iranian diplomat and the grandson of a professor of Islamic philosophy. It’s as if he wants us to understand him as much as he wants to explain Iranian culture. Take the practice of ta’arouf, for example. He recognizes that it is an exhausting and sometime ridiculous practice similar to an over-polite chess match. Or customary gestures of hello: in the United States you thrust out your right hand to grasp someone else’s right hand (and shake vigorously), but in Iran you instead place your right hand over your heart as a gesture of respect. It’s the little things…

Quote that struck me, “Just as one doesn’t have to be religious to feel and appreciate the emotion of a gospel signer, one doesn’t have to be devout to feel the emotion of Muslim religious music, and Shia chants reach into a place deep in the Iranian soul, formed by centuries of cultural DNA and the certain Persian knowledge that the world is indeed a wicked place” (p 87).

Author fact: Madj is a writer of short fiction and has his own website here.

Book trivia: Majd includes some really great color photographs.

Nancy said: Pearl didn’t say anything specific about The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter simply called “Iran” (p 108).


Foreign Correspondence

Brooks, Geraldine. Foreign Correspondence: a Pen Pal’s Journey From Down Under to All Over. Thorndike, Maine: Thorndike Press, 1998.

Reason read: International Reading Day is on September 8th.

Brooks started writing to pen pals when she was ten years old. [As an aside, I think I was around the same age when I formed my letter-writing habit.] Finding all of Brooks’s pen pal letters prompted her to wonder if she could find their authors some thirty some odd years later. Where were these forty-something year olds? Who were they now as adults and what lives were they living? Before she launches on her journey to find lost relations, Brooks spends some time remembering her own childhood and how each pen pal played a part in it. As a kid she yearned to get away from boring Australia with its lack of culture and panache. As a good girl, she recalls her fear of her father’s lack of participation in Catholic worship and how it might send him to hell and yet she herself wanted to be a rebel; “to kiss boys, take drugs, be hauled by the hair into a police van at an antiwar protest” (p 78). She remembers wanting to expand her religious horizons with the letters she would write and receive. Those pen pals would bring Brooks full circle by reminding her of her roots and just how far she has come as an adult.

Quote I liked, “We have grown older together, trapped in the aspic of our age gap” (p 59) and “It’s unfortunate to arrive at an Arab summit in Casablanca only to find that your underwear is touring sub-Saharan Africa without you” (p 142).

Author fact: According to Brooks’s memoir, she had a budding acting career early in life.

Book trivia: Brooks includes touching photographs of her family as well as the pen pals who shaped her life.

Nancy said: Pearl mentioned an interview with Brooks. I had to ask the Seattle Channel if they could rerelease the video because it was over ten years old. I am happy to say they consented and even though the interview didn’t mention Foreign Correspondence I enjoyed it very much. As an aside, the interview focused on People of the Book (not on my list).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Australia, the Land of Oz” (p 26).


Florence Nightingale

Bostridge, Mark. Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Reason read: Florence Nightingale passed in the month of August. Read in her memory.

I read this biography in the hopes of shedding the cliche Florence Nightingale has inadvertently become in my mind. The very name conjures up a saintly figure of epic kindness. A woman with angel wings and endless patience. Someone with a glowing halo and endless caring calm. I wanted Bostridge’s biography to turn an otherwise glossy icon into flesh and bone with faults and no-so-saintly feelings. It turns out, the public did a lot to add to the “lady with the lamp” mythology for when the desperate attach an attribute like hope to a person, the image becomes angelic. Such was the desperation of soldiers during the Crimean War. The lamp Nightingale often carried beat back the darkness (and encroaching fear of death) with its soothing soft glow. Elizabeth Gaskell called her a saint. John Davies implied she was a goddess with a magic touch.
Tidbits of interesting not-so-saintly information I enjoyed learning: from an early age Nightingale wanted to care for the sick. She was not shy about voicing her criticism regarding hospital conditions: defective ventilation and horrid sanitation practices. She didn’t get along well with others as her persistence for improved conditions irked administrators far and wide. Through and despite all that, like a modern day celebrity craze, there was a insatiable demand for her likeness. Portraits of her cropped up everywhere. People were writing music about her. By 1855 people were naming boats and buildings after her.
Trivial details: Nightingale traveled through Egypt to Cairo with budding author Gustave Flaubert by sheer coincidence. She made Elizabeth Gaskell’s acquaintance. She had a sister who lost her identity in the shadow of Florence’s greatness. Florence made unusual animals her pets, a cicada and and owl.
There is no doubt Florence Nightingale: the Making of an Icon is the result of meticulous research.

When I am dead and gone will people remember me as someone in a “righteous rage to get things done” like Florence Nightingale was remembered? I just love that image of her.

Author fact: Bostridge also wrote Vera Brittain and the First World War: the Story of Testament of Truth, which is not on my Challenge list, but I am reading Vera Brittain’s Testament books.

Book trivia: Florence Nightingale is full of black and white illustrations and photography.

Nancy said: Pearl called Florence Nightingale a really good biography.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Egypt” (p 75). Florence Nightingale should not be included in this chapter because it is not about Egypt, the majority of the biography does not take place in Egypt, nor is Egypt important to the life of Florence.


Secret Life of Lobsters

Corson, Trevor. The Secret Life of Lobsters. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Reason read: Rockland, Maine holds a Lobster Festival every year during the first week of August. I have been once.

I originally put off reading The Secret Life of Lobsters thinking it was going to be bogged down with dry research statistics. Instead, I found a warm, and humorous yet fact-filled account of not only the life of lobsters but of the men who make their livelihood trying to catch them, Corson included. Chapters alternate between scientists and their research and lobstermen of Little Cranberry Island, Maine, and their struggle to farm the sea. There were things I knew (the cod is the biggest natural predator of lobsters and lobster is loaded with sodium) and lots more I didn’t know, like there are 52 species of Crustacea and the sex life of a lobster is brutal!

Confessional: I grew up eating lobster like it was chicken. Every so often my father would barter welding services for a few pounds of lobster for “his girls” while he himself couldn’t touch the stuff (allergic), so the entire time I was reading The Secret Life of Lobsters I was willing myself to not make comparisons to Monhegan’s way of life.

Quotes I just had to quote, “The problem was that the male lobster appeared not to have a penis” (p 46), and “Quite possibly, lobsters were sensing each other and sending signals – “I beat you up last night, remember?” or “Would you liketo mate with me, I’m about to undress?” – by pissing in each other’s faces” (p 196).

Author fact: Corson is a marine biologist and a third generation lobersterman so he knows his stuff!

Book trivia: The Secret Life of Lobsters does not contain any photographs or maps. I was bummed not to see the latter. It would have been fun to track some of the places Corson mentioned.

Nancy said: Pearl says Secret Life of Lobsters is about “what’s known, and not, about the lobster…” (Book Lust To Go p 135).

BookLust Twist: from book Lust To Go in the chapter called “The Maine Chance” (p 135).


Alligator

Moore, Lisa. Alligator. New York: Black Cat Publishing, 2005.

Reason read: In Newfoundland they celebrate Orangemen’s Day and the Battle of the Boyne in July, specifically on the 12th.

Alligator’s strength as a first novel lies in its character development. Each chapter is dedicated to a different person loosely connected to the one before. Beverly and Madeleine are sisters. Colleen is Beverly’s daughter. Isobel is Madeleine’s friend. You get the point. Every character is flawed and vulnerable in their own way.
My favorite element to the book was how sharply Moore brought grief specifically into focus. When Beverly loses David to a sudden brain aneurysm her numb emptiness is palpable. These simple lines illustrate the heaviness of loss, “More than once she noticed orange peels next to her lawn chair and realized she was already eaten the orange” (p 49) and “David was dead but she would apply mascara” (p 54).
My least favorite aspect to the plot was the unexpected brutality of some of the characters. This was a much darker novel than I expected.

Quotes to quote, “Somehow Beverly has raised a daughter whose voice can be shrill as a fire alarm” (p 22), “Flexibility meant a prismatic comprehension of all aspect of experience” (p 68), and “You store your saddest memories in your feet, she said” (p 186).

Author fact: Moore also wrote February. I will be reading that one in a few years.

Book trivia: Alligator is Lisa Moore’s first novel.

Nancy said: Pearl was actually gushing about Moore’s other novel, February, and only mentioned Alligator as an aside.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the super obvious chapter called “Newfoundland” (p 153).


Blood Safari

Meyer, Deon. Blood Safari. Translated by K.L. Seegers. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009.

Reason read: Deon Meyer was born in the month of July. Read in his honor.

Young and beautiful Emma Le Roux thought she needed a body guard after at least two masked men broke into her South African home and tried to kill her. How does she know they wanted to kill her? They weren’t looking to steal anything and they weren’t typical vandals, so who were they exactly? What was their motive to harm her, someone with seemingly no known enemies? Was it a coincidence the violence arrived on her doorstep only after she starting asking questions about seeing her dead brother on television? In her mind she had a right to question what she saw for all she knew he had been dead for twenty years. According to to news program he was wanted for murder. Did Emma’s brother really brutally gun down four poachers? To find out the truth she enlists the help of Martin Lemmer, employed by the protection agency, Body Armor.
Lemmer, as he prefers to be called, is your typical strong, silent-type bodyguard. He has rules he refers to as “Lemmer Laws” that supposedly cannot be broken and yet he has a way of breaking them. The first Lemmer law is Don’t Get Involved with a client. He breaks that one almost immediately when he doesn’t believe Emma’s story and he lets his body guard down. Emma is nearly killed on his watch. Someone out there wants her dead in the worst way. Now Lemmer has gone from protecting Emma to seeking revenge on whoever hurt her.

As an aside, I couldn’t help but think of the viral honey badger video whenever a honey badger was mentioned. I couldn’t get the narrator’s voice out of my head!

Simple truth I had to quote, “The barrel of a gun changes everything” (p 19). Yes. Yes, it does.

Author fact: Meyer’s author picture on the back cover is interesting. He looks like he is dressed in a black turtleneck or high collared coat and yet he’s lying in the sand?

Book trivia: Blood Safari was translated from the Africaans.

Nancy said: Pearl said she couldn’t imagine Meyer’s Blood Safari taking place anywhere but South Africa because of the history of old wounds never healing. She also called Blood Safari “fast-paced and emotionally nuanced” (Book Lust To Go p 216)

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “South Africa (Fiction)” (p 215).


Blood Spilt

Larsson, Asa. Blood Spilt. Translated by Marlaine Delargy. New York: Viking, 2004.

Reason read: to continue the series started in June in honor of Larsson’s birth month.

Rebecka Martinsson returns after killing three people in The Sun Storm. That seems pretty incredible when you consider Rebecka is a tax lawyer. But, she had a good reason. (In other words, read the book.) When we catch up with Martinsson in The Blood Spilt she has been on sick leave and struggling with post traumatic stress.
Police woman Anna-Maria Mella and her partner, Inspector Sven-Erik Stalnacke are also back in Blood Spilt. They are dealing with the murder of Mildred Nilsson, a controversial and strongly disliked and equally liked priest who was found murdered. To catch you up on Anna-Maria, she was pregnant during Sun Storm and is now on maternity leave a year and a half later after giving birth to her son, Gustav.
Back to the plot.
Anna – Maria and Sven-Erik have their work cut out for them. Any number of people could have killed Mildred. Husbands in particular had the strongest motive. Mildred’s life work was rescuing battered women from abusive spouses. She was responsible for households torn apart leaving the menfolk left to care for the children left behind and the upkeep of their homes. Additionally, Mildred was on a crusade to save the grey wolf which put her at odds with farmers and hunters alike. Personally, I could have done without the Yellow Legs subplot. I think the story would have held up just fine without it.
Rebecka inevitably gets caught up in the murder when she befriends a mentally challenged boy who might have witnessed the crime.
As an aside, if you are an animal lover this book will be really hard to read. Just saying!

Lines I liked, “And at the same time: loneliness had her on its hook, a barb through her heart, reeling her in” (p 176. “The hardness of the heart is a remarkable thing” (p 229), and “There’s no room for him among the grieving” (p 293).

Author fact: Larsson was a tax lawyer just like Rebecka Martinsson.

Book trivia: You can read The Blood Spilt without tackling The Sun Storm but if you are going to read both it is recommended to read the books in order, Sun Storm before Blood Spilt.
Another piece of trivia: Larsson includes a few references to cultural icons such as Astrid Lindgren (Swedish author who wrote Pippi Longstocking among others), Abba and Niklas Stromstedt. As an aside, the latter reminds me of Dennis Quaid in some pictures.

Confessional: I had to look up “Modesty Blaise” to see what Rebecka’s colleague was referring to when she said Rebecka was the firm’s very own Modesty Blaise.
Second confessional: I am always wary of “death seems to follow me” characters, especially when they have no business getting caught up in murder (like park rangers and lawyers).

Nancy said: nothing specific about The Blood Spilt.

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Swede(n), Isn’t It?” (p 222).