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.


My Life on the Line

O’Callaghan, Ryan with Cyd Zeigler. My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me. and Ended Up Saving My Life. Brooklyn, New York: Edge of Sports, 2019.

Reason read: as part of the Early Review program for LibraryThing.

When I requested My Life on the Line I was not prepared to have my heart broken. This is the simple story of an NFL football player trying to conceal his true self throughout his sports career. For twenty eight long years he had a secret. Hiding behind anything and everything to make himself look “manly” Ryan O’Callahan was in constant fear of being outted as a homosexual. No one could find out. No one. Tough language, big trucks, country music, guzzling beer, deer hunting, drugs, and bullying were all part of the smoke and mirrors game; all tactics O’Callaghan used so no one could accuse him of even a hint of being gay. His perception was a homosexual man wouldn’t use foul language. A gay man wouldn’t drive a big truck or take drugs and he certainly wouldn’t listen to Garth Brooks! At the center of it all was being a professional football player. For as long as O’Callaghan was playing this manly game he reasoned he could stay alive. Without football he was convinced he couldn’t hide; being exposed meant certain death at his own hand. Even when people close to him started to suspect, O’Callaghan would emphatically deny it, thinking the NFL was his perfect cover.
Then came the injuries and the surgeries and the pain, one after another like unrelenting sea surge. The more O’Callaghan damaged his body the faster his addiction to pain killers grew. He had easy access to prescriptions and at one point was using from nine different doctors. The prospect of playing football professionally hung in the balance as his drug use spiraled out of control and like all dangerous games, it had to come to an end sooner or later.

An added bonus to O’Callaghan’s story was learning a little more about NFL quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. His story was a little disappointing…


September Summer

It feels like it’s still summer. Never mind the nights are getting somewhat cooler. Never mind that we are back in school. Never mind there is a seasonal hurricane ripping its way up the eastern seaboard. Never mind all that. I’m still in summer mode. I started the month off by a good 3.24 run. Yes!
Here are the books planned for the month:

Fiction:

  • The Shining by Stephen King – in honor of King’s birth month.
  • In the City of Fear by Ward Just – in honor of Just’s birth month.

Nonfiction:

  • Thank You and OK!: an American Zen Failure in Japan by David Chadwick – in honor of September being Respect for the Aged month.
  • Foreign Correspondence: a Pen Pal’s Journey From Down Under to All Over by Geraldine Brooks – in honor of International Reading Day.
  • The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: the Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd – in memory of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980.

Series continuation:

  • Tripwire by Lee Child – to continue the series started in July
  • Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov – to continue finish the series started in January.

Early Review:

  • My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life by Ryan O’Callaghan. If you have been keeping score, I started this last month.

For fun:

  • The Miracle on Monhegan Island by Elizabeth Kelly – because of the title.

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).


American Chica

Arana, Marie. American Chica: Two Worlds, One Childhood. New York: Dial Press, 2001.

Reason read: August is called the selfish month by some. Nancy Pearl called her autobiography chapter in More Book Lust “Me, Me, Me” which made me think to read American Chica in August.

Marie Arana grew up in an intercultural family with a South American father born in Peru, and a North American mother. Her parents met in Boston, Massachusetts of all places. This all sounds exotic and fun, but it wasn’t always easy for Arana to know how to fit in on either side of the cultural divide.
The very first sentence of American Chica sets the entire tone of Arana’s memoir, “The corridors of my skull are haunted” (p 5). Indeed, Arana’s family history hides ghosts and her story prods proverbial skeletons out of closets. I won’t give away the details but there was one moment in Arana’s story that had me holding my breath. She has a brush with impropriety that is tinged with the guilty question of did I bring this on myself? Is it somehow my fault? I could relate.The most poignant pieces of Arana’s writing was when she was remembering her innocence; the times when prejudice didn’t darken her childhood.

Other lines I liked, “It is more than a simple resentment, less than an all-out war” (p 63).

Author fact: According to the back flap of American Chica, Arana served on the board of directors of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Book Critics Circle.

Book trivia: Arana’s memoir does not include any photographs except a family portrait in the beginning.

Nancy said: Pearl called American Chica “a beautifully written memoir” (More Book Lust p 167).

BookLust Twist: As mentioned earlier, from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Me, Me, Me: Autobiographies” (p 167).