Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Book Review: The Septembers of Shiraz

Personally, I have always preferred getting my history lessons in story form.

I don’t know about you, but when I would sit in history class and the teachers would pontificate about timelines and wars and facts and figures, the Middle Ages, 1776, Napoleon, serfs, Galileo, 1893, Presidential assassins,1602, it would all blur together for me and sound like it was coming from the teacher in the Peanuts’ cartoons. Even though I was interested in learning about history, I could only get the vaguest ideas of the events to stick with me, dangling precariously from my cognitive map like a used post it note.

But put The Diary of Anne Frank or My Brother Sam is Dead (about the Revolutionary War) in my hands and bam - mental Super glue. All of the sudden, instead of seeing a blurry blip on the time line and a passage that made my eyes glaze over, I could see history through the eyes of a young girl, who like me, kept a diary, missed her friends and both loved and got annoyed with her family members. I could see through her eyes that the Holocaust meant that innocent Jewish families like hers had to go into hiding and hold their breath, hearts racing every time they heard a knock at the door wondering if this was the time they'd be caught and taken to the gas chambers of the concentration camps.

In The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer, Isaac Amin and his memorable cast of family members, though fictional, were able to have the same sticking effect on me. The book transported me to 1980s Iran after the fall of the Shah when wealth was punished and none of rules of the old regime applied. In this tumultuous time, rare-gem dealer Isaac Amin is arrested and jailed by the Revolutionary Guard, falsely accused of being a Zionist spy. After his disappearance, his wife Farnaz searches anxiously for him while he endures months filled with isolation and torture and the rest of the family must deal with the lives they have always known being pulled apart piece by piece.

The book was artfully written. Dalia Sofer's narration has a quiet power that kept the pages turning and she does a great job of capturing the subtle contradictions and gray areas inside of us all. The narration comes from all four members of the Amin family: Issac, Farnaz, their nine year old daughter Shirin and their son Pariviz who has been sent to New York for college to avoid his being drafted into the Revolutionary Guard. I liked the changes in narration - Isaac who escapes the tedium and terror of prison by letting his mind drift to his younger days in Shiraz when he was a poet and idealist; Farnaz, who has numbed herself to the world and tries to carry on and hold the family together in Isaac's absence; Parviz, lost, alone and indifferent in New York with a futile hope of a relationship with his extremely religious landlord's daughter, and Shirin, trying to make sense of her father's disappearance, losing friends on the playground and boldly taking a risk that might save someone's life, but could also land her father in even more trouble. I felt particularly drawn to the parts from Shirin’s point of view and found myself wondering how much of the story that we saw through Shirin’s eyes came directly from the life experience of the author who fled Iran with her family when she was only ten.

One interesting thing that stood out to me is that the book is written in the seldom-used present tense. I love the immediacy this adds to the story, connecting someone like me, who has grown up in the US and been fortunate enough not to experience the horrors of watching my beloved homeland and family fractured and cleaved apart by the tyrants of an unstable government, to the events that took place in Iran after the fall of the Shah.

I also think the Sofer’s use of the present tense reflects the fact that the Amin family’s lives have been severed from the tranquil days of their lives before the revolution. With their pasts like a distant dream and their futures uncertain, they have no choice but to live day to day in the present moment.

I really enjoyed this book and while its not action packed, the force of the story propelled me forward and really kept the pages turning. It also definitely brought this period of Iranian history to life for me. I'm looking forward to reading more from Dalia Sofer in the future. Thanks to Gayle at Everyday I Write the Book Blog and Harper Collins for putting this book in my hands and hosting the great online book club discussion earlier this week. If you are interested in more from the author, check back on Gayle's site for an upcoming author interview.

Fun fact: Sofer means writer in Hebrew. I wonder if that is a family name that she grew into or if she took it on as her pen name because of its meaning.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


btt button

Suggested by: Nithin

Here’s another idea about memorable first lines from books.

What are your favourite first sentences from books? Is there a book that you liked specially because of its first sentence? Or a book, perhaps that you didn’t like but still remember simply because of the first line?

I am going to answer today, but concede to my laziness and be brief. I'm going to go with the excuse that brevity is the soul of wit (well, it is isn't it?).

I have to admit that, "Call me Ishmael." doesn't really do anything for me, but my favorite first line that I can recall from memory comes from a book I haven't even read yet, is not a classic and has nothing to do with a whale.

Here goes:

"Dear Carrie Bradshaw,
You are a f***ing liar."

to which I respond:

Dear Jen Lancaster,

You crack me up. I love your blog and I can't wait to read Bright Lights, Big Ass. Let's drink some mojitos and be best friends. And promise to never ever read Moby Dick.

Irreverently Yours,


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book Review: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

It has been an extremely long time since I have felt myself so drawn into the world created by a fiction writer and felt so emotionally involved with the unlikeliest of characters, nine-year-old Oskar Schell, a boy whose Dad was killed on 9/11 and his Grandparents, German immigrants whose lives were forever changed after the bombing in Dresden.

I have read so many novels in the earlier part of this year that I wanted so badly to be touching and thought provoking but they all fell short, except for this one.

This is a short summary from the book jacket: "Oskar Schell is an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, pacifist. He is nine years old. And he is on an urgent, secret search through the five boroughs of New York to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father, who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center."

Besides Oskar and his grandparents, I also loved the characters Oskar met along the way, like one hundred and three year-old Mr. Black who has a giant card catalog with a card for every person he ever met, each one labeled with one word that describes their essence.

I think Jonathan Safran Foer is one of the most talented young writers I have ever read. His detail and lifelike mixture of humor and sadness made the characters leap off of the page and right into my heart. I rarely listened to audio books before this one, but I picked it up on a whim and really enjoyed the performances.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Vacation Spots

I've been reading other bloggers' weekly Booking Through Thursday posts for a while, but this will be my inaugural BTT post. This week's question is:

Do you buy books while on vacation/holiday?

Do you have favorite bookstores that you only get to visit while away on a trip?

What/Where are they?

I knew I was going to love Washington D.C. when I looked out my hotel room window. Against the backdrop of old brick buildings, historical landmarks and the hustle and bustle of crowds of intellectuals and politicos I could see not one, but two bookstores. We don’t have many local, independently owned bookstores in Las Vegas so I have trouble resisting a peek at the stacks of places like Kramer Books & Afterwords Café on Dupont Circle in D.C., which also happens to have a killer lunch menu and a bar inside the bookstore. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

But while I do love to browse through bookstores while traveling, I don’t often make book purchases away from home for several reasons: A) Its one more thing I’ll have to lug around with me. B) Its very likely I can get it cheaper on Amazon, and the main reason C) l hate to have a stack of more than two or three books at home waiting to be read. If I accumulate too many, by the time I get to them I have usually lost interest because I am excited to read something else.

There are two exceptions I can think of:

¿Dónde esta Harry Potter?
When our overnight train pulled into the station in Madrid at the end of our Camino last summer, I was on a mission. I had to limp all the way, but I was determined not to leave Spain without a copy of the newly released Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in English. I’d tracked down an English language bookstore that was holding a copy for me and after about an hour of being lost, we found the address listed on their website. Only when we got there, the building was empty. Frustrated but undaunted, we called our friend Jeremy back in the US, the only one of our friends who could possibly be up at 3am and he graciously looked up the bookstore’s phone number for us. We called and found the new location a few blocks away and I had my Harry Potter for the plane ride home.

When in Stratford
It seemed almost sacrilegious to leave the idyllic English countryside town that gave birth to Shakespeare without some work of literature. Though ironically, what I picked was not a book of sonnets or a comedic play involving a woman disguising herself as a man but The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Cover Love: Judging a Book By Its Cover

I’ll admit it. I am a sucker for a good picture. Whenever I go to a restaurant and open up the menu I am instantly wooed by the dishes that are accompanied by pictures. At BJ’s, the picture of grilled chicken pasta with its vibrant green broccoli and delicate shavings of parmesano reggiano gets me every time.

Book covers sometimes have the same ooh-look-something-shiny! effect on me. Out of the massive volumes of books stacked floor to ceiling in my local bookstore shelves, some always seem to draw me over for a closer look.

Here are a few that have caught my eye in the bookstore lately:

Maybe it’s my marketing background, but although great cover art does not always portend a riveting and well written story, I think its OK to celebrate the publishing companies giving an author a great package to help promote their work.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Giveaways Galore

Just wanted to share a few great book related giveaway opportunities I've come across in the last few days:

  • *In the Shadow of Mt. TBR's writer is hosting her first giveaway ever. Visit her site to enter for a chance to win a $20 Borders gift card.
  • *Marie at the Boston Bibilophile is giving away an ARC copy of Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. I just discovered Marie's blog a few weeks ago and I love it. She seems to post several times a week and her reviews are detailed and insightful.
  • From the Garden Spells cover:
    In a garden surrounded by a tall fence, tucked away behind a small, quiet house in the smallest of towns, is an apple tree that is rumored to bear a very special sort of fruit. In this luminous debut novel, Sarah Addison Allen tells the story of that enchanted tree, and the extraordinary people who tend it.

  • *The audiobook version of Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist is available for free download on iTunes this week. Just check the main page for the free download icon.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Little Something Humorous

I love when I learn something new from a textbook I'm teaching.

For example, did you know the that word humor actually comes from the Latin word for liquid?* Kudos to you if you're a crackerjack at dead languages, but I had no idea. Apparently the story goes like this: Hundreds of years ago, when people still agreed that the world was flat, it was commonly thought by the noted philosophers of the day that one's personality traits were determined by the balance of the liquids in one's body. Unbalanced liquids = unbalanced personality = strange or odd. So instead of being used to describe things like Sarah Vowell's nephew referring to cemeteries as Halloween parks or Stephen Colbert's version of the news, humorous once referred to someone who was a few sandwiches short of a picnic basket. For example the contestants on Flavor of Love Season 3.

OK, enough with the Latin lessons, but speaking of textbooks, my summer session class starts up next Monday. That means today I am hard at work lesson planning as well as casting aside my hate-affair with talking on the phone to find the best mortgage loan for our new house (Yay! We're getting a new house! Boo! We have to pack. A lot. Quickly.).

I have been in seriously in denial that summer vacation is in fact almost over for me. This is going to put a serious cramp in my new habit of reading until 2am. And lounging around in my pajamas until its time to change into my gym clothes in the afternoon. But in all honesty, I can't complain. I love working with my students and seeing someone who arrived knowing only very basic English progress enough get into the best Hotel Management School in the country. Teaching allows me to work autonomously, be creative and get better every day. And it lets me have a summer vacation in the first place. So, yeah I guess I'm pretty lucky.

*From World Pass: Expanding English Fluency Advanced by S. Stemplski, N. Douglas, J. Morgan and K.L. Johannsen

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Lost Girls Book

In book and travel related news (my two favorite subjects), I am thrilled to see that The Lost Girls have landed a book deal (with Harper Collins, no less!) to write about the year they took off to travel the world. If you haven’t already heard the buzz about the Lost Girls, here is a little background, but I highly recommend checking out their blog for yourself to read about their incredible journey and check out their tips if you are dreaming of doing something like this yourself someday: In 2006 best friends Holly, Jen and Amanda traded in the comforts of home and steady jobs in the competitive New York media world for giant backpacks, sometimes seedy hostels, guidebooks and the chance at the adventure of a lifetime.

These are truly girls after my own heart. From the moment I discovered their blog, which happened to be when I was in the throes of planning my own Camino adventure last spring, I was intrigued and inspired. When I wasn’t researching backpacks, lightweight sleeping sacks and a place I could purchase a contraption that enables women to pee standing up in the middle of nowhere, I spent a lot of my spare time reading through their archives.

From the time they touched down in Peru, bought funny looking hats and hiked the Inca Trail right up to the end of their journey in Australia, the girls shared stories and pictures of their adventures on their blog, kindly allowing us to live vicariously through them. I find their writing style savvy, polished and extremely accessible, like hearing the insider point of view from a best girlfriend who also happens to be a kick-ass writer.

I love their spirit and their courage to dare to do what most people only dream about. And of course, the fact that they wrote about it. Jen, Amanda and Holly are truly a testament to the idea that if you want something badly enough, with enough drive, determination and sacrifice, anything is possible. So I wish them the best of luck with the book, which I will anxiously await. I hope they sell millions of copies and inspire many others to take a chance on their own dreams.
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