In the Palace of Flowers, by Victoria Princewill

Trigger warnings for rape and intimate partner violence.

One of the most useful questions I learned as a young English major was, “Who is rewarded in the end?” The literary version of cui bono has helped me understand what I’m supposed to take from a book more than once. It certainly helped when I read In the Palace of Flowers, by Victoria Princewell and was stunned by a surprise ending that I didn’t expect at all. This novel follows the fortunes of two enslaved Abyssinians (Ethiopians) in the court of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar at the end of his reign in the mid-1890s. Abimelech, a eunuch in service to one of the many princes, has faith that he will be rewarded for his hard work and loyalty. Jamila, who serves one of the even more numerous royal wives, is much less trusting. This absorbing novel takes us deep into the harem at Golestan Palace, in Tehran, and the maelstrom of politics, betrayal, sex, and endless plotting.

In the Palace of Flowers is bookended by funerals. The funeral at the beginning of the novel is hardly a funeral at all, and Jamila and Abimelech spend some time reflecting on how little the life of a slave in the Persian Empire is worth before they depart to their work serving two spoiled, unworldly members of the sprawling Qajar family. The funeral at the end of the book is of much more consequence, but it leaves Jamila at least wondering how on earth an enslaved person can make any lasting mark on the world. The author’s afterword offers a bit of an answer; Princewell reveals that the inspiration for this book comes from a short biography written by an enslaved Abyssinian woman named Jamila Habashi, one of the few we know of who left evidence of her life.

A highly decorated window at Golestan Palace (Image via Wikicommons)

Both Abimelech and Jamila have been physically and sexually abused by the people who enslave them. They continue to serve because the only other option is immediate, callous execution. But their responses to their treatment are very different. Jamila’s outlook is, to me, very understandable. In the cutthroat world of the harem, she knows well that everyone is fighting to get closer to the shah. They’ll use rumor or poison or whatever weapons they can get their hands to climb over each other and get a little higher on the ladder. Jamila has no illusions. Abimelech, on the other hand, is surprisingly naive in spite of all his learning and intelligence. Their plots run in parallel—with Abimelech counseling Jamila to patience and obedience and Jamila pointing out the general nastiness of everyone around them—requiring us to question which approach will be better. Will virtue be rewarded? Or will cunning?

In addition to the almost Shakespearean stories of Jamila and Abimelech, I marveled at the way that Princewell brings the people and places of mid-1890s Golestan Palace back to life. I know absolutely nothing about this time and this place—which is why I jumped at the chance to read this book. It’s clear Princewell did a lot of research on the language, customs, and politics of the era to create such an absorbing story. More than once I had to run to Wikipedia to get a little more background on the Qajars or Nowruz or Farsi, but I don’t mind this at all. I prefer historical fiction where the plot doesn’t bow under the weight of explanations and exposition. Like all good historical fiction, the plot steps into the research like a suit of period-accurate clothing. In the Palace of Flowers is one of the best historical novels I’ve read in a long time.

Note about the publication date: I try to time my reviews to appear about a month before a book is published. In the case of this book, the publication date changed after I started reading and I don’t want to wait months to post the review.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Censoring an Iranian Love Story, by Shahriar Mandanipour

The metaphor of diving into a book like diving into water has never seemed so apt to me as it is now that I’ve finished reading Shahriar Mandanipour’s stimulating novel, Censoring an Iranian Love Story. Getting into the book felt a bit like swimming against the current. By the end, though, coming back to the real world was like surfacing from the depths. I hope this sounds like a compliment, because it is. This novel engaged all of my brain with a multi-layered story that fights back against censorship with all of the unnamed narrator’s ingenuity.

The unnamed narrator wants to wright a love story. He’s tired of writing heavy books in which awful things happen to the characters and they all end up miserable or dead. But writing a love story is perhaps an impossible challenge in post-Islamic Revolution Iran. Correction: Writing it is not impossible. Publishing is. All authors have to get approval to have their books shipped from the printer to the bookstores from an agency that makes sure that every story contains no hint of sedition, dissent, or romance. As the unnamed narrator reveals, even names are fraught. Characters—and all children born in Iran—must be given approved names (usually Arabic names) that don’t glorify past monarchs. The narrator chooses Sara and Dara as his characters’ names, taken from an old children’s book.

The challenges continue after the names are chosen. How can a young man and a young woman meet in a place when men and women aren’t allowed to talk to each other unless they’re married or related? Even if they can meet, how can they talk to each other when every word has to be carefully chosen so as not to inflame any passion? We watch the narrator wrestle with these and other questions in real-time. Sentences are crossed out. Scenes are intermixed with the narrator’s streams of consciousness or memories of meeting with his censor, named for a character out of Crime and Punishment. The censor isn’t the only literary reference. The narrator mentions characters from novels and poems as if they really are walking around the streets of Tehran. He also frequently references the poetry of pre-Revolution Iran, and poets who also had to watch their words so as not to offend or inflame the very pious. But, like those poets, the narrator uses well-known metaphors about flowers and animals that can skate past the censors or deploys ellipsis whenever things are best left to the reader’s imagination.

Censorsing an Iranian Love Story gave me so many stories, all folded into one overall tale of a writer trying to write a love story in a place and time where there are so many barriers between them and their reader that one has to wonder if Sara and Dara are every allowed to express their love openly. Readers who love teasing apart layers, puzzling out symbols, and hoping that a writer can find the words to say the impossible.

The Ungrateful Refugee, by Dina Nayeri

Trigger warnings for discussion of rape and suicide.

When she was eight years old, Dina Nayeri’s mother began to be harassed by members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and morality police. It wasn’t long before thing got so bad that she packed up her two children and fled Isfahan. The Ungrateful Refugee is a blend of memoir and nonfiction that recounts Nayeri’s experiences as a young refugee, with additional narratives from other refugees from Iran who looked to Europe and the United States as safe havens only to go through years of brutal hardship and callous bureaucracy. It should come as no surprise that this book is full of righteous anger at the way refugees are treated by the Western world. This is absolutely a book for our times.

As Nayeri relates her experiences as a refugee and, later, naturalized American citizen, she frequently returns to the same ideas. First, there is the fear of being displaced and the shame of having to beg for food, shelter, and safety. Nayeri shows us how humiliating and confusing it is to be a refugee. Many refugees have to navigate not only different languages they may not know well, but also completely different ways of looking at the world. Which leads to the second themes: fundamental misunderstandings and casual cruelty by the bureaucrats who handle requests for asylum. Lastly, Nayeri calls out Western nations who compound the misery of refugees by making things as difficult as possible in a time of growing global instability and rising nationalism.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the plight of refugees will be familiar with the stories told by refugees seeking asylum. They are fleeing not just police harassment, like Nayeri’s mother, but also torture, rape, and death threats. I would have thought that anyone with a heart would immediately open the gates for people who cannot “go back.” Nayeri, however, raises a point that had never occurred to me. One of her contacts, an asylum “fixer” in Amsterdam, talks to Nayeri about how refugees (especially Iranian and Middle Eastern refugees) communicate in very different ways from the Dutch, the British, and the Americans. Where the Westerners want facts, dates, and documents, refugees are often unable to provide these for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are because of trauma. There is ample research on how trauma can affect memory that apparently has not reached the bureaucrats in the asylum offices. Some of these reasons are cultural. Nayeri notes that Iranian culture and language are high-context cultures (though she doesn’t use this terminology). In high-context cultures, there is a lot more subtext, layers of meaning, an indirect communication. Western cultures tend to be the opposite; everything has to be said to be understood. The fixer spends most of his days coaching Iranians in how to talk to Westerners in order to be understood and win their asylum cases. It was heartbreaking and fascinating all at the same time.

Nayeri closes The Ungrateful Refugee with something of a resolution to her own identity struggles. Most of her life, Nayeri had to repeatedly transform herself in order to get along in the vastly different environments in which she found herself. She tried to be a dutiful daughter in Iran. In America, she worked desperately hard to get into an Ivy League college and get the hell out of Oklahoma. As an adult, she sought a way to reconcile all of her selves. At last, in the last chapters, she talks about how she has reclaimed her Iranian heritage…but also became a powerful (and published) voice for refugees.

I hope that many readers pick up and share The Ungrateful Refugee, especially in the United States. We have, as Nayeri and others mention, a society that has “gotten ours” and feels a need to close the metaphorical gates behind ourselves. I agree with Nayeri that we should open the borders. I agree with Achebe, whose essay collection, The Education of a British-Protected Child is quoted by Nayeri: “I do not see that it is necessary for any people to prove to another that they build cathedrals or pyramids before they can be entitled to peace and safety.” And, above all, I hope that the millions of people who are currently seeking refuge can find a safe place to call home at last.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Stationary Shop, by Marjan Kamali

Marjan Kamali’s The Stationary Shop is not a perfect book, but it is one of the most perfectly tragic books I’ve ever read. By the end, I was blinking hard to stop myself from crying at this love story gone awry. This novel spans decades and thousands of miles, from 1953 in Tehran when the protagonists meet to the 1990s in the United States when they finally meet again at last. What we don’t know—and what is revealed slowly over the course of the book—is what happened to interrupt their all-consuming passion for each other.

Roya, when we meet her, has a safe, comfortable life in Massachusetts sometime in the 1990s. She lives with her kind, loving husband and, although she cares for him deeply, we can tell that this is not the life she once hoped for. She might have gone on with her secret sorrow if a chance encounter hadn’t led to an opportunity to meet with Bahman. Bahman was (still is, one could argue) the great love of her life. The opening chapter ends with Roya asking Bahman why he never met her in a Tehran square like he was supposed to, all those years ago. If they had been able to meet, both of their lives would have been completely different.

We are then whisked away to 1953, as growing internal and external pressures threaten to topple the government of Mohammad Mosaddegh. In spite of the turmoil, Roya and Bahman have bright futures. Roya’s father strongly supports her education. Bahman is described as a boy who will change the world. They meet by chance at a stationary store. Roya is there to read poetry. Bahman is there to pick up prohibited political material. It’s not exactly love at first sight, but it is love at first poetry quotation. The two fall deeply in love. Bahman proposes; Roya accepts. The only problem is Bahman’s very, very troubled mother. Mrs. Aslan wants her son to marry a more “suitable” woman, one she has picked out from a higher social class. As Roya learns more about Bahman’s family, she sees how much Mrs. Aslan torments and manipulates her husband and son to get what she wants. She is one of the most unhappy characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. She is also so toxic that I wanted to yell at Bahman and Roya to run away from her.

The two are separated during a coup to depose Mosaddegh. I won’t say more about that because a lot of the plot depends on how the two are pulled apart and how Roya attempts to find a life for herself after her great disappointment. Even though Mrs. Aslan is a malevolent force, Bahman speaks for her. He tells us that, in that time and place, mental illness was deeply stigmatized. If he and his father don’t care for her, what would become of her? His mother is clearly ill and there’s no hope of getting treatment for her. No matter how much she hurts him, Bahman always tries to be compassionate.

In other hands, The Stationary Store would have been a completely different store. I daresay an American author would have found a way to give Roya and Bahman a happy ending, because that’s how we are. Instead, Kamali gives us a very human, genuinely tragic story that forces us to consider questions about sacrifice, forgiveness, and frustrated hopes. There is one part of the book that I found jarring because it was an unnecessary diversion. (I don’t know why we needed a chapter from the perspective of the nurse who bonds with Bahman near the end of the book.) Other than that single flaw, I was moved and stunned by this book. It truly was one of the best tragedies I’ve read in a long time. Readers who feel the need for a cathartic cry should definitely pick up The Stationary Store.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend for readers who are struggling to understand someone struggling with an untreated personality disorder.

Lands of Lost Borders, by Kate Harris

31146782Kate Harris says near the beginning of her book, Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road, by explaining that she believes she was born in the wrong era. After reading her informative and impressive blend of travelogue and history of science and ecology, I agree—but I’m also glad that people with an undaunted desire to go out into the world and bring back their impressions for the rest of us still pop up from time to time. I would never be able to do what Harris and her fried, Mel Yule, did and spend ten months biking (biking!) along parts of the old Silk Road from Istanbul to Leh, in Ladakh. This book gave me the opportunity to tag along, like a Go Pro on their shoulders, on this remarkable journey.

The book opens with a prologue set about five years before Harris and Yule’s epic bike trip. Harris had always wanted to go to Tibet from China which, at the time, was hard to get to. She and Yule sneakily make their way through the checkpoints (mostly under). Once on the other side, Harris marvels at the landscape. She frequently feels an almost mystical connection to the mountains and sky while she pedals away. The trance-like feeling returns when she comes back with Yule from the other direction. For Harris, bicycling is meditative. It eases the restlessness she’s felt since childhood, when she wanted to travel to Mars.

After the prologue, Harris takes us back to her days growing up in Ontario and explains how she ended up on a bike in some of the most desolate places in Asia. It’s partly the fault of Marco Polo and partly Harris’ drive to go places no one else has gone. At first, Harris wanted to go to Mars, until she realized that she loves this planet and its people too much to leave forever if the opportunity arose. She started traveling extensively in college, taking every chance and grant she could to go to the Utah desert, a glacier in Alaska, and dozens of other places. While working on her Master’s at Oxford, Harris starts to study the Siachen Glacier, a contested area claimed by India and Pakistan. The glacier got Harris thinking about how arbitrary borders are and the effects of humans on delicate environments.

Harris breezes quickly through her biography to get to the good stuff: the trip. (The biographical section is very well written, though.) While she talks about the hardships of the road, Harris talks about the history of the Silk Road, flight, pollution, the history of Central Asia, endangered species (plant and animal), space exploration, and much more. I was engrossed by all of it. Most of all, I was profoundly impressed by Harris and Yule’s mental and physical fortitude. They put up with freezing and boiling temperatures, hunger, thirst, and fatigue—as well as doing battle with bureaucracy. But the book zips along so fluidly that I kept forgetting that it took them ten months to do this.

Lands of Lost Borders is one of those rare nonfiction books that I could have happily devoured another couple hundred pages once I finished. (Happily, Harris and Yule created a ten minute video with highlights of their journey that gave me a little more time to ride along on their shoulders.) This book was so full of interesting ideas and events that I would have had a good time. What really made this book for me was Harris’ sense of humor and accessible writing style. She never dwells too long on any one point. She avoids getting preachy, even when it would be very easy to do so. She leaves in just enough of the hard parts to make the book feel real without making us as miserable as she and Yule were on parts of the journey. Best of all, she is great at describing the best parts of the trip: seeing Marco Polo sheep and Caucasian peony, making connections with people when they shared no common language, and following in the footsteps of the brave people who trekked across mountains and deserts over the centuries. I am well away that I’m gushing, but I really enjoyed reading this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 21 August 2018.


Map of the Silk Road network (Image via University of Redlands)

Moon Brow, by Shahriar Mandanipour

35606613The Qur’an has mentions two angels that record a person’s life, the kiraman katibin. One angel, which sits on the right shoulder, writes down all the good a person does, thinks, and feels. The other records all the bad and sits on the left shoulder. In Shahriar Mandanipour’s masterful novel Moon Brow (translated by Khalili Sara), the two angels that sit on Amir Yamini’s shoulders tell us all the good and bad in Amir’s violent, confused, angry, lonely life. The two angels spare no embarrassing detail or tantrum, creating a far from flattering portrait. And yet, seeing all of Amir’s warts means that I ended up feeling enormous sympathy for him.

By the time we meet Amir at the beginning of Moon Brow, he has lost most of his left arm and is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences in the Iran-Iraq War. He’s lost a lot of his memory, even his ability to remember what he’s said from one hour to the next some days. His sister and mother retrieved him from a mental hospital, where he fetched up after running away to join the Iranian Army. The angels take turns explaining how Amir got to this point. They move back and forth through Amir’s life to tell us about his past romantic exploits and life as a privileged young man in the years right before the Iranian Revolution.

The angels also reveal details about the young woman Amir fell in love with while he was away at war. At the beginning of the book, all he can remembers is that she was his true love and that they had exchanged rings. Over and over, Amir pesters his sister, Reyhaneh, about what she remembers about his life before he ran away. Then, once he exhausts her memory, Amir pulls in every favor that he might possibly have been owed to try and find the ring that was lost with his left arm and hand.

All the memories and Amir’s nearly impossible quest to find his lost love reveal a tormented man. His memory problems (both what he remembers and what he doesn’t) and the fact that he is trapped in his father’s house mean that he is angry and frustrated most of the time. He takes it out on everyone and, for much of the book, I found him very unlikable. He never really became likable but, because he was so interesting, this was never a problem for me. Then, once Amir started to try and hunt down the girl he initially calls Moon Brow, I kept reading because I just had to know what happened.

Moon Brow is a masterpiece. Structurally, psychologically, plot-wise, setting-wise—it was all brilliant. I would strongly recommend this to readers looking for in-depth psychological portraits.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 24 April 2018.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who would like to understand post-traumatic stress disorder.

Disoriental, by Négar Djavadi

37487139At the beginning of Disoriental, by Négar Djavadi and translated by Tina Kover, we sit down in the waiting room of a fertility clinic with Kimiâ Sadr. Kimiâ is attempting to realize a lifelong dream of having a child. To pass the time with us, she tells us how she ended up here—a tale that involves going back to the last years of the nineteenth century to explain how the events experienced and decisions made by her parents and grandparents brought her to Paris in the early 2000s.

The saga of the Sadr family is a winding one; a story about one relative leads to another. Kimiâ’s retelling circles around the Iranian Revolution and something called THE EVENT (only fully explained near the end of the book). Along the way, we see Iranian society transformed from its lingering feudalism up through the 1970s and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. The Sadrs are at the heart of these transformations. In the late 1800s in Mazandaran Province, Kimiâ’s great-grandfather was powerful rural lord who ruled with a worryingly distracted iron first. Her grandfather was a wheeler-dealer in Qazvin until his past caught up with him and the family left their ancestral holdings in the north and moved to Tehran. Both of her parents were dissidents under the Shah and Khomeini until they fled to exile in France.


The Trans-Iranian Railway in Mazandaran, Kimiâ’s ancestral homeland. (Image via Wikicommons)

In the same way that Iran is torn between tradition and stubborn progressiveness, so is the Sadr family. It takes a few chapters for Kimiâ to reveal why she lives on the periphery of her tightly knit family, but her homosexuality is as undeniable as modernity is to Iran. One of Kimiâ’s uncles was gay and never allowed to live the way he wanted. He suppressed sexuality so that the family could carry on without being forced to change or face scandal. Later and half a world away, Kimiâ has the opportunity to follow her heart wherever it leads. She struggles against her family, who want her to pretend to be “normal,” but she is much more free than anyone in her family ever was. There is pain and struggle, but Kimiâ doesn’t have to hide herself.

Kimiâ is a wonderful guide not only to a very interesting family but also the recent history of Iran. Her way of circling back around gives us plenty of opportunities to learn why Iran (and Kimiâ) are the way they are. Some readers might find her overly academic. I didn’t at all. Of course, I am an academic myself so my scale is probably off. At any rate, I devoured Disoriental. I loved the way the story moved around and around, the depth of history I was able to explore, and the fascinating relationships between the Sadr family members. This book was a great introduction to a country I don’t think I’ve visited in fiction before.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 17 April 2018.

Eternal Life, by Dara Horn

35667296What is a human life worth? For a mother like Rachel, the protagonist of Dara Horn’s Eternal Life, the life of her son is worth everything she can give. But, in her rush to save her son, Rachel neglects to read the fine print when she gives up her death so that her son will survive a terrible illness. Ever since that day two thousand years ago, Rachel has been wandering the earth raising family after family, wondering if it was really worth it.

The first hints that not all is right with Rachel come when she refers to her very many sons and daughters, more than a woman could ever have in one lifetime. Then there are all the languages she knows and occupations she’s held over the centuries. Above all else, there’s her deep fatigue and questions about what she’s really living for. For Rachel, death would be a chance to rest once and for all.

We meet Rachel as she’s coming to the realization that the time has come for her to do her disappearing act. As far as her children and grandchildren are aware, she’s in her eighties. She looks decades younger though, and the fact that she’s not about to shuffle off her mortal coil any time soon is about to become awkward. In the past, it was easier to start over somewhere else. Now it requires so much documentation to set up a life that it’s almost impossible to help. The only other person with Rachel’s predicament, Elazar, offers to help, but she still hasn’t forgiven him for the time Elazar got her first husband killed.

Eternal Life moves back and forth between the present and Rachel and Elazar’s first life in Jerusalem a few decades before the destruction of the Second Temple. Horn has a gift for bringing that time and place back to life, though that is partially due to Rachel’s vibrance as a character. I honestly wish this book had been longer, because not only does it only touch on Jewish history, but it also asks interesting questions about whether there should be limits to what parents do for their children. Rachel might make the same choice again, but is it worth creating and leaving family after family to save the life of one mortal child? Thankfully, we learn Rachel’s answer in the end…but you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out what it is because I’m not going to give it away here.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 23 January 2018.