Review: The Blood of Flowers

Thursday, April 19, 2012

In Iranian-American Amirrezvani's lushly orchestrated debut, a comet signals misfortune to the remote 17th-century Persian village where the nameless narrator lives modestly but happily with her parents, both of whom expect to see the 14-year-old married within the year. Her fascination with rug making is a pastime they indulge only for the interim, but her father's untimely death prompts the girl to travel with her mother to the city of Isfahan, where the two live as servants in the opulent home of an uncle—a wealthy rug maker to the Shah. The only marriage proposal now in the offing is a three-month renewable contract with the son of a horse trader. Teetering on poverty and shame, the girl weaves fantasies for her temporary husband's pleasure and exchanges tales with her beleaguered mother until, having mastered the art of making and selling carpets under her uncle's tutelage, she undertakes to free her mother and herself. (from Publisher's Weekly)

I picked this one up on vacation, spurred on by positive reviews on other historical fiction blogs and my own eagerness to learn a bit more about Persian culture and history. I spend a lot of my working life reading about the Muslim World (in particular, Afghanistan) and was hoping this would illuminate my understanding of a time and place in Middle Eastern history. 

The novel partly succeeded for me on that front. I very much wish I had read the rug-making parts of this novel prior to traveling in Turkey and Tunisia last year - I gained a vastly deepened respect for the art of rug-making and suspect that I would have come back to the U.S. with a couple of samples if I had read this book before! Amirrezvani brilliantly brings to life the craft of rug-making, the passion an apprentice feels for color and design and the skill it takes to become a true master. 

I was less impressed by the author's skill in bringing the central character/narrator - an impoverished girl who travels to the city and learns rug-making with her uncle - to life. She never felt like a truly real person to me and - at times - could be quite annoying with her willfullness. I felt a bit betrayed by the opening chapter in which the girl (at some undetermined point in the future) looks back upon her life. I got the sense that the book would cover a much wider swath of time and follow all the twists and turns in the narrator's personal growth. Amirrezvani leaves the reader hanging at the first interesting turn in events. 

Instead, we're burdened with a tale of signeh. I was already familiar with the custom - common in Shi'ite Iran - of men and women contracting temporary marriages. Perhaps readers who are not familiar with the custom will find this element of the book interesting but I was bored by the predictable plot line. The narrator at first fears her husband, then grows confident and excited by their physical attraction before realizing that she is being used. The book settles into a dulling rhythm - the narrator hooks a rug, the narrator visits her husband for a passionate encounter, then she goes back to hooking rugs. It makes for quite possibly the dullest middle third of any book I've read in quite some time. 

Eventually, the narrator's circumstances change and the book picks up some speed. The proceedings turn out to have a very modern sensibility, with the narrator finding her own voice Oprah-style. Just when the next stage in her development begins (and this is where I would be really interested to read on), the book stops. Each of the chapters ends with some sort of action that leads to the telling of the story. I found these stories interesting but suspect the author ultimately felt the need to pad a weak plot with greater meaning and depth through the telling of traditional Persian tales. 

This novel has some of the most positive reviews I've seen for a book on Amazon so it may work for others who are interested in learning more about the customs of 17th century Iran wrapped around a story of female empowerment. I don't regret reading this book but I certainly wish it had lived up to its considerable potential. 

Review: The Lifeboat

Friday, April 13, 2012

Grace Winter, 22, is both a newlywed and a widow. She is also on trial for her life.

In the summer of 1914, the elegant ocean liner carrying her and her husband Henry across the Atlantic suffers a mysterious explosion. Setting aside his own safety, Henry secures Grace a place in a lifeboat, which the survivors quickly realize is over capacity. For any to live, some must die.

As the castaways battle the elements, and each other, Grace recollects the unorthodox way she and Henry met, and the new life of privilege she thought she'd found. Will she pay any price to keep it?

The Lifeboat is a page-turning novel of hard choices and survival, narrated by a woman as unforgettable and complex as the events she describes. (Description from Amazon). 

This seems an appropriate book to post on the (almost) 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, even though the lifeboat in question is from a different (fictional) maritime tragedy two years later. 

The concept is really that simple: Grace Winter writes an account of her three-week ordeal surviving in a lifeboat with (roughly) thirty other passengers after they survive the sinking of the Titanic-esque Empress Alexandra. I hesitated before posting this review, not wanting to mislead readers into thinking that this was a typical historical novel or would in way detail life on the ship. In many ways, this novel could take place in any time as it deals with questions of humanity and what it takes to survive. Running throughout the book is the theme of women's abilities to lead and their dependence on men. In this sense, the story is very firmly rooted in a time when women were expected to marry and have children and depend upon their husbands for a public identity. Grace's experiences on the lifeboat cause her to question some of society's underlying assumptions but in a way that's accurate to the time and place she lives in. 

I downloaded the first chapter on my Kindle and was immediately drawn in by the strength of the narrator's voice. Rogan maintains that voice throughout the book, avoiding what could be a repetitive recounting of day after soul-crushing day in the lifeboat. I very much appreciated her ability to bring the ocean to life - it's almost another character in the novel and pervades the story with a delicious atmosphere of dark beauty and foreboding. 

Even though I sped through this book in about two days, I am so glad I took the chance and ordered it from Amazon almost full price (this is something I rarely do). I know I'll carry Grace's unique voice with me for a long time. 

Review: Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage takes us behind the paneled doors of the Titanic’s elegant private suites to present compelling, memorable portraits of her most notable passengers.  The intimate atmosphere onboard history’s most famous ship is recreated as never before.

   The Titanic has often been called “an exquisite microcosm of the Edwardian era,” but until now, her story has not been presented as such. In Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, historian Hugh Brewster seamlessly interweaves personal narratives of the lost liner’s most fascinating people with a haunting account of the fateful maiden crossing. Employing scrupulous research and featuring 100 rarely-seen photographs, he accurately depicts the ship’s brief life and tragic denouement, presenting the very latest thinking on everything from when and how the lifeboats were loaded to the last tune played by the orchestra. Yet here too is a convincing evocation of the table talk at the famous Widener dinner party held in the Ritz Restaurant on the last night. And here we also experience the rustle of elegant undergarments as first-class ladies proceed down the grand staircase in their soigné evening gowns, some of them designed by Lady Duff Gordon, the celebrated couterière, who was also on board (from Amazon). 

It's hard for me to believe that only a hundred years have passed since the sinking of the Titanic - in many ways it seems as though a more considerable span of time has passed since the world of Atlantic crossings, dinner horns and ball gowns. 

I appreciated the author's attempt to focus on one social level traveling aboard the Titanic but he seemed to have little idea of what to do with the story beyond the initial concept. I picked up Lives hoping to learn reams of details about Edwardian food, fashion, parties and travel. I hoped to sink into a book that would make me feel like a privileged passenger on the Titanic. 

Unfortunately, I finished the book without any new understanding of what upper-class passengers talked about on their journeys, the etiquette and dress involved. It all proceeded as most Titanic stories do - take a range of characters, give short intros to their lives before the disaster and then keep their stories running as the clock ticks down to the inevitable sinking. I felt that Brewster missed a golden opportunity to examine the last moments of a legendary means of travel and a time that was about to disappear with the first guns firing in World War One. 

I was particularly confused by his odd digressions speculating on passengers' sexual orientation. I think Brewster was trying to make the point about how much moral values have changed in the time since the sinking but that point ultimately had little to do with the sinking or Edwardian society and ended up diluting the power and interest of the book's main focus. 

While I enjoyed this quick read, I remain unsure of who would be interested in reading Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage. The dedicated Titanic fan will already be familiar with the scandal of John Jacob Astor's marriage, the devotion of the Strauss couple and the dignity of Captain Smith. Downton Abbey types looking for glamour and scandal will not find much to chew on here and very little detail. 

There are a limited number of people and angles you take on the Titanic tragedy and - given the depth of media coverage - any author would be hard-pressed to come up with something new. I respect the fact that Brewster was already working from a disadvantage but this book could have been so much more. If you're interested, the author's fluid writing style makes this the kind of book you can pick up one day, devote minimal amounts of time and attention and have it easily finished a few days later.