Friday, July 22, 2011

Mini Reviews: Drown, Douglass' Women, Rooftops of Tehran

Drown by Junot Diaz 1996
Riverhead Books/Penguin

IQ "We sat and drank and finally talked, two strangers reliving an event-a whirlwind, a comet, a war-we'd both seen but from different faraway angles." pgs. 206-207 [referring to Yunior meeting his father's mistress]

The author's debut, a collection of ten short stories concerning Yunior, his brother Rafa and his family. The story takes place in the campo and barrios of the Dominican Republic and the city communities of New Jersey.

I love The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (the author's second book), I don't love Drown, I'm just in like, tentative like. I did not like the confusing narration, at first I couldn't figure out that the story was being told by the same guy, Yunior because he's not always referred to by name. Since the story takes place in both the D.R. and New Jersey and there's no sense of time, it's also difficult to figure out how old Yunior is. There is no clear continuity so I was left wondering about what happened to the rest of Yunior's messed up (aren't they all?) family. In fact, I can't even say for sure if it was all about Yunior, maybe it wasn't but I'm going to continue thinking it was until someone helpfully explains otherwise. Yunior's father is a jerk, he abandons his family in the D.R. to head to America and then remarries. But hold your judgement because by the end of the book, I understood this lost father a little bit better. Still don't like him, but I understand him, sorta.

The stories in Drown are gritty, genuine and riveting. The entire cast of characters is hardened beyond their years both cynical and aching for the American Dream as well as to be loved. The irony is that they all push love away and some of them throw away the opportunities America offers them. But it's not entirely their fault, as usual there is a distinctive gray area concerning the perils of following the American Dream and the gifts that America can give. These stories are confusing and sometimes the characters are perplexing but they are memorable. I liked the author's confined prose, it is both frustrating and delightful, he manages to create such realistic scenes and characters in so few words that it's stunning. He has a unique way of describing people and things such as "Outside, Mami said, her voice a murder about to happen" (pg. 79). I practically started quaking when I read that line. I could hear the cadence of voices, not just the Spanish accents but also the accents of those from Santo Domingo and those who live in the city, the pain, toughness and vulnerability rings clearly. And I love that he doesn't translate his Spanish or even highlight the words so you know it's Spanish, it's just there y no es un problema.

Disclosure: From the library

Douglass' Women by Jewell Parker Rhodes 2002
Washington Square Press/Simon & Schuster

IQ "Not seeing my color was the same as seeing it." Ottilie pg. 194

Frederick Douglass was a brilliant man, an extraordinary orator and abolitionist, he was most ordinary however when it came to love and passion. He married Anna Murray Douglass, a free Black woman who helped him escape from slavery. He had an affair with Ottilie Assing, a German woman (who was half-Jewish), she helped keep him organized as he spoke across America and later Europe. Anna and Freddy had five children. Ottilie and Douglass had none. This is the story of two very different woman and their love for the same man.

The author states that her goal is not to diminish Frederick Douglass with this book, only to show that he was human. She succeeds in doing just that, but I admit I lost some respect for him as a person based on how he treated both women (but especially Anna) and his children. Anna and Ottilie are so different. Anna keeps the family whole, she cleans the house, feeds the children and makes sure Frederick (or Freddy as she calls him although he doesn't always like it) feels comfortable. She is very religious and would have been content if Frederick had simply become a Preacher. Anna has no real desire to learn to read and write, she only agrees to lessons so that Freddy will stop badgering her about her inability to read but Anna ends up never becoming literate. That is part of the reason Frederick turns to Ottilie who is more of his equal intellectually. With Ottilie, Douglass (Ottilie called him Herr Douglass for awhile and then affectionately just called him Douglass) could discuss politics, literature, art, philosophy, anything that came to mind. I had a hard time understanding why Anna wouldn't want to learn to read and write but I closed this book with a better understanding of why she was happy with who she was and I admired her for her spirit. Ottilie was young, slender, blonde. Anna was older than Frederick, curvy, black. Frederick insulted Anna by having an affair with another woman but he added insult to injury by giving Ottilie a room in his home, but Anna had her own way of asserting her quiet dominance over her home. Douglass was never physical (well one time but that was the only time noted in the book) but he was self-centered and a snob (it is fascinating how once Black people reached the upper class they forgot their roots, even our great abolitionists. Mr. Douglass fought avidly to free all slaves but he did not want his children marrying former slaves). Anna's view of love made me sad "I'd let him go 'cause it was best, Best for him. Worse for me. Ain't that love?" (pg. 38), to me that is love sometimes but not ALL the time. Plus it should be mutual, Frederick never did what was worst for him but better for Anna.

In Douglass' Women the author does a skillful job of showing not just the physical differences between Anna and Ottilie but their different views on home, Douglass/Freddy and love. Neither woman is judged by the author, both their stories are presented in a neutral tone, and both women have somewhat just claims on Frederick, who is both oblivious and blithely ignorant to all the pain he has caused. I like how the women never became friends, because while it is based on two very real people the author could have tried to make the story happier, instead she makes them grudgingly accepting of one another which is more authentic. The alternating points of view works well for this novel, but I do wish a timeline had been kept. I like being able to think about what other events were occurring around the world during the time this story took place (although any event pertaining to slavery was carefully noted through dialogue). I now want to know Frederick Douglass' side of the story (and to learn more about his eldest daughter, Rosetta Douglass, she seems like an exceptional woman). More than anything else this book taught me, it emphasized that love really makes no sense because although Douglass was a less than ideal family man and lover, Anna and Ottilie still loved and admired his noble bearing, his courage, and his intelligence. The funny thing is, I still do too. But they both should have left him and started a new life.

Disclosure: Received to giveaway as a prize for the POC Reading Challenge. Thank you so much Ms. Rhodes!

Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji 2009

New American Library/Penguin Group

IQ "Has anyone ever told you that you have That?' I [Pasha] must look thoroughly confused. 'You've never heard of That?' he asks, surprised.
I shake my head no.
'It's a priceless quality that's impossible to define, really,' he explains, 'but you recognize it in the actions of great people.'" Doctor pg. 29

It's the summer of 1973 and Pasha is seventeen years old, spending most of his time chatting on his rooftop with his best friend, Ahmed. Pasha and Ahmed's conversations range from reflective to hysterical, discussing life, love and cruel teachers. Gradually love begins to be the main focus of their conversations. Ahmed has fallen in love with Faheemeh, who is engaged to another man. Pasha is secretly in love with Zari, engaged to Pasha's dear friend, Doctor. Zari is Pasha's neighbor and has been engaged to Doctor since birth. Zari and Pasha slowly become friends since Doctor is away so often and that doesn't make it any easier for Pasha to stop loving Zari. Summer flies by and wonderful memories are created until one night, the shah's SAVAK (secret police) appear to arrest a loved one and Pasha unknowingly helps them make the arrest. Pasha, Ahmed, Zari and Faheemeh are rudely awakened to life under a dictator who cares little about crushing his people's rights and Zari makes a shocking choice that may have broken Pasha forever.

I couldn't decide at first if this book was YA or adult, but I ended up classifying it as adult since the imprint the book was published under isn't YA. Plus Pasha seemed more like a vehicle for the author to use in order to express his views. Pasha seemed more mature than the average seventeen-year old guy, but maybe American male teenagers are just less mature than male teenagers in other countries? Obviously there are exceptions to that rule but I had a hard time believing Pasha was a teenager in high school. Especially when he's using extremely eloquent, flowery language such as "life was a random series of beautifully composed vignettes, loosely tied together by a string of characters and time." (pg. 4) I didn't like the Doctor storyline. I admire Doctor but I never got the feeling that Zari really loved him thus her devastating choice was harder to understand. The ending was satisfactory, there are some loose ends but such is life and there is supposedly a sequel being written which I would definitely read. Zari's choice is probably one of the best climaxes in a book I've ever read, it was unexpected and horrific. I honestly don't think any Westerner unfamiliar with the Middle East could see it coming. The book opens with Pasha in a mental hospital in 1974 and I flew through the book in an effort to discover why he was there. The most depressing part of the whole book is knowing that the Shah remains in power until 1979, Pasha and his friends must endure about five more years of his harsh rule. Granted, the Shah tried to do some good things (modernizing Iran) but his awful record on human rights makes his efforts inexcusable.

This book provides a through view of life in one middle-class neighborhood in Tehran. Pasha is a voracious reader and it's both amusing and bemusing to read some of things he and his friends think about the U.S. His observations allow readers to compare the daily life of Iranians to daily life here, and things we take for granted, not just with amenities and freedoms but things like falling in love. "I read somewhere that people in the West, like in the U.S. and Europe, date for a long time before falling in love,' I say, restless with anxiety. [...]'But here in Iran, we look at someone, and we fall in love. All the girl has to do is smile, and we're swept off our feet. No dating, no getting to know each other, no real opportunity to get acquainted, do you know what I mean?'" (pgs.56-57) More than anything, the point is really reinforced that Iranians will bitter for quite some time at the U.S. for being STUPID enough to reinstate the Shah. Personally, I think it's one of our worst foreign policy blunders. In addition to the cultural tidbits, the book has the BEST best friend I've ever come across. I want an Ahmed in my life. He's gallant, rebellious tender and absolutely hilarious. I offer you a teaser "You're a good dancer', Faheemeh compliments him. [Ahmed]

'I had dance lessons from Tennessee Williams himself.'

'Tennessee Williams was not a dancer,' I [Pasha] argue.

'I tried to tell Tennessee that, but he wouldn't hear of it'" Ahmed (pg. 67). I giggled at that line and any other time Ahmed opened his mouth. He's the type of friend that tries to make Pasha laugh through his tears and he avoids uncomfortable topics because he knows that he's basically the glue that keeps everyone together. If Ahmed cried, they would all be done. And there's lots of tears, Iranians mourn for a long time and in an elaborate, open, manner. They wail, tear at their clothes, etc. The author brings this vividly to life along with other elements of Iranian culture but at the heart of this novel is the painful, but oh-so-worth-it aspect of first love. I would recommend this to those who've fallen in love, are transfixed by the Middle East/Iran or just looking for a historical fiction romantic tragedy. But honestly, I'd recommend it to everyone, especially since we need to recognize and respect those who have That.

Disclosure: From the library