November Book Review Club: Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens (YA)

dresscodes.jpg

No one in Otters Holt, Kentucky will forget the youth group lock-in at Community Church because that was the night Billie McCaffrey and her friends experimented with microwaving random items, and unfortunate combination of her friend’s smelly sock and her dad’s World’s Best Minister mug resulted in a fire that severely damaged the youth room. Even before she became the girl who nearly burned down the church, Billie has frequently gotten her youth minister father in trouble with the deacons. She has the reputation of being a troublemaker and she’s a tomboy in a town where traditional femininity is prized.

Otters Holt is the home of Molly the Corn Dolly, which is a forty-foot-tall statue that all tourists take pictures with.  Also, a corn dolly is awarded every year to an outstanding woman in the community. To win a corn dolly is the highest honor in town. Corn Dolly winners are pie bakers, gardeners, caregivers, and pillars of the community. As a tomboy and suspected lesbian, Billie is outside the Otters Holt ideal. A couple years earlier, a group of women and their families even left Community Church because of Billie. Her crime? Wearing athletic clothes and tossing a football around the sanctuary during non-church hours. “Those women threw stones over a football and a girl who girled differently from them,” Billie explains.

Billie’s friends are also misfits in Otters Holt. Of her group, which they call “the Hexagon,” Billie says, “The year I was seventeen, I had five best friends–a pixie, a president, a pretender, a puker, and douchebag–and I was in love with all of them for different reasons.” While one might expect Billie and her friends to dismiss Otters Holt traditions like the Harvest Festival and the corn dolly, they actually love this about the town. On the night they nearly burn down the church, Tyson Vilmer (primary patron of the Harvest Festival and grandfather to Hexagon members, Davey and Mash) passes away, putting the tradition in jeopardy. Throughout the novel, the Hexagon develops a fundraising scheme to save the Harvest Festival.

What I liked best about this book was Billie herself. She’s a fresh and innocent character who sees the best in everyone. She’s Anne Shirley in combat boots. She’s smart and thoughtful about her world, but she’s not cynical. Throughout the book, Billie is seeking to understand gender and sexuality. While she is comfortable as a boyish girl, she is upset when her friends jokingly list her as a boy in a Sadie Hawkins chart they create on a whiteboard. She might hang out with mostly boys, but she doesn’t consider herself to be one of the boys. Her sexuality is more of a gray area for her, and she is curious about both her male and female friends. She resents that the church community demands that she can only love boys, but she also resents that her friends assume she is gay simply because she’s a tomboy and that they try to helpfully nudge her out of the closet, when she just wants to figure out her sexual orientation for herself.

This book could have gone very wrong, but it doesn’t, as it is handled with the perfect sensitivity. Given the subject matter, it could have easily been bitter in tone with the church and community members portrayed as closed-minded bigots. Stevens’ world is bigger than that, with saints and sinners who have many layers. Also, given Billie and her friends’ quest to save the Harvest Festival and the corn dolly ceremony, this book could have been saccharine, but it doesn’t do that either. It’s a feel good book for people who don’t typically like feel good books.

I would recommend Dress Codes for Small Towns for fans of realistic YA and also for anyone who grew up in an evangelical church.

FCC Notice: I read a library copy.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

 

Advertisements

Banned Books Week

BBW

We’re nearing the end of Banned Books Week, and it seems more important than ever this year. With all the division in the country, there is always a discussion about freedom of speech, with the talk currently centering on the freedom to #TakeAKnee. Banned Books Week is nothing if not a celebration of voices and of freedom of speech.  Through books, we learn the world is bigger than ourselves and that differences are good.

This year, I bought each of my stepdaughters a banned book.  The fifteen-year-old received a copy of The Catcher in Rye, which is a book that I haven’t read since I was fifteen.   The thirteen-year-old received a copy of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Then I got all cutesy with the wrapping, proving that I am an almost middle-aged mom and not a rebel. I cut up red and orange tissue paper to look like flames (though I doubt actual book burnings are a common thing) and added some stickers to the gift bags.  Literary themed cards were included with the books.

To all of you, I wish you a happy banned books week with great books and dangerous ideas.

BBW2

 

September Book Review Club: Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

CorkDork

Bianca Bosker was a technology editor with an average knowledge of wine when she first encountered the world of sommeliers. She related to their drive and passion, having an obsessive personality of her own, and she envied how sensory their world was, compared to her own experiences writing about technology. Soon after, Bosker quit her job at the Huffington Post to learn about wine full time, starting humbly as a “cellar rat” in a Manhattan restaurant, then befriending restaurant owners and master sommelier students and gaining entrance to prestigious wine events.

The best way I can describe Cork Dork is to say imagine Hermione Granger was a slightly hipsterish millennial aspiring to be a sommelier and then she wrote a memoir about it.  It’s about a woman developing new passions and seeking new challenges, but it’s also very nerdy and encyclopedic.  When Bosker learns about wine, she does what the sommeliers do and joins tasting groups; creates endless flashcards; develops her sense of smell by sniffing chives and lavender; and gives up salt, coffee, and mouthwash. But she doesn’t stop there because she wants to know everything about wine.  She learns the history of sommeliers, she meets with scientists researching taste and smell, learns how science has engineered wine to be of consistent quality from year to year, and questions whether we can truly know what it is that makes a wine “good.”

While Cork Dork is nerdy, it’s never boring. Bosker’s enthusiasm is contagious and charming.  It was a book that made me want to drink more wine and generally focus more on my senses. It did not make me want to follow in her footsteps and become a sommelier. She correctly portrays the sommelier’s world as disciplined and grueling, and I knew from the earliest chapters that wine would never be more than a hobby for me. I enjoyed reading her journey and I loved the glimpses into the more exclusive corners of the wine world, but I have no desire to give up coffee or drink wine in the morning. For me, that would lessen rather than increase my joy of wine.

I do recommend Cork Dork for wine lovers and foodies or for people who enjoy memoirs.

FCC Notice: I bought my own copy.

 

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Facing Your Demons:  Thoughts on Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

GGYitL

In Gilmore Girls:  A Year in the Life, we find each Gilmore girl is facing her worst fear.

The matriarch, Emily, has lost her husband, Richard.  In a couple episodes in the original series, Richard experiences life-threatening health issues.  These are the only times in the whole series when anything truly shakes Emily.  She’s calculating and controlling, with a vulnerable streak where her family is concerned, but you get the impression that Emily can manage anything, and it is a trait she passes down to her daughter, Lorelei.  But her husband’s health and mortality is the exception.  When we first see Emily, the worst has already occurred, and we get to see what happens next.

I did like that they started the series a few months after the funeral.  To begin in the thick of family grief would have been a bleak starting point for the reunion.  But as it begins, the mourning is still there and strong, but life is beginning to move on for everyone but Emily.  I loved seeing Emily’s transition, and my favorite parts were Emily’s KonMari phase and when she decides to be aggressively honest during a DAR interview of a new member candidate.

Like her mother, Lorelei struggles with loss.  In some ways, she’s already achieved what she wants.  She’s opened a successful inn with her best friend, she’s raised her daughter to be independent, and she has a long term relationship with Luke.  She has what she referred to in the original series as “the whole package.”

In spite of her success, she is lonely.  Her daughter is so busy, they rarely see each other.  Her best friend has left the inn to live in some culinary commune.  She’s alienated her mother shortly after her father’s funeral, and things are not quite right with Luke. She’s also turning into her  mother.  While Lorelei once could not understand her mother’s inability to keep a maid, she now cannot keep a cook at her inn, The Dragonfly. It’s played as a joke, with Lorelei firing the likes of Rachael Ray and other celebrity cooks in each episode. Like Emily’s journey, Lorelei’s had  great deal of emotion. It was raw and depressing at points, but ultimately, Lorelei ends up exactly where she needs to be

Rory, career woman, has lost her direction, and her identity has been wrapped up in her career for years.  As the reunion begins, she has begun an experiment of organized homelessness.  Her constant travel has meant she spends very little time in her Brooklyn apartment, and her sources of income are drying up, so she has spread her belongings among friends and family she often stays with.  She has a story published in The New Yorker, but she has no idea where her underwear is.  Basically, she is always looking for something:  a new job, her lucky outfit, a coveted meeting, her undergarments, etc. Each quest is generally a failure.

Rory’s journey was probably the least interesting of the three women’s. Didn’t we go down this same road in season six, with less homelessness and searching for random pieces of clothing?  I also did not like that Rory was cheating on her current boyfriend with her college boyfriend who was engaged to another woman.  Aside from being soap opera-y, it just made her unlikable. I find Rory of seasons 1-7 to be very charming, but I wouldn’t want to be friends with grown up Rory.  She lost her down-to-earth quality that kept her likable throughout the series, becoming a transient, selfish creature.

A Year in the Life does have the whimsical joy that makes Gilmore Girls what it is.  We get to see a second film by Kirk and a Stars Hollow musical from Taylor.   Also entertaining are Kirk and his pig, Taylor’s random crusades, Kirk at Friday night dinner, anything involving Paris, Emily and Lorelei in therapy, Luke’s fake wi-fi passwords, and Emily’s hiring of a maid whose language no one could understand. Michel was fabulous in every scene, and I think his role might have been even better in than it was in the original series. There are some misses (the decoy Tristan and Rory’s weird and un-Rory-like tap dancing phase), but on the whole, the new season is charming.

Things I missed:  Edward Herrmann as Richard Gilmore was obviously a lack, but nothing could be done for that.  Richard’s dry humor was always the best, and he complemented Emily perfectly.  I missed the crazy Lorelei/Sookie dialogue, and the inn seemed a bit sad without Sookie in the kitchen.  I would have liked more Friday night dinners.

The biggest surprise for me was that I moved from being Team Logan to being Team Jess.  I despised Jess in seasons two and three when he was Rory’s love interest and later her boyfriend.  I was pleasantly surprised to like him in his guest appearances during Rory’s college years when he had matured from the precocious brat he had once been.  In A Year in the Life, Jess definitely seems to be the clear leading man.  Logan, who I had previously loved for his ability to bring carefree joy into Rory’s life, seemed like he hasn’t matured since his college days.  In adulthood, his rich boy entitlement overpowered his good nature, and he became the kind of charming cad that Hugh Grant would have played in a nineties rom-com.  (Well, actually, now that I write it out like that, he and Rory seem to have aged exactly the same.  Maybe they are soulmates.) I was glad that Dean’s part was small, as Rory/Dean is one of those things best not revisited.

This is where the spoilers begin.  If you haven’t watched it yet (but plan to do so), stop here.

Almost everyone online seems to hate the ending.  I loved the ending, except one thing, and my one thing isn’t the thing to which everyone else seems to object.

The Luke and Lorelei night-time wedding is magical, whimsical, and everything worthy of a Gilmore.  It is probably worth watching all four episodes just to see this wedding.  It was perfect, except one detail: Emily wasn’t there.  She should have been there, adjusting flowers or something.

Everyone else is objecting to the final dialogue, which is what Amy Sherman-Palladino intended from the very first episode.

“Mom?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m pregnant.”

I’ve seen all sorts of outrage about how Lorelei didn’t spend seven seasons sacrificing everything for her daughter’s future, only to have Rory end up a single mom like her.  I disagree.  The ending, while not hopeful, is brilliant.  In a sense, it brought the series full-circle, but Rory’s circumstances are much more positive than Lorelei’s had been.

Rory’s pregnancy is not like Lorelei’s.  Lorelei was sixteen, still in high school, and lacked a positive support system.  Rory is in her early thirties, possibly even the same age Lorelei was in the pilot episode, and Ivy-League educated.  She’s traveled the world, had many career successes, and has great relationships with friends and family.  She has benefited from Lorelei’s sacrifices and her child will too. Also, Rory is under no obligation to give birth. From what we see of Rory’s political beliefs throughout the series, it seems likely that she is pro-choice. The ending gives the impression that she will both have and keep her baby, and if she does, it will be because it is her choice to do so.

Motherhood is not the opposite of feminism.  Motherhood will not destroy Rory’s career, but it will transition it, and it was already in a state of transition.  Rory already had everything she wanted as a teen, career-wise, and she burned out.  She spent four episodes behaving like a hamster in its wheel, unable to see any other type of existence than the busy, overworked one she had lived over the last decade.  Parenthood might give her an opportunity to evaluate whether the life she wanted at 22 is the life she wants at 32, or if she and her goals have both evolved.

I love that Rory begins writing a memoir at the end of the series, and it seems like a great career change for her, and one that could complement motherhood. In writing about her life with her mother while she becomes a mother herself, she could actually write a better book than she would otherwise.

Throughout the series, Rory has been the nurturer and the peacekeeper.  In all likelihood, she would make a good mother.  Like Lorelei.

Now, I want a new show when Rory’s kid is sixteen, and Lorelei is the one demanding Friday night dinners.

May Book Review Club:  Exit West by Moshin Hamid

ExitWest

Saeed is the only son of a retired schoolteacher and a semi-retired professor.  Like his parents, he is educated, gentle, and full of faith.  He loves the night sky and dreams of traveling the world. Nadia is a young professional who lives alone in a city that is distrustful of women who live alone.  She is independent, secular, and estranged from her religious family. She wears stern robes as self protection, but the modest robes are contradicted by the motorcycle she rides around the city.

Nadia and Saeed live in an unnamed city in an unnamed country.  They meet and fall in love in a night class just as their city is about to fall to militants.  As the civil war shuts down the city, taking their jobs, their electricity, and their freedom, Saeed and Nadia hear of doors that will take people away.  No one knows where the doors came from, but one day a door to your closet could become a gateway to a beach town or a shop in another country. Once they find people who can lead them to a door for a fee, Nadia and Saeed travel to Greece, then the U.K., eventually ending up in the U.S.

I thought this was a creative story about refugees and emigration. When I bought this book, I didn’t realize there was a magical element to it, that there were doors that could sweep people from one side of the world to another.  It reminded me a bit of the wardrobe to Narnia, only the locations are places in the known world.  Some doors take people to places that are safer than others, but they are all the same in that each place is experiencing a struggle between migrants and natives.  While most of the novel is about Nadia and Saeed, there are short passages woven throughout that introduce people in transition.  Many of these minor characters are door travelers like Nadia and Saeed, and others are simply in conflict with a changing world.

Hamid’s writing style is compelling.  Originally, it struck me as being minimalistic until I realized how long some of the sentences are, forcing me to re-evaluate.  I suppose it would be best described as controlled, with shorter sentences effectively making their point and longer sentences sweeping you away.  Some passages I enjoyed:

“Location, location, location, the realtors say.  Geography is destiny, respond the historians.”

“.  .   so by making the promise he demanded she make she was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

“. . . prayer for him became about being a man, being one of the men, a ritual that connected him to adulthood and to the notion of being a particular sort of man, a gentleman, a gentle man, a man who stood for community and faith and kindness and decency, a man, in other words, like his father.”

I liked Exit West, enjoying the writing style, the characters, and the originality. However, I didn’t love it, as I felt the first half was stronger than the second half.  Still I would recommend this novel, mostly to readers of literary fiction.

FCC Notice:  I bought my own copy.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

In Defense of Escapist Reading

StockSnap_NegativeSpace_EscapistReading Image credit: Negative Space via Stocksnap

“Everything we read should challenge us,” said a perky blond millennial behind me.

I was at Brit Bennett’s Ann Arbor book signing for The Mothers, and I was mentally disagreeing with the woman I had eavesdropped on. Had she said, “We should all read books that challenge us,” I would have been in full agreement, but to say all our reading material should be challenging was annoying to me. It was elitist and sad. A reader who doesn’t know the sheer pleasure of escapist reading doesn’t understand joy.

I’m a huge fan of escapist re-reading. When I have had a difficult day, I like to crack open a book I’ve read a dozen times over and it has to be something that doesn’t challenge me at all. It’s familiar and comforting, like going home or getting a pint of a favorite ice cream flavor. Plus it lacks the negative health effects of eating too much ice cream or drinking too much wine, making it a cheap and effective form of therapy.

Benjamin Franklin is famously (and incorrectly) credited with saying, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” I would argue that one can substitute “books are” for “beer is” in that statement, and it will be equally correct.

Reading can be many things. You can read to be challenged, to learn, to escape, or as an act of resistance. Human beings are faceted creatures. You can be smart, you can be sexy, you can be serious yet not take yourself too seriously, you can be extremely knowledgeable in certain areas and less educated in others, you can be thoughtful in some ways and a bit of a brat in others. You are many things, so your bookshelf should be too.

But, if I’m being totally honest, I’ve been the confident, annoying woman in the bookstore too. I edit my favorite book lists to make myself seem more intellectual, more well-read.

Sometimes, these little dishonesties pop up out of sheer panic over the possibility of being judged. In my senior year of college, I was in one of my lit classes when my professor asked us to go around the room and name our favorite book in childhood. I panicked. There was no way I was going to say, “Anything Sweet Valley Twins. May the Unicorn Club live long and prosper.” Eventually, I settled on a half-truth: Anne of Green Gables, which I loved as a girl and love still as an adult. But I read Anne first in 7th grade, not elementary school, making it more of an adolescent favorite than a childhood favorite.

But the honest answers sometimes get the best responses. Say Sweet Valley (any part of the franchise) or Baby-Sitters’ Club online, and you always get a response. These were literary Sweet Tarts, pastel, sweetly tart, and compellingly artificial.

Now as an adult, my reading tastes are varied. I like literary fiction and classics (as does any English major), but I also like mysteries, gothics, early 2000s chick lit, YA fiction, humorous memoirs, the Harry Potter series, and fluffy love stories. There are echoes of my childhood favorites in my current reading. Sweet Valley and Baby-Sitter’s Club gave me an interest in girl power stories. I enjoy a well-plotted mystery likely because I read so much Nancy Drew in elementary school and Agatha Christie in middle school. I gained a taste for the gothic from my high school preferences for VC Andrews, Anne Rice, and LJ Smith.

Literary choices can be like culinary choices. I’m a person who likes kale salads, and I will eat any vegetable except celeriac; I’m also a person likes cookies made with lots of butter, who doesn’t always heed a reasonable serving size. I don’t have to choose between being a kale person or a cookie person. I’m allowed to find joy in both. Likewise, I can read a book that challenges me and makes me think, and then throw a mystery novel in my weekend bag. Because sometimes you need to escape and sometimes you need uncomplicated joy. Guilty pleasures are a gift, just as enjoying a serious work of art is a gift.

Life is short. Read what you like. Comic books, prize-winning fiction, romance novels, series classics, cozy mysteries, YA, sci-fi, fantasies with intricate worlds, history, science, and current events. If it makes you happy and piques your imagination, it’s yours. I avoid sci-fi and true crime, but if that’s your thing, go for it, and don’t let anyone tell you what type of reader you ought to be. No one will steal your adult card or your feminist card or your library card if your bookshelves do not meet some arbitrary level of seriousness. Roxane Gay writes of her Sweet Valley love in Bad Feminist, and Brit Bennett has written about American Girls dolls and books for The Paris Review, and these are both serious and talented writers. If they can do it, so can you.

Book Review:  The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (YA)

HuG

Starr Carter has two lives.  She lives one with her family in Garden Heights, a mostly black neighborhood where neighbors take care of each other, small locally owned businesses provide hope, and gang violence affects everyone’s lives no matter how hard they try to avoid it.  She lives the other in her mostly white school, Williamson Prep, where she is careful to keep her speech slang-free and never gets emotional because she doesn’t want to be known as “the angry black girl.”  She has friends in each world, but they never mix, and she prefers to keep it that way.

Over spring break, Starr attends a Garden Heights party at the insistence of her friend, Kenya.  She feels out of place, a girl in a hoodie and ponytail surrounded by girls dressed in their sexiest outfits, until she sees her childhood friend Khalil.  Once best friends, Starr and Khalil had not even crossed paths in months, but they catch up quickly.  When gunshots go off at the party, Starr and Khalil leave in a hurry, taking his car home. On the way home, Khalil is pulled over for a broken taillight.  Pulled out of the car by an aggressive cop, Khalil is treated like a criminal, and when he opens the door to ask Starr if she is all right, the cop assumes Khalil is reaching for a gun and shoots him in the back, killing him.

After Khalil’s murder, Starr tries to keep a low profile, not wanting to known as the witness in her community or in her school, and she does not know how to speak about the murder to her own friends in either world. She cooperates with the police in the investigation, but quickly realizes they are not interested in investigating the cop but in investigating Khalil and Starr and finding out if Khalil had a criminal history and if either teen had been drinking that night.  Soon, Starr is no longer able to keep quiet, learning that she can only honor Khalil’s life by becoming his voice.

The Hate U Give (or THUG) is a heavily hyped book right now, and with any book that is receiving an unusual amount of attention, the first question is always, “Is it worth the hype?”  The answer for this is a definite yes. The first 100 pages don’t move as quickly as the rest, but once you are a quarter into the book, it is very difficult to put down. For me, the primary appeal was that I fell in love with the characters.  Not only has Ms. Thomas created well developed main characters, but even the supporting characters are worth rooting for, from Starr’s neighborhood friend, Kenya, to the grumpy barbershop owner, Mr. Lewis.  My favorite character may have been Starr’s father, Maverick, a wonderfully complicated man.

Another thing I appreciated about this book is that it feels universal, or at least national. We are never told exactly where Starr lives, but I think this could take place anywhere in the U.S.  The images in my head were that of my hometown of Saginaw, a heavily segregated Michigan city that is quite similar to Flint or Detroit.  I highly doubt that Ms. Thomas, a Mississippi resident, had Saginaw, Michigan in her mind when she wrote this, but it’s to her credit that you can take this story and move it into your own world and it will feel true.

THUG does not simplify the issue of police violence in black neighborhoods.  Starr’s uncle is a police officer and a colleague of the officer who killed Khalil, and Uncle Carlos is definitely a positive part of Starr’s life.  Also, Khalil has a past.  If he had been presented as 4.0 student who never got into trouble a day in this life, this novel might have been didactic with a simple message. But with Khalil presented as a good person who has not always been on the right side of the law, there are more questions that a reader has to work through.  Questions about the assumptions we make about victims of police violence, wanting to make angels or demons of them, and questions about whether a white teen with the exact same history as Khalil could have ever found himself in the same situation.

I do strongly recommend The Hate U Give, and I am going to pass this onto my stepdaughters because that is what I do with the YA novels that I love.

FCC Notice:  I bought my own copy.

Cat and Dog Join Forces to Ban Easter Bunny from Home

StockSnap_bunnyImage credit: Mike Birdy via Stocksnap

Tim Gunn the two-year-old Siamese mix and Columbo the one-year-old Saint Bernard have joined forces for the first time in their lives. While their owners have hoped the two pets would live in suburban peace together, it was violent intent that brought the two together. For weeks, Columbo’s large heavily jowled head has been seen bent towards Tim’s small silvery head, as they have plotted how to destroy a mutual enemy: the Easter Bunny.

“If he hops his fluffy tail in here, I will eat him,” said Columbo.

“It is a well-documented fact that rabbits are unsanitary,” Tim added. “They don’t have the decency to use a litter box like a cat or the consideration to do their business outdoors like a dog. Also, they have fleas, which they then pass on to well-groomed domestic animals.”

“I bet he tastes like chicken,” Columbo continued.

“And he not only imports fleas, but brings in unhealthy foods that have been scientifically proven to cause both obesity and cavities in humans. Any cat can tell you that a fat, cavity-ridden human cannot fill a feline’s food bowl as quickly as a healthy human can,” the cat concluded.

Their research has consisted of watching Home Alone on repeat and analyzing which booby traps seem most reproducible. They have managed to collect materials for five booby traps thus far.

If booby traps fail, the cat has a second plan. Tim Gunn has been spotted pulling out Mastering the Art of French Cooking and leaving it open to rabbit recipes. It seems he would most like to see the Easter Bunny in a pâté.

The Easter Bunny was not available for comment.

April Book Review Club:  Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (memoir)

RLiT

I have been thinking a lot about reading these days: reading as escape, reading for information, reading as an act of resistance. It’s my interest in reading as resistance that led me to this book. I have picked this book up in bookstores at least a dozen times over the last decade, only to put it back down.  Which I am now grateful that I did because I needed to read this book –and read it as a first time reader– right now.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is the story of Professor Azar Nafisi’s book club, where she invited seven of her female former university students to join a weekly reading group at her house where they would discuss forbidden works of Western literature.  There are four sections to this memoir:  Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen.  Lolita and Austen serve as bookends and tell the story of the book club, while the Gatsby and James sections go into Nafisi’s academic career and how her students responded to Western literature in different political climates. Reading Lolita in Tehran praises how literature teaches empathy, which the author would likely say has more value than any moral lessons embedded in the text, and emphasizes the importance of imagination.

In addition to being about literature and personal liberty, Reading Lolita in Tehran is about the lives of women and about female friendships.  The young women in the class range in age from the late teens to early thirties. Some are liberal, while others are more religious and traditional.  Some have had multiple marriages while others have never had a boyfriend.  Some of them have been imprisoned.  All of them are well-educated, and each is independent in her own way.  They are alike in their love of literature and in that all of them are restricted by the laws and culture of Iran.

As I read this, I kept thinking of current events.  On some level, this is not quite fair to what the people of Iran went through in the eighties and nineties.  Nafisi had friends and family who were executed during this time, and she kept a nightly vigil outside her small children’s bedrooms while bombs fell on Tehran.  Nafisi had to make choices between her career and her personal liberty.  Meanwhile I am irritated by the people who are currently in power and concerned about what will happen to the rights of women and minorities over the next few years.  So I am not suggesting the two situations are the same, especially on the level of severity, but I think lessons can be learned from Iran in how political climates can change so dramatically and how everyday people both contribute to this and are victimized by it.

I hope that in ten years time, I will look back at my current blog posts lamenting certain current events and find my posts to be melodramatic and ridiculous.  I hope the current national environment is nothing more than a normal step backyard that will soon be remedied by moving two steps forward.  I hope the checks and balances are more effective than I think and the American people less apathetic.  But it may not be.  Reading Lolita in Tehran does show that progressive changes can be reversed.  Nafisi writes of being young in a progressive environment, only to have her daughter be born into an environment where women’s rights had moved back to what they had been in her grandmother’s youth when girls could be brides at age nine and courts ruled in favor of domestic abusers.

It could have been a depressing book, but it is not.  It is a celebration of life, love, friendship, and literature.  This book left me grateful to be a reader and grateful to Professor Nafisi for sharing her stories and her life with us readers.  I wanted to be part of her book club, eating oranges and pastries and drinking tea out of beautiful glassware, while talking about literature and life with these women.  And I am left with an urge to read and/or re-read the books mentioned in this memoir, looking at them with a new perspective.

FCC Notice:  I read a library copy.

Click icon for more
book review blogs
@Barrie Summy

Dog Learns It is Bad Manners To Film Action Movie in Dog-Sitter’s House*

Chound

When Columbo’s dog-sitter got home from a routine shopping trip at Target, she thought her house had been robbed.  A sofa was flipped over, and a large puddle in the hallways indicated that one or both dogs had an accident.  In the next ten minutes, she checked locks on all windows or doors and opened all closets to search for intruders before concluding that no burglary had taken place.

One Hour Earlier:

Columbo, the one-year-old Saint Bernard, was convinced he was the canine Chuck Norris and his big break in “the biz” was just around the corner.

“I was telling Lilley,” he said, referring to the dog at whose home he was staying at, “a dog just can’t wait for the right opportunity. He has to make his opportunity.  Which is why I thought of a YouTube channel.”

Lille y knew exactly where to find a videocamera in the home, so as soon as her owner went to the store, they set up the camera and began filming.

“Our story was to be told in several installments.  It’s about a dog –that would be me– with superpowers.  He’s just an ordinary dog, you see, until the makes the discovery that humans hide all the foods that would allow dogs to access their superpowers.  You know, the chocolate, the grapes, the onions, the stuff they claim is ‘poisonous,’ so we won’t become more powerful than them.”

When asked if his story was inspired by the Garden of Eden, he denied any connection, claiming he was inspired by age-old dog mythology.

The two dogs were taping their most action-packed scene –where Super Columbo realizes he has powers and zooms around the house– when they heard the sound of the car in the driveway, just as the sofa tipped over after Columbo enthusiastically launched off the sofa back.

“It wasn’t supposed to end like this.  We were supposed to wrap up filming and clean up any messes that had been created on the set.”

After Discovery:

When video camera was confiscated and the house put back in order, the dogs were put in the backyard, each of them insisting the other was guilty of creating the puddle in the hallway.

“I am not sorry we had big dreams and began filming.  I suppose it was a poor choice to do so in someone else’s home, without written consent.  In retrospect, I should have convinced my owners’ children to film and direct the film instead.”

*Sadly based off of true events.