31 May 2014

Sometime last year, Audible.com had a sale and The Blood of Flowers was included. I nonchalantly read through the synopsis, and was pulled in by the story of a young girl in seventeenth century Persia, but I was immediately hooked once I listened to the audio sample. Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo is one of those actresses I've always liked but never knew her name, yet it's her voice that is so memorable. I didn't even need to search online to know that the narrator was the actress in House of Sand and Fog, Fox's series 24, and most recently on the NBC series, Grimm. Click here to listen; isn't her voice beautiful and captivating?

Combined with Aghdashloo's voice, Amirrezvani's mesmerizing tale of seventeenth century Persia comes to life even more. Although it was a time that wasn't easy for anyone, much less for women, our fourteen-year-old protagonist is certain her world will be full and happy, consisting of marriage and many children. But when her father unexpectedly dies, life forces a different turn. Soon, she is traveling with her mother to Isfahan to work with her uncle, a rug maker. Her own artistic talents as a designer help her to excel in a world in which men lead the way, but it's when a secret marriage secures her current financial situation that she and her mother finally feel safe. The crumbling turn it takes is unexpected and derails her from the comfortable life she had created, but it might just be the choice that sets her completely free.

I loved this story. Rather, I'll call it an experience, particularly as it was the audiobook. The richness of the characters and the details alone make it worthy of a recommendation but with Aghdashloo beautifully relaying the intricacies of the story, from the artistry of rug-making, the secret marriage, intense love scenes, and staggering betrayals of friends and family, made it even more at the top of the list of best audiobooks to listen to. Rounding out the tale itself are seven fables embedded into the story, told by the protagonist's mother. Each of them come from traditional sources, particularly thirteenth-century poets and adds another layer of cultural fullness to the story.

Keeping the protagonist  unnamed may be unsettling for some, but in this case, it makes perfect sense. The author points out at the end that when you admire the artwork on a carpet, the designer is anonymous. Never do you see a signature and so the artist is never named, their legacy somewhat lost. Allowing the main character to remain unnamed keeps with the spirit of anonymity. And although some may not like a more mature voice speaking the words of a young girl, I did not find it disconcerting in the least. Again, Aghdashloo's voice is magical enough, lending even more authenticity to the story.

I loved everything about the story of a young girl in her early life of unexpected friendships, marriage, love, loss, and betrayal. Amirrezvani is a new-to-me author and I'll eagerly add her work to my bookshelves.

Passages of Note:
Of all the tales she had ever created, I was the one written in the ink of her soul.
FTC Disclosure: I purchased and downloaded this from Audible.com.

Publisher: Hachette Audio
Release Date: 05/24/07
Audio Time: 13 hours, 22 minutes
Narrator: Shohreh Aghdashloo

About the Author
Anita Amirrezvani was born in Tehran, Iran and spent time in San Francisco and Iran as she grew up. She is the author  of The Blood of Flowers and Equal of the Sun.

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About the Narrator
Shohreh Aghdashloo is a seasoned actor and an Iranian-American with an extensive background in film and theater. Before the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Aghdashloo gained fame in Iran for films including The Report, which won several critics' awards from the Moscow Film Festival in 1977. After the Iranian Revolution, Aghdashloo moved to England and obtained a B.A. in International Relations. She then became an American citizen and continued to pursue her acting career, earning an Academy Award nomination for her scene-stealing performance in House of Sand and Fog, also starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly.

28 May 2014

Sad news today of Dr. Maya Angelou's passing. I shared the below on my Coffee and a Book Chick Facebook page, but thought it more appropriate to dedicate a post to her here as she made such an impression on me when I met her twenty-some years ago. I wish I had a picture to commemorate it, but I was so nervous, so the above is a picture I found at the University of Delaware site. So my quick story here is more from my memory, my own personal moment I will keep for the rest of my life.

Back in my college days at the University of Maryland, I had the lucky chance to introduce Dr. Maya Angelou to over 1000 attendees who came to hear her speak. This was shortly after the President selected her as the Poet Laureate. I was told she wanted to meet the person introducing her before the event was to begin, and I remember so many things. First, that when she opened the door after I timidly knocked, how unbelievably tall she was. Second, to notice how her clipped and eloquent voice was so smooth as she politely asked how long my introduction was. (Apparently, at a prior event, the person introducing her had several pages to read and she was not happy). I, with shaking hands, showed her my short paragraph and I was so relieved when she nodded her approval as she placed her hand on my arm. She thanked me, I thanked her, I shook her hand, and then I walked down the hall to an immense event room filled with people and press. Somehow I was able to get on the stage and welcome her to the University of Maryland and I kid you not, it was one of the most amazing moments of my life that I'll never forget. Rest easy, Dr. Angelou. You have left a resounding legacy. I was lucky to have just a few moments of your time.

08 May 2014

Oleander Girl, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni


Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni may be a new-to-me author, but her established background gave me pause and I started to wonder how I could have missed a person whose writing resume includes everything from multiple acclaimed novels to four volumes of poetry, along with an award-winning novel for young readers. I have clearly missed out and not only did I love this book, but it certainly has inspired me to read more Asian authors, those who might not be immediately known in America, but should be. I obviously may have been under a reading rock for much too long. Oleander Girl truly is a coming-of-age tale that embodies everything that a Gothic story should have, filled with family secrets, betrayals, and crumbling mansions. Dually set in India and America, Oleander Girl is a beautiful story of secrets and lies, hope and despair, friends and enemies, but most importantly, love.

At seventeen-years-old, Korobi has spent her life in Kolkata, India, in an old and beautiful mansion and grounds that also includes an historic temple. Raised by a loving grandmother and a strict and traditional grandfather, Korobi longs to hear stories of her parents who passed away, her father first and then her mother during childbirth. All Korobi has, though, is an unfinished love letter written by her mother to her father. What she wouldn't give to know more, but her grandparents are silent, unable to bear the pain of the memories.

It's only when Korobi has a vision of her mother the night before her engagement party to the charismatic Rajat Bose, that she knows there is more to uncover about her family's past. When her grandfather unexpectedly dies that night, he reveals part of a secret Korobi never believed possible, and she must bravely travel out of the only life she's ever known into post-9/11 America to find the rest of the answers, both about her parents and her family, but most importantly, about herself.

The story is very much a coming-of-age tale, but there is so much more to it than just Korobi's search for family truths. Not only are we viewing America through the eyes of a young Indian woman after 9/11, but there is integral detail on race and class distinctions, both in India and America. The character of Asif, the Muslim chauffeur of Rajat's Hindu family who viewed Rajat's young sister as though she were his own blood, was fascinating, another example of the beautiful and complicated mosaic of life in India. I am extremely embarrassed that I haven't yet read more from this part of the world, and would proclaim myself a reader that still has much to learn.

Without a doubt, this will make my list of Best Books I've Read in 2014. Divakaruni's writing is beautiful and engaging, and there is a lilting Gothic feel to the story, reminiscent of marshes and cold shorelines, mysteries embedded within mysteries. The only difference between Du Maurier's Gothic landscapes is that in Divakaruni's world, it's an Indian setting, simultaneously beautiful and peaceful, and also tumbled with strict tradition and chaos, but culturally rich and diverse. The complexities of blending these very different worlds within India successfully is a work of true art and an exciting exploration for this American reader. Divakaruni is a writer many may not be familiar with, but I can assure you that you won't be let down. I'll soon be diving into more of her work soon.

Passages of Note:
They were his people, they understood the challenge of languishing in the shadow of titans. (p.111)
In the city of one's birth, one can never be a tourist. (p.136)
On the scales of joy, could even the best husband equal the weight of everyone you'd loved as far back as you could remember. (p.243)
About the Author
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the author of the acclaimed novels The Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, The Vine of Desire, The Palace of Illusions, and One Amazing Thing; two short story collections, Arranged Marriage and The Unknown Errors of Our Lives; four volumes of poetry; and an award-winning novel for young readers, The Conch Bearer. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times. The winner of an American Book Award, she teaches writing at the University of Houston.

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