On Tuesday, April 17, at 6 PM (Eastern time, so plan accordingly), Libby Fischer Hellmann will be talking about A Bitter Veil, the state of publishing, and anything else that's on your mind during a 45-minute video chat online! This is a brand-new service that allows up to 500 people to interact together. And it is so easy to use that even her 92-year-old mother will be there. All you do is go to this website (http://shindig.com/event/32-Libby-Fischer-Hellmann). That's it! You'll be able to ask questions, watch a slide presentation (don't worry—it's short) and even chat among yourselves. If you want to know more about how this online video chat works, you can visit the host's site here: Shindig. So please kick back, move embarrassing items out of the range of your computer's video camera, and join her online. You can RSVP here to get a same day reminder:
Okay, let's dig into the book. It opens with a bang, literally! Middle-of-the-night banging on the Samedi couple's front door. Nouri isn't home. Anna, a young American woman married to Nouri, an Iranian, slips on her chador and slides her feet into slippers to hide her painted toenails before answering. Several Revolutionary Guard members tell her Nouri has been killed. One of them grabs a steak knife from the kitchen, announces the murder weapon matches it, and accuses Anna of Nouri's murder. Then, the action moves to Chicago three years earlier to witness Nouri and Anna's first meeting over books of Persian poetry in the University of Chicago's bookstore. It seems centuries between the married Anna of the opening in Iran and the student Anna in Chicago.
Judith: The opening grabs the reader. It works so well partly because the pieces don't add up––the chador and the baby-doll jammies, the painted toes needing to be hidden by the slippers. Libby puts the central conflict of the novel into that opening scene in microcosm and raises so many questions and alarms with the reader.
Kathy: I thought the opening of the book was riveting. I heard the pounding on the door and it was as if my own door was being assaulted. So much happened afterward, that when that scene came up again, the story was brought back full circle. I really appreciated the opening scene later, in the context of the story, and understood it even more.
Georgette: Reading this book is a bit like watching the movie Lawrence of Arabia. I was stunned by Libby's historical research and the cultural detail. Nouri and Anna's wedding. The marketplace where Nouri's sister and Anna shop. When the book's characters eat, it was all I could do not to storm into the kitchen to cook.
The course of the Revolution, the backdrop of Anna's story, made fascinating reading. The reactions of the police to a theater fire and to crowds of protesters. The ineffective maneuverings of the Shah. The arrest of the American hostages by Iranian students. Some acts had unforeseen consequences: kicking Khomeini out of Iraq only enhanced his ability to communicate with Iranian revolutionaries from his quarters in Paris. Did anything in this book surprise you about the revolution in Iran?
Judith: I had not realized how incredibly bloody it was. I guess we Americans were so focused on the U.S. embassy hostages that a teenager here could be oblivious to the suffering of the Iranians and the extent of violence. Somehow it seemed at the time like a popular revolution to me, when to a significant extent it wasn't. I guess religious fanaticism doesn't surprise me anymore. That much seems so predictable these days, the intolerance and willingness to harm others in the name of some version of god or other. Libby does an excellent job of portraying the extremists convincingly without overwhelming the excitement of her clever plot.
|The American hostages|
Do you remember the bookseller whose Shakespeare and e. e. cummings books are confiscated because they're an evil influence from the West? He says, "Iranians do not have a physical space in which to hide, so they seek shelter in a different time. They revert to the past, where familiar rhythms and customs bring relief.” Anna likens the revolution to a "raging flood" in which Iranians tried to steer their flimsy lifeboats to safety.
Judith: Kathy, you ask how religious beliefs espousing love can perpetrate the opposite––yup, that seems to be one of those eternal questions for humanity. Libby's done an excellent job at looking at that question in a nuanced and intelligent way throughout the book.
|Khomeini, Carter, Mohammad Reza|
About the revolution itself, Anna says, "It’s as if an entire country—an entire culture—slipped off its axis. Black became white. White became black. Kind people were unkind. Good people were bad." Why is it that for some people, personal loyalty trumps loyalty to the revolutionary cause while others are even willing to betray their own family members and life-long friends?
Do you have a favorite character?
Kathy: I was intrigued by Nouri. He seemed like two people: one in Chicago and an entirely different person once back in Iran. And a third person after the Revolution. Actually, I thought Nouri was quite a weak person, and he irritated me some. I wanted to shake him and tell him to grow a pair––well, at least to grow up. Am I alone in this view?
I think I liked the character of Anna the best. I admired how she was able to cope with the turmoil around her and keep her wits. She turned out to be much stronger than I thought she'd be. I regularly found myself trying to put myself in her shoes and ask myself how I would handle the various situations in which she found herself. Each time, I came up wanting. I like to think I'm a strong person, but next to Libby's characters (in many of her books, not just this one) I've come to realize I'm quite the wuss.
Judith: I find the contrast between Anna and Nouri most interesting. At the beginning, when they meet in Chicago, they are both pretty unformed and untested. They each reveal weak characters that easily bend to the will of others and they are both needy; Anna of love and approval, Nouri of being told what to do and given an escape from responsibilities he finds irksome. By the end, Anna has risen in a human and believable way to the crises and challenges the revolution forces on her. Through her own moral choices, she has formed an inner strength. Nouri is more disappointing, and that provides an illuminating contrast that resonates for me and makes the book more persuasive and engaging.
This is a timely read while the West imposes sanctions on Iran, Syrian rebels are fighting for freedom, and other countries in the Middle East move on from their own revolutions. Are you inspired to do more reading about Iran? I was thrilled to see a list of books for further reading in the back. I'm anxious to read more of Rumi's poetry.
Would you like to see a sequel to this book? Any closing thoughts you'd like to share with our blog's readers?
Judith: I'm not sure I need a sequel. Libby brought good closure for me at the end and I feel I can trust Anna to carry on. She has found her inner strength and that universal foundation––parental love––has been affirmed for her in a way it never had before. I do think A Bitter Veil is timely and I hope it encourages readers to continue reading about Iran. The more people understand history the less they will leap toward simplistic responses to this ancient and complicated country.
One of the themes I find most important in the book is the idea that ordinary people did terrible things in the Iranian Revolution, as they have in many wars and revolutions. We like to think of the world as made of of evil villains and then people like ourselves who make mistakes but are basically decent. Libby shows the essential human reality that unless we steel ourselves powerfully against it, we ordinary, reasonably good people can be drawn into horrific choices and morally dreadful actions. The same person who would lead an essentially blameless life in an ordinary time can, in times of great stress and upheaval, become the sort of villain we think of when we think of Nazis––and Libby makes a subtle and sophisticated parallel to the Nazis within the book through a clever plot line. Being passively but fairly thoughtlessly "good" isn't enough when the world turns violent and ugly. And we should remember that in the good times and figure out our moral core a bit more strongly than our natural inclination might lead us to. I think that's one of the messages of the book, although there is nothing preachy or heavy in Libby's book. But if you think about her plot and her characters there are many deeper ideas about life, women, and being a principled human being. I think this is a great choice for book clubs––fun to read but with tons of depth for a lively discussion.
Kathy: I agree that this is an excellent book for in-depth discussion. There are so many layers to peel away. This book tends to promote further study of the time and the turmoil.
I think we have a very slanted view of Iran because of the news media. I have asked Bijan about some things I hear on the news. He seems to indicate the government is not the people. Two different tracks. I think the Persian culture is very rich and interesting. I think the extreme government and religious leaders are so extreme they dilute the culture and turn it "on its axis."
Georgette: I agree with both of you. A Bitter Veil would make great discussion material for any book club. Thanks for joining me, Judith and Kathy!