Monday, April 16, 2012

Discussion of Libby Fischer Hellmann's A Bitter Veil

Joining us today are two guests: Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in the period of the Trojan War. She reviews for her website and for Historical Novel Review. Kathy Delaney is an internationally known quilt designer and teacher who has published seven books ( In addition, Kathy is an avid reader.

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 ( 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:

Georgette: Kathy and Judith, thanks for joining me to talk about Libby's latest book, A Bitter Veil, published by Allium Press. It's a 2012 book of historical fiction set mostly in Iran during the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

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
Georgette: She certainly does. I hadn't realized how much like the French Revolution the Iranian Revolution was. In A Bitter Veil, a common reaction to hearing of an arrest by the Revolutionary Guards is, "He must have done SOMETHING wrong." The idea that a person could be arrested or executed for no rational reason just doesn't compute. Then people realize there doesn't need to be a reason they understand.

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.

Kathy: It is interesting, Judith, our differences. I did not think the revolution was popular at the time. In fact, reading Libby's book, I was surprised that there were some who WERE happy about it. And what is it about religious beliefs that lets someone believe in love and goodness and such and then perpetrate such the opposite?

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
Georgette: Do you remember when Anna argues with Hassan, one of Nouri's Iranian friends? She states that revolution and religion are not a good mix. Anna makes an interesting distinction between people she calls reformers (Martin Luther King was one) and those she considers revolutionaries.

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.

Georgette: I loved the complexity of Libby's secondary characters, particularly Nouri's family and his friends from childhood. How and why these characters change is thought provoking.

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 have a friend whose Iranian husband of (I think) 38 years has been here 42 years (just became a US citizen a couple of years ago). He, from what I understand, came from a family like Nouri's. His father had been a friend of the Shah, but they did not lose their wealth. My friend could not explain it to me but thought it was because they owned apartment buildings or something. I'd love to talk to Bijan (yes, same name as Nouri's father) about it, but am afraid of insulting him in some way. He travels back to Iran regularly because his family is still there, even though most or all the siblings (nine of 'em) studied here. My friend has had to wear scarves when she has visited. I think she even mentioned wearing the chador (I'll have to ask her about that). She's not interested in visiting again. I'm not sure if it is just the hassle of the trip or something else. I guess I'll have to ask her about that, too. I've recommended the book to her. I'd love her take on it.

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!


  1. Hi All,

    First, I'd like to compliment Libby on the cover of her new book, A Bitter Veil.

    I saw Libby earlier today at a book signing, Mystery Bus tour, at Centuries and Sleuths, Forest Park, Ill.

    As always it was a pleasure to see her, she's so sweet.

    She had great things to say about all of you at Read Me Deadly and is very appreciative to you for your blog about her book.

    As soon as I get comfortable with a cup of coffee I'll be back to read through the interview.


  2. That Mystery Bus tour--2,375 miles to 12 cities in eight days--sounds unbelievably hard on the backside. I bet Liza Marklund, John Connolly, William Kent Krueger, and M. J. Rose are happy when they get off the bus! It must have been fun to see them, Susie. What other Chicago-area crime fiction writers in addition to Libby Fischer Hellmann were there?

    The cover of A BITTER VEIL is beautiful, and the book itself is an excellent read. I enjoyed it a lot.

  3. Wow Georgette, great discussion. Thanks, Judith and Kathy. Libby's Set the Night on Fire clued me that she has more than mysteries going, however much I enjoy them. Bitter Veil is in my TBR, and just jumped to the top. I am also eagerly awaiting her book set in Cuba.

  4. This is a most fascinating, thought provoking discussion. This is one part of the world that I have not read much about except for news stories.

    Libby I am really looking forward to reading this book.

  5. A BITTER VEIL is simply a wonderful read. The dissolution of a marriage amid incredible social upheaval. Libby really pulled off a great feat, making her back story blend seamlessly into her plot. I don't know much about Iran other than what I read in the paper; now, with the help of Libby's book and her reading list, I'll know more. Iran is a fascinating country.

  6. As Libby's publisher (for this book and Set the Night on Fire) I am so gratified that people are "getting" the book. What attracted me to it is that it works on so many levels -- it is a moving love story as well as a thriller about a woman caught in circumstances beyond her control. But it is also about a fascinating country that has a rich cultural heritage that so many of us are woefully ignorant about. Libby brings a depth to this story that I'm so pleased is being appreciated by readers. A big thank you to Judith, Kathy and Georgette for this lively, thought-provoking discussion of the book.

  7. Emily, thanks for stopping by. A BITTER VEIL is an easy book "to get." In discussing it here, Judith, Kathy, and I hesitated to reveal too much for fear of spoiling the experience for people who haven't yet read it, but in reality, there is just no way to talk about every aspect of this book. I've been thinking about it a lot since I finished it. I wonder if Anna and Nouri's marriage would have been happy if the Revolution hadn't happened; what would have happened to the Shah's attempted modernization of Iran. This is a novel that book clubs should gobble up. It is a feast for discussion.

    Libby is an expert researcher, and I've enjoyed her books set in revolutionary times. SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE is set against our own Vietnam War protest days, and A BITTER VEIL, against the Iranian Revolution. I understand that Libby is now working on a book set in Cuba, and I can hardly wait to read it.

  8. Thanks for the discussion. I like historical fiction and this book is just the ticket. Nikki