The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: review

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
Nadia Hashimi
William Morrow

Be honest.

photo credit@National Geographic

How much do you really know about Afghanistan? That it’s the site of one of the United States’ longest foreign wars. That it was the seat of Osama bin Laden and el Qaeda. Maybe you read The Kite Runner, so you have at least a better-than-average understanding of what life in Afghanistan might be like. And everyone remembers the Girl With the Green Eyes on the cover of National Geographic in 1984. But if you’re like me, I’m guessing that’s the extent of it, right?

Nadia Hashimi’s novel The Pearl That Broke Its Shell tells the story of Rahima, one of four sisters in a poor family at the turn of the 21st century. Her Pader-jan is off fighting with the war lord; the Taliban rules the streets. And without a brother to escort the girls to school and the marketplace, they are virtually prisoners in their own home. (What makes matters even worse is that Pader-jan is an opium addict who is–let’s just say–less than helpful when he is home.) Rahima’s Mader-jan suggests that the nine-year-old become bacha posh, a custom in which a young girl takes the role of a male child. After all, Rahima’s great-great-grandmother was a bacha posh, too, so there is family history to consider. So the girl’s hair is cut short. She wears pants. Barters with the shopkeepers. But even better? As Rahim, she plays soccer, walks freely down the street, looks neighbors in the eye, and gets out of any woman’s work around the house. A stranger on the street would think Rahima really was a boy.

Pearl that broke its shellHashimi alternates between Rahim’s story and Shekiba, her great-great grandmother–and reveals the lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) women in Afghanistan over one hundred years. We experience life in a family compound with farmers who barely eke out a living. We shrink at the blows overbearing mothers-in-law rain on young wives. We live in a war lord’s harem. We feel what it’s like to be number three wife and backhanded by an angry husband for some insignificant infraction.

Those stories laid a groundwork for understanding modern day Afghanistan, at least through the eyes of a the women. So readers learn how powerful husbands enter a wife’s name in the running for a seat Parliament because western powers had dictated that a certain number of ministers be women. How those female ministers had ‘minders’ who signaled to them how to vote. How even in 2007 women were not to watch television or use a computer. And how bearing children is still a woman’s greatest worth.

In every society, no matter how repressive, there are always women who slip through the gender-role cracks. In The Pearl that character is Khala Shaima , Rahima’s elderly spinster aunt who is old enough (and she herself would probably say ugly enough) to say anything to anyone and go where she wants when she wants to. Khala Shaima is always there to fight for Rahima and push her to think beyond the confines of her life–to some day find a way to a better life.

But exactly how that pearl breaks its shell is yours to discover.

N is for The New Yorker (A-Z Blogging Challenge)

Today is day 14 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  The challenge began with A on April 1 and continues the alphabet throughout theThe New Yorker
month, except on Sundays. My theme for the month will be this blog’s tagline: life, books, and all things bookish, so you can expect a little bit of this ‘n that. I’m still reading, though, and I’ll add reviews whenever possible. Thirty days of blogging is a huge commitment for me, but I’m looking forward to meeting and greeting new blog friends.

Today’s word: The New Yorker


New Yorker
MyEyeSees@Flickr.com

 I think my first New Yorker subscription was over twenty-five years ago–it’s now a budgeted item, costly subscription notwithstanding. I’ve rarely been disappointed in an issue and love the breadth and depth of the writing.

I’ve read about Saddam Hussein’s death and Taylor Swift. About a dentist who faked his running records and the people who try to amass world records for Guinness. I learned about hand transplants and hoarders. About murderers and drug dealers. I read an article by the Newtown shooter’s father about his son. This week’s issue? A voyeur who recorded his observations over decades and a Filipino nanny.

And the covers. Oh my goodness the cover art. I saved this one because it said so much about how our first Black president was perceived.

In my AP class, I use some articles as classroom reading and for one marking period students choose an article each week from the several years I have saved. At first they complain the articles are too long. Then they get hooked–and often confused by the cartoons. (“I don’t get the ‘pictures’? They don’t go with the story …”) Dancers read reviews of ballets and drama kids read play reviews. There is a profile on Taylor Swift and one on John Green. Concussions in high school football. Hopefully, at least a few of the kids will remember the magazine fondly–and someday subscribe themselves.

Must-read Monday

A couple of recent weekends saw me flat out on the sofa, trying to rid myself of some horrible late-winter, early-spring virus. Ugh. Since I couldn’t do much except cough and grab for yet another tissue, my reading attention span was pretty short-lived. (Add the effects of cold medicine and you’ve got the picture!) Check these good reads if you’re out and about on the internet.

The Last Trial: Writer Elizabeth Kolbert  seeks to understand the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, from Nurenburg to the more recent trials of Oskar Groning and John Demjanjuk in the February 16 edition of The New Yorker. (The article was especially powerful considering recent anti-Sematic attacks in Denmark and France.) Most poignant was Kolbert’s discovery of Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine (stumbling block) project in which the artist embeds small brass plaques flush on sidewalks, memorializing the last known place a Holocaust victim lived before being taken away. Now thought to be the “largest decentralized memorial in the world” Elizabeth Kolbert commissions one for her great-grandmother and attends the installation. Over 48,000 Stolpersteine have been laid throughout Europe.

Your Son Is Deceased: Stephen and Renetta Torres received a phone call that would turn their world upside down. A neighbor’s call interupts a meeting to let Stephen know that cops have their house surrounded and a bomb-sniffing robot is working its way up the driveway. Knowing the only family member home was their mentally ill son Christopher, they rushed home only to be kept out of the “kill zone”, as one officer called it. As the story unravels, we meet the confused and agitated young man who couldn’t follow police commands and lost his life; the grieving parents whose faith in the system they served was broken; the witness whose testimony was ignored.

A Prosecutor Repents: Another great post by writer Rod Dreher whose blog is a treasure trove for those seeking to put news stories in some sort of cultural and spiritual context. Here a Louisiana prosecutor writes a letter of apology to an innocent man he prosecuted years before. Glen Ford was represented by inexperienced lawyers, a witness gave false testimony, and he was sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Former prosecutor Marty Stroud speaks eloquently about his decision that the death penalty is wrong. (Warning: the video embedded in the post is on autoplay and so will begin when you open the post.) NPR interviewed Mr. Stroud on All Things Considered today.

Wait, Wait … I’m not done yet! (review)

I drink my morning coffee with Steve Innskeep, my drive home is accompanied by Here and Now’s Robin Young, and I fix dinner or grade papers to the sound of Robert Siegal and Melissa Block. It’s not that I have a seriously packed social calendar, though. Rather, those are the NPR program hosts that make up  the soundtrack of my life.

Wait wait I'm not done yetAnd how can I forget the years I spent with Noah Adams or Linda Wertheimer or Susan Stamberg? Or the dulcet tones of Carl Kasell, who anchored the news on Morning Edition for nearly thirty years.

Carl Kasell has written a memoir titled Wait, Wait … I’m Not Done Yet, a reference to his second NPR career as Peter Sagal’s sidekick on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the news quiz show. (Would it surprise you if I told you the book was a membership drive giveaway?)

Kasell’s book went down as smoothly as his reading of the news, but was decidedly more homespun in nature. The memoir covers his childhood, college days, early career, and, of course, his time at NPR—Kasell’s own memories are alternated with reflections of his co-workers, friends, and family members. The tone is warm and conversational. In fact, the almost folksy nature of the memoir was at first a little off-putting (I guess I was expecting something a little more weighty and NPR-ish), but I quickly settled into a long chat with good friends.

So many good stories and tidbits here. Kasell’s high school drama teacher? Andy Griffith (Who knew?!) Kasell’s lovely Italian bride Clara and their young family. His desolation after her death.  One of his college interns? Katie Couric. Kasell’s serendipitous seating at a wedding  reception with a lovely woman, now his wife Mary Ann. The tenor of the NPR newsroom on 9-11. And his (again!) meteoric rise to fame (at least in NPR land) as Peter Sagal’s co-host on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.

I’m thinking this book might be a little too much of an inside story for anyone who isn’t an NPR listener. But for those of you who are, it’s like a pleasant visit with dear friends, catching up on old times and I was sorry to see it end.

As in, “Wait, wait, don’t go yet!”

She’s got it all: The Perfect Mother (review)

The Perfect Mother
Nina Darton
Plume

Jennifer Lewis leads a perfect life—her Connecticut home is oh-so-shabby-chic, her lawyer husband handsome and successful, her three children active and popular. Jennifer herself gave up a career as a model and TV actress so that she could dedicate all of her time to family. Jennifer is the Perfect Mother.

Until a middle-of-the-night phone call threatens to destroy her reality. Daughter Emma, spending her junior year (from Princeton, no less!) abroad, calls from Spain—she’s in jail, claims rape, and is accused of being an accomplice to murder. As all Perfect Mothers do, Jennifer flies to her side, but is taken aback by Emma’s aloof, maybe even ungrateful, demeanor. The weeks that follow put Jennifer under the reader’s scrutiny, especially once dad Mark arrives in Spain and doesn’t fully believe Emma’s story—that the murdered boy followed her home and dartonforced his way into her apartment at knife point; that a young Algerian heard her cries and came to save Emma, stabbing her attacker in a struggle; that the Algerian, undocumented and fearful of being deported, ran away into the night. Jennifer and Mark fight; Emma and Jennifer argue.

Enter Emma’s lawyer, Jose, who reveals to the Lewis’s that Emma may have been leading a life on the edge. Her boyfriend, Paco, is a drug dealer who has vanished and the police want him for questioning. Emma swears Paco sells drugs only to send money to his home village as a kind of Spanish Robin Hood—she claims the police just want to trap him. Jose sets out to find Paco, discover the truth of the attack, and free Emma from prison. He also provides a shoulder for Jennifer to cry on, and their attachment becomes a little too close for comfort.

Young parents always worry that two-year-old tantrums and pubescent rebellion are warning signs that one’s parenting has fallen short. I think, rather, it’s those early adult years that prove the parenting pudding and writer Nina Darton captures this perfectly. When adult children get into trouble, like Jennifer one might have “this pathetic realization that you failed, that you made some terrible mistake that caused this.” And mothers especially, I think, blame themselves. Here’s Jennifer again: “I’m selfish, I’m pushy, I’m too optimistic, or I’m overly dramatic, or I’m too blind, or I’m naïve or see only what I want to see …”

Maybe being a Perfect Mother actually is a curse and not a blessing. Could it be that the time and energy and hopes and dreams we mothers invest into our children end up jinxing them … and ourselves? Darton’s Perfect Mother is rich and thought-provoking, torn straight from the front page ala Amanda Knox—and her plot twist at the end could lead to hours of book group heart-to-hearts.