Going home again: The Last Days of Cafe Leila (review)

The Last Days of Cafe Leila (NetGalley)
Donia Bijan
Algonquin Books

When I was in high school, I read Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again in junior English. I don’t remember much about the novel except for its melancholy. And I’m guessing I’d appreciate the novel much more now that I’ve lived a few lives myself. But the title has always stayed with me, and I thought of it immediately after turning the last page of Donia Bijan’s beautiful novel The Last Days of Cafe Leila.

Set in Tehran, Iran the novel follows the Yadegar family from the 1930s through the revolution and on to present day. Zod inherits Cafe Leila from his parents and it is the social center for his Tehran neighborhood and beyond. (Zod also inherits a wife from his brother, but that is another story.) The food is exquisite, the staff warm, and all are welcome. The revolution in 1979 changed life in Tehran. Sensing impending danger, Zod sent his two children Noor and Mehrdad to the United States to attend university. Thirty years pass before Noor returns home, impelled by a crisis–her husband’s infidelity–and dragging along her teenage daughter Lily.

Noor wraps herself in the comfort of her childhood memories as she helps run the cafe and tends to Zod whose health is failing.  The food, her childhood bedroom, her beloved nanny all ground her again–and eventually transform her relationship with Lily. And perhaps because of the solace Noor finds in the Cafe Leila, she decides to stay.

Except you can’t go home again.

Too much has changed, and try as she might, Noor can’t deny her American sensibilities. How else to explain her outrage at the acid attack on a young girl Lily befriends? Or the assertiveness that turns dangerous when she is stopped by the police? Noor might very well love her childhood home, but she surely can’t live there any more. The country has changed; she has changed.

And of course there is the food. The novel is, after all, set in a cafe, so there is no shortage of exotic smells and spices and Persian dishes. We have this: Zod “filled the pockets [of featherlight brioche] not just with beef and onions, but peach jam, saffron rice pudding …” And this: “He soaked prunes and took out meaty shanks to roast with onion for plum soup. he shaped chickpea patties, strained yogurt, and stirred quince custard.” Amber Darjeeling tea stirred with honey. Pomegranate juice.

The Last Days of Cafe Leila is a beautifully written love letter, evocative and moving–a story that transports the reader to a time and place that won’t soon be forgotten.

National Poetry Month

Hope is the thing with feathers

For the past few years, I’ve posted a shout out to National Poetry Month, but April almost got away from me. I’ve written about my love for Spoken Word here and a serendipitous poetry reading here. This year, I’m offering up a few lines from my favorite poem by Emily Dickinson, 314. (In fact, it’s such a favorite I’ve been planning a tattoo of the first line for several months now.)

If you’re not a reader of poetry, these suggestions published for National Poetry Month by the Academy of American Poets will help you dip your toe into a few poems. If you’re a little put off by poetry, don’t be–there are few, if any, rights or wrongs. Forget what your freshman English teacher told.

Just read!

I love fat books and I cannot lie: Dietland (review)

Diet Land
Sarai Walker
Mariner

There may not be a woman in the Western world who hasn’t, at one time or another, had an issue with her weight. I know I have. For years I was too skinny. Then just right. Finally got a little-meat-on-my-bones okay. Putting-on-some pounds-better-watch-it. Downright overweight. Plenty has been written about The Struggle.

In her first novel, Dietland, writer Sarai Walker dives head first into empowerment and body image. (For women, that is. Do men even think twice this stuff?) Before I get too far into writing about Dietland, let me say it’s not for everyone. Walker’s characters curse plenty and slang is used instead of proper anatomical terms. There are descriptions of porn and a little self-pleasuring goes on. There’s also some pretty graphic descriptions of men who have been kidnapped and murdered. So this is where you decide whether or not to bail or read on. But unfiltered though it may be, Dietland covers some important territory.

Plum Kettle has tried it all since she was sixteen. Waist Watchers.  A famous diet of frozen meals and pills supplemented with meetings of evangelical proportion, called the Baptist Plan after founder Euylayla Baptist. Nothing has worked. Now pushing thirty, Plum is awaiting bariatric surgery. She’s apprehensive, but after a life of dieting, willing to take the risk. Plum works from home answering emails for a ‘tween beauty magazine Daisy Chain, spending hours a day responding to girls’ questions about cutting, small breasts, creepy stepbrothers, and more. When editor Kitty Montgomery calls her into the office one morning, Plum falls into a rabbit hole of revolutionary feminists whose goal is to bring the system down. Some of the revolutionaries are social justice workers with a positive, albeit radical, outlook–and others, not so much. (Which is where the kidnapping, murder, and dismembering–usually with the emphasis on “member”–of those men comes into play.)

Plum’s first awakening is to let go of her obsession with food–instigated by an offer of $20,000 if she follows a transformative “diet” plan suggested by Verena Baptist, daughter of the late weight loss guru. Plum finds community at a women’s cooperative. She sleeps (and eats) a lot. She develops a fashion style. Plum, like so many women who finally come to terms with their bodies, recognizes she needs to change from the inside out.

Walker alternates the stories of the characters’ present with their past–and we discover that even the women who resort to violence are driven by our culture’s misogynist response to them. Dietland is a difficult book to read in many ways–one that tells the truth, but tells is slant, as Miss Emily Dickinson would say.

If you’d like to pair your reading of Walker’s fiction with a good memoir, be sure to read Half-Assed by Jennette Fulda. Plum and her feminist band would love Fulda’s honesty, wit, and sass–I know I did.

So there you have it. Feminism and weight loss are not mutually exclusive. I know–because when my own weight loss was an inside job it was empowering, not repressive.

My Book Breakup: The Shadow Land (review)

The Shadow Land (NetGalley)
Elizabeth Kostova
Ballantine Books
release date: April 11, 2017

I’ve never read horror –or monster–stories. (Except I do love my Frankenstein!) Most teens go through a scare-the-wits-out-of-me reading phase, but not me. So you wouldn’t think I’d fall for a book about shadow landDracula, but I did. And let’s face it. The Historian got so much buzz when it was published, how could I not? The adventures of Paul and Helen searching Vlad the Impaler’s burial place in Bulgaria and Budapest–the mountains, the monasteries, the countryside–were just as thrilling as the tales of Dracula. The novel was myth layered over history layered over politics and even at 647 pages I didn’t want it to end.

So I was so excited to get an advance digital copy of Elizabeth Kostova’s third novel, The Shadow Land. The publisher’s blurb said only that a young American in Bulgaria is left holding an “ornately carved wooden box” and inside? “… an urn filled with human ashes.” The girl, it seems, mistakenly takes the bag of a handsome gentleman she bumps into in a taxi line. Sounded to me like I might go on another romp to Vlad’s stomping grounds–could this be another (true) vampire story? Because, remember, at the end of The Historian, the narrator gets a small velvet book that isn’t hers …

But no. This is a story about that American, Alexandra Boyd, and her attempts to return those ashes. She’s befriended by taxi driver Bobby Iliev, who drives her from the city of Sofia to a monastery to the mountains to another village … and they’re always just behind (or maybe it’s ahead of) the Man Who Lost His Bag. Kostova alternates several tales: the race to return the ashes, Alexandra’s childhood, Stoyan Lazarov (he of the ashes), and, eventually, Bobby’s background. The only horror in the novel is the horror of Bulgaria’s past as a Soviet bloc country. For my reading taste, it was a patchwork of stories that never quite came together. And, sadly, didn’t hold my interest.

I’ve become quite familiar with the disappointment of reading books that don’t meet my standards for good storytelling. So I think what bothers me the most is this–was my dislike of Shadow Land based on the story itself–or the writing–or the fact that for months I had been anticipating a return to The Historian? It’s happened before. I was captivated by The Thirteenth Tale and then aghast at Bellman & Black. (Maybe “aghast” is a little strong … ) If you read enough, you’ll read plenty of clunkers.

The Shadow Land will be released on Tuesday, April 11, and I’m impatient to read what other reviewers have to say. Who knows? Maybe it’s just me.

Flash Fiction Friday

He waited in staging, number 24 whitewashed on the back window. A ’65 Plymouth. Powder blue, white top. He’d wrenched and torqued and greased every inch under the hood. He was ready. He figured he’d at least get 85 out of her. Maybe 90 if he timed his shifting just right. The Tree held at yellow, then flashed green. He popped the clutch, started down the straightaway, then doubled it into gear. Too much, too soon. “Damn!” and it was over before he could figure out what had gone wrong.

The flagman dropped the red and he pulled off the track until his next run.

Weaving through the crowd, he looked for her. She was still in the stands, he hoped. She hated the race track. Hated spending every Saturday night under the lights, under a cloud of gas fumes. Hated the sound of tires peeling off at the start, the heat of the blacktop, the dust hanging heavy.

GmanViz@Flickr.com

He found her, finally. Sitting at the top of the stands as far away, it seemed, as she could possibly get. Her hair fell over her face and when he called her name she quickly slid a paperback under her leg and looked up.

“Oh! All ready?” she asked.

“One more–I haven’t qualified.” He knew she wasn’t counting. Probably hadn’t even watched him, but she smiled.

And he carried it with him, warm and radiant, as he found his way back to the Plymouth. Pulling the car around to the start again, he waited.

[The flash fiction “The Drags”, 2016 draft, appeared first on This Is My Symphony.]