Monday, December 15, 2008

Reading Update

Book #56 was Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Ruth Van Reken (in this article) wrote that this book "could serve as a textbook in the TCK syllabus, a classic search for self-definition, described in living color." I found the book compelling reading. Obama writes about his childhood, trying to figure out where he fit as the son of two people from different parts of the world, his early work in Chicago, and his trip to Kenya, where he made contact with the Kenyan side of his family. His world is a complex place, and he is well aware that things are rarely as simple as they seem.

Book #57 was a very different book, but also one that embraced and celebrated complexity. The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani, is set in seventeenth century Persia, and tells the story of a young girl who is buffeted by circumstances but who ultimately makes the best of things. If this sounds like an old, old plot, it is, but the setting was new territory for me. Amirrezvani shows us a world where women, particularly poor women, lived by a series of very strict rules, and men, particularly rich men, could do exactly what they wanted. The narrator, who is never named, makes carpets, coloring them with many different plants, hence the title.

Here's a conversation the protagonist has in the story:

"Often, we must live with imperfection," she said. "And when people worry about a stain on their floor, what do they do?"

Despite how I felt, I had to laugh, for I knew what she meant. "They throw a carpet over it," I replied.

"From Shiraz to Tabriz, from Baghdad to Herat, this is what Iranians do," she said.

Here's another passage:

I did not reveal that I was the carpet's designer and knotter. I thought if she saw my callused fingers or looked closely at my tired red eyes - if she understood the fearsome work that a carpet demanded - its beauties would be forever tarnished in her eyes. Better for her to imagine it being made by a carefree young girl who skipped across hillsides plucking flowers for dyes before settling down to tie a few relaxing knots in between sips of pomegranate juice.

I knew otherwise: My back ached, my limbs were stiff, and I had not slept enough for a month. I thought about all the labor and suffering that were hidden beneath a carpet, starting with the materials. Vast fields of flowers had to be murdered for their dye, innocent worms boiled alive for their silk - and what about knotters! Must we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of rugs?

The book does a good job of showing how precarious life was - and in many places still is - for women without the protection of men. Poverty is presented in vivid detail, and the lengths the protagonist is forced to go to in order to survive are difficult to read. The realities of poverty make this book a timely one in spite of its historical setting. Replace "rugs" with just about any other commodity you can think of, and people are sacrificing themselves to make it in a factory somewhere in this world. Replace Isfahan with any city in the third world, and there are people living there in conditions remarkably similar to those described in the last third of this book. And yet the book is not all about suffering, for there is great satisfaction in creating beauty, and sometimes that is enough to cover up at least some of the imperfections of life.


Beth F said...

Nice review. I like the premise and the setting.

Framed said...

I enjoyed "Dreams From My Father." It was interesting and well-written.