My Name is Mahtob by Mahtob Mahmoody

my-name-is-mahtob

Many years ago, I watched a movie called Not Without My Daughter, with Sally Field.  Have you seen it?

It was a true story about an American woman married to an Iranian man and together they had a 5 year old daughter named Mahtob.  They lived in Michigan and were happily married, until he suggested they take a 2-week vacation to visit his relatives in Iran.  This was just after the Iranian revolution during which the Ayatolah Khomeini overthrew the Shah.  Once they were in Iran, it became clear that Sayyed, the father, had no intention of taking his family back to America.  He embraced the law of the land, which claimed that women and children were the property of the man of the family, and he held them hostage, watching their every move and threatening them with their lives if they disobeyed him.  They lived like this for almost 18 months, until Betty, Mahtob’s mother, was able to earn his trust enough to be allowed to go shopping in the market and make secret contact with an underground network of people who were able to help her and Mahtob finally and miraculously escape.

I remember having had nightmares about this movie for months after seeing it.  And now here is the epilogue…

This is the story from Mahtob, the daughter, herself.  She recounts her story, as the daughter of these two very different parents.  She shares her early memories of America, in a very loving home, with tender memories of her father at the start.  She recalls a subtle shift in his attitude toward his culture and religion just before their leaving for Iran.  But the change in his attitude was like a tidal wave once they landed in Iran, and the loving father that she knew essentially disappeared, replaced by a monster, in her eyes – one who beat up her beloved mother, who threatened her mother, and who separated Mahtob from her mother for days at a time.  And that’s when she learned to hate.

What I did not realized was that the story did not end with their escape from Iran.  This mother and child had to endure years of terror, fearing a kidnapping by her father – or worse! – their whole lives.  And the impact spread to everyone around them.

Betty Mahmoody coped by using their experience  to advocate for others in this situation.  She fought for federal laws that protected children against international parental kidnapping, which President Clinton passed.  And she travelled around the country and around the world, personally supporting  many families who were in the same situation that she had been in.

This is a very, very hard book to read emotionally but it is an important one, I believe.  It serves as a portrait of the convergence of mental illness and religious fanaticism, which is a  terrifying combination.

It  brought it all back for me, but it also brought closure as well.  It seemed to have done so for Mahtob herself.

Black Girl/White Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

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Generva Meade has come from a family who assisted with the Underground Railroad and who is deeply entrenched in the Civil Rights movement, and she is currently assigned, her freshman year, to live with a conservative, religious black roommate at the prestigious Schuyler College where her family has donated founding money.  She is very excited to get to know her roommate, Minette, and is sorely disappointed when she sees that her roommate does not reciprocate this enthusiasm.  In fact, her roommate, she finds, is sullen, angry, and a fierce loner – scorning white and black girls in their dorm alike.  Generva is undaunted, however, and pursues the friendship in spite of the coldness with which every attempt at kindness is greeted.  When Minette becomes the target of hate pranks, Generva is her staunchest protector, even as Minette ignores her help.  And as the year progresses, and Minette’s situation worsens, Generva is also confronting her own family distress, with her mother’s unraveling as her father’s past transgressions are catching up to him (as is the FBI).  The final incident of Minette’s tragedy pushes Generva to face her own past as her family faces theirs.

I rarely listen to books on tape, but this was the result of a very long car ride – and I’m not sure if that tainted my view on this book or not.  It is a difficult story, both emotionally and technically.  There are many tangents, that are later significant but that are sometimes hard to follow.  The story is also steeped in history, shameful and bleak, and had many references to the attempts on the part of many whites who tried to help, but who expect more appreciation than they are deserving of.

The character of Minette is a tragic one.  She is trapped between the world of her conservative, Christian, independent and proud Black heritage and the more modern, socially-focused black girls in her dorm.  She refused to socialize with the other black girls just because they were black like she was, but this left her alone and deeply depressed.  She also refused any help with her studies, even as she was struggling academically, which further plummeted her self-esteem.  As she became the target of racial incidents, it became more and more heartbreaking to see how alone she was.  Generva could not comprehend why Minette would continue to repel her kindness.  It is not entirely clear if Minette’s ignoring of Generva is from a resentment of white privilege or just from her own self-absorption from depression – or perhaps both.

This story had the potential to be excellent, however, it feels like it tries a bit too hard.  The nagging earnestness on the part of Generva that is borne of her own family history and connections and her own wish to rid herself of that white guilt becomes cloying,  At least this reader/listener shouted more than once, “Just leave her alone!”  It is unclear why she would continue to try, when repelled so many times, when she would have had other friends in other groups.  Why did she need to befriend only this one girl?  Was it the challenge?  Was it because she was black?  Was it because her family was so disconnected from her as she was growing up and that gave her so little self-esteem? Was it her own sense of guilt from her family’s activities?

If you are psychologically inclined, you might be interested in reading this, as there is a lot of depth here.  But if you are looking for a quick, entertaining, light read, this is not the book for you!

 

Chiefs by Stuart Woods

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In looking for something different to read, I stumbled upon this thriller from the 1980’s, which was so much more substantive and nuanced than I ever imagined.

It begins in 1919, when Will Henry Lee is appointed the Chief of Police in the tiny town of  Delano, Georgia.  Things are fairly quiet until the first body turns up – that of a young boy, naked, with suspicious marks on him.  This case is niggling at him but life goes on and he is forced to move on with the times.  As the years pass, the case becomes buried deeper and deeper in layers of race, power, politics, and in simple human nature and the ultimate resolution is a shock to everyone.

This story is so carefully delivered, over time, even over generations, and the reader’s patience is rewarded with an exquisitely intricate plot.  There is a horrifying overlay of the deep south’s history of racial bias which, sadly, is quite poignant and relatable today.  So too, are the political power plays, the small town alliances, and injustices.  Timeless, apparently.

The writing, too, is sharp and clear, with poignant dialogue and a few great scenes.  My particular favorite scene is one in which the wife of Billy, Will Henry’s son, buys a shotgun and shows what a woman can do all by herself to protect herself from the nasty Klansmen who are out to get her and her husband.  I won’t give it all away, but I’d say that scene alone is worth reading the book for!

This book is a definite page-turner and one that will stay with me for awhile.  I’m not sure it’s a “must read” but it’s close!

 

 

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Nikki has been caught between feeling like she’d let her family down by walking out on her legal education and feeling resentful that they’d tried to control everything in her life.  She couldn’t imagine letting her family arrange and control as much as her sister did – even going to the extreme of seeking a possible arranged marriage! – but then again, here she was, working in and living above a bar.  Was this a better option?  When an opportunity arises to teach women in an Indian cultural center to write stories about their lives, Nikki applies and gets the position.  Little does she know that these women have stories to tell that will shock and amaze her.  And as she comes to know these women, she comes to also uncover the mystery surrounding a single voice that has been stifled forever…

This book was surprisingly engaging and ultimately suspenseful.  What started out quite innocent and almost superficial grew into a much more complicated plot and twisted and turned quite unexpectedly.  Characters that one would have guessed would have been staid and traditional showed not only a cheekier side, but actually true, deep-seeded bravery.  This made a book that I initially felt nonchalant about become much more meaningful to me.

I am still unsure if the sexually explicit scenes in this book are totally necessary.  I am not prudish and I do not shy away from this.  I know why they are here.  But I felt they were a bit too long.  (I almost got a little bored with the off -shooting they provided.)  I’d be interested to hear what others think about this.

A worthwhile read, in the end, though.  Please add comments –  I’d really be interested to hear what you all think about my issues with this book!

 

LETHAL WHITE BY ROBERT GALBRAITH

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After being thrust into the headlines by their prior notorious capture of a serial killer, Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are struggling to regain their footing.  The fame has brought in much business but it has also strained their relationship.  Everyone is on edge, when an unwashed, terrified and possibly psychotic young man storms into their office twitching away and muttering loudly about a child having been murdered and buried, wrapped in a pink blanket many years ago.  Could this be connected to the new case of blackmail of the Minister of Culture, which they are being asked to investigate?  As Robin and Strike are thrown back into this case, their private lives become somewhat entwined and the suspense, as always, sustains you until the very last word.

What is truly magical about the writing of this novel is that while an incredibly intricate plot is unfolding, the characters who are acting in this story are vulnerable and human and so real the reader might reach out and touch them.  The pain of Cormoran Strike’s stump of his amputated leg is so palpable that each time he is forced by circumstance to go back out to follow another suspect, the reader can almost feel pain in their own leg in empathy.  And when Robin becomes angry at her new husband, who is quite the “arsehole” as is demonstrated in this story time and again, we want to slay him ourselves on her behalf.  Because they are so kind, we almost feel we have a personal stake in their success and that they are more than fictional characters from the mind of an author.

These are completely absorbing works of great suspense and highly recommend the whole series – and to read them in order is definitely worthwhile.  First, you’ll have the opportunity to read them all, and one is better than the next, but also they build on each other, with references to prior cases and prior history in their respective lives.

Highly, highly recommend these books!  You won’t regret them!

The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

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Anna has been watching the world from her windows for the past ten months.  A little ironic that a psychologist would develop agoraphobia, but this is the situation she finds herself in.  After she witnesses a probable murder through one of her windows, she tries to convince those around her that someone is in danger but somehow things get twisted and people are finding it hard to believe Anna, considering all that Anna has been through herself.  It’s even getting hard for Anna to believe it herself, but she knows what she saw… or does she?

This is a psychological thriller crisply written and immaculately spun.   There are twists and turns in the plot that would have Agatha Christie surprised and that had me exclaiming out loud to the pages of the book (ask my family – it’s true!).  Those pages had to keep turning or I could not sleep!  The characters are not all that fully developed, except for that of Anna’s, but it’s not that kind of a story.  It just works.

Let’s just say that if you start this book, be prepared to not be able to put it down until you finish it.

Got to give it a “Must Read!” Just for the fun of it!

The Closers by Michael Connelly

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Sometimes you just need to read a good murder mystery – and this one fits the bill.

Harry Bosch is just back on the job with the LAPD after being retired for a few years.  He’s assigned to the group of “closers,” who solve the unsolved cases, left open for years.  His first case is the murder of a 16 year old girl who had been murdered 17 years prior and new DNA evidence has just resurfaced that has given a new lead on the case.  Bosch is back with his old partner, Rider, and they are immediately set into motion.  But obstacles present themselves from both outside and inside the department – will he be able to see the case through?

I can’t say that this is a fun read, because the subject matter is quite tragic, but it is intriguing and challenging and engaging.  The writing is direct and crisp and the dialogue is brusque and realistic.  What is novel here to me is the use by the police of the press in their investigation, which is interesting (and as it happens, grossly unfortunate) – and I wonder how often that actually happens in “real life.”

I am also fascinated by the relationship that builds between police partners.  It becomes somewhat like a marriage of sorts.  There are signals, facial expressions, silent pauses that can be read by the partner that evolve into signals only the partner can pick up like tiny bits of morse code.  It is really like a spouse, because really and truly, survival is dependent on being able to read those glances and eyebrow raises in a split second.  This is referenced frequently in this story.

So while this is not an epic, “must read,” it is still a worthwhile novel if you’re looking for a murder mystery that will successfully capture your attention for a few days.