Best Chapter: Your novels are all historical novels, set in exotic times and places. Your novel Harem introduces readers to the intriguing world of the Jewish quarter in Persia. In Courtesan, we read about Belle époque France and the closed domain of women in 19th-century Persia. The Last Romanov is set in the royal court during the final days of the Tsar. Your latest novel, Scent of Butterflies, a story of betrayal — and revenge — moves from Iran to Los Angeles. Can you tell us a bit about your research into some of your work?
Mitch Albom has succeeded in striking an important chord in all of us — the intrinsic human desire to discover what lies beyond, the need to believe that the way we conduct our lives matters and that “the end is not the end,” after all, but another beginning. These intertwined themes are evident in most of Albom’s best-selling books, which have sold more than 33 million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than 40 languages, each time rendered in an accessible style that belies the profound message his stories carry.
While reviewing The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons (Plume Original), the bestselling author of The House at Tyneford, I was also reading Ralph Ellison’s, The Invisible Man, and the thought occurred to me that invisibility can take many forms that might have nothing to do with skin color.
Juliet Montague feels invisible in her suburban, conservative Jewish community. Her husband vanished years ago, leaving her stranded with two children. She is considered “Aguna,” or more correctly, “Agunah.” She is neither a widow nor a divorcée — according to Jewish law only a man has the right to grant a get, a religious divorce, to a woman. Nevertheless, Juliet is chained to her marriage and forbidden to carry on with the normal activities of a vibrantly young, single woman.
On a Shabbat morning, more than 34 years back, I decided to visit Sinai Temple, a conservative Jewish synagogue in Los Angeles. At the time, having been displaced from Iran, my country and home, I did not know much about Conservative Judaism. In fact, apart from a cursory idea about the religious philosophies of Orthodox Judaism, I knew nothing about Reform Judaism either. As I entered the sanctuary, the memory of my last Yom Kippur in Iran, where women were banished to the back of the sanctuary or an upstairs balcony to be subjected to heat, gossip and peering at the Torah from behind a sheer curtain, came to life. Around mid-day, the entire congregation of men came to their feet, raising the screech of metal chairs. A red velvet upholstered armchair was carried above heads to the front of the sanctuary, a place of honor for an important member of our community. The memory would have been forgotten if not that by the approach of sunset prayers were stalled, funds had to be raised, and our dear dignitary sat unresponsive on his throne. It appeared that we would have to endure the heat, thirst, and hunger for many more hours. Then, a not-so-important member of our community raised his hand and abandoned his folding metal chair. A contribution was made. Prayers resumed.
Every now and then a reviewer might have the luck of a novel landing on her table that is not only engrossing, imaginative and a pure joy to read, but also well-crafted and intelligent. This is the case with Helene Wecker’s debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni (HarperHarper Collins Publishers).
Rotfeld, a Prussian Jew and “an arrogant, feckless sort of man,” approaches the fiendish Yehudah Schaalman, who “liked to dabble in the more dangerous of the Kabalistic arts,” and places an order for a female golem. The Golem is delivered to Rotfeld with an important piece of paper that holds the two required commands that will bring the Golem to life and destroy her, when her violent nature is provoked. We are told that, “once a golem develops a taste for destruction, little can stop it save the words that destroy it.”
I just returned from Montreal where, thanks to the Jewish Book Council and to the Montreal Public Library, I spoke to a group of around 70 or 80 members, whose many intelligent questions kept the evening lively and the auditorium buzzing.
Having never been to Montreal, my husband and I decided to extend our trip for a couple of days to enjoy the much heralded beauties of the city. We were impressed by the charming architecture, but more so by the kindness and generosity of its people. We walked a good part of the city, disregarding an unexpected snow storm, below zero temperatures, and a right foot that for no reason–other than, perhaps, being struck by the evil eye–ached so badly, I was forced to limp like a pregnant duck.
The ups and downs of everyday life, the many dramatic struggles woven into the fabric of life, provide writers — this group of shameless voyeurs and hoarders of stories — with invaluable ideas for our novels. In The Comfort of Lies (Atria Books, 323 pp), Randy Susan Meyers, the bestselling author of The Murderer’s Daughter, explores such modern-day themes of love and obsession, motherhood and adoption, trust and infidelity, and above all, the resiliency of the human spirit and the intrinsic need to forgive.
It is not often that I come across a book, the subject of which is so exciting, I’m compelled to praise it, even before I’ve had a chance to read the book. Women in the Shahnameh; Their History and Social Status within the Framework of Ancient and Medieval Sources, by Djalal Khaleghi Motlagh, edited by Dr. Nahid Pirnazar, and translated by Brigitte Neuenschwander, is such a book.
Last week, I had two calls from two different ladies, whose worthwhile work in the Fariborz Fred Matloob Foundation I very much respect, inviting me to attend a book signing and speaking event for the launch of Women in the Shahnameh.
If you were to peel life like an onion, you’d find layer after layer of hidden meaning philosophers have debated over for centuries and will continue to do so until the end of time. Why are we here? Where are we going? Who is our creator? Does she exist and if so, how involved is she in our lives? I could go on and on about scientific and religious debates having to do with the mystery of creation, to do with Adam and Eve, the Big Bang theory, evolution, or whether our creator is nature itself. But I divert into sensitive territory.
I just returned from my personal Shangri La, or Incline Village, North Lake Tahoe. The artists, Tom and Mary Garrell, had arranged a book signing in Kris Moose, their lovely gallery that displays Tom and Mary’s imaginative paintings and photographs. It was wonderful to connect with the locals and enjoy the interest of so many book clubs that flourish in the community.