Saturday, March 2, 2013

ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN by Mahbod Seraji ✰✰✰✰

As a westerner, when you think about the word “romantic”, the image of red roses might come into your mind, and you might smile and think of candlelight and proposals and happily ever after.  To a Persian, the word has a vastly different connotation.  Romance to Persian sensibilities is something which is worth giving your life for, something bigger than yourself.  That is what the rose stands for to the Persian.  And that is the premise around which Mahbod Seraji built his lovely debut Persian “romance” novel, Rooftops of Tehran.
Told in the first person, through the eyes of Pasha, a seventeen year old Iranian, the novel takes the reader into the heart of Tehran on the brink of revolution, as discontent against the Shah is roiling. The reader will meet the inhabitants of one neighborhood and feel how their simple lives are impacted when one of their own becomes a target of the feared and hated SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police.
A love story, the book explores the Persian cultural practices regarding courtship and marriage through several families interactions, but primarily in a love triangle involving Pasha and the girl he loves, Zari, and the man she has been engaged to since childhood, as well as in the relationship of another couple, Pasha’s best friend Ahmed and his girlfriend.

The greatest aspect of this novel, I think, is how much it has to teach about the beautiful Persian culture.  Whether the discussion is marriage, dealing with death, extended families living under the same roof (Including those just graduated teens that Persians think it so odd that we cast out when they need our guidance the most.), education, or medical practices, the reader will find ethnic lore woven seamlessly throughout the tale.  This book made me pull out my copy of Hafiz poetry and take a fahll, a delightful indulgence I haven’t done in a very long time.  Hafiz is a very famous Persian poet, and a fahll is a tradition in Iran and practiced by Persians everywhere, where you make a wish or ask a question and then open your copy of his poems, and whichever verse your eye lands on, that is the answer to your problem.

There are times when the writing in the novel, given that it is a debut novel, is a little rough (that is what cost it a fifth star from me), but the plotting is excellent, the characters are fairly sound, and the cultural aspects outstanding.  Overall, I definitely recommend this one, and would like to thank my reading friend Regina for her strong recommendation of this one for me.  You were right, Regina, this was a great book for me!  I am happy to report that although the author is currently working on something else, he does plan to write a sequel at some point in the future.

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith ✰✰✰✰

Mr. Mortmain had it all.  He was the celebrated novelist who had written the thinking man’s novel, the innovative “it” novel that everyone wanted him to come and lecture about, even in America.  The problem is, that was more than a decade ago.  And he hasn’t written anything since.  And the writers block has driven him into hiding in a castle in the English countryside with his artist’s model wife, young son, an adopted young man, and two teenage daughters.  
Royalties have dried up and genteel poverty really isn’t so very genteel when you are a teenage girl.  Narrated through the eyes of Cassandra, the middle child and youngest daughter of the family, who aspires to be an author and keeps the book we are reading as a journal (although it doesn’t read as dated journal entries), we follow the sorry plight of the Mortmains as they struggle to put food on the table and inspire Dad to write again through whatever means, fair or foul, they can devise.

To further complicate their lives, their landlord dies; so enter their young (of course) and handsome (what else?) new property owner on the scene to inspect the premises and meet the tenants.  Cassandra’s sister, Rose, and step-mother, Topaz, are quickly hatching a plot to marry Rose off to the new landlord (Did anybody think to ask his opinion?) and solve all their financial woes in one fell swoop.  Romance (?) and hilarity ensue.  Never fear, there is romance for our own dear Cassandra as well.

This book has a plethora of plot twists and turns to keep the reader engaged and delighted, but the one element that I like the best is that the ending is not all tied up in a bow.  There are enough hints given that if a reader wants to make assumptions you can, but if you choose not to go that way, you do not have to.  I enjoy that aspect of the novel, that after crafting so many machinations in the plot Ms. Smith isn’t afraid to leave the ending just a tad bit nebulous.

After reading the book, I decided to watch the movie as I had heard that it was quite well done.  My feelings are mixed.  Much of the nudity and innuendo in the movie seem to me to be purely gratuitous and avoidable-unfortunately they took a humorous 1950s family read and twisted it into an R-rated 21st century movie.  That said, it is quite a decent rendering of the novel into film for an adult audience, albeit with a bit too much emphasis on the hormones for my taste, and for what I believe the novel really implied.  The acting, characterizations, costuming, etc., are all very fine, as one would expect from a BBC production.

This is a fleet, poignant, romp of a read that is appropriate for all ages middle school and up.  A wonderful modern classic that I definitely recommend.  As for the film, you might want to save that for the grown-ups in the household.