Monthly Archives: September 2014

Beauty and the ‘Butterfly’

CBR_Logo2Butterfly Stitching
A novel
by Shermin Nahid Kruse

An Iranian mother and daughter endure decades of oppression and war in a story that masterfully juxtaposes the beautiful—vibrant clothing, painting, music, and forbidden love—and the terrible—death, bombs, and secret police.

Shermin Nahid Kruse’s Butterfly Stitching begins in 1966. Samira, a fourteen-year-old peasant and a gifted painter, is forced into an arranged marriage with Davoud, a wealthy supporter of the pro-Western Shah of Iran. Davoud already has a first wife, who also lives in his sprawling home, and two children Samira’s age.

butterfly stitchingThrough the education Davoud buys her, Samira comes to understand and to have her own informed opinion of Iran’s political situation leading into the 1979 revolution and the subsequent Iran–Iraq war, that stretches from 1980 to 1988.

Davoud also gifts Samira with a studio in which to paint, and she is afforded a luxurious lifestyle. However, as she matures, she comes to see that despite her great wealth, she is still a woman in Iran, in a plural marriage, and thus is not free.

Samira finds it impossible to reconcile Davoud’s professions of love with his often cold manner and his demands that she dress in Western clothes. He forbids her to wear a veil, despite its importance to her as Muslim woman.

Samira goes on to make a series of complex life choices that forever alter her relationship with Davoud and in which she turns her back, at least in private, on the religious edicts set by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Beginning with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s ascent to power in 1979, things like music, dancing, and poetry—the things that make life beautiful—are banned in Iran as symbols of Western influence. Women and girls are required in public to wear the hejab, or full veil, covering their head and face. In the 1980s, Samira teaches her young daughter, Sahar, to be true to herself despite such oppression. But defying Iranian law costs Samira and her family a terrible price.

Some of the most haunting scenes in Butterfly Stitching are told from Sahar’s point of view. In 1988, for instance, we see through her nine-year-old eyes a public execution carried out in broad daylight. Yet Sahar’s parents defiantly hold parties in their Tehran apartment that illegally offer wine, poetry recitations, Western music, and raucous dancing on a brightly flowered Persian rug. Their living room doubles as Samira’s art studio.

Throughout her life, Samira retains possession of a head scarf which she dyed a vibrant red before her marriage to Davoud, and onto which her mother stitched orange butterflies. It is not always legal or prudent to wear it, but she keeps it and ultimately passes it to her daughter. Other items—a music box, a bright green ribbon, and passionate love letters—also figure into the story.

kruse author

Author Shermin Nahid Kruse

Kruse’s writing is generally superb, but a few key scenes and passages are transcendent, as when Samira teaches her children “that every person has the power to dye their own world with whatever colors they choose.”

Later, in a bloody moment, Sahar unforgettably mentions their apartment’s colorful Persian rug, which she says, “had borne the footsteps and tears of their family for generations (and now) blushed like a shy girl.” She calls a group of dark-clad murderers “black smoke.” Samira’s paintings, meanwhile, complexly mirror in her choice of technique and mediums, such as broken glass, the country’s chaotic state.

Dinner conversation over the decades is deeply and intelligently political, as Samira and those around her discuss the forces that are transforming their country. To Davoud’s parties in the 1970s are invited high-ranking backers of the Shah. Later, in the 1980s, the fact that the United States once backed the Shah and now is backing Iraq in a brutal, drawn-out war against them leaves Samira angry and disillusioned.

Fitting in Iran’s history is just one thing—among many—that the author does exceptionally well; its placement is smooth and unobtrusive, typically neatly slipped in during scenes in which characters are enjoying food, alcohol, and personal conversation.

Kruse, who was born in Iran and is now an attorney in Chicago, demonstrates far more than just an academic understanding of Iranian history. She has clearly gained her knowledge through life experience. Such a book, with its myriad small, scene-setting details, could be written only by someone who intimately lived it.

Portions of Butterfly Stitching are alternately penned in novel form and as a screenplay, reflecting the plot in which Sahar, as an adult, writes her mother’s life story in that fashion. The transitions between the novel and screenplay sections are smooth and do not detract from the story.

Butterfly Stitching is an exquisitely penned, richly authentic novel about the power of beauty to cut through the deepest darkness.

Four-Star Review

May 2014, Water Bird Press
$18, paperback, 374 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9960-5020-3

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

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Proof That God Loves Us (and Wants Us to Drink Local)

CBR_Logo2Illinois Wines & Wineries:
The Essential Guide
by Clara Orban

September is Illinois Wine Month (one of the worthy things former Governor Rod Blagojevich instituted before being sent off to jail), so the timing seems ripe for a look at Illinois Wines & Wineries by DePaul University professor Clara Orban.

Although most people wouldn’t think first of Illinois as a great wine-producing state, as it happens, the Land of Lincoln is home to more than 125 vineyards and wineries. In fact, as Orban notes, the wine culture here is more than a century old, really taking hold in the early twenty-first century, although its roots were laid in the eighteenth century. Before Prohibition all but destroyed the wine culture (not just in Illinois, but across the Orban Wineriescountry), Illinois was the fourth largest wine-producing state in the Union. Today, Illinois’s wineries and vineyards represent a $253 million industry.

Orban, a professor of French and Italian and a certified sommelier, shares an easily digestible history of Illinois’s wine-producing roots in this handy guide. In addition to tackling the history of wine and vineyards in Illinois, Orban explains the basics of wine production as well as information about bottles, stoppers, and labels. She also dives into issues relating to purchasing, storing, and tasting wine, and she discusses more than two dozen varieties of Illinois grapes. Readers also will find suggestions for food and wine pairings in these pages, and a glossary and index help round-out the information. In these five short chapters, Orban covers a vast topic in an accessible way, providing something for wine novices, enthusiasts, and experts alike.

The bulk of the book—about 75 percent—is dedicated to profiles of various Illinois wineries and vineyards. This section is arranged by region, with the state divided into four sections: northern, central, south central, and southern. Roughly a hundred wineries and vineyards are profiled, with each profile providing such information as a brief history of the venue, information about the owners, details about grapes and wines available, and contact information and directions.

Illinois Wines & Wineries is more informative than evaluative; Orban presents the information in a rather matter-of-fact way with little in the way of editorializing. Readers won’t find insight in these pages about her favorite wines or vineyards. Rather, the guide presents details in an objective manner, providing readers with an easy-to-understand handbook to touring Illinois wine country from north to south.

That’s not to say that Illinois Wines & Wineries is dull or flat. To the contrary, Orban has packed this manageable volume with interesting details about grape varieties, wineries, vineyards, soil, owners, and on and on. In the many concise profiles, readers will learn details such as the fact that City Winery in Chicago was the first operational winery within city limits. They’ll learn that Lynfred Winery, headquartered in Roselle, is the oldest continually operating winery in Illinois. And, they’ll learn that Baxter’s Vineyard in Nauvoo was the first winery in the state, having been established in 1857.

Although one certainly could read Illinois Wines & Wineries from cover to cover in one sitting, this is a guide meant to be referred to time and time again. Wine enthusiasts who enjoy visiting wineries and vineyards can easily use the guide to plan routes for day trips or weekends. Those who are looking for longer trips will find the regional sections and accompanying maps useful for planning wine-oriented vacations.

With the locovore movement gaining more and more traction seemingly every day, foodies might well think about drinking local as well. In Illinois Wines & Wineries, Orban provides readers with a wealth of information about local wines that can grace their tables at home as well as those that can be found in restaurants and wine shops across the state.

Packed with about 150 color photographs, the guide is as pretty to thumb through as it is easy to read. Orban has in Illinois Wines & Wineries provided readers with a handy guide that should be read, saved, and perhaps even tossed in the glove compartment for easy reference when driving around Illinois in search of a good bottle of wine.

Four-Star Review

June 2014, SIU Press
Local Interest
$22.95, paperback, 204 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8093-3344-8

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and wants to see us happy.”
—Benjamin Franklin

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