Book Review: Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran

Pomegranate Soup follows in the footsteps of Chocolat, Babbette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate by melding food with story. However, this book is understandably darker, with possible exception for LWFC, in particular in dealing with the history of the Iranian sisters.

Three Iranian sisters, Marjan, Bahar, and Layla, take up residence in a small Ireland village to open a restaurant. They find opposition in Tom Maguire, who had hoped to use the restaurant for his own ambitious purposes, but also friendship, such as with their widowed landlady, Estelle Delmonico. Most of the dark action take place in the sisters’ past, and I found myself gripped with what happened there more than the idyllic, slow-life they now live in Ireland.

I think there could’ve been more. The book’s pretty slim at 222 pages, and while it tried to bring in the whimsy of Chocolat in its slow pace of the foreigners fitting into a harsh countryside, the girls’ past broke that idyllic past, making the book more dark than it should. And yet, I found the past story all the more compelling. Granted, it was nice to see all the characters with their own idiosyncrasies, but it felt like they didn’t get enough time to flesh them out. For instance, Estelle could have merited a whole chapter to herself. Why did she, an Italian immigrant wind up in Ireland? Why didn’t she go back when her husband died? What kept her there in the village when she was obviously miserable?

Also, while the girls’ past was compelling, I kept getting the feeling that Mehran was trying to bring in the same intensity with the village, but she couldn’t really push the envelope. She reached a certain level and then…wussed out. Like the entire character of Tom McGuire. He’s portrayed as a bully, but that’s all he really is–all blustery talk, but no real action. And when his son, Tom Junior, attacked Layla towards the end of the story, the story got really intense…then petered out. His actions afterwards was somewhat lame…in fact, he pretty much snuck out of the story altogether without any real resolution or confrontation. I felt somewhat cheated.

Layla’s romance with Malachy was sweet, but somewhat boring after a while. The ending was too neatly wrapped up in a positive way. As for the recipes, I actually found them distracting. At the beginning, it was fun to read them. But as we get to know more about the girls, they just got in the way and by the end, I was skipping over them altogether. They felt redundant because we get the same gist of the recipes within the text itself, with Marjan making most of the recipes.

Despite all this criticism, however, I did like reading it. The descriptions of the food had my mouth watering, and the sisters’  love for each other, despite their different temperaments, were nice to read. I wish that Mehran started the book in Iran instead of Ireland. She didn’t have to hide the girl’s story behind food and a sleepy village.

This gets 2 1/2 bowls of soup out of 5. Tasty, somewhat satisfying, but still leaving me hungry enough for the next course.

Book Review: Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

I am not a philosophy person.

I tried to be, back in college and I took Philosophy 101. I know all about the cave and Aristotle. It’s all nice and heavy, but it doesn’t really have to do with me deciding if I want to make stir fry or spaghetti tonight. That’s how I felt about this book.

This is the story of Lydia. In college, Lydia is fiercely passionate about philosophy and playing Schubert’s Trout on oboe and piano. She and her female friends argue about philosophy, Chaucer’s works, the meaning of life, sophism. Lydia sleeps with a guy, breaks up with him but still remain friends, then marries his roommate. As time goes on, the women continue to meet under the pretext of discussing philosophy, but they all got better things to do with their lives, such as raise families, have careers, usual life stuff. That’s the first half of the book. In the second half, disaster strikes Lydia and her family, and she tries to deal with the consequences by…philosophizing on why philosophy has failed her…

Oh, man, I can’t even finish it. Much like I couldn’t finish the book.

Maybe it’s because I’m not interested in philosophy. Or maybe I am, but not to the level that Schwartz have her characters doing in this book. I like the writing. Schwartz has some great passages in this book, such as when Lydia describes her aftercollege years before she gets married: “I was in a haste to live, and yet everything I did felt suspended in an ether of tentatively…I envisioned real life as a fixed point of arrival…” Lydia collects philosophy quotes like some Christians collect Bible verses. She keeps them in her mirror or in her purse, bringing each quote out again and again in conversations that go on for pages and pages. This is supposed to be heavy and thought-provoking and deep, but really, all Lydia is doing is navel gazing, and gazing at other women’s navels and having long, deep, boring, pedantic conversations. Pedantic. That’s our word for the day, by the way. Pedantic.

Maybe Schwartz shouldn’t have had Lydia as the narrator. Lydia’s life is so mundane, and once the disaster occurs, she becomes so wrapped up in herself, that it feels that none of the other characters want to be around her. Being the reader, I didn’t want to be around her, so I wound up skipping through the second half, mostly. It was just too hard to sympathize with someone who constantly analyzed her feelings over her non-feelings. Granted, what happened to her was tragic, but still, nothing happens. The whole book felt like: navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, FLASH OF INSIGHT, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, TRAGEDY, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, BITTERNESS, navel gazing, navel gazing, OUTSTANDING AND CATHARTIC TROUT PERFORMANCE, navel gazing…

Her friends seemed to have more interesting lives–Nina, who never marries but has an affair with a married man (she does has a wonderful monologue about her parents), Gaby who’s married to a man who loves her more than she loves him, and Esther, crazy, wonderful Esther, who frankly had the most interesting life of them all: going to Israel, marrying a hippie. Oddly enough, towards the end of the book, Esther drops out of Lydia’s life altogether. I bet if she was the narrator rather than Lydia, we would have gotten a better, more interesting story (and perhaps she wouldn’t end up living in a run-down apartment in Washington with 3 cats…)

Oh well. This gets 1 1/2 out of five Trouts, which is a shame because all her talk about the Trout made me go online and actually listen to it, and I agree, it’s a pretty piece and made the book a bit more bearable to read. But as it is, I’m taking it back. It’s been in the sun too long and is starting to stink.