Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #15: House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

Dubus took a small newspaper clipping about a house auction and put it together with the stories of three very fragile human beings, creating a dark tale of startling poignancy in House of Sand and Fog. Dubus’ book is about obsession and its tragic consequences, it is about desperation, isolation, miscommunication, and prejudice. But it is ultimately the story of the American Dream turned nightmare.

Kathy Nicolo is a recovering alcohol and cocaine addict whose husband left her months earlier. She lives alone in a small house by the California shore that she inherited from her father. She cleans houses for a living, is managing to stay clean herself, but is severely depressed over her husband’s abandonment and is barely functional.  That’s when the law arrives at her door to evict her for non-payment of taxes that she never owed. Lester Burdon, one of the sheriff deputies involved in the eviction, becomes obsessed with Kathy and sweeps her into an affair, abandoning his own wife and  children in the process.

Enter Iranian Colonel Behrani, formerly with the Shah’s army before being forced to flee with his wife and children from a death sentence when the ayatollahs took power in his country. Behrani, who had purchased airplanes from the US for the Shah’s air force and was part of the wealthy elite before the fall,  is now—years later–living way beyond his means to keep his fantasy-ridden wife in luxury and to marry his daughter into a respectable Iranian family. To keep ends together and the fiction of wealthier times alive for his family, he works on a road crew collecting garbage during the day and in a convenience store at night, keeping his fancy car garaged and switching to silk shirts and fancy suits before returning home each night.

His savings smuggled out of Iran are, however, running out, and he is desperate to find something, any small piece of the American Dream—a small business, real estate–that he can use to keep his family’s dreams alive. He sees the notice of a house auction—Kathy’s house—and buys it with the last of his savings, determined to flip it for a substantial profit as the start of a real estate career that will enable him to keep his family swaddled in their fiction. But he hasn’t reckoned on Kathy’s desperate determination to get her house back, nor on her lover’s willingness to cross the lines of his own moral code to get it for her. The climax, when it comes, is shocking, violent, and unforgiving on all sides.

Dubus unfolds this human tragedy for us with consummate skill. His alternating chapters are told from the first person viewpoints of Kathy and Behrani, and the language subtly changes between chapters to give us an understanding of the shaky, isolated, and increasingly despairing young woman on the one hand, and of the angry, rigid but all too human Behrani– who is as much a prisoner of his cultural restraints as he is of his growing desperation—on the other. I was especially struck by the failure to communicate which lay at the heart of the tragedy. Kathy cannot tell the truth of her plight to her lawyer or her family, Behrani cannot admit the truth of their circumstances to his wife and children, and Kathy and Behrani cannot speak to each other as one human being to another. Instead, their mediation is undertaken by Burdon, his badge, and ultimately his gun.

A thought-provoking and emotionally challenging read whose effects will reverberate for a long time.

Rochelle’s #CBR5 Review 2: Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski

To us a carpet, for example, is a vital necessity. You spread a carpet on a wretched, parched desert, lie down on it, and feel you are lying in a green meadow. … And then you feel whole, you feel eminent, you are near paradise, you are a poet.   –  Mr. Ferdousi

The Iranian Hostage Crisis started when I was 11.  I was not a sheltered child.  My hippie parents watched the news, went to protests, and discussed world events at the dinner table.  I remember the fall of Saigon, the resignation of Richard Nixon, and the mass suicide at Jonestown.  But it was the nightly coverage of the hostage crisis for 1 year, 2 months, 2 weeks, and 2 days that changed the way I saw the world.  The world became a much larger  more complicated place.   In that year, the news changed from background noise, to information I deliberately sought.  A couple of kids with funny names and funny accents began going to my school and suddenly I knew people directly affected by the Iranian Revolution.  The news was no longer by, for, and about adults.

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