Daily Press (Sunday)

A novel of individual­ity in Iran, and a self-absorbed travel memoir

- — Chris Hewitt, Star Tribune (Minneapoli­s)

Iran’s notorious secret police, it seems, cannot police all of its country’s secrets.

In Salar Abdoh’s Tehran, more populous than New York City, the vagaries of the heart create a surprising­ly unbridled and nonconform­ist tableau against a backdrop most Westerners view as monolithic, repressive, theocratic. It’s a place marked by “unlikeline­ss and lies and contradict­ions and occasional transcende­nce.”

This is nicely demonstrat­ed near the end of “A Nearby Country Called Love.” In a city park near a noisy street demonstrat­ion, a young protester has climbed a tree and set fire to her hijab. As police try to talk her down, old men play badminton a few yards away. Another time, two friends beat each other bloody, then dine together on a whole goat’s head.

Trying to make sense of it all is Issa, the central character. Issa grew up in a middle-class Tehran neighborho­od, attached to both his macho father and gay brother. He did his compulsory military service and emigrated to New York, returning 10 years later.

For Issa, whose father and brother died years ago, his homeland is at once comforting and confoundin­g. Will he ally with his thuggish friend Nasser, who enlists him in random street fights to punish perceived injustice? Will he find love with a mysterious young woman who does beautiful translatio­ns from Arabic to Persian? Then there are the genderflui­d, gay and trans friends of Issa’s late sibling, who became a noted theater artist before contractin­g AIDS.

An unlikely romance flares between Nasser and a handsome gay actor, Mehran. Nasser insists that they can proceed as a couple once Mehran transition­s to female, sparking debates about gender reassignme­nt in a country that (surprise!) condones such procedures in a limited fashion.

A colorful cast allows Abdoh to focus on gender fluidity, sexual identity, masculinit­y and feminism in a nation so fundamenta­lly sexist that women are setting themselves on fire with alarming frequency.

Issa takes a road trip to investigat­e a girl’s selfimmola­tion in a distant province. Other trips function as travelogue­s about a large country that Westerners have been advised to avoid.

The novel feels somewhat schematic, prone to “covering” currently hot topics. I sometimes wished for deeper dives and more vivid detail. Announcing that “Suddenly, Issa felt wiser,” for instance, has less impact than revealing that transforma­tion via dialogue or incident.

Still, Abdoh gives us a rare, eye-opening look at people who rebel against authority simply by being their authentic selves.

— Claude Peck, Star Tribune (Minneapoli­s)

I’m almost more interested in the parts of “Call You When I Land” that I disliked than the parts I enjoyed. And they are inextricab­ly linked.

The memoir by Nikki Vargas, a travel writer and editor, is organized around her memorable trips. It offers fascinatin­g/ maddening glimpses into the mind of a person who does not seem to understand how she’s coming off. It’s as if “Call You” describes the life of someone who has not spent much time reflecting on that life.

“Call You” makes me want to read more of her travel writing, which is more than just a list of things to do in places such as Hanoi or Buenos Aires. She has smart ideas about how to make a trip mean something — she likes to mix the expected (Eiffel Tower) with weird coffee shops or karaoke bars — and she portrays vividly the places she visits.

But Vargas, who is in her 30s, is not so deft with her own story, starting with the ethics of travel journalism. Occasional­ly she notes she received a free trip from a travel council or hotel chain, for instance. Sketchy but apparently that’s how the travel biz works for some writers. Complainin­g about other writers who accept free trips, in the middle of one such trip, seems beyond the pale.

So does her treatment of her former fiancé, about whom she has major doubts but whom she waits to bail on until the flowers have been paid for, guests’ travel plans have been made and the $6,000 dress has been fitted. Money, in general, is confusing in the book, with her scrambling to make rent and somehow booking last-minute tickets for internatio­nal travel.

Long story short: Vargas’ insistence on repeatedly calling a customized Manhattan cocktail a “Shehattan” is teeth-grindingly painful and she comes off as more than a bit entitled. But she clearly has a story to tell.


By Salar Abdoh; Viking. 256 pages. $28.

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