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Half a Cup of Sand and Sky Summary and Reviews

Half a Cup of Sand and Sky

by Nadine Bjursten

Half a Cup of Sand and Sky by Nadine Bjursten X
Half a Cup of Sand and Sky by Nadine Bjursten
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  • Published Oct 2023
    402 pages
    Genre: Literary Fiction

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About this book

Book Summary

Finalist of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction, Half a Cup of Sand and Sky is a moving portrait of one woman's search for love and belonging cast against a nuanced backdrop of political turmoil.

It is 1977, and the anti-shah protests at Tehran University are intensifying, but Amineh is not like her peers who want a say in the future of their country. Her thoughts are on the beautiful literature of another era and her past of rose harvests and Sufi poetry evenings under the desert sky. A chance encounter with Farzad, an opposition leader and disarmament activist, will thrust her into a life she didn't ask for and didn't want. Nobody wanted the tyranny that is quickly turning worse than the tyranny it replaced. But maybe Amineh has been looking at her life all wrong-Maybe the thing she is seeking is not in the past at all.

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. How does the novel explore themes of female identity? What does family and home mean to Amineh? Discuss her struggle for approval. How does her view of herself evolve over the course of the novel? 
  2. The desert village, Qamsar, where Amineh spent her childhood, has long been known for rose oil production. How does this setting shape Amineh as a character? What impact does it have in her life? How does location and history shape the narrative arc of the novel?
  3. Discuss how the ever-changing politics of Iran affects each of the characters in the novel. Were you familiar with Iran's political history prior to reading this book? What were you surprised to learn? Are there any parallels with the political ...

You can see the full discussion here. This discussion will contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about Half a Cup of Sand and Sky:

Ava feels risks are necessary to affect change. Do you agree?
I don't think this is always true. What risks did Patrik take in pushing for nuclear disarmament? Here in the US, I took part in protests when I was younger and I don't feel like I took any risk at all in doing so. And I think ... - kimk

Did Farzad and Amineh make the right call in choosing to stay in Iran?
If they had left, it would have been a different novel altogether, and we would not have the deeper understanding of what it was like for Iranians to live under this regime as the years went by. A big part of the author’s expressed purpose for ... - JLPen77

Did you highlight or bookmark any passages from the book?
At a meeting, Farzad tells the others, "Such a government is a consequence of a sickness whose symptoms, greed and a lack of empathy, spread like a contagion among those in control." Seemed kinda familiar... - kimk

How do you think growing up in Qamsar's rose farms shapes Amineh?
I agree that it likely influenced her love of cooking. But it also contributed to her lack of self-confidence, her willingness to fall into a more traditional role as a wife, instead of pursuing the dream that brought her to Tehran. It contributed to... - JLPen77

How does Amineh's guilt over her parents' death shape her actions?
what a horrible grandmother to make Amineh feel so much guilt and responsibility for her parents death. So much to shoulder as a young child, and it stayed with her throughout her life. She blamed herself for every death, Farzads sister, and ... - beckys

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Media Reviews

"Rich with longing, heartbreak, romance, and intrigue... [A] standout debut... Bjursten's prose is clear, polished, and touched with poetry and insight but never getting in the way of the heart of the story: a woman fighting for her family, love, and freedom from political injustice. Well-drawn characters and a tangible sense of living through history will grip readers of realistic and historical fiction, especially as Amineh dares to tell her own story. The final pages will bring tears. " —Publishers Weekly, BookLife Editor's Pick

"...Enticing... Thought-provoking... An emotional historical journey through the recent history of nuclear armament." —Kirkus Reviews

"From beautiful images of Iran, Sweden, and the UK, to heavily researched historical events, and to characters that are deeply human in their joys, mistakes, and dreams, Bjursten has written quite an exceptional book. This is a necessary story of maturity and resilience told from a perspective that is often overlooked by Western readers. Half a Cup of Sand and Sky will captivate folks of all genres and ages with its craft, vitality, and wisdom." —Independent Book Review (starred review)

"An engrossing tale of a woman's quest for love in a world threatened by nuclear proliferation and a nation struggling with the aftermath of a bloody revolution. Deceptively easy to read...richly layered...a real gem." —Mahbod Seraji, author of Rooftops of Tehran

"A captivating story that respects the complexity of Iran and its history and shines a light on the many courageous Iranians striving for democracy, human security, and freedom." —Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance

"A wise, beautiful novel featuring a woman facing the eternal challenge how to create an authentic self. Amineh, our memorable heroine, emerges in a time of revolutionary change--with its hope, fears, and dangers--as well as usual gender expectations. Bjursten writes with subtlety about Amineh's conflicts, skilling weaving her into her historical context. I adored this book." —Joan Steinau Lester, PEN Josephine-Miles Award-winning author of Loving Before Loving: A Marriage in Black and White

"A searing love story unfolds against the violent background of Iran's Islamic Revolution and the upheaval that followed. This is a book full of passion and spirit. Persian tradition combines with Iranian modernity to shape a rich tapestry of history and emotion." —Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah's Men

This information about Half a Cup of Sand and Sky was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

Write your own reviewwrite your own review

Katarina T

An accomplished debut about politics and family
Half a Cup of Sand and Sky begins in Iran in the year leading up to the 1978 revolution and ends twenty years later in southern Sweden. It is the story of Amineh who becomes politically aware, marries a prominent nuclear disarmament activist and raises a family in Teheran where she is able to express her love of family and friends through her cooking. The author's descriptions of place, sounds and smells are beautifully rendered. Her deep knowledge of Iran, nuclear disarmament politics and sufism is apparent. After having arrived in Sweden, where she has finally found true love, Amineh is able to complete the novel she has been working on over the years, a lovely parallel to Nadine Bjursten's own journey.


Love & Commitment
I am reviewing the book, but I am also recommending it for my book club. Although described as a love story—and love is entwined –the strength of the story is commitment. The commitment may be to another person, to a cause with deep belief, to one’s ethics and/or morals or to doing what one thinks is right. Amineh and Farzad struggle with these issues.

The characters are believable with concerns that can be easily shared. Although Amineh lives in various countries, some of which demand strict obedience to stringent rules, the strengths of the characters and storyline dwell on the people and not the politics. As a reader I am aware of gender problems but not overridden with them. Amineh's husband, Farzad, brings the personal safety of political beliefs into their home. Family and friends are interesting additions and help Amineh find and become the woman she would like to be.

The author’s style enhances the novel; easy to follow and to read. My favorite passage is the second full paragraph on page 108. The description of how Mahasti made others feel would be a perfect personal attribute.

Donna C

Choices Make All The Difference
I was immediately drawn in by the first paragraph in chapter 1 - a young woman making a choice - and the choices she makes continue throughout the whole book, just as they do for all of us during our whole lives.

Though this story revolves around an Iranian woman's choices within the historical time of political and societal upheaval in her country, there are many parallels to others, in other countries, including our own. This particular historical journey takes us through some of the history of nuclear power, weapons and the fight for nuclear disarmament in the 70s-90s, which provides the backdrop to the protagonist's choices within her marriage & mothering, friendships, career goals, wishes and dreams.

I found the book to be a wonderful fusion of love & marriage, family, personal growth, social change, and historical background. I learned more about the Iranian people (and their cooking), the global politics of disarmament, and how both familial and societal expectations are ever present in the choices we make wherever we are in this world.

For me, Half a Cup of Sand and Sky was a magnificent and well-written read!

Bill Brown

Tough Love
I enjoyed reading this novel. The author delineated the life of an Iranian woman who was in an unhappy marriage until the right guy showed. Amineh's life with Patrik is not spelled out though. The writer skips ten years in the relationship. I suppose she was tiring of the plot.

Janine S

Captivating read
I was given this book in order to participate in a March 2024 on-line book discussion. And, I am so honored to have received it because this is a beautiful, captivating and well written book that deals with themes of love, purpose, and self-discovery set during the period of political upheaval in Iran as well as tackling the subject of nuclear proliferation. This is pretty heavy stuff, but the author handles it beautifully and, in the process, we are treated to an extraordinary story of one woman's coming of age in these turbulent times.

Spanning the years between 1977-2009, the book follows Amineh, a young Iranian woman who has come to Tehran to pursue a literature degree with the end goal of writing a book about her parents, meeting Farzah, an older man involved in the Iranian government's nuclear energy department and who leads a group of international men and women seeking to stop nuclear weapons production and expansion. Amineh and Farzah's journey as a couple is portrayed realistically. Their friends and family (Jalalod-Din (he was a wonderful character), Ava, Dariush, Patrik and Ariav) give the story great depth and enrich the story of these two characters. As the story is woven, I was drawn into the lives of these people, experiencing their "real" joys, pains, uneasy choices they had to make but believing in the hope of a better future.

I also especially loved the description of the food Amineh made - you could almost smell the aromas that must have wafted off the delicious food. Then there are the descriptions of the garden in Amineh's home, the forest around Patrik's home in Sweden, which for me at least were some additional enjoyable moments. But even the times when there were intense discussions about nuclear proliferation were captivating. You become engrossed in this story to the point you cannot put the book down. In the author's Postscript, she shares that when she worked in Washington D.C. during the Bush (43) administration, she could find no literature on Iran that painted a positive view of this country or its culture, writing "A single story cements our perception of the others." Hence this book can be seen as an attempt to create a different perception - which I believe she admirably achieved. This is a stellar book about love, hope, forgiveness, and healing. Highly recommend.


An Internal Perspective
I graduated from a midwestern high school in 1977. The events that are discussed in this book were familiar to me, but as an American getting my information from local and national new stations. Ms Bjursten took me inside Iran and through a time of turmoil as it happened inside a conflicted and war torn society. I appreciate the nods to every day life and comforts, the display of love through food cooked in the home that is so different from the food cooked my home, and the overriding nuances of self-worth and worthiness. This story shows us our differences as a culture, but also shows us our very personal similarities. It is a story of family, political unrest and the cost of activism.

...1 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Nadine Bjursten Author Biography

Nadine Bjursten grew up north of New York City in Garrison and now lives in Lund, Sweden, with her husband and twin daughters. She is the former editor of the Washington, DC-based journal Arms Control Today. Half a Cup of Sand and Sky is her first novel.

Author Interview
Link to Nadine Bjursten's Website

Name Pronunciation
Nadine Bjursten: nay-deen BJUR-sten

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