The Art of the Book

We are moving. Not by choice, but because of the needs of our landlady. Her chagrin was obvious, removing anger as a rational reaction to the news. We are simply moving. We don’t know where, yet – not the city and not even the state. I would even include country, if I could throw Italy into the hat as an option. Alas, I’m in a minority of one.

Moving presents the valuable but painful opportunity to sweep away the mounds of clutter that accumulate in our closets, garages and on bookcases. I began going through my books first without even thinking, probably because subconsciously I knew that they would be the second most difficult possessions to purge, the first being piles of memorabilia from school and career, items that make my life appear like an unbroken chain of successes, because why would I save reminders of the many failures? Those are seared into my brain’s hard drive – with charbroiled lines underscoring my mistakes. But the successes, which shouldn’t, but do have meaning for me, will carry less meaning for our son, even less for our grandson and little for the generations that follow. Still …

But books can be timeless, like the 1881 Little Flock Hymnal, the old Winnie the Pooh edition, the dictionary my father gave me when I left for college, and the art books – internet images be damned – those should hold their valuable for future generations possessing a modicum of sensitivity.

When I was young, I poured over my paternal grandmother’s slim art volume with the fleur-di-lis cardboard cover. I’m not sure if the “fleur” were French or Italian, because in those days I was unaware of the difference. But I was entranced by the European art inside and very curious about what held up those fig leaves. Fifteen years ago I asked my mother if I could please have the book. “Oh, we got rid of that a long time ago,” she said. How cavalier she was about it! Some people lack sentiment.

As an art museum rat, my whiskers twitch to visit the originals of paintings I’ve admired only in books and to marvel at the way the brush strokes and hues leap from the canvas in a manner impossible in print. The books refresh my memory of the paintings I’ve experienced in person. I’ve swooned in museums from the Louvre and the Uffizi to the Norton Simon and the Nelson Atkins.

As I lined some of them up for the photo above, I was struck by the varying manner in which women were portrayed. More about them soon.

Next – Hung Up: The Women Who Will Live Forever


Review of “A Dying King”

The untimely death of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1980 at the age of 60 caused a political tsunami: thirty-eight years later, the world still flounders, trying to control its political ramifications. Where Western countries once enjoyed a friendly ruler, today’s Iran has a nuclear program and is a known state sponsor of terrorism. The chain of events leading to the Iranian shah’s political fall and his death is examined in a moving documentary by first time filmmaker, Bobak Kalhor.


“A Dying King: How One Man’s Death Changed the Course of History,” directed, written and narrated in a straightforward and unadorned style by Kalhor, asks the viewer to pay attention while he considers his subject from political, social, economic, medical viewpoints. Meticulously researched, the documentary recently had truncated November runs in New York and Los Angeles and now heads to Europe. DVD’s are not far behind. The film is worth waiting for: spending seven years on the project, Kalhor has collated a wealth of archival footage as well as shooting fresh interviews in assembling never-before-told details of a medical travesty while documenting an important slice of history.


One can’t help but notice the absence of input from still-living Pahlavi family members, and while it’s a gaping hole, Kalhor notes that he approached the family three times, trying to earn their participation. In the end, their reticence to contribute likely results from decades of carrying the weight of  unnecessary pain.


The documentary opens with a slightly dry recapping of the Peacock Throne’s origin in 1925, when Mohammed Reza’s father, Reza Shah, is placed on the throne with assists from the United States and Great Britain, whose support is influenced by their thirst for the country’s oil.


Kalhor then unspools Mohammed Reza Shah’s rise to the throne at the age of 21 – and his evolving relations to the West, his efforts to reposition Iran on the world stage, his successful bid to improve Iran’s literacy, his imperial-sized ego and his stubborn naiveté, which exposes him to manipulation by the very world leaders he’s certain are friends.


The film’s pacing surges after the shah falls ill and the fog of intrigue envelops his world. He struggles to hold onto the Peacock Throne amidst a blur of indecision, lies, false shows of support from the United States and Great Britain and the malpractice of his own doctors.


Concluding that the shah now has become a liability, President Jimmy Carter pulls the Persian rug out from under him, indirectly advising the king to take “a long vacation.” On January 16, 1979, Shah Pahlavi pilots his own plane out of Iran, to Egypt, where President Anwar Sadat welcomes him; however, not wanting to impose on the Egyptian leader, the shah and the queen stay but six days before departing for Morocco. President Carter privately considers a U.S. supported military coup to fill the vacuum that will be created by the shah’s departure. But Carter erroneously decides that the Ayatollah Khomeini will continue to protect American assets if he is returned from exile in Paris.


Even as the shah begins his 19-month-long circuitous journey toward death, U.S. Ambassador to Iran William Sullivan secretly engages in negotiations with Khomeini’s representatives for the Ayatollah’s return. Thus the once powerful Mohammed Reza not only is a man without a country, he is the globe’s hot potato, politically toxic and with barely a friend, except for Sadat.


As the noose tightens around the shah’s life, “A Dying King” becomes as horrifying as it is lean-forward in-your-seat-fascinating. The shah and family members bounce from Morocco to the Bahamas; then to Mexico; finally to the United States, then to Panama and finally back to Egypt, where Shah Pahlavi dies.


This final section of the film is a well-woven tapestry of medical experts connecting the dots to draw a disturbing, ludicrous picture of the shah’s medical treatment. Pahlavi has endured disjointed treatment in several countries and is misdiagnosed more than once. Besides his cancer, he has gallstones and his spleen urgently needs to be removed.


“… Because there were too many doctors, too many interpretations, (the shah) endured much too much for too long,” states Leon Morgenstern, MD, Professor Emeritus and Chief of Surgery, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles; Splenic Surgeon Specialist and author of “The Shah’s Spleen.”


While in Panama and again in Egypt, and despite highly qualified local splenic specialists, American Michael DeBakey, a renowned cardiovascular surgeon and physician to celebrities, is flown in to do the surgery.


Iraj Shaham, DeBakey’s assistant and anesthesiologist in Houston, Texas, shares his reaction to DeBakey’s selection: “The first thing I say, (sic) is ‘Why God they chose (sic) him? He’s not the man for this procedure.” Shaham is correct: DeBakey badly botches the surgery and the shah becomes desperately ill. As his health deteriorates, so too, do relations between Revolutionary Iran and the U.S., with the hostage taking of the American embassy’s staff.


Jorge Cervantes, MD, a General Surgeon at American-British Cowdray Hospital in Mexico and a U.S. State Department Medical Advisor, who treated the shah in Mexico, sums it up: “The whole thing is a book of malpractice, from the point of view of Hemotology, Oncology, surgery, handling the complications …”


Politically, the world is still very much “handling the complications …”

Artwork and poster – RealEye Design Studio


Your personal story – the book signing

November 12, 2017: the book signing for “Shattered Peacock,” about life during the fall of the Shah of Iran, and there I am, standing between two lovely friends, Kathy Ganino and Bob Singleton. I’m struck by how many stories are evident in this one photograph.

Look at the striking floral arrangement in the foreground, created by Amy of Le Jardin Prive. She gets up at the crack of dawn to select the perfect flowers for her creations. She uses no “fillers,” no baby’s breath, no carnations or what have you – only the flowers that clearly state her intention. I think that’s a pretty good life lesson: I’m going to avoid adding fillers to the bouquets of my life. Instead, I’ll strive to impart my intentions clearly, with color and beauty.

Behind the flowers are a few of my books. What drove me to write “Shattered Peacock?” Why write about 1979 Iran? Well, I felt compelled to write it on some level. The subject is ultimately universal and examining what happens to people under extraordinary situations is a way to observe history and human behavior using a fresh perspective. Interestingly, much of the book was written while I was undergoing chemotherapy, a time during which I allowed myself to stop and write. Perhaps we need to give ourselves permission to use our talents without needing illness as an excuse?

Now to Kathy and Bob. We attend the same church. Kathy is deeply, deeply involved in various ministries of our parish. She spreads love around like butter on toast. You can’t help but smile when you see her, even though she’s faced her challenges in life. Same thing with Bob. Every one of us gets wet in the rain, but Bob just keeps playing his music all over town. Now he’s fundraising to bring music to schools that have had their music programs cut. Just because he cares.


On the wall behind Bob is one of Nan Rae’s spectacular Chinese brush paintings, because we’re in her art studio. Nan is exhibited internationally. She’s been consulted by Disney animators. Her art has been in major magazines and in many books. And what does she love doing the most? Teaching. She’s at the Huntington Library every Wednesday, giving her students the license to enjoy the process, and to love their artwork. And I can’t enumerate the litany of things she freely does for people. In this one photo, five lives are revealed – in goodness, kindness, strength and beauty. Take a moment and look at one of your photographs. How many lives are revealed there and what lessons can be learned from them? Find beauty.


A More Than a Book Signing book signing

Sunday, November 12, 2017 was a day to remember. The renowned Chinese brush artist and author Nan Rae, hosted a “Shattered Peacock” book signing at her glorious art studio in Burbank, CA. By 2:15, the studio was already full. Nan provided croissant sandwiches from the house of delicious things, Porto’s Bakery, and Amy of Le Jardin Prive created three spectacular floral arrangements, complete with peacock feathers. The studio was saturated with creativity, and the guests felt it.

Nan gave an introduction, saying too many nice things about me, after which I spoke about the themes contained with “Peacock’s” plot. It’s difficult to to speak about the 1979 violent overthrow of Shah Pahlavi without reaching back into Iran’s uniquely rich history for context, so I included a thumbnail description of King Cyrus the Great, who was King of the World before dying in battle in 530 B.C. This man was as ethical as he was brilliant in military strategy. He’s mentioned 23 times in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) for liberating the Jews from Babylonia. He’s also known for his belief in human rights, stated clearly in cuneiform on what we call the Cyrus Cylinder, which was written during his lifetime. I was lucky enough to see it at the Getty Villa some years ago.

A highlight of the day occurred when three attendees stood and recounted their experiences during the Islamic Revolution. Even though I’d spoken with various refugees during the research phase of writing the book, hearing their stories was heartbreaking.

The day was a resounding success, and I’m forever indebted to Nan, Amy and Nikka. Many thanks to all those who bought books, not only for themselves, but for others!

Nature and Nurture

Yes, the desert is what I’ve always thought it was … not! I strolled the perimeters of St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, CA a couple of weeks ago with a retreat group. We trudged between splotches of shade. We emptied our water bottles too quickly. We were slices of garlic bread under the broiler, browning too fast and ready to burn. But our fearless leader, John West, had us search the parched and cracked stream bed for signs of life.

They were all around us: a clump of cottonwoods, a shrub more green than gray, water-smoothed rocks glistening with mica and pyrite, birds chirping despite the furnace they live in, and rising up before us, the abbey itself, which completely depends on the underground springs running right beneath our sneakers. Veins of life-giving water were everywhere, all around us. We just couldn’t see them. They had to be coaxed to the surface.

It was a reminder that no matter how dry your life, your faith, or your creativity may feel, there is refreshment closer than you realize. You may not see it right now, but it can be coaxed to the surface with patience and trust. You can be diligent without be panicked.

While I still prefer greenery and water, beauty is all around us. Nature’s beauty is a pretty fail-proof way to find something to be grateful for, even if it’s a weed with a pretty flower or a shiny rock in a dry creek. Nature offers us opportunities to nurture ourselves.

Time for beauty

PERSEPOLIS ROYAL TOMBS.jpegPersian culture is so rich because various societies have dominated the area over the ages. In fact settlements go back as far as 4000 BC. The Arabs, Turks, the Mongols and even Alexander the Great had a hand in weaving the fabric that which once was called Persia. Ancient royal tombs can be seen at Persepolis and  Naqs-i Rustam. These tombs are on my bucket list.

An excerpt from Shattered Peacock


I woke up this morning wanting to share a bit of the book with you. Enjoy!


Darius studied the party guests through the haze of dreamy cigarette smoke. A group of the Shah’s “Immortals” nonchalantly piled appetizers on their plates. These Imperial Guards, who served the king, were tall and handsome, their broad shoulders draped with thick gold braids. Their bright uniforms with rows of medals stood in sharp contrast to the subtle grays of the Savile Row bespoke suits worn by the foreign ambassadors and international businessmen. Darius listened carefully. A cacophony of Persian, English, French, Arabic, and German mingled into one exotic Babel-tongue he pretended he understood.

The conversations flowed as smoothly as the drinks. Darius finally was able to distinguish the conversation of a government official discussing oil production with a circle of British and American businessmen.

Something was going horribly wrong. What was that noise? Jarring voices spiked above the gaiety. A group of men was yelling, confusing Darius. Why were they upset?

Without warning, he was yanked back from the railing.

“Nanny, what are you doing?”

She was pulling him away.

“Wait a minute, Nanny, I want to see what’s happening!” Darius’ feet dragged on the carpet as he flailed to find his balance.

“No, Nanny, I don’t want to go yet!”

He opened his eyes. The dream vanished. They were in the desert and the hooded men were yelling at them. His mother was dragging him through the sand toward the trucks. Darius was shocked to see it was late afternoon. What had happened to the dawn for which they’d been longing? He realized his clothes were dry. Was it possible he’d slept through an entire day? He forced his feet to cooperate, running alongside his mother, but even in his groggy state he saw the irony: normally nightmares disappeared when he woke up, but this one disappeared only when he slept.

They were on the move again.

Lisa Di Vita: Historical Fiction

"Shattered Peacock" follows the story of Iran's Persian citizens
after Shah Pahlavi's downfall and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini's
theocratic government. Remnants of 1979's cataclysmic event 
continue to make Iran dangerous even today.

Writing "Peacock" was an opportunity to step into a foreign culture,
an ancient culture in a dire crisis. Consider that true Persian dynastic
rule began with King Cyrus, known as Cyrus the Great, who was born between
590-580 BC. This wise man can be found in the book of Ezra in the Hebrew
Bible (or Old Testament), where he is lauded as a just ruler.
It wasn't that Cyrus didn't conquer cultures and peoples, but that he did
allow them to keep their land, their customs and religions, which restored
hope to the Jews who were living under oppression.Image result for king cyrus of persia
Many rulers came and went for more than 2000
years. Persia's fortunes waxed and waned. Then
in 1979, a great upheaval swept Mohammad
Reza Shah Pahlavi from the Peacock throne.
The Islamic Republic was born beneath
the thumb of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini,
and the world was unalterably changed.

Throughout history, it's usually the poorest 
citizens or specific ethnic groups who are
forced to flee the persecution they face in
their countries. However, in 1979, it was
the educated, the pro-Western and the wealthy
people who had to run for their lives. The greatest minds of Iran
emigrated to the United States and Europe, leaving behind a vacuum in what
was a storied civilization. "Shattered Peacock" explores this phenomenon.
If you enjoy history, you'll savor the accuracy of "Shattered Peacock."
If you enjoy a personal, exciting and thought-provoking book, you'll 
discover one that's ripe for discussion in a book club.