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Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books Paperback – December 30, 2003
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“Anyone who has ever belonged to a book group must read this book. Azar Nafisi takes us into the vivid lives of eight women who must meet in secret to explore the forbidden fiction of the West. It is at once a celebration of the power of the novel and a cry of outrage at the reality in
which these women are trapped. The ayatollahs don’ t know it, but Nafisi is one of the heroes of the Islamic Republic.”
—Geraldine Brooks, author of Nine Parts of Desire
“I was enthralled and moved by Azar Nafisi’s account of how she defied, and helped others to defy, radical Islam’s war against women. Her memoir contains important and properly complex reflections about the ravages of theocracy, about thoughtfulness, and about the ordeals of freedom—as well as a stirring account of the pleasures and deepening of consciousness that result from an encounter with great literature and with an inspired teacher.”
“When I first saw Azar Nafisi teach, she was standing in a university classroom in Tehran, holding a bunch of red fake poppies in one hand and a bouquet of daffodils in the other, and asking, "What is kitsch?" Now, mesmerizingly, she reveals the shimmering worlds she created in those classrooms,
inside a revolution that was an apogee of kitsch and cruelty. Here, people think for themselves because James and Fitzgerald and Nabokov sing out against authoritarianism and repression. You will be taken inside a culture, and on a journey, that you will never forget.”
—Jacki Lyden, National Public Radio, author of Daughter of the Queen of Sheba
“A memoir about teaching Western literature in revolutionary Iran, with profound and fascinating insights into both. A masterpiece.”
—Bernard Lewis, author of The Crisis of Islam?
“[A] vividly braided memoir...anguished and glorious.”
–Cynthia Ozick, The New Republic
“Stunning...a literary life raft on Iran’s fundamentalist sea...All readers should read it.”
“Remarkable...an eloquent brief on the transformative power of fiction.”
—The New York Times
“Certain books by our most talented essayists...carry inside their covers the heat and struggle of a life’s central choice being made and the price being paid, while the writer tells us about other matters, and leaves behind a path of sadness and sparkling loss. Reading Lolita in Tehran is such a book.”
–Mona Simpson, The Atlantic Monthly
From the Inside Flap
Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, a bold and inspired teacher named Azar Nafisi secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, fundamentalists seized hold of the universities, and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the girls in Azar Nafisi's living room risked removing their veils and immersed themselves in the worlds of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. In this extraordinary memoir, their stories become intertwined with the ones they are reading. "Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.
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Azar Nafisi's writing style lacked a lot of dialog, but made up for it with lots of descriptive language and powerful comparisons. The dialog that was included was appropriately placed within the memoir. Azar Nafisi is a talented story teller and while you read her book you can really envision the situations she was in and experience her feelings. A powerful composition made to compare Azars students to classic Greek characters is “Their mistakes, like the tragic flaw in a classic traded, become essential to their development and maturity.” (Nafisi 223). She uses Greek characters hamartia’s to relate to her young students. The student’s choices and mistakes help them become who they are by the end of their final class. Another great comparison was used to compare the students to some of Jane Austen's characters, “Austen’s protagonists are private individuals set in public places. Their desire for privacy and reflection is continually being adjusted to their situation within a very small community which keeps them under its constant scrutiny. The balance between the public and private is essential to this world.” (Nafisi 267). This comparison was used to show how important he class was for students to have their own private space to be themselves without strict laws getting in the way. The examples Azar uses are good for keeping the reader engaged and help them develop a clear image of Azar’s students. The most appropriate audience for this book is someone who doesn't expect a lot of intense action or dialog, but can appreciate hearing personal complex thoughts and feelings.
Even though I've never been in any situations similar to Azar Nafisi I was able to feel for her and think of points in my life that I felt similar emotions to hers. For example, I can relate to her students and herself feeling trapped without a private life. Being in high school while being controlled by adults can feel like I have no private life, but this is so different and less intense compared to Azar Nafisi’s experiences, regardless she makes it easy to relate to her emotions while reading the book. Azar did an incredible job of describing her students on a very personal level. She made it easy to understand their internal and external struggles. To a degree you were able to choose who to like and dislike, but most of Nafisi’s descriptions determined who you would trust and distrust. Nafisi’s explanations of characters struggles helped me better understand the characters as a whole, like this explanation of a characters relationship with wearing her scarf and the governments mandated dress code “…the revolution that imposed the scarf on others did not relive Mahshid of her loneliness. Before the revolution, she could in a sense take pride in her isolation. At that time she had worn the scarf as a testament to her faith. Her decision was a voluntary act. When the revolution forced the scarf on others, her actions became meaningless.” (Nafisi 13).By explaining the shift in the meaning of Mahshid wearing a scarf it allows the reader to better relate to her and have sympathy for her situation.
Azar did not write this book in chronical order. Instead the book jumps around in time from when she worked at a small university, to a large university, to her private class, and to moving to America, all of this is talked about but not in order of when the memories and situations happened. The way she does this doesn’t confuse the reader because she makes it clear what point in time she is describing within each chapter. This book was engaging the whole way through. Azar holds the reader’s attention by emerging them in the lives and emotional struggles of not only her students but her own life as well. Azar writes about many examples of the Islamic state restricting women’s rights and freedoms, she writes about how this effected students and herself. One student, Vida, is written about expressing her anger when she showed her rage regarding the regime’s new laws “‘The law?’ Vida interrupted him. ‘You guys came in and changed the laws. Is it the law? So was wearing the yellow star in Nazi Germany, should all the Jews have worn the star because it was the blasted law?” (Nafisi 134). By sharing Vida’s outrage with the reader they can become invested in Azar’s students’ lives. While reading this book I learned about what life was like for the people, particularly women, in Iran during the time Azar Nafisi lived there. I now have a better understanding of the restrictions the government put in place and the terrible things people unfairly suffered through.
Overall I am very pleased with Reading Lolita in Tehran. I learned about Iran and how their revolution affected the country’s women. I would recommend this book to anyone, primarily to anyone interested in modern history, learning about other cultures, women’s rights, and education.
First there was the Author's Note. Normally I don't read them. But this one was brief... so I did, which between reminding myself of the caption "a memoir in books" and weighing in the fact that "...aspects of characters and events in this story have been changed..." (& understandably so) it did little to help separate the ambiguity between events and perspectives... especially since on top of all things, Nafisi teaches literature.
But I took on the challenge, and enjoyed it. Irony after irony. It really was beautiful... tell-tale... such as the glimmering irony in the Reading of Lolita...particularly noting where Humbert `is painted' as being both narrator and seducer... of not just Lolita, but also of his readers. I kind of felt the same way about Nafisi. Without going too deep into the revolution of ideals and basic human rights which much of this book encompasses... and I believe in... but regardless of an individual's viewpoint, whether left or right... liberal or conservative, you must seduce to get others to see your point of view. Perception can be a tricky monster...
...for instance, another question I had (initially) was what possibly `could' Nafisi teach about literature (of all subjects), in Tehran? I got my answer. Yet the very reason I had the question to begin with was because of the way I was seduced by the stories of oppression.
These questions/ironies alone makes Reading Lolita in Tehran not only engaging, but projects what Nafisi strived to accomplish all along... to revive and keep alive literature!