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Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books Paperback – Deckle Edge, November 4, 2008
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An inspired blend of memoir and literary criticism, Reading Lolita in Tehran is a moving testament to the power of art and its ability to change and improve people's lives. In 1995, after resigning from her job as a professor at a university in Tehran due to repressive policies, Azar Nafisi invited seven of her best female students to attend a weekly study of great Western literature in her home. Since the books they read were officially banned by the government, the women were forced to meet in secret, often sharing photocopied pages of the illegal novels. For two years they met to talk, share, and "shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color." Though most of the women were shy and intimidated at first, they soon became emboldened by the forum and used the meetings as a springboard for debating the social, cultural, and political realities of living under strict Islamic rule. They discussed their harassment at the hands of "morality guards," the daily indignities of living under the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime, the effects of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, love, marriage, and life in general, giving readers a rare inside look at revolutionary Iran. The books were always the primary focus, however, and they became "essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity," she writes.
Threaded into the memoir are trenchant discussions of the work of Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, and other authors who provided the women with examples of those who successfully asserted their autonomy despite great odds. The great works encouraged them to strike out against authoritarianism and repression in their own ways, both large and small: "There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom," she writes. In short, the art helped them to survive. --Shawn Carkonen --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
From Publishers Weekly
This book transcends categorization as memoir, literary criticism or social history, though it is superb as all three. Literature professor Nafisi returned to her native Iran after a long education abroad, remained there for some 18 years, and left in 1997 for the United States, where she now teaches at Johns Hopkins. Woven through her story are the books she has taught along the way, among them works by Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen. She casts each author in a new light, showing, for instance, how to interpret The Great Gatsby against the turbulence of the Iranian revolution and how her students see Daisy Miller as Iraqi bombs fall on Tehran Daisy is evil and deserves to die, one student blurts out. Lolita becomes a brilliant metaphor for life in the Islamic republic. The desperate truth of Lolita's story is... the confiscation of one individual's life by another, Nafisi writes. The parallel to women's lives is clear: we had become the figment of someone else's dreams. A stern ayatollah, a self-proclaimed philosopher-king, had come to rule our land.... And he now wanted to re-create us. Nafisi's Iran, with its omnipresent slogans, morality squads and one central character struggling to stay sane, recalls literary totalitarian worlds from George Orwell's 1984 to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Nafisi has produced an original work on the relationship between life and literature.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Though it is a little slow to start, I found myself unable to put it down as I reached the last 1/3 of the book. I have read most of the books she discussed and felt like the beginning was a little like reading published papers. But... when she began to talk about her own life and the lives of the women she taught in Tehran is when she had me hooked. I began to understand her need to be true to herself despite ideologies that were forced upon her. I felt inspired by her drive, yet saddened by the repression she felt by being forced to cover (rather than choosing it as modesty and honor for God) and made to censor.
Through my highschool years 1985-88, I had a pen pal from Tehran through my Spanish class. At that time, I had NO IDEA that throughout our exchange of crossword puzzles, post cards, letters, stamps and the funny papers that he was experiencing the very things that Ms. Nafisi describes. We were kids, we only talked about pop culture. Reading this took me back to my connection with him. As an adult, now watching the news of current events in Iran I am so saddened. I hope he is safe and a good man. He was a good teenage friend to an oblivious teenage girl.
With Iran is the news, it is a perfect time to read this book and understand why there is such unrest right now with thier election.
Some have said that the author is narcissistic. To that I say... it is a memoir. It is supposed to be all about her.
All in all, the context of the book, was full of "hard" words for me, and since I'm not a native (I've read English novels but not that much) it was hard for me to follow the story, with a normal speed. On the other hand, there were a big number of Persian "expression"s which were directly translated to English, and ironically they made a perfect sense.
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!