Friday, January 20, 2006

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

I had heard about this book for some time before I finally purchased it last summer. It seemed interesting for a number of reasons - primarily because it dealt with women under an Islamic regime, and also because it seemed to be about a book group (and I do love my book group!). The author is an English professor, a talented and educated woman who taught in Tehran while attempting to deal with a regime that was extremely oppressive to women. She was educated in the States, and has now lived here for a number of years. She lived in Tehran through times I vaguely remember of the seizing of the consulate and an ill-fated rescue attempt. With all the recent discussion of Iran and its regime in the news, the book once again could find a new audience (it was first published in 2003).

Dr. Nafisi centers her memoir around several works of fiction and authors - Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen. I have read much of these works and felt that gave me a leg up in working my way through her book. I can see where it might be a challenge (though not fruitless) for those unfamiliar with these works and authors. The memoir is not only centered around these books, but also the "book group," seven young women who loved fiction and met regularly with their former professor to discuss such things. As with many book groups, the discussions began to center less and less on the book and more and more on personal lives.

I found the book quite informative about the Islamic regime. It was quite interesting to have such a fresh perspective on living there - in a country that she and many others love, but with a government that seemed hell-bent on making it impossible for one to live there. The perspective and memories were enlightening and created beautifully.

However, the book seemed to ramble much of the time. Not knowing the history of Iran as Dr. Nafisi does, I would struggle to keep track of where she was in her memoir. Her "girls" in her book group I also had difficulty separating one from the other. They certainly had very different stories, but with the lack of linear progression and oftentimes focus in the book, I had to keep turning back to the first explanation of who the girls were to attempt to keep them straight.

Dr. Nafisi writes beautifully, if not always cohesively. Hers is an important voice to hear in today's world. Here are some quotes that I particulary enjoyed -

(in describing a colleague) I used to tease her that the word immaculate had been created for her. When I got to know her better, I came to see that all this orderliness was a camoflage for a passionate nature matched by insatiable desires.

Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the word - not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires....(M)y girls, refusing to give up their right to pursue happiness, had created a dent in the Islamic Republic's stern fantasy world.

Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe...if you're forced into having sex with someone you dislike, you make your mind blank...We are constantly pretending to be somewhere else.

It becomes clear that the oppressive regime could not take away imagination, even with the burning and banning of many books. For Dr. Nafisi and others like her, it is places like the Roaring 20's in America, Regency England in the country, Victorian Europe and others created in fiction, that give them the ability to live. Dr. Nafisi's great love and understanding of fiction, and how that functions in her life, is truly the driving force in this memoir. The conclusion is strong. The last chapter is easily the best in the book. I recommend a read - and just remember when you find yourself struggling through some of the confusion of the earlier chapters, the best is yet to come. My grade - B-


Edgy Mama said...

Nice, reviewer chick! I'm not gonna read this one. Thanks.

restless said...

Who needs amazon when i've got Rio? Thanks keeping me up to speed on all the reads and films out there.... Now on to the important stuff. When are you going to review "Dancing With the Stars 2"?

Rio said...

Go Tia!!