Thursday, July 15, 2010

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Reviewed by Connie

Published: 2003

It's about: Azar Nafisi left Tehran for the United States in 1997, leaving behind years of living, suffering, and teaching in Iran during the Revolution and the eight-year war with Iraq.  Nafisi tells her story and the stories of her students and loved ones through the books that helped them through their suffering -- the books that helped them escape, helped them grieve, and helped them understand more about who they are.  This book is filled with colorful characters, from Nafisi herself, to her "magician," to her hodge podge collection of remembered students, to the characters in the fiction books she teaches that become real to her and her students.

I thought: I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, there is nothing I admire or relate with more than someone with enthusiasm for reading -- and boy, if Nafisi has an abundance of one thing, it's enthusiasm.  Nafisi is clearly very educated, unbelievably well-read, and insightful in her interpretations of texts.  Her ability to relate texts, even the authors themselves, to the lives of the women in Iran is astounding -- props there.

However, along with her enthusiasm and her long history as a teacher also comes a tendency to lecture her readers, as well, and she knows it: "I am too much of an academic: I have written too many papers and articles to be able to turn my experiences and ideas into narratives without pontificating."  Well, admitting to a problem is the first step, right?  As I mentioned, her lectures are certainly enjoyable and intelligent, but it denies the reader the opportunity to analyze for themselves; we read, instead, about her life, already analyzed and needing nothing further.

Overall, however, this book is excellent.  It is a unique perspective on the texts discussed, on Iranian life for a long period of modern history, and on what it means to be a woman -- or a person, for that matter -- at all.  She is a talented writer with that sort of educated, scholarly command of language that you respect and relish from the very first page.  And her love of books is contagious -- I find myself wanting to read more Nabokov all of a sudden.

Verdict: Stick this one on the shelf.

Warnings: Not much sexual content, though there are mature themes and descriptions involving war, death, bombings, and mention of rape (no description).