Book Review – Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

Title: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Azar Nafisi
2003 (Hardback release)
2004  (Paperback release)

(Another take a book, leave a book find…) Azar Nafisi’s memoir focuses on her years teaching English literature in revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran during the 1980s-90s and under the watch of a repressive regime.  She has admittedly changed names and shuffled details to hide the identities of her students and colleagues for their own safety.

This book falls under a category which I might call important but far more for it’s content rather than it’s form.  It’s an English professor writing about teaching literature and reads like it was written by an English professor, but with a Persian twist.  Some wonderful and poignant and on occasion overly flowery sentences saturated throughout but often fail to connect in a logical sequence.  To a degree I think this is intentional or at least cultural.  Nafisi herself explains that it’s impossible to write the book in typical narrative form because the times themselves were so confusing, and given her intentional remixing of real life details, it is not the specifics but their combined impact which is important.

Unfortunately, to me, it simply sounded like an excuse for insufficient editing, choppy transitions, and heavy dependence on literary allusions.  The net results is, instead of building a consistent narrative, the book is more like a series of interrelated vignettes.  Once I was able to frame it in that context, reading became easier.

While I tend to love my English teachers as people, my educational experiences convinced me as a whole they are sadomasochistic bunch, taking a perverse delight from misery and genuinely blind to why their students are not delighted by fatalistic prose and the dirty underbelly of fictional characters.  As Nafisi talks about her Western Literature selections for her Persian and predominantly Islamic students, I couldn’t help but wince and go “no wonder they hate us” on more than one occasion.  For instance, her take on The Great Gatsby is that it is about “The American Dream”… She repeats this phrase multiple times and seems to miss why it might make America all that more repellent to a conservative group of students.  While I understand what she meant, as an American, Gatsby is probably the last book I’d like held up as an example of “The American Dream”.

That aside, if you can get past organizational issues and literary opinions, the book is important because it reveals the hidden life inside Iran during a Muslim regime.  Not the political facts of which political leader was in power at which date, but what it was like for average citizens attempting to go about the normal routines of life between bomb strikes and under the watch of morality patrols.  There is a focus on the difficulty of being a woman in the Middle East particularly under radical Islam and shifting regulations.  The t-shirts, blue jeans, and painted nails hidden under veils, black robes, and gloves reveal the impossibility of completely blocking outside influences in a modern age.

Overall, I’d rate the book at 3.5.  Given the subject matter, it manages to avoid being graphic but still portrays the tension and danger of the situation, and I certainly learned things and gained a fuller sense of the world.   So I do recommend it.  But I can’t give it a full five stars, simply because the disordering made it very hard to follow in several places.  If you’re not familiar with at least half the books she covers, it would be very easy to get lost in her literary comparisons.  (Note to self:  Read more Nabokov.)   Some books need to be told out of sequence, but I don’t believe this was one of them.

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