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Reading "Lolita" in Tehran: A Memoir in Books - Azar Nafisi

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Genre: Biography / Author: Azar Nafisi / Edition: New edition / Paperback / 368 Pages / Book is published 2004-02-02 by Fourth Estate Ltd

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      19.11.2012 23:16
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      Very enjoyable, but would be worth reading other books to gain an accurate picture of life in Iran

      This autobiographical book by Azar Nafisi tells of her life in revolutionary Iran. The main premise is centred around a book group she starts for some of her female students, where they discuss books that they wouldn't be able to read elsewhere in Iran. The book is partly literary review, and part autobiography.

      The literary review element of the book is much stronger towards the start of the book, where Nafisi discusses Nabakov's Lolita in great detail. I found this part very interesting, despite having not read the book already. It did however inspire to read the book in the future (it also had the same effect with some of the other books covered, such as Daisy Miller). Towards the end, the book mainly focuses on life for Nafisi and her family and her decision to leave Iran. Books were still discussed throughout the later chapters, but I didn't feel that they were used as well as in the beginning of the book.

      Throughout the book, Nafisi discusses what life is like for her and her female students living in Iran from 1979 onwards. I didn't know much about the history of Iran before reading this book, and it did give a good picture of life as a woman in Iran. However, having read some reviews of the book on other sites, I do agree that the picture Nafisi paints of Iran is very negative, and I think it is important to read this book with an open mind. There are other books that cover life for women in a different light, and I will be certain to read some of these to gain a more overall picture of life in Iran.

      However, I did enjoy the book very much. Nafisi's literary criticisms are very interesting to read, and the backdrop of revolutionary Iran gives them context and makes the book much more readable than if it were just a text book about these books.

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      23.02.2011 10:14
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      Life under a repressive regime told through books

      Azar Nafisi recounts her experience of the Iranian regime under Ayatollah Khomeini through this artfully constructed memoir.

      The lives and education opportunities for people, particularly women, in Iran were vastly changed after the revolution and accession of Khomeini in 1979. When working in her university as a literature professor becomes untenable, due to constant state interference, censorship and restrictions on women, Azar Nafisi desperately needs an avenue of self-expression. She secretly arranges meetings with a small group of her female students to discuss literature. Here they have the opportunity to briefly escape from their realities, removing the enforced garb and allowing their intellects to flower, if only behind closed doors. Underlying it all is a constant fear of discovery by the morality squads that police public and private behaviour.

      The book intermingles Nafisi's experiences, thoughts on the texts and glimpses of the students' lives cleverly and movingly. The novels serve as reference points whilst throwing the repression of the regime into sharp relief. Her enthusiasm for her subject translated well, to the point of giving me a list of texts I wish to read or re-visit. Books discussed include Nabokov's 'Lolita', Austen's 'Pride & Prejudice', Fitzgerald's 'Great Gatsby' and James' 'Daisy Miller' amongst others. It's a unusual format for a book to mix the personal with literary criticism, but it works really well.

      To read this book was, for me, slightly disorientating: for it felt like I was reading dystopian fiction. With its atmosphere of surveillance, propaganda and morality squads, it felt like I was reading something along the lines of Margaret Atwood's 'A Handmaid's Tale', because it seems so alien. Yet it is autobiographical.

      For me, what hits hardest about the text was that prior to Khomeini's accession, women were apparently on a similarly liberated footing in Iran as in the West: Nafisi's mother had chosen to marry for love and was working as an elected politician. Nafisi writes: "I married on the eve of revolution, a man I loved. [...] By the time my daughter was born five years later, the laws had regressed to what they had been before my grandmother's time". Her youth had seen women becoming cabinet ministers, but these same women were sentenced to death under the new regime.

      In some senses, the book fails to satisfy in that you cannot get to know any of the students more deeply or find out what happens to them - but this is because it is about real life, where the satisfactory ending is often sadly absent.

      The book is a fascinating window into life under a repressive regime. It's well-written, and although it sounds quite heavy-going with its subject matter and emphasis on literature, I found it really absorbing. It does help if you have some knowledge of the books that the students and Nafisi discuss prior to reading this book, but if you don't, you should come away wanting to read them.

      This book is available currently new from Amazon at £5.99 although you may be able to find it cheaper. I read it as a library book, but it's one that I intend to buy and re-read in the future. (This is high praise indeed from me!)

      Highly recommended, especially to those with an interest in literary criticism.



      Product details (as available from Amazon):

      # Paperback: 368 pages
      # Publisher: Harper Perennial; (Reissue) edition (3 Nov 2008)
      # Language English
      # ISBN-10: 0007289537
      # ISBN-13: 978-0007289530
      # Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.8 x 2.6 cm


      (This review appears elsewhere under my user-name, but has been lovingly revamped for DooYoo).

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        25.09.2009 12:33
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        A superb account of life during the Iranian Revolution against a background of classic literature.

        We all read daily about events that occur in foreign lands but it is very difficult to know what is fact and what is propaganda. We all like to think that what we read in the media is something like the truth but only when you read a first-hand account do you get a glimpse of how things are.

        Iran, Zimbabwe and North Korea are prime examples. Such secretive societies work hard to obscure the true workings of their regimes. For instance, what is the truth about the "election" of Ahmadinejad? Did he, as his opponents claim, steal the election, Bush Jr style, or was he truly elected by the majority will of the people?

        What really goes on "behind closed doors" can occasionally be appreciated through the writings of those who live or lived under the effects of those who enforce the Rule of Law, such as it is determined, and reveal what it means to them and those around them. We have to decide whether their revelations are honest and representative or just politically motivated.

        One such is Azar Nafisi, a former professor of literature at the University of Tehran. Nafisi had been raised during the reign of the late Shah and witnessed at first-hand the events that led up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini, the renaming of the country as the Islamic Republic of Iran and the resultant imposition of an extreme, some may say perverted, interpretation of Islamic Law.

        As Nafisi watched all her freedoms, freedoms we in the West take for granted, taken away from her and her fellow citizens by the male-dominated regime, she came to realise that her work of bringing great literature to a wider audience was becoming impossible. In not inconsiderable danger and with the moral support of her liberal husband, she decides that she will continue her work in secret.

        She invites a small group of former sudents to meet weekly in her own home to discuss the great classics of Nabakov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen in an atmosphere of openness that simply could not be achieved in the oppressive atmosphere of the universities under the new regime.

        The title of her book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran", may be titillating but the book itself is anything but. This is not a sensationalist exposé but an intriguing and engrossing account of one woman's desire to enthuse others in great literature, set against the events and forces that seek to prevent her from so doing.

        The book is not an autobiography but an eye-witness account of a particular episode of Nafisi's life, in Iran, interwoven with her recollections of the actual discussions within her group of the books that they were studying, under her guidance. We learn much about the books themselves but as much about the members of the group and how their involvement influences their own opinions and lives.

        The narrative is superbly written and allows the reader to form his own judgement, both about the books, their authors and also about the life of people in Iran as they are radically changed by the imposition and brutal enforcement of controls and restrictions dictated by the religious clerical hierarchy. We read how even against this background Iran's citizens, mostly the women, for these controls are largely directed against them, seek to circumvent these controls, to rebel in their own small ways and how even these minor indiscretions too often lead to the ultimate sanction.

        The book is divided up into books/authors and equate to the successive periods of Nafisi's life, leading up to the departure of her and her family for a new life in the US in 1997. Although motivated to seek the relative freedom of the West, she remains as long as she does simply because she feels that she can do more good in Iran than she can outside of it. Ultimately though, life becomes intolerable and you read this in her descriptions of the brutality meted out on her friends and students.

        Her description of the impact on Iran of the 10 year war with the US supported and armed Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, is harrowing. Descriptions of how children and old enforced conscripts were forced to walk across minefields in order to clear them with their own deaths so that more "valued" soldiers could attack the enemy was some of the hardest parts for me to read. Fortunately it isn't all like that.

        Undoubtedly the Iranian regime will claim that her accounts are a pure invention and a pack of lies written from the safety of an evil empire (America) but the book doesn't come across like that. This is no diatribe by an embittered exile though God knows, Nafisi would have every right. This is a measured, thoughtful account by one who probably knows as well as anyone what living under an oppressive regime feels like. You will probably not often read anything much better written.

        The version I read was in paperback, published by Harper at a cover price of £7.99.

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