Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi: A Review

Posted 14 September, 2007 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 16 Comments

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Title: Reading Lolita in Tehran
Author: Azar Nafisi
Date Finished: September 13, 2007
Pages: 343
Rating: 3.75/5

I’m wondering if I should give this one another day or two to soak in because I feel myself wavering between this rating and a higher one, but I think that is partially because I really loved the ending of this memoir. I’m not even sure what I accomplish with my ratings because I usually end up changing my mind later on anyway. It will be interesting to see at the end of the year how all the books stack up to what I initially thought of them.

Enough rambling! Reading Lolita in Tehran is the story of an expelled literature professor who takes in seven students for Thursday-morning discussions of the works of fiction they all love. The book is divided into four sections: Lolita, Gatsby, James, Austen. Nafisi’s memoirs go beyond these teaching sessions, though. It seems to me as though her books is two-fold. First, she talks about literature – mainly in the context and with connection to the women’s lives in Tehran. Second, Nafisi talks about the events and their effects on her and her teaching. Let me try it this way: in the first and last section, Nafisi focuses on her book group with the seven students. But then she regresses in the middle to sections to earlier events (about two decades) working her way back up to the book group. While in their own rights I appreciated all of these sections, the organization was confusing. We got to know these girls and their discussion of Lolita but then lose them except for vague references throughout the middle sections until they return in the final section. The point is, sometimes it felt as though Nafisi was trying to take on too much with this book OR that she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do and where she wanted to go with it.

For me the best parts of the book were when she was discussing the characters (of the book, not the fictional characters). Because I haven’t read any of the James works discussed or Lolita, sometimes I felt as though I was reading literary criticism with a deaf ear–not really being able to understand the full meaning of Nafisi’s words. The heart of the book was the Islamic Republic and how it shaped the lives of these women, but also how the fiction shaped their lives in different ways. I don’t usually include quotes, but I found this one particularly striking:

“I said to him I wanted to write a book in which I would thank the Islamic Republic for all the things it had taught me–to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom. I said, Right now it is not enough to appreciate all this; I want to write about it. He said, You will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen. You will not be able to put us out of your head. Try, you’ll see. The Austen you know is so irretrievably linked to this place, this land and these trees….” (338).

And I love that quote because literature/fiction/reading is such a personal thing – something that is tied to our experiences, emotions, thoughts. But at the same time, literature/fiction/reading is also a social experience – sharing, collaborating, exploring. And I think that this is what Reading Lolita in Tehran tries to express. I would recommend this book with a little hesitation. I think some of it may be lost one those who don’t have any experience with literary criticism or who haven’t read the texts. Sometimes the reading was tedious, but the overall experience of the book was a good one. OH YA!! This is my final Non-Fiction Five. Whooopppeee!

16 Responses to “Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi: A Review”

  1. CONGRATULATIONS on finishing the Non Fiction Five challenge, Trish! I hope to read this book for the In Their Shoes Challenge (it was an alternate for the Non Fiction Five, but I didn’t get to it). Glad you liked it.

  2. Congratulations on finishing the Non-Fiction Five Challenge!
    I’ve had this book on the TBR mountain for awhile but I keep putting off reading it because I think I should read Lolita, Gatsby and the James stories before I do. I plan to make a project of it one of these days/years!

  3. *Wendy – thanks! Overall I did like the book although sometimes it felt a little disjointed. I hope you enjoy it!

    *Tanabata – Thanks for the congrats! I kind of put it off for the same reasons. I actually started the book twice and put it down both times. Sometimes I felt a little lost, but most of the time it wasn’t the main focus of the story–the girls’ lives were.

  4. Congrats on finishing a challenge!! I’m about 1/2 through my 4th book (City of Fallen Angels) and I have the 5th one started. I might make it, if I hurry!!

  5. *Stephanie – You can do it!! I read City of Falling Angels a few months ago and while it was slow getting into it I thought it picked up by the end. Just keep truckin–plenty of time left!

  6. I was told by a friend IRL that this was my kind of book. I have yet to seek it out. So what is the James book that is discussed?

  7. *Petunia – She discussed mostly Daisy Miller and a little of The Ambassadors or Washington Square. Apparently Daisy Miller is relatively short, but I didn’t have time to squeeze it in before reading this one. The only James book I’ve read is Portrait of a Lady. I hope you enjoy this one!

    *Heather – The book was very interesting, especially the particulars of life in Iran during the timeframe of the novel. Thanks for coming by!

  8. I know how you feel! I liked it but I also felt like I was in English class again. Not to mention she totally ruined the plot to a couple of books I hadn’t read yet!

    * Check out big announcement on my blog.

  9. Congrats on finishing the five.

    You know what I liked best about this book? Honestly? They poured coffee over their vanilla ice cream. I read that and had to try it, and now it’s one of my favorite treats. Weird, huh?

  10. I have this one on the shelf, but can’t get into it. I’ve tried several times but it just doesn’t take. I won’t trade it off, but it’s not near the top of the list.

  11. *Kelly – There were some “plot” parts of this book that I skimmed a little bit. I actually have no interest in anything James, but I am interested in Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading. Oh well!

    *Kookiejar – Now I’m going to have to try it. Yes, that caught my attention as well because I love walnuts coffee and ice cream. Actually I think I’m gonna help myself to some now. :)

    *Lisa – I started and stopped this book twice. I think the second time I actually even got halfway through it. It took a challenge to make me finish this one, but now its done and I can move on!!

  12. I agree that the book probably has more benefit for people who’ve read the books in question. I personally loved it though; it sort of delved into the experience of reading with a lot of immediacy and depth. I’ve never read another book that did it so well, I don’t think.

  13. *Kristen – I think that at times Nafisi does this really well–especially in the first and last chapters, but when she is talking about Gatsby and James, it seems as though the fiction is secondary to the events in their lives. Which is understandable, but it totally went back on what was established in the first chapter. And I thought that the connection with James was incredibly weak–almost an afterthought. BUT, other than those things I really did enjoy the book a lot. :)

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