Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran

“She resented the fact that her veil, which to her was a symbol of her sacred relationship to God, had now become an instrument of power, turning the women who wore them into political signs and symbols.” page 103

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi.
Random House, New York, my edition 2004, originally published 2003.
Adult memoir, 358 pages including reading group guide.
Lexile: not yet leveled
AR Level:  8.4 (worth 25.0 points)  .
NOTE: Despite the reading level, this is an adult book not recommended for children.

As the title states, a memoir of the author’s career in Tehran told through the lens of various literature she read and taught.

Reading Lolita in Tehran resized

This book is unusually arranged.  Rather than follow a chronological or topical order, this memoir is broken up into four sections that each deal with a particular novel or author that Nafisi studied and taught.  Therefore the various sections might deal with her own university days, her early teaching years, the forbidden class she secretly taught in her home, etc.

The first two sections are novels, and the second two are authors.  She starts with the surprising, even shocking choice of Lolita, and compares it to the situation in Iran in unusual ways.  This section focuses mainly on her class.  Part two deals with The Great Gatsby, and again focuses mostly on her teaching, this time her early years at the University of Tehran when Gatsby was already a controversial choice and was ultimately put on trial.  These first two sections do mention other works by the same authors and make more general comparisons, but they focus mainly on one title.

Part three focuses on James which had me at a disadvantage as I have read very little James.  This part of the story in particular showed me how much harder it is to move through this story if you aren’t comfortable with the literary works Nafisi is referring to.  Austen is the focus of the final section, and here I am back on familiar ground.  She compares the flow of Austen’s novels to life in Tehran, and draws some interesting parallels.

At times Nafisi’s writing seems to have an otherworldly quality, almost making the fiction they read together seem more real than the other, more disturbing aspects of life.  I think this was purposeful as she frequently mentions how reading and writing and creating were what made her and her students feel alive, and why they were willing to risk so much for it.

However the chronology was a bit off-putting.  It initially felt like the story would be about the secret literature study group she ran in her home.  However after the first section, she goes back to her teaching career.  While some of her study group students come up in that (she met them through teaching), it’s only after this hundred page detour that she returns to the book group.

Personally I also have an interest in education and literature, so I was able to keep going, but if teaching and literary criticism aren’t of interest to you, there’s some parts you might want to skim.  Also, this was at least my third time reading this book – from the library when it came out, then again for a book group, and now someone gave me a copy so I decided to review it before passing it along.  While I am a re-reader, I don’t see myself gaining much more from reading it again.

Although I’ve reviewed other books on this blog, I think this is probably the first book I ever read about Iran, back when this was on the bestseller list and very popular.  It was interesting rereading since I’ve now seen Iran from other perspectives.

One thing I’m noticing though, is that all the voices that come to my attention are very much on the liberal side.  In fact, among all the books I’ve read that are memoirs, biographies,  or nonfiction out of the Middle East, the only positive or religious one I can think of is The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.  Not that horrible things didn’t happen in that book as well, but it had a different attitude.  Rereading this I was wondering what happened, did the state truly kill all the artists and memoir writers who were religious or create too much fear for them to own and retell their own stories?  It seems like the devout Muslim perspective on these events is missing.

That’s not a criticism of this particular book though.  I do think this book will mostly interest literature nerds, or after that those who are interested in Iran.  If you like biographies more than literary criticism, some aspects of Reading Lolita might frustrate or bore you, but as a whole the book is fairly interesting.

A teen could probably read this book but I wouldn’t use it with younger students.  As you can guess from the title there is adult content in the literature and lives discussed.  The book also assumes familiarity with most if not all of the main novels.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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