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Reading Lolita in Tehran (Nafisi) - Book Reviews

Critics Say . . . 
[The book] is a visceral and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in that country and its fallout on the day-to-day lives of Ms. Nafisi and her students. It is a thoughtful account of the novels they studied together and the unexpected parallels they drew between those books and their own experiences as women living under the unforgiving rule of the mullahs. And it is, finally, an eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction — on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny, and art's affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual.
Michiku Kakutani - The New York Times


The meaning of Nafisi's title at once becomes clear: How we read works of literature can depend as much on who we are and where we are as on the works themselves. Reading Lolita in Tehran in the 1990s was not the same as reading Lolita in Washington in 2003. The story of the nymphet Lolita and her guardian/rapist Humbert Humbert strikes different chords in different places, thus reminding us of the limitless power of literature — of art — to reveal and to transform, and of the limitless legitimate interpretations to which great literature lends itself.
Jonathan Yardley - The Washington Post


This book transcends categorization as memoir, literary criticism or social history, though it is superb as all three. Literature professor Nafisi returned to her native Iran after a long education abroad, remained there for some 18 years, and left in 1997 for the United States, where she now teaches at Johns Hopkins. Woven through her story are the books she has taught along the way, among them works by Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen. She casts each author in a new light, showing, for instance, how to interpret The Great Gatsby against the turbulence of the Iranian revolution and how her students see Daisy Miller as Iraqi bombs fall on Tehran Daisy is evil and deserves to die, one student blurts out. Lolita becomes a brilliant metaphor for life in the Islamic republic. The desperate truth of Lolita's story is... the confiscation of one individual's life by another, Nafisi writes. The parallel to women's lives is clear: we had become the figment of someone else's dreams. A stern ayatollah, a self-proclaimed philosopher-king, had come to rule our land.... And he now wanted to re-create us. Nafisi's Iran, with its omnipresent slogans, morality squads and one central character struggling to stay sane, recalls literary totalitarian worlds from George Orwell's 1984 to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Nafisi has produced an original work on the relationship between life and literature. 
Publishers Weekly


Nafisi taught English literature at the University of Tehran from 1979 to 1981, when she was expelled for refusing to wear the veil, and later at the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai in Tehran. In 1997, she and her family left Iran for the United States. This riveting memoir details Nafisi's clandestine meetings with seven hand-picked young women, who met in her home during the two-year period before she left Iran to read and discuss classic Western novels like Lolita, The Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice. The women, who at first were suspicious of one another and afraid to speak their minds, soon opened up and began to express their dreams and disappointments as they responded to the books they were reading. Their stories reflect the oppression of the Iranian regime but also the determination not to be crushed by it. Nafisi's lucid style keeps the reader glued to the page from start to finish and serves both as a testament to the human spirit that refuses to be imprisoned and to the liberating power of literature. Highly recommended for all libraries. —Ron Ratliff, Kansas State Univ., Manhattan, KS 
Library Journal


So you want a revolution? If your foe is an ayatollah, try reading Jane Austen. So exiled writer and scholar Nafisi (English/Johns Hopkins Univ.) instructs in this sparkling memoir of life in post-revolutionary Iran. A modest dissident during the shah’s regime, a member of a Marxist study group like so many other Iranian students abroad ("I never fully integrated into the movement.... I never gave up the habit of reading and loving ‘counterrevolutionary’ writers"), Nafisi taught literature at the University of Tehran after the revolution. After running afoul of the mullahs for having dared teach such "immoral" novels as The Great Gatsby and such "anti-Islamic" writers as Austen, she organized a literary study group that met in her home. Fittingly, the first work her group, made up of seven young women, turned to was The Thousand and One Nights, narrated by that great revolutionary Scheherazade. "When my students came into that room," Nafisi writes, "they took off more than their scarves and robes.... Our world in that living room became our sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of the black-scarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below." Tracing her students’ discussions and journeys of self-discovery while revisiting scenes from her "decadent" youth, Nafisi puts a fine spin on works that Western students so often complain about having to read—The Golden Bowl, Mansfield Park, Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway. And, without once sinking into sentimentality or making overly large claims for the relative might of the pen over the sword, Nafisi celebrates the power of literature to nourish free thought in climes inhospitable to it; as she remarks, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita may not have been a direct "critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives," while enjoying the pages of Pride and Prejudice with friends served as a powerful reminder that "our society was far more advanced than its new rulers." A spirited tribute both to the classics of world literature and to resistance against oppression.
Kirkus Reviews




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