June 10, 2010

Reading Lolita in Tehran

I seem to have a thing for real life stories. I didn't mean to be reading so many of them, it's just that I seem to gravitate to that section of the library. I browse the other parts, but rarely anything captures my interest enough to make me take it home.

My latest read is Reading Lolita in Tehran; A memoir in books by Azar Nafisi.  The story begins with Narfisi as she has a secret class in Iran, with girls she use to teach at university as they study forbidden books. It then goes back in time, to show how Nafisi came to be where she was; It follows her time as she teachers literature at university. Through this part we see how the government changes and begins to become more controlling of the lives of people. The final part is back with her class of girls, before she and her family make the decision to move to America.

Each part (there are four) has an book/author as a continuing focus. As life happen, it is often seen in reference to the book being studied. I had only read two of the books she mentioned 'The great Gatsby' and also Austen's books. But I never felt that I was terribly disadvantaged by not having read the other two.

I also really liked the way that Nafisi shows us a part of the world we rarely ever see (and when we do it's normally form a western point of view). You can really feel the women's frustration at their lack of freedom and the small ways they tried to fight it - going to the secret class being one of them. You also begin to understand how torn Nafisi and others are by their decision to leave - they love their country and culture, but hate what it has become and in turn what it has made them become.

This book is more intellectual that most of the other books I have read, but not in a daunting way. It makes sense because she is a literary teacher. It is beautifully written, I can see and feel so much of what is described. The only thing that annoyed me was that Nafisi rarely uses speech marks - just runs conversations across paragraphs so sometimes I would have to reread parts to understand exactly who said what. Sometimes she does use speech marks - but I couldn't work out what was the difference between the times when she did use them and the times when she didn't.

I would have also liked to have spent more time with girls in the class. I felt like I was just getting to know them, when I was whisked away to two long sections of Nasifi's life before the class started and I kept wanting her to hurry up and get back to the girls. Too often when  women from conservative Islamic countries are portrayed they are very similar - yet all seven girls are very different. Some are full of hope, others are world weary and cynical. Some are conservative, some very religious, some liberal. Some are outspoken and speak their mind, some are soft spoken.
My favourite scenes are the ones when they flit back and forward between the serious and the flippant - they discus the books, their loves, clothes, children, movies. It gave me a wonderful insight into their world; so different to my own, yet similar as well.

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