Nicola's Reviews > Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
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May 29, 07

bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in May, 2007

This memoir about the power of books in a time of crisis and oppression definitely falls short of the transitive powers the novels it details possess. Though the overall message of the book is a powerful one, its disjointed narrative structure, organized by theme rather than true chronological order, left me more confused than inspired and did not help in my understanding of the bigger picture.

For someone fairly out of the loop as far as politics and world issues go, especially issues that started before I was born, I was very confused as to what was going on with the regime in Iran during the book. I could never tell what the separate groups were fighting for, who was in power, or who, if anyone, the author supported. The disjointed structure of the narration, skipping backwards and forwards in time at random intervals, also caused me to lose track of what events were influencing other events and how the people she discussed fit into the grand scheme of things. I feel like some sort of timeline or at least direction to a website for further information would have really helped clear things up in that regard, if an un-chronological narrative structure was necessary to the story.

Also unhelpful to the clarity of the memoir was Nafisi’s inconsistent dialogue notations. At some points she used quotation marks, and at other points she dropped them all together. Whole conversations were contained in single paragraphs, making it difficult to tell who was saying what. This uncertainty left me in doubt about the characters’ personalities and voices.

It was interesting to see how the moral debates in the novels the students read in Nafisi’s classes fueled the debates about what was going on in their own government at the time. Though the best novels always allow the reader to make personal connections, sometimes it is difficult to see how the people in places as vastly different as Henry James’ America and late twentieth century Iran can have so much in common. However, as one of Nafisi’s students comments in her journal, “‘[I]t was good to know that even in a decadent society like America there were still some norms, some standards according to which people were judged’” (199). Though those standards were certainly not the same in Iran as they were in America, the fact that there are rules and conventions in any place at any time indicates that there will be people there to rebel against such rules. Nafisi and her favorite students are the real life reflections of those who defied society in the novels they so cherished.

I found the information and analyses of the books they read in class to be enlightening, provided I had read the book they were discussing. However, in the case of probably half the books they discussed I was lost without a plot synopsis and missed many of the points they were making about the connections to their own culture. I suppose this is less of a negative about the book and more of a reflection on my reading habits and a sign that I should improve them.
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