Linda's Reviews > Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
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's review
Nov 10, 2007

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, memoir
Recommended for: women round the world, & anyone interested in a personal view of Iranian history since revolution

This book turned out to be a bit of a surprise for me, as my expectation was that it would essentially be all about a women's book group in Tehran. As it turned out the story of the "book group" (actually a private class for a select group of devoted literature students) is only a portion of the story. The book starts with the class, sharing details of the lives of the women who attended, but the parts that deal with the class are more interested in seeing the books read through the prism of life in Iran, and in seeing life in Iran through the prism of the themes and issues expressed in the novels read by the class.

I say that at the risk of oversimplifying what the book is about. The four key novels mentioned in the book turn out rather to be frames in which the author's memoir is seated. In the process, she discusses her experiences as a university student in the US, her career as a professor in Iran, the students she comes across in her career, the various student movements in the rise, heat, and decline of the revolution, the war with Iraq, and the post-war stagnation. Also, throughout, a constant theme, sometimes explicitly discussed and sometimes not, is the impact on women of the events around them, especially those shaped by the Iranian interpretation of Islam.

It is a fascinating read, and more personal than I had expected, focusing a lot on the author's own plight as an "intellectual" in Iran, as a woman, as a "rebel" of sorts in a regimented society, and as an individual weighing impossible choices between individual and family, between family and country, between risky adherence to principles and uncomfortable compromises in the name of safety, and between double-edged truths and evils.

An excellent book overall. However, I held back a star because it was, at times, extremely dense. It's as if Nafisi was trying to write too many books at once -- it suffers seriously from having too many areas of focus. It was often hard to keep track of who was who as the narrative segued between time periods, and sometimes to keep track of the time periods themselves. Someday when I go back to read it again, I will keep notecards of the different characters, so that I'm not lost when I come back to them after many pages away. And it probably would have helped me to have a better general sense of Iranian history from the revolution on. I did all right as it was, but I had really no good grasp of that history before reading the book, and while the book itself illuminated it to a degree, I feel I would have gotten more out if it if I had read even so much as a Wikipedia entry to get/keep myself oriented.


How many events go into that unexpected and decisive moment when you wake up one morning and discover that your life has forever been changed by forces beyond your control?

- page 157, Part III, Chapter 1

In retrospect, when historical events are gathered up, analyzed and categorized into articles and books, their messiness disappears and they gain a certain logic and clarity that one never feels at the time.

- page 157, Part III, Chapter 1

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