Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, A review

William Borroughs postulates that you can write a terrible book and give it a great title and it will be successful. Like wise a great book can have a terrible title and not do well. I think Sling Blade and Primal Fear are two great examples of terrific movies with terrible names. But for this post, I'll be speaking of a great title, a profoundly great title, and a disappointing book.

One of the first books I ever read was Congo. It was about a rare type of silver back Gorilla's that had an amazing intellect. They were angry and over protective and violently aggressive. I was so excited about this book, and I concede it was really good... in the beginning. They ended up looking for some diamond and floating away on a stupid hot air balloon. Totally disappointing. I wanted to rewrite it as a metaphor for some political movement or something applicable. There was a potential energy that fizzled off into nothing, seperating is momentum, and disappating my interest.

Well this book by Azar Nafisi has so much momentum before you even open the cover, that it is almost impossible for it to disappoint. The cover is a photograph of two young Iranian women secretly peering down into what you suppose is an illegal copy of Lolita. And the title, oh the title. It's almost defeating. Reading Lolita in Tehran. It's beautiful! Your mind writes moving prose on its own, sparked by the potential energy of it's simplicity. Women, secretly defying oppression, secretly creating a world of dissent that could set them free. A world of creativity and beauty completely unlike their lives. It is what great literature is all about.

Unfortunately, you can not be grouped with great literature because you mention a couple of masters like Nabokov or Austen. This book is filled with rambles of teaching and reading. The storyline hops uncontrollably between trivial descriptions of each person she meets and important but mundane descriptions of a brutal politcal circumstances. These characters end up blurring together and are often undiscernible from each other. She speaks of Nabokov's ability to put the reader into the scene giving them the ability to smell the air. But her descriptions occur so often that you find yourself hoping she doesn't meet or know anyone else. They are typical and uninspired. I kept thinking of a creative writing class I took in high school.

"Next to Manna is Mahshid, whose long black scarf clashes with her delicate features and retreating
smile. Mahshid was good at many things, but she had a certian daintiness about her..." and so on
and on and on.

At one point she even says something about someones words that seem to float into the blue sky. Into the blue sky? I was embarassed for her. Hasn't she ever read any Latin American literature. Their descriptions of a spool of yarn or a woman's smile are so unique and poetic, they should serve as a criteria, prohibiting any writer from ever describing the sky as blue. Not even Hemingway would put something so simple.

The first hundred and fifty pages read like a lengthy introduction. You keep waiting for this thing to take off, but it never does. It saddens me to write this way about a book that could and should have been so important. It is integral that we as Americans begin to understand the conditions that exist in other countries while concurrently making note of our influence and often support of oppressive regimes. There are highlights in this book that explain some of the rules and restrictions these women lived under. Wearing makeup and earrings and rings that were too attractive, making eye contact with a man and walking down the street with someone that is not your husband or relative, are examples of the enlightening structures the book touches on. It was difficult to focus in on these aspects of life because of the distracting descriptions and the unlikely run ins with people from her past that did not directly influence the story in any way.

I am absolutely positive that Ms. Nafisi is an amazing teacher. I'm sure that her lectures are inspired and the work that she is doing at Johns Hopkins University is amazing. She is an incredibly accomplished person, and is involved in many important projects. I'd even be interested in reading "Anti-Terra: A Critical Study of Vladamir Nabokov's Novels," a non-fiction book she has written.

I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading this book. In fact I'd encourage it, but I'll wish you luck. Read it in a sound proof, white room without windows or corners. If you can eliminate all distractions you'll have a better chance of getting half way through it before you put it down to contemplate the color of the blue, no, the light blue sky.