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.




I can't tell you how many times I've been corrected about this, and frankly I don't care. I still don't believe that there is a such word. I mean there is a such word but it just doesn't mean anything.

If I tell everyone who reads this to send me a word at random, (I'd have 2 words) I can guarantee you that no one or maybe I should say neither of you would be able to do it. It seems to me that random means that it can not be predicted. However if you sent me a word there would be a 1 out of approx. 615,000 chances that the word you send would be predicted. It can't be truly random, rather there is a very low chance that the word could be predicted. But low probability does not mean random. The dictionary definition says at random or by chance. 1.Unpredictable 2.Assorted; undistinguished.

So next time you say, "I just said that totally randomly," think again and instead say, "I just said that in a way that would be very hard to predict but surely not truly random."



Sit in the Front

"My most radical students sat in the back of the classroom." That's from Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in Tehran. Robert Pirsig said the same thing of his classes. Is this really true? Do those brilliant students that are inherently subversive always sit in the back of the classroom?

I took an Art and Law class at the University at Buffalo. One morning the teacher came into class and said, "Today is your lucky day. Today we're going to talk about defamation of character. I'd like you to loosen yourselves up. Your job is to defamate my character. Go for it. I'll write them on the board as you say them." One of the students in the back of the classroom raised his hand half way in the air with a kind of "is this allowed" look on his face. He said, "You are an ambulance chaser."
"Good one, excellent." He wrote I Am an ambulance chaser on the board. This was obviously fun for him. Seeing that it was ok, a funny guy raised his hand and said, "You are the smelliest man I have ever met, and you have a large nose." The teacher laughed and said, "Yes I do smell," and wrote the second defamation attempt on the board. Another student raised their hand and said something banal which the teacher also wrote down on the board.

I raised my hand. "Josh, what do you have?"
I said, "Are you sure you want me to do this?" The classroom was anxious to hear me say something about his suit or his way of speaking.
He said, "Let er rip."
I got up from my seat, which was in the front of the room I might add, opened the classroom door and yelled down the packed hallways, "Professor B. rapes small children."

The classroom laughed, and Professor B. said, "Thank you, you've done it. Unfortunately you've done it extremely well." I don't think he really meant it. He talked about it in passing a couple of times in the next couple of weeks, and when it came time to grade our finals he gave me, well, he didn't give me anything. He said my final test was ungradable and said that to pass the course i would need to write a paper over Christmas break. I never wrote the paper, and I ended up failing the class.

The main point was, that within the confines of the classroom no one could possibly defamate his character. The definition of defamation is an intentionally false communication that causes injury to another person’s good name or reputation. It was simply impossible to do inside of the room. But once the comment was made public, the reputation he had changed for the worse.

The only reason I've relayed this story is to change your mind about sitting in the back. Sit in the front of the room, in striking distance. Those teachers are expecting you to sit in the back of the room and sketch in your notebook. You can still sketch just do it right in front of them.



A Narcisuss Bulb is a genus of endogenous bulbous plants with handsome flowers, having a cup-shaped crown within the six-lobed perianth, and comprising the daffodils and jonquils of several kinds. It's a beautiful white flower. There is a form of narcsissism in almost all types of creation that is impossible to ignore. By creating something I am telling you that it is worth your while to see or read. I made a painting in college called Narcisuss that focused on this dilema. I signed the work three times in large script and toward the bottom of the painting I included a group of men holding a bouquet of flowers. To research the project fully I bought a Narcisuss plant and put it on my window sill for about a week. It's difficult for me to translate the goings-on of the next week but I'll do my best.

My apartment began to smell. It was a kind of sharp putrid smell that you could relate to bad breath but you really can't trace it to any sort of food. It took me at least a full week of brushing my teeth vigorously, showering, wearing cologne, taking out the garbage and vacuuming the floors to realize that it wasn't me. I wasn't the source of the smell, but I was the root of the problem. The Narcisuss flower gives off an odor that suggests taking time to smell the roses is not in your best interest. I was elated for a number of reasons. One, the faces people were making at me were not due to my breath. Two, this solved my problem. The allure of the flowers beauty was it's downfall. The translations to painting in general were perfect. The beauty of this painting, or any other painting that I create now had a criteria. The reaction this flower made on my apartment was something I could strive for in my paintings.

If I can create paintings that stir around peoples minds, or even their senses, for days full of questioning, days of wondering what was it that was bothering them, what is it that is sticking around in your head, than I will have reached the criteria I have set. This would satisfy me.

I think it's important to penetrate this boundary in an audience. If you can permeate the conscience of an audience you have succeeded in one aspect of successful creation. The next, and perhaps most important aspect is now to make it worth while.

One of the students in my class was making large paintings of the backs of semi's. The paintings looked exactly like what you would see in your car if you were following a Mack truck. I found myself driving to school or to work and upon following a truck, I would think of her paintings. She had accomplished the first and often most difficult loop of Art. The problem was they didn't go anywhere. There was no substance. She had not made it worth my effort. There was no conceptual base to begin that type of fractal geometrical, non-linear thought pattern I wrote about in Lectura Locura.

I think that this is an important part of many of the things today we deem worthy. They hold our attention but thats it. Many of the pop songs today that are enduring record sales success are void of substance. The do not take us anywhere. I can't explain to anyone why I'm humming "My Milkshake brings all the boys to the yard." However, the artwork found at The UBiquitous Professor Johnson's website accomplishes both criteria. The artwork, as he says "Turns on you" as well as "Turns you on." There is a substance that has been painstakingly added to the artwork that makes it worth your time, as well as worth your effort.



It's Better Than an O-Pe-rrra, A letter to the Efficients

We talk of battles to be won, and here he comes like Don Quixote, It's better than an Opera.
He actually believes these things. We'll play along, because it's entertaining.

It's hard not to feel like this. By writing, your audience presupposes you can write, or at least they presuppose you think you can write. The same things happens when someone on the train bursts into song, hoping someone will recognize their hidden talent. This could be their big break. What happened to the quality? Why aren't the best paintings never seen? Why don't the books that are worth reading disappear in a move more consistent with humanity? A living sculpture that acts as we do. Shouldn't they disappear? Shouldn't they be filled with spelling mistakes we can't prove? Aren't we responding to material that disintegrates as soon as we leave? The people running the rides on Coney Island need to go home. They need to sleep. They need to dream of substance. Given the chance, they might remember what they were planning on doing once the show closed. Once the island broke off from the mainland and sailed on a ship made of history books that sink as they go, descending further and further from the truth until all thats left is the Captain who stands on a floating soapbox, giving sermons to the fish and the bugs that live off of him like parasites. So it is written. Like Ishmael I keep but sorry guard. "With the problem of the Universe in me, how could I- being left completely to myself at such a thought engendering altitude, how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale ships standing order, 'Keep your weather eye open and sing out everytime.'" I end up hoarse, dampening my pencil that sweats with the perspiration of inspiration, yellowing my fingertips like cigarettes, erasing as I go.