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Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books Paperback – 2 Feb 2004

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Product details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; New edition edition (2 Feb. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007178484
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007178483
  • Product Dimensions: 13 x 48.3 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 317,997 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

An inspired blend of memoir and literary criticism, Reading Lolita in Tehran is a moving testament to the power of art and its ability to change and improve people's lives. In 1995, after resigning from her job as a professor at a university in Tehran due to its repressive policies, Azar Nafisi invited seven of her best female students to attend a weekly study of great Western literature in her home. Since the books they read were officially banned by the government, the women were forced to meet in secret, often sharing photocopied pages of the illegal novels.

For two years they met to talk, share and "shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color". Though most of the women were shy and intimidated at first, they soon became emboldened by the forum and used the meetings as a springboard for debating the social, cultural and political realities of living under strict Islamic rule. They discussed their harassment at the hands of "morality guards," the daily indignities of living under Ayatollah Khomeini's regime, the effects of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, love, marriage and life in general, giving readers a rare inside look at revolutionary Iran. The books were always the primary focus, however and they became "essential to our lives: they were not a luxury but a necessity", she writes.

Threaded into the memoir are trenchant discussions of the work of Vladimir Nabokov, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen and other authors who provided the women with examples of those who successfully asserted their autonomy despite great odds. The great works encouraged them to strike out against authoritarianism and repression in their own ways, both large and small: "There, in that living room, we rediscovered that we were also living, breathing human beings; and no matter how repressive the state became, no matter how intimidated and frightened we were, like Lolita we tried to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom." In short, the art helped them to survive. --Shawn Carkonen, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


‘Through her tales of discussing Henry James and Nabokov over cream cakes and coffee, we get a highly unusual insight into the youth of a society about which we know little.’ Sunday Times Book of the Year

‘Anyone who has ever belonged to a book group must read this book…It is at once a celebration of the power of the novel and a cry of outrage at the reality in which these women are trapped. The Ayatollahs don’t know it, but Nafisi is one of the heroes of the Islamic Republic.’ Geraldine Brooks

‘I was enthralled and moved by Azar Nafizi’s account of how she defied, and helped others to defy, radical Islam's war against women. Her memoir contains important and properly complex reflections about the ravages of theocracy, about thoughtfulness, and about the ordeals of freedom – as well as a stirring account of the pleasures and deepening of consciousness that result from an encounter with great literature and with an inspired teacher.’ Susan Sontag

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Keith Lawson VINE VOICE on 9 Sept. 2009
Format: Paperback
Firstly I must confess that I didn't finish this book. I read so far, then scanned sections later. That was because I found the book to be less about life in Iran and more of a literary review on the books of Nabokov, a writer with whom I am not familiar apart from "Lolita" 40 years ago. I have enjoyed other works about life in different cultures and harsh regimes, "The bookseller of Kabul" "Burned" and a memoir about visiting Romania during Ceacescu's reign. All were brilliant portrayals of life going on under the boot of totalitarian regimes or oppressive cultures. This book, while nicely written, is too descriptive about English Literature and not the people; I couldn't engage with it. If you are uncertain now, then try browsing it or finding abstracts to see if it is what you want in a read. To understand my taste, then read "Touching Tibet" by Naomi Ash, a book I have recommended to many and all have been grateful for that advice.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 20 Oct. 2004
Format: Paperback
This book will appeal most to those who want to understand what it has been like to be a Western educated and liberated woman in Iran since the Iranian revolution began against the shah. If you also enjoy English literary criticism and analysis, you will have a great treat ahead of you. If hearing about injustice and brutality upset you, you will like this book less well.
The format of this book is most unusual. I predict that you will either find the format intriguing or maddening, depending on how flexible you are in your appreciation of new styles. Professor Nafisi writes her memoir of those years in a sort of semi-diary form. The observations are filled with nuance about the people in her life, the nature of her life, her thoughts and how what's going on reflects the concerns of four novelists, Nabokov (especially through Lolita), Fitzgerald (especially through The Great Gatsby), James (especially through Daisy Miller and The Ambassadors), and Austen (especially through Pride and Prejudice). Against this literary and personal backdrop, violent events explode every few pages as the Islamic Republic is established and begins its crackdown on women and dissidents. Later, the Iran-Iraq war provides similar moments of violence.
The literary-real life nexus is related to Professor Nafisi having been an English literature professor in Tehran when the revolution began. At first, she still taught in the university. Later she resigned. Still later, she agreed to return in full Muslim regalia for women. Then, she quit again and began teaching a secret class for her most devoted students in her home.
The book opens with a lyrical description of the home teaching experience in the context of Lolita, which the group was studying.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Thoughtful reader on 22 Jun. 2011
Format: Paperback
I approached this book with no preconceived ideas, being intrigued by its title (which turned out sadly to be its only asset) and by the concept of seeing life through the prism of literary works.

However, it took me a great effort of will to finish the book. This is because after the first 50 pages where the basic idea is being expounded, there is absolutely nothing new: just more anecdotes from daily life tied in to abstruse analysis of great works. The tone retains emotionally flat throughout the book and there is absolutely no character development at all. Thus, as I read the last page, I was still confused over which woman student was which....

A major source of irritation with this book is the jarringly narcissistic tone of "my girls," (a la Miss Jean Brodie), "my magician," "my Manna" and on and on. This tone of ownership and self-importance reigns supreme to the point where I said several times: Just get over yourself.

Of even greater concern is the unrelenting lack of empathy by the author for anyone except herself, whom she paradoxically characterizes as "Alice in Wonderland" and an "intellectual." Is this why the word is often used as a pejorative by native English speakers?

We are also told that the author considers herself a "revolutionary," having spent much of her time as a student in the US marching and shouting but not actually doing anything practical to help the proletarians. We are told that her thesis was even written about proletarian literature.....

The author also participates in marches in Tehran but is careful never to put herself in any real danger, usually finishing the day in a café with her favorite `cafe glace' or at home with her family enjoying a bootleg glass of wine.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By maya j on 31 July 2007
Format: Paperback
'Reading Lolita in Tehran' is definitely not a mainstream "chick-lit" book, nor a highly literary work of non-fiction, nor a basic memoir- it's a combination of all three. "Reading Lolita" has many things it's trying to accomplish, and this is where I think it falls short.

I must admit, it took me a few chapters to get into "Reading Lolita". I thought it was going to be a strict memoir, and when she digressed into these elaborate dissertations on (especially Lolita), I found myself getting bored. Now, I'm not one to ever eschew an intellectual conversation or debate on ANYTHING, but I really wanted to hear about the girls and their lives and Azar Nafisi's life in this horrible theocratic regime. I also wanted to know how they managed to get away with reading such blasphemous stuff. When Azar Nafisi talked of these things, I couldn't put the book down, but when she started on her diatribes and nuanced descriptions of "Lolita", Nabokov, Fitzgerald and Austen, I found my mind wandering, wondering, "What am I going to wear tomorrow?" I suppose if I had picked up a book entitled, "The In-Depth Analysis of Vladimir Nabokov and Lolita", I wouldn't have felt that way, but as you know, this isn't that book. As the book progressed, I really did have affection for some of the characters, and I truly felt scared for them and hoped that this book didn't have a horrible ending like all the women getting executed in a soccer field or something. Luckily, we didn't have to deal with that, but I wish Azar Nafisi would write a book JUST talking about the lives and feelings and situations of young women in Iran, so that people throughout the world can really figure out what's going on over there. Unfortunately, I believe that would be hard for Nafisi to do.
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