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Winner, 2004 Book Sense Book of the Year Award for Non-Fiction
"This book transcends categorization of memoir, literary criticism or social history, though it is superb in all three."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
For two years before she left Iran in 1997, Nafisi gathered seven young women at her house every Thursday morning to read and discuss forbidden works of Western literature. They were all former students whom she had taught at university. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; several had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they began to open up and to speak more freely, not only about the novels they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments. Their stories intertwined with their stories they were reading—Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Daisy Miller and Lolita—their Lolita, as they imagined her in Tehran.
Reading Lolita in Tehran flashes back to the early days of the revolution, when Nafisi first started teaching at the University of Tehran amid the swirl of protests and demonstrations. In those frenetic days, the students took control of the university, expelled faculty members, and purged the curriculum. When a radical Islamist in Nafisi’s class questioned her decision to teach The Great Gatsby, which he saw as an immoral work that preached falsehoods of “the Great Satan,” she decided to let him put Gatsby on trial and stood as the sole witness for the defense.
Azar Nafisi’s story offers a fascinating portrait of the Iran-Iraq war viewed from Tehran and gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. It is a work of great passion, written with a startlingly original voice.
Of interest to students of Women's Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and Literature.
Praise for Reading Lolita in Tehran...
"In 1997 Iran, Nafisi formed an illicit book group whose syllabus provided the perfect framework for appraising life before and after the Islamic Revolution—and afforded her female students what little freedom they knew. Through impassioned discussions of Nabokov, James, and Fitzgerald, she details her teaching career and the obstacles her students faced. Her seamless blend of literary criticism and memoir begets a whole new genre and reminds us that fiction, no matter how perverse or fantastic, springs from—and ultimately informs—reality."--Library Journal, A Best Books of 2003
"Nafisi provides readers with a view of Tehran during these tumultuous two decades [1980's, 1990's] and describes the ways that individuals resisted and defied the new regime's restrictive policies concerning both women's and men's behavior and dress. Readers interested in Western literature and the ways that key works could be interpreted by those living in different settings and times will find this book fascinating. Specialists on Iran, the Middle East, and Islam will also find the work unique, controversial, and informative. Summing Up: Recommended." —CHOICE Magazine (American Library Association)
"Woven through her story are the books she has taught along the way, among them works by Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James and Austen. She casts each author in a new light, showing, for instance, how to interpret The Great Gatsby against the turbulence of the Iranian revolution....Nafisi has produced an original work on the relationship between life and literature."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“…a brief on the transformative powers of fiction —on the refuge from ideology that art can offer to those living under tyranny and art’s affirmative and subversive faith in the voice of the individual” —The New York Times
“There are certain books by our most talented essayists…that…carry inside their covers the heat and struggle of a life’s central choice being made and the price being paid, while the writer tells us about other matters, and leaves behind a path of sadness and sparkling loss. Reading Lolita in Tehran is such a book.”--Mona Simpson in The Atlantic Monthly
“Azar Nafisi takes us into the vivid lives of eight women who must meet in secret to explore the forbidden fiction of the West. 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, author of Nine Parts of Desire
“I was enthralled and moved by Azar Nafisi’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
“When I first saw Azar Nafisi teach, she was standing in a university classroom in Tehran, holding a bunch of red fake poppies in one hand and a bouquet of daffodils in the other, and asking, What is kitsch? Now, mesmerizingly, she reveals the shimmering worlds she created in those classrooms, inside a revolution that was an apogee of kitsch and cruelty. Here, people think for themselves because James and Fitzgerald and Nabokov sing out against authoritarianism and repression. You will be taken inside a culture, and on a journey, that you will never forget.” —Jacki Lyden, National Public Radio, author of Daughter of the Queen of Sheba
“A memoir about teaching Western literature in revolutionary Iran, with profound and fascinating insights into both. A masterpiece.” —Bernard Lewis, author of The Crisis of Islam