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Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

The book + my favorite reading chair
     Reading this book made me remember all the thousands of reasons why I love to read.
     It is a memoir, but it could also double as Sparknotes - if Sparknotes were about 1000 times more tantalizing and thought-provoking - for classic novels such as Daisy Miller by Henry James, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and, yes, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.  This makes sense because, in this memoir, author Nafisi chooses to remember a book club she created and nurtured during the early years of the Islamic Republic in Tehran, Iran, after quitting her second university job since the Revolution.  In case you didn't know - and my own knowledge of this time period was embarrassingly sparse before I read this book - Iran became a theocracy in 1979 after religious leaders overthrew and ushered out the old Shah monarchy.  Many Iranians hoped that the new government would be an improvement over the old because the Ayatollah, their new leader, promised to preserve their culture and prevent Western countries from intruding.  But in time, even the most insistent supporters became disillusioned with the Islamic Republic.  
     In starting her girls-only book club, which was composed of her most promising former students, Nafisi rebels against two of the Republic's most senseless institutions: its oppression of women and its condemnation of "immoral" literature.  (Most good, layered literature is immoral literature, apparently - if a book mentions sexuality or alcohol, or explores Western/American ideals, or in any way questions the Islamic Republic's simplistic values, it is banned from school curriculums and probably from book shops as well.)   Curled into Nafisi's living room chairs, drinking Turkish coffee and discussing banned novels, the women of her literary group are free to think, to breathe, to discover who they want to be, and to free themselves of the Republic's conception of who they should be.  
     Living under a despotic government affects the women of this book in ways I could never have imagined.  Nafisi struggles to balance her desire to go on living with her desire to symbolically flip off the Republic.  Is it better to withdraw from an oppressive society or comply with it in the hopes of making a change?  How much can you allow yourself to compromise, morally, in order to survive? Meanwhile her students, who barely remember a time before the Islamic Republic, are unsure as to what roles religion, love, sex, family, and work should play in their lives.  One woman feels that the regime has robbed her of her religion, even though her sect is in power, because wearing a chador is no longer a symbol of her beliefs and devotion to God - it is required.  I won't describe the students in any further detail, though, because Nafisi's portraits of each "girl," as she calls them, are one of the best parts of this book and I'm not going to spoil that.
     This review has turned into an enraptured rant.  Why do I always do this??  I can't help it - good books make me emotional :P  This memoir is about how something as private and small as reading novels can be rebellion in its purest form, and if you read it, you'll have wild, complicated thoughts for days.

     - Carly

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