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February 18, 2009

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi – ISBN – 9780812979305

My contact with the Hollywood film version of Nabokov’s Lolita led to my disinclination to read this memoir the first time around. I recently discovered why it has become widely acclaimed. Sehr Gut! Its author is a western literature professor; an Iranian expatriate who now teaches in the U.S. where she is gaining repute as a mesmerizing professor.

Reading Nabokov is a metaphor for reading literature in a country where literature is without merit unless supportive of ideology. Iran’s liberalizing society was devastated by Khomeini, and it is this calamity which Nafisi skillfully explores. In so doing she reminds of why we read in the first place. As well, she reminds us of why we are—or at least ought to be (though sometimes I wonder about some people)—grateful to live in the West, especially in the U.S.

She shares perspectives on her Iranian students’ plight, the ongoing struggle of a citizenry which had become the most modern in the Muslim world, and her own travails with this violent, oppressive regime. Her description of the mind set acquired by living in such a place is riveting. She recalls a student who once shared with her “an illegal dream.” Imagine, if you can, an illegal dream. Abject fear has been so instilled that it even impacts the unconscious.

As well, she shares the differences between her generation and that of her young students, noting that while her generation rues the void in their lives, created when their past was stolen, while the young have no past to steal. They speak only of “stolen kisses, films they’ve never seen, and the wind they’ve never felt on their skin.” (Recall that they must wear burkhas when leaving home.) Again, imagine!

“The worst crime committed by the totalitarian mind-set,” she opines, “is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution, is an act of utmost brutality.” All private space is invaded, and every gesture shaped as they endeavor to force everyone to be one of them. “Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe,” is one of her more graphic observations. Another is that “genuine democracy cannot exist without the freedom to imagine and the right to use imaginative works without any restrictions.” In Iran, imagination is subversive. It is dangerous to the narrow minded, autocratic power structure. Everything is in black and white. There is no room for the “polyphony” of democratic thought or experience. The study of literature emancipates one for a while, at least, which is why it is so important.

The book primarily revolves around a class composed of a handful of earnest young women, conducted in clandestine fashion outside the university. “There, in [my] 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, we tried [as did] Lolita, to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom.” She used Lolita to emphasize that the truth of present day Iran could be temporally immaterial to those who appropriated Lolita’s attitudes about life. “A half-alive butterfly who can only come to life through her own prison bars.” (If you haven’t read Lolita, it’d help. I’d add that her “take” on the novel is nothing like the idea one gets from watching it tortured by Hollywood.)

Nabokov is not alone in her memoir. As well, she taught Fitzgerald, James and Austen with similar ease and effect, exposing her students to a world they would not otherwise know, and from which they profited despite their situation. She was explicit in adapting the discussions to how they might assist the students in coping with the reality of their situation. She uses the precarious situation of the students to help crystallize the reader’s understanding of the evil extant in Iran as it is comported today, while also addressing the basic humanity of the struggling Persian people.

This is an inspirational book, if not an uplifting situation. It exemplifies the triumph of normal people over oppression, if only in minor ways, but it humanizes them nevertheless.

Posted by respeto at 12:25 PM

February 14, 2009


The World as Stage
Bill Bryson – ISBN – 9780061673696

Another book on Shakespeare was unnecessary, but the Eminent Lives series invited Bryson to do one for them. It’s great they asked. He’s created a succinct, humorous literary adventure for those who are “short on time.” Like his subject, he’s is a master wordsmith.

Throughout the book he reminds that astonishingly little is actually known about Shakespeare, considering that he is so famous, yet he then expounds on that little bit in his customary, delightful way. As usual he includes related but obscure history of the times which further enlivens the book.

Who knew that then contemporary St. Paul’s cathedral was an immense square covering 12 acres, including a cemetery and a market place. The latter included every conceivable type of merchant and craftsman. Its dry, covered space housed still more, not to mention providing a place of repose for the local drunks. Pedestrians traversed it in inclement weather, not rarely to protect their piccadill (the starched, ribbon like collar so often seen in portraits and the name source for the legendary Piccadilly Circus.)

Diets of the day, for people able to afford them, were as varied and as complex as they are today. Beer was drunk in copious amounts throughout the day, even by Puritans; a gallon per day being the traditional ration of monks. Even then English Ale was an acquired taste, he notes.

The history of important architectural features of London, including its theatres (the Rose, the Globe, and the Blackfriar amongst them) is reviewed, interestingly and briefly.

But I digress. The golden age of theatre “lasted only the length of a good human lifetime;” and even then was interrupted by occasional plague epidemics. Actors were required to memorize as many as fifteen thousand lines in a season--the equivalent to a 200 page book! Since groups included no more than a dozen actors, they played many roles. Though some characters had few or no lines, actors still had to memorize stage placement and cues for these parts in addition to their own primary roles. Shakespeare, the genius, was clearly a very busy man, since he acted, directed, scripted, and managed, in addition to being a theatre owner.

As to themes and plots, all writers “borrowed” from many sources, including contemporaries. No one objected, which probably accounts for the seeming breadth of Shakespeare’s knowledge. He, more than historian or polymath, was an incredibly gifted writer, who could elaborate upon history, or rework existing plays written by others into forms which were better received. He sometimes “lifted” whole paragraphs or scenes from others, as did they, from him. Occasionally he made huge errors which were generally overlooked. For example, “In The Taming of the Shrew, he put a sail maker in Bergamo . . . the most landlocked city in the whole of Italy.” Only a few of his works were truly original, and most of those were comedies.

He was a master phrasemaker who introduced hundreds of new phrases and words. Many are still in common use, amongst them, one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, salad days, tower of strength, foregone conclusion, and blinking idiot. In The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, fully one-tenth of the notations are Shakespeare’s creations!

In his time most important documents and text works were written in Latin. Curiously, the first textbook of the English language was written in Latin! Shakespeare’s birth was recorded in Latin, his death in English. It is no small tribute to the man that in his lifetime the official language of “cultured” England changed from Latin to English, and he was amongst the architects of that change.

In closing Bryson elaborates in detail the errors of “the Anti-Stratfordians.” These were people who strained to prove—based upon little or nothing—that Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare. The dispute rages even now, though it wasn’t raised until hundreds of years after his death. He defangs and/or dissects these “cases of proof” humorously, as one might expect. Most arguments are based upon, at best, “chains of hopeful suppositions.” Many people have expended—and still do--large portions of their lives trying to prove their point. He observes, amusingly, that amongst these confident anti-Stradfordians were men whose surnames were Looney, Battey and Silliman.

In this regard Bryson opines that “with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants with the necessary time, talent and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare, . . . [there has never been produced] the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so.”

The Earl of Oxford—the current favorite, and unskilled in his own right—would have to have been incredibly gifted “to create, in [his] spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in voices patently not [his] own, in a manner so cunning that [he] fooled virtually everyone during [his] own lifetime and for four hundred years afterward.” How, he asks, would Oxford benefit from writing masterful plays anonymously while attaching his own name to mediocrities? Further, Oxford would have been required to anticipate his own death, “[leaving] a stock of work sufficient to keep the supply of new plays flowing at the same rate until Shakespeare himself was ready to die a decade or so later. Now that is genius;” or would be if true, when some of the plots were based upon historic events which occurred after Oxford’s death . . . e.g., The Tempest.

A delightful read and highly recommended. A similar book, Will in the World, is reviewed elsewhere on this site and is likewise worth a read.

Posted by respeto at 12:20 PM

February 11, 2009

Swamp Fox

The Life and Campaigns of General Francis Marion
Robert D. Bass – ISBN – 9780878440511

Marion was of French Huguenot lineage; a diminutive, wiry, diligent, courageous and brilliant commander in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War . . . much esteemed, then as now, and iconized in his home state. Like, but preceding the Gray Ghost (John Mosby) in the Civil War, Marion earned the sobriquet Swamp Fox because he would emerge from an impenetrable swamp, attack the British and disappear without a trace. He was, at once, everywhere and nowhere. With his minions he exploited the most minor of advantages, often turning encounters into major victories. Prominent Royal commanders from the vicious Ban Tarleton to General Cornwallis respected and feared him. Like George Washington his resume was further enhanced in the retelling by Parson Weems. The movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, was (very, very) loosely patterned on the life of this gallant figure.

Despite his wily aggressiveness he would never fight when the risk of defeat was obvious. He protected his men. They loved him, fought and died for him. He was free of rage and ambition, confident but never foolish, and rarely made unpredictable or erroneous judgments and never exhibited malice toward his enemies. Whilst the Royals, especially Tarlton—often cruel reckless--ritually burned homes and crops of the patriots (and Tories as well!), rendering women and children homeless and without sustenance, Marion never reciprocated in kind. He never attacked the Tory loyalists in that way, and forbid his troops to do so . . . indeed would punish them severely if they did so. Further, he forbid his troops to be cruel even in his absence. Because he was kindly to his adversaries he recruited many of them to the patriot side of the conflict.

He was hunted as prey, but never caught. Cornwallis once sent the arrogant Tarlton out to capture and kill Marion, but he failed. After days of search he turned to other more ready captures with some lame excuse. On other occasions Marion’s “simple countrymen in blue jeans, armed with squirrel rifles, fowling pieces and homemade swords [threw back] the finest regiments in the British Army.” The man was a tactical wizard who could motivate simple country folk to fight like demons to secure their freedom. One British commander bitterly stammered that Marion and his men “will not sleep and fight like gentlemen, . . . but like savages are eternally firing and whooping around us by night, and by day waylaying and popping at us from behind every tree!”

On his weary return from the war he found his plantation in ruins, ravaged by friend and foe alike. The British had used it as an object of plunder and the Americans as a source of supply. They had pilfered his goods, burned his home, barns and contents, driven off his cattle, confiscated his horses and kidnapped his slaves. Yet with his customary grace, faith, and daring which had served him so well in war, he resumed his life with neither hesitation nor remorse. Unpaid for his services in the militia, and never reimbursed for his losses, he borrowed to replace what he could, fed and clothed his remaining slaves, restored his home, and became in peace what he had been in war . . . a respected gentleman.

While he had been the scourge of Tory loyalists, no one more readily forgave their loyalty to their king. After the war, and at personal risk, he defended them in public, and sponsored legislation to provide them justice and equity. When chastised by peers his rejoinder was: “God has given us the victory; let us show our gratitude to heaven, which we shall not do by cruelty to man.”

Eventually, by act of the legislature, he was rewarded for his “eminent and conspicuous services to his country.” A few years later, in his mid 50’s, he finally married; less than a decade later he passed into history as a legend.

The book is an informative read, but spotty. The narrative, while sometimes well constructed, is elsewhere dull as dirt. Many noted quotes seem manufactured—reading like historic fiction rather than the history it is supposed to be, though they do humanize the account. There are an additional several major faults.

The first is his mention of countless names in his attempt to include all surnames possible, thus to sell more books to people looking for heroic relatives. A back cover reviewer observed that “almost all South Carolinians can read about an ancestor or two.” I found it a terrible interference with the fluidity of the story. Only when one decides “to hell with what private so-and-so is supposed to have said or done,” and passes over distracting names, does the flow improve.

The second is that Marion’s men, the Tory militias, the British and Continental Armies raced all over the Carolinas, and the author includes every creek, river, lake, marsh and swamp; every hillock, mountain, copse, and forest; every path, trail and road; every plantation, village and town—by name!—and does so without providing a single map. Not one. Another back cover reviewer lauds Bass for “locating” Marion at least every three days throughout all the years of conflict. The tale suffers greatly because he did.

With those caveats I recommend the book . . . but plan to check out a few others. Marion is a fascinating and heroic Revolutionary character. I found myself wanting to learn more about him.

Posted by respeto at 1:00 PM

February 8, 2009

The Children of Men

P.D. James – ISBN – 9780307275431

Having never read James, I can only guess that her ability to engender suspense is based upon a lifetime of writing the gripping whodunits for which she is legendary. She is as gifted as Agatha Christie; maybe more so.

The plot, unlike her usual venue, is science fiction. It posits a time 30 years hence when the males of the human race have been sterile for reasons no medical scientist can determine. She engages in lively discourses full of tortuous asides which build to a powerful and a more-or-less unexpected climax. Observing the division into two “books,” the first Omega and the last Alpha, one is assured that it is possible to conclude the culmination with exactitude . . . one would be wrong. Close, perhaps, but no cigar.

English society has become more or less complacent; acceptant of the forthcoming extinction of Homo sapiens. As the population dwindles entire towns are abandoned; left to deteriorate. People get along, but with no particular relish. Society has created new rituals, including celebration of the birth and christening of cats. Minor crimes are punished by banishment to the isolated Isle of Man, where they are provided with shelter, superficial care, seeds and implements to grow food, but little else. They cannot return. The fiercest run the place as the weak are expunged. There is a new ceremony, Quietus, in which “volunteers” amongst the elderly are quietly euthanized, and their heirs paid a premium for their sacrifice. They are loaded upon barges, shackled to benches and launched into the ocean where the barges are simply sunk (saves bullets or IV drugs, I guess.)

The system is overtly if quietly cruel, but no one pays attention beyond their own particular needs, trusting the government to supervise it all. The new government isn’t “royal;” rather, a committee headed by a Warden who is nothing if not a dictator, who answers to no one beyond the committee. Said committee rarely challenges decisions, and no one in the diminishing population of England has a say about what transpires. The government is committed to maintaining civility, safety, and the orderly demise of society. Medical research is directed by the committee, and is expressly devoted to the prolongation of life, improvement of mental faculties, better health, etc . . . but for what? The committee determines when villages are to be abandoned, how services and food are to be provided, etc. It provides the money to fund Quietus, and most everything else. No one challenges or reports upon it.

Servants are imported from the still extant 3rd world, confined to life in compounds except when working, paid little, provided with no security, and sent back home when they are no longer useful. They have no right to remain, which would but add further to the burden of England.

The Warden, needless to say, is the antagonist, and his childhood friend, Theo, is the prime protagonist. He’s a detached, divorced Oxford professor of history who has no life outside of academia, no interest beyond the past; and a person of no conviction, including religion. Love is something strange to society at large, and most especially to Theo. Over the course of the tale he is humanized from a drone to one who finally experiences love and feels a responsibility for someone else.

There arises a band of revolutionaries which includes a budding dictator, a priest, and a pair of women who are opposed to the cruelty of the Isle of Man, the treatment of the imported serfs, the Quietude, and the general nature of the dictatorship. They attempt to alter it. They approach Theo to represent their ideas to the Warden. No one can gain audience, but they expect that Theo’s friendship will gain him a hearing. Theo agrees, and thus becomes a party to the insurrection. The plot, beyond the original framework, details the experiences of this band of malcontents.

It is suspenseful, fulsome, thought provoking and infinitely readable tract. In fact, I may even try a murder mystery or two . . . a genre which I never read. Her delivery is more akin to literature than it is to mayhem. She is good!

Posted by respeto at 11:26 AM

February 6, 2009

A Man in Full

Tom Wolfe – ISBN – 9780553381337

Wolfe (Bonfire of the Vanities; The Right Stuff) recently wrote what “critics” have deemed his masterpiece. That’s saying quite a bit, in that much of his work would so qualify. But it is indeed a beautifully written, powerful novel with a complex plot, which in a peculiar way is also humorous.

The multifaceted plot basically explores men; who they are, what they do, how they succeed and how they fail; their strengths and weaknesses. White and Black politicians, lawyers, business moguls, prime athletes and effete snobs are all welcome to a plot based in Atlanta, but involving characters from as far away as California; all brought together ingeniously by Wolfe, into the context of his aims. Every permutation of maleness is included amongst the characters: suave/slimy, brilliant/dull, naive/corrupt, sensitive/indifferent, tactful/thoughtless.

Cap’m Charlie Crocker is his “main man;” a flabby, overweight, over 60, former college football mega-star who has made it big in real estate development in Atlanta. He’s a boorish back-country “good-old-boy” who owns a magnificent home (having deeded millions of dollars and his first home to the wife he dumped for his trophy bride), a plantation—named Turp’m’tine, with a full staff of black folk--used as a hunting reserve, a national frozen food company, a pricey Gulfstream jet. His “baby,” however, is his namesake Crocker Center on the outskirts of town, which he conceived as becoming the premier business center of Greater Atlanta. Charlie has everything an aspirant to splendor might want . . . but his showpiece is over-built, over budget, over-extended, under-occupied, financed with a personal pledge of several hundred million of his own money. . . . and it is bankrupting him.

The book offers insights into people you’ve never known; in places you’ve never been, doing things of which you’d rather not be aware. Yet it is a gigantic slice of life in the fast lane and a colorful description of the ups and downs of power as it explores the panoply of human behavior in an environment where “your honor” is the things you own; where everything, and nothing, matters except $$$. He puts you “there,” be it in a warehouse, a conference room, at a glitzy museum fund raiser, the country club, or hunting at Turp’m’tine with the boys—even, for a spell, in prison. He manages to include a brief essay on the sick rationale of the 60’s hippies in their Haight-Asbury holes.

There’s testosterone a-plenty, chutzpah by the ton, weakness, lust, power, success, intimidation, failure, pomp, humility, even an exploration of the philosophy of the stoic, Epictetus.

Wow. “Ever-thin-ya-cuud-ass-fer, don-cha-no?” Good read. Fun analytic, declarative and informative at the same time.

Posted by respeto at 3:11 PM