Thursday, August 18, 2005


I’m not really a club kind of guy. Clubbing is really about batching people in sets based on perceived similarities. I tend to relate to people individually not as part of a group. This means my going into a wild flap when I have more than a dozen of them around for dinner. Having met them one-on-one, I agonise over whether they will get along with each other. They invariably do (or pretend to do so) and I relax until the next lunch or dinner comes along. As for book reading clubs, I’ve never been part of one, though a bunch of (women) friends tried their damndest to get me involved in one.

Reading “Lolita” in Tehran is a fascinating novel by Azer Nafisi. It tells of an Iranian academic who was unable to continue teaching literature because of the increasingly repressive policies of the university she taught at. Reading Lolita tells of a book club that Nafisi established at her home, where six other women (largely former students) would assemble to discuss books, including some which were officially banned. The books themselves (ranging from Pride and Prejudice to Washington Square to Lolita) are largely incidental. It is the juxtaposition of middle class Iranian women to eighteenth and nineteenth century literature which is fascinating. Reading Lolita goes a step further. It is an allegory of the role of literature in society, of the power of books to open the mind even in the most trying of circumstances and of the willingness of people to defy the odds regardless of the political systems they are born into. The chilling background (Mad Mullahs, Liberals in Drag, Forced Marriages) gives Nafisi not only a fascinating canvas to work on but also shows the universality of good literature in the most unlikely of situations. The eagerness of Nafisi's students in defying the odds and truly wanting to know about books and about themselves shines through.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Jay Fowler also tells of the power of the club, but is about as different from Nafisi’s narrative as chalk is from the chador. Five men and a woman meet in California to discuss the novels of Jane Austen. Each of us has a private Jane Austen, maintains Fowler, and her six characters are created to connect to each of the Austen novels at a different novel. Unfortunately, California rears its expansive head early on into the narrative and the book club members break into what can only be described as first-person-psycho-therapy-posing-as-novel. I found the novel had more to do with the quirks of its particular characters and less and less to do with poor old Jane who seemed more like a clumsy device to hold a bunch of very disparate peopletogether. Nafisi’s club was truly interested in the novels they read each week (often relying on tattered photocopies and not books) and how they could apply them to their lives. The Californians on the other hand just talk about themselves and their not very interesting lives, with bits of Austen trivia thrown in to add some much needed authenticity to the plot. Sadder still, the passion of Nafisi's students feel for their books appears nowhere in California. Yes, they kind of like Jane Austen, but that's about it. Their preoccupation with their lives, dogs, children, lesbian daughters and parents take centre stage. For her less well educated readers, Fowler adds a brief summary of each of the Jane Austen novels at the end of her book. Yikes. I’d sooner read Pride and Prejudice in Tehran than in Sacramento.


Anonymous Sin said...

I haven't read "Reading Lolita in Tehran", but the beauteous boyfriend of the Spud lent me "The Jane Austen Book Club." It felt like an A-level literature class for the mentally defective.

7:42 pm  
Blogger s said...

i spotted "reading lolita" in a bookstore here, the other day and wasn't sure whether to get it or not...will rush out and buy it as soon as i'm done reading 'the zahir' (which i just started yesterday and seems to be okay, so far).

i LOVE your book reviews, by the way.

3:01 pm  
Anonymous closetalk said...

hey... nice reviews. can tell uve been a busy, busy bookworm, lately. ;-)
and by de way, de lil social dinner revenge story was cuuuuute. ;-)

1:57 am  
Blogger Uber Homme said...

Sin: The Spud. LOL.

S: Get it. Good book. Not overly sentimental.

Closetalk: Thanks!

1:25 pm  
Blogger catalina207maritza said...

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2:55 pm  

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