Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran


Reading Lolita in Tehran
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like Sartrapi’s The Complete Persepolis, this memoir does an extraordinary job describing life during the turbulent times of Iran’s revolution and subsequent war with Iraq. It’s well-written and compelling, delivering a deep, emotionally intelligent analysis of fundamentalist suppression. The usurpers and book banners of the day are portrayed with humanity, as deeply religious yet rational people honestly trying to argue their case and improve their world. I have to put my literature geek hat on in order to properly praise my favorite aspect of this book: Nafisi’s mastery of telling a true story through the lens of fictional classics. Her book is divided into four parts: Lolita, Gatsby, James, and Austen, each focused ostensibly on her secret class’s discussion of the books and authors in question. Yet she deftly expands each circle to tell the story of the revolution using the very themes of the book she’s teaching.

I. Lolita: Nafisi describes the rights women and secularists were deprived under the regime, as Dolores was deprived of a happy, normal childhood by the book’s villain. She also relates the regime’s crushing body of rules to Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, a surreal dystopia about a man imprisoned by self-deluding jailers forcing him to follow nonsensical rituals in order to participate in his own execution.
II. The Great Gatsby: A peculiar word that crops up constantly in the regime’s rhetoric is the decadence that led to the West’s “demise.” Obviously Jay Gatsby is a perfect embodiment of this noun, yet Nafisi peels back this layer to tell the book’s tragic story of love and sacrifice and challenge the reader’s reactive judgement of the antihero.
III. Henry James: I knew nothing about this man. Injured in the Civil War, this American spent most of his life in England as an apolitical expat. The onset of World War I and his home country’s reticence to intervene galvanized his sense of purpose. He became a British citizen, ruthlessly criticized the US’s isolationism, and wrote essays about the war that, in his mind, was tearing down the very fabric of civilization. During this section of the memoir Nafisi describes more of the history, facts & figures about the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war, treating it with a James or Whitman style despair.
IV. Jane Austen: I’ll admit, as a male, this was the one section I faltered on. As in Austen’s novels, Nafisi talks about her female students’ struggles with suitors and love affairs. The right to pursue happiness and choose one’s own partner is touted as the great moral goal of a democracy. The regime’s many sex and marriage related regulations remind us that their ultimate aim, via oblique means, was the suppression of free thought, expression, and identity.

This is a great book to learn more about modern Iran’s foundation, but it will also challenge your concepts of religion, power, sex, and expression.

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Doubt vs Ignorance


“Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.” ~Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

When I watched this hilarious bit by John Oliver, it reminded me of a problem I’ve noted in the proper use of the English language in media.

Does the word “scientific” mean authoritative? Is “science” an unassailable edifice of knowledge? Are “scientists” the monks of our religion of secularism? Are white lab coats a cuirass against our blunt wooden spears of “common sense”?

science ( sī-ən(t)s )n. knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation

You have probably heard the old wive’s tale “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” You probably have not ever tested it, or you’d find it to be false. While this diminishes the rigor with which modern science is (or at least should be) practiced, it contains the essence of what science is all about. Galileo was effectively the vinegar of the Inquisition’s honey.

Science is, by definition, an act of revolution, a challenge to accepted norms. Many headlines claim that some experiment or other has “revealed [a subject] to be more complicated than scientists first assumed.” While this passive-aggressive headline intends to rebuke the discoverers for their hubris, it is in fact a tautology. Science is always discovering new things because that’s what science is. The “assumptions” the headline wants us to believe scientists have always clung to with religious fervor is what experimenters actually call the “null hypothesis.” This is one of my favorite terms. Not only does it imply that what we know today is merely the zero-th iteration of what shall prove to be an ascending ladder of more nuanced understanding. It also implies that what we know today is null, zilch, nada, ethereal, that we exist in a state like a half-finished jigsaw puzzle, with new pieces always being added, and existing pieces always being rearranged. This is not fatalistic as long as our methods are always ensuring the puzzle is progressing toward completeness.

I highly recommend the above books on science, all written for the layman. In Richard Dawkins’s first book, The Selfish Gene, he laments that all scholarly papers aren’t written in “plain English.” Richard Feynmann famously said that if he couldn’t distill a complex physics subject into a freshman lecture then it meant we didn’t really understand it. These books are a great way to learn about and feel empowered by astronomy, quantum physics, and evolution, because they do what no academic paper or textbook can do: they bring out the magic in their subject without talking down to the reader. Dawkins, in his remarkably thin book, sweeps through the hundred-plus years of developments in evolutionary theory since Darwin. (Remember, Darwin lived and died before the discovery of genes and DNA.) Guy Murchie takes you on a tour of the Solar System in a book of mind-boggling clarity and childlike magic. Deutsch will challenge you with a new vision of the universe that is at once counterintuitively repulsive and simultaneously tautologically self-obvious.

From Deutsch’s book, I learned of Karl Popper. In Popper’s time, science took on an air of empiricalism, the idea that there was one right set of ideas and we were all hopelessly toiling toward it, with finer and finer approximations to it, like Zeno’s arrow. While not overtly wrong, this dangerous worldview allowed people to think that once a truth was discovered, it became a stone in the unalterable edifice of absolute truth, to be built upon but never again questioned. This still seems to be the intuition of most laypeople when it comes to science. Either a theory (like gravity) is established fact, or a theory (like evolution) is just a theory, a 50/50 shot in the dark, hardly better than a guess. Popper reasoned that all discovered truths were like animals in the jungle. They evolved over time, they could be challenged by rivals big or small, and their truth was ultimately defined by their survival of trials. The proper response to a “scientific discovery” is to doubt, to set out to find flaws in the discoverer’s method, to attempt to replicate their data and thought process, to find a wrinkle in their otherwise smooth theory. In this way we reinforce, overturn, understand, challenge, and fall in love with the world we live in.

No statement about the physical world can be “proven” to be “true.” It is true only insofar as it makes itself easily vulnerable to disproof and successfully weathers these attempts. Earlier, I wrote about the morals science teach us. The most important takeaway comes from a quote by Claude Bernard: “True science teaches us to doubt and to abstain from ignorance.” It is just as ignorant to accept with blind faith the proclamations of experts as to ignore them.

Science is the systematized challenge of authority.

Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.

Doubt is the ultimate weapon against ignorance.

Spotlight: Dan Buri


Dan Buri

Dan Buri’s first collection of short fiction, Pieces Like Pottery, is an exploration of heartbreak and has spent time at #1 on multiple bestseller lists, including for inspirational short stories and inspirational fiction. The writing is uniquely heartfelt and explores the depths of the human struggle and the human search for meaning in life.

Mr. Buri’s non-fiction works have been distributed online and in print, including publications in Pundit Press, Tree, Summit Avenue Review, and TC Huddle. The defunct and very well regarded Buris On The Couch, was a He-Says/She- Says blog musing on the ups and downs of marriage with his wife.

Mr. Buri is an active attorney in the Pacific Northwest and has been recognized by Intellectual Asset Magazine as one of the World’s Top 300 Intellectual Property Strategists every year since 2010. He lives in Oregon with his wife and two-year- old daughter.

Mr. Buri is an active attorney in the Pacific Northwest and has been recognized by Intellectual Asset Magazine as one of the World’s Top 300 Intellectual Property Strategists every year since 2010. He lives in Oregon with his wife and two-year-old daughter.

AMAZON #1 BESTSELLER. The first collection of short fiction from Dan Buri, Pieces Like Pottery, announces the arrival of a new American author. In this distinct selection of stories marked by struggle and compassion, Pieces Like Pottery is a powerful examination of the sorrows of life, the strength of character, the steadfastness of courage, and the resiliency of love requisite to find redemption.

Filled with graceful insight into the human condition, each linked story presents a tale of loss and love mirroring themes from each of the five Sorrowful Mysteries. In Expect Dragons, James Hinri learns that his old high school teacher is dying. Wanting to tell Mr. Smith one last time how much his teaching impacted him, James drives across the country revisiting past encounters with his father’s rejection and the pain of his youth. Disillusioned and losing hope, little did James know that Mr. Smith had one final lesson for him.

In The Gravesite, Lisa and Mike’s marriage hangs in the balance after the disappearance of their only son while backpacking in Thailand. Mike thinks the authorities are right—that Chris fell to his death in a hiking accident—but Lisa has her doubts. Her son was too strong to die this young, and no one can explain to her why new posts continue to appear on her son’s blog.

Twenty-Two looks in on the lives of a dock worker suffering from the guilt of a life not lived and a bartender making the best of each day, even though he can see clearly how his life should have been different. The two find their worlds collide when a past tragedy shockingly connects them.

A collection of nine stories, each exquisitely written and charged with merciful insight into the trials of life, Pieces Like Pottery reminds us of the sorrows we all encounter in life and the kindness we receive, oftentimes from the unlikeliest of places.



Dan Buri is the son of an indie author. His father has two published books and countless article credits to his name. Dan’s first collection of short fiction, Pieces Like Pottery, is an exploration of heartbreak and redemption. His writing is uniquely heartfelt and explores the depths of the human struggle and the search for meaning in life.

Dan and His Family

Review: The Dancer Upstairs


The Dancer Upstairs
The Dancer Upstairs by Nicholas Shakespeare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Underwhelming. I love the movie, seen it many times. I discover a lot of books that way, by loving a movie. Unlike most book lovers, I don’t buy into the myth that the book is “always” better. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. In this case, the movie was better.

What a story! Now that I know the author was inspired by a true story, about the manhunt for the “Shining Path” revolutionaries, now I’m interested in that true crime story. We always think of “revolution” as a positive thing, especially in America. But we forget that revolution and terrorism are the same thing, two words describing the same events from conflicting viewpoints. When a revolutionary slits a politician’s throat, is that a beautiful sunrise of new ideas, or coldblooded murder? To tell the story of a failed revolution from the point of view of the cop hunting them down puts this question in perspective. To constantly reinforce the corruption of the government he’s supposedly protecting adds a layer of complexity to the story. Is he loyal to his crooked superiors? Could the revolutionaries be right? Or does he merely abhor violence?

Sadly, this is a profoundly moving and original story, told in flat, ordinary language. It is very seductive and compelling, especially towards the end, but with no sense of flair or lyrical style. Perhaps some are attracted to that kind of unpretentious terse language. For me, the movie captured what the author didn’t, that deep emotional component between the words, and I have to just leave it there.

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