“I left Iran, but Iran did not leave me.”

reading lolitaBrown Baggers met on July 20 at Central to discuss Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Published in 2003, this book chronicles the author’s experience as a secular professional woman living in Iran after the Islamic revolution in Tehran in 1979. She became increasingly marginalized at her job as a university professor and as a woman in Iran. When she finally couldn’t teach anymore she began an in-home class for her a group of her female students which inspired the title. Among other titles, this group read and discussed Nabokov’s classic Lolita.

Readers definitely felt the title was strategic. Lolita is a notably risqué book and Iran a notably conservative country. The suggestion of mixing the two may have piqued more interest than, as one reader observed, a title such as Reading The Great Gatsby in Tehran might have.

Readers enjoyed Nafisi’s compassion for her students, designing this one final class for them even while they could no longer work at or attend the university. That she worked to keep in touch with these women over many years and stay up-to-date on their lives proved her dedication, which readers admired.

The women in Nafisi’s group also engaged in small subversive acts to help them deal with the oppressiveness of the regime. This included leaving wisps of hair outside their veils and wearing gloves which hid forbidden nail polish. Readers felt the girls engaged in these small acts of rebellion because they couldn’t engage in larger regime changing measures.

Largely this book discussed how fiction, especially Western fiction, helped these women focus on possibilities outside the limits of their restrictions and hope for more — even if it was an idealized version of the West which they were reading about.

freedom

A panel from Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi

 

Similar Titles
Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi
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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane

More Information
Interview with the author
Video of the author:

List of books referenced in this book
Other titles by Nafisi

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, August 17 at noon to discuss My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.

“Some things were inevitable. You’d have to be a fool to think otherwise.”

51k4tgddlulBrown Baggers met on March 16 to discuss Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, JMRL’s 11th NEA Big Read book selection. Silver Sparrow follows the story of teen daughters of one man, but two separate women.  One teen daughter knows there are two families, but the other does not.

Readers discussed a variety of themes and characters in the book.

The main take away was that this story seemed to hit on the universality of family problems. While the family in the center of the novel is black, readers felt that their race wasn’t really the point and that the author endeavored to keep it as neutral an element as possible. Instead Jones set a family drama in  a neighborhood familiar to her which happens to be a primarily black neighborhood in Atlanta.

Readers went on to discuss what the notion of family meant in the story. They noted that non-blood related “brothers” James and Raleigh seemed to have a stronger familial bond than blood-related sisters Dana and Chaurisse.

Some readers thought James was neither good nor bad, because as humans we all make poor choices. But others felt he was definitely bad due to the discord he sowed with Dana and Gwen, although they sometimes realized this only later in the story. Some felt he was not as vibrant a character as any of the women. Readers suggested his fatal flaw was the lying it took to maintain his bigamist lifestyle. His value of family bonds and loyalty led him to make the decision he did at the end.

Speaking of women and their vibrancy, we talked about whether the girls confidence or lack thereof was a result of how their father treated them or having to share him. Readers felt more that the behaviors and attitudes modeled by the mothers were what ultimately had the strongest impression on the girls. Gwen being self sufficient, independent, and confident in her looks and abilities made Dana behave similarly, whereas Laverne being unsure of herself and condemning  of her own looks impressed similar behaviors on Chaurisse. Overall readers enjoyed the mother-daughter relationships.

One reader said it best when addressing the bigamy, “Sometimes you don’t do the most sensible things.” While readers enjoyed both stories, in the end they only felt sad for all the characters because no one ends up happy as a result of their decisions.

Mentions
Steel Magnolias play and film
Hair Story book
Good Hair film

Additional Information
Author bio
NEA Big Read website

Brown Baggers will meet again on April 20 to discuss Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough.

“Some Men Are Attracted To That”

51k4tgddlulBooks on Tap read Silver Sparrow  by Tayari Jones at  Champion Brewery on March 1 as part of the NEA Big Read. Due to a high turnout and a crowded room (both good problems to have), we divided into three groups for discussion so that we could hear each other. Most of us agreed that Jones told a good story with moments of beautiful writing, but that we wouldn’t have read this book if not for the NEA Big Read.

I can’t improve on this synopsis from the NEA Big Read website:

Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta during the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families—the public one and the secret one. When Witherspoon’s daughters from each family meet, they form a friendship, but only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives.

Dana, the “secret” sister, knows far more about the situation than Chaurisse, the “legitimate” sister who has been kept in the dark. Without a shared history, can they truly call themselves sisters? People in the group with experience thought they could have developed a relationship as adults, but that’s not how the novel unspools. The favoritism that each felt the other received from the adults in their lives (and the examples they set) proved insurmountable.  Ironically, it seems Dana, whose fate was determined by Chaurisse’s casts-offs, was made stronger by her father’s cruel insistence on independence and the web of her relationships instead of reliance on a nuclear family. Interestingly, many of us thought the portions of the book that Dana narrated were more compelling than those in Chaurisse’s voice.

Their shared father James impregnated Laverne, his first wife, when she was 14 and he was approximately 19. He and his foster brother Raleigh were left to raise themselves. Laverne moves in and the trio reach adulthood as a tight unit. James decides to become a chauffeur, taking money from both of them, thus ending Raleigh’s dreams of becoming a photographer and Laverne’s formal education. This selfishness crops up again and again (both mothers and daughters wait on him hand and foot), although it could be defended as a reflection of the seriousness with which James takes his responsibility to all the members of his families. It also protects James’ self-image.

James, Raleigh and Laverne are all abandoned by parents. James, Laverne and Chaurisse are the first nuclear family in generations. Their jump to middle-class Atlanta, with access to education and security, is something to be defended fiercely, regardless of James and Laverne’s feelings about each other personally (frankly, James is not a physically attractive specimen).  However, no one can escape him, and perhaps the male influence on these largely matrilineal families. Gwen and Raleigh’s abandonments stand out. Raleigh looks so white that he scares black people – including his own mother. Gwen is disowned by her father after leaving her first husband, proving that she can  leave a relationship.

The secret cracks when Gwen and Dana visit Laverne’s beauty shop. We discussed why they would have done this and if Dana ever made a conscious decision to befriend Chaurisse. Did they want to change the unfair dynamic and thought this was they way they could do it with the power available to them?

Jones portrays her hometown of Atlanta, the City Too Busy to Hate,  almost entirely peopled by African Americans. James and Laverne’s customers, the girls friends, Gwen’s neighbors depict the diversity of experience that is often ignored in outsiders’ depictions. The Civil Rights movement is obliquely referenced, which seems fitting for a novel that focuses so tightly on one extended family’s experience over a short amount of time.

More Information:
Learn more about the NEA Big Read and JMRL’s programs
About the author
Other works
Secret children in the news: Strom Thurmond, Charles Kuralt, John Edwards

Books on Tap Information:

We will be choosing titles for the summer at the April 6 meeting. Add suggestions you have to this list.

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