Non Fiction November – Week 3: Diversity and Non Fiction

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This year, for the first time, I’ve been participating in the annual Non Fiction November (challenge?) where bloggers are encouraged to read more non fiction and post answers to weekly queries posed by our hosts. There are four hosts this year, and this week’s is Becca at I’m Lost in Books. Please consider giving her blog a visit.

This week’s topic is “Diversity and Nonfiction” and we are asked to post about “What does “diversity” in books mean to you? Does it refer to books’ location or subject matter? Or is it the author’s nationality or background? What countries/cultures do you tend to enjoy or read about most in your nonfiction? What countries/cultures would you like nonfiction recommendations for? What kind of books besides different cultures do you think of as books of diversity?”

Generally speaking, I read fiction for entertainment and to learn about people (or maybe “the human condition”), and I read non fiction to learn about the world. But look around the world and what do you see? People. And people are diverse. How about that? Anyway, to me, I think of reading diversely more in terms of the traditional sense of the word, not in the contemporary, people-focused definition. So to me reading diversely means reading about a lot of topics. I usually fail to achieve this. 🙂 I like history, but maybe not so much American history but history of other parts of the world I am less familiar with. I like biographies and autobiographies and read a good “diverse” one earlier this year in Li Cunxin’s “Mao’s Last Dancer” – about a ballet dancer trained as part of Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution” who later defects to the U.S.

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Reading Lolita in Tehran” was another diverse non fiction read for me this year. If you don’t already know, it’s about a kind of “underground” book club in Iran, where the readers (led by a former university professor) discuss the forbidden classics of western lit. This one brings up a good point too, in that it probably wasn’t a book I would’ve read on my own, but instead read since it was a selection for one of the book clubs I participate in. I have found that books I’m “forced” to read for a book club – particularly a club where members take turns picking books – have been a great source of reading diversity. It only makes sense, right? In fact, a book club I founded many years ago had as one of its stated “terms and conditions” that participants must be willing and hopefully eager to read books outside of their normal comfort zone. We lasted almost six years, which in my experience is not bad for a book club. 🙂

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Other recent non fiction reads that I consider diverse: “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall – more or less about the sport of ultimate marathons and extreme long distance running. I don’t run. I walk a lot, but I’ve never been a runner, so this book was outside of my comfort zone. I still liked it. “Dragging Wyatt Earp: A Personal History of Dodge City” by Robert Rebein was another great one. I’m a Midwesterner, so was unfamiliar with much of what was discussed about a more “western” town (the author even takes a turn working as a cowhand, a topic I knew nothing about and thus a part of the book that I found very interesting). One more was “The Queen of Kaywe” about a young female chess prodigy in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. A part of the world I know very little about and a human condition extreme, I mean EXTREME poverty that thankfully I have never personally experienced.

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Looking back at these titles, I note that almost all, even if they are in a different setting geographically, have at least one topic or component that I am already familiar with (e.g. chess, a love of western lit, etc.) which permits me at least some foothold of familiarity in an unfamiliar setting. Do you find that to be true of your diverse non fiction reading too?

Finally, what countries or cultures I like to read more about? I have a lot of interest in China – as our potential (probable?) future economic overlords – and New Zealand, where I’ve always wanted to visit or maybe retire to… Can you offer any recommendations to help me out here? 🙂

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Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

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The title of this book is somewhat misleading. I knew something of the subject matter going in – an “underground” book club in Iran’s capital that read forbidden (and decadent!) western books – but Lolita is only one of several books that is discussed. The other primary ones being The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, and Pride and Prejudice. Other works by the four authors often come into the discussion as well.

The author was a professor of western literature at the University of Tehran at the time of the Islamic Revolution that took place in Iran after the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini. (The education field is not generally a good vocation to find oneself in a the time of revolution, let alone teaching western literature in a country undergoing an Islamic Revolution!) Nafisi was educated in the United States and returned to her home country just as the revolution was taking hold. Her excitement soon turned to dismay as oppression – particularly of women and the intelligentsia – became more and more prevalent in the new regime.

The book does not unfold in actual chronological sequence, as we are introduced at the very start to her private book club (meetings were held in Nafisi’s home) which was formed toward the end of her time in Iran (she left in 1997). It is often through the personal stories told by the handful of students in this underground book club that we learn of the vile and relentless oppression that women faced (still face?) in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Much of the book’s narrative focuses on the requirement that women wear a veil, something the author and others refused to do, resulting in great persecution.

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We also learn more of the horrors of the long war between Iraq and Iran. The tactic of “human wave” maneuvers where “thousands of Iranian soldiers, mainly very young boys ranging in age from ten to sixteen and middle-aged and old men, cleared the minefields by walking over them.” Also a result of that war were the many bombing raids on Tehran, with Nafisi (along with family and students) frequently seeking shelter, sometimes reading as they wait for an all clear signal. One of my favorite passages of the book speaks about this:

“If a sound can be preserved in the same way as a leaf or a butterfly, I would say that somewhere within the pages of my Pride and Prejudice, that most polyphonic of all novels, and my Daisy Miller is hidden like an autumn leaf the sound of the red siren.”

(There were color-coded sirens for when bombs were on the way, imminent or immediate)

Overall, though, I had several problems with this book, some admittedly due to a cultural bias (e.g., the introduction of characters whose names gave no clue to me – a western reader – as to gender, which I would have to later (and sometimes much later) discover via context, left me not remembering “who was who” for the most part.) but others I felt should have been corrected or dealt with via editing. Primary of these was the author’s seemingly arbitrary use and non-use of quotation marks for dialogue. Why? At least be consistent. I’m not a fan of the ‘no quotation marks dialogue’ in general but when you switch back and forth like the author did, reading becomes more of a chore and too much of one’s reading effort is spent on this issue instead of the story. “I hate when that happens.”

Another bone of contention was the disjointed time line of the book. It’s “all over the place” and again another portion of my reading effort is spent trying to stay oriented chronologically. I was also continually off-put by the author’s caginess regarding some of her personal history. Maybe it is a matter of public record, but what exactly were her own thoughts about the revolution? It seems hinted at that she was actively in favor of it during her time as a student in the U.S., but she’s pretty scant on details. Is she maybe embarrassed to have supported a cause that morphed into such an evil regime (I sure would be), or does she assume the reader already knows her personal history? This latter option would be consistent with the literary parts of the book, where the readers’ familiarity with those works appears to be a given assumption. Fortunately, I was familiar with almost all of the works discussed, but not, for example, Nabokov’s “Invitation to a BeHeading.” At one point, she even writes like we all have the same copy of Pride and Prejudice saying “Please turn to page 148 and visualize the scene as you read the passage…” What?! Thankfully she eventually quotes a passage, but ‘please turn to page…’ Should have been edited out, certainly.

I should also mention that Nafisi spoils the ending of at least three works (no concern to her, obviously, as we were expected to be familiar with all of them to begin with). I was almost expecting her to tell us something about rosebud by the end of the book.

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Am I sorry I read this book? No, but I was expecting more based on reviews and praise that had been heaped upon it. I read this book for a book club meeting. The reactions of the group were mixed, but for “show and tell” one of the members brought a copy of (at least most of) the literary works it discusses – a hefty stack! A couple members had also travelled to the Middle East (in their cases Egypt and Qatar) and shared some of their observations and experiences. I will say the book made for a good and often lively discussion.

A few quotes from the book:

“Living in the Islamic Republic is like having sex with a man you loathe.” (The author says this to her husband at one point. He doesn’t ask her how she would know what the latter feels like)

After the Revolutionary Guard “raids” a coffee shop “Every time something like this happened, I, like many others, would think of leaving, of going to a place where everyday life was not such a battleground.”

“No one ever taught me to be happy.” An unutterably sad statement by one of Nafisi’s students, Nassrin. This was a depressing book in many ways, but that short sentence pretty much sums it up for many.

(Below: The Ayatollah Khomeini, an architect of evil…)

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