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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:


Julia Sneden reviews Reading Lolita in Tehran, an inside view of Iran's Islamic Republic as well as insights into the world of literature and its relevance to modern political situations.

And Consider This

Big Fish Director Tim Burton continues to display his quirky style in this touching film about love and the difficulties fathers and sons sometimes have in communicating with each other. Frances Nkara's documentary on abuse and healing , Downpour Surfacing, on PBS is part of the series Independent Lens. In most cities it will air at 10pm with another program called Why Can't We Be a Family Again? The self-help book, Riding the Dragon is a clear, helpful guide for dealing with the stress of our daily lives.


Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
by Azar Nafisi
Random House, NY, Paper

This remarkable little book offers satisfaction on many levels. The author is an Iranian woman, a professor of literature, and an astute political commentator. She offers us an inside view of The Islamic Republic of Iran, and shares with us what it is like to be a woman in a country where male zealots have taken control of daily life. Along with this, she also offers wonderful insights into the world of literature and its relevance to modern political situations. Through the novels she is teaching, she is able to examine the relationships between victims and oppressors, outsiders and the fanatics who have taken charge of their lives.

Forced from her professorship at the University of Tehran by her refusal to wear the veil required of all women under the Islamic Republic, she chose seven exceptional female students, and invited them to attend an unofficial, weekly literature class in her home. For two years before Mrs. Nafisi emigrated from Iran and came to the United States (in 1997), the little group met every Thursday morning to discuss the books they were assigned to read.

The girls came from assorted backgrounds; some were children of privilege; some were from less affluent families. Few of them remembered a time before the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini, when women were systematically forced into a secondary public role. A couple of the girls are quite conservative and religious (Muslims), and a couple are very liberal and passionate about the predicament of women in their country. Her affection for these girls rubs off on the reader, as each individual comes alive through Nafisi's prose. The common bond for the girls is their love of literature, and an eagerness to learn from their extraordinary teacher.

Nafisi had, as a young woman, studied in America. She is a perfect example of a sophisticated world citizen, an intellectual whose ability to think clearly and to express those thoughts vividly is stunning. It quickly becomes obvious that she is an exceptional teacher, and anyone who loves books will be thrilled by her discussions about the novel.

The book itself is masterful in its organization. The story of her class is organized around four of the authors they studied: Nabokov (Lolita), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Henry James (Daisy Miller, Washington Square), and Jane Austen (Emma, Pride & Prejudice).

When she had taught at the University of Tehran and had male as well as female students, some of her fundamentalist Islamic students complained about the "immorality" of such books as Gatsby. When one particular student delivered a tirade against the latter, Nafisi proposed and indeed conducted a trial of the book, with one of her brilliant female students as the speaker for the defense. Nafisi herself represented the book. Her eloquent discussion of the book, and of the meaning of books in general, should be read aloud in every college lit class in this country.

This is not a beach book. Don't begin it looking for a quick read. If you start it, you will find yourself thinking hard, stirring your gray matter in ways you haven't done in years. It will stretch you and at times horrify you as you contemplate what your sisters in countries like Afghanistan and Iran have had to endure. But make no mistake: this is a book that is deeply rewarding. America is fortunate to have gained someone like Azar Nafisi, who is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Our gain, alas, is Iran's loss, the loss of the kind of citizen no country can afford to lose. JS

And Consider This

Big Fish
Colombia Pictures

Tim Burton, the man who gave us The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, and Sleepy Hollow: Behind the Legend, continues to display his quirky style in this touching film about love and the difficulties fathers and sons sometimes have in communicating with each other.

Edward Bloom, portrayed by Albert Finney in what will surely be an Oscar nominated role, is a super salesman who is full of charm and lively tales. His extravagant verbal inventions enthralled his young son, Will, (played at different ages by child actors). When the child began to give way to the man, however, Dad's tall tales lost their charm. After an angry scene fraught with the son's accusations of lying and the father's defense of his metaphorical style, communication between the two ceased.

Sandra Templeton (Jessica Lang) is the great love of Ed's life. We see their courtship in flashbacks, with Alison Lohman (White Oleander and Matchstick Men) playing the young Sandra. Her physical resemblance to Lang is remarkable, and her acting ability noteworthy. Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, Emma and Star Wars, Episodes I and II among other movies) plays the young Ed Bloom. Their remarkable marriage seems, in this day and age, charmingly improbable. There is a particularly delicious scene involving Finney and Lang, fully clothed and middle aged, in a bathtub together.

Director Burton makes the most out of Ed's stories. They receive full cinematic richness to add to their already delightful improbabilities. Included in those improbabilities is a full rear nude shot of Danny Devito — don't ask for an explanation.

When Ed is dying, Will (portrayed by actor Billy Crudup) and his wife Josephine (a lovely young French actress named Marion Cotillard) return home. While Josephine quickly succumbs to his father's charm, the residue of anger keeps Will resistant almost to the end of his father's life. In an effort to unravel what he considers mysteries and possible betrayals, he travels to the small town of Spectre and confronts the woman (Helena Bonham-Carter) whom he suspects of being his father's mistress.

The reconciliation between Will and Ed comes at the very end of Ed's life. It, too, takes the form of a tall tale, only this time it is the son spinning it out for the father in a beautiful scene that touches the heart with its truth and simplicity. Don't attend without a Kleenex in your pocket.



Downpour Resurfacing
PBS, part of Independent Lens
10pm on January 27th

Filmmaker Frances Nkara first met Robert Hall on a weekend meditation retreat. Hearing him improvise a talk, she was struck by how bravely and generously he spoke about the sexual and physical abuse he suffered as a young boy. "At 66, Robert had found a way to relate to the experience openly and beyond the necessary stages of anger," Nkara says. "I sensed that he was not in denial, but had truly found peace with it." She decided to create a film to tell his story.

Frances has expressed her gratitude to the speaker in the film, Robert Hall, for so bravely and generously opening his story for the benefit of others.

In most cities Downpour Resurfacing will air at 10pm on January 27th with another program called Why Can't We Be a Family Again?

There are also resources at the site that provide links to counseling, meditation, poems, organization and books on the topic of abuse and other subjects.

Note: The editor and her family are friends and admirers of filmmaker Nkara.


Riding the Dragon: Ten Lessons for Inner Strength in Challenging Times
by Robert Wicks
Sorin Books, Notre Dame, IN

Robert Wicks is a psychologist who is a specialist in treating secondary stress disorders. Riding the Dragon is a clear, helpful guide for dealing with the stress of our daily lives. Wicks has done a great deal of counseling with the people who help others in traumatic situations, such as the firemen, rescue workers, and cleanup crews who dealt with the World Trade Center disaster. His accounts of how he helped those workers to deal with post-traumatic stress serve as accessible, anecdotal reportage which can be related to the stresses of everyday life as well. The Zen metaphor of Riding the Dragon works well in this context. Wicks's ten lessons are titled with directions like: "Prune Carefully and Often" (lesson 1), "Seek Hidden Possibilities" (lesson 4), and "Come Home More Often" (lesson 10). Even for readers who are unfamiliar with the precepts of Zen, there is much in this little book that may prove helpful.



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©2004 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb

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