06.30.09

Azar Nafisi's Nightstand

The author of Reading Lolita in Tehran recommends a book for President Obama and shares some of her favorite reads.

Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World
by Samantha Power

This book does not offer easy formulas on dealing with the world, but a new attitude, a different way of perceiving it and changing it.

This is one of those books that tempt one to make statements such as “President Obama, nay, anyone in the foreign-policy world should read this book—very carefully!” But of course to say this is to reduce a richly complex book into a mere handbook for U.S. foreign policy. This book does not offer easy formulas on dealing with the world, but a new attitude, a different way of perceiving it and changing it. Chasing the Flame, the biography of the charismatic U.N. commissioner for human rights who was killed in Iraq in 2003, is a multilayered story, rich with anecdotes and voices, that resonate on many different levels. On one level it is about Sergio de Mello’s personal life (seductive, charismatic and intellectual, a lethal combination), but also it reveals the paradoxes and complexities of an agency such as the U.N. and the problems of dealing with “evil,” with individuals and states that accept no rules, and set no limits to their appetite for cruelty and brutality. And in the end it is also a homage to the idea of individual integrity, to the idea that not just greed and brutality but also the aspirations that shape mankind, the desire to have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are also universal and shared by people from different places and different cultures. Once we agree with this supposition then we will perhaps agree that observing human rights is not a philanthropic idea but a pragmatic one, related to our own survival as much as it is related to the survival of others.

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Master and Margarita. By Mikhail Bulgakov. 350 Pages. CreateSpace. $12.95. ()

Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov

A "gorgeously dark and festive novel … a celebration of the magic wrought by 'lunatics and poets.'

In this gorgeously dark and festive novel, the Devil himself comes to Moscow with his entourage to wreck havoc on Stalin’s Soviet Union. This in itself was reason enough for a ban on the book in that country until 1973, three decades after its completion. In essence,  Master and Margarita is a celebration of the magic wrought by “lunatics and poets,” on a rigid and totalitarian system. Focusing on three parallel and interwoven stories: the love between Master (a reclusive and mysterious writer) and his beloved Margarita; the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate, locked in an eternal conversation; and the hilarious tale of Satan, who, displeased with the communists’ negation of God—that by implication is also a denial of his existence—decides to teach the unbelievers a lesson that will transform their lives forever. The alliance of such forces against a repressive and brutal rule creates a unique novel, both poignant and very, very funny.

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Unaccustomed Earth. By Jhumpa Lahiri. 352 Pages. Vintage. $15. ()

Unaccustomed Earth
by Jhumpa Lahiri

The stories are dazzling. ... We are drawn to the characters in these stories because of the universality of their experiences.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories is centered on the paradoxes and tensions shaping the lives of different generations of Bengali immigrants in America. The stories are dazzling not just in the way they portray the differences between the old and new cultures and generations, or the clashes of two different sets of traditions and norms, at times as vast as the geographical distance that separates America from India, but the fact that we find ourselves sharing so much with strangers from a different world, and coming to the sudden revelation that we are alike in essentials despite the differences created by our nationality, ethnicity, religion, race, or gender. We are drawn to the characters in these stories because of the universality of their experiences, evoking in us feelings of loss, grief, irony, and at times despair, reminding us of the inadequacy of terms such as home and identity.

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Vis and Ramin. By Fakhraddin Gorgani. 576 Pages. Penguin Classics. $17. ()

Vis and Ramin
by Fakhredin Gorgani

A story of passion and intrigue, about crossing of the boundaries, adultery and even incest, a story filled with eroticism and sensuality.

Where would you go to find a magnificent story, focused on an alluring and courageous female protagonist, a story of passion and intrigue, about crossing of the boundaries, adultery and even incest, a story filled with eroticism and sensuality, one in which you are answerable only to the demands of love and passion and not to the constraints of an arranged marriage, even to a powerful king? Isn’t the answer obvious enough? You go to the 11th-century classical Persian poem, "Vis and Ramin," the beautifully narrated, and as beautifully translated (by Dick Davis, himself a wonderful poet) tale of two star-crossed lovers who in fact end up living happily ever after. It is claimed to have been the “mother” of such love stories and to have influenced the tale of Tristan and Isolde. The origins of the poem can be traced to the Parthian dynasty, ruling Persia from 247 B.C. to 224 A.D. The open-air quality of this poem, its eloquent earthiness, its frank appreciation of pleasures of this world, remind us of a world view very different from the Iran portrayed today, one that seems so barren and fanatical, so devoid of beauty or sensuality. Gorgani’s poem is the best reminder that if you wish to discover the “real” Iran, the one that has survived the tyrannies of time and of man, you must not rely on the reduced and orphaned images produced by politics of the time, but on its astonishing array of poets, those who have kept the continuity between past and the present, Zoroastrianism and Islam and who present to the world a kind of beauty that is uniquely Persian and yet so universal in its appeal.

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The Day of the Locust. By Nathanael West. 208 Pages. Signet Classics. $13.57. ()

The Day of the Locust
by Nathanael West

An American dream story about the cult of celebrity and those masses of people migrating to Hollywood seeking refuge for their hopes.

2009 is the 70th anniversary of the publication of the small novella by a now mainly forgotten but wonderful writer, Nathanael West. The Day of the Locust is the story of Tod Hackett, an artist and scene designer whose main obsession (apart from a prostitute named Faye) is to create a painting called The Burning of Los Angeles. But it is also a kind of an American dream story about the cult of celebrity and those masses of people migrating to Hollywood, who, by seeking refuge for their hopes and dreams, turn it into a dump in which “there was not a dream afloat somewhere which would not sooner or later turn up on it.” Nathanael West is wonderful in creating atmosphere, what is most gripping about the Day of Locust is West’s portrayal of L.A. as a city both real and illusory, shaped as much by the everyday reality of its inhabitants’ lives as by the fragile hopes and desperate dreams of those who come to it. These characters come to California seeking a new life, desirous of fulfilling a dream, but they also leave their mark on the place, making it reek with the smell of unfulfilled desires and broken dreams—a timely reminder that we need to understand more about the '30s than its economic crisis.

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Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and the new memoir Things I've Been Silent About. She is a visiting professor and the director of the SAIS Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, where she is a professor of aesthetics, culture, and literature, and teaches courses on the relation between culture and politics.