; movieschocolatebooks: July 2015


Friday, July 24

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi or the choice unmade

This is some elegant, crafted writing. This is a woman I would like to meet and have coffee with, while listening to her spin her stories around my heart and mind for hours on end. Azar Nafisi is an Iranian writer and professor, though I am curious which hat she would choose first. My personal view to the matter is that there is a budding writer in disguise inside every serial reader and Mrs. Nafisi is but among the best examples of how love for books met teaching and then, naturally, led to beautifully mastering the written words.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is written as a memoir that reflects upon the teaching years in the university of Tehran between the revolution of 1978-1981 and the following years, until 1997. The author is sacked because she refuses to wear the veil and starts teaching literature to her secret book club, right before the moment of her emigration to USA.

All four chapters of the book - Lolita, Gastby, James, Austen- are but a pretext to share a mutual interest in reading and books, but, most of all, to reflect upon how history, religion, oppression, and totalitarian mindsets touch the very lives of the Iranian people. Students Mahshid, Yassi, Mitra, Nassrin, Azin, Sanaz and Manna help her read between the lines of such incredible stories and discuss the true colors of a villain versus a hero and the thin line between the very two antagonistic concepts. According to the author, villains can easily be blinded by their own lack of empathy towards different manifestations of oppression and dreams we are fed while looking through another's eye. I particularly like how she chooses to describe Nabokov's villain: 

 "Humbert was a villain," she writes, "because he lacked curiosity about other people and their lives, even about the person he loved most."

Freedom comes at some very high price and Nafisi has to either follow the rules of a regime she does not identify with or flee the profession and country that she loves, taking turns in playing the hero and the villain.

I liked the story for the way history and reality became one narrative in the book and how people took turns at identifying with or disapproving of all characters, putting them and their choices to test and trial, in an attempt to verbalize their fears and values. It is authentic and vibrant in its invitation to enter the two worlds that inhabit the book: that of university life under the political regime of the time and into the imaginative realm of such acclaimed writers as Austen, Nabokov, Scott Fitzgerald or James. Also, the idea of shared intimacy among members of the book club who are basically nothing but strangers of the same tastes, is extremely attractive to me. It requires a certain abandonment of the self in search of mirroring otherness through empathy. The seven women of the club enter a magical world revealing their hidden beauty to the eyes of such fortunate authors, whose books come to life in their hands. The reader in the circle and outside, holding this very book, is required to be familiar with the works of the four authors and indulge himself/herself into some criticism of their worlds that live parallel existences beyond geographical boundaries. The personal lives of the seven women find echoes in the books and weave around the core idea idea in the story: we are the choices we make. Reading Lolita in Tehran is the kind of book that wraps the idea of change/choice into the literary foil of an excellent story.

I have been trying a new kind of artistic cocktail lately -mixing books with chocolate flavors and music or associating movies and the feelings they ignite with certain ideas. The reading of this book reminds me of my American days when I would spent my quiet afternoons listening to Tom Waits. Or spending Thursdays at The Flicks, always watching Indies, eating Baked Brie and French Bread at Rick's Cafe. I know, of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, I walked into his...

Friday, July 10

Mr Ibrahim and the flowers of the Qur'an

What you give, Momo, is yours for good. What you keep is lost forever.
The unlamented heroes lie at the pit of skin-deep, soft veins running the complicated bodies of everyday mortals. Either this or the other way around, depending on the goggles we choose to wear to look through the very hourglass that measures our greatness. Every now and then, I am caught off guard by the simplicity of a book that reads as if a life of its own were running its pages. It leaves me breathless, all raw, somehow bowing to the whimsical muses.

Mr Ibrahim and the flowers of the Qur'an by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is a book about the unexpected friendship between a 16-year-old Jewish boy, named Moses aka Momo and a 70-year-old Muslim shopkeeper. Even in the Paris of the 1960s, such a story of non-discrimination would be very unlikely to exist. Yet, real life is sometimes much too boring; instead, imagine having Brigitte Bardot coming to your little shop to buy a bottle of water. Rather than asking her for an autograph or taking a selfie with her at your back - thank God selfie sticks are a recent fad- Monsieur Ibrahim overcharges her for the water to make up for the little things Momo, the boy, has stolen from his shop. This is how the friendship is sealed and boy and old man start spending time together until the boy's father suddenly disappears and later on, is found dead. Momo's mother apparently preferred the other son, Popol, a very likeable character that not only won over the mother, but the father as well. Turns out excellent sons are merely a product of a sick imagination.

The Turkish Muslim and the French Jew embark on a journey to Anatolia to help Monsieur Ibrahim reunite with a long-lost friend. It is a time to celebrate his adoption by Monsieur Ibrahim and to be taught essential life lessons. Ce que tu gardes, c'est perdu a jamais! Even love, regardless of its shape and response, must be shared and never buried inside. For once, there is this male version of Cinderella and a godmother that is circumcised and appreciates the hookers. Drunk on parenthood, Monsieur Ibrahim helps Momo live a dream he is not supposed to, out of misery and loneliness into a world that reveals to be tolerant and beautiful. From the red-convertible car to the Dervish ceremony, down the Bosporus ferry and up the little village, where trees are hard to hit against, Momo comes to experience lively hours in the company of his new father and learns much more than any collection of books or the Koran itself could reveal.

It is a book meant to give a softer, kinder image of religious battles and discrimination, almost an idealized version of a harsher truth. It could be a light in a sea of despair or a much too naive manner of rhapsodizing a different, darker reality. I believe you can read it any way you like it- above all, it renders the idea that people can change perceptions and heal other people.  Closeness, love, friendship are the medium through which human beings reach a higher level of acceptance and empathy. Contrary to what is expected, this book lacks melodrama and the humor of the story and the way the characters are sketched, make it a crafted tale.

Sunday, July 5

The wondrous life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz or the book of love

“Like a running blaze on a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker.”
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The horror!The horror! are the final words of Kurtz, Joseph Conrad's character, as he breathes his last breath and then, without much apparent connection, except for the exclamation, there are Yunior's words as he quotes Oscar: The beauty! The beauty! One man's terror is another man's praise of the beauty of life, despite the curse hanging over his head and that of an entire family and nation.

The wondrous life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a book about love. Every now and then, as a reader and a human being, you need to be retaught the lesson of undying love. The perseverance that lies at the pit bottom of our smallness is the driving force that pushes us to fight for the survival of love at all costs.

Oscar de León is a nerd. He lives in a New Jersey suburb with his mother and fabulous sister. He is passionate about science fiction books, dying to know love, ready to conquer a world that eludes him. The narrator Yunior is  the opposite -a ladies' man who makes the most of his college years, loves Oscar's sister and struggles to be a writer. The rest of the book is a melange of history, side stories, the mighty fuku - the curse that defines all actions and shapes the fates of all- love tribulations, funky language, humor disguised as seriousness, and then some. It reads very conversational and vivid, a kind of narrative that flows into the reader and buzzes like a neon bulb. Aliveness and authenticity are the key words to the story.

I put a smile on my face while reading and then, made me immerse into the multiple layers of both characters and story lines, only to swim across the interplay in the clash of worlds and personae. Oscar is tricky to define and I got all these mixed emotions about him: pity, tenderness, admiration, hope, frustration. I could hardly make up my mind and keeping me alert is what the book was good at. Beside the story itself, you get a bit of everything: a history lesson on the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic, Spanglish, movies, books, love interrupted, love as a fine cutting blade, love unrequited, love at last - The Beauty! The Beauty!.

It is rich beyond words and the Curse and the Doom of the New World haunts not only characters in this Dominican-American story, but the reader alike. The book is solid funny and there are echoes of other humorous characters in literature like Ignatius Reilly or Samwise Gamgee. It is remarkable how the eternal quest for love and happiness is given a comical, modern attire, family folklore and a shred of magical realism. It is a literary cocktail for the warm-hearted readers that will, at least, get a tingle of sadness at the end of the book. Beauty and ideals are still worth fighting for and heroes are those rising from the mundane and comfortable to escalate their own limitations in their pursuit of happiness. Which according to a lovely French woman in the Hector and the pursuit of happiness movie, it is worth trying to hold!