We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Neglect these to your loss: Obama's _Dreams_, Nafisi's _Reading_ (Shirin's _My Iran_), Scott's Barbie, & Higson on costume drama · 24 November 08

Dear Friends,

I’ve got four books to report on tonight, all I recently read through with great enjoyment and profit, all superb:

A memoir which is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand US culture: Barak Obama’s Dreams from my Father;
a memoir in books I hope eventually to make the center of a series of postings on my website: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Teheran: A Memoir in Books;
a great novel: Paul Scott’s The Towers of Silence, his Barbie book;
a film study which will make your experience of movies so much richer and (as you will see more in them) more pleasurable: Andrew Higson’s English Heritage, English Cinema.

Obama’s Dreams from my Father is an important book. He analyses accurately and sensitively lower middle class American culture through his depictions of his paternal grandmother and grandfather. In his grandfather, for example, he finds

“the awkward mix of sophistication and provincialism, the rawness of emotion that could make hiim at once tactless and easily bruised. His was an American character, [someone] who embraced the notion of freedom and individualism and the open road without always knowing its price,” someone whose “fundamental innocence” made him prone to “enthusiasm” and “disappointment,” which could lead to “cowardice” and “heroics,” a state both “dangerous” and promising” (p. 16).

He slides over his mother (who however having married outside the white race has to live in “bad” air from those near her), and concentrates on what he learned from his Asian stepfather: “Better to be strong … if you can’t be srong, be clever and make peace with someone who’s strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always” (p. 41). Also what he saw when young: “The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable, and often cruel” (p. 37).

What an awful father he had. He was fortunate in the white grandparents, very lucky indeed. And in his genes :) He depicts moving from Kansas to Texas, to Hawaii, and the lives he and his grandparents lived there; his brief time in south asia with a set of parents; his first years as an adult in college in California, the move to Columbia in NYC, and finally at length Chicago. Like many American black people’s autobiography his includes the pivotal trip to Africa. It ends on his disillusioning first day in Congress.

As a dedicated social worker, he depicts the way black people are given no chance for decent education, housing, dignity fight back, collude, suffer, and how one can try to reach and help them with pragmatic techniques and different values to “counteract the materialism and individualism and instant gratification that’s fed them,” all while they are “systematically rejected.” Individual stories that ring true.

It is a male’s book: he opens with the assertion he’s not sure he can show he has achieved his goal; he assumes that an autobiography should be about public achievement and show individual progress. Womens’ autobiographies (as I’ve said) are cyclical, about creating alternative universes, compensation.

Nonetheless, I recognize what I knew as a girl growing up in the Bronx and a young woman in Queens, NYC. He tells a number of women’s stories. What he describes as central to the American experience is true for whites as well as blacks and extends to analogous classes outside the US and the west. In Chicago, he meets hard-bitten bitter organizers who he works with; their conversations are striking and they support my contention about a lack of pro-social ideals in the US. He says they work out of their own deep hurts and his book implies so does he. It’s a book written on behalf of organizing and showing how pragmatic persistence and learning who to go to and how to manipulate others in public can turn events into a desired direction.

I engage at a deep level with what he’s describing for it’s for real—only he seems to be able to divorce himself from the deep pain he finds everywhere and thinks is what fuels politics. I should think other serious readers would do the same.


I have before this made a place on my website for Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Teheran. What’s detemined me to go through with it is a sixth careful reading of this book, this time with two classes of humanities students, each with a core subgroup of intelligent committed girls. Nafisi’s is a brilliant and unusually candid book about the centrality of reading to her life and how books function to teach us about ourselves. Its secularism is needed; while limited because she choses to analyse but one book by a woman at length, her feminism frees women sexually. I love her finding in books a refuge, a retreat, her insistence on building a life out of ethical imaginative enrichment. Probably this time I have been galvanized by the distorted vitriolic attacks on her, and want to support a rare perceptive article in praise: Anne Donadey & Huma Amed-Ghosh, “Why Americans Love Reading Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Teheran, Signs, 33:3 (2008):624-646.

Nafisi does resemble the French aristocratic women who wrote of the French revolution after the terror, never mentioning its causes in wretched poverty and humiliation; she’s pro-capitalist, but as to the central effects of the Iranian revolution on women her book is confirmed by another memoir I’m reading just now: Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening. I want to vindicate Nafisi’s use of books to extend the sympathetic imagination, to increase pleasure, violins (as she says) in the void of meaninglessness. Brief examples from the long section on Henry James: she argues out of James that a society’s definition of success depends on what a society wants. A successful warrior; selling junk at high prices, your body, your self. Better to remain a failure. She quotes him on the horrors of war to get across what minimal decency should feel about torture:

”’I confess that I have no philosophy, nor piety nor patience, no art of reflection,’ he wrote, ‘no theory of compensation to meet things so hideous, so cruel, and so mad, they are just unspeakably horrible and irremediable to me and I stare at them with angry and almost blighted eyes” (p. 219)

She understands Austen: the way Austen dramatizes the private through public scenes; the cruel outrages of everyday life; the pleasures of landscape, dancing, congenial informed conversation too. How womens’ freedom depends on how marriage is used in a society.

I enjoy her inspiriting book. It has stood up to 6 close readings, each time with a different group of people.


Paul Scott’s Towers of Silence might be called the Barbie Batchelor book. It opens with her consciousness as she goes off to be interviewed by Mabel Layton in the hope of becoming Mrs Layton’s companion, and ends some 6 years later when she is in an asylum, half-mad from grief and loss. I came to love Barbie by the end. Peggy Ashcroft played her in the film adaptation mini-series by Ken Taylor.

Here is a story of an employer who becomes a benign protector to her companion and her Asian servant man (Aziz), who Barbie herself fends the world off for by her presence. Quietly beloved friends. When Mabel dies suddenly, Barbie finds herself again disrespected, and thrown off, & no longer able to survive as a missionary teacher next to Edwina Crane (who Book I, The Jewel in the Crown began with). India had changed too much and she is now too old. Mabel had protected her by Mabel’s status and money; her sheer presence had enabled Mabel to withdraw from her world altogether, keep a cold mean step-daughter-in-law at bay. Mabel can spend all her life gardening. A constant gardener :). Judy Parfitt, he actress who played Mildred Layton is the same actress who played Lady Catherine de Bourgh brilliantly in the 1979 P&P; she bullies a young man into being her obedient lover yet she goes through the act as a series of empty motions, like a tomcat in need of spasms. Barbie sees them by mistake and he knows; Mildred’s hatred for Barbie can’t get any worse. It’s unbearably moving the way Scott slowly depicts Barbie’s own growth in strength from her years with Mabel and how quickly she finds she cannot break the barriers that are immediately set up against her.

Barbie’s fate (like Daphne Manners and Edwina Crane, Sarah Layton, Hari Kumar’s aunt before her) figures forth the positions of the people, particularly women in this complicated intertwined colonial society, for each is futher embedded in a complicated history. Mabel and Barbie are decent humane people who treat their Indian servants with respect. Not Mildred; once she’s in charge she’ll kick and bat down and scorn. Lady Catherine de Bourgh updated. Barbie has in all that is best in human nature, and we see her trying to cope with all that is worst and all that is inbetween. I loved her delicate kindness, shy sensibility, inability to hate, reasonableness, strength of character when she allowed to function. From afar we see the darkening story of Sarah Layton (who dominated part of the 2nd book, The Day of the Scorpion).

E. M. Forster’s Passage to India is a shallow joke besides this book. Naipaul, Nabokov, Lawrence, you name them, macho misogynists. It’s my theory Scott is ignored because his major characters are all women, and single, mostly aging and plain women at that (Lily Chatterjee, Lady Edith and Daphne Manners, the last the raped girl at the center of the book). Scott’s way is to intersperse the first person narratives: speeches, letters, meditations, reports interwoven with the subjective story rehearsed repeatedly from different angles, each one idenifiable not only as an individual but a member of a class, a race, an ethnic group, sexually (her position there whether daughter, wife, mother, sister, and of whom—for Scott knows women are connected to the public world still through men mostly).


And what can I say adequate to Andrew Higson’s English Heritage, English Cinema: Costume Drama since 1980. It is simply one of the best I’ve ever read on costume drama. He has two long sections analyzing first the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Howards End, then the Hirst-Kapur Elizabeth the Virgin Queen (centrally dominated by Cate Blanchett). What I love is how Higson brings together popular cinema and costume drama, and shows them to be two faces of the same marketplace and conjoined at the hip. He shows how costume dramas lend themselves equally to analysis as subversive and conservative films. The film-makers reach out to as many audiences as they can beyond the core upper middle educated mostly female art-film audience. He shows how their funding and the outward business structures to which their film companies belong shapes what they are.

With it I recommend Claire Monk’s “The British Heritage film” and its critics”, Critical Survey, 7:2 (1995):116-24. She defends costume dramas as derided womens’ films, and makes extensive use of the work of Alison Light (she of Forever England [women writers between WW1 & 2], which I’ve written about here more than once).


N.B. For Shirin Ebadi’s My Iran or Iran Awakening, see comments.

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. As many may know, Nafisi’s book has been vitriolically attacked. She is politically conservative, but the attack comes from fervent nationalists, and those who would dismiss what she has to say about the treatment of women.

    So I now add (12/6) that I’ve read a companion volume, Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening and it validates and reinforces all that Nafisi says about the treatment of women, adding to it a strongly socialist perspective.

    I wrote about Iran Awakening as follows on WWTTA:

    Shirin Ebadi is both an antidote and reinforcer of Nafisi’s Reading Lolita. She tells of the miseries of the larger population and is frank about the upper middle politics. The Shah emerges as a ruthless crook and ally of the US (and French too) oil companies. For about 2 and 1/2 y ears there was a democratic republic, but it was overthrown (with US power).

    She tells of her private life too. She rose to be a judge. She quotes someone to the effect that she may dislike the shah and the US but is told if they are bad, the theologians will prevent her from working altogether. She was a judge.

    There are two books. The second one is the more political (memoir of revolution and hope); this is subtitled: One woman’s journey to reclaim her life and country). Most reviews are of the second not first book

    Some background:



    The book is apparently written by a team :). At the end you discover that she had an editor, and that her original outline or text was reworked and polished by at least two people. It’s a lawyer’s book, the book of a woman deeply involved in the social construction of reality through her work.

    She justifies and reinforces all that Nafisi has to tell us about how women are treated in Iran – indeed she goes deeper for her cases are not just or even mainly of torture in prison, rape, death, but of torture, beatings, destruction of lives of women in their families. Children cannot be protected against cruel men—one story of a little girl is just horrifying and nothing was done to this man. Reading the book for her cases is worth it.

    I’ve no doubt she would actually dislike Nafisi’s book. She writes repeatedly against anyone who leaves a country—or “their” country as she puts it. She is justifying her decision to stay and bring her daughters up in this place. At least one did leave to make a life elsewhere. Partly it’s not so much idealism, as if she did leave, she would not be able to be a linchpin and so important in a culture, and very far from working centrally and being (if continually at great risk and in danger) powerful. She says at the end, candidly, that when you work for central reform the way she has you must expect to give up your life, either over the course of it (it interferes with close relationships with children as they grow up) or suddenly by being killed (sometimes in terrible ways). This is unusual, to say that your life will be maimed and when you die you may not see any results.

    I wonder how she’d respond to Said and Sen’s and others ideas that identity is a complex thing of which nationalism is but a small part. She became a judge and spent her life as a lawyer because she started high: the daughters of upper middle class secularized people.

    She does show how a high proportion of Iranian girls are actually well-educated, discounting even college, and many go to college and post-secondary school. All these women live their lives in partial or whole silence when it comes to telling the truth in public about themselves. Many do live fulfilled and insofar as this is possible secularly-oriented lives. They daren’t tell it for the groups of reaction are ferocious and ruthless.

    She also tells of the great trouble she had publishing this book in the US (and lesser but real in the UK). Every effort is made to keep real information from US citizens too. What a persistent effective woman she must be. She was thrown in prison at one point but emerged and was not tortured either. This did occur late in her career when she was well-known, but I’m sure we can all remember other well known social activists who are ruthlessly picked up and destroyed. Those destroying don’t care if they pay for this in some way; the point is to destroy the person.

    I couldn’t recommend this book too strongly. I see why she won the Nobel Prize. It does help protect her.

    I did find an excerpt from Ebadi’s Iran Awakening originally put on women’s enews:


    It’s a moving piece and does her justice; it also shows that Nafisi was not exaggerating at all. The answer to Nafisi’s critics is Ebadi’s Iran Awakening

    Elinor    Dec 6, 8:18am    #

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