what i’ve been reading & watching lately: spring break!

reading_lolita_tehranReading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

This is something I’ve been meaning to read for a couple of years, and it seems like Iran is on a lot of people’s minds lately, so I figured now was the time. I really feel for Iranians who aren’t down with theocracy, because other than their government, it seems like a really cool place. Seriously, it’s got this fantastic culture, beautiful landscape (from snow-capped mountains to the Caspian Sea), and the more populated areas like Tehran are very cosmopolitan. It’s why people like Nafisi try for years to make some kind of peace with the government, because they love their country. They just don’t want to have their whole lives run by religious fanatics.

Nafisi also mentions something that had never occured to me before: That a lot of Iranian women who chose to wear the veil before the Revolution resented the mandatory requirement of it. It took a personal choice and a visible sign of their faith and made it homogenous; cheapened its meaning by making women who didn’t believe in it abide by it.

The book also made me see a kind of parallel between the Iranian Revolution and our War in Iraq: A lot of people who fought the Iranian Revolution didn’t do so for Islam. For most people, there was no clear-cut plan of “Get rid of the Shah, then implement Sharia law!” They just wanted to get rid of the Shah, and a lot of them never thought about what came next, and it left the door open for all kinds of people who had ulterior motives to see their own vision of post-Revolution Iran become reality.

So now, let us review all the points we have discussed. Yes, the novel is about concrete living relationships, a man’s love for a woman, a woman’s betrayal of that love. But it is also about wealth, its great attraction as well as its destructive power, the carelessness that comes with it, and yes, it is about the American dream, a dream of power and wealth, the beguiling light of Daisy’s house and the port of entry to America. It is also about loss, about the perishability of dreams once they are transformed into hard reality. It is the longing, its immateriality, that makes the dream pure.

What we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald was this dream that became our obsession and took over our reality, this terrible, beautiful dream, impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven. That was what we had in common, although we were not aware of it then.


Footfall by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle


I recently re-read Lucifer’s Hammer by the same authors and decided to re-read this one. I hadn’t read either of them since high school. There are some obviously dated references in the book: It was published in 1985 (which means it was written at least a year or two earlier), but takes place in 1995. The most obvious whoopsie is the Soviet Union still existing. Man, in the ’80s it seemed like the Cold War would go on forever. If you had said it would end before the decade was out, people would have thought you were crazy. Also, someone uses a Betamax at one point, which, hee!

But my main complaint is that neither writer can write female characters for shit. All they do is flail around in panic and wait for a big strong man to rescue them. The only main female character that really should be worth a damn, Major Jenny Chrichton of Army Intelligence, still doesn’t really do anything. She’s credited as one of the discoverers of the approaching alien spaceship, but that’s only because she happens to be standing around an observatory, waiting for an astronomer to notice how pretty she is, when a couple of other people actually discover it. She’s happy to “let an alpha male carry her luggage”, and thinks women who are fat, don’t wear make-up, or don’t have shiny, shiny hair should basically just crawl into a hole and die.

What is the deal with male SF writers and their craptacular portrayal of females? Is this revenge because they couldn’t get dates in high school??

Anyway, that’s not to say I totally hated the book. It’s just a small part that really struck in my craw. One thing that Niven and Pournelle always did well was show enemies that aren’t out-and-out villains. You always understand their motivations, they aren’t portrayed as cheap, one-dimensional moustache-twirling bad guys. Plus I really enjoy the history and personalities they invented for the Fithp (the alien invaders), it’s very imaginative. I admire writers who can pull an entire sentient species out of their hats. And their Soviet characters (there were a lot in Lucifer’s Hammer, too) aren’t typical Cold War-era COMMIES OOGA BOOGA! buffoons, either.

It seems like people either loved or hated this movie, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Every single character was an idiot, most of them were extremely nasty to each other, there were bursts of shocking violence… yet I was laughing like a loon throughout. Actually, even though it was a small part, I think JK Simmons made me laugh the hardest. “Report back to me when… hell, I don’t know, when it makes sense.”

The fact that this is the movie the Coen Brothers made after No Country For Old Men — that they were actually working on the script while still shooting NCFOM — serves to remind how incredibly fucking versatile those guys are.

Watching Joaquin Phoenix’s movies now is kind of heartbreaking. Sigh. I always thought this was a really under-rated movie. I’m not sure it ever got released in the US. It was the vicitm of incredibly bad timing: It was supposed to come out at the end of September, 2001. I guess the American public wasn’t quite in the mood for a blackly satirical look at heroin manufacturing and profiteering in the US Army at the end of the Cold War. Although I hear it was a pretty big success in Germany, where it was titled Yankee Go Home!. Heh. It’s wonderful to be so loved.


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