An Iranian, a Czech, a Russian, and an American- I thought in celebration of Women’s History Month I would highlight four books about women growing up in different environments. I find that not only is the personal the political but by reading about a person’s singular life, you learn so much about the greater culture and the politics of the time.
NYT bestselling author Azar Nafisi follows up Reading Lolita in Tehran with a poignant, moving memoir Things I’ve Been Silent About. Nafisi has a gift for writing and takes us on a journey through her childhood and onto adulthood. Not only did I learn about Nafisi but I learned a great deal about Iranian culture and history, something I admit to be wholly ignorant of. I now understand, albeit on a very rudimentary level, the complex rise and fall of women’s rights in Iran. It was startling to read how women, a mere 40 years ago, were being elected to the Iranian Parliament, not only attending school but running them, wearing “Western clothes”, and dating freely. Azar profiles one woman, Dr. Parsay, a school principal whom she gave a bit of a tough time as a rebellious teen. Dr. Parsay would be one of the first women to enter Parliament and became minister of education.
As minister, she purged the schoolbooks of derogatory pictures of girls and women. We then learn that after the Islamic revolution she was murdered for “crimes against God”. And since women cannot be touched, she was murdered by either placing her in a bag and stoning her to death or shooting her. The records are unclear on this point. The picture of Dr. Parsay stings you; you read on. Throughout, Azar repeats a line that her mother would say, “Another intelligent woman gone to waste”. Azar speaks with honesty, disclosure, and with a depth of perception. Powerful and deeply moving. Don’t miss this book.
Red Princess: a revolutionary life by Sofka Zinovieff. Granddaughter Sofka explores the life of her grandmother (and to a limited degree her great grandmother) Sofka Dolgorouky. The author explores the aristocratic young childhood of her grandmother-princess. Then, the Bolshevik Revolution hits and Sofka’s world begins to change. Interestingly enough, since time and movement is much slower in those days, Sofka and her grandmother (the author’s great grandmother) continue to live their life of leisure and servants for several years while the revolution rages by moving out of the city and to the coast. But that is only the beginning of Sofka’s tumultuous life. In addition to living through the communist revolution in Russia, she then lives throughout Europe, enters the emerging world of “flappers”, lives with gypsies for awhile, then finds herself caught in Nazi-occupied France. At the time she is in Nazi-occupied France, she was married to an Englishman and considered English. This fact then resulted in her being sent to an Nazi prison camp for several years. And yet the story still doesn’t end there! I don’t want to give away too much. All I can say is that this book is unforgettable, heart-breaking, moving, and eye-opening. Don’t miss this.
Twelve Little Cakes by Dominika Dery. Born in 1975, Dominika describes her childhood growing up in Soviet-occupied Czechoslavakia. With parents who participated actively in the Prague Spring, when the Soviets crushed the democratic movement and resumed control, her parents were blacklisted and worse. This meant that her father was unable to legitimately hold a job. Yet the vision and the joy of the father kept her childhood filled with beauty and dreams. But, she and her family also suffered much under the oppressive government rule no matter how much they tried to live above it. Another exceptional book that should not be missed.
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. Publisher’s Weekly describes Dillard’s book this way, “Dillard’s luminous prose painlessly captures the pain of growing up in this wonderful evocation of childhood. Her memoir is partly a hymn to Pittsburgh, where orange streetcars ran on Penn Avenue in 1953 when she was eight, and where the Pirates were always in the cellar. Dillard’s mother, an unstoppable force, had energies too vast for the bridge games and household chores that stymied her. Her father made low-budget horror movies, loved Dixieland jazz, told endless jokes and sight-gags and took lonesome river trips down to New Orleans to get away… The events of childhood often loom larger than life; the magic of Dillard’s writing is that she sets down typical childhood happenings with their original immediacy and force. ” A powerful read. Highly recommend.
Ann Marie is the Library Director for the Oliver Wolcott Library.