Monthly Archives: June 2010

Lolita

Like so much of the literature in my life, my father first introduced me to Lolita. Although, perhaps, ‘introduced’ is the wrong word. When I was young, I used to wander through my dad’s library, climbing to the top shelves, in awe of all the books, so foreign to me, unparalleled in their mystique. I assumed therein lay all the world’s knowledge, all the world’s adventure and of course, my father had read them all. Still, when I go back to visit my parent’s, I find myself slipping away to revisit these memories housed in the recessed walls of his library.

Today though, these shelves are no longer filled with abstract titles but rather with old friends, having devoured many of them myself by now. Works by: Cheever, Norman Mailer, Kafka, Coetzee, McCarthy and of course, Nabokov.

Permanently stationed in our main floor bathroom, throughout my adolescence, was a tattered, turquoise copy of Lolita published circa 1974. “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.” I tried to unwind those thorns in my teens but the prose fell flat on my pre-occupied mind. This is probably for the better. As an adult even, I struggled, counting myself among the misinformed, as I waded through the murky waters of Nabokov’s obsessive mind.

Lolita is, of course, one of the most beautifully written books of the 20th century, only it is poisoned by the subject matter. Line after line brought a flush of red to my face as I read it, glancing over my shoulder in naïve embarrassment.  Of course I knew what I was getting into, I knew the subject matter of the book long before I opened the front cover. This did nothing to prepare me.

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Nabokov is a gorgeous writer and one cannot help but be in awe of his mastery of the English language, his second (or third?) from his mother tongue. Few among us, those born to the language of the British Empire, have this kind of command or use the techniques of literature so effortlessly. And yet. And yet the beauty of his writing does only so much to hide the horrors you are unearthing as Humbert Humbert’s obsession for the young nymphet, Lolita, grows.

Nabokov, like so many of the authors that have had the privilege of torturing me lately, was born in Russia. It was not until he transitioned his prose to the English language that he began to achieve prominence in the literary world though.  In the middle of the 1950’s, it would not be the Anglos who would publish his most famous work, Lolita; for something so risqué he would be forced to look to the French. And it was, while living in Paris, that Nabokov’s infamous novel was published: amidst the cafes, bordellos and legacy of the libertine.

Or so I thought. Of course, I initially though this book was about sex. About a passion so strong it could never be satiated. I thought it was about a crazy man, chasing a fantasy spawned in his youth. I thought this book was about flesh and bone, about abandoning morals, about power, about lust, about obsession.

I was wrong, for the most part, and this is why Nabokov is heralded. By writing on a topic so disturbing, so immoral, he is forcing the reader to digest his words as the author chooses, in the only manner that is acceptable, “Literature was not born the day when a boy crying “wolf, wolf” came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels; literature was born on the day when a boy came crying “wolf, wolf” and there was no wolf behind him.”  Nabokov did not think that literature should teach the reader but that rather the reader should devour the words for their sensory beauty. It is the dissonance between the horror of Humbert’s actions and the beauty of Nabokov’s prose that forces us to face the man in the margins, Nabokov himself who seems to exist in an ephemeral sense, almost laughing from the sidelines.

Lolita is not about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a young nymphet, it is a soliloquy for Nabokov’s love and obsession for language. It cannot be about the love of a person – for with people there are boundaries – but with language, there are no lines to draw in the sand; one cannot go too far in the lust for more. Nabokov’s desire for literature to be appreciated in the realm of the aesthetic is accomplished with ever word that drips off the page.

This allegory may seem a stretch for some but the only other option is to take Nabokov’s writing at face value and forgo some of the most beautiful prose ever written. We all have our church, a pillar we choose to worship at. You decide.

The History of Love

It is not often I bend a nod to a book once I’ve finished it.

It is not often I hurry through a book, ravenously turning pages as I am left at once satiated and starving for more with each page.

It is not often I crawl through a book, stopping to read and re-read sentences, sections, whole pages over again; not for lack of understanding but in simple veneration.

It is not often I feel my heart break – with sadness, with joy, with love and with complete and utter empathy – so many times in one book.

It is not often I finish a book only to turn to the first page and start all over again.

It is not often one comes across a book like The History of Love.

This book is told largely from the view points of Leo Gursky, who is surprised he hasn’t been buried alive in his own apartment and Alma Singer, a 15 year old girl who was named after every girl in the book called The History of Love: “The first woman may have been Eve, but the first girl will always be Alma. This book, the original History of Love, is the string that ties the characters together, drawing them in the same direction as Alma attempts to mend her mother’s wounded heart and damaged psyche and Leo struggles to exist in a world not of his making. The book: transcends generations; circumnavigates the globe; dies a number of ill-fated deaths only to be recreated by yet another pen; lives in the memories of all those who have come across it; and it lives in the hearts of anyone longing, anyone searching for their true love, their lost love, their reason for everything.

The book inside a book concept is not an easy one to pull off but Krauss’ narrative is ineffable, reminiscent of the quirky verbiage of Jonathan Safran Foer (I was almost disappointed to learn that the two are, in fact, married) and blends the stories seamlessly.

I do not deign to think that my review, or any review, could do the book justice. There is too much held within those 200 or so pages. I will say this: the book enraptures the reader, the characters are so compelling you can feel pieces of yourself break for them and the ending is simply superb.

Sometimes less is more.

SAS Used Book Sale

This was what my life looked like today as I tried to squeeze every extra minute out of the day – baking, making phone calls, blogging, banking and of course, the books. Oh the books! Do you see the books?

I know, I know. This topic is redundant. And repetitive. If you are reading this blog it is likely because you feel an affinity towards books. And if you feel an affinity towards the printed word, it is also likely that you enjoy procuring/displaying/acquiring books.

This can be an expensive habit though. Despite the favorable CAD, books are expensive. I remember when a book was under $10. Now, it seems under $20 is a bargain. That all changed this past weekend when I discovered the annual SAS Used Book Sale in Calgary. Entry is $2 but this is a paltry sum to pay for the experience you embark on as well as the treasures you are sure to find. There are a number of requirements to ensure this is a pleasant experience: leave yourself plenty of browsing time, do not take small children, make sure your hands are empty, bring empty boxes or reusable bags, and above all else, bring a sherpa. It is simply not possible to dig through boxes and boxes of books if you are loaded down with the already found treasures.

I did not know what I was getting myself into when I entered the market last Friday and only had 1hr to spend among the stacks. This, combined with the already frenzied commotion created a bit of (albeit enjoyable) chaos as I crouched under tables to reach for the books buried way way back…

The line ups are long and I was lucky my husband was with me and is a patient man. About 30 minutes after arriving, he took his place in line, inching forward as I periodically ran back to him to add to the growing pile in his arms. When he reached the front and my time was up I simply stared at the mound in his arms wondering how much this was going to cost. The energy in the room had been so distracting I hadn’t even thought of this – the past hour had simply been my own personal scavenger hunt where each newly procured book was the clue to the next. There were more than 30 books in Andrew’s arms. Surely, this was crossing some sort of line. Visions of Hoarders flickered through my mind. As though he could sense my panic, an elderly man behind us put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Go ahead dear, you can just donate them next year if you wish. This is my third trip in today.” Always listen to your elders. The woman at the front counted my books and handed me a receipt for $45. Did I mention I had over 30 books?

Andrew barely flinched when we reached the car and I instinctively got in the back seat with my books. The whole experience had occurred so quickly that I hadn’t even had time to look at my books, to turn each one over, to feel their weight. How a book feels in my hands is important (I don’t feel it necessary to harp on the Fountainhead here…).  This criteria is not paramount but often tantamount to various other deciding factors. A book is a whole package for me from cover, to title, to weight and size, to jacket summary, to page thickness (I am not a fan of books whose pages are not of equal size – a book that comes to mind is Book of Negroes) etc. These 30 books had been chosen based solely on impulse so I was relieved to see that my selections were fantastic and varied.

My cache includes but is not limited to:

  • – various Edith Wharton stories
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • various novels by Mordecai Richler
  • I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallman
  • Obama’s the Audacity of Hope
  • Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
  • Mao II by Don Delillo
  • William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust
  • A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon
  • Atwood’s Alias Grace
  • and more!

If I thought that watching people at airport bookstores was telling it was only because I had never been to a used book sale like this before. But that could be a whole blog on its own…

If you haven’t had the chance to check it out, the book sale goes again this weekend June 18-20.

The Fountainhead

I don’t usually write mid-read but this book is an exception to many rules, I think.

I don’t know where I first saw Ayn Rand’s ubiquitous book The Fountainhead. I have memories of picking it up and turning it in my hands before replacing it on the shelf. I am sure I have done this at an airport Borders, at a bookstore in the lanes of Bangkok and as a 15 year old at Audrey’s bookstore in Edmonton. If you spend enough time surrounded by books, looking for books, just aware of books, The Fountainhead has entered your vernacular at some point.

My relationship with the book, however, never went beyond the tactile. I never opened the front pages, I could never get past the jacket summary. There is little about “a groundbreaking philosophy [called] Objectivism” and an “architect’s battle against conventional standards” that spoke to me. The fact that the book was supposedly controversial heightened my interest for sure (Catcher in the Rye, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Of Mice and Men, Howl – the greatest books are those that push the envelope) but I could not conceptualize the development of the controversy beyond that which was described on the jacket. And so, I put the book away, again.

Now, some 10 years later, this thing is everywhere. Most prominently, my peers have been referencing it and I refuse to be left behind! The book is physically daunting – it remains published in the traditional paperback size, the 4″ x 7″ that Signet seems so fond of and it clocks in just under 700 pages. Font 9. Size does matter and it is possible to be too big. But, like I said, I refuse to be left behind.

“Howard Roark laughed.

“He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone-flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays.”

This is how The Fountainhead opens. The writing is more than compelling, it is enticing and immediately enraptures the reader. The words flow (though lack cadence) so well that I often realize I have not been paying attention to the words so much as the manner in which they are strung together. Whole pages are lost on me; their meaning too disorienting, too upsetting and I choose rather to focus on the beauty of the language.

I have not finished The Fountainhead yet and so perhaps it is premature to judge, to analyze but this book creates such consternation in me that I cannot wait to finish before laying down my thoughts. I fear, in fact, that I will finish the book and it will all make sense, I will side with Rand and the days upon days of agonized reading will be forgotten. I must remember that something in me disagrees on a primitive level with Rand’s thesis. I do not feel for her hero Roark, I do not care whether he succeeds or not (this is, of course, obfuscated by the fact that success is a murky barometer) and I do not find him affable. How is one to push through 700 pages without finding a connection with the characters?

Rand’s deep set belief in the supremacy of the individual over the collective comes from her early life in Russia: she was 12 at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution and had allegedly already formed political leanings at this point. In her early 20’s she emigrated to the USA and succumbed, it would see, to her version of the American Dream and the laissez-faire politics of the time. This, combined with her earlier studies and influences such as Nietzsche, led her to develop her personal philosophy which she termed Objectivism.  Despite having read approximately two-thirds of The Fountainhead and having researched Ayn and her philosophy, I still do not fully understand it but it seems she believed that: “to live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: reason, purpose and self-esteem.”

This sounds noble, righteous and sincere but there is a disconnect, for me, between these ideals and the realization of them that Rand depicts for us in her epic novel. I get that Roark is the hero because he does not back down, he does not falter, and he persists in the face of a myriad of obstacles. He knows what is important to him, what is right in his eyes, and he is willing to sacrifice everything – love, food, money, shelter – in order to remain true to his beliefs. And although this is the mark of an idol, I do not find his character admirable. Roark is cold, he has no friends, he does not care what others think and our first introduction into him as a human, with human desires, is through a violent sex-scene that leans uncomfortably towards rape. Through his torrid relationship with the heroine Dominique, we are allowed to see glimpses of a man in love but the relationship is so wrong that none of it rings true. Additionally, Rand does not allow the reader the time to get to know Roark. Typically, as characters in novels are faced with challenges they change and evolve – we feel their struggles and we relish their triumphs – but since Roark begins an arrogant hero and remains one we do not progress along with him.  This too makes the character hard to believe: who among us is so sure that we do not stop and question, we do not change, we do not evolve? Rand holds that man’s free will is in his choice to think or not to think but is a man who does not question himself really exercising his free will?

Perhaps it is Rand’s treatment of life as black and white that most perturbs me though. Her heroine Dominique cannot face the world in which Roark is not idolized and revered and so retreats to the other side: if Roark must be held down at least it will be by someone who loves him. For Rand there is only one or the other, you are for or against, there is no in between. But life is not made of yes’ and no’s, of rights and wrongs of do or die’s. There is passion in living, there is life in faltering and there is living in figuring it all out.  It is this life that seems void in Rand’s highly acclaimed epic.

I feel on the outside of a secret saying that I disagree, saying that I do not herald this book as so many others have done.  This book has made me think far more than any other book I have read lately and for that I am thankful.  For me, the mark of a hero is one who is willing to question his ideals, to encounter new ideas and to struggle through it all with passion. I think it would be the height of hubris to think you could live your life any other way.

Book Recommendations

I have been having some great book conversations lately, finding more and more people who are READERS and are themselves elated to have found someone to chat with about books. Through these convos, I’ve gotten a few good recommendations and given some too (okay, many!).

Here are some of my top recommendations right now:

Category: Crack Read: the book you just-can’t-put-down!

Motley Crue: the Dirt – Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band

Category: Op-Ed/Q&A

The Big Empty: Dialogues on Politics, Sex, God, Boxing, Morality, Myth, Poker and Bad Conscience in America by Norman Mailer and John Buffalo Mailer

Category: You have a love for words. And who among us doesn’t?

The Year of Endless Sorrows by Adam Rapp

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

– I wouldn’t suggest reading these two in succession as, in retrospect, they may be fairly similar

Category: Mysterious blend of fact and fiction

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Anything by Haruki Murakami

Category: You liked the Kite Runner but want something less DaVinci Code (with respect to its mass market appeal)

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra

I am knee deep in 4 books right now so I will surely be adding to this sooner than later.

Stay tuned.

Okay, teaser. On my bedside table: Little Bee by Chris Cleave