Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book 31 of '11 Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Dust Jacket Description:

When it was published in 1955, Lolita immediately became a cause célèbre because of the freedom and sophistication with which it handled the unusual erotic predilections of its protagonist. But Vladimir Nabokov's wise, ironic, elegant masterpiece owes its stature as one of the twentieth century's novels of record not to the controversy its material aroused but to its author's use of that material to tell a love story almost shocking in its beauty and tenderness. Awe and exhilaration–along with heartbreak and mordant wit–abound in this account of the aging Humbert Humbert's obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America, but most of all, it is a meditation on love–love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation."

I've read a lot of reviews that are seemingly, subtly apologetic to Humbert Humbert, his sexual urges and his inevitable decline into things that are hard to name. And it also seems to be universally understood - even by the dust jacket of this novel - that Lolita is a love story. Lolita neither convinced me of it being a love story, nor did it make me pity the hopeless protagonist of a story. But it did enthrall me with its perception of enigmas, sexuality and human experience.

Humbert Humbert is a coward and a narcissist. He's classically repressed in a way that labels him as European without having to find out his place of birth. Humbert isn't exactly three dimensional, but he's as real as any person I've experienced in real life. He seems to convince himself that his temporary avoidance of early adolescent girls was noble. He talks about his movie star good looks and feels that Lolita intentionally, almost maliciously manipulated him at times. But Humbert is also a twister of anger, angst and self hatred. Is he likable? Absolutely not. Is he easy to relate to? It's a little too easy to experience Humbert's narcissism and unrequited desire and feel as if you're capable of the atrocities he commits.

What I love about Humbert's character though, has little to do with hating or relating to him, and everything to do with how all he is seems to be an illusion. He's trapped in his mind and desires, is quick to justify his actions, but there are times at which you see even he realizing that he's fooled himself. From the way he talks about Lolita in their first encounters to the final chase that has very little point, Humbert really has no meaning or character he hasn't created himself. It makes for an undervalued unreliable narrator experience that adds a whole new dimension to the novel.

As for Lolita, for a character that is such a part of pop culture, I wasn't expecting her to be so hard to capture. That's the appeal of Lolita, though. She's the ultimate American child, determined on being an adult, desperate to get her way, in love with objects and ideas that end up being hollow. Lolita isn't really anything at all. Any kind of attraction Humbert experiences for his lover has little to do with any trait or piece of her. Lolita has been a figment of his imagination that he's projected onto a little girl, and that little girl grows up. My definition of love would be wanting happiness for someone even if they aren't with you. True love acts selflessly, even when it thinks selfishly. Humbert has no real care for anyone but himself. I suspect the only real thing he ever felt for Lolita was the heartbreak of harming something permanently and recognizing it fully after the fact.

Beyond Humbert, Lolita is only an interesting specimen because of how well worn her story is. A sexier Ophelia, if you will. The dangerous thing about Lolita is how she discovers her sexuality with no real regard for her own self or pleasure within that experience. She quickly learns how to deal with the twisted father/daughter sort of dynamic between her and Humbert. Her survival strategy is playing with sex, toying with jealousy, and who can blame her? Lolita is not a highly mature mistress with hidden, evil agendas. She's a girl using the best kind of currency she has. Lolita seems to never learn anything beyond that kind of currency. But it's not as if life handed her the opportunity to experience herself beyond what people desired her to be.

In fact, my favourite quote of the book sums up Lolita and Humbert's relationship perfectly. In a flash of internal monologue, Humbert acknowledges Lolita's reality: "He broke my heart. You merely broke my life."

Ultimately, Lolita has nothing to do with Lolita. There's a blurb at the back of the book from the New York Times that says this novel is the only believable love story. If it is, it's the only believable love story because there's absolutely no love involved. 5 flowers.

It's hard to accurately explain Nabokov's prose. It's not quite lyrical, but it's delicious with its sardonic wit and word play. It's brilliant and fluid and I had a hard time believing that English wasn't Nabokov's first language for the entirety of the book. There's a certain kind of distant sterility that combines with Nabokov's stunning description. It makes it impossible for the book to be written by anyone else.

The word nymphet in and of itself is fascinating, with all of its victim shaming, "bad girl" undertones. The term nymphet reflects plenty about the people who use it. That word is just one example of how Nabokov illustrates his point in a way that makes a reader's skin crawl. I loved it. 5 flowers.

Pacing left a lot to be desired at parts, due to the story moving so slowly quite often. The overall flow of events feels organic, though. The book's dark wit is what makes it readable, and how it makes a reader laugh at such corrupt events is why it's so scandalous for me, less so the use of sexuality. Admittedly, near the end it felt campy in a way that was trying to be literary, and I was too tired to do anything but roll my eyes and muse over the ghosts of Humbert's mind. 4 flowers.

The book may be about fifty pages too long, it may drag, it may seem pointless, but the beginning and the end are sheer perfection. 5 flowers.

Dust Jacket Description:
I disagree with Lolita being a love story, nor does the description really tell you anything important. 2 and a half flowers.

Dull. Pointless. Doesn't make me want to read it whatsoever. 2 flowers.

This is not the kind of book you read when you love human experience and don't understand the appeal of enigmas or manic pixie dream girls. This is the kind of book you read in a period of self loathing and you want to float on the edge of reality or feel things no one likes to talk about. Read it, it's gorgeous. It'll make you think. But be very selective at the time period that you decide to embrace Humbert's world. 4 and a half flowers.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book 32 of '11 The Difference Between You and Me by Madeline George

Dust Jacket Description:

"How do you choose between what you believe in and who you love?

Jesse cuts her hair with a Swiss Army Knife. She wears massive green fisherman's boots every day. She's the founding (and only) member of NOLAW, the National Organization to Liberate All Weirdos.

Emily is the vice president of student council. She has an internship with a local big business. She loves her boyfriend.

At least she thinks she does. But there's no denying her feelings for Jesse. When they meet up every Tuesday in the bathroom of the local library, the physical connection they share is undeniable.

Jesse doesn't want to keep their relationship a secret; Emily does. But when they find themselves on opposite sides of a heated school issue, both girls are forced to choose between their convictions and their attachments to one another."

I received this book for review.

First of all, I'd like to note that I'm really behind on reviews and I fail as a blogger. HOWEVER, there are going to be some serious changes around here in terms of content and design. Be prepared.

Most importantly, however, I'm going to lead by saying that if you take nothing else from this review, you need to go out and buy this book, share it with your friends, and then start revolutions.

Characters: Jesse is that edgy, outspoken, person that I usually adore as a side character. But personalities like her's usually don't get the main attention in YA books, and that change was subtle, but refreshing. Jesse grew as more than just the token rebel character very quickly. She's still trying to forge her political voice, and she has it really bad for a girl with entirely different morals from her own. While I went through periods of being frustrated with Jesse for compromising her narrative to be with Emily, it's not to understand the place she's in. After all, most teenagers are used to their hormones ruling over logic. In fact, her love for Emily is almost heartbreaking in parts, due to its strong resonance. Jesse's character strikes the perfect balance between being strong and predetermined, while still maintaining enough wiggle room to make her character arc obvious, but engaging to watch evolve.

As for Emily, I think most of us know a girl like her. She's perfectly polished, socially involved, and she honestly thinks that not only does she has to have a good reputation in order for others to feel better, but that high school actually matters. She's more than willing to contort any of her actions into something ultimately noble or important, but she's incapable of seeing herself truthfully. Needless to say, I wasn't really a big fan of the kind of person Emily is, but I could see Jesse's attraction to her, and I really appreciated the chapters in her point of view. It encapsulated her refusal to accept herself in a way Jesse never would be able to articulate.

The thing that really pushes this story to a higher level, though, are the side characters. I fell in love with Jesse's parents, adored Wyatt's sarcasm and love of playing roles - who, by the way, might be the first gay, conservative character I've read in YA. Kudos, George - , cherished the quirky, go-getter, Joan of Arc loving Esther, resented Snediker, and went through countless other emotional processes with other personalities. Actually, one of my favourite scenes was the interaction with Jesse and Emily's boyfriend, Mike.

George sated my all consuming hunger for queer teen characters with problems beyond coming out, and gave me several more subplot characters to love. This is a brilliant cast of characters, and while maybe the stories attached to them aren't particularly original, they're intriguing, and some even provide a groundbreaking teen perspective in YA. 5 flowers.

George has a knack for internal monologue and description. She doesn't have lush prose, but her analogies communicate the perfect imagery, and it triggers powerful emotions in readers. My only peeve was that towards the end a lot of the characters' dialogue seemed to sound pretty similar. Also, while I loved Esther's points about Joan of Arc and revolutions, I'm not sure they were completely deserving of an entirely new point of view when there were already two very different ones. 4 flowers.

Plot: Maureen Johnson has a blurb on the back of this book, and there's something very MJ about this novel that I can't exactly put my finger on. Now looking back, it might have been the way the plot was dealt with.

I really loved the socially aware aspect of the novel, and how every character - even Emily - was concerned about making a major impact on the world and creating a better place for everyone to reside in. After every chapter in the middle of the book, I would have the unspeakable urge to go out and DO something about all the injustices in the world. It usually takes a lot for a book to make me want to act on issues beyond just interpreting the contents within the book, and that emotion on my part spoke volumes.

I just really loved the highly relevant political topic that's the central focus of the book. The pacing was fantastic, while the plot balanced about a billion different subplots without making me feel overwhelmed. That's a pretty impressive feat all by itself. 5 flowers.

The ending briefly reminded me of Maureen Johnson's Bermudez Triangle. That's pretty funny, since I did not love the conclusion in MJ's novel, I thought the resolution here worked for the book. I was extremely happy with Jesse's full emotional arc, and ultimately the book showed it's possible to put all your dreams into action. 5 flowers.

Dust Jacket Description:
Well written, but a bit misleading, considering the story mainly is Jesse's. I would've liked a brief mention of some of the side characters, too.

Cover: I love the title's graphics, and I agree with the idea of showing how polar opposite Jesse is to Emily and vice versa. However, it feels rather gender normative and misleading. Maybe I'm the only one with that impression. 3 flowers.

This book is the sort you want to have so you're prepared when life crashes around you. It's the book you read until the wee hours of the morning that comforts you and inspires you to change the world. It has characters you empathize with and they make you feel warm, safe and ready to conquer the universe again. Please pick this up, it's a great contemporary YA book, and you won't regret it. 4 and a half flowers.