If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Monday, June 2, 2008

What I'm Reading Next: True History of the Kelly Gang

We took the train up to New York this weekend to visit friends from our year on Long Island. It was a beautiful weekend, and great to catch up with people. Back in April we made a similar trip by car, and I have to say I really enjoyed going by train this time. Not having to sit in traffic trying to get out of DC on a Friday evening (or across Staten Island at any time) is totally worth it. Besides, sitting on the train instead of behind the wheel of a car finally gave me the chance to finish reading Lolita and get started on my next book.

It's a stange thing to suddenly find myself reading in public. I have always enjoyed talking about books, but the awareness that I would be announcing my book choices to a largely anonymous audience is definitely an adjustment. When I was choosing what book to read next in my self-imposed cycle (fiction-->non-fiction-->re-read), I went to my bookshelf and scanned through the titles. Lolita immediately popped out as something I wanted to read again, mostly because I had just been skimming through Reading Lolita in Tehran for this blog, and so I had Nabokov's novel on my mind.

At first, I hesitated to choose Lolitabecause I wondered how it would appear to be reading a famously scandalous novel about an older man's relationship with a school-age girl as part of a feature for a blog about schools. Judging from the wink-wink, nudge-nudge tone with which my friends asked me how I was enjoying the book, and the eyebrow-raised curiosity with which my wife watched me answer, I wasn't wrong to think twice. In the end, though, I decided to go ahead and read Lolita, in part because at the time nothing else seemed as appealing, but mostly because I felt that if I started changing my reading habits too much because of the blog, both reading and the blog would start to seem like more of a chore than a pleasure.

So let me adress all those raised eyebrows out there, both real and imagined. I did, in fact, enjoy the book very much. Nabokov is a very seductive writer--a master stylest, even in his adopted language. He plays with language like some combination of magician and matador, drawing you in only to dance away again and begin a new trick. The great accomplishment of the book is that he takes a monstrous character--a pervert and confessed murderer obsessed with pubescent girls--and, without diminishing the horror of his crimes, persuades the reader to empathize with him. We are not asked to forgive him, only to understand him, despite his horrible acts. Lolitais a tragedy in the classic sense, in which a fatal flaw (both in the sense of deadly and predestined) leaves an inevitable trail of destroyed lives in its wake, the protagonist the most destroyed because he must also suffer the guilt for the destruction he has wrought.

Lolitais certainly a sensual book, especially in the first half when Humbert Humbert is in the early stages of his 'romance' with young Dolores Haze, but it is no more an apology for his proclivities than Macbethis an apology for ambition or Oedipus for incest. What it is, is an exquisitely written book that plays on the full range of human emotions, and leaves the reader feeling that he has truly come to understand another human being.

Next up: True History of the Kelly Gang: A Novel
Peter Carey's Booker Prize winning novel about Australia's most famous outlaw, narrated by Ned Kelly himself. Another prize winner, for my list. The Booker rarely lets me down.

Previous titles:

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

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