Andromeda/Your Turn: The Perfect Book

Oh, it’s been a long time since we’ve played “Your Turn,” and my eyeballs are so deep into emails and various less-creative things that I can’t even write a well-crafted blogpost. But I can hope the rest of you are out there doing summery things — and reading wonderful books — perhaps even books so wonderful you’d like to mention them to others.

So, tell me: 1) what good book have you read lately? and 2) what’s a perfect book for you? and/or 3) have you read anything lately that you had meant to read for a long, long, long time (and why did it take so long)?

I’ll pick one that fits all three categories. I’m finally reading Nabokov’s Lolita, a book that I have tried to read parts of and set down at various times due to my discomfort with the starting premise (oh — just graphic pedophilia, that’s all; I danced around this by reading other fiction and nonfiction by Mr. VN, knowing all the while that Lolita is the one that really counts).

But once I got past the opening — I’m now only at the midpoint — I’m starting to think this may fit into my perfect or almost-perfect book category. What do I mean by perfect? High degree of difficulty (in this case, an unlikeable narrator doing despicable things) — which only makes the other elements even more astounding; startling use of language; an innovative voice and complete control of narration; but also plot and tension, twists and turns, proving that literature need not be dull. Lots of humor thrown in as well.

When a book I didn’t even want to like turns out this good, it’s a perfect — or nearly-perfect — book.

But of course, I’m only at the midpoint.

Anyone else?

6 thoughts on “Andromeda/Your Turn: The Perfect Book”

  1. I'm reading Larry McMurtry's "Literary Life", the second memoir in a planned set of three.
    I fell in love with McMurtry after "Lonesome Dove" (great women characters in a western) and have never fallen out of love. He's written 40 books but says his books don't pay the bills – they just got him good screenwriting gigs. Yowza…
    It's a light and casual read just right for busy times.

    Also recently read "Fishes and Dishes" by Tomi Marsh, Kiyo Marsh and Laura Cooper. The recipes are killer and the stories made me laugh. This is a book that any seafood lover or fisherman would like. If you know any fishing chicks they will love it. I did.

    As for what makes a perfect book, it changes. About six years ago my usual literary picks were not working for me: philosophical novels, books of essays, existential stories. Nothing I picked up was working anymore so I raided my husband's bookcase and chose McMurtry's "Boone's Lick". I had never read a western in my life but the very first sentence of that book pulled me right in and I knew I was in for a good read. I have raided my husband's bookcase ever since.
    –Therese Harvey

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks Therese — those are some good recommendations!

    Another commenter emailed me directly to confirm that there aren't any actual sex scenes in Lolita. (This had come up, interestingly enough, in a UAA talk this very morning.) While I am not the best one to answer, being only halfway through this book, I responded to the emailer:

    Nabokov describes the sex obliquely, in ways that leave you with the impression you've read more than you actually have, and in ways that can seem disturbing (or I suppose titillating) more by suggestion. Or he'll leave you with a detailed physical description of Lolita just before or just after the act, which I
    personally find more chilling than if he'd described a rape scene.
    (Again, this is based on my reading only to the midpoint!) Most is left to the imagination.

    Perhaps most interesting is what Nobbie himself writes in the afterword about pornography or obscenity: "Obscenity [i.e. in commercial pornography] must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to entirely replaced by
    simple sexual stimulation which demands the traditional word for direct action upon the patient. … Thus, in pornographic novels, action has to be limited
    to the copulation of cliches. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader
    from his tepid lust." Nabokov took the opposite route — subverting anything expected from a sexual book in favor of high style and surprising imagery.

  3. Lolita is my favorite novel, one I used to read about every year (but have neglected more recently), for its style, language, complexity of ideas, psychology, etc. I have just been looking again at another Nabokov book, Pnin, which he wrote at about the same time as Lolita and has much of the same style and cleverness but is outrageously funny, about a professor who has come from another country and is quite lost in America and the world of competitive academe. It's a good introduction to Nabokov and an underrated book in itself, also fairly short (actually a set of related stories that were originally published separately in The New Yorker.)
    My latest favorite novel is Ian McEwan's Solar, for a variety of reasons including the way the author addresses "big ideas" in fiction without being didactic or losing narrative momentum. This is also a very funny book. McEwan is a descendant of Nabokov–you can see the influence (or the like mind) in his writing, and he said in an interview he learned from Nabokov to "fondle details."

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Nancy — how amazing! More synchrony again. On my nightstand right now, just underneath Lolita and Speak Memory: Ian McEwan's Solar. McEwan is one of my all-time favorites, and I couldn't wait to see how he would write about climate change without getting lost in thick science or preachiness. (He does it with irreverent humor, of course!) Halfway through that one as well. Just next to that one, and going more slowly: Updike's Rabbit is Rich.

    I'm teased in my house for needing to read several books at once, often slowly, rather than one at a time.

    Any other polygamous readers out there?

  5. A good book I've read lately… I thoroughly enjoyed Jim Harrison's memoir, Off to the Side. In fact, I read large sections of it to my mom when she was in the hospital recently, and she really liked it too, which I suppose punches at least one hole in the notion that Harrison's work is only for guys.

    A perfect book… is there such a thing? For you or me or otherwise? I can't think of a single one. Except, of course, for my book. That's not really the snarky comment that it might first appear to be. The main reason I started writing stories when I was ten, and have kept writing all these years, was because I've never been able to find that perfect book, that story that expresses exactly what I wanted to see expressed. So I figured I'd just have to do it myself. Is my book, The Devil's Share, perfect? Probably not, at least in the objective sense. In fact, almost certainly not. But it's perfect for me because I wrote it, and it's an expression of my vision as an artist. Admittedly, not everyone gets to write publishable novels, but we all do what we can to cope with life. Some people hang plastic testicles from their jacked-up pickup trucks. I write stories.

    As for question three… I recently read H.D. Thoreau's Walden. I was supposed to have read it in 10th grade English class, but it… was… so… BORING. Anyway, having actually read the book as an adult, my opinion of Thoreau as a self-centered gasbag is largely unchanged, but there's no denying the importance of his work. And of course, there's the inescapable question of whether my lifestyle of living in a cabin in the woods would be considered a viable alternative if not for a certain navel-gazing Concordian.

  6. I recently read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," which I had been avoiding because I knew how dark it was purported to be; and while I often enjoy dark novels, McCarthy is one of the darkest of dark authors.

    A chapter or two in I was tempted to leave. I just wasn't sure I wanted to put myself into that world. But his use of language, storytelling ability, and subtle humor kept me riveted. Like Nabakov's Lolita, it takes exceptional ability to keep a reader enthralled in a world, or character, that is just plain awful.

    I can only imagine what it must have been like to live in The Road for the extended period of time it took to write the novel. I don't think I could bear it. Which probably doesn't bode well for me as a survivor!

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