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November 2005
To The Power of Three

"One of the season's most powerful new novels is Laura Lippman's To the Power of Three, a gripping tale that is a mystery only in the same sense as To Kill a Mockingbird was.

This is a brilliant, insightful, moving tale of three girls, best friends forever, whose lives crumble when a shooting at their suburban Baltimore high school leaves one injured, one dead and one dying ...

The troika of teenagers who form the center of the novel are as real, as intriguing and as heartbreaking as any characters you will ever read about in a whodunit. To the Power of Three is the best mystery novel of 2005 so far.

David Montgomery
Chicago Sun-Times

The Annotated Lippman

For years, I've told people that my favorite novel is Lolita, but that's a lie. My favorite novel is The Annotated Lolita, edited by Alfred Appel Jr. I first purchased it for Appel's class at Northwestern, but literally read it to pieces, so I recently had to pick up the "revised and updated" released by Vintage in 1991.

The class was one of those large lecture courses, held in the vast auditorium of the engineering building. I believe it was a survey course in 20th century American literature, but the rest of the syllabus is lost to my porous memory. My only distinct recollection is the day that Appel brought a series of old records and played them for us, so we might know what was on the diner jukeboxes during Humbert and Lolita's cross-country trek. "See the pyramids along the Nile . . ." He also provided a most thorough rundown of the comic strips that Lolita would have been reading at the time. Could there really have been slides of Krazy Kat?

Comics are alluded to in the text of Lolita. Here, for example, from page 165 of the Vintage edition: "Her eyes would follow the adventures of her favorite strip characters; there was one well-drawn sloppy bobby-soxer with high cheekbones and angular gestures, that I was not above enjoying myself . . ."

Note 165/1 explains: "Penny, the comic strip created by Harry Haenigsen in 1943 . . . As responsive as hew was scholarly, Nabokov was also amused and delighted by 'lower' forms of art, and was not above making selective use of such materials in his writing."

I know people, far better read than I, who find Appel's notes and conclusions literal, joyless, and even a little fatuous in places. I rather like the annotated version, but I still wouldn't recommend it until one is a bona fide Lolitaphile, something I became entirely by accident. Or, more accurately, because I was a little perv.

I first tried the book when I was 12 or so, having been alerted to its salacious possibilities by Jean Kerr's parody of "Can This Marriage Be Saved" with Humbert and Lolita telling their sides. To say that it went over my head is akin to admitting that the BWI flight plan is above my roofline. That description of Humbert and Lo's Sunday reading, for example, was prefaced by this sentence: "There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racquet, and was too indolent to remove." I no longer recall when it occurred to me that this passage was not entirely figurative, but it was disgracefully late. (Oh, but how fun to stumble on references to this very scene in both Zadie Smith's On Beauty and Sujata Massey's The Typhoon Lover.)

I return to The Annotated Lolita again and again, for while the novel's text is ingrained in my memory like a well-loved dream, I've never been able to retain the notes, so each re-reading is like a treasure hunt, or an adult pop-up box with discoveries ranging from delightful to ho-hum. And given that Lolita does have a rather twisty puzzle -- "a process which both parallels and parodies the Poe tale of ratiocination," according to Appel -- it is always satisfying to see how carefully Nabokov plotted his story and allotted his clues.

On pages 271-272 of the Vintage edition, here is a noteless passage of note: "And softly, confidentially, arching her thin eyebrows and puckering her parched lips, she emitted, a little mockingly, somewhat fastidiously, not untenderly, in a kind of muted whistle, the name that the astute reader has guessed long ago." In fact, the name Lolita that finally surrenders to Humbert is hinted at, or alluded to, in more than fifty instances throughout the novel, starting on page 4, according to Appel. That strikes me as a solid homage to crime fiction, but Appel insists that Nabokov loathed detective stories, outgrowing his youthful passion for Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ah well, he disliked James Joyce, too, and called Don Quixote a "a crude and cruel old book."

Given my fondness for this annotated volume, imagine my delight when I found out that the French paperback edition of In Big Trouble (Petite Musique de Meurtre) has actual footnotes, explaining everything from the Alamo to Fiona Apple. Here are a choice few, reprinted, alas, with out the proper accents. Forgive the vulgarity:

"La "Vielle Betsy" etait le surnom du fusil de Davy Crocket, un caliber 40 mm a crosse en noyer et incrustations d'agrentan qu'un collectif d'electeurs du comte de Lawrence (Tennessee) lue avait offert en 1822."

"[L]a NSA est une agence de renseignement chargee du contre-espionnage."

"Arthur Murray, de son vrai nom Arthur Moses Teichman, danseur americain (1895-1991), batit sa fortune dans less annes 1920 en commercialisant des pas de danse par courier, puis ouvre des ecoles a travers tout le pays."

"Les Midas Muffler sont une chaine de routiers americains."

And, perhaps my favorite, in an attempt to explain a reference to grocery store magnate Henry E. Butt: "Butt signifie 'cul.'"

As I flip through the pages of In Big Trouble -- excuse me, Petite Musique de Meurtre -- what interests me are the pop culture references that were allowed to stand for French readers. So the French are familiar with Big Red, that most local of sodas, but not Moon Pies? ("Crees in 1917 . . . tartlettes a la guimauve enrobes de chocolat, sont une veritable institution dans le Sud des Etas-Unis.") They need to be briefed on Dave Matthews, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Shawn Colvin, but not George Michael in the Wham-era?

I did discover one error in the meticulous notes: The Valley of the Dolls is described as "un film erotique de Russ Meyer." Um, no. That was Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, whose writer would later distinguish himself by winning the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. The Valley of the Dolls was "un film camp de director Mark Robson" and the reference crops up because Tess is thinking about the great washroom confrontation between Helen Lawson and Neely O'Hara. I know from reading a biography of Susann that Lawson was most likely based on Ethel Merman, while Neely was inspired by a young friend. But there's a lot of showbiz lore that I can't crack. Were Paul and Gino based on real people? Lyon Burke? Clearly, what I really need is The Annotated Valley of the Dolls.

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