Posts Tagged ‘contemporary literature’

Book #111: House of Leaves

Holy. Shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. HOLY SHIT.

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House of Leaves. I…wow. Mark Z. Danielewski is a crazy motherfucker. House of Leaves is unlike anything I’ve ever read. I’m not sure there’s another book like it anywhere. Not only is the story (or stories, I should say) compelling and terrifying, the actual, physical experience of reading the book is also part of reading it.

The book is presented as an analytical textbook about an indie film that has gathered a cult following. The film – “The Navidson Record” – is a found-footage horror story about mysterious doors that open in famous photographer Will Navidson’s house. When a mysterious labyrinth with moving walls, a growling beast, and huge, cavernous rooms is revealed to exist inside the house, Navidson enlists a team of explorers, as well as his brother and some friends, to explore and try to get to the bottom of what is happening in his house. Running through the narrative is the strain that the cavern and its exploration has on Navidson’s relationship with his wife. It’s a little bit like the Paranormal Activity films, I’d imagine. Except that as things are revealed – through footnotes and appendices and interviews – you become unsure whether or not the film is fact or fiction.

That’s just the story of The Navidson Record. The text of the book itself is complied by tattoo parlor employee and slacker Johnny Truant. When Truant and his friend enter a dead man’s apartment, they find hundreds of pages worth of records and notes on the film that Truant feels compelled to organize into the book – House of Leaves. As Truant delves into Zampanó’s – the dead man’s – work, he finds himself drawn into a world where he questions his sanity and is forced to confront darkness in his past – and present. Truant’s story is told through lengthy footnotes throughout the actual “textbook.”

The book itself, like I said, is as much a part of the reading experience as the story it contains. The book is riddled with footnotes and symbols. Sometimes the text reads in more than one direction so you’re turning the book sideways and upside down and even moving it in a spiral to read it. Sometimes text runs along the top of the page, or the bottom of the page, or even diagonally across the page. Footnotes have footnotes, sometimes they refer you to appendices or back to previous footnotes. Sometimes you have to hunt for footnotes that aren’t where they should be. Labyrinths are key in the story, and Danielewski turned the physical book containing the story into a labyrinth. It’s completely insane.

More than that, the book is riddled with codes and secret meanings. Certain words are different colors. The word house is always printed in blue, for example. If you go online and seek out message boards you’ll find all kinds of crazy theories and things people have found in the book. There’s a coded letter to decipher, and then there’s a code within the code. There are ciphers. There’s a footnote listing famous architects and artists and if you take the first letter of all the last names, there’s a message. Other times there are codes, but you wouldn’t know it unless you really devoted yourself to decoding things, because the first few letters will be gibberish and then suddenly there are words.

The think about reading a book like this is that once you figure out that there are meanings behind the text, everything seems intentional. Why was this word misspelled? Why is this word a different font from the other? This word is missing letters, do the missing letters spell something? Why is this footnote in italics while this one is in bold? There’s even a bar of music printed in the book. Have you ever tried to seek out a piano so you can play music that you found printed in a novel you’re reading? I have. I felt insane. That book can drive you crazy, if you let it.

Let me tell you a little story about my experience reading House of Leaves. It was late. I wanted to go to bed, but I only had 30 pages until the end of a chapter. Finishing them would get me to bed a bit later than I wanted, but nothing major. But then a footnote led me to another footnote, which led me to an appendix with around 100 pages of letters. One of the letters was written in code, so I had to figure it out. There was a code within that code, and then I noticed another appendix. That appendix showed me that weird symbols connected to certain footnotes had meanings, so I had to go back and connect the meanings with the footnotes. The next thing I knew, it was 3 hours later and I still had 26 pages before the end of the chapter.

House of Leaves was an absolutely insane experience to read. It’s one of those books that could really fuck you up without all the unique footnotes and codes. Those extra elements only serve to get the book in your head a even more. It’s a horror story and a love story and the order you read the appendices and whether or not you choose to pay attention to the extra things like codes or footnotes can completely change your reading.

It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It changed my idea of what books can be and what they can do. I think a lot about the connection between e-books and physical books, and House of Leaves definitely added to that. Reading that book on a Kindle would not be the same. You would lose so much of the physical experience of reading the book and flipping forward and backward in search of footnotes and codes. You’d lose the sense of space when Danielewski plays with the spacing of text on the page if you were looking at it on a small screen.

Mind-fucking plot and insanity-inducing codes aside, House of Leaves definitely makes a case for physical books. The physical book is as much a character as Navidson, Truant, Zampanó, and the House. The act of reading is an experience. It even adds something to the plot, instead of just feeling gimmicky.

If you’re up for a crazy experience, I’d totally recommend House of Leaves. It’s completely nuts.

And, if you know of another book like it, please let me know. Going back to reading books with straightforward plots and nothing to decode and no mysteries to solve is a bit like going back to driving an automatic after you’ve been driving a stick shift. There’s just not as much to do.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Goodbye To Berlin 

Book #89: Fingersmith

Oh man.

Oh. Man.

For as much as I didn’t have anything to say about Christ Stopped at Eboli, I’m afraid that I’m not ever going to be able to stop talking about Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith.

I want to rave about it and scream about it from the rooftops so that everybody reads it.

Perhaps a more fitting title for Fingersmith would be “What?! No!” because that’s what I found myself saying repeatedly.

Fingersmith is a Dickensian-type story about con men (and women) and thievery that is riddled with plot twists and absolute shockers. I wouldn’t recommend reading it before bed, because there are all sorts of crazy what?! NO! moments that happen roughly every 60-70 pages. One night I accidentally stayed up until 3 am reading because there was an insane plot twist and I had to stay up and keep reading. And then I was so freaked out about what I read that I still couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was great.

Fingersmith is about Sue Trinder, an orphan who was raised by Mrs. Sucksby – a “baby farmer” who takes in abandoned children and sells them to people looking for children. Sue is raised to be a “fingersmith,” a petty thief who roams the streets of London stealing valuables and reselling them for profit – think Fagin and the Artful Dodger and their gang in Oliver Twist. When Gentleman, an “honorable” con man, comes to Mrs. Sucksby’s house with a brilliant con, Sue is tapped to help.

A young gentlewoman named Maud Lilly is in need of a new personal maid. Miss Lilly lives with her uncle in an isolated country house, and Gentleman has plans to woo her, marry her, commit her to an insane asylum, and make off with her inheritance. Sue will help convince Maud to fall in love with Gentleman and make sure the plot goes off without a hitch.

That’s the basic plot, but Fingersmith goes off in all sorts of CRAZY directions, until you’re not sure what’s going on. It’s crazy.

And I love it. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had so much fun reading a book. I literally could not put it down. I want to buy copies for everyone I know, give them to them, sit them down, and make them read it. I will watch them read it so that I know they are actually reading it.

I recommend this book to everybody. EVERYBODY. I need someone to talk to about it. So read it. It will go fast because you won’t be able to put it down. You’ll be shocked.

I guess I should also add this disclaimer (that’s only a tiny spoiler compared to the HUGE turns this story will take): there might be some lesbian undertones. But don’t let that be the whole plot. People on Goodreads are all, “IT’S LESBIAN DICKENS!!!!” That’s true. There are some lesbians. But that’s not at all the sole focus of the book.

Read it. Read it, read it, read it. And then freak out to me in the comments.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Call It Sleep

Book #87: Fear of Flying

Evidently Fear of Flying by Erica Jong is one of the classics of second-wave feminism. It’s also a pretty decent book for twenty-something women going through existential crises. In the afterword of the book, Jong writes, “The twenties are as frenetic a decade as the teens. You have a voice inside your head repeating I want, I want, I want, but you hardly know WHAT you want or how to get it. You hardly know who you are. You go on instinct. And your instinct mostly pushes you toward adventures you won’t grasp until you look back on them. Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward, some sage once said.”

In just a few sentences, she summed up twenty-somethings better than a thousand articles from Thought Catalog and every other place on the internet. I’m grateful to Jong for giving me a “sound byte” quote to go to if I need to express how I’m feeling. It’s nice.

I wasn’t quite as sold on Fear of Flying as I could have been, however.

It’s the story of the nervous young twenty-something named Isadora Wing, who always seems to find herself involved with psychoanalysts. Isadora is on a search for happiness and herself. She’s on her second marriage – to a psychoanalyst – and trying to figure out who she wants to be. When she meets an older, alluring British psychoanalyst, Isadora really starts to think about who she is and what she wants.

At times, it was gratifying to read the voice of a woman I could really relate to on a deep level. Isadora wants to go on adventures (she traveled the world with a girlfriend for awhile) and focuses on finding herself. Her family doesn’t understand why she won’t have children. As her mother and sisters question her about why she won’t have children already and Isadora repeatedly explains that she doesn’t want children, they insist that she doesn’t understand how fulfilled and happy she will be when she does.

Although this is a pretty minor part of the book, it’s interesting that all these years later, people are still bugging young women to settle down and have babies. It’s not like I constantly have people asking “when are you going to get married and have kids?”, but it’s been referenced several times. I don’t want children, but my mom and sister are still pretty convinced that I’ll have at least one kid. I suppose time will tell. I’m hoping they don’t hold their breaths.

That’s about all I have to say about Fear of Flying. It must have meant a lot to a lot of women back when it was first published. And I’m sure it’s probably still really life-changing to a lot of people. It’s not often you read things where women are so open about their sexual exploits and other issues. To be honest, I thought the book was a little bit disgusting, with all the references to bodily functions, fluids, and sex. It wasn’t what I’d call pornographic, I consider it disgusting the way I consider pretty much all Chuck Palahniuk books disgusting. Just a lot of references to bodily functions. Apparently I’m more of a Puritan than I realize; I prefer my books to be clean.

All in all, Isadora Wing was a very interesting female protagonist. If I was more into feminist writings (I’m not, at all) and things like that, I probably would have enjoyed the book more. Still, I’m glad I read Fear of Flying.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Christ Stopped At Eboli

Book #86: The Corrections

Ah, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. That book. That. Book.

Several years ago I read this beautiful piece by Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker. It was about David Foster Wallace, Robinson Crusoe, and mourning and it’s probably still the best thing I’ve ever read. Naturally, since he wrote the best thing I’ve ever read, I figured this meant I loved Jonathan Franzen. So, a few years ago, I decided to read The Corrections. 

Bad idea. I hated that stupid book. I didn’t like it much more this time around either.

It’s basically the story of a family struggling to stay together (and hold it together) in the early 2000s. Enid and Albert Lambert’s children – Gary, Chip, and Denise – have all grown up and moved far from their midwestern childhood town. As her children’s lives slowly crumble in different ways and Albert’s health and mental state deteriorate as he succumbs to Parkinson’s disease, Enid tries desperately to bring her whole family back together for one last Christmas in their house.

It sounds like it should be interesting and pretty good. But it’s not. Evidently Franzen and I didn’t see eye to eye on what important, interesting things should be the center of the book. We jump from an interesting plot line to several pages of mind-numbing dialogue between Scandinavians arguing about whether Sweden or Norway is better. And then there are a few scenes with a sociopathic talking turd, for crying out loud. It just…didn’t work out for me.

And then there are the characters. I suppose I’ll say this for Franzen – he really knows how to write flawed characters. There was not one character in The Corrections  that I liked. They were all pretty awful and had very few redeeming qualities. I didn’t care about what happened to any of them, not in the sense that they weren’t interesting and I just didn’t care, but in the sense that they were all just terrible and flawed and I wasn’t really rooting for them at all.

It doesn’t make an interesting experience, reading a book where you don’t like a single character. I guess I’ll also concede this – Franzen really is a great writer. I think I’ll stick with his essays.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Fear of Flying

Book #79: The Poisonwood Bible

I’m almost completely caught up from when I was behind on blogging! Actually, I just read this book last week, so this is the firs time in awhile that I’m writing about a book that I read fairly recently. Woo!

In college, my Twin was in an English class where she had to read Barbara Kingsolver’s book Prodigal Summer, and she hated it. She read some of the, uh, worse sex scenes out loud to us, and for few weeks it was a Thing to make fun of/hate Kingsolver. This was running through the back of my mind when I was reading The Poisonwood Bible.

There weren’t any ridiculous sex scenes in it, though. It actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I even enjoyed reading most of it.

The Poisonwood Bible is told from the point of view of the five women of the Price family. The devout, intense head of the family, Nathan, a Baptist minister, relocated his family to the Congo for one year while he serves as a missionary. The family – the reluctant wife, Orelanna; and the daughters, shallow, appearance-centered Rachel; twins Leah, the brave, faithful follower of her father who strives to embrace Africa, and Adah, crippled and mostly mute; and the youngest, Ruth-May – all try to deal with the difficult life they now must lead as revolution breaks out, things go wrong, and Nathan refuses to give in or bend his ways.

Their year stretches into longer when he mission program falls apart after a coup in Congo, and the family find themselves fighting for survival in Africa.

Overall, I enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible. The daughters are the main narrators, and I really liked all their different voices. Kingsolver did a great job of creating strong, believable characters, each with their own thoughts and impressions of what was going on around them. The writing was good and I think Kingsolver captured the strangeness of traveling to and living in a completely different society.

However, I wasn’t totally happy with the book. My high school English teacher saw on Facebook that I was reading The Poisonwood Bible, and commented, “Good book, tough sledding.” I agreed. The book is really well-written and the story is compelling, but I feel like it’s about 150-200 pages too long. It seemed like the climax happened and everything was dark and interesting, and then it dissipated way, waaay, too slowly. I don’t feel like the book needed to follow the girls as they grew into adulthood. Or, if it did, I certainly don’t think it needed to take up almost a third of the book.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Kidnapped

Book #67: The Magus

Reading John Fowles’ The Magus may well have been one of the oddest reading experience of my life. 

I’m going to paraphrase something one of my college professors said about John Keats’ poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” because it’s fitting: It sucks into it and turns you around so much that, wen you get to the end, you aren’t sure just where you are. You don’t know what happened. You don’t even know which way is up.

That’s how I felt when I finished The Magus.

Basically, a young Englishman named Nicholas Urfe, bored and directionless after graduating from Oxford, winds up accepting a job teaching English at a boys’ school on a remote Greek island. There, he meets Conchis, a reclusive, enigmatic millionaire whose trickery and cleverness land Nicholas in the middle of a “godgame” that tests everything he thought was real.

There’s so much going on in  The Magus that it’s impossible to truly know what’s happening. It has people who are presumed dead come back to life; people are maybe-possibly-actors, are maybe-possibly-crazy, were actually dead all along, are actually someone else, are actually who they say they are, might be part of the game, might not be part of the game, or might not even exist at all.

Read this book, and I promise, by the end, you’ll have absolutely no idea where to look for reality. I re-read parts of it a few times, I’ve read reviews and other people’s comments on it, and I’m still not sure what happened. I’m not even sure what I think happens.

Basically, The Magus is the textbook definition of a mind-fuck read. And I loved it.

Read it. It will make you question reality, how you perceive things, and the many different forms fiction can take. Read it late at night. Preferably, like I did by candle light when the power goes off in your shitty apartment for the 4th night in 6 days. Read it in one sitting. Don’t ever stop reading until you’re finished and wondering what the hell just happened. It will be the most fun you’ve had with a book in awhile.

I dare you to try and unravel the godgame.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Death In Venice

Life After Life

In my break this time, I read Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

I think I heard about it on some book blog or other, and I immediately knew that it had to be my next free read.

To (probably mis)quote one of the characters in the book: What if you had the chance to live your life over and over again until you got it right? 

Kate Atkinson explores this idea through her character, Ursula Todd. Ursula is born on a snowy night in 1910, but dies immediately. She is born again, in the same snowstorm, and lives, only to later be suffocated when the cat falls asleep on her face. She is born again, doesn’t die on the night of her birth, is rescued from suffocation by the cat, but drowns when she is only five. She is born again, doesn’t die when she is born, doesn’t get suffocated by the cat, doesn’t drown, but… you get the idea.

Ursula Todd gets to live many different versions of her life – in at least one of them she kills Hitler – but she isn’t aware of it. Sometimes she is able to save herself from the same fate a second time by “intuition,” and other times her choices take her to different places.

The idea of reliving your life and getting to see where things could have gone if x had been different or if you’d said instead of b has ALWAYS interested me. I often wonder how my life could be different if things had played out differently. My family moved houses when I was 3, so I went to a different elementary school. Who would I be if we’d stayed there? I wouldn’t have had the same best friends as a kid. I wouldn’t have had the same teachers. It’s entirely possible that my life could have been completely different just from that.

Exploring this idea through Ursula was really fun for me. Her many lives were varied, and though many of the players stayed the same, their roles were completely different each time. It’s weird to think how differently life can go based on decisions. Even a decision like “I’m going to learn German instead of French” can completely change things. Ursula got to run around and be awesome during World War II, and you know how much I love reading about Europe in World War II.

Life After Life is an interesting read. It’s a bit repetitive – Atkinson rewrites a lot of the same scenes with just small changes. That can get frustrating, and it does feel like the book could be about 100 pages shorter with some of these cuts, but in the end, I think it’s worth the effort.

I’d recommend you give this book a try if you’re interested in re-birth, reflect a lot (I mean a lot) on your life choices, have trouble making life-altering decisions, or if you read a lot of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books as a kid.

Rating: *****

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