Posts Tagged ‘holy shit’

Book #111: House of Leaves

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


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 #108: Lolita


That’s about all I have to say about Nabokov’s Lolita.


Its reputation definitely proceeds it, so I thought I knew what I was getting into. I assumed the scandal was just because the novel was racy and the girl was a bit young. I was thinking maybe she was 17 or 18 and the guy was in his 40s.

I was not expecting the book to be, “My name is Humbert Humbert and I’m a dirty old man who likes 11-and-12-year-olds.”

But it was. It was and I had a much harder time dealing with it than I expected. It just kept pinging on my “wow this is really freaking creepy.” radar. Maybe I went into this book with a bit too much bravado. I was sure that it wasn’t as scandalous as I’d heard and totally confident that I wouldn’t be grossed out or disturbed by it.

But I was. I just…no. So much no. I can’t even begin to actually review the book or think about it analytically because it raises my No, HELL no! reflex too much. So I guess this post is more reaction than review. Hope that’s okay because I want to think about Humbert Humbert as little as possible.

Some people would say that “there’s no need for that” and that Lolita shouldn’t have been written because there’s no place for such stories in literature, but as much as this book truly disturbed me, I don’t agree. Would Nabokov have evoked such strong, visceral reactions from me (and so many other people) if Lolita had been 18 and a consenting “adult”? I highly doubt it.

For me there was the constant battle where I naturally wanted to sympathize with Humbert, or at least semi-relate to him, just because he was the narrator and reading makes you put yourself in the narrator’s shoes a lot of the time, but I’d be going along, starting to come around to him and then I’d stop and thing, yep, yep, you’re talking about having sex with a pre-teen.

It was wild. Not in a good way. I didn’t hate Lolita the way I hate books like The Scarlet Letter, because Nabokov is a freaking good writer. I just hated the experience of reading it. I wound up rushing through the last 30 pages or so just so I could finish and say, “I’m sure glad that’s over with!”

Here’s to never having to share brainspace with a creep like Humbert Humbert ever again!
I hope.

Rating: ***
Up Next: Kafka On The Shore

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 #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

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