House of Leaves #4 – “Its roots must hold the sky.”

(I’m writing more than a month after I’ve finished reading the book, a month after having an illuminating face-to-face discussion with my reading buddies Monique and Angus. Does that mean I’ve fully processed it and teased out its true meaning? Hell no.)

This is the kind of book that challenges you to love it. And by that I don’t simply refer to the ornery nature of its text. House of Leaves throws so many negative things your way that makes you want to qualify how much you like it–not only the brash postmodernist posturing, but also its violence, its claustrophobic dive into several unquiet minds. But it also works doubly hard to win you back over to its side, reaching for honest sentiment and often enough grasping it.

Continue reading

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

I’ve always been fascinated by crime at the beginning of the 20th Century. It was a nebulous time when all the trappings of what we now consider standard police work barely existed. Cities were industrializing at a rapid pace even as local governments struggled to keep up. Jack the Ripper‘s reign of terror over London, for example, only occurred around ten years before the new century began, and investigators then had to pretty much spontaneously invent psychological profiling, crime scene investigation, forensic handwriting analysis, and other fields of criminology. (Warnings for graphic photos and descriptions of dead bodies in those links.)

Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is a brisk tour of this rough historical period. It also serves as a chronicle of a peculiar arms race between killers looking for the most ingenious methods of offing someone and the forensic investigators determined to catch them. Representing the forces of law and order are two scientists, the medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler of the New York Police Department. Blum expertly paints the frustrating morass of bureaucracy, corruption, and ignorance that technicians like them had to endure in order to establish a more scientific and reliable protocol for catching poisoners. Continue reading

House of Leaves #3 – Love Creates Horror

“What I want the audience to do is to fall in love with these people, and really to care about them and that creates the suspense that you need. Love creates horror.” – Stephen King

(Read Up to Chapter 20 and Appendix B)

I keep resisting this novel at every turn. You see, I know that to allow myself to be completely sucked into the conceit of the book will fuck me up emotionally, and I’m not completely prepared to deal with the fallout. So I’ve done my best to distance myself–speed reading the really depressing Johnny Truant sections and listening to pop culture podcasts immediately after a stretch of reading in order to drown out the narrative voice. I’ve even read two other, happier books since I’ve made the last post. The story will probably still stay with me regardless. Continue reading

House of Leaves #2 – The Labyrinth

(I’m sort of tempted to attempt some typographical fuckery for this post, but my CSS game is not that strong and WordPress wouldn’t allow me to anyway. I would like to note that this post mentions a lot of spoiler-y things)

So far I’ve read up Chapter 9 and Appendix II-E (Whalestoe Institute Letters). I had stopped reading before I got to learn more about the Minotaur all those years ago, so it’s one of the aspects of House of Leaves that still fascinates me in its absolute opaqueness. One of the things I think about is the significance of the crossed out text, especially since they invariably reference the Minotaur story, even tangentially.

Was it Zampano’s way of staving off the unknown horror that was stalking him? Had Johnny, by virtue of “restoring” the words, unwittingly invited this horror back into existence? Continue reading

House of Leaves #1 – Inside the Place on Ash Tree Lane

Six chapters or so into House of Leaves and I’ve decided for myself that this is a novel about compulsion. I think it’s essential for the reader of a book like this–that even explodes the idea of sequential reading–to find (or invent) a way to ground herself in the story.

The novel currently oscillates between two storylines, the first being The Navidson Record, a manuscript allegedly written by a man named Zampano about a film allegedly made by famed photography Will Navidson about a house that allegedly exists in Ash Tree Lane. The second storyline (typeset in monospace font) is Johnny Truant’s first person narration of how he came upon the manuscript and its effect on his life. The novel then acts as a sort of continuously zooming image with no end in sight–except perhaps a neverending hallway. Continue reading

Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie

I think you have to be pretty well-versed in the convention of the romcom (in either its literary or cinematic forms) to appreciate just how delightfully weird Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation really is. In this relatively short novel, she subverts as many genre tropes as she luxuriates in, with a plot that careens wildly between a small-town farce, a family drama, and a murder mystery. That and a couple of pretty involved sex scenes.

The story begins with two Dusty Springfield-loving sisters, Sophie and Amy Dempsey, who drive into a sleepy little town called Temptation and promptly involve themselves in a car accident. This is only the first of the disruptions that they cause, however, because the short film that they had originally planned on shooting somehow devolves into gauzy, soft-core porn. As the responsible one in the family, Sophie has to do her best to protect their little production, which means dealing with Temptation’s handsome mayor, Phin Tucker. Sparks fly between them, because it must. Continue reading

House of Leaves Readalong: First Post and Masterlist

I’m going to spend most of July doing a read along of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves with the fine folks at The Filipino Group on Goodreads. I’ve also lined up quite a few frothy books to act as a palate cleanser because I know from personal experience that this book can mess you up.

My first attempt at read HoL was in 2009, right after a family-related crisis and other stress-inducing events. The claustrophobic nature of the book really threw me in a loop, something that I didn’t quite expect because while I have been creeped out by books and stories before (I’m looking at you, Stephen King and Edogawa Rampo), it always involved some sort of catharsis. Danielewski’s written nightmares stay with you and fester.

And yet, abandoned books have the capacity to litter the corners of my brain. I approach it with a mixture of trepidation and fatalism. At least now I know what I’m in for. I expect to go through a million cozy mysteries to balance out my mental health, though.

In an attempt to be more organized, I’ll be using this post to collect the off-the-cuff updates I’ll be doing. I’ve also armed myself with a pack of colored paper for obsessive note-taking. Here’s to finally conquering this Mount Doom of a novel.

Readalong Posts

#1 – Inside the Place on Ash Tree Lane

#2 – The Labyrinth

#3 – Love Creates Horror

#4 – “Its roots must hold the sky.”

“It is a truth universally acknowledged” – On First Lines

The NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour had a wonderful segment recently about first impressions in pop culture, with panelist Glen Weldon talking about the great first lines in literature. I particularly loved his analysis of “Call me Ishmael” and his breakdown of the different functions of first lines. He has additional material posted on his Tumblr, including several other examples and he asked listeners to mention the first lines that they loved and I figured that I can take a crack at it.

I love first lines. I pick them apart, not only in other people’s writing but also in my own. A well-turned phrase, a particularly scintillating piece of dialogue–for me, it signals the writer’s capacity for wordcraft and I end up feeling let down by a less than stellar first page. In fact, I have started to disdain this a little bit about myself, because I’ve found that overly elaborate first lines can end up being mere affectations that the rest of the book’s two hundred or so pages cannot sustain.

Here are ten openings that I want to talk about from books I’ve loved. Obviously I’m projecting what I already know about the book into my interpretations, but I still hope people find this exercise interesting, regardless. I tried the find examples across the spectrum, from starkly simple description, personality-filled first person narration, to even works that mimic other types of documentation. Continue reading

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

(This is to note that my post contains a lot of egregious spoilers. DO NOT READ IF YOU WISH TO READ THE BOOK AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE DETAILS OF THE PLOT. Even the second paragraph, which talks about its structure, mentions details that pretty much telegraphs the ending.)

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the one of the most well-executed specimens of the cozy mystery, a singular achievement marred by some hilariously Victorian racism. It would’ve been quaint had it not been so dehumanizing.

This isn’t something that I say purely out of facetiousness, since it is well-documented that the publishers decided to change the novel’s original title and some of its language to omit an egregious and dehumanizing slur. (The rhyme used, for example, had been replaced by an equally egregious but not as censured slur against Native Americans. My copy has the “Ten Little Indians” rhyme, a modification of the original “Ten Little N_____,” but later editions have apparently edited it further into “Ten Little Soldiers.”) I mention this in order to marvel at Christie’s ferocious storytelling ability, yet still acknowledge valid avenues of critique and examination. Continue reading

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Part of me wishes that I had managed to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea when I was a lot younger, if only so that I could have had a more visceral affinity with the imagery that Jules Verne uses with gusto. There’s always a thread of exuberance in his prose that typifies the most optimistic of colonial literature. This novel, however, has more emotional weight than the other Verne novel I’ve read, Around the World in Eighty Days. It tackles issues such as the overhunting of the oceans, the slave trade, and rampant capitalism. A chapter can start off as a breathless travelogue then turn on a dime and transform into a claustrophobic thriller.

The only struggle that I experienced came from “almanac fatigue,” because Verne spends pages listing animals and plants that the characters see throughout the novel. The thorough descriptions of all the marine flora and fauna wears the reader down after a while, especially when you’re anticipating the inevitable batshit crazy climax at the end. The tedium makes it even more glaring that the final confrontation lacks a true denouement. Continue reading

Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto

Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto is the perfect example of how a book can burn away every thread of goodwill the reader has for it. I came at it vaguely expecting a hybrid of introspective contemporary women’s fiction and mundane surrealism, a mixture of Lorrie Moore’s Self Help, Melissa Banks’ A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and (yes) Haruki Murakami’s fiction.

Ultimately, the novel aimed to do a bit of those things but fails at all of them simultaneously. The book stumbles at its attempt to dish out pieces of faux-philosophical faux-wisdom, while the romance-inflected “modern girl’s quest for self-actualization” angle starts at vaguely interesting and careens towards stultifying. Continue reading

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh – A Longer Rumination

With age, it becomes harder and harder to encounter books that end up being life experiences. My reading predilections pretty much solidified themselves between the ages of seventeen and twenty, when the access to an extensive university library–and amazing used bookstores–exploded my literary horizons. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is one of the recent exceptions, a book that I will forever remember in a haze of sun-kissed melancholy.

The novel begins in the middle of World War II with Charles Ryder, a military officer who has been ordered to commandeer a rundown English estate and turn it into a logistics headquarters. Brideshead Castle carries a more profound meaning for Charles, however, because it was the site of his youthful bliss and heartbreak. The narrative then looks back to his early days as a student in Oxford in the 1920s, where he meets a luminous young man named Sebastian Flyte, whose family owns Brideshead. Continue reading